Curtis Talk on Post-Abe Japan, Future of the LDP


Prof. Gerald Curtis of Columbia spoke at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute on the 13th concerning Japan post-Abe and the future of the LDP. What follows is a summary.



The following are paraphrased highlights from the speaker’s speech and the following question and answer period.

After a brief introduction from Prof. Hugh Patrick, Prof. Curtis began his remarks.

GERALD CURTIS: There is a lot to process, and this past month has seen a lot of development in Japanese politics. First, three days ago Abe had a policy speech and yesterday in Japan, he was supposed to defend those policies in the Diet against the opposition party, but instead he quit at 2am at night. These developments follow the devastating election results in which the LDP lost control of the upper house. This is the first time ever that control of the two houses was split between parties, and despite this defeat Abe did not quit. The party leadership did not want a fight over succession, so he stayed on and reshuffled his cabinet, but obviously it was only a matter of time before another incident or scandal weakened him and he was forced to step down. That is why I originally predicted he would be gone by the New Year’s. I was surprised when he resigned the other day.

First, the election in July was about what I call the “three no’s”. The public said “no” to his Beautiful Country idea. It was always too abstract, and what the Japanese people wanted was specifics on domestic issues that affected them: pension, education, etc. Instead what they got was Beautiful Country and the issue of revising the Constitution.

Abe was similar to Kishi because for him revising the Constitution was an ideological issue: “Japan must write its own Constitution.” But for most Japanese, they see the problem pragmatically: “If the system is broke, it should be fixed.” He was abstract when people wanted concrete.

Then came Abe’s “Hurricane Katrina”: the announcement that 50 million pension account records had been lost. It had the same effect as Bush praising the head of FEMA; it showed his poor crisis management skills. If it would have been Koizumi, he would have gotten red in the face, and pounded his fist on the table and fired some bureaucrats and his popularity would have improved. Instead, Abe said that he would look into the matter, but this did not reassure the public. It was not his fault. It was a bureaucratic mistake over decades, but his inability to decisively deal with the problem hurt him politically. The second “no” was over his management skills.

The third “no” was over the economic stagnation of the countryside. Koizumi had cut government spending, and although the economy is improving these gains have not been felt in the countryside. There is a real countryside/city divide in Japan. The countryside had traditionally been the base of the LDP, but in the last election, the LDP only won 6 seats of the single member district seats, compared to the DPJ’s 23, meaning that the rural, core constituency of the LDP is now voting for the DPJ for the first time in history.

But this election had no “yes” votes. People are not voting for the DPJ as much as there are voting against the LDP and Abe’s leadership. You had an unhappy electorate issue a non-confidence vote against Abe. This was not an endorsement of DPJ leadership.

The funny thing is that Abe could have stayed on after the July losses, if he would have tendered his resignation to the party at first, instead of resigning later, the party would have likely asked him to stay and he would have enjoyed a slight bump for taking responsibility. Instead he stayed on and decided to reshuffle his cabinet. Even during his resignation the other day, he refused to take responsibility. Seventy percent of people polled said of Abe 無責任」that is, he is “irresponsible”. Ironically, it seems that Abe had become a figurehead leader, with Yosano and others actually in control of the government.

Recently, he became “psychologically unhinged” and lost his ability to think rationally. I was on the phone last week with a high-ranking member of the Japanese government who accompanied Abe on his trip to India, and he said that Abe had not eaten or slept properly for weeks. He was on an IV and was not eating. It makes no sense. You are the leader of a country. You must be strong, but he did not have a strong constitution and obviously he was not strong psychologically either, which brings us to our next section: how did this happen? How did Abe come to power?

The traditional path is for a member of the Diet to become a faction head, and then the faction head to become a minister, and then become prime minister. But Abe was a member of parliament for just a short time before becoming cabinet secretary. Koizumi basically gave Abe the prime ministership.

Koizumi did not like Fukuda and Aso. He did not trust either of them much. He wanted real political reform and thought that both of them would defend the interests of the bureaucracy. Koizumi was unusual among Japanese politicians because he had no special loyalty to the LDP. His view was that Japan needed political reform, and if the DPJ will change it, then that’s fine. Japan must change and he did not care who brought the change. Koizumi was a real wildcard who fought against his own party.

Besides Koizumi, the other reason for Abe coming to power was an unhappy marriage between the single-member district system and a dynastic succession system. The dynastic succession system is obvious. Most of Japan’s leaders are somehow related to former political leaders, and this is a system not entirely foreign to America. After all, who is the current US president? Abe had a perfect pedigree for the position.

The other issue is the change to a single-member district. This is a structural issue that does not produce good politicians. Because there are few truly competitive single-member districts, it produces people who sit in Tokyo and never have to respond to the demands of their constituency. This produces people who never have to compromise, never have to get your hands dirty and fight to win an election, and that makes bad politicians. Politicians should respond to the people. Many Japanese realize that the single member districts are a structural problem that is not producing talented people. So even if there is a change of power, you will have no one who understands politics.

The likely successor to Abe is Fukuda. I know the US press is talking about Aso, but recently Fukuda has gained political support. The problem that Aso faces is that he was too close to Abe and people want a change.

The 15th is the deadline to declare candidacy for the election, and the election will be on the 23rd. There are 528 voters, with 387 LDP members of the Diet and 141 members (three from each of the prefectures) voting.

Fukuda has gained because Tanigaki, Koga, Yamazaki and others are supporting him. Nukaga is the spoiler who could be important in deciding the election, but the chances for Aso arelow. He is too close to Abe.

Aso is promising yen to the 141 members’ prefectures to buy their votes, and Fukuda will likely have to do the same. There will be a lot of pressure for Japan to send more on pork barrel projects in the prefectures, but with the DPJ opposed to an increase in the consumption taxes, it doesn’t take an economist to figure out that Japan’s budget deficit may increase.

Fukuda will be a balanced leader. He will stress reform. He was already de facto Foreign Minister and also, of course, Chief Cabinet Secretary for almost 5 years during the Koizumi administration. He is realistic, is for a strong Kantei, and would keep pressure on the Diet to reduce spending. The LDP will likely have to spend more money to win back their constituency in the rural areas, but Fukuda would keep this amount lower than other candidates. Fukuda is sarcastic and caustic, and he will have to be careful not to let this show, but he is a good manager of complex and large organizations like a government and he would be good.

Regarding the Special Terrorism Legislation, Ozawa wanted to use a confrontation over this bill to score political points, but I would recommend the LDP to just let this program expire in November. If they do this, they will rob the DPJ of issues to attack on. The US should remain silent during this time, otherwise they’ll empower Ozawa, who might come to power and pose a real problem for the US.

Ozawa was brilliant in the election. The DPJ is traditionally a mainly urban party, but he flew in a helicopter to these small villages and towns in the countryside and promised to local leaders that the DPJ would help farmers with income subsidies if the price of rice fell. The LDP has its own program for farm reform, mainly involving merging smaller farms to make them more economically viable, but for farmers the DPJ’s plan is attractive.

Of course, never underestimate the ability of Ozawa to make mistakes and overplay his hand. For 16 or 17 years he has made mistake after mistake. Already he has made two serious mistakes. He wants to put a freeze on the postal service privatization, which is an affront to Japanese voters who voted overwhelming to reform it, and also he opposes extending the refueling bill on the logic that it’s America’s war and the UN did not authorize it.

This is absolutely ridiculous. American and Japan were absolutely right to depose the Taliban in Afghanistan, and it is ridiculous to hold a nation’s foreign policy decisions hostage to the whims of the UN Security Council. Although the actions of the Japanese forces in the Indian Ocean may need clarification.


Q: What was behind Abe’s visit to India to meet with the Indian judge’s son?

C: Good question. I think someday someone will do an interesting psychological study of Abe, but until then we can only speculate. My guess is that he’s trying to accomplish what his father could not. He went for emotional reasons, not rational reasons, because politically there is no reason to go. And in the US, China, and elsewhere, the visit just makes people wonder what he reallys think about China and history. It played to his base, but a good leader makes people think about was is possible in the future. With Abe, he was preoccupied with the past, and that’s not good for the country. He was motivated by feelings, not rational thoughts. That’s my guess about his visit.

Q: What about the Yasukuni visit? Where do Japan and Asia relations stand now?

C: Both Japan and China wanted, after Koizumi, to make a fresh start and not get into the same mess. China apparently likes Abe very much. They were happy that he did not visit the Yasukuni Shrine. If Fukuda is elected, it is doubtful that he will visit the shrine. Both countries have too much at stake to let this become an issue between them again. For Beijing, the Olympics are coming up and for Japan it has a lot of investments in China. It’s a large market for its goods.

Q: Could you mention about the subprime mortgage problems in the US and if it will affect Japan? Also, how is Japanese defense spending going now?

C: I would be a fool to talk about economics when I have Prof. Patrick right next to me, so I will defer to him, but on your second question. Many have been talking about a new Japanese militarism, but if you look at the Japanese budget, it’s hard to find evidence to support such claims. The defense budget has decreased for the last five years or so. There has been no large increase in spending.

The government is shifting spending to anti-ballistic missile systems and other expensive programs though. They are also requesting the F-22 from the US, a fully assembled, state-of-the-art plane that Congress has banned for export. Japan is now playing hardball and threatening to begin looking to other countries to fill its military orders. The US will need to look ahead to anticipate possible issues in their changing relationship with Japan.

It used to be that the US would ask Japan for something unreasonable, Japan would think about it and respond with the minimum to keep the relationship going and that would be fine, but with Japan becoming more active this may change.

Q: Could you discuss the security alliance between Japan, Australia, India and other countries. Will this continue?

C: It will not continue. First India can’t be counted on to contain China for Japan, and it is impossible to contain China. Aso has talked about an “Arc of Democracy and Prosperity” or something, but it excludes China and Russia. This type of containment strategy is very Cold War. Of course, many in the region are hedging their bets, scared about the rise of China, but trying to ignore China and Russia and any country you don’t agree with puts you in the same ideological camp as the neo-cons in the US.

Unfortunately for many Democrats, the Japanese have come to have a mistaken perception that Republicans are pro-Japan and the Democrats are pro-China, but this is not the case. The Japan-US relationship is so important that US policy towards Japan will likely be very similar and still very friendly, no matter which party is in power. But the real shame is that this perception has meant that Japanese politicians have neglected building relationships with Democrats and are now scrambling to make connections, worried about Clinton coming to power. The model should be Blair, who smoothly handled the transition from Clinton to Bush.

Q: Where do the Abe proposals for revision of the constitution stand now?

C: There seems to be consensus for changing the constitution, but no consensus on what to change. There will be change, but it will not be anytime soon. It will take time and will be a slow process.


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