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

The Snooze Police

The Visitors' Box in the House of Representatives is a strange place. Merely entering the section reserved for observers, high above the main house, has a bizarre soporific effect. Diplomats karalled-off on the far right seem engaged, Japanese assistants slithering a stream of translation into their ears. The press box below is always alive; reporters and paparazzi rush around snapping and flashing their cameras with frenetic activity. Yet, the Visitors' Box is asleep. A group of aged trade union officials snore gently to one side; and a ladies'-day-out in the corner let the words of honorific Japanese float them off to sleep. And amidst it all are the Sleep-Nazis - a special detachment of police - who mercilessly shake visitor after visitor from their dreams. They love it.

However, the real question is not why these people fall asleep, but why the main floor of the House of Representatives is so tediously dull. In the House, 'debate' seems to be a distinctly foreign word.

Every day I try to tune into a programme by BBC Radio 4, called Today in Parliament, which can be listened to for free on the Internet. Broadcast on weekday evenings, it briefly runs through the day's debates in the British Houses of Parliament, taking especial pleasure in covering the numerous vicious debates that crop-up on a daily basis. The Government directly faces the Opposition across the floor of the House of Commons, and there is often genuine hate as Labour attacks the Conservatives, or a Scottish Nationalist Party MP insults the Prime Minister. It is exciting, theatrical and adversarial; a far cry from the parliamentary proceedings of the Japanese Diet.

Japan may have a parliamentary-style democracy, but it is a long way from the British adversarial model. Take, for example, the recent daihyo shitsumon - Leaders' Questions - put to Prime Minister Abe Shinzo by the top-dogs in the opposition at the end of January. Until the Government Minister for Health Welfare and Labour put his foot in it and declared women were "baby-making machines" ("kodomo o umu kikai"), events took their normal course: it was monologue after unrelated monologue. The two solidly left-wing parties, the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) and Social Democratic Party (SDP) are the only parties that attempt to make their speeches clear, to the point and assertive. The questions put by Kiyomi Tsujimoto on behalf of the SDP directly attacked the Government and communicated with her audience. They were not merely scripted and read in a monotone. Why, I often ask myself, do the more legitimate mainstream parties not go for a bit more charisma?
"The Japanese do not like confrontation." Always comes the reply. It is true that the vast majority of Japanese Prime Ministers have had fairly faceless tenures at the top. Most Western students who first come to the subject of Japanese politics struggle to name more than a handful. However, to argue that Japanese politics has been confrontation-free is frankly wrong. Think back to the massive clashes over the Anpo treaty in 1960, or later on, the marches against the construction of Narita Airport in Tokyo. And a contemporary example of showmanship, charisma and conflict in politics? Koizumi Junichiro. Confrontation won him an election.
Let's have more Lionhearts in the chamber.
R J F Villar

Motohisa Furukawa and the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)

I am currently working on the staff of young, up-and-coming Dietmember, Motohisa Furukawa (see picture left). Mr. Furukawa holds the support of well over 50% of the population of his Aichi Prefecture constituency, a rare feat in an electoral district which works on the First Past the Post (FPTP) system. In the coming months I will be highlighting some of the most interesting aspects of Japanese politics on both national and local levels, based around Mr. Furukawa's offices in Aichi and Tokyo.

Motohisa Furukawa's party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), is Japan’s second largest party and main opposition party. It is generally viewed as social liberal in orientation. Formed on April 27th 1998, the DPJ grew from a merger of four small anti-LDP parties to become a major player in Japanese politics, gaining significant support in the 2000 and 2001 Diet elections. In 2001 the DPJ supported Japan’s first foreign-born Dietmember, Marutei Tsurunen (originally Martti Turunen of Finland).
In 2003 the DPJ merged with the small, centre-right Liberal Party led by Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the DPJ from April 2006 following the resignation of Seiji Maehara. In the House of Representatives, the Democratic Party of Japan sits with the Independents’ Club (Mushozoku kurabu), a group of democrats with a largely liberal centrist agenda. In the House of Councillors, the DPJ sits with a group known as ‘New Breeze’ (Shin-Ryokufukai).

R J F Villar

Welcome to 'politics on the other side'

Japanese politics and the amorphous Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are largely synonymous: When you think of one, you think of the other. A passing nod is given to opposition parties, but no-one really expects there to be a long-term change of Government. For all but a brief slip in the 1990s, the LDP have reigned supreme for the lifetime of the average student of Japanese politics, and, the argument usually goes, they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

However, to focus on the party-in-power is to miss the excitement, potential and future of Japanese politics. While LDP scandal and backhanders may be the same old story of vested-interests politics, in the background the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is working hard and picking up momentum. While Prime Minister Abe Shinzo flails around searching for headline-grabbing big-picture policies to build what he has touted as his ideal "Beautiful Country" ("utsukushii kuni"), Ozawa Ichiro is focusing the DPJ on working for the needs of the Japanese people.

In the run-up to the Upper House elections this summer, support for the LDP is rapidly declining, and the DPJ is going from strength to strength. Never has there been such a solid credible opposition to the LDP. Over the next few months, I will be recording the rise of the DPJ, testing the political waters in the March local elections and commenting on opposition politics in Japan.

These are my views, based on my observations of elections and the day-today strategies of the Democratic Party of Japan. They are not the official views of any party or politician.

R J F Villar