Yesterday (April 3), the Lower House adopted and sent ot the Upper House a Japan-US draft agreement under which Japan will pay the US government approximately 140 billion yen per year between FY2008-2010 to cover a large portion of the costs of maintaining US Forces in Japan (mainly the salaries of their Japanese employees and the utilities expenses of US military households). Similar agreements have been in force since 1978, but the DPJ is opposing this latest version because they think 143.8 billion yen (FY 2008) is too much and besides it includes money for bars and golf courses.
Now I’m not interested if this change of heart － the DPJ voted for the last two agreements in 2000 and 2006 － is a truly principled stand and has nothing to with embarrassing the LDP. I’m also not competent to argue what effect this will have on the bilateral alliance and our national security. (Though I suppose it’s minimal; after all , being a treaty, if the DPJ refuse to vote on it in the Upper House, it will come into effect 30 days later, on May 3 (Constitution Day!), in any case.) Nor do I have any idea whether the DPJ really wants US military personnel to get drunk and otherwise have their fun off-base, on the streets of Naha and Yokosuka. But I think that I do know what it portends for domestic politics.
Twelve DPJ members failed to vote on the bill. Eleven of them, including its leader Ichirō Ozawa (he had “other priorities”) and native-English speaker favorite Akihisa Nagashima (who also represents yours truly, from the Tokyo proportional bloc) skipped the session altogether, while Yoshiaki Takagi left the room before the vote. As we saw on the Upper House vote on the BOJ appointments, the DPJ will not discipline its members for not voting. (In fact, to the best of my knowledge, it has yet to punish one of its members who actually voted for Kōji Tanami, the second (and also unsuccessful) coalition candidate for BOJ Governor.) To be fair, neither does the LDP*. This is important in these uncertain times. Let me explain why.
Diet member caucuses, many of them cutting across party lines, have been popping up like mushrooms of late and making it difficult to keep track of them all. (Is there a good online data base for this that we can all share?) This leads some to speculate if they are the harbingers of a political Big Bang. But as I have said before, that’s unlikely. For there is no single compelling issue, or set of issues, that can unite a significant member of Diet members in disregard of their other differences in policy, outlook and personality. There’s also the money issue. Splittists can lose a lot － possibly all － of the government funding available to political parties, money, incidentally, which the Communist Party is the only eligible political party to have turned down. Thus, there’s no reason to believe that the quest for ultimate power, which gives people like prototypical old-school Mr. Ozawa (Kakuei Tanaka’s favorite disciple), neo-conservative Yukio Edano (who hates Mr. Ozawa with a red hot passion), former civil activist Naoto Kan and post-Socialists like Azuma Koshishi a good reason to hang together, will not continue to prevail. The same holds true for the LDP, which is slightly less ecumenical but far more set in their political ways by way of its long history. If the former is a group of squabbling in-laws, the latter is a sometimes unruly clan.
This means that the political tensions being revealed of late as new caucuses needs other forms of release. But an active vote against the party line cannot be left unpunished, unless that party wants to degenerate into a marriage of pure convenience (like some micro-gatherings) for parliamentary privileges and public funding purposes only. And Diet members will think twice over the personal consequences before openly bucking the party line in the face of certain punishment. So this is where the absentee option is useful for both the parties and their individual members, a less painful and therefore more tolerable course of action. I believe that this will become increasingly commonplace, since major policy issues, both domestic and international, as well as the future of the Houses divided, will remain unsettled for quite some time**. Look, Mr. Ozawa himself has done it twice.
* I’m sure that bad things happen to New Kōmeitō or Communist party members who fail to support the party line, but that’s not relevant here.
** One of the practical consequences of this trend is that it will make it difficult to count votes.