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SNA Briefs (January 2017)

SNA (Tokyo) — For the duration of the month of January 2017, our new coverage of Japanese politics and international relations via “SNA Briefs” will be posted in the space below. From February 1, 2017, these briefs will become available only via our new iPhone application — also called “SNA Briefs” — which will be offered at the Apple App Store.

January 18, 2017

Public Subsidies for National Political Parties

SNA (Tokyo) — The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications has published the amounts of public subsidies that will be received in 2017 by the national political parties. These amounts derive from calculations based on the recent electoral performance of the parties. The approximate amounts in US Dollars are as follows:

US$156 million       Liberal Democratic Party
US$77 million          Democratic Party
US$27 million          Komeito
US$10 million          Nippon Ishin
US$4.5 million         Kokoro Party
US$3.5 million         Liberal Party
US$3.5 million         Social Democratic Party

The Japan Communist Party opposes the system of public subsidies for political parties and so has traditionally refused to accept the funds they might otherwise have received.

January 16, 2017

Democratic Party Again Rejects Coalition Proposal

SNA (Tokyo) — The renewed suggestion by Japan Communist Party Chair Kazuo Shii that four-party cooperation in elections logically entails discussion of a possible four-party coalition government was quickly batted down by both Democratic Party leader Renho as well as Secretary-General Yoshihiko Noda.

Both of the two top executives stated today that while they agreed with the Japan Communist Party that the Abe administration and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party must be overthrown, that this did not entail providing any roadmap for what a future opposition-led government might look like.

Noda explained, “The ideals of the Democratic Party and the Japan Communist Party are different.”

When a reporter asked what ideals his party stood for, Secretary-General Noda stated, “Democratic Party ideals.”

January 8, 2017

Tokyo-Seoul Relations Turn Ugly

SNA (Tokyo) — The announcement by the Abe administration on January 5 that it would be withdrawing its ambassador from Seoul in order to protest a new Comfort Women memorial statue erected in front of the Japanese consulate in Pusan was a major diplomatic escalation.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe followed up this morning by explaining that, “the South Korean side should show its sincerity,” and that unless the South Korean government cracks down on its protesters, this becomes “a matter of credibility” seriously affecting bilateral relations.

Japanese Ambassador to South Korea Yasumasa Nagamine is now expected return to Tokyo tomorrow, as will the consul-general of Pusan, Yasuhiro Morimoto.

As an additional measure of punishment, the Abe administration also announced that it would be halting negotiations over a potential currency swap agreement.

The Abe government’s fundamental complaint is that they believe Seoul is failing to honor its side of the bilateral bargain made in December 2015, in which the Comfort Women issue was supposed to be “finally and irreversibly” resolved in return for some words of regret and a Japanese payment of about US$8.5 million to a foundation to support the surviving wartime Comfort Women. After much hesitation, the money was indeed transferred last year.

Meanwhile, the Park administration did attempt to discourage South Korean activists from setting up the new memorial statue in Seoul, but its own lack of credibility regarding the president’s scandals has sharply reduced its authority to act.

On January 3, the South Korean foreign ministry counselled domestic activists that “there’s a need for prudent judgment, particularly in terms of international comity and custom involving the protection of diplomatic missions.” However, the government has been unwilling or unable to take firmer action.

Moreover, on January 6, the Seoul Administrative Court overruled the Foreign Ministry and ordered the government to release diplomatic documents related to the negotiations process with Japan leading to the December 2015 deal. The Foreign Ministry had argued in court that releasing the documents “without Japan’s consent would inflict serious harm to the trusting relationship between our diplomats, and would harm critical interests of the state”—but to no avail.

While the United States is encouraging its two East Asian allies to patch up their differences over such historical issues, Kyodo News has reported that the Abe government made its move to withdraw its ambassador only after “securing US backing,” which, if true, would be an unusual stance by the Obama administration.

January 6, 2017

TEPCO Faces Nuclear Policy Challenge in Niigata

SNA (Tokyo) — The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) may have breathed a sigh of relief when its fierce critic, Niigata Governor Hirohiko Izumida, abruptly announced last August that he would withdraw his bid for a fourth term in office. Governor Izumida had for several years frustrated TEPCO’s efforts to restart the massive Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant. Now, however, newly-elected Governor Ryuichi Yoneyama has simply replaced Izumida as TEPCO’s Niigata nemesis.

Meeting with TEPCO President Naomi Hirose and Chairman Fumio Sudo at the Niigata Prefectural Office yesterday, Governor Yoneyama declared that, he expects “it will take several years” before he would be prepared to authorize the restart of any nuclear reactors at the plant; and that he furthermore wanted to see comprehensive studies about the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster as well as evacuation plans for residents in the event of future trouble at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa.

This was certainly not the message that the TEPCO executives had wanted to hear. They have been paying the salaries of more than 6,000 workers to run the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, even as it produces no energy and thus no income for the utility. With no less than seven reactors, it is the world’s largest nuclear power complex.

But Kashiwazaki-Kariwa has faced a series of difficulties over the past decade. First, in July 2007, the Niigata Earthquake led to an accident that forced the plant to suspend its energy production for about 21 months. Then, two years after it finally resumed operations, the nation was hit by the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster. The reactors have been idle since that time.

There is some political support within Niigata Prefecture to resume operations of the plant. In a pattern seen in other parts of Japan, the local communities in the immediate vicinity of the nuclear facility tend to advocate a restart, while those municipalities somewhat more distant (which cannot expect generous subsidies and lucrative employment opportunities) tend to be opposed.

Thus the anti-nuclear Ryuichi Yoneyama won October’s Niigata gubernatorial race, while a pro-nuclear candidate, Masahiro Sakurai, won the Kashiwazaki mayoral race one month later.

January 5, 2017

The Return of the Conspiracy Bill

SNA (Tokyo) — According to a leak from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has decided to introduce a new version of the Conspiracy Bill to the ordinary Diet session now scheduled to open on January 20.

This would mark the fourth time the Conspiracy Bill has been submitted to the Diet; the previous three occasions having come in the 2003-2005 period under then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Shinzo Abe, both in his short-lived first term of 2006-2007 and since his return to power in December 2012 has been a consistent advocate of the legislation. While his administrations have never yet submitted the legislation to the Diet, they are known to have been close to doing so several times before. Indeed, they almost did so in the last Diet session last autumn, before deciding to prioritize ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Advocates of the bill portray it as a necessary step to fulfil the terms of the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime that Japan signed in December 2000 but never ratified. In the coming Diet session, the Abe government is likely to focus almost exclusively on the notion that this legislation will keep the public safe from terrorism ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Previous versions of the bill, however, have criminalized around three hundred potential offenses, including such matters as planning a theft, so in fact it goes far beyond terrorism and conventional definitions of organized crime.

The most effective opponent of the Conspiracy Bill has been the Japan Federation of Bar Associations. This lawyers’ organization is likely to lead the opposition once again.

Critics point out that the Conspiracy Bill is highly reminiscent of the prewar Peace Preservation Law of 1925, which was used widely to oppress opposition political movements as well as labor unions.

It is the historical experience of wholesale government abuse of these laws which has made the criminalization of conspiracy a political nonstarter in the postwar decades.

January 4, 2017

Renho Signals Eagerness to Betray Current Political Allies

SNA (Tokyo) — In her New Year’s press conference held in Ise city, Mie Prefecture, Democratic Party leader Renho announced her desire to form a political alliance with the popular, rightwing governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, while signaling increased hesitance towards her party’s current Communist Party allies.

Declaring that her own “life’s work” is administrative reform, Renho cited Governor Koike as a natural ally. The Democratic Party, Renho stated, would watch Koike’s political movements carefully, and if the opportunity presents itself, she would like to work together with her. Party officials will explore practical possibilities.

Governor Koike, of course, has built a career in rightwing politics, and her current maneuvers are essentially an extension of the populist and reformist policies of former LDP Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (r. 2001-2006).

The Democratic Party, meanwhile, is allied to three smaller political parties—the Japan Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the Liberal Party—which are all on political left and are fundamentally suspicious of neoliberal economic policies. In other words, they are in many ways on the opposite side in terms of ideology and policy as compared to Governor Koike.

In regard to cooperation with her party’s current Japan Communist Party partners, Renho suggested that candidate coordination would proceed “after first tying up a policy agreement.”

While the three smaller opposition parties have been consistent in calling for closer coordination with the Democratic Party, Renho has resisted a full embrace, pressured by conservative lawmakers within her own party and from the fiercely anti-Communist Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), which is her party’s most effective institutional supporter.

It remains questionable, however, whether the Democratic Party conservatives and Rengo have any viable political strategy that could adequately replace the current, if unstable, four-party alliance.

January 3, 2017

My Number System Expected to Become More Pervasive in 2017

SNA (Tokyo) — Since its official launch a year ago, the unpopular My Number system has been making only halting progress in becoming part of Japan residents’ daily lives. The 12-digit identification number was initially applied mainly to welfare payments and joining the public health insurance program. Although employers are supposed to collect the My Number of all of their employees, it is clear that many have so far refrained from actually doing so.

In 2017, however, the My Number system is likely to become more pervasive. Banks are becoming more proactive about asking their customers for their My Number, even though it is not yet a legal requirement. However, the provision of My Number information may soon become more strictly enforced for international money transfers.

The My Number system is likely to become compulsory for bank deposits and savings accounts in 2018, allowing the government to more closely monitor individual financial dealings.

Additionally, July 2017 has been the target date at which Japanese central and local governments are supposed to begin sharing My Number data on individual residents. Local municipalities are setting up computer networks intended to allow them to share such data with one another. Many doubts have been raised about the level of security that can be expected from this system.

The My Number system has been challenged in several lawsuits, first filed in December 2015, as being an unconstitutional infringement of individual privacy. At the time, Akahata quoted one of the plaintiffs as arguing, “We now have to put a stop to the My Number system. If we fail, we will become a society in which all personal data, including such matters as medical and job histories, are monitored by the state authorities through the use of these 12-digit identification numbers.”

Those cases are now working their way through the court system.

January 1, 2017

Kim Jong-Un Wishes You a New Year of Terror

SNA (Tokyo) — North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, as he has done for five consecutive years, held a televised address on New Year’s Day. This time, however, he made a claim that hit the global headlines: “Research and development of cutting-edge weapons are actively progressing and strengthening our defense capabilities, including last stage preparation of tests for an ICBM launch.”

North Korea conducted its fifth and largest nuclear test last September 9, and should these nuclear weapons be fitted as warheads on an advanced ICBM, they could potentially reach as far as California on the US West Coast. Most outside analysts believe, however, that Pyongyang is at least several years away from possessing such a capability.

Perhaps in part because due to the holiday, there was no immediate official reaction from the Abe administration to Kim Jong-Un’s ICBM claim.

North Korea has been under UN sanctions since 2006, but in spite of several rounds of tightening, Kim’s determination to develop missiles and nuclear weapons has been undeterred.

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