Saturday, March 01, 2008

My projections of Swift Ishiba Resignation Now Looks Too Precipitous

It was only a couple of days ago when I argued that Defense Minister Ishiba’s resignation was imminent, though (as I responded to a comment) it could be stretched out, for “a matter of weeks at most, just long enough to bring order to things”. I’m pretty sure now that it is going to be “weeks”, which can stretch out to months, depending on the prevailing circumstances. What made me change my mind was Mr. Ishiba’s comments, reported yesterday, to the effect that he intended, in line with the wishes of the families of the two missing fishermen*, to determine the cause of the accident and ensure that such accidents will be prevented in the future, but that he would always prepared to take responsibility. To pursue the aforementioned objectives to the fullest will require some organizational changes, which could take some time to design and completely put in place. Moreover, the accident is under investigation by the Maritime Agency, which could lead to criminal proceedings. This could complicate and cause delays in the MOD fact-finding process. This is likely to take more than the few weeks necessary to make some preliminary findings and get things moving in the right direction while a suitable successor to Mr. Ishiba is chosen.

Of course the “wishes of the families” is the key determinant here. If they call for Mr. Ishiba’s head, he is finished. Conversely, the media and the DPJ will face substantial blowback if they keep trying to hound Mr. Ishiba into resignation against the wishes of the families. Rest assured that, going forward, Mr. Ishiba will be highly mindful of the families, not that he would not be doing so in the first place.

This does not mean that Mr. Ishiba is in the clear. The typical Japanese sense of leadership requires that a leader takes personal responsibility for a grave institutional misdeed by first setting things right, then falling on his sword. But if the process stretches into months with the victim’s assent, memories and, with it, the anger will fade. Moreover, through the correction process, he may be able to redeem himself in the eyes of the public and, most important, the families of the two missing fishermen sufficiently that the opposition no longer will see a net political benefit in going after Mr. Ishiba’s head. In saying this, I have in mind BOJ Governor Toshihiko Fukui’s case. Most observers including me at the time thought that Mr. Fukui was on the outs after the revelation of his involvement in the Murakami Fund. However, he managed to stay on after the initial furor subsided and is serving out his tenure (though reappointment remains a non-starter). The redemption of Yōichi Masuzoe who received 72.3% approval against 18.4% non-approval in this poll, only couple of months after mishaps over the missing public pension records and the lawsuit by type-C hepatitis patients, shows that the public is forgiving of politicians whom it believes is on its side and not on those of the bureaucracy and special interests. In that respect, Mr. Ishiba enjoys quite a good reputation; indeed, the same poll, taken only days after the accident though before his own missteps that pushed him to the brink of resignation, showed that he managed to hold on to a positive approval rating, 43.1% approval to 40.8% non-*.

There’s more. In another, totally unrelated development, the complaint that led to the rape charges against the US marine in Okinawa were withdrawn yesterday, a development that went well beyond my speculation my speculation of a lesser charge. He has been released to US custody since he cannot be prosecuted for rape under Japanese law unless the alleged victim or her legal guardian files a complaint** Moreover, with regard to the overall political situation, the ruling coalition passed the budget and budget-related bills in the Lower House and sent them along to the Upper House despite strong objection from the opposition. That means that the budget will be enacted automatically after 30 days, in time for the new fiscal year. That puts the spotlight squarely on the gasoline taxes and their expenditure. All this helps to take attention away from the defense establishment and Mr. Ishiba’s personal failures, a favorable development for the beleaguered Defense Minister.

* I can think of at least a couple of good reasons why the families feel this way, but there is no way to call it one way or the other. I have no reason to doubt Mr. Ishiba’s words, and that is all that counts for this post.

** It is interesting to note that if that poll is any indication, the public has an even lower opinion of Ichirō Ozawa, the willful and enigmatic head of the DPJ, than of the beleaguered Fukuda administration. The same poll shows that even as the public loses confidence in Mr. Fukuda, it remains broadly sympathetic to him personally. It feels sorry for him. Some people (George W. Bush, Barack Obama) are a priori and broadly likeable while others (John Kerry, Hillary Clinton) are not. This has nothing to do with inherent goodness (which even Richard Nixon had, if his devotion to friends and family - it compares favorably with John F. Kennedy’s - is any indication). Life is not fair.

*** It is legally significant that there was no talk of charging the marine with kidnapping or unlawful detention, which do not have this requirement.

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