People who know me know that I rarely swear except in jest. And extreme anger. （And just because it’s fun.） Moreover, I carefully weigh and measure everything that I write and take personal responsibility for each and every word. Having said all that, I have a confession to make: I had been a little tipsy so early in the evening when I posed the question: On the Occasion of Barack Obama’s Inauguration, Should I Be Calling Norimitsu Onishi a Fuckwad? Now that I’ve had a chance to sober up, I’d like to apologize for my foulmouthed ways, follow Jon Stewart’s example, and change it as follows: On the Occasion of Barack Obama’s Inauguration, Should I Be Calling Norimitsu Onishi a Wuckfad?
Now that I have got that confession out of the way, I’d like to explain what’s so wrong about Onishi’s report Japan’s Outcasts Still Wait for Acceptance. However, this will be a sizeable task, so I’ve decided to do it in multiple posts. I will hopefully be able to tie them all together in a concluding—conclusive—post. Here, my friends, enemies, and neutral parties, is the first installment.
In 2001, Hiromu Nonaka, possibly the top powerbroker in the Hashimoto faction, the largest such group in the LDP at the time, sought to enter the race for the LDP Presidency. Every LDP President but one (Yohei Kono) has served as Prime Minister. Thus, a Nonaka victory would have been a landmark event for Japan; for Nonaka was a self-declared member of the buraku people, descendants of the social outcast classes whose discrimination went back more than a thousand years. Nonaka would have been the first known member of the long-suffering underclass to become Prime Minister of Japan. But it was not to be, for Nonaka gave up his quest almost before it began. Onishi in his article uses quotes from Taro Aso, his former colleague and now DPJ Diet member Yasuoki Kamei and Nonaka himself to suggest that it was the opposition from his colleagues to his outcast status and his fear of the negative fallout on his family that forced him to give up his quest. As usual, he never comes out and says it outright, although the caption to the accompanying photos “Mr. Nonaka rose to chief cabinet secretary, but as a descendant of a class of outcasts further advancement was blocked” is far less coy. But the implication is clear. An artful piece of work, again, as usual. But in the telling, he left out some crucial facts, basic assumptions about Japanese politics, that cast doubt on his understanding of or intentions regarding the reason for Nonaka’s withdrawal.
Nonaka had received three Cabinet postings p-rior to his failed quest: Chief Cabinet Secretary, Minister of Internal Affairs, and the Chairman of the National Public Safety Commission. This track record is crucial to understanding what must have been Nonaka’s standing in the LDP and his image in the public eye. Now Onishi sees great significance in his assignment as the Chief Cabinet Secretary, which he claims to be “the government’s No. 2 official”. But few things can be further from the truth. That’s like putting Rahm Emanuel ahead of Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Tim Geithner in the pecking order. Moreover, Onishi fails to mention Nonaka’s earlier Cabinet assignments. The latter is also at best a grievous omission.
Let’s take the Chief Cabinet Secretary assignment first. LDP Prime Ministers typically will have served in one of two (or three) high-profile Cabinet positions before he is deemed fit to serve as Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance or Minister of Foreign Affairs. (In a pinch, the Ministry formerly known as MITI would have served in the days before the luster of Japan’s post-WW II resurgence wore off.) The Chief Cabinet Secretary has often been a plum assignment, but a junior one nonetheless, an opportunity for the appointee to display and hone his skills as a political operative and collect political chits before—this is important—progressing to more senior Cabinet and party posts. True, in more recent years, the LDP has put forth a couple of Prime Ministers whose administrative experience consisted mostly of Cabinet Secretary assignments— but we know how those Abe and Fukuda experiments turned out.
Nonaka’s other, earlier, Cabinet postings also tell a story. It is notable, if not out of the ordinary at all, that he fulfilled them simultaneously. In fact, it had been customary for a single Cabinet Minister to serve in both capacities, that is, right up until the final months of the ill-fated Mori administration—which Nonaka sought to replace in 2001. For the typical Home Ministry appointee was a long-serving, inoffensive, party hack or the nominee of a junior coalition partner. As for the National Public Safety Commission, it is still hard today to say what it really does—more so for non-Japanese speakers, since uniquely among Japanese bureaucracies headed by Cabinet Ministers, it has no English-language web pages—beyond that fact that it is nominally in charge of the police force. The Japanese police force uncomfortably saddles the local and national bureaucratic divide—a legacy of the occupation years—which fact no doubt figured in the double assignment for so many years.
In any case, all this did not add up to an auspicious beginning for someone with aspirations for the highest reaches of constitutional powers. In fact, it was a career path that was more conducive to following the footsteps of the top inside political operators—at best the likes of Masaharu Gotoda, at worst Shin Kanemaru. And that was the public perception, to the extent that there was one, of Hiromu Nonaka, more a kingmaker than a king. It may have been Nonaka’s added misfortune that the embattled incumbent Mori had also been regarded as an over-promoted ward-heeler with little taste or aptitude for real statecraft. In any case, Nonaka had not followed the typical career path for a future Prime Minister, and he was not yet head of his own faction when such things had still mattered, had not been anointed as Hashimoto’s successor, and still had rivals within his own faction, let alone the other factions and the local party rank-and-file. Simply put, there is a highly plausible explanation of Nonaka’s failure independent of his burakumin background.
But what of Aso’s statement, “Are we really going to let those people take over the leadership of Japan?” Now before I go on, I want you to note that I am quite willing to accept that he said such a thing, if not exactly in those words as translated into English. Onishi cites a highly credible witness and the thought if not the words are plausible for someone of Aso’s generation and background. (I’ll try to return to this point as part of a later installment.)
Aso reportedly made that statement in a meeting of the Kono mini-faction, which he was still years from inheriting from the eponymous Yohei Kono (who you likely remember as the issuer of the Kono Statement and less likely as the only LDP President to date who has not served as Prime Minister). In the event, Aso did stand for the 2001 LDP Presidential election, where he received a grand total of 31 votes as Junichiro Koizumi surprised everyone by trouncing the heavily favored Hashimoto 298 to 155. But is it not a little too much to conclude that the words of a secondary figure in his own mini-faction influenced decisively the choice of the candidate in what was still the largest faction in the LDP?
I do not claim to have proven that Nonaka’s failure had nothing to with his burakumin background. But I do believe that I have lined up and explained some easily available facts that have been omitted in Onishi’s narrative—facts that would have pushed it to the very edges of falsehood by omission as far as the interpretation of Nonaka’s failure is concerned.
Onishi also fails to give a plausible explanation of Nonaka’s rise within the LDP. But here, I have no good explanation either. I think that this place is as good as any to end my first installment.