Thursday, January 27, 2011

SOTU: I Don’t See England, I don’t see France

But I do see Europe.

Yesterday, Paul Sracic emailed me his quick response to President Obama’ State of Union address, which included the following take on Japan:
No one in the U.S. will care about this, but Obama mentioned China, India, and South Korea several times -- but never Japan. Do you think that the Japanese people will care/notice this?
Sure enough, the story showed up later that day on the Yomiuri and Sankei websites (and this morning in the Yomiuri and I sure Asahi hardcopy versions). Paul is an expert on US politics (he’s quoted on the SOTU itself in a Reuters wire), but he obviously figured out how the Japanese mind works while he was in Japan on his Council of Foreign Affairs fellowship Fulbright Scholarship. The headlines say it all:
Yomiuri: “Japan” Goes Unmentioned This Year Too: exhibits the strengths of South Korea, China (hardcopy version)
Sankei: Country Names Mentioned in Obama Speech: South Korea Most Often, at Five; Japan Zero (online version)
Sankei does the whole SOTU BRICs count: China four times, India three times, Russia twice, and Brazil once. (Ian Bremmer believes that Russia isn’t a real BRIC, but that’s another story.)

If this sounds familiar to you, you’re right. We went through this during the 2008 presidential primaries, when many people here gave John McCain the thumbs-up over Hillary Clinton in the Foreign Affairs essays contest because McCain issued a paean to the US-Japan relationship while Clinton mentioned China more often than Japan. Note, though, that Clinton’s essay was more about the foreign policy and security challenges that the United States faced, and how she would deal with them. Obama is naming names mainly as countries that are doing things that the United States should emulate at home. And no, as the Sankei count shows, England and France don’t show up either. But Europe does, as in: “Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do.”

The silver lining for Japan is that this wakeup call is good news for people here who are pushing reform.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Giving Kan Some Credit (though He Hasn’t Really Earned It)

Prime Minister Kan is trying to take the DPJ back to its reformist roots. His two most important policy initiatives:
1) putting the social safety net on a sound footing by raising the consumption tax rate; and
2) pushing economic reform by re-linking agricultural subsidies to FTAs—I’m talking about his bid to have Japan join the US initiative on an expanded Trans-Pacific partnership
revive the arguably two most important policy goals that Ichiro Ozawa threw under the bus when he beat Kan in the 2006 DPJ leadership election. His efforts to sideline Ozawa and his minions point to another key element of what the DPJ stood for until its fateful merger with the Ozawa forces—no more politics as usual. So why isn’t anyone giving Kan any credit for this? Or at least taking note? Could it be the reflection of an anti-DPJ bias in the MSM, which some political scientists (SR, JC, etc.) whom I know and respect claim exists?

I lay the blame squarely at the doorsteps of the prime minister’s office. Circumstances aside, it’s due to Kan’s inability to project a coherent political message and stick to it. In fact, if there’s one thing that the Founding Fathers of the ultimately successful anti-LDP movement—Ozawa, Kan, Hatoyama—it’s their inability to articulate what they stand for (something that has surprised me in Kan’s case) and give the appearance of staying on message. Another common thread that binds them, though, is their stubbornness. And that is what keeps their clocks ticking, even Hatoyama’s, who has decided that he is indispensable to Japanese politics after all. And keeps Kan plugging away, to turn the clock back to the future, the future that the DPJ saw, before it lent the eaves to Ozawa and almost lost the house.

Give Kan credit though; he isn’t giving up any time soon, like some beta version of the first-generation Terminator.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Difference between the LDP and Komeito…Why It’s premature to Write Off the Kan Administration Just Yet…Plus My Pick for Kan’s Replacement

Opinion polls show the Kan cabinet dropping to near-last gasp Hatoyama lows and the DPJ falling behind the LDP for the first time in what seems like ages—when you are going through five prime ministers in four years, time seems to go by rather swiftly. So, is it time for a quick Kan write-off and a turn to a freshly recycled... Okay, not so great an idea, which may be one reason why nobody, not even an Ozawa surrogate, is willing to mount a leadership challenge. Still, with an opposition majority in the upper house, the April local elections (mayors, prefectural and municipal assemblies) looming, fragging from Ozawa and other discontents, and the media eager to promote major political upheaval, the Kan administration’s immediate prospects look dim. Or do they?

It is no secret that the DPJ is pining for Komeito, the one party—other than the LDP, which doesn’t count—that can ensure an upper house majority and erase the need for sucking up to the tiny SPD, former coalition member on the fringe-left, which can secure a lower house supermajority to force legislation past upper house opposition vetoes. (The problem with lower house overrides is that they will greatly increase the likelihood that the DPJ comes tumbling down in the next general election.) But conventional wisdom says that because of the April elections, the Ozawa smell test, and the sheer political inertia of the LDP-Komeito coalition years, Komeito is finding it difficult to provide assistance to the beleaguered DPJ, Kan or non-Kan, despite the shared urban, centrist leanings that would otherwise make the two parties natural allies. So it must be a relief to DPJ strategists to see that Komeito telegraphing its intent: We will fight the DPJ in the upcoming Diet session, but we will not push it over the brink and force a lower house snap election that the Soka-gakkai does not want.

For those of you who can’t read Japanese, Katsuya Okada, Kan’s second-in-command who runs the DPJ political operations, reiterated the Kan administration’s willingness to accommodate the opposition in order to avoid gridlock in the upcoming Diet session on the FY2011 budget, a turn of events that would doom the Kan administration and significantly raise the probability of a politically dangerous snap election. The opposition’s response?
LDP whip: We must create a political situation at the fiscal year’s end [March 31] where [budget-]related legislative bills will be voted down in the upper house.
Komeito whip: (The budget bill) has an extremely large number of problems, and [we] oppose it.
In last year’s extraordinary Diet session, Kometio voted against the supplementary (stimulus) budget but voted for the budget-related bills. Barring political failure of catastrophic dimensions, this means that Kan will survive the upcoming Diet session, which makes him an odds-on favorite to survive until the 2012 DPJ leadership election, when my money will be on a run-off victory by the top challenger, who will then call a snap election and win a new mandate for the DPJ.

Which begs the question: Which challenger? Good question, and the main reason, if some experts are to be believed, that the DPJ cannot afford to ditch Kan just yet. My pick: Goshi Hosono. He’s only 39, only in his fourth term as a lower house member in a society where seniority still matters, and has never served as a cabinet member. But neither did Shinji Tarudoko, who made a credible show of challenging Kan in the DPJ’s last leadership election despite similar shortcomings. Which brings me to what I think is the clincher. Hosono has something that none of the other telegenic, articulate policy wonks has: he’s on good terms with all the main actors, from Seiji Maehara to Ichiro Ozawa. That’s like playing for both national sides in the Japan-South Korea Asia Cup semi-finals. Go Blue Samurai!

My thanks go out to the people who have asked me why I haven’t been blogging recently.