Saturday, January 12, 2008

Norimitsu Onishi Reports on the Anti-Terror Bill Override

In forcing through the legislation, Mr. Fukuda, who took over the leadership from former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in September, risks a backlash from a public that is divided over the mission. The public remains much more concerned about the economy and other issues.

“Mr. Fukuda’s approval ratings have fallen into the 30s because he has been unable to pass other legislation in Parliament since taking over as prime minister.”

“Mr. Fukuda does not have to call a general election until the fall of 2009. But with the impasse in Parliament, he will probably be forced to do so and seek a popular mandate later this year.”

- from “Japan Approves Bill on Afghan War”, 2008 January 12, Norimitsu Onishi

For a mainstream daily, Mr. Onishi’s articles are usually well-sourced and well-informed. I also have a sneaking admiration for his understated style. But what to make of the three paragraphs excerpted in order above, which, strung together, appear to be the essence of the guidance that he has to offer?

In my view, the first paragraph should be rewritten as follows:

”In forcing through the legislation, Mr. Fukuda, who took over the leadership from former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in September, risks relatively little backlash from a public that is divided over the mission but remains much more concerned about the economy and other issues.

Now I may be wrong about the magnitude of backlash, but it’s hard to discern the logic behind Mr. Onishi’s connection of the potential backlash to the public’s concern about other issues. That is, it’s hard until you read the second excerpted paragraph, which basically says that Mr. Fukuda has lost public support because he has been ineffective in addressing them. Maybe, maybe not. But the drop had at least as much to do with how as with what he did or didn’t do. Besides, if Mr. Onishi had been reading my blog, he would have known that getting legislation enacted had not figured as much of a problem as a casual glance at the Japanese media would have led you to believe.

Still, since just about everybody seems to feel that a snap election could be called any time after the Hokkaidō Summit in July, nobody will call Mr. Onishi out if it doesn’t happen*. Thus, the last paragraph is the safe call to make. But if the article is not backed by the basic facts behind the assertion, this article has about as much value as a broken clock that gets it right twice a day.

* Give me resonable odds, say 3 to 1, and I’ll be happy to bet against it happening within the calendar year.

So the question is: What happened here? First of all the NYT Tokyo bureau must be understaffed. Simply put, he doesn’t have a fact-checker. But second, and I think this is more important, he’s just not interested in straight, boring, just-the-facts reporting. His work so often consists of human interest stories, about the weak, the old, the loners in out-of-the-way places, the common man (or woman) in a ceaseless and ultimately futile struggle to maintain themselves and their dignity. His subject is humanity, in the lower case.


vincent said...

I agree, no serious backlash. However, I was rather surprised to read in the editorial of the English Asahi today that they speak also about backfiring:"Many voters must be questioning the use of the majority power rule (...) The government and the coalition may say they have achieved a breakthrough on the issue through a second vote. But such a forcible passage of the bill will eventually backfire". Link Asahi:

vincent said...

Sorry for an additional comment. A few minutes ago I heard on 'NHK News 7' Hatoyama form the DPJ who said that it is unacceptable to keep the high tax rate for fuel, but at the same time to give totally free fuel to the Americans. Not bad. It seems the DPJ will do everything to block the budget during the ordinary session. If the government will have to use for the second time the 2/3 majority, it could backfire. Once yes, twice no

Jun Okumura said...


Actually, that was about par for the course for an Asahi editorial. The Asahi thinks that the LDP is the Evil Empire, while the Yomiuri thinks that it's the bee's knees. They are both predictable. In fact, if you read their editorials every day for one year, you could probably write them yourself.

With regard to your second comment, Mr. Hatoyama is correct to the extent that the U.S. must also make efforts to bring oil prices down. However, encouraging gasoline consumption by eliminating the “temporary” surcharge under current conditions just because the U.S. doesn't do anything about it doesn’t make sense. Not that politicians won’t suggest such a course of action every time, since allowing supply and demand to restore balance is not a politically popular position to take.

As I posted before, a simple majority in the Lower House is all that the LDP needs to pass the budget. It’s the legislation where the supermajority kicks in. The pressure is acutely felt in the case of tax measures that expire by April 1, of which the gasoline surcharge and any other temporary taxes that must be collected at the individual point of purchase cause the greatest problems.

I don’t think that using the override will of itself cause a public backlash. Remember, most things are easier the second time around; and the ruling parties had routinely resorted to the override before the 1955 conservative megamerger gave the LDP control over both Houses. It’s public perception that matters, which in turn depends on the substance of the issue at hand. As you must be aware, the gasoline tax surcharge is a tough one to call on the substance as well, since it pits various powerful constituencies against each other. Letting it lapse is the politically expedient alternative.

Jun Okumura said...


I just read the article. Mr. Hatoyama's statement is a conceptual pun. The gasoline tax surcharge and Japanese suppport for maritime patrol are separate issues. The fact that they both involve oil merely hides multiple logical flaws in his argument. I consider such rhetorical tricks an insult to the electorate's intelligence, but it must work.Politicians do it all the time.

vincent said...

Thanks for your always insightful observations. No backlash confirmed: "The approval rating for the cabinet rose 6.1 percentage points from last month to 41.4 percent, according to the telephone opinion poll conducted by Kyodo news agency on Friday and Saturday", I read somewhere in Google News. But from a Reuters article today (Sunday) I understand that a backlash could be possible in the future if the supermajority is used again :"(…) while the Asahi survey showed voters were split evenly over forcing the naval mission bill through, only 18 percent agreed with using the procedure for other laws (…)" Article Reuters:

Jun Okumura said...


Thank you for your kind words. But remember, I can be, and sometimes am, spectacularly wrong. In fact, one of the reasons I make these calls is to be wrong. That way, I can find out when I don’t get it, and why. It helps me understand, as I hope it does the people who read this blog.

The supermajority is but one of the tools that have to be worked into the political rules for the time being, most likely until we’ve gone through the 2010 and 2013 Upper House elections. Unless of course, the DPJ overtakes the LDO in the Lower House, a less likely event, but well within the realm of possibilities. In the meantime, the supermajority is the “treasured sword, passed down through the generations”, to be used only when the net electoral costs are low enough. At a minimum, it will not be used to raise the consumption tax. And it goes down the line from there.