Continuing our series of interviews, today we have the distinct honour of having Michael Thomas Cucek, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Center for International Studies (CIS). He is also the author of the invaluable Shisaku, a blog of witty and informative journalism on contemporary Japanese politics and society. He has studied Japanese language and culture at Stanford University, the University of California, Santa Barbara and Columbia University.
One month ago and upon Michael Cucek's kind availability, I had the opportunity to address him a couple of questions that I found critical to understand the current state-of-affairs in Japan's political landscape. In this interview you can learn about the latest political reshuffles between the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the role the Diet and the party-system has in shaping Japan's foreign policy, the leading figures involved in the policy-making among many other topical issues in the agenda.
Without further ado, I will thus invite you to read the following interview.
: : INTERVIEW : :
Michael Cucek, it is a pleasure to have you with us to share some of your thoughts on the oft labyrinthine puzzle of Japanese politics. To begin with, what appealed to you to start studying and later on dedicate yourself professionally to the analysis of Japanese politics?
After the collapse of the Bubble and the failure of the opposition to hold on to power after 1994, journalism coming out of Japan began to slide in terms of the quality of reporting and writing. By the late 1990s, reports from Japan became so rote that they were failing – or, to borrow an apt turn of phrase, they began to fail the Turing test. All politicians in Japan were greasy, old men. The bureaucracy stymied all reforms. All corporations suppressed creativity. The younger generation was the only hope Japan had. It was all boring and all wrong.
Even the Japan experts became infected with the depressed zeitgeist. The straw that broke the camel’s back was an op-ed in The Asian Wall Street Journal where Edward Lincoln argued that Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro should resign in order to save reform. This op-ed was printed on the 268th day of Koizumi’s term in office. I immediately sent a satirical post to the Japan Forum of the National Bureau of Asian Research protesting Lincoln’s suggestion. The publication of this post ignited a firestorm; some Japan scholars have yet to forgive me for what I wrote.
As I would never ever be able to post in the manner I wanted on the most open and reputable list serve on Japan – mocking that which was execrable, pointing out what the conventional wisdom deemed trivial was actually significant and telling jokes, drawing on the sarcasm and indirection Japanese themselves use when talking about politics – I resorted first to sending out mass emails, then to blogging.
I was very lucky to start out when I did. I had the good fortune of having as a rival and friend Okumura Jun, who had similar views of the decline in the quality of reporting on Japan. We were then introduced to a madman who was posting article-length blog posts on Japanese politics in a formal style: Tobias Harris. Others were trying their hands at this new medium, then dropped out, only to be replaced with such talents as Ethan Chua and Corey Wallace.
Suddenly, where there had been stultification and shrinkage of reporting on Japan, was an alternate information and commentary ecosystem trying to upend negative views of Japanese politics and society.We were also blessed to be writing at a time when the world was changing. The Koizumi revolution rolled on for 5 years, to be replaced by a string of weak LDP prime ministers trying to stave off popular disgust with the LDP’s rule. The travails of Ozawa Ichiro and the DPJ prime ministers have merely kept the ball rolling.
The first obvious conclusion one must draw from looking at the past few years of Japan's polity is that it is experiencing a great deal of uncertainty. Political re-alignments have been particularly intensive amongst the several factions within the mainstream political parties, most notably in the Democratic Party of Japan and in the Liberal Democratic Party, and public confidence in the governing elite has fallen dramatically over the same period. Which are the most prominent features of contemporary Japanese democracy?
The most important aspect of modern Japanese politics is the reduction of the percentages of the voters committed to voting for a particular political party or its candidates. While in the vernacular we refer to the DPJ and the LDP as major parties, the New Komeito as a minor party and the remainder as micro-parties, they are all in fact micro-parties. The party with the greatest following is “None of the above” which now has the loyalty of half the electorate. In a mixed electoral system of first-past-the-post constituencies and party list proportional votes using the d’Hondt distribution system, the ability to attract the floating uncommitted electorate has become paramount. The LDP, in its death throes, put up three prime ministers in a row whose primary qualification was a presumed ability to attract floating votes – Abe Shinzo through his youth and good looks, Fukuda Yasuo through his presumed steadiness and Aso Taro for his sunny attitude and love of modern Japanese pop culture. After the collapse of the Hatoyama Yukio prime ministership, the DPJ tried to follow a similar course in the lead-up to the 2010 House of Councillors election, choosing Kan Naoto as its leader for his reputation as a clean, decisive manager, repudiating the previous ruling dyarchy’s inconsistency and power accumulation. At present there is a lot of talk about the national ambitions and prospects of Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru and his Ishin no kai movement -- a fresh face offering a non-LDP, non-DPJ third choice for the unaffiliated voter.
The other important aspect of current Japanese politics is ideological larceny. Parties and even factions within parties are indiscriminately the stealing of the policy positions of other parties. The DPJ was furious when Koizumi stole their ruling philosophy. Seeing the LDP abandoning its policy of pandering to particular economic groupings, rural areas and families and instead adopting policies of severe fiscal responsibility and national sacrifice, Ozawa Ichiro moved in and had the DPJ make all the promises to special interests the LDP had abandoned as unworkable. Having seized power through emulating the old-style retail politics of the LDP, the DPJ has been evolving back toward the fiscally conservative party it was late as 2006, making its economic policies indistinguishable from those of the LDP.
The result is identity confusion, with parties, particularly the LDP, grasping at valence issues such as the makeup of the traditional family, the salvation of rural life and agriculture practices, proper expressions of patriotism and ridding Japanese populace of a presumed inferiority complex.
We at Japan Foreign Policy Observatory are obviously more attentive to Japan's external relations with the outside world, but its internal political fabric obviously constitutes a fundamental element of the equation of foreign policy-making. What do you think are the implications of this period of "new politics", that is, the instability of the post-Koizumi era, in foreign policy? Has it been devalued as an area for party leaders trying to consolidate their power base in view of more pressing internal issues?
In what is portrayed as a chaotic period of Japanese politics (note the use of the term “twisted Diet” – nejire kokkai – to describe the control of the two House of the Diet being in the hands of two different political parties, as if the alternation of party control were some kind of deformation), conduct of Japanese foreign policy has remained largely stable.
The first reason for this stability is the collapse of ideological struggle as an axis in Japan’s foreign policy. Of course, Japan would prefer to have all of its foreign relations with democracies. However, it must deal with the world as it is and it is a very messy world indeed. Japan’s main trading partner and almost the sole source of growth in the Japanese economy is China, an ideological and territorial rival. Energy demands force Japan into relationships with a country that Japan’s main security guarantor, the United States sees as an irrepressible enemy. Relations with Russia, a country at which Japan is still nominally at war, are seen to be the special province of former PM and Hokkaido representative Hatoyama Yukio and the LDP’s non-mainstream faction’s first prime minister Mori Yoshiro – two politicians nominally on opposite sides of a political chasm.
A second reason why foreign policy fails as an organizing principle and source of distinctions is the primacy of the relationship with the United States. Even though the U.S. is no longer the main trading partner, it remains the main and in a sense only security partner of Japan. The most any prime minister or prime ministerial candidate can do is recite the mantra that the U.S. is vital for Japan’s survival. The one prime minister who tried to push the envelope on the relationship, Hatoyama Yukio, saw his administration collapse around him.
The third reason is related to the second in that it has to do with the relationship with the United States. In this case, however, it is the attitude of the United States toward the relationship that has altered. Japan is no longer seen as the world security free rider whose peculiar economic system and access to the U.S. market have resulted in the destruction of portions of the U.S. job market. In this role in the American psyche, Japan has been replaced by China in manufacturing and India in services. Standing up to American pressure over access to Japanese markets and suppression of Japanese exports, which propelled the careers of politicians such as Ishihara Shintaro and Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro, is now largely meaningless.The fourth reason is that the one politician with the wherewithal to set Japan on a new foreign policy course, Ozawa Ichiro, has been kept away from the premiership by his abrasive treatment of peers and more recently legal troubles -- which appear to have little to do with criminal behavior and everything to do with keeping Ozawa down. In 2009-10, Ozawa did have what would seem to be the next best alternative: the post of secretary-general of ruling party nominally in the service of an easily influenced and manipulated prime minister. However, Ozawa could not repress his own will to power and ended up alienating virtually all the top- and middle-ranking members of the DPJ.
The past few months have witnessed the outburst of some international tensions between Japan and its neighbouring countries. Several issues could be brought to the fore, such as the incident involving the Japanese Coast Guard and a Chinese trawler in 2010, to the question of comfort women in South Korea and abductees in North Korea, or even the Okinawa base issue. Has Japan's political class as a whole been able to reflect, debate and respond to these issues in a satisfactory manner or have they further hindered the country's volatile political landscape?
As with all political systems where two main political parties contest over control, rather than work in league or in coalition, the automatic response of the party out of power is to declare, “If we were in power, we would handle these issues far more smoothly/ forcefully/intelligently” – choose your adverb. However, in all the issues you mention, the LDP has to hope that the populace suffers from mass amnesia. The LDP had control over these issues – and handled them with no more aplomb than the ruling DPJ has. The DPJ was indeed handed these problems in September 2009 after they had spent decades ripening under LDP direction.
The LDP’s failure to acknowledge its responsibility for the genesis of these issues has stultified debate within the LDP-dependent foreign policy community, which is virtually synonymous with Japan’s foreign polite elite due to the LDP’s long stay in power. Only a handful of foreign policy experts are identifiable spokespersons and theorists for the DPJ, and with the current poor electoral prospects for the DPJ in the next House of Representatives election, there is no impetus on the part of the LDP-allied elite to engage with the DPJ’s tiny foreign policy apparatus.The result is a lack to reflect upon, debate or respond to Japan’s security and foreign policy zones of stagnation and outright policy failures.
You have reported extensively on the political campaign of Osaka's Hashimoto Toru and how he appears to be creating a new trend in Japanese politics, one that in my view is keen on more populist and daring campaign platforms in issues of foreign and security policy. Is this an accurate assessment? What does it tell of the possibilities for major structural changes being introduced to Japanese society, such as the potential for revising the constitution (namely Article 9), re-naming the Self-Defence Force and changing the status of the Emperor?
Hashimoto Toru’s rocket-like rise in national politics is fuelled by frustration with the Democratic Party of Japan's failure to deliver change at the rate desired by the electorate. That the promises made in the party’s 2009 election manifesto were, on the domestic level at least, made in order to attract votes, not to mesh together into a program for ruling the nation, is something that no member of the DPJ can yet state, even those who are mortal enemies of Ozawa Ichiro, under whose direction the 2009 manifesto was concocted.
Hashimoto has made remarkable progress at hacking away at the thicket of budget padding, resignation to poor performance and patronage that characterized governance in Japan’s second city (Americans can have some sense of the problems of Osaka as being analogous to those that plagued Chicago, America’s second city). As a native of the region Hashimoto knew his targets and he moved with dispatch against them. He thus has a record of achievement upon which he can build a national movement.However, what worked in Osaka will not necessarily work on the national scale, or even be translated into influence on the national scale.
The actions that have brought Hashimoto the most attention in the world press are his attacks on public service unions and the issuance of directives on private patriotic behavior such as rising to sing the national anthem – directives that self-appointed martinets have been enforcing with vigor. The latest bizarre intrusion into the lives and mores of civil servants was a questionnaire asking whether or not they sported any tattoos – presumably to identify gangsters serving in the Osaka City government.
However, not only have the unions and civil servants been fighting back with some degree of success but what Hashimoto is doing is not particularly new. Ishihara Shintaro, the governor of Tokyo, issued similar directives during his term in office.However, such anti-union, patriotic activity has not propelled Ishihara to national office, despite his significant position as the main politician of the nation’s capital and media center. While even today there is talk about Ishihara forming a “true conservative” party in order to make a run for the premiership, it is all just fantasy whipped up in order to keep journalists employed.
Hashimoto’s so-called populism, and its effect on national politics, should probably seen in the same light.
And a final question. Some voices are arguing that after the economic downfall of the last two decades and in the aftermath of the triple tragedy of 3/11, Japan might be on the brink of a sustained recovery that will pave a new path of stability and prosperity into the future. In spite of the difficulties, or maybe because of them, do you foresee any substantial positive changes in the way Japan's political class - which has been consecutively accused of a lack of leadership skills - can cope with these issues?
Japan’s political classes are largely unschooled in economics, at least economics as being different from corporate finance or government budgets. A significant number of politicians are former members of Japan’s financial community and an even larger number are former bureaucrats. Despite the constant debate over macroeconomic and global economic issues in required reading such as the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the voice of the corporate establishment, the power of Japan’s pure economists to frame the national debate is limited.
It is also cannot be overstressed that the length of time Japan has suffered economic malaise, the failure of multiple Keynesian-style fiscal stimulus packages (always too little and the wrong types of spending, foreign critics have said) to reignite economic growth and the zero effect of near-zero interest rates have left all with their hands on the levers of the economy with filled with an oppressive sense of hopelessness.The combination of these factors has the Noda government moving in directions that are likely counter the interests of the nation. The rise in the consumption tax is an attempt to plug a hole in the country’s pension, healthcare and eldercare budgets. However, why pursue this course, when Japan, without a Germany to prop up its credit rating, is financing its debt with some of the lowest bond rates in world history? As for the tax, it will likely constrict private consumption, reducing growth and increasing risk aversion. What the government wants is an expanding economy. However, it cannot agree on a strategy or combination of strategies that will create a better environment for growth, aside from the Bank of Japan printing money, which will cause currency friction with other nations, devalue bonds the financial community counts on to fulfil its capital requirements and increasing the attractiveness not of equities but of cash.
So am I confident that Japan’s political classes have what it takes to guide the country to a better economic future? No.
You can also read Mr. Cucek's articles published in a series of different outlets, including:
Guest. Michael Thomas Cucek
Subject. Japanese politics, party-system
Delivered. May 17, 2012
- Al-Jazeera, 'Is Japan Cracking Up?'
- Asia Policy Point, 'What Are the Survival Prospects of the Noda Cabinet?'
- East Asia Forum, 'Ozawa Ichiro: More Shadow than Shadow Shogun'
- The Diplomat, 'Japan's Meaningless Elections'
- The Guardian, 'The Legacy of Japan's Imperial Past'
Guest. Michael Thomas Cucek
Subject. Japanese politics, party-system
Delivered. May 17, 2012