Thursday, 22 March 2007

Spring is here...just about...

Whether at Naishapur or Babylon,
Whether the cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.

From the Rabaiyat of Omar Khayyan (trans. Edward Fitzgerald)

As the cherry-blossom buds prepare to burst, bloom and die, I thought this bit of verse particularly fitting!

R J F Villar

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Kaiyo Gakuen: Breeding little leaders...

I recently visited Kaiyo Gakuen, a brave new "adventure" into the turbulent world of Japanese educational reform.

Kaiyo is an all boys, all boarding-style school. The focus is on sports, academic excellence and leadership training; as the school's blurb puts it, "Kaiyo Gakuen nurtures the personal skills and academic prowess necessary for leaders." Praised by aficionados of British boarding-school education--indeed, much of Kaiyo's influence was drawn from England's Eton College, and a member of Eton's teaching staff currently works as an 'advisor'--the school has also come under fire from the Japan Communist Party (JCP) and leftist members of the Japanese Teachers' Union, who maintain it is elitist and unrepresentative. Which of course it is. And proud of it.

The school is bursting with business donors, JR and Toyota among them, and has a campus with state-of-the-art facilities and its own special train station nearby. Students work hard by day, and return to 'Houses' (hausu) in the evening and at weekends, where they enter a whole new world of 'rounded' training to be the country's next leaders. On Sunday students are whisked off by their Housemasters and 'Floormasters' (staffed by mid-level managers from some of Kaiyo's sponsors) to do anything from planting rice in local paddies to yachting in the sea beside the school. Social-awareness projects, giving students exposure to all walks of life, are planned for the future.

Yet despite all the fanfare about leadership, there are fears that Kaiyo may have missed a trick.

Some quarters have argued that the regimentation of daily life, and the equipping of every student with a trackable PDA device, is not exactly conducive to lateral thinking and leadership. Others claim that an enclosed all-boy environment, where the only exposure to women is the kitchen staff, gives Kaiyo's students a distorted view of reality. Yet, in my view, more potentially disastrous than either of these factors are the educational limits of the Kaiyo world.

The attraction of 'Public Schools' like Eton College are the intellectual freedoms they offer their students. Science labs, soccer fields, drama theatres, or art studios; by and large students can choose what they individually excel at, and pursue their own academic (or not-so-academic)course. Kaiyo, however, does not have a theatre. The bigwigs in management seemed surprised that this was an issue at all: "...But we have science labs and sports facilities..." the Headmaster replied to my questioning, obviously oblivious that leadership could take any form other than scientific or physical excellence.

But is not an element of drama essential for leadership? To observe the Diet's poor excuses for debates, or to listen to political speeches, is a saddening experience. Performance and charisma are absent 99% of the time. A theatre, which Kaiyo students could use to perform whatever they wanted--be it drama, music, or anything else--would be an invaluable preparation for a future life of leadership.

Another mistake was the failure to inject Kaiyo with any sense of history or culture. This may perhaps be the fault of the main architects of the project, who are almost exclusively characters from business and industrial backgrounds. As Japanese parliamentarian, Motohisa Furukawa, exclaimed upon being explained the school's facilities, "What? You don't have a tea-house? But how can students learn about Japanese culture?"

A sense of history is essential for the leaders of tomorrow. Take the current US administration, for example. A brief look at the history books--at the disastrous British occupation of Iraq in the inter-war era--would have given a scarily accurate prediction of the rivers of blood that are currently soaking into the desert sands. A mere wikipedic knowledge of world civilizations might have warned leaders that a universalist, paradigm-led invasion and occupation in the Middle East, in all its ugly hubris, would ultimately end in failure.

The absence of a tea-house in Kaiyo goes beyond slimming down choices on offer to students; it is a failure to connect Kaiyo to Japanese history and culture. As a student at Eton, in the UK, you are injected straight into over 500 years of history, and it is hard to ignore the past when lists of Old Boys killed in Britain's colonial expeditions line the walls. All boys are required to play the 'Field Game', an antique predecessor to soccer and a game only played at Eton; they wander around the school in waistcoats and tailcoats; and communicate in a bizarre form of code, its words formed over hundreds of Eton years. Eton provides a set of traditions for students in their formative years, which they can ultimately learn from, kick against or ignore completely. But they are there nevertheless.
A tea-house--and a tea-ceremony teacher--would perhaps be a token gesture towards infusing Kaiyo's boys with a sense of their own tradition and heritage. "In the liquid amber within the ivory-porcelain, the initiated may touch the sweet reticence of Confucius, the piquncy of Laotse, and the ethereal aroma of Sakyamuni himself." So there!!!

R J F Villar

Keep on slowly slithering up Mt. Fuji, Mr. Snail!


soro soro nobore
fuji no yama

Keep on slowly slithering up Mt. Fuji, Mr. Snail!
Issa Kobayashi (1763-1828); trans. R J F Villar

I faltered mid-way through a recent speech supporting a candidate in the local elections, and instead of my scripted banalities decided to expound why I find the poem above to be so wonderful. I am not sure whether the politician I was supporting, Kentaro Hibi (see post here), was pleased with being associated with a slowly slithering snail--Issa's gastropod does not naturally have the energy and spice that most candidates seem to want for their personal PR--but for an opposition politician in a country where the status quo is rarely booted from power, I thought it particularly apt.

That little squishy slug-with-house is a vision of hope. The snail is dwarfed by Japan's highest peak (3,776m), yet still it battles against adversity and pushes for the summit. The going may be tough, but anything is possible; progress--change--is inevitable. For Hibi, who has the slogan "Learning every day, Striving every day", and for the Democratic Party (DPJ) which needs to topple the firmly entrenched Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in this summer's Upper House elections, perhaps Issa's snail can be an inspiration.

At the 4th anniversary of the start of the disastrous Iraq War (officially on 17th March), the little snail reminds me that there is hope for the future, no matter how morally corrupt British foreign policy appears to be at present. Governments will change and criminals will be brought to justice--but slowly, oh so slowly.

R J F Villar

Go Go Underdog! 判官びいき

In sporting events, I am always more interested in the underdog--the forlorn hope battling against the odds--than the side that has the clear advantage. Perhaps it comes from being brought up under the indoctrination of my Scottish mother, and always having backed the 'Tartan Army' in their passionate, but generally unsuccessful, soccer, rugby or (heaven forbid) cricket matches. From a young age I found the stronger opponents boring, and would will on the weaker side--cheering the Scots against the English, or the Japanese against Brazil.

In Japanese, there is a phrase for this: 判官びいき (hangan biiki). It means, literally, 'to favour the Hangan', referring to the position held by the tragic Japanese hero, Minamoto Yoshitsune (1159-1189). Yoshitsune was a military genius and reknowned hero; and his strategic intellect led to the defeat of his family's political opponents, the Heike. However, he eventually fell out with his elder brother, Yoritomo, found himself cornered in the East of Japan, and was killed in a dramatic--and especially tragic--battle, his closest retainer riddled with arrows and his wife and daughter dead beside him.

The love of tragic heroism is something the Scots feel keenly. In 1746, the last battle fought on the British mainland, an army of mainly Highland (Northern) Scots fought--and lost to--the English for the last time at the battle of Culloden.

I have walked the fields of Culloden many, many times, and there are monuments dotted over the moors commerating the slaughter that took place. On the battlefields of Culloden, near the Highland Scottish town of Nairn, an eerie mist seems to hang in the air, and you can imagine that at any moment a ghostly army of Scottish men might come marching from the shadows, perpetually charging through the Highland winds.

On April 16th 1746, an army of more than 5000 Scots--most men in their tartan kilts, armed with only swords or spears--faced an English army twice its size with far superior firepower and organisation.

The battle was a massacre. In around 60 minutes the Scottish troops, exhausted, starving and cold, were butchered. As the Scottish army lay bleeding on the heather, survivors were put to death where they lay on the orders of the Duke of Cumberland, commander of the English army. In the chaos that followed, the Scottish leader, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, only just escaped with his life to France, part of the way disguised as a woman.

Although for many Scots the Battle of Culloden symbolises the eternal oppression of Scottish culture by the English, Culloden is also a symbol of Scottish identity. In the heroism of tragic defeat--the hangan biiki--the Scots see their national courage and bravery. The English may have won on the battlefield, many say, but they can never match the Scottish spirit.

R J F Villar

New DPJ Commercial Out Now!

Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) leader, Ichiro Ozawa, and his PR team have come up with a new, excuciatingly low-impact commercial about the 'wealth divisions in society' (kakusa shakai), bolstering Ozawa's campaign for a 'full-scale restoration of people's lives'. The commercial, or 'CM', can be viewed here. At least it is not as crazeeee as the previous DPJ attempt to get in touch with the people (see previous posts here, here and here).

R J F Villar

Saturday, 17 March 2007

ELECTION SPECIAL (Part 4): A 'spring stream' in your step

"The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has backed Ogawa, Toshiyuki Ogawa. Spring Ogawa is recruiting supporters now!!!"

That was the 50th time and my throat was beginning to feel dry. By 100 I was the mirage side of parched. If it had been all in English it would have been fine, but wrestling with Japanese syllables over the loudspeaker for two straight hours had taken its toll.

On the spur of the moment I had volunteered to be the itinerant voice of Toshiyuki Ogawa's campaign, zipping around the backstreets of the district in the campaign minibus (gaisensha), proclaiming the good word from large speakers attached to the roof. In the background played the theme-tune for Ogawa's campaign, "Spring Stream", a popular children's' ditty which in Japanese is pronounced and written identically to "Spring Ogawa".
Ogawa (31) is a candidate in the Moriyama Ward City Council Elections, and his campaign has adopted a spring motif. His office, leaflets and PR truck are plastered with cherry-blossom; and the "Team Spring Ogawa" can be found traveling on bicycles with large flowery flags and music-players attached to them, traveling en masse (often led by Ogawa himself) around the neighbourhood.

At first I was highly sceptical of this overdose of 'cutesy', but in the first sunny birth-pangs of spring, it seems to be working incredibly well. Schoolchildren, old grannies and generally dour salarymen seem to be won over by Ogawa's enthusiasm and sprightly brand of direct, grass-roots campaigning.

And it is just as well Ogawa is putting in the man-hours because he is set upon on all sides. Three Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) men are up for election, and Ogawa has to persuade the electorate he is as good--or better--than either of the other two candidates in Moriyama Ward who have DPJ backing.

R J F Villar

Friday, 16 March 2007

ELECTION SPECIAL (Part 3): Learning every day...striving every day...cycling every day...

Kentaro Hibi (on the right of the picture) certainly gets full marks for effort. At 26, he is the youngest candidate up for election to the City Council in the area, and is determined to prove it with manic cycling, leafleting--each flyer plastered with the slogan (whipping out his slogan "learning every day, striving every day"--and overt displays of 'wakai chikara'-- the power of youth.

7.40am. Kamiyashiro Station, Meito Ward. Mornings are not my forte and I'm late for the planned 7.30 session of station-side leafleteering. I burst from the ticket-barriers in a flustered rush and search for any signs of Hibi, but I needn't have worried. His voice carries across from the far side of the station--one perky good-morning "ohayo gozaimasu" after another--and I find him easily. I could have stayed in bed; he is a one-man pamphleting machine.

Kentaro Hibi is always clean-shaven, energetic and scarily full of life. But what else would you expect from a young politician-in-the-making? Mornings--every day, early--are spent delivering news to his potential constituents outside station entrances, while evenings find him cycling through the streets cementing the personal relationships that are so essential in Japan's Local Election campaigns (see previous post here). Keen to display youth as an energetic plus, rather than an inexperienced minus, Hibi is attempting to woo the electorate with speedy pedalling and cheerful greetings, and has the backing of local Dietman, Motohisa Furukawa (centre of the picture), to supplement it.

Yet, are buckets-full of 'youth' enough? As the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) found to their peril, the public were not moved by the promise of sprightly green leaders; the "power of youth" was not quite enough to cut the cake.

Although there are five places available and only six candidates--by no means bad odds--many are asking what exactly a vote for Hibi would be for.

The current political set-up in Meito Ward followed a by-election after the resignation of a previous Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Councillor on corruption charges. That election allowed Masayuki Chikazawa (on the left of the picture) to win his first term as a City Councillor. Only 36, Chikazawa is young, capable, running on a DPJ ticket, and, most importantly, tried. In other words, a Hibi and more. Chikazawa even has the backing of the current popular Member of the House of Representatives, Motohisa Furukawa, so it is doubtful whether Hibi's own links to Furukawa will prove to be a winning element in his election campaign.

The decision to put up another DPJ-linked candidate came after Chikazawa's solid victory in local by-elections. But, this too may be a miscalculation. Although Chikazawa romped home with overwhelming support, his adversaries were from the more ideological (or religious) political parties--the Communist Party (JCP), Komeito and Social Democratic Party (SDP)--which do not tend to attract moderate voters. With a middle-aged, inoffensive LDP candidate standing in the current election, the two DPJ candidates may not only find their own supporters split, but also a large slice gobbled up by the moderate LDP man.

However, as mentioned in a previous article, political parties, at least outside the more ideologically-driven in the line-up, make little difference to voter choice when compared to individual ties and personalities. The ballot paper, after all, does not mention party affiliations. But again, with Chikazawa already ticking the 'youth' box and possessing a strong local support base, does Hibi really have anything to contribute to the debate?

The Chikazawa campaign HQ certainly seems to think so. Listening to the mumbling and grumbling, it is clear that worries of a split vote and a successful reborn LDP campaign are growing, and there are fears that both of the DPJ-sponsored candidates may ultimately be left worse off. Either way, Hibi needs to up the tempo. A mad bicycle ride may not be quite enough.

R J F Villar

Thursday, 15 March 2007

ELECTION SPECIAL (Part 2) : PR = Personal Ratings

Looking at the newspaper coverage of the local elections, with their lists of candidates followed by their party affliations, it is often tempting to assume that a certain party is putting up a particular number of candidates for a given district, and they are all running together in a big happy party family. However, within the confines of an election battle, it quickly becomes clear that 'party' loyalties mean very, very little. A 'friend' running in the same election under the same party logo, is very much an enemy.

The system employed in local (Prefectural and City) elections is an echo from a former age of Japanese politics. Before the electoral reforms that swept in during the 1990s, General Elections were held in medium-sized, multi-member districts, elected on a 'First-Past the Post' (plurality) basis. This system--called the chusenkyokusei ('Medium-Sized Electoral District System') in Japanese--which simply delivered posts to those candidates who gained the most votes, was blamed for keeping small parties alive and preventing the cohesion of a real 'opposition'. So, in November 1994, the Electoral Reform movement thrust through a bill that changed the system; Members of the Diet were now elected using a fusion of single-member, plurality constituencies and a form of Proportional Representation (PR).

But, in City and Prefectural elections, the old system lives on. And on the local political scene, the politics of individual relationships means more than anything.

The ballot paper gives the voter a list of names--without party affliations--and, as one interviewee commented in a recent edition of the chunichi shimbun (15/03/07), votes "are cast on the basis of impressions of a candidate, not a party." Regardless of their political allegiences, candidates battle it out to garner personal support groups, preaching outside stations and knocking on doors so voters will remember their names when election-day arrives.

Gone are the difficult-to-read, cumbersome kanji (Chinese characters) that make up candidates' names. Instead, pre-election posters use the simple phonetic syllabary, hiragana, to help name-recognition when the time comes. 日比 becomes ひび; 近澤 is changed to ちかざわ.

Similarly, all manner of catchy slogans are dreamt up so that names spring to mind quickly and easily. One candiate Kentaro Hibi, has the luck to have a surname that is the synonym of 'every day'. "Learning every day; Striving every day" ("hibi manabi, hibi shojin") is his mantra. Toshiyuki Ogawa (whose surname means 'stream'), has adopted a childrens' song, 'Spring Stream' ('haru ogawa'), to try and boost his personal recognition. Round and round his bus drives, blaring out the dulcet tunes of 'haru ogawa', neatly side-stepping the law against campaigning before the official election period, whilst also upping his PR.

Of course, parties do have a role. Komeito campaigns using the ties of the religous group, Soka Gakkai, and the Japan Communist Party (JCP) draws in the red-dyed faithful. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is a popular party here on a national level (represented by Motohisa Furukawa), and a DPJ affliation can make use of that momentum. Ties to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) perhaps injects a flavour of expertise, professionalism or experience into a wannabe City Councillor's campaign. Although in this area it is probably more likely to conjour up images of corruption and pork-barrel.

Ultimately, on a local level candidates are on their own. The same party logo bears little relation to the election race itself. The local elections are a race to build individual personality cults; there are no teams.

R J F Villar

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

ELECTION SPECIAL (Part 1) : Introduction


I have upped and left the neon-lit metropolis of Tokyo for the smaller (but no less neon) City of Nagoya. For the next month I will be following the fortunes of the Local Election candidates for the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in the 2nd Ward of Aichi Prefecture (composed of Chikusa, Moriyama and Meito wards), charting their rise or fall from the inside. [An introduction to the area can be found here--follow links to the English page] The Local Election period kicks off on March 30th, so preparations have already begun to move into overdrive.

Two votes, in multi-member districts, will be cast by the electorate--one for the City Council elections (below), and one for the Prefectural Assembly. I will be largely concentrating on the twists and turns of the City elections.

The current political layout for the City Council elections (in which the Democratic Party of Japan is currently the ruling party) is summarised below:

Orange = Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)
Blue = Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)
Red = Japan Communist Party (JCP)
Pink = Social Democratic Party (SDP)
Yellow = Komeito

All incumbents standing for reelection unless otherwise specified

Chikusa Ward:
(5 Seats)
CANDIDATES (LDP--2; DPJ--2; JCP--1; Komeito--1)
Kunihiko Igami (LDP; 60)
Haruyuki Sakurai (LDP; 62)
Kuniko Umemura (DPJ; 68)
Makoto Saito (DPJ; 47)
Jiro Kuroda (JCP; 58)
[Takako Nishio (Komeito; RETIRED)]
New face:
Yuichi Tanabe (Komeito, 37)

[] = not currently contesting

Moriyama Ward:
(6 Seats)
CANDIDATES (LDP--3; DPJ--3; Komeito--1; JCP--1)
Hitoshi Matsumura (LDP; 43)
Shingo Yoshida (DPJ; 56)
Nobuo Kamakura (DPJ; 49)
Nobuo Konba (Komeito; 46)
New faces:
Tetsuya Togo (LDP; 35)
Yoshinori Matsui (LDP; 42)
Toshiyuki Ogawa (DPJ; 31)
Junko Kurematsu (JCP; 50)

Meito Ward:
(5 Seats)
CANDIDATES (LDP--1; DPJ--2; Komeito--2; SDP--1)
Masayuki Chikazawa (DPJ; 36)
Shoko Kobayashi (Komeito; 50)
Setsuko Tanaka (Komeito; 59)
Katsuzo Tomita (SDP; 73)
New Faces:
Hiroshi Niwa (LDP; 46)
Kentaro Hibi (DPJ; 26)


The two most exciting candidates are perhaps Kentaro Hibi (Meito Ward) and Toshiyuki Ogawa (Moriyama Ward), both young proteges of the local Member of the House of Representatives, the DPJ's Motohisa Furukawa.

Both, however, face a hard struggle to get into the City Council; Hibi must share the DPJ vote with another candidate against a tough LDP opponent and strong Komeito support, and Ogawa has a mammoth battle with three candidates being offered by each of the largest parties in Japanese politics, the LDP and DPJ.

This blog will be concentrating on the Moriyama and Meito political battles, introducing the key players, discussing their campaigns and cataloguing the results of their efforts.

R J F Villar

Friday, 9 March 2007

If only the trains were 20 minutes late in England...

One of the nicest things about living in Japan is the puntuality, cleanliness and efficency of Japanese trains. I look forward to long journeys and even quite enjoy the packed Namboku-line commute to work because everything works so well. Air-conditioning, if strained a little in the height of summer, is close to spot on; nothing like the scorching or freezing extremes you find on British trains.

Today, as always, I squeezed myself into the 8.30 Metro and arrived at my target destination--Nagato-cho. But today the vibe was beyond the usual morning rush of caffeinated workaholics; there was an whiff of hysteria about the station. It seemed pandemonium had broken loose. The train I had stepped off had been running--wait for it--twenty minutes late. Panic was clearly in the air; many were looking flustered (including myself; it was infectious) because their finely tuned and precisely planned schedules had been put out. Most made a bee-line for one of the lurking station attendants, demanding a late-note to explain their tardiness to irate employers (see photo above). Responsiblity for lateness was successfully shifted to the Tokyo Metro Co., and a perfect record kept perfect, like 100% of their co-workers.

I have got used to planning my journeys to the minute. Walking, train and transfer times can all be factored into an exact morning itinerary. If only the same could be said for the UK.

Trains in Britain are a game of chance. Turn up early and the train will be late; turn up on time and the train will have left early. Planning is an entirely theoretical exercise. Prices, too, have their own peculiar brand of black magic and oscillate wildly according to no apparent pattern. If it snows, rains, or there is fog; or if it's too hot or too cold, services are frequently "temporarily suspended". An hour's delay (or more) is not at all uncommon. The British have learnt to accept that trains will be late, and most leave extra-early just in case. Late trains are no excuse for lateness because they are the norm, not the exception.

R J F Villar

Students come to Nagata-Cho

Politicians in any country can very easily lose touch with the people they claim to represent. As lawmakers try to keep one step ahead of hectic schedules brimming with local campaigns, media interviews and national debates, many forget or neglect their grassroots. If Members of the House of Representatives are to really represent the electorate, exchange--on as many levels and with as many groups as possible--is essential.

Back in his Aichi constituency, Motohisa Furukawa, a member of the Democratic Party of Japan, holds regular brainstorming sessions with a wide variety of groups, including women's associations and groups from local universities. But, rather than the normal sleepy nod and token speech that most politicians whip out on such occasions, Mr. Furukawa always seems genuinely enthused.

On Wednesday 7th, a group of bright 1st and 2nd Year students from Tokyo University's AIESEC (Association Internationale des Etudiants en Sciences Economiques et Commerciales) paid Mr. Furukawa a visit in his Tokyo office. What was supposed to be a quick Q&A session quickly developed into a lively 2-hour debate, including a high-speed tour of the Diet.

You seldom see anyone wandering through the Diet corridors younger than wizened 75 year-old company executives (save, of course, for the seemingly compulsory days-out for elementary school students). If Japanese politicians want to inspire future generations of politicians, greater interaction with young people would be a good place to start.

R J F Villar

Monday, 5 March 2007

What time is Democratic Party?

I have only just stumbled across this wonderful parody of the awful DPJ 'pirate ship' commercial:

I am very surprised there haven't been more of these!

R J F Villar

Friday, 2 March 2007

牛歩 : Cow Walking through Politics

The last day of debates in the Lower House Budget Committee is a marvelous--yet incredibly surprising--thing to watch. Old politicians snort out of deep, disinterested slumber and youthful newcomers leap about excitedly. It is traditionally one of the most thrilling days in the Diet calender, and all politicians, whatever their political allegiances, seem to suddenly remember they are required to do something for their wage-packet.

February 2nd was the day the Liberal Democratic Party-led Government (LDP) decided to push through the Budget for the new financial year. After a Budget is approved by the Lower House, it is accepted within 30 days regardless of Upper House approval. If this 30 day period extends beyond the 1st April, however, the Government is required to use an emergency Budget--a potentially embarrassing eventuality. In the attempt to force just this result, countless oppositions have tried to delay Lower House approval of new budgets for as long as humanly possible.

The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), Japan's main opposition party, had called (somewhat vocally) for an extension to debates in the Budget Committee all afternoon, and traded insults with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) with relish. But, the real drama-- de rigeur on such occasions, it seems--was yet to come.

At 10.25pm all parties entered the chamber to take the vote on the Budget. In the past, left-wing opposition parties--normally the Communist Party (JCP) or Japan Socialist Party (JSP)--had employed the interesting tactic of "cow-walking" (gyuho) to slow down voting at this point. Opposition politicians, by creeping to the ballot-box at a snail's pace, stretched what might be a 20 minute affair to a 1 1/2 hour marathon in the attempt to delay Budget decisions in the Diet and embarrass the ruling party. [An interesting English article about cow-walking can be found here]

But tonight was neither an easy vote nor a display of disruptive cow-walking. At around half-past ten at night, 42 year-old DPJ politician, Yukio Edano, took central stage for a mammoth display of obstructionist filibuster. Or, as the Japanese might call it, "cow-tongue tactics"(gyutan senjutsu). The opposition fielded a motion which called for the removal of the Chairman of the Budget Committee, Kazuyoshi Kaneko, and successfully launched a red-herring into a session that should have been concluded before midnight. As it was, the DPJ (et al) managed to string proceedings out until 4am on the 3rd, delaying the Budget for a day. The question is, however, what was the point?

By the look of things in the early hours of Saturday morning, the DPJ could perhaps be reprimanded for endangering the lives of some the more elderly politicians. However, the events of this weekend also raised serious questions about the way Japanese politicians campaign in the Diet. Why the fuss about extending debate in the Budget Committee, and why all the filibuster?

Firstly, it is unclear why the opposition were so emphatically calling for an extension of committee debates when their original questioning had been so unenthusiastic (punctuated by snoozing politicians on both sides). "Why you running away?" and "Come back and debate properly!" were the much-repeated battle-cries on Friday. But, if the DPJ and their opposition allies cared so much about frank debate, surely time would have been better spent hammering-out issues properly in the first place? Of course, in Japan this scramble on the last day is the traditionally-correct way to behave when in opposition. Although it is strange that the DPJ buys into it because history and tradition has never really supported those on 'the other side' in Japanese politics.

Secondly, was there any point in the obstructionism--led by Edano--that kept politicians, bureaucrats and secretaries at their posts until the wee hours of Saturday morning? The weekend newspapers were curiously quiet about the whole affair. If the DPJ intended to build up tension and 'fight' in preparation for looming elections, it was a sad flop. Even if they actually disagreed with the Budget and intended to try and stop it, a quick look at the LDP majority (or with Komeito, an absolute majority) in the House of Representatives would have revealed this was an impossible struggle. To many on the outside, it looked like the country's lawmakers were having the political equivalent of a matsuri--a festival. And this may well be what they were doing.

Instead of cow-walking, cow-tongue rhetoric or any other variation of immature (yet, admittedly rather fun) opposition, it might be pleasant to see frank, aggressive and well-informed debate. As I have written in another post, politics does not currently glow with interest. Until opposition politicians learn about their own policies and acquire the ability to critique those formulated by the Government, a regime change may well remain elusive.

R J F Villar

Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Puff the Magic Prime Minister

Whenever I saunter past the new Prime Minister's Official Residence (the kantei; as of 2002), I am always slightly bemused to find it located where it is. Although its futuristic fortress-like structure doubtless appeals to architecture-buffs--according to the kantei's website, it is an "evocation of the simple beauty of the Japanese aesthetic"--it somehow lacks either the elusive secrecy of Downing Street or the imposing majesty of the White House; there is something self-consciously mediocre about it.

The effect is only exaggerated by the huge sky-rise towerblocks sprouting all around the kantei's little garden. The din of a new hotel getting hammered together wafts the short distance to the Parliamentary Offices of Japan's lawmakers, while the 27-floor Sanno Tower leans imposingly over the residence of Japan's numero uno. Apparently the security wonks had originally decreed that no tall buldings would be permitted around the PM's house, but it seems the draw of land prices has thrown security considerations to the wind. A good pair of binoculars (and, for that matter, a telescopic lense) could easily pick out Mr. Abe eating his breakfast or out at the weekend pruning his hedges. Potentially a rather large breach of Health & Safety.

You have to wonder if the state of an offical residence is directly proportional to the status of the nation. Britain--a sneaky figure furtively revealing itself; shut off from the public by its highly-guarded, big, black bars. The United States--a stately home which is whiter than white, commanding, and yet filled with sleaze and scandal. Japan--a dwarf amongst giants; a country that finds itself, despite its best intentions, maneuvoured into danger and insecurity...

In any case, next time you pass, listen out for the dulcet tones of Peter, Paul & Mary. Abe has revealed to his public by recent email newsletter that he is a fan of their Number 1 hit, "Puff the Magic Dragon"! Anyone feel like a smoke?

R J F Villar

Monday, 26 February 2007

I Spy.

At last Japan has managed to get a fourth so-called 'spy' satellite up and running [English here]without (so far) any hiccups. This brings the total up to four--two radar and two optical satellites--and allows the Japanese intelligence community to monitor any point on the planet within 24 hours. But, while there were cheers for a successful launch, a far cry from the November 2003 disaster in which two intelligence-gathering satellites were destroyed, this current effort was also the sad last ride of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), based on Tanegashima Island near Kagoshima. Future satellite launches, it has been announced, will be a private-venture affair run by the industrial giant who helped to fund the current mission, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

The announcement of a successful satellite launch on 24th February was followed a day later by coverage in the Asahi Shimbun concerning preliminary plans for a revamped Cabinet Intelligence Research Office (CIRO), part of the drive to bring a US-style Japanese National Security Council (JNSC) into existence. It is hoped that this will improve intelligence analysis, coordination and prompt dissemination by "breaking down bureaucratic sectionalism". Prime Minister Abe Shinzo himself has been strongly behind the effort, championed as another step in Japan's "emerging intelligence independence".

Yet, how 'independent' are these new intelligence capabilities? It is wonderful that Japan can now ogle any point on the globe within 24 hours, but the quality--at best a 60cm resolution--is worse than some commercial satellites in current production, and not a patch on the US military optics that can often pinpoint to 20cm or less. 500 billion Yen is a large pricetag for an outdated system, especially if Japan will have to continue to rely on the US for detailed imagery. Worryingly, signs have been surfacing in the media that suggest bureaucrats are laying the blame for technological inferiority at the doorstep of the 1969 Peaceful Use of Space Principle; but the link is tangental at best and is probably an attempt to restart the debate on new 'realist' space policy, which had stalled last summer.

To read the 2000 Armitage-Nye Report , many claim, is to see the blueprint for Abe's latest efforts in intelligence reform. A bright shiny JNSC may be nothing more than a merry jig to a US tune; a streamlining process to remedy functional inefficencies dictated by US gaiatsu. Yet, if you follow the flow of study-groups, think-tanks and policy-units it is clear that the Government's scope is much, much broader. An Official Secrets Act; Counter-Terrorism; an Intelligence Select Committee; and a Japanese MI6: Cutting down bureaucratic sectionalism and launching a full set of satellites are, as one official in the Cabinet Office put it, "only the beginning of the beginning."
R J F Villar

The obsession with Tony Blair and the 'Third Way'

Why oh why oh why is there such an obsession with Tony Blair and the 'Third Way'? Last week, I had the pleasure of paying a visit to the Vice-Speaker of the House of Representatives, Takahiro Yokomichi. In the traditional grandure of his official residence, I and a group of young wannabee politicians spent an hour discussing (and attacking) the state of opposition politics in Japan. But, again and again the same question would be asked: "Should we not look to the British Labour Party--Tony Blair's 'Third Way' in particular--for inspiration?" It set me ablaze. It sullies the name of all honest thinking British citizens, and those members of Britain's Labour Party who have resisted the manic deception of a Blairite Government.

After 10 years of Mr. Blair, Britain's children have the worst quality of life in OECD and a pitiful grasp of basic mathmatical concepts; British blood soaks the Arabian sands; and hospitals are a dirty, disorganised disgrace. Is this 'Labour'? Tony still offers the same lame excuse. 'Twas the Conservatives that dunnit. Well, if Tony Blair wants to celebrate the length of his mammoth tenure, he must also accept responsibility for the state of the country during that time. While the Government magically transmogrifies spiralling national debt into "the economy is booming", other countries such as Japan buy the propaganda. A recent talk for Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) interns is entitled "The British Labour Party's PR campaigns: Lessons for the DPJ". If only this was just about advertising.

The truth is, recent Labour Government PR can be summed with two concepts. Spin and Deception. It is unclear who has been in who's pocket--Tony Blair or media-baron Rupert Murdoch--but Labour 'PR' has been characterised more by private, than public, relations with its media contacts. As starkly illustrated by the Iraq War, Blairite policy has also been one of massive self-deception. "I believed Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction," says Monsieur Blair. Whether this was willing deception or not (and, by God, most think it was), he was wrong. The traditional thing to do--especially with the blood of 600,000 Iraqis on his hands--would be to apologise for being completely wrong and resign. But no. Blair says he really believed it so he can't be blamed. This is Blairite PR. Somehow self-belief, however spurious, extends into the realm of fact.

I admit that this is pure polemic. Tony Blair is perhaps not an inherently evil man; there are many things he has done of which I approve. Making entry to museums free for example, was a jolly good thing. Yet, a stinking cynicism and distrust has soaked into the hearts of the British public. Japan--and the DPJ--should be careful not walk roughtrod over its citizens as Blair's campaigns have done to the British.

R J F Villar

Saturday, 17 February 2007

Racism in Japan?

The blogosphere and international media have been buzzing with righteous indignation recently, following the discovery of an overtly racist magazine, Gaijin Hanzai Ura Fairu ('Hidden Files of Crimes by Foreigners'), in Japanese book shops and convenience stores. The story was picked up by the online community, who called for a boycott on establishments which sold the publication, and an article in the British Guardian newspaper followed. A well-known naturalised-Japanese Human Rights activist, Arudou Debito, also published an extensive online critique of the magazine in English.

One of the many elements to which protesters objected was the line, "Oi Nigger!! Get your fuckin’ hands off that Japanese lady’s ass!!" Although many pointed out the magazine was xenophobic, racist, and clearly whipping-up racial hatred by portraying Japan's foreigner community as criminals, there is no law against incitement to racial hatred in Japan and the vernacular press remained curiously silent.

At a juncture in Japanese history when a substantial increase in immigration--and therefore 'foreign-looking' residents--is almost unavoidable due to the pressures of a rapidly aging society and the economic need for a workforce, this magazine is clearly neither going to prepare the Japanese people for an immigration boom, nor inspire foreign nationals to emigrate.

In the summer of 2005, the UN Special Envoy, Doudou Diène, reported that racism in Japan was "deep and profound," and urged legislation (which does not currently exist) to combat it. [David McNeill's excellent article for Japan Focus on the 'Diène Report' can be read here] The Japanese reaction was indignation. How, many said, could a man with so little experience of Japan fully comprehend the subtleties of Japanese society?

Top-level politicians have recently been campaigning for an end to ijime ('bullying') in schools, after a spate of suicides which were allegedly caused by victimisation meted out by teachers. Just as bullying comes in a thousand different shades--it is not merely limited to physical violence--so too does racism extend beyond apartheid measures and racially-motivated attacks. The excuse for signs such as that pictured above is often linguistic. "We do not currently have staff with the necessary language skills," is often the reply to probing inquiries. Yet, a Japanese-looking man without vocal cords would be welcomed despite the inability to speak, perhaps ordering by pointing. An absence of staff proficient in sign-language would not trigger a prohibition on the dumb. Likewise, linguistic inability is no excuse for imposing a blanket-ban on anyone who appears non-Asian.

But the manifestations of Japanese racism are not always immediately obvious. There are cases of black African men being refused entry to shops and Caucasians barred from entry to bath houses, but the racism generally encountered is of a quieter variety. Some may look away when a mentally-handicapped person walks onto the bus, worried that staring may seem rude. In Japan, this is often the case with those who look foreign. Of course, travel outside Tokyo and the screams of school-girl adulation generally follow a Caucasian-foreigner around like fleas, but more often people look the other way, fearful of causing offense.

But is this really intentional racism? Probably not. Most Japanese have had limited interaction with foreigners (be they Caucasian, Black, Asian or otherwise), and unease is really built on foundations of ignorance. Whilst there are the more right-wing members of the population, such as those that produced the Gaijin Hanzai Ura Fairu publication, most have just not had the international experience to encourage a more globally-cosmopolitan outlook.

So it is not all doom and gloom. Not all Japanese are eternally xenophobic; many are just unsure of how to react to non-Japanese strangers. However, one thing is for sure: The current policy of ignoring the issues of crime, poor education and poverty in resident foreigner communities cannot improve Japan's chances of producing adept immigration policies in the future. However misguided the recent magazine was, when its editor, Saka Shigeki, said "only by honestly discussing this issue and all it entails can we prepare our culture for this [increased immigration] radical change," he hit the nail on the head. Frank discussion is needed. The debate currently underway in the UK about the values of multiculturalism should have its bedmate here in Japan too. What is not needed, however, are examples of misleading and racist material, such as Gaijin Hanzai Ura Fairu.

R J F Villar

Sunday, 11 February 2007

柔能剛制: 'Soft' Power

'Soft' Power

Any aficionado of the Japanese martial art, Judo, will have heard the phrase "柔能く剛を制す"("ju yoku gou o seisu"). In rough translation, this means "skilled softness overcomes brawn." In Judo, a small accomplished competitor can maneuver an opponent's weight in such a way that requires little brute strength to throw them. Originally coined by the Chinese philospher, Lao-zi, and much later recycled by the founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano, this short phrase has become a maxim for life.

In Foreign Policy, too, this proverb has a role. Despite the current US example, effective diplomacy does not have to rely on vast demonstrations of aggressive power. Bottom-up investment in the areas of cultural diplomacy and intelligence, combined with a commitment to multilateral institutions, has the potential to bear greater long-term fruit than unilateral military "shock and awe". Much of the success in Afghanistan, for example, was a result of the human relations built-up by British and American intelligence officers over a considerable length of time. A quick shower of gold, and an imposing military presence have neither secured Iraq in the short, or potentially, the long-term. If the 'brawn' is really necessary, it must only come after mastering the techniques of 'soft' power.

Japan, meanwhile, lingers at the cross-roads with Prime Minister Abe Shinzo screaming for constitutional revision. This is to give the Japanese - read: the Japanese 'Self-Defense' Forces - a clearer-cut role in the world. Yet is this really necessary? It is perfectly possible (if you believe thinkers such as Ozawa Ichiro or Ronald Dore) for Japan to fulfill collective security responsibliltes under the auspices of the UN with the current consitutional arrangement. With US unilateralism languishing in the doldrums, this might be an opportunity for Japan to lead the international community making use of her Constitution, instead of blaming it for somehow acting as a hindrance.

The Japanese often compare 'hard' and 'soft' governance to the "wind and the sun". On a winter's day, it is not the harsh wind that encourages us to take off our coats. Indeed, the more the wind blows the more we huddle our jackets round us. But, when the sun comes out we voluntarily shed our layers. Good governance does not necessarily mean killing things- 'soft' power can be a proactive policy too.

R J F Villar

Saturday, 10 February 2007

'Guidance' on manners for DPJ interns

"A smile is the most important thing in non-verbal communication," the 'manner trainer' told us, the manic grin she had worn since entering the room still stuck firmly on her face. I found myself wondering whether she ever stopped smiling. An image of her racing outside and screaming to the four winds, brows contorted wildly, slunk into my mind.

"And what exactly, Villar-san, makes someone 'well-presented'?"

I thought for a second and replied with what I thought was a evilly cunning riposte to her sudden public interrogation. I can only assume something got lost in translation.

As it turned out, the right answers were an ironed shirt and brushed hair.

Every February, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) runs an internship programme, exposing young politicians-in-the-making to the policy process and everyday parliamentary life. This, the first in a set of lectures, was designed to tell interns what they should wear, what they should say and, most importantly of all, how to smile (note: smiling is learned through repetition of the word 'happy' in Japanese pronounciation, ad infinitum). Some elements, such as a refresher on Japanese polite-speech, were genuinely helpful, yet I couldn't help feeling the thought-police were getting a bit too carried away with protocol.

The room was filled with identically attired young men and women. For the men: Black suit, white shirt, nondescript tie, black shoes and black socks. For the women: Black trouser suit or skirt, white blouse, black socks and black not-too-high-heeled shoes. This was political boot-camp, and I was very, very out of place. I'd thought it was going to be a relaxing day so I'd dropped my pin-stripes at the dry-cleaners and my shoes were being re-soled, but as the smiling trainer expanded her questioning it soon turned out that my blazer and flannels were just not the right attire.

"If you're wearing black shoes, make sure they're polished and you're wearing black socks."

I looked down at my matt-brown loafers and red woolen socks. That was a definite miss.

"And to the men: make sure you're tie and shirt buttons are done-up."

I fiddled the buttons of my pink shirt closed and tried unsuccessfully to make the wisp of pale-blue cravat seem more tie-like. My Japanese sartorial score was a definite nil points.

Of course, politeness and attire are essentially important in the workplace. In the UK, it is generally expected you pick these things up at home, at University or by gradual osmosis, and, to be certain, this does not always work. British professional life is neither as polite nor well-mannered as the Japanese. A quick 'manner' lesson could be very useful for young graduates or newly hired shop-assistants entering the workforce.

However, the hordes of black-suited workers do not exactly encourage originality. If to differ is to be wrong, creativity is sure to take a knock. You can see the same reliance on unwritten conformity in Diet sessions or in committees. It is a problem that plagues the Japanese political world.

Those rare opposition politicians who do go on the offensive and attempt to really hammer home questions, such as ex-Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politician Tanaka Makiko, are seen as rogue forces. Yet, going it alone has worked - former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's single-handed Postal Reform drive is a perfect example - and Japanese politics may benefit from a bit more assertive, and original, adversarial debate. However, if you spend any amount of time on the bylines of parliamentary 'debate', you quickly realize that Japanese politics is not set up to favor the brave. It is a shame because it makes discussion dry and tediously unoriginal; and a shame because the people of Japan, especially those who voted for the opposition, are denied real scrutinizing democratic representation.

R J F Villar

Friday, 9 February 2007

共生: 'Coexistence'


Those who have been following the changing flow of Ozawa Ichiro's rhetoric will have noticed the theme of kyousei, or 'coexistence' cropping up with regularity.

"I want to build a Japan where people can live in harmony together," Ozawa said in his speech at the beginning of this Diet Session, "in Diplomacy, a person-to-person, country-to-country 'coexistence' where peace in Japan and the international community are secured, and the 'coexistence' between man and nature...are the raisons d'Etat that I want Japan to continue to prioritise."

These are noble words. They also appeal to the Japanese people, touching on what many see as the essence of Japanese identity: nature, the seasons and the innate ability of the Japanese people to harmoniously coexist with their environment. The truth of this aside, the man on the street will often say that kyousei, rather than conflict, is the natural Japanese Way.

Sensible or Simple?

Yet, by touting 'coexistence' as his party's Foreign Policy, Ozawa may be painting the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) a shade of simple. Is kyousei actually a 'policy', or is it just good rhetoric?

As I follow the developments of current US foreign policy, four famous lines by the British poet, W H Auden (from the poem 'September 1, 1939'; full text here), often leap into my mind:

"I and the public know,
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil are done,
Do evil in return."

The black-and-white approach to foreign policy, which led to the top-down handling of Iraq and the lack of mid-term planning for the invasion of Afghanistan, has provided ammunition for a new generation of hatred. The Iraq fiasco, built on an idealistic vision of Democracy, has, as one commentator warned before the invasion, "opened the jaws of hell". The bottom-up campaign for people's 'hearts and minds' has been forgotten, or at least mislaid. In this context, a bit of pragmatic 'coexistence' would not be a bad thing at all.

But what does this 'coexistence' actually mean for policy? Does it mean pragmatic realpolitik? Does it mean cultural diplomacy? Does it mean a greater commitment to collective security? Kyousei is an interesting base, but without a bit more flesh on the bones, it will never be anything but a bare skeleton of a Foreign Policy. But then this is perhaps asking for too much from Japanese politics. In a system where the media rarely deconstructs policy and politicians rarely make it, maybe asking for a bit more substance is going way, way over the top.

R J F Villar

Thursday, 8 February 2007

"When the wind blows, carpenters get rich"

There is an interesting phrase in Japanese: kaze ga fukeba, okeya ga mougaru ("When the wind blows, carpenters get rich"). What on earth, you might ask, could be the connection between a gusty day and a hacksaw? Back in the Edo Period, when the phrase was coined, this is how the logic went:

...When the wind picks up, sand and grit gets flung into the eyes of people foolish enough to be wandering about in dust-storms. The number of blind increase and so too do the number of Japanese lute (biwa) players, who were - in Edo folklore - almost always staffed from the ranks of the blind. As leather made from cat's skin was used to construct the lutes, cats become scarcer as they are dragged off to make musical instruments, and mice therefore multiply. Mice run amok inside wooden houses with no cats to stop them, and they gradually gnaw away at the supports holding up the buildings. With their pillars eroded, houses become unstable and crash down on their inhabitants with increasing regularity. Deaths sky-rocket. To be a carpenter - a coffin-maker - suddenly becomes an ideal money-making profession...

Yes, the link is indeed tendentious. Yet, like the 'Butterfly Effect', where the wings of a tiny butterfly supposedly create hurricanes 6000 miles away, the point is that seemingly unrelated things are often closely connected.

In the same way, for the young Japanese politicians who are struggling to promote internationalism and global change such as Motohisa Furukawa, it can often be difficult to persuade local constituents that world issues are indeed world-wide; that they are not merely about other countries and distant international institutions.

Take global warming or poverty in the developing world, for example. Although these may not seem relevant, and immediately visible parochial issues will of course appear to be more important, they affect every single citizen on the planet and alter the flow of our individual daily lives. If the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is correct, without urgent action the effects of global warming could be far-reaching indeed.

'Foreign' Policy is just as much about domestic issues as it is about global ones. Mistakes in Iraq policy, for example, have created a backlash of anti-Americanism that now haunts the domestic security of the United States.

Local interests are not enough. If a politician is really working for the benefit of his constituents, he or she will realise that the small picture is actually part of a much bigger one.

R J F Villar

Monday, 5 February 2007

Table for Two

In the UK, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has been on the rampage against low quality school dinners for some time. He has helped to spearhead a renaissance in dietary awareness, and demonstrated that healthy meals can be both tasty and cost-effective.
[Oliver's campaign website can be viewed here]

Now, a Japanese initiative, 'Table For Two', also hopes to promote healthy eating, whilst at the same time helping to address the issue of hunger in the developing world.

Founded by Japanese members of the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leader (YGL) programme, including two members of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ),'Table For Two' saw its first day today in the Tokyo dining halls of Japanese corporate monolith, Itochu. The food is not served in the normal 'set-lunch' style common to Japanese lunchtime eating, but is laid out in buffet-bar cafeteria format, with each option clearly labeled for calorie and vitamin content. The food is all made with fresh ingredients, and it is hoped that by both indicating the contents clearly and increasing options, consumers will be able to make healthier individual choices.

However, this is not the genius of the project. The 'Table For Two' mission is to "bring balance and health to the world where there is currently imbalance and suffering." From every meal bought, 20 Cents is 'matched' by participating companies, which is then used to provide free school lunches and 'soup kitchens' in the developing world, administered under the auspices of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). So, within the price of a meal is a donation to combat hunger in the developing world. You are not merely eating for yourself, but for two!

This initiative is propelled by young, motivated individuals from the political and business worlds. One thing unites them all: They are committed to meeting global challenges with innovative ideas. They are not about to sit back and absorb the status quo. While the Government postures, members of the opposition, such as Motohisa Furukawa and Keiichiro Asao, are joining forces with up-and-coming members of the corporate world and searching for concrete solutions to the world's problems.

R J F Villar

Election results

Aichi Prefecture Gubnatorial Election:

Masaaki Kanda (LDP, Komeito)- 1,424,761 DECLARED GOVERNOR
Yoshihiro Ishida (DPJ, SDP, PNP)- 1,355,713
Seiroku Abe (JCP)- 160,827

Turnout - 52.11% (prev. 38.91%)

It also seems from an Asahi Shimbun study (05/02/07, pg.2) that Ishida had a solid majority amongst those that voted in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Floating voters were obviously overwhelming pro-opposition- an interesting prelude to the spring and summer elections!

20s 39 52 8
30s 39 55 6
40s 42 54 4
50s 44 49 7
60s 52 43 5
70s+65 31 4

(Black=Age Group; Yellow=%support for Kanda; Blue=%support for Ishida; Red=%support for Abe)

Kita-Kyushu City Mayoral Election:

Kenji Kitabashi (DPJ, SDP, PNP)- 217,262 DECLARED MAYOR
Takahiro Shibata (LDP, Komeito)- 177,675
Toshikazu Miwa (JCP)- 56,873

Turnout - 56.57% (prev. 38.32%)

#LDP = Liberal Democratic Party; DPJ = Democratic Party of Japan; SDP = Social Democratic Party; PNP = People's New Party; JCP = Communist Party of Japan

The results will obviously be a blow to the opposition, who were hoping the recent comment by Minister Yanagisawa ("baby-making machines"; see previous posts), would hand them victory in both elections. A double-win would have gone some way towards justifying both the boycott of last week's Supplementary Budget debates, and the repeated calls for Yanagisawa's resignation. As it stands, Prime Minister Abe may feel the public backlash was not large enough to justify breaking up his cabinet, and the opposition may have to be satisfied with slinking back into debates later this week, tails between legs.

R J F Villar

Sunday, 4 February 2007

Opposition set to boycott Upper House

As a follow-up to my earlier article about the current opposition boycott of Supplementary Budget discussions (Opposition Boycott, 02/02/07), it appears that next week's Upper House budget debates will also be a lonely ruling-party affair. According to today's Asahi Shimbun (04/02/07, pg.2), the People's New Party (PNP), Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) are all intending to be absent from the Upper House debates as a protest against Minister Yanagisawa's description of women as "baby-making machines" on the 27th January. The Japan Communist Party (JCP) has indicated they will be attending, but in a non-vocal capacity only.

It was thought that the absence may have been, in part, a device to shore up support prior to this weekend's elections. Some sources indicated that debate would resume next week after today's gubernatorial elections in Aichi Prefecture and the vote for the mayor of Kita-Kyushu City.

By keeping the pressure on the Government, the opposition evidently believes that support for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will thin-out even more than is already the case. It is hoped that the outdated comments by Yanagisawa, and Prime Minster Abe Shinzo's failure to punish them, will hand the advantage to the opposition in the run-up to both the Local elections in the spring and this summer's Upper House ballot.

However, this is a tactic that could easily backfire. By their absence, opposition parties are unable to scrutinize LDP budget plans - 'opposition' becomes very theoretical when there is no-one there to 'oppose' - and the electorate may just feel that this is a greater dereliction of duty than Yanagisawa's misguided remarks. Can members of the DPJ really expect to be seen as serious Government-potential when they forgo the democratic debate they have been elected for?

Saturday, 3 February 2007

Opposition tactics...

Below are examples of tactics being used by two very different opposition parties:

The first is the regular video blog, 'Webcameron', by David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party in the UK. Although initially skeptical, a position taken by the majority of those interested in British politics, I believe it has since turned out to be a very effective medium for communication of Cameron's basic ideas. He comes across as intelligent, reasonable, committed and, most important of all, electable!

The latest effort by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), floating across the airwaves from the end of December '06, wins 10/10 for originality, although is perhaps influenced more by Caribbean pirates than Japanese politics. Whether it scores as highly for effect has yet to be seen. However, even if the advertisement does not exactly cast party leader, Ozawa Ichiro, as an archetypal patrician, it at the very least helps to remind the electorate that the DPJ still exists!

Both the DPJ in Japan and the Conservative Party in the UK are attempting to reinvent themselves in the eyes of the electorate. Cameron is giving the Tories a softer, more social democratic edge, whilst Ozawa seems (at least in terms of rhetoric) to be moving away from the 'youthful reformism' of the DPJ's early years and plotting out a more mature set of policies.

Ozawa has repeatedly talked about bringing politics home to the people - he has claimed to be committed to battling the widening cleavages between rich and poor in Japanese society - and this is doubtlessly an attempt at mass-appeal. But are the Japanese people really persuaded more by slogans and computer-generated pirate ships than a page of solid policies? Ozawa and his policy-wonks obviously think so. And he could just be right.

R J F Villar

David Cameron campaigns against Gordon Brown's NHS Cuts

This is an example of David Cameron's 'Webcameron', as discussed in the post above:

DPJ advertisment

This is a link to the recent DPJ advertisment discussed above:

Friday, 2 February 2007

Opposition Boycott

Opposition parties are clamouring for the resignation of Minister for Health, Labour and Welfare, Hokuo Yanagisawa, in response to his outrageous comment on the 27th January claiming that women were "baby-making machines" ("kodomo o umu kikai").

For the last couple of days opposition Dietmembers have been noticeably absent from Supplementary Budget debates, which were due to begin earlier this week. Led by the vocal attacks of female Social Democratic Party (SDP) leader, Fukushima Mizuho, all main opposition parties - SDP, Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), Japan Communist Party (JCP) and People's New Party (PNP) - are refusing to take part in debates, be they budgetary or otherwise, until Yanagisawa steps down from his post.

Thursday was the first time in seven years that a united opposition had boycotted a budget debate in normal Diet session, since a protest in 2000 concerning the number of House of Representatives seats elected through Proportional Representation. In the absence of any opposition, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) continued business without oversight, following a statement by Yanagisawa earlier that day indicating he was not considering giving up his job.

Although Yanagisawa's comments were indeed deplorable, the question remains: Should elected MPs be allowed to boycott important Diet debates? By their absence, the opposition parties are no longer in a position to hold the LDP to account, and by trying to force Prime Minister Abe Shinzo's hand, they are pursuing a line which is far from democratic.

6000 miles away, the current British Home Secretary, John Reid, has also been under extreme pressure to stand down from his position. Since the middle of January, Reid has been hit by a flurry of scandal: On January 14th, a senior Home Office civil servant was reprimanded for the failure to keep tabs on British citizens who had offended abroad; prison overcrowding was revealed to be endemic by the end of January; and on the 27th an English newspaper, The News of the World, revealed that 322 convicted sex offenders were 'missing' in the UK. The Conservative and Liberal Democrats have both indicated they think Reid should resign, but like Yanagisawa, the Minister himself has given all the signs that he intends to continue in his current position.

Yet, there are striking differences in the two affairs. The media and political opposition in the UK are calling for John Reid's resignation not for a mistaken comment, but for clear failures in his department. He has, many say, failed in a job he was chosen to do. Yanagisawa, on the other hand, is not being accused of malpractice or a governmental mistake as Minister for Health, Labour and Welfare. If he was, many in the opposition would be in a very precarious position themselves.

Kiyomi Tsujimoto (SDP), one of the loudest critics of Yanagisawa, was forced to resign in 2002 and was given a suspended jail sentence for misappropriating funds. Naoto Kan, one of the DPJ's top-dogs, resigned his leadership of the party in 2004 when it was revealed he had not paid pension-contributions.

It is difficult to accuse Yanagisawa of failing to do his job, especially when Japan's media seems reluctant to probe governance too deeply. However, it could also be asked whether a minister charged with responsibility for Japan's welfare policies should be allowed to get away with describing women as "baby-making machines". Either way, it seems the actions of the opposition will only make things worse. If Abe were to ask Yanagisawa to go, he would lose face within his party and set a dangerous precedent. If he does not, as seems likely, the opposition will have lost a key opportunity to question the LDP's budget plans - one reason, after all, they were elected to the Diet. DPJ leader Ozawa Ichiro has recently stated that "politics is about people's lives" ("seiji to wa seikatsu de aru"). If this is to be more than empty spin, sorting out taxes would be a good place to start.

On Thursday and Friday, the House of Representatives was eerily quiet. It seems most members of the opposition had taken the opportunity for an early, and elongated, weekend...

R J F Villar