Japan-gazer Special — What Are The Real Undercurrents In Japanese Politics?

Editor’s Note: Japan-Gazer provides this particularly relevant analysis, since the President is on a whirlwind trip that passed through Japan and the Republic of Korea before arriving in Beijing. With the continuing crisis with North Korea, the alignment of Japanese domestic politics is a great aid in understanding our biggest regional ally.


What Are The Real Undercurrents In Japanese Politics?


COMMENT: If there is one thing to read & digest about the current state of Japanese politics, it is the very insightful column below from the Yomiuri Shimbun. As the Professors Saeki and Inoue discuss, the political labels “conservative” and “liberal” do not accurately describe what is going on, as Japan navigates through the strong currents of social issues, national security, economics, etc. My personal take is that Japan, as an (insular & resource-poor) island country, faces a constant challenge of how to deal with & adapt to challenges coming from “the outside” — and as those issues arise, Japanese politics is stimulated to take action. I sense that there are still sentiments of wanting to “be left alone” in some Japanese people, which connect back to the �i国 (SAKOKU — closed country) times — 1600’s though mid-1800’s — when Japan shut itself off from the rest of the world.

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== What is conservatism, liberalism in Japan?

(November 01, 2017; The Yomiuri Shimbun)

Kibo no To (Party of Hope) was launched under the banner of the “conservatives working for reform,” while leftist and liberal-minded members of the Democratic Party formed the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (clearly distinguishing themselves from Kibo). The latest House of Representatives election was said to be a battle among three forces, including the ruling parties. Yet what is a conservative and what is a liberal? We asked two experts.

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— There is no real conservative party

(Keishi Saeki; Professor emeritus of Kyoto University)

Japanese politics have traditionally been portrayed as a conflict between conservatives and liberals. However, this conflict has lost its meaning of late. What’s more, does a conservative party even exist in the true sense of the word?

The Liberal Democratic Party calls itself conservative, but ever since the administration of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, it has adopted neoliberalism, promoting thorough deregulation and market competition, as well as accepting economic globalization.

However, over the last decade and more, excessive growth-oriented principles based on financial markets have seen the widening of the income gap, and young people beset by job insecurity. There are jobs in Tokyo, but regional areas are experiencing economic hardship.

In the midst of all this, the Japanese Communist Party’s policies advocating aid to those who fall through the cracks of competition and emphasizing the value of health care, education and local communities appear far more conservative.

The Abenomics economic policy package of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe depends on growth strategies. It promotes technological innovation through development of artificial intelligence, robotics and biotechnology. This is a form of progressivism, in that it seeks to reform society through technology. However, if continual growth is difficult because of the shrinking population, it is necessary to withdraw a little from the global economy that forces the nation into excessive competition, provide stability in the lives of the people, and improve social infrastructure such as health care and education.

Kibo no To (The Party of Hope) was born out of grandstanding by [Tokyo Gov.] Yuriko Koike. Koike repeatedly advocates “reform,” but what she intends to reform is unclear.

“Political reforms” began when Ichiro Ozawa split the LDP to form the Japan Renewal Party (Shinseito) in 1993. A single-seat constituency system was introduced to let the public choose a government from two major political parties. Efforts were made to shift policymaking from the hands of bureaucrats to politicians. However, almost all attempts resulted in failure.

Popular sovereignty in which the will of the people is reflected in politics transformed into former Prime Minister Koizumi’s “theatrical politics,” solidifying a populist course in which politics are driven by approval ratings. This trend gave rise to a government led by the Democratic Party of Japan, and also led to the advent of Toru Hashimoto’s “Ishin no Kai” (Japan Restoration Party.)

It could be said that Abe’s current dominance is a result of the introduction of single-seat constituencies and politician-led policy. But opposition parties, who are still calling for reform, criticize Abe’s dominance.

With the collapse of the Cold War order, leftists sympathetic to socialism transformed into moderate liberals. Their goal is to aid the disadvantaged within the framework of capitalism. However, if they do not squarely criticize the problems that arise from the global economy and a growth-centered approach, they will be swallowed up by the LDP.

In the Democratic Party leadership election, Seiji Maehara advocated prioritizing social welfare under the slogan “all for all.” Abe has pledged to do the same. He says that the additional revenue from a planned consumption tax hike will be allocated to providing free education and social security programs for low income-earners and young people.

Policies advocated by liberals have, for all intents and purposes, been appropriated by the LDP.

The CDPJ (Constitutional Democratic Party) was hastily formed in an environment in which the survival of the liberal faction was on the line, and its policies are little more than an afterthought, with no initiatives capable of standing up against the administration led by the ruling coalition of the LDP and Komeito.

As for the Constitution, liberals are anti-revision and Prime Minister Abe is pro-revision. The security-related legislation ― which allows Japan the right to exercise collective self-defense ― has been enacted. If the Japan-U.S. alliance is rock-solid after this, the desire to revise the Constitution will dwindle. Meanwhile, the liberal camp is unable to work out a national security policy in the face of issues such as the North Korea problem.

Japan does not have a conservative party in the true sense of the word.

At the very least, we should debate the Constitution and security within a larger framework. The constitutional issue is not something we should resolve through revisions. We ought to have the will that could result in enacting an independent Constitution and setting the task of exploring the feasibility of independent defense.

We are reaching a crossroads on the response to North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.

– The first option is to focus on seeking talks.

– The second is to stay under the umbrella of the United States.

– The third, which would be difficult to realize, is for Japan to have its own nuclear weapons.

Liberals are for the first option, but it lacks effectiveness. Realistically, they will be drawn into the second option. Liberals in the United States and European countries emphasize security. It is presumed that citizens will defend their countries on their own.

Whether they are conservative or liberal, if the parties cannot address the truly important issues, the voters have no way to make a choice. We don’t want voters to decide haphazardly based on the mood of the time.

(This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer Yasuhiko Mori.)

[* Saeki is also a special appointed professor at the Kokoro Research Center, Kyoto University, and a social thinker. In 1997, he received the 7th Yomiuri Rondansho prize for his book “Gendai Nihon no Riberarizumu” (Liberalism in contemporary Japan). He has also written numerous books, including the upcoming “Datsu Sengo no Susume” (Recommendations for leaving the postwar framework). He is 67.]

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— Battle lines on top law ambiguous

(Tatsuo Inoue; Professor of the University of Tokyo)

In the latest election, voters were forced to choose a government without any choice on policy. While it was supposedly a three-way contest among the main conservatives, the minor conservatives, and the liberals, the reality was different.

First of all, the contention over the constitutional issue was in fact ambiguous. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has proposed adding a provision stipulating the existence of the Self-Defense Forces while maintaining the second paragraph of Article 9, which bans Japan from maintaining war potential. However, this preserves the current ambiguous situation of claiming the SDF does not have war potential. Despite the CDPJ’s opposition to revising Article 9, CDPJ leader Yukio Edano made a personal proposal for constitutional revision in 2013 that was much the same as Abe’s. His proposal leaves the current text of Article 9 intact, appending clauses after Article 9 as Article 9-2 and Article 9-3, and even includes provisions that allow Japan to exercise the right to self-defense jointly with a country, when that country is attacked when it is defending Japan.

This was criticized by the Japanese Communist Party as a right of collective self-defense. JCP Chairman Kazuo Shii has also stated in a party leaders’ debate session that if an anti-LDP coalition government should be formed, his party would go along with the doctrine of the constitutionality of the SDF.

Another axis is taxes and social security. Before the Democratic Party split, it was considering the idea of allocating increased revenues from a planned consumption tax hike to education and social security, rather than to national debt repayment. Prime Minister Abe copied this idea. Each party is trying to distinguish itself on this issue through how to secure revenue sources. However, they are unanimous in advocating investment in people through measures, including free education, and they have shelved fiscal reconstruction issues, obscuring the points of contention on policies.

Ideally, the points of contention between conservatives and liberals should be viewed from three different sides: politics, economics, and military and diplomatic affairs.

– On the political side, conservatives restrict individual freedoms and rights to preserve their country’s traditional religion and culture. Conversely, liberals stress civil and political rights such as separation of state and religion, as well as freedom of expression to protect religious and cultural minorities and dissenters.

– On the economic side, the conflict between liberals and conservatives is changing, even in the United States and European countries. Originally, conservatives protected the vested interests of the privileged classes. Liberals opposed hierarchical privileges and emphasized meritocratic free competition. However, from the end of the 19th century to after the Great Depression, liberalism in Britain and the United States changed to support for a welfare state to aid the socioeconomically disadvantaged. In opposition to this, conservatives ended up stressing “small government” and market competition. However, conservatives have assimilated the backlash to economic globalization, turning toward protectionism. The landscape has become distorted again.

– On the military and diplomatic affairs side, it is inaccurate to say that conservatives are hawks and liberals are doves. Neoconservatives supported military intervention by the U.S administration of George W. Bush, but there are also hawkish liberals who actively support humanitarian intervention.

Ultimately, the clearest distinction between conservatives and liberals is on the political side. This is also the case in Japan.

The conservative LDP limits civil and political liberties to some extent in order to maintain traditions and public order, as can be seen from:

– official Yasukuni Shrine visits,

– opposition to a proposal to allow married couples to use separate surnames,

– establishing the Law on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets, and

– criminalizing the planning and preparation to commit such crimes as terrorist attacks.

Critics of these initiatives and positions are the “liberal opposition parties” such as the CDPJ.

Kibo is a mystery: While outwardly conservative, the outcome of the merger with former Democratic Party members remains uncertain.

There is no true liberal party in Japan as yet. The bedrock of liberalism is the concept of justice, which forms the framework for the equitable coexistence of opposing groups. It demands respect for constitutionalism as a means to provide the rules for fair political competition.

Advocates of protection of the Constitution criticize those who support a constitutional amendment as a threat to the Constitution. However, they politically sanction the SDF and Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, provided they are within the framework of the nation’s exclusively defense-oriented policy and the right to individual self-defense, which resulted in them papering-over the inconsistency with Article 9 and its prohibition of maintaining and exercising war potential.

They are also equally guilty of trampling on the Constitution for the sake of political convenience. If they stand for constitutionalism, at the very least they should advocate a constitutional amendment that protects the top law ― which involves amending the provisions of the second paragraph of Article 9 to permit the maintenance of war potential within the limits of the country’s exclusively defense-oriented policy and its individual self-defense right.

Furthermore, despite the current increased tensions over North Korean affairs, Prime Minister Abe is steering clear of recognizing the SDF as having war potential, through his plan of advocating adding new text to the Constitution and leaving paragraph two of Article 9 intact. His stance demonstrates the same complacency about peace as those opposed to constitutional revision.

If conservatives take national defense seriously, then the Abe administration is not worthy of being called conservative. “Surmounting the national crisis” is no more than a slogan, and the public are forced into a fruitless choice. However, the fault for this lies with the public, who have ignored political deception and brought it on themselves. In a democracy, politics will match the people’s standards. To change politics, the people must change themselves.

(This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer Haruki Sasamori.)

[* Inoue specializes in the philosophy of law. His books include “Kyosei no Saho” (The etiquette of coexistence), “Ho toiu Kuwadate” (The undertaking of law), “Sekai Seigiron” (The theory of global justice), “Riberaru no Koto wa Kirai Demo, Riberarizumu wa Kirai ni Naranai de Kudasai” (Even if you hate liberals, please don’t hate liberalism), and “Kenpo no Namida” (Tears of the Constitution). He is 63.]

Copyright 2017 Japan-Gazer and Yomiuri Shimbun’ Haruki Sasamori

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