Monday, January 21, 2008

Japanese Establishment Launches Bottom up Political Reform, Seeks Diet Member Takers; Call Back in February

This is what I was talking about here, at the end, off-topic. It turned out to be a little less overwhelming than I had hoped for, but the jury is out.

The Sunday inauguration of the *Chīki, Seikatsusya* Kiten de Nihon wo Sentaku(Sentaku) suru Kokumin Rengō (「地域・生活者起点で日本を洗濯(選択)する国民連合」. People’s Union to Launder/Choose Japan from the Standpoint of the Regions and the People; my translation) or Sentaku for short, was duly noted in all the major dailies; Asahi, Mainichi, Yomiuri, and most notably Sankei, whose website also carried articles here, here, and here.

The Sentaku prospectus decries the political passivity on the part of the public and the reliance on the central bureaucracy and seeks to launch a thoroughgoing reform in the way we live and work by way of a new bottom-up, people’s rights movement.

The promoters of Sentaku, however, are not some wild-eyed radicals or woolly-headed New Agers. For Sentaku has been launched by an elite group of five academics including Masataka Kitagawa, the highly regarded ex-governor of Mie Prefecture and Tsuyoshi Sasaki, former President of Tokyo University; two business leaders, four incumbent governors including Hideo Higashikokubaru, comedian turned politician; one mayor; one prefectural assembly chairman; one moderate trade union leader; and one ex-Vice Minister of METI and former head of the Dentsu Institute. Mr. Kitagawa heads the 15-man (no women!) team, which is calling on Diet members who sympathize with their objectives to establish a parallel, nonpartisan Diet caucus that would work with Sentaku to develop a common understanding and make sure that the next Lower House general election will be “a truly historical election for the sentaku (in the “choose” sense) between [alternative] administrations”.

Sentaku is a direct outgrowth of the Atarashī Nihon wo Tsukuru Kokuminkaigi (The People’s Conference to Create a New Japan; my translation), which also goes by the name of “21 Seiki Rinchō” (21st Century Extraordinary Advisory Council for the Promotion of Administrative Reform; my translation). Although 21 Seiki Rinchō is not a government advisory council like its namesake**, it marshals an impressive selection from the A-list of the Japanese establishment, including the incumbent Keidanren Chairman (formerly Toyota’s Okuda, now Canon’s Mitarai) as the head of its 23-member Board of Special Advisors, which brings together an impressive array of business leaders, academics, a former head of the Japanese Federation of Bar Associations, and Nobuo Ishihara, Prime Minister Koizumi’s bureaucratic majordomo. It is headed by four “Joint Representatives”, four “Deputy Representatives”, two “Chief Examiners”, 152 “Managing Council Members” and 28 members of a “Joint Conference of Governors and Mayors of Cities, Towns and Villages”. The major media groups (those with major dailies) are well-represented in the Managing Council. All in all, it is a moderate***, centrist, establishment movement that, together with its two earlier incarnations since 1992, has sought to influence the political changes that have shaken but only partially transformed the post-1955 regime. In fact, the 15-member promotion group draws most of its members from the 21 Seiki Rinchō leadership, with the only two non-21 Seiki Rinchō additions being the newly elected Governor Higashikokubaru and the Mie Prefecture Assembly President.

Why the need for a new organization? Many other nonpartisan efforts to influence the political process (the Shintō Seiji Renmei; or Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership, comes to mind) establish parallel nonpartisan Diet member caucuses to further their cause. But 21 Seiki Rinchō and its predecessors have never done so, preferring to work through ad hoc exchanges as well as proposals addressed to the Diet and the general public. Another difference is the inclusion of a Prefecture Assemblyman in the list of Sentaku promoters. In fact, 21 Seiki Rinchō appears to have studiously avoided any institutionalized involvement with the legislative branch at any level. In contrast, 21 Seiki Rinchō has a Joint Conference of Governors and Mayors.

It may have been possible to alter the direction of 21 Seiki Rinchō instead of starting a new organization. But organizations take on lives of their own, and it could have required too much effort to change a practice that had continued since the early 90s. Perhaps just as important, a milestone event must have been considered desirable in drawing the attention of the media and calling on Diet members to sign on. And in the interests of nonpartisanship, it may have been considered unavoidable to let the Keidanren Chairman off the hook, in view of the Keidanren’s close association with the LDP****.

Will this actually have an effect on the political process? The jury is out. The group seeks to have the Diet member group up and running in February, but nothing in the media gives even a hint as to the extent of nemawashi among potential participants. If it manages to bring together a substantial number of Diet members from both sides by then, then it will thrive. If not, it will flop. Media coverage will no doubt play a role*****. In this respect, the absence of any media representation in the promoting group is a little disappointing. I’ll file a report when I know for sure. I’ll let you know if there are significant new developments in the meantime as well.

* This is one of the most difficult things to translate that I’ve ever come across. First, there is the awful pun with “sentaku 洗濯(選択)”, which I translated literally as Launder/Choose. They’ve decided to call it “Sentaku” ( せんたく in hiragana) for short. More illuminating is “seikatsusha 生活者”, which means roughly “people as individuals in their daily roles as family, workplace and community members”. In fact “seikatsu 生活” itself is difficult to describe without resorting to the same lengthy explanation. I copped out, writing “people” and putting it in italics to order to indicate that I did not mean “kokumin 国民 (which is commonly translated as “the people” but strictly speaking excludes non-citizens)” or 人々 (literally, “people”). This is not as trivial as you might think, since words by themselves shape and alter our thoughts. More specifically, it presents a problem in understanding the Japanese political environment, now that the LDP and DPJ are placing top priority on 生活 and 生活者 - forget about constitutional amendment, forget about the war on terror, etc. - and littering their policy platforms and speeches with those words. It also highlights the difference between American and Japanese politicalspeak (or more broadly social and cultural mindsets), since “individual” would usually be the word of choice in an American setting, when the word seikatsusya is used in Japanese.

Note that the translation of Prime Minister Fukuda’s January 18th policy speech also goes with “the people”. “The people” is used profusely in the translation for kokumin as well, although these are two quite distinct concepts.

** The self-appropriated nickname channels previous administrative reforms, no doubt in particular the Second Rinchō (1981-86), which propelled the ascetic Keidanren Chairman Toshimitsu Dokō to national hero status and played a significant role in Yasuhiro Nakasone gaining the Prime Minister’s seat (1982-87).

*** Tarō Yayama, one of Prime Minister Koizumi’s closer advisors, is the only recognizable figure in 21 Seiki Rinchō that is associated with the political right.

**** Keidanren members do give some money to the DPJ, but the amount is dwarfed by their contributions to the DPJLDP. In fact, one of the reasons the DPJ is hesitant about an early general election is the need for time to replenish their coffers after the July House election.

***** Tsuneo Watanabe is not involved with 21 Seiki Rinchō, though the Yomiuri group itself is well-represented. Perhaps this has something to do with the relatively small Yomiuri coverage, on the left upper corner of page two in its hardcopy version. 21 Seiki Rinchō, with its emphasis on change through political choice and the need for a bottom-up approach to national reform, does not look conducive to an LDP-DPJ handshake any time soon.


Jan Moren said...

First, your footnote (****) on financing by keidanren talks only about DPJ; I think you meant "LDP" somewhere in there. I think I understand what you mean but I'm not sure.

"生活者" - "生活" has the connotations of "everyday life", right? So how about "common people"? Something like "People's union to [wash up] Japan for all the regions and common people"?

Jun Okumura said...

Thanks, janne, I fixed it.

The "common people" sounds good, though it would be translated back to 庶民. To put it another way, Henry Kissenger is not "common people" by any stretch of the imagination. But when he has to take out the garbage or find a plumber to fix a leak, he's a 生活者, too.

MTC said...


The inclusion of Governor Higashikokubaru indicates that this effort, while noble in intent, is likely doomed to a twilight existence. Any effort that cannot generate its own heat will not improve with the addition of media magnet.

My admiration, as always, for the documentation and the reasoning.

Jun Okumura said...


Mr. Higashikokubaru doesn't bother me as much as the Mie assembyman. I wasn't confident enough to comment on that when I posted, but the fact that someone from Mr. Kitagawa's backyard was the only guy available from local legislatures does not augur well for a reform movement that purports to work bottom-up from the regions.

I also see that I failed to take note of the fact that there is a much bigger game going on in the Diet. I think that Diet members on both sides will be very reluctant to reach out at this moment. This is not the best of times to launch this undertaking.

Doesn't look good.

MTC said...


I do not want to be too negative: the group may develop into a meaningful forum for change.

My measure of the public mood (for which I am being excoriated today) indicates a desire for revolution, not reform. With incomes stagnant or declining, the markets plummeting into the abyss and a seeming eruption of psychotic crime incidents (the "seeming" being more significant than the number of actual incidents--as was the case with natural and man-made disasters at the end of the Tokugawa Era) the people just may not be interested in cleaning up politics--they might just prefer a whole new game plan.

Jun Okumura said...

I agree that a bold, viable blueprint should be acceptable. Unfortunately, the LDP is unable to think outside the box (10 more years!, if you know what I mean)and the DPJ is treating this opportunity as an advertgising campaign (sell anything that sizzles).

Frankly, at this point, I fear that the two sides will treat these people with due respect but nothing more. I hope that I am wrong. Who knows, maybe the high hopes that I had when the news leaked out before the weekend are making me overly pessimistic about this endeavor.

Anonymous said...


It may be more realistic to hope for change after the next election, but the recent creation of some groups for fundamental reform sounds like a very good sign to me.

Like mtc, I see a desire for revolution, not a clean-up of the LDP or the 1955 system. The negative mood seems really stark.

Jun Okumura said...

I don't disagree with MTC's point, Willie. It's just that the sketchiness I detect in some of the details of the launch as well as its importune timing (though Sankei is certainly pushing the initiative) has caused me to scale down my initial expectations.