Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Prime Minister Plays Defense on Sunday Project

Today, the heads of the seven parties contesting the Upper House election made the rounds of Sunday morning talk shows (Fuji TV, NHK, and TV Asahi). The TV Asahi Sunday Project took up the latest MAFF minister's public financing controversy, the public pension scandal, and Defense Minister Kyuma's gaffe over the atom bombs dropped on Japan during WW II. Forced to play defense, Mr. Abe acquitted himself well. He was noticeably better briefed and coached than his opponents, including Ichiro Ozawa, the enigmatic head of the DPJ, and was for the most part articulate without being too voluble.

Mr. Abe did a reasonably good job of explaining the MAFF minister's public financing accounting issues, drawing on the law, the attachment of inherited supporters to the family stronghold, and his own experience (though he himself had discontinued the practice) to conjecture that there had been nothing illegal or improper going on when Mr. Akagi decided to designate his parents' home as his main office and consolidate expenditures to that office in the annual reports to the authorities.

He fared less well on the public pension scandal, but no new hits were scored. The talk was mostly about who knew what and when. Mr. Abe gave a reasonably good account of the measures being taken by the administration and merely casually intimated at the LDP charge (instead of blaming head-on) opposition-friendly labor in the National Insurance Agency for the chronic, pervasive carelessness that led to the debacle. (A comment from Yasuo Tanaka, the ex-governor head of the Shinto Nihon that everybody was neglecting the real issue, which is that the pension system itself is in a meltdown, was quickly shelved by Soichiro Tawara, the emcee, with a quai-promise to revisit the issue on another date.)

On the atomic bombs, Soichiro Tawara pressed Mr. Abe to seek a US apology (as Mr. Ozawa had said should be done when Defense Minister Kyuma's words became public) and criticized the government for accepting US inconsistency in dealing with new nuclear states. Mr. Abe did not answer directly, and reiterated his position that such a thing should not have been done, and repeatedly emphasized Japan's successful efforts to pass UN resolutions for nuclear disarmament against US opposition.

But most voters have more important things to do than watch Sunday Project or the other Sunday talk shows. (Let's just say that they are less colorful that the weekday sex, love-triangle murder, astrology, Korean Drama, etc. fare.) Come Monday, the events will be incorporated in the news reports in the mainstream dailies, stripped of the emotional, impressionistic contents that the audiovisual experience leaves behind, and given the context of the ongoing narrative, which is that the adminstration has messed up royally. There, unpleasant things like the fact that Mr. Akagi has steadfastly avoided full disclosure, shielding himself with the law, just like his deceased predecessor (who, unlike Mr. Akagi, had made absurd and inflammatory claims on the costs incurred by his main office) had done may be juxtaposed against Mr. Abe's willingness to give full faith and credit to whatever explanation he got from Mr. Akagi.

To repeat, Mr. Abe played good defense. But when you're behind, you have to score goals. So barring further major surprises, the ruling coalition continues to look at a big loss. Just based on a hunch, I'd be happy to keep a book at 45 over-under for a 5% cut of all bets. But I won't, because it's illegal you know. So the real question here is, will the coalition loss be small enough to maintain a working majority in the Upper House?

And as a closely related but not identical question, will it be a sufficiently official coalition that it will enable it to maintain the Upper House president's seat and the lion's share of choice committee chairmanships? Those things will make a difference in the extent to which the coalition can push its legislative agenda till 2010, when its next general election changes the complexion of the Upper House.

Generally sympathetic to Mr. Abe (even producing a chart that listed all the policy initiatives that Mr. Abe had pushed through), Mr. Tawara pushed him hard on seeking US apology over the WW II atom bombs. As with Mr. Ozawa's reaction, this is yet another manifestation of a strong, underlying populist sentiment that mostly lies dormant but surfaces from time to time to see redress. This sentiment is not directed solely, or even mainly, against the US. Indeed, I suspect that we place the bulk of it squarely on the shoulders of our leaders who took us into the hellhole and (if the wishes of some of them were to be followed) would have forced us to perish there in a false glory of the damned. Nevertheless, any full-scale debate in Japan on responsibility for actions taken to bring about and conduct the wars will inevitably bring this issue to the fore. And what our ally shall hear then will not be to its liking.


Anonymous said...

Here's another spooky resemblance to the Toshikatsu scandal: "I've acted in accordance with applicable laws" says Akagi. Ever heard that one before?

Jun Okumura said...

You're right, anonym. And it's not just those two. It has become the bipartisan minimum defense on this matter. It's actually the line between resigning and staying on. Genichiro Sada (or his political organization) broke the law, and he had to leave, while Toshikatsu Matsuoka was kept on because he had the letter of the law on his side, though he brought much of the problem on himself by trying to joke away his troubles with claims of 10 million yen drinking water… (Okay, that's a slight exaggeration.) Mr. Matsuoka's woes were compounded by influence-peddling accusations, which might have been pointing the way to an eventual indictment. In my view, that was what drove him over the edge.

Of course if you have other convincing lines of defense, so much more the better. On that count, Mr. Akagi's situation is much less egregious. I'm quite sure he'll survive, though the retraction is obviously an embarrassment.