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The Year in Japanese Politics 2012

SNA (Tokyo) — The Shingetsu News Agency has been keeping a running log of the major developments in Japanese politics since January 2012. The following is our contemporary account of the entire year 2012.

January 2012

Cabinet Reshuffle: The Noda administration’s focus on raising the nation’s consumption tax rate in order to address a public debt that has now risen close to 200% of the nation’s GDP forced the government into a political compromise. Since the censure of two government ministers—including Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa—by the opposition-controlled House of Councillors last month, the leading opposition party, the Liberal Democratic Party, has been demanding that the two ministers in question be replaced. In order to create a more cooperative atmosphere that could allow passage of the consumption tax hike bill, Prime Minister Noda bowed to the opposition and carried out a minor cabinet reshuffle that included the dropping of the two censured ministers. The most important change to the new line-up is the addition of party heavyweight Katsuya Okada to the newly-established position of deputy prime minister. Okada is tasked with strengthening the Noda government’s ability to manage administrative reform and to push the consumption tax bill through both the ruling party and the National Diet.

Noda’s Declining Popularity: As has been the usual pattern for recent Japanese governments, the “honeymoon period” of initial public support soon gives way to disappointment. Despite the fact that Prime Minister Noda has already proved himself a more effective manager of policy than his predecessor, Naoto Kan, he does not demonstrate a great deal of public charisma or make much of an effort to ingratiate himself with the masses. The main problem he faces, however, is that the two policies that he has prioritized—hiking the consumption tax and entry into Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations—are both unpopular with a majority of the public. The cabinet’s support rate stood at about 35% both before and after the reshuffle at mid-month.

A Rising Star: The main political beneficiary of the Noda government’s decline is not the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party, but rather the dynamic 42-year-old Mayor of Osaka city, Toru Hashimoto, whose expanding popularity and bold vision of reform poses an increasing threat to the established parties. Hashimoto’s basic political orientation is conservative-populist, and one of his most effective issues is his demand that Japan’s administrative system be decentralized to allow more decision-making by regional governments. Hashimoto is not affiliated with any national political party, but instead is in the process of converting his local party into an organization that can compete effectively in national elections. Already, there is a rush among many older politicians to associate themselves with the young reformer from Osaka.

Iran Sanctions: Tokyo came under heavy pressure this month to comply with new unilateral sanctions by the United States aimed at banks that do business with Iran. Since Japan receives about 9% of its oil from Iran, there is a real prospect that Japanese banks could be caught in the sanctions net. Washington’s campaign to pressure its ally into cutting down on its imports of Iranian oil was capped by the visit of US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to the Japanese capital at mid-month. Standing beside Geithner, Finance Minister Jun Azumi pledged that Iranian oil imports would indeed be phased out “in a planned manner.” While Minister Azumi’s comments seem to have gone beyond his instructions and created some degree of backlash within the government and business community, the overall message was that Tokyo would make a greater effort to comply with Washington’s demands than would, for example, Beijing or New Delhi.

Fears of a Euro Collapse: The Japanese political and business community was alarmed this month by the decline of the European currency. The Euro was trading below 100 Yen for most of the month, which represented record lows. Although the Japanese economy is much more sensitive to fluctuations in the value of the US Dollar than to the Euro, nevertheless, one survey shows that 65% of Japanese manufacturers felt they needed to prepare for the possible collapse of the Euro.

February 2012

Osaka Mayor Hashimoto: As Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has failed to capture the popular imagination, championing unwelcome issues such as raising the consumption tax, entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and restarting the nation’s idle nuclear reactors, this has opened up political space for the outspoken young Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto to fire up the debate. This month Hashimoto opened a “political school” which is intended to train future candidates for the national political party he intends to launch. There was a flood of more than 2,750 applicants. Hashimoto’s call for a more decentralized administrative system is proving particularly potent, with regional governors and mayors in different parts of the country now looking to group themselves together into larger and more independent units that might eventually negotiate on stronger terms vis-à-vis the central government. Despite the radical tone, however, it continues to be apparent that Hashimoto represents a kind of conservative populism as the political figures most eager to associate themselves with him are the men of the right such as Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara. Indeed, alarmed by Hashimoto’s crackdown on union political activities in Osaka, Japan Communist Party leader Kazuo Shii even described the young mayor as a Hitler-like character. Indisputable this month was the fact that Toru Hashimoto rose higher in national visibility.

US Marines in Okinawa: Both the Noda administration and Washington accelerated their efforts to find a way out of the long impasse over the realignment of US military forces in Okinawa and the Pacific region. This month there was a mayoral election in the city of Ginowan, which hosts the controversial US Marine airbase of Futenma. Tokyo and Washington breathed a sigh of relief when the virulently anti-base candidate Yoichi Iha was narrowly defeated. Nevertheless, the near hopelessness of gaining local support for hosting US Marines was underlined in several ways. Prime Minister Noda personally visited Okinawa at the end of the month, but his appeals for cooperation were directly rejected by Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima and other local leaders. An effort to send some of the US Marines to the main Japanese island of Honshu was also blocked by a local governor. Meanwhile, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta confirmed that the 8,000 or 9,000 US Marines to leave Okinawa would not all be sent to Guam as originally agreed, but also to other locations like the Philippines. At any rate, US negotiators now show willingness to delink the issue of sending some US Marines out of Okinawa with the nearly insoluble problem of where to station on a more permanent basis those thousands of US Marines who are supposedly going to stay in Okinawa.

Iran Sanctions: Tokyo gave in to US pressure on the slashing of oil imports from Iran this month. Although the precise amount of imports that would be cut remained unclear, it would certainly be substantial. Japanese efforts were enough to win praise from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as being “the most visible” effort to comply with the unilateral sanctions among US allies.

Japan-China History Tensions: The long-running dispute between Japan and China over historical issues flared up again this month when Nagoya City Mayor Takashi Kawamura told a visiting sister city friendship delegation that he believes the Nanjing Massacre of 1938 to be a myth. Some conservative Japanese political leaders like Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara tried to pour oil on the fire by publicly backing Kawamura’s comments, but the national governments in both Tokyo and Beijing quickly acted to cool tempers on both sides.

Emperor Akihito’s Poor Health: Japanese Emperor Akihito does not have a formal governing role in this nation, and yet both the imperial institution as well as the man himself is greatly revered by the general public. Now age 78, he is showing clear signs of failing health. He had to undergo heart bypass surgery this month and, although the procedure proved successful, his recovery has been slow. These developments have underlined the fact that this nation is probably facing the end of the current Emperor’s reign before too many more years.

March 2012

Noda and the Consumption Tax: This month in Japanese politics was dominated by a drama surrounding Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s key initiative to raise the national consumption tax rate from 5% to 10% in the coming years. Before he came to office in September 2011 as the nation’s leader, Noda had spent some time serving as Finance Minister. During that period he became absolutely convinced that the Japanese government must hike the consumption tax substantially in order to deal with a ballooning public debt, approaching nearly 200% of the nation’s GDP, and also to fund social services for Japan’s aging population. Although there is a broad sentiment among lawmakers that the consumption tax rate will have to be raised in the future, there is a very large group that argues that Japan must escape deflation and reach sustained economic growth before hiking taxes. Among the opponents are most backbenchers of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan as well as the leader of the coalition partner People’s New Party. Prime Minister Noda spent most of the month trying to patiently convince ruling party lawmakers to endorse his tax hike policy, but met fierce and vocal resistance. Finally, at the end of the month, party policy chief Seiji Maehara simply declared himself authorized to negotiate on behalf of all of the ruling party lawmakers and endorsed the bill in the party’s name. This forceful action caused three vice-ministers to resign from the government and more than twenty lawmakers to resign their ruling party executive posts. It also caused the implosion of the tiny coalition People’s New Party. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Noda was able to bring the whole cabinet with him and won the immediate struggle to have the ruling party endorse his tax hike initiative.

North Korean Rocket: When the North Korean regime announced that it would fire a rocket carrying a satellite into space in mid-April in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founder Kim Il-Sung, this set off a remarkably panicky reaction in Tokyo. Both the Japanese government and the media rejected the notion that the launch would have anything to do with peaceful scientific activity, but rather accused Pyongyang of violating UNSC resolutions relating to the testing of ballistic missiles. The debate in Tokyo centered on whether or not Japan could or should shoot down the North Korean rocket. For this purpose, PAC-3 patriot missiles were deployed to remote islands in Okinawa Prefecture where the trajectory of the rocket was supposed to take it, and even in Tokyo itself, far from the planned route of the projectile. Together with the United States and other powers, the Japanese government demanded that North Korea give up its intention to fire the rocket, though almost nobody believed that this kind of diplomatic pressure would work.

Nuclear Reactor Restarts: Although this particular political struggle was overshadowed this month by the consumption tax debate, the stage was being set for another confrontation over the issue of restarting Japan’s nuclear reactors. By the end of the month, only one of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors was active, the rest having either been damaged by last year’s earthquake and tsunami or else shut down for regular inspections but not reactivated due to the fears of local communities about another nuclear catastrophe. On the March 11 tsunami anniversary, Prime Minister Noda pledged to “take the lead” in restarting the reactors because of his belief that nuclear energy is necessary for the economic well-being of the nation. This is clearly another issue where the Prime Minister will face enormous resistance. In the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, the anti-nuclear movement both on the streets and in the parliament has become formidable. Moreover, the administration’s plan to establish a new nuclear safety agency with public credibility has been stymied in the Diet by the opposition. On May 5th, Japan’s last active nuclear reactor will be shut down for inspections.

Exchange Rate Relief: One bit of welcome news for Japan came this month when the Yen’s strength against the US Dollar eased a bit. Japanese exporters have been suffering for months from a Yen whose value is “not in line with economic fundamentals” according to most Japanese financial leaders. During this month, however, the historical high exchange rates in the 76-78 range eased to the 82-84 range. This brought a sigh of relief to many struggling Japanese businesses.

April 2012

Noda in Trouble: Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s effort to steamroll his policy agenda through the ruling party and the nation came up against firm walls of resistance. The fate of the consumption tax hike (which is the policy initiative that is most central to his premiership) remains unclear, but Noda’s victory in March in pushing his bill through the Cabinet and the ruling party executive was not matched by any progress in April. The opposition parties have so far refused to negotiate with Noda, and he will need their cooperation to pass the bills through the upper house of the Diet. Meanwhile, the outrage among many ruling party backbenchers continued, with two lawmakers actually resigning their party membership. Early in April, Prime Minister Noda also tried to move quickly to restart two nuclear reactors, thus invoking the wrath of the vibrant anti-nuclear movement. The political stakes became much higher when popular Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto put himself at the head of the resistance to the nuclear restarts. Hashimoto threatened Noda several times by declaring that if the central government restarted the nuclear reactors without first obtaining the consent of the local communities that host the power plants, then this act would result in the “destruction” of the ruling party. News organizations produced opinion polls showing that about 60% of the public now opposes the reactivation of the reactors, which is a considerable shift in sentiment over the past few months. This is another issue where Prime Minister Noda’s policies register only minority support. Although Noda has been dignified and competent, his championing of unpopular initiatives has dropped his Cabinet support rate to about 25%.

Ichiro Ozawa Returns: The political landscape for Prime Minister Noda became even darker at the end of April when the courts declared former ruling party leader Ichiro Ozawa “Not Guilty” of a conspiracy to falsify his financial records. The return of Ozawa gives Noda’s opponents within the ruling party a leader who is probably the single most formidable politician in Japan today. Ozawa opposes all of Noda’s major policy initiatives and is likely to mount a leadership challenge in September.

Noda Goes to Washington: At the very end of April, Prime Minister Noda headed out to Washington DC for a full bilateral summit with US President Barack Obama. The two leaders pledged “to shape the Asia-Pacific for decades to come,” but in fact Noda had few significant policy gifts he could offer to the US leader, as most of the major bilateral issues are stalled. In advance of the summit, Japanese and US negotiators did reach some agreements about the realignment of the US Marines, confirming, for example, that 10,000 Marines would stay in Okinawa, 4,000 go to Guam, and 5,000 to other Pacific locations. Japan agreed to bump up its financial contribution to the realignment plan and the US promised to return some minor military facilities. The central issue of where the US Marines in Okinawa will be based in the future, however, remains to be convincingly addressed.

North Korea Rocket: The results of the North Korea rocket launch were predictably anti-climactic as the projectile broke into about twenty pieces and fell into the sea only a minute after its launch. The whole issue was treated with deadly seriousness in Japanese political circles, however, with even Prime Minister Noda calling the launch “a serious act of provocation that threatens regional peace and stability.” Apparently because they were confused when the North Korean rocket appeared momentarily on their radar and then disappeared, the Japanese government waited about forty minutes to confirm that the launch had occurred. The conservative opposition used this occasion to attack the government for an alleged lack of crisis management skills. Many also speculated about a new North Korean nuclear test.

China Tensions: April was another month in which Japan-China tensions briefly flared. The trouble this time was started by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara who announced his plan for the city of Tokyo to purchase the disputed Senkaku-Daioyu Islands from their private owner. Surprisingly, this deliberate provocation was taken seriously by the Noda administration, which floated their own proposal to nationalize the islands. Japan-China relations remain unstable.

May 2012

The Nuclear Future: This is a crucial period in deciding the future of nuclear energy in Japan. On the evening of May 5, the nation’s final nuclear reactor was shut down for inspections, meaning that the nation has gone completely non-nuclear for the first time since 1970. Opinion polls suggest that about 60% of the Japanese public wants the reactors to be left idle. This is not the position of the Noda administration, however, which very strongly wants to reactivate the reactors, especially in the Kansai region where the local utility depended most heavily upon nuclear power. In order to facilitate the reactor restarts, the ruling party dropped its own plan for nuclear safety regulation and adopted in full the plan put forward by the main opposition parties. Top officials also made frequent comments about the possibility of blackouts this summer and sent representatives to local communities that host nuclear power plants. This resulted in a major advance for the administration’s objective when a local town council and mayor agreed that two nuclear reactors in their community should be reactivated. However, the outcome remains uncertain as the government struggles to persuade other groups.

Ozawa Verdict Appealed: The April 26 “Not Guilty” verdict in the corruption case of former Democratic Party of Japan leader Ichiro Ozawa appeared to free him to make efforts to rebuild his reputation and likely to challenge Yoshihiko Noda for the leadership of the ruling party in September. Somewhat unexpectedly, however, the prosecuting lawyers who lost the court case have decided to appeal, meaning that Ozawa’s legal problems will still be hanging over him for months to come. This legal action makes it very difficult if not impossible for Ozawa to challenge the prime minister and win control of the ruling party. For Prime Minister Noda, then, the continuing legal problems faced by his main intraparty rival strengthen his hand by taking away the most plausible alternative leader. On the other hand, many analysts and lawmakers in the Diet have come to view the legal case against Ozawa as a political persecution, with the bureaucratic establishment using the courts to repeatedly foil a politician who is outspoken in his desire to bring the permanent bureaucracy under more effective direction by elected representatives. Indeed, the evidence in the case against Ozawa has always looked flimsy at best, so something has apparently gone wrong inside the Japanese justice system.

Trilateral Summit with China and Korea: Prime Minister Noda traveled to Beijing to attend a trilateral summit with his Chinese and South Korean counterparts. The three leaders reached accord on several important issues, such as demanding that North Korea not carry out a nuclear weapons test if it has one in mind and a decision to launch trilateral trade talks by the end of this year. Clearly, the latter issue could be of considerable future economic importance. Nevertheless, strains in the political relationship between Tokyo and Beijing are also fully apparent. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao cancelled his bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda; and although clear reasons for the cancellation were not explicitly stated, analysts assumed it was Beijing’s way of showing displeasure over Japan’s hosting of a major meeting by Uyghurs in Tokyo and due to tensions stemming from the dispute over the Senkaku-Daioyu Islands. In public comments, Premier Wen urged the Japanese leader to respect China’s “core interests and major concerns.”

US-Japan Military Issues: May 15 was the 40th anniversary of the return of Okinawa to Japan after a long period of direct rule by the US military. Ironically, there were also two major bilateral military issues that gained considerable attention during the same period. The first regarded Japan’s expected purchase of the Lockheed-Martin F-35 fighter. Tensions are rising over this issue as it becomes increasing clear that the United States wants to charge Japan a unit price far above what had been initially agreed. Since Japan has many budget problems to face right now, the massively inflated price tag for the F-35 is not going down well. Secondly, the US Marines plan to bring their MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft to Okinawa for permanent basing. However, Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima is strongly opposing the move in the belief that this vehicle is highly accident-prone.

Towards Nuclear Restarts: A majority of the Japanese public remained opposed to the restarting of the nation’s nuclear reactors in spite of many news stories about the possibility of blackouts and power shortages during the hot summer months. But even if the determinedly pro-nuclear Noda administration has not made much headway with the general public, it is nevertheless clear that they are moving toward success in restarting two nuclear reactors at the Oi power plant. This is because the local leaders in the Kansai region where the Oi plant is located have all indicated that they will accept the central government’s verdict on this matter. Even the most outspoken local opponent, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, stated at the end of the month that he would accept a restart of the Oi reactors providing that it is understood only as a temporary measure to get past the summer heat. The Noda administration has no intention of agreeing to a “temporary” restart, however, and they may soon adopt a plan by which 15% of the nation’s total electricity would be generated by nuclear power (before the Fukushima Daiichi disaster about 30% of the nation’s energy was nuclear). It seems doubtful whether Japan will ever return to nuclear power to the degree that the Noda administration desires, but they do seem poised to win the immediate battle over the two nuclear reactors at Oi.

Consumption Tax Shuffle: A complex political dance took place in relation to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s top policy priority of passing a bill to raise the national consumption tax rate from the current 5% to 10% in the next couple years. The ability of the government to pass the bill through the House of Representatives is not in doubt considering the ruling party’s solid majority in that chamber. The situation in the House of Councillors, however, is dicey since it will require cooperation from the opposition Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito. The calculation is made even more complex due to the possibility of a rebellion within the ruling party lead by its former leader, Ichiro Ozawa. Prime Minister Noda met directly with Ozawa at the end of the month to request his support for the consumption tax bill, but there is no evidence that any agreement was reached between the two rivals. Meanwhile, the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party is also divided on this policy. While they have no substantial ideological reservations about Prime Minister Noda’s bill, they know how important it is to his agenda and thus they want to wring a major concession from him. Specifically, this opposition party’s leadership and younger lawmakers want Noda’s promise to call early general elections in exchange for their cooperation in passing the bill; while some of the older lawmakers suggest that such a concession isn’t necessary at this time. Reinforcing the position of the elder lawmakers is that any general election called in the immediate future would be unconstitutional in any case because of a Supreme Court ruling on the disparity in the weight of a vote cast in some urban areas and those cast in some rural areas. Prime Minister Noda has indicated that he wants to force a decision on the consumption tax in June, and when all the factors are weighed up, it looks like his chances are pretty good on this account as well.

Asian Aggravation: There was little daylight in terms of Japanese relations with its Asian neighbors in late May as the most conservative elements continued to dominate the agenda, and the Noda administration, itself deeply conservative, made no effort to rein things in. The deepest tensions were with Beijing, and the disputed Senkaku-Daioyu islets were the main flash point. The city government of Tokyo proceeded unchecked with its campaign to collect funds to buy the islands, the main purpose of which is, as Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara put it, “to lock the door on the Chinese thieves.” Aside from the Tokyo city plan, the opposition Liberal Democratic Party has decided to include a promise to nationalize the islets as part of its campaign manifesto for the next general elections. In response to these moves and the holding of the Uyghur conference in early May, China’s top uniformed military officer, General Guo Boxiong, cancelled a scheduled trip to Japan. Relations with South Korea were not much better, as the Korean Supreme Court ruled that former forced laborers of World War II had the right to seek financial redress from Japanese companies, while the Noda administration immediately rejected this.

June 2012

A De Facto Grand Coalition: The most significant aspect of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s political moves in early June was that he established what was in effect a grand coalition between the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the two main opposition parties, the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito. He accomplished this by fundamentally accepting the opposition versions of welfare reform, childcare policies, and nuclear industry regulation. By trading away some of the ruling party’s signature policies (which Noda was never personally invested in), he came within reaching distance of achieving the main goal of his administration, which is the doubling of the consumption tax rate from 5% to 10%. It is unclear how long this cooperation between the National Diet’s top three political parties can endure, but for a brief time, at least, some very significant legislation looks set to rush through to passage. The most serious remaining threat to Prime Minister Noda’s position is the backbenchers of his own party, especially those gathered around former party leaders Ichiro Ozawa and Yukio Hatoyama. The policies that Noda is now sacrificing to the opposition parties are, in fact, policies that were crafted by his rivals within the ruling party. For obvious reasons, therefore, there is a great deal of discontent within the ruling party about the prime minister’s moves. Many ruling party lawmakers may end up voting against their own party’s legislation and further splits and resignations cannot be ruled out. On the other hand, this threat has been an ever-present one, and Prime Minister Noda appears to have prepared his ground very well. The dissent within the ruling party is loudly expressed, but Noda appears to have the situation broadly under control.

Nuclear Reactor Restarts: In a national address, Prime Minister Noda explained his position that nuclear power is an essential component of the nation’s energy mix and that for economic reasons there is no choice but to reactivate the nation’s idle nuclear reactors. Once again, the prime minister has been patient and has prepared for his initiative carefully, overcoming the opposition step-by-step. Although most of the public still opposes the nuclear reactor restarts that Noda advocates, the anti-nuclear movement has not developed any leaders who can effectively oppose the prime minister. Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto appeared for several weeks to be the man who might provide a sharp check to the central government’s advance, but he reversed himself rather dramatically under pressures that have never been fully explained, and gave up his direct opposition to the prime minister’s will. Other local governors, too, who were fiercely anti-nuclear several weeks ago, have recently become more circumspect in their opposition. The way appears clear for Prime Minister Noda to order a restart of several nuclear reactors, although his long-term goal of maintaining the nuclear industry indefinitely is still in doubt.

Cabinet Reshuffle: In preparation for the opening of negotiations with the opposition parties, Prime Minister Noda carried out a small reshuffle of his cabinet in early June. Only five ministers were replaced, and generally speaking the policy effects of these changes seem to be minor. One possible exception, however, is the new minister of defense, Satoshi Morimoto. This man is Japan’s first ever minister of defense who is not a lawmaker. Morimoto is a conservative scholar and was one of the nation’s best-known commentators on defense issues. While few doubt that Morimoto is a knowledgeable and articulate man, there are many who question if he can function effectively without any political support within the ruling party except for the prime minister who appointed him. It is also possible that Morimoto may try to advance conservative security policies of his own, which could create controversy.

Osprey Troubles: In an amazing bit of timing, a US Air Force CV-22 Osprey aircraft crashed during a training exercise in Florida at the exact juncture in which the US and Japanese governments were trying to convince skeptical local governments that the US Marine version of the aircraft has a good safety record and should be deployed, first to a base on the main islands, and then permanently to Okinawa. While neither Washington nor Tokyo seem likely to reverse their plans to deploy Osprey aircraft to Okinawa, delays are certainly feasible and the political costs of overriding the will of the local population has just become higher.

Consumption Tax Victory and Ruling Party Unity: The vote in the House of Representatives on Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s bill to double the consumption tax rate from 5% to 10% was 363 in favor to 96 against. This lopsided victory was made possible by the deal that Noda formed with the two largest opposition parties, the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito. However, among the 96 negative votes were no less than 57 lawmakers of the ruling party. Another 16 ruling party lawmakers either didn’t show up for the vote or abstained. In total, then, 73 Democratic Party of Japan lawmakers rebelled against their party leaders. Worse yet, among the rebels were two former leaders of the ruling party, Ichiro Ozawa and former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. The Ozawa rebellion is the more serious because he is now on the verge of leaving the ruling party with perhaps 40-45 other House of Representatives lawmakers. A defection on this scale, if it occurs, will leave Prime Minister Noda in command of a lower house majority, but his margin for error will become that much narrower. A new political party led by Ichiro Ozawa would quickly become the nation’s third-largest in terms of seats in the Diet, but its prospects in a general election appear to be very poor. Overall, the Japanese government is clearly shifting in a conservative direction with a future alliance between the two largest political parties becoming increasingly likely. Something else which is becoming more likely is a general election in 2012. Although Prime Minister Noda is not required to call an election until August 2013, the likely defection of the Ozawa group and the growing closeness between the ruling party and the main opposition party may now bring that date forward.

Nuclear Reactor Restarts: Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda gave the order for the Oi Nuclear Power Plant Reactor Nos. 3 and 4 to be reactivated, thus putting an end to Japan’s month-long period with no nuclear power generation at all. The prime minister has furthermore made it amply clear that he believes it essential for the economic health of the nation that most of the other 48 idle nuclear reactors also be reactivated. Japan’s major utility companies have also taken a tough line in favor of nuclear power, insuring that even major shareholder initiatives not be successful in pushing them toward policies which promote renewable energy rather than nuclear. But if the conservative establishment is rallying in favor of nuclear energy, they are also being met head-to-head by an increasingly vibrant popular anti-nuclear movement that opinion polls say is supported by a majority of the Japanese people. Most visibly, anti-nuclear demonstrations are now being held every week on Friday evenings in front of the Prime Minister’s Official Residence. In the last couple of weeks, these protests have mobilized more than 20,000 participants from all walks of life. Even the mainstream Japanese media is starting to cover these mass protests sympathetically. There is no sign on either side that anyone is backing down; indeed, the confrontation appears to be building.

Confrontation over the Osprey: A similar picture of a building confrontation is presented by the expected deployment of US Marine MV-22 Osprey aircraft to Okinawa in early October. Despite a pair of accidents in Morocco and Florida which heightened local concerns about the operational safety of Osprey aircraft, the Pentagon informed the Japanese government that they do not intend to make any changes to the Osprey deployment plan. Indeed, even US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has publicly spoken in favor of the deployment. Tokyo is offering no protest to the US military plans, but essentially the entire political establishment of the island of Okinawa is fiercely opposed. Not only Governor Hirokazu Nakaima, but also the entire prefectural assembly and the town councils of every local municipality have made it clear that they regard the Osprey deployment to their island as being entirely unacceptable. The mayors of the towns are now said to be organizing a protest event in which tens of thousands of Okinawans will gather and speak out against the Osprey deployment. There is no indication that the Noda administration intends to ask the US government to reconsider the matter, but once again the central government in Tokyo and the population of the nation’s 47th prefecture are on a collision course. If US forces in Okinawa make any serious misstep, or if a soldier commits a violent crime, a political explosion is likely.

July 2012

The Ruling Party Fractures: In the end, about 50 lawmakers defected from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in support of former leader Ichiro Ozawa and the notion that the ruling party had strayed too far from the principles that had led to its landslide electoral victory in August 2009. Though large, this defection still leaves Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda with a narrow majority in the House of Representatives and the ability to govern. Some analysts even suggest that Noda may benefit from the defection in the sense that what remains of the DPJ is more ideologically united now that the Ozawa group is gone. This is partly true, but there still remain many DPJ lawmakers who oppose Noda’s policies and, should they defect as well, the ruling party could quickly lose its parliamentary majority. The ideological cast of Japan’s government is definitely shifting in a conservative direction, with little fundamental policy distinction between the ruling party and the main opposition party. A senior official of the Noda government reportedly told the main opposition leader that the prime minister was leaning toward calling a general election this November. This is credible, but with the Noda administration polling just above 20% public support, a change of government is looking quite likely, with no single party expected to gain a governing majority.

East Asian Bickering: For a part of the world that plays such an important role in the world economy, there have been ample and worrying demonstrations of political and diplomatic immaturity on almost all sides in East Asia. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev carried out a tour of some islands that Japan claims for itself, thus raising predictable diplomatic howls from Tokyo. Medvedev’s icy comment was, “As for our Japanese partners’ reaction—I do not care.” Meanwhile, Tokyo and Seoul have been arguing about the historical legacy of “Comfort Women” (wartime sex slaves) in a variety of arenas, including in Washington DC. An angry Korean even slammed a truck against the gates of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. This conflict has led the two governments to delay or cancel two planned signings of what would have been unprecedented bilateral military agreements. And if that is not enough, the dispute over the Senkaku-Daioyu Islands is reaching new heights. Prime Minister Noda now says he plans to nationalize the Japan-controlled islands. This has led to naval challenges from both Beijing and Taipei. In the case of Taiwanese, there was an incident in which a boat filled with activists “bumped into” a Japan Coast Guard vessel. In all of these various disputes, the attitude of the Japanese government has shown no flexibility and the most nationalistic elements are being pushed to the fore. This is linked to the domestic political changes, as Prime Minister Noda himself is ideologically conservative and now he is tied up in a de facto coalition with the main conservative opposition party. Most of the liberal elements of the Democratic Party of Japan just walked out of the party behind Ichiro Ozawa, including those who argue for a more cooperative relationship with Asian neighbors.

Osprey Worries Reach Tokyo: The Noda administration is finally showing some signs of getting spooked by the degree of Okinawan opposition to the deployment of US Marine MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft to the nation’s southernmost prefecture. Most significantly, ruling party policy chief Seiji Maehara—a key ally of the prime minister—told US Ambassador John Roos that Washington should delay the deployment plan. Maehara is a strong supporter of the US-Japan Alliance and he recognizes that if some mishap involving an Osprey aircraft should occur in Okinawa, the ensuing political explosion would do serious damage to the bilateral relationship. But it is not clear if these growing voices of concern in Tokyo can really influence the decisions taken by the Pentagon.

Anti-Nuclear Movement Remains Strong: Two nuclear reactors have been switched back on in line with Prime Minister Noda’s orders, but the grassroots anti-nuclear movement is showing no signs of going away. The numbers of ordinary people participating in these protests are reaching levels unseen in Japan and are occurring every week. There are several signs, however, of police starting to act in a more intimidating fashion toward the protesters.

A Dwindling Democratic Party of Japan: Ruling party lawmakers continued to hand in their resignations in late July in opposition to the new and more conservative policy directions of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. The defections were particularly damaging in the House of Councillors, where the ruling Democratic Party of Japan’s advantage over the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party was cut to only a single seat—88 to 87. Losing control of this chamber does not automatically guarantee the fall of the Noda government, but it would require more cooperation from the opposition, which would certainly demand an early general election as its price. The possibility of more defections from the ruling party in the coming weeks must be considered to be very high. Indeed, Prime Minister Noda suggested that he would give up a strong push to enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) for the time being precisely because it could be the trigger for another large-scale lawmaker rebellion. In particular, former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama seems to be the key figure holding the balance when it comes to the government maintaining its parliamentary majority.

Yoshihiko Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan: In spite of splitting the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and facing further defections that could deprive the government of its majority and force early general elections, Yoshihiko Noda’s grip on the party is firm. Party leadership polls must be held in September, but already a number of key party executives have announced their intention to back Noda’s re-election, including some of his most viable challengers. At present there is no sign that Noda will face any serious competition at all as he seeks to renew his party leadership mandate.

Timing of General Elections: Speculation is mounting over the timing of general elections. Legally they must be held by August 2013, but almost no one in the political world now believes that the current government will last that long. The current range of predictions puts the general elections as early as September and as late as next January. To hold those elections, however, the Diet must first pass bills to reorganize the electoral districts. The Supreme Court judged many months ago the current districts are unconstitutional since they give too much weight to rural voters over urban voters. Since time is short and the Liberal Democratic Party’s cooperation is necessary to pass the bills, the scope of the electoral district reform looks set to be the minimum required to address the legal problem.

Bidding for the Senkaku-Daioyu Islands: Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has gotten into an unusual bidding war with Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara over the disputed Senkaku-Daioyu Islands. The Tokyo governor’s plan to have his city purchase three of the five islands from their private owner in order to “lock the door on the Chinese thieves” who also claim ownership, has provoked a counterproposal from the Noda administration to have the national government buy them. The whole situation has become rather bizarre, but the main point seems to be that all sides in the struggle are eager to burnish their nationalist credentials and prove their toughness in facing the “Chinese threat.”

Arrival of the Osprey: Twelve US Marine MV-22 Osprey aircraft arrived in Yamaguchi Prefecture under popular protests. Local government leaders have repeatedly expressed their rejection of the aircraft due to the perception that it is accident-prone, but the Noda administration—apparently under US government pressure—has agreed to host them. A very large protest is now being organized in Okinawa where the Ospreys are ultimately to be based.

Anti-Nuclear Protests: Large-scale protests in Tokyo continue over the Noda administration’s decision to restart two nuclear reactors. These protests are now routinely bringing together more than 10,000 people—numbers unseen in Japan for decades. On the other hand, there is no real sign that the Noda government or the big business community really intends to compromise on pro-nuclear strategy.

August 2012

Island Disputes Dramatically Intensify: The administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has done basically nothing to try to ameliorate festering disputes with South Korea, China, and Taiwan since it came to power. Indeed, Noda’s inflexible and conservative attitude toward these issues stood in contrast to his immediate predecessors, Yukio Hatoyama and Naoto Kan, whose personal attitudes, although failing to produce the intended diplomatic results, were sincerely interested in good relations with Asian neighbors. In early August, the Noda administration reaped the harvest they had sown, with dramatic events occurring on all sides. The most striking events came in relation to the Dokdo-Takeshima dispute when South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak suddenly decided to personally tour these islets as a stern message to Japan. Beyond the provocative nature of an unprecedented presidential tour of the disputed islands, President Lee went further with some frankly insulting comments aimed at the gentle and revered Emperor Akihiko that offended a large cross-section of the Japanese general public, and not simply the usual suspects among the Japanese nationalists. Many ordinary Japanese were also offended by a South Korean player on the Olympic men’s soccer team who celebrated his nation’s defeat of Japan on the playing field by holding up a sign declaring South Korean ownership of the disputed Dokdo-Takeshima islands. Tokyo has responded by withdrawing its ambassador from Seoul and preparing to take the dispute to the International Court of Justice. Further retaliation from both sides appears likely. Shortly after this dramatic deterioration in Tokyo-Seoul relations, another major dispute over small islands—this time the Senkaku-Daioyu-Taiyutai three-way dispute over a handful of uninhabited islets—also flared up in a striking fashion. Activists from Hong Kong and Taiwan planned a joint mission to sail to the islets in defiance of Japanese law and to plant flags asserting ownership by China and Taiwan. The boat from Taiwan was intercepted, but the boat from Hong Kong—with a Phoenix TV news crew on board—was successful, running a gauntlet of Japan Coast Guard vessels to land a handful of activists on one of the disputed islands, briefly planting a flag. They were quickly arrested by waiting Japanese Coast Guard officers and policemen for illegal entry into “Japanese territory.” Early indications are that Tokyo intends to quickly deport the Hong Kong activists rather than prosecute them, which would, of course, enflame tempers in China and Taiwan even further. As of yet, there is no sign of any positive resolution of either of these territorial disputes between Japan and its neighbors.

Noda’s Pyrrhic Victory: The good news for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is that he has finally succeeded in passing into law the consumption tax hike bill that he had placed at the center of policy agenda since coming to power. The House of Councillors gave the final approval in a 188 to 49 vote, meaning that Noda has actually accomplished something substantial as the nation’s leader, for better or for ill. The bad news for Noda is that the price tag for his victory is likely to be no less than the destruction of the Democratic Party of Japan regime. Two more ruling party lawmakers left the party in early August, and Prime Minister Noda was forced to promise that he would call general elections “soon.” While his promise is deliberately vague, it is widely believed that the Diet will be dissolved in October for general elections to be held in November. Opinion polls suggest that the general public is not impressed by Noda’s legislative victory and that the ruling party is headed for a massive defeat when the general elections come. Also, it is now widely expected that other items on Prime Minister Noda’s agenda—like joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations and shaping the outlines of Japan’s post-Fukushima energy policies—will remain unfulfilled before election season hits.

Small Party Cooperation: The cooperation between the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party to pass the consumption tax hike and welfare-related bills through the Diet has stimulated almost all of Japan’s smaller political parties to work more cooperatively in spite of their ideological differences. This could become quite significant if Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, Japan’s most popular politician, takes leadership of this movement.

Noda Censured: Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was censured by the House of Councillors in a 129 to 91 vote. The sequence of events that led to his censure were odd, to say the least. The main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is trying to provoke a general election as soon as possible, and so was eager to censure the premier for whatever reason they could think of. At length, the LDP agreed with its smaller partner New Komeito Party to censure Noda for failing to be sufficiently precise about when he would fulfill his promise to call the general elections. However, when the LDP and New Komeito belatedly approached the other opposition parties like People’s Life First (LF) and asked for their support, which would be necessary to pass the motion, LF leader Ichiro Ozawa demanded that the censure of the prime minister include language condemning the “three-party agreement” to raise the consumption tax, which both the LDP and New Komeito were party to. New Komeito naturally balked at this condition; but, bizarrely, the LDP was so desperate to pass the censure motion against Noda that they agreed to do so in part because the prime minister had worked cooperatively with the LDP itself! Traditionally, the censure of a prime minister is followed by the House of Councillors stopping its business and refusing to pass any more legislation. This time, however, there is a crucial bond bill needed for the government to fund its operations from October and even a reform bill which is intended to bring the electoral districts in conformity with a Supreme Court ruling. Analysts are unsure what happens now, but many question LDP leader Sadakazu Tanigaki’s insistence on passing a censure motion before these issues were resolved.

Island Disputes Kept Within Bounds: The latter half of August continued to see the various island disputes that Tokyo has with Seoul and Beijing boil, but towards the end of the month there were clear signs that the Noda administration desired to lower the temperature. The most dramatic events of this period included the unauthorized landing of ten rightwing Japanese activists on the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands (included several city assemblymen), the refusal of the South Korean government to accept a personal letter from Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to President Lee Myung-Bak, and an attack on the car of the Japanese ambassador to Beijing. The most worrisome development, however, was the talk by some senior officials—including Finance Minister Jun Azumi—that trade and economic relations between Japan and South Korea should be disrupted unless Seoul withdrew its insults against the Japanese Emperor. Still, Prime Minister Noda did act sufficiently to keep these disputes from spiraling too far out of control. Firstly, the decision to quickly deport the activists from Hong Kong who landed on the disputed islands prevented a replay of the damaging Tokyo-Beijing confrontation of late 2010. Secondly, Noda’s impending decision to nationalize the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands is gradually sidelining provocative action by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara. Finally, Vice-Foreign Minister Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi was dispatched to Beijing carrying a personal letter from Prime Minister Noda to Chinese President Hu Jintao appealing to find ways to reduce bilateral tensions. These actions seem to be paving the way for a quieter and more positive September in East Asian diplomacy.

Toru Hashimoto’s Flirtations: Toru Hashimoto, mayor of Osaka and currently Japan’s most popular politician, is being sought as an ally by many political forces, as has been the case all year. Hashimoto’s One Osaka movement appears set to launch its own national political party in September made up of defectors from other political parties. The two major developments of late August were One Osaka’s rejection of a full alliance with Yoshimi Watanabe’s Your Party, the fifth-largest party in the National Diet, and suggestions that Hashimoto may cooperate in some way with former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the basis of a common rightwing ideology as it relates to diplomatic and social issues.

Nuclear Opponents Advance: In spite of Prime Minister Noda’s strong pro-nuclear stance, opponents of nuclear power have been gaining ground. In late August, National Policy Minister Motohisa Furukawa made clear that he personally supports a non-nuclear future for Japan, as does a majority of the public.

September 2012

Anti-Japanese Riots in China: Expectations that the island territorial dispute between Japan and China would quiet down in early September were confounded by a much stronger negative reaction to the Noda administration’s decision to nationalize three of the islands than anticipated. It had seemed in late August that the sidelining of nationalist Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara’s bid to take control of the islands would serve to calm the atmosphere to some degree. Indeed, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has been careful to note that he has no intention to carry out construction or in any way develop the disputed islands. But these political nuances appear to have been lost on China’s own nationalist activists, who hit the streets at mid-month in numbers that haven’t been seen in many decades. Anti-Japanese protests in mainland China have not been entirely peaceful, with cases of the destruction of property and some physical assaults on Japanese nationals. Naturally, stories of these attacks are creating deep concern in Japan, and public attitudes appear to be hardening. The Chinese government, for its part, briefly sent half a dozen maritime patrol ships into the waters surrounding the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands, pushing the Japanese government into a crisis management mode for several hours. Already facing criticism from conservatives and an angry section of the general public that he has been too quiet, Prime Minister Noda is under pressure to maintain a hard line vis-à-vis Beijing.

Party Leadership Races Begin: Both of the two largest Japanese political parties are holding leadership elections in late September and the early part of the month was when these races began in earnest. In truth, however, the race within the ruling Democratic Party of Japan is scantly competitive. Prime Minister Noda faces three challengers, none of which are considered to be any kind of threat to his reelection. Noda is expected to win easily. The situation is entirely different within the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), where party leader Sadakazu Tanigaki has already been forced to withdraw from the race due to insufficient support. The LDP leadership contest now involves five candidates, three of which have a real prospect of victory. Secretary-General Nobuteru Ishihara has the strongest level of support from the party elders, while former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba seems to be the most popular among the rank-and-file. One of these two is likely to prevail, but former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also has an outside chance of coming out on top, especially in an atmosphere of tension with China. At any rate, a younger generation is coming to the fore and the opposition LDP looks about to gain a more effective leader than the amiable but rather hapless Sadakazu Tanigaki.

Establishment of the Japan Restoration Party: The long-awaited establishment of the national political party of Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto finally took place in early September. Although no elections have been held, seven Diet lawmakers defected from other parties to become the first national representatives of this new outfit. Public opinion polls show significant support for this new political party and there is little doubt that it will emerge as the “third force” in Japanese politics after the next general elections. Party leader Hashimoto has been quite outspoken in support of conservative—indeed rightwing—opinions in recent weeks, and so the emergence of this political party is yet another sign of the waning influence of the old Japanese left and the nation’s postwar pacifist orientation.

Zero Nuclear Doubts: The Japanese government has now declared itself in support of phasing out all nuclear energy during the course of the 2030s, which marks a radical change in energy policy since the days before last year’s Fukushima Daiichi disaster. Nevertheless, there are voices on all sides who doubt the sincerity of the Noda administration. Many people think that the new “zero nuclear” target is little more than a pre-election ploy to appeal to anti-nuclear voters. Strengthening the case of the skeptics is the fact that the industry ministry has given the go-ahead for three new nuclear power plants to continue construction, which many people point out is entirely inconsistent with a nuclear phase-out in the 2030s. The best that can be said is that the political struggle over nuclear power continues.

The Reemergence of Shinzo Abe: The surprise victor of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential elections was Shinzo Abe, who served as Japan’s prime minister for exactly a year from September 2006 to September 2007. Of the five candidates in the race, Abe is widely considered to be the most conservative and anti-China. His victory, however, relied on the LDP’s internal factional politics, and Shigeru Ishiba—now appointed LDP Secretary-General—was in fact the more popular candidate. The surprise election of Abe was warmly greeted by the public, a plurality of which (41%) told pollsters that they want to see him become the next prime minister. Abe is expected to take a hard line against the government of Yoshihiko Noda and to attempt to force the premier to call a general election before the end of the year. Many analysts, however, maintain serious doubts about Shinzo Abe’s political skills and wonder if his current popularity is destined to last.

Yoshihiko Noda in Control of Ruling Party: Even if his national popularity remains low, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda demonstrated firm mastery of his own ruling Democratic Party of Japan in late September. He gained roughly 2/3 of the votes against three opponents in his own party presidential race. None of the other candidates gained any traction against him. Despite his thumping victory, Noda remains cautious, allowing many of his party opponents to stay in high level positions. This is quite wise because the ruling party’s majority is now quite thin after months of lawmaker defections. Prime Minister Noda is making many gestures to ensure that the party doesn’t crumble even further.

Island Dispute with China and Taiwan: Japan emerged in global headlines throughout September in the context of the dispute over five tiny islands in the East China Sea. All month there were major protests across China that sometimes degenerated into vandalism against Japan-related businesses. The peak came on September 18, the anniversary of the Japanese Imperial Army’s launching of its invasion of Manchuria in 1931. The Beijing government clearly tolerated these anti-Japanese protests and they also sent more than a dozen patrol ships into seas that Japan regards as its own territorial waters. Taiwan followed suit later in the month, and the world was amazed by images of Japanese and Taiwanese ships battling it out with water-cannons on the high seas. There is a prospect of serious economic damage occurring as a result of this dispute. Chinese government authorities have been harassing Japanese enterprises with such measures as stepped up customs inspections and delays in the issuance of visas to Japanese nationals. Although the Japanese hard right continues to act provocatively in their own right, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has been as cool as ice, doing what he can to calm the atmosphere without appearing weak and submissive. He even went so far as to point out, “We are the number two and number three economies in the world, and China’s development is in Japan’s interest.”

Japan Restoration Party Off to Poor Start: Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto has been the boy wonder of Japanese politics throughout the year, polling as the nation’s most popular political figure and apparently destined for a major role in national government. However, the September establishment of the Japan Restoration Party has been greeted with unexpectedly low enthusiasm by the public. No one has pinpointed the exact reasons for the decline of the Hashimoto phenomenon (and it is probably due to a combination of many factors), but the honeymoon seems to be over and the JRP clearly has a fight in store to compete credibly against the two major parties, the DPJ and the LDP, in the next general elections.

Osprey Protest Crushed by Police: Washington and Tokyo have dismissed the firm rejection of the deployment of MV-22 Osprey aircraft by the entire political establishment and vast majority of the people on the island of Okinawa. In the final stage at the end of September, hundreds of protesters blocked the gate of the US Marine airbase at Futenma with automobiles and their own bodies. The authorities responded by calling in troops of policemen to physically drag the protesters away from the gates one by one. The entire event was filmed by the local media.

October 2012

Cabinet Reshuffle: Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda reshuffled his cabinet at the beginning of the month, but many of the key portfolios remained in the same hands as before. Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba and Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto, for example, remain in place. The most important changes were the appointment of the Noda loyalist Koriki Jojima as the new Finance Minister and the effective demotion of party heavyweight Seiji Maehara from his influential post as Chairman of the Democratic Party of Japan Policy Council to the less prominent cabinet post of National Strategy Minister. In an apparent attempt to garner more public support, the razor-tongued Makiko Tanaka was appointed as the new Education Minister. However, the general public was unimpressed by the reshuffle and it created no significant bump in the Noda administration’s approval rating, which has been floating at a little under 30%. Moreover, new Justice Minister Keishu Tanaka quickly became an embarrassment for the prime minister, first for receiving political donations from a foreign national and then in regard to past association with an organized crime figure. All in all, the cabinet reshuffle had little positive effect.

Liberal Democratic Party Riding High: The main opposition Liberal Democratic Party, on the other hand, is receiving considerable public support since the intraparty election of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as the new party president. Some public opinion polls show this party with more than double the support of the ruling party. Nevertheless, it is not clear that the Abe-led Liberal Democratic Party has a clear direction and will be able to function effectively in the months ahead.

Battle over Election Timing: In order to pass the consumption tax hike bill through the Diet in early August, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was obliged to promise to the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party that he would call a general election “soon.” However, with its high popularity under new leader Shinzo Abe, this is a very inopportune occasion for the prime minister to fulfill his promise. By the same token, the conservative opposition has become even more keen to force an early general election. Each side in this struggle has certain advantages and vulnerabilities, but for now it appears that Prime Minister Noda will reach into his bag of tricks and do his best to delay holding the general elections for as long as possible.

Osprey Aircraft Deployed to Okinawa: The US Marine MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft was deployed to Futenma Air Base in Okinawa despite the almost unanimous opposition to the move by the people and political representatives of the island. The deployment was quickly followed by test flights. Washington and Tokyo have both alienated opinion in Okinawa greatly and are taking a serious political risk that an accident could cause these tensions to explode.

More Talk about Deflation: In spite of all the spending on reconstruction of the tsunami-devastated northeastern regions, economic growth figures remain weak and there is no sign of a quick escape from deflation. Many Japanese politicians blame the Bank of Japan for being too passive in combating deflation, and in early October both Finance Minister Koriki Jojima as well as National Strategy Minister Seiji Maehara made high-profile comments demanding more action from this institution. The same view has been expressed by opposition leader Shinzo Abe, so it seems that political pressure on the Bank of Japan is building up.

Nuclear Energy Remains Public Focus: Early August was a period in which the struggle between pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear forces in Japan continued to be a focus of public attention. It was not clear, however, which side had gained the upper hand. Top business leaders have become more vocal in demanding that the role of nuclear energy be preserved, and for the first time since last year’s disaster construction resumed on a nuclear plant to be built in northern Japan. On the other hand, many local governments have taken up the fight against the construction of new nuclear power plants or the reactivation of existing ones. The Noda administration has been trying to take a lower profile in this struggle.

Noda’s Precarious Position: Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s grip on power was looking quite precarious in late October in spite of his undisputed control of the ruling party. First of all, he had to deal with an embarrassing scandal related to his Cabinet reshuffle at the beginning of the month. One of the new ministers, Justice Minister Keishu Tanaka, was quickly embroiled in two scandals in which the media raised allegations about his campaign finance practices and past associations with organized crime figures. This issue was not dealt with promptly by the prime minister and so by the time Tanaka finally resigned three weeks later, public opinion polls were showing a clear drop in support for the Noda government—in some polls below 20%, a critical level in Japanese politics. This lack of popularity was also manifest by the ruling coalition’s inability to return a candidate to a parliamentary seat in a closely watched by-election on the southern island of Kyushu. The biggest blow, however, was the defection of two more House of Representatives lawmakers from the ruling party to the opposition, which is itself a reflection of the fears of DPJ lawmakers that they cannot win their elections under Noda’s leadership. With these resignations and the Kyushu by-election, the ruling party’s majority in the House of Representatives was reduced to 243 seats in a 480-seat chamber, putting the prime minister in serious danger of losing control of his fate should more disgruntled or fearful backbenchers defect to the opposition. Needless to say, however, laboring under such low public approval ratings and the nearly-universal perception that the ruling party had failed to implement most of its 2009 campaign promises, the prime minister was equally determined to avoid a general election at this time, in spite of opposition pressures. Prime Minister Noda made it reasonably clear that he prioritized the passage of several pieces of legislation over the holding of immediate elections, setting up continued confrontation with the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party.

The Search for the Third Pole: The main political beneficiary of the ruling party’s unpopularity in recent months has been the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party, but this itself is in part a reflection of the decline in Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s popularity. In early 2012, Hashimoto was clearly top of the polls and a threat to both of the established major parties, but in recent months he has stumbled due to persistent attacks from the media, inconsistency in his policy prescriptions, and problems in the formation of his new national political party, the Japan Restoration Party. Nevertheless, there is a serious movement to create a “third pole” in Japanese politics in which Hashimoto remains the most important figure. The major development in late October was the resignation of Shintaro Ishihara as Governor of Tokyo in order to pursue his remaining ambitions in national politics. Additionally, there was the formation of a small regional party called Tax Cut Japan and the maneuverings of Your Party leader Yoshimi Watanabe to consider. All said, there are indeed a number of smaller political parties that are interested in tying up with one another in order to create a “third pole” in the political system, but it is an open question whether or not the strong personalities and differing policies of its constituents can really be coordinated.

Rape in Okinawa: The Okinawa Prefectural Assembly adopted a resolution expressing “burning resentment” after two US Navy personnel were accused of a rape of a local woman. Anti-US military sentiment had already been running high over the deployment of MV-22 Osprey aircraft to the island over the nearly universal objections of the island’s general public and political establishment. What kept the issue from spiraling too far out of control were the prompt and strong actions by US Ambassador John Roos, who immediately recognized the seriousness of the situation. Roos quickly vowed cooperation with the Japanese authorities in investigating the crime, and an unprecedented blanket curfew of all US Forces Japan was quickly implemented. These actions by the US Embassy were so energetic that they gained the praise of Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima. Nevertheless, the whole affair demonstrates once again that US Forces have largely worn out their welcome on the island of Okinawa after a 67-year occupation.

November 2012

The Noda Shock: Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda stunned most of the ruling party itself and the opposition parties by indicating that he would dissolve the Diet on November 16 for a general election to be held in mid-December. The reason this announcement came as such a shock is because it is an act that is almost guaranteed not only to topple the ruling Democratic Party of Japan from power, but also to lead to a crushing defeat in which easily half of its House of Representatives lawmakers could lose their seats. It was not immediately clear what triggered the prime minister’s decision. It may be that he felt the ruling party was about to lose its governing majority through defections in any case, or it may be that he plotted with likeminded conservatives in the party such as Deputy Prime Minister Katsuya Okada and Strategy Minister Seiji Maehara to ideologically “purify” the Democratic Party of Japan in order to rise again later, perhaps in the July 2013 House of Councillors elections. At any rate, Noda’s signal that he was about to call for elections set off a frenzied reaction across the political spectrum as parties and individual lawmakers quickly scrambled to position themselves as best as they could for the coming battle. Angered by the prime minister’s move, more than half a dozen lawmakers—including two former cabinet ministers—declared their intention to leave the Democratic Party of Japan, thus depriving the ruling party of its majority. There is effectively no chance for Prime Minister Noda to return to a majority in the coming election, barring some extremely fortuitous event that alters public perceptions. The opinion polls show the Noda Cabinet supported by less than 20% of the general public and the dissolution itself is being done for no particular policy reason. Also, the bill to reform the electoral districts in order to conform with constitutional requirements laid down by the Supreme Court has not been implemented, so the next Diet is arguably going to be seated in contempt of the national charter and the courts. The stage is set for further political instability.

Third Pole in Disarray: The expected dissolution of the Diet comes not only at the worst of times for the ruling party, but also for the “third pole” of alternative parties that have yet to coordinate and prepare their strategies. One cause of this lack of preparedness is that 80-year-old Shintaro Ishihara dramatically resigned his governorship of Tokyo in early November and announced his return to national politics. He was quickly installed as the new co-leader of the “Sunrise Party,” which in turn rapidly absorbed another microparty called Tax Cut Japan. Ishihara is a very headstrong man, as are the other leaders of the potential “third pole” parties, including Toru Hashimoto, Takeo Hiranuma, Yoshimi Watanabe, and even Ichiro Ozawa. In order to compete effectively against the two major parties, these small party leaders would have to coordinate smoothly with one another (a doubtful prospect) and then find a way to paper over their nearly irreconcilable policy differences (an even more doubtful prospect). And then, of course, it takes more than just party leaders working together and a multiparty policy agreement to fight an election, but it also requires long lists of attractive candidates, support groups, effective campaign staff, etc. In all these respects, the “third pole” parties clearly had a long way to go. Since it was obvious to most observers that the smaller parties were not ready to govern, it seemed unlikely that a majority of non-Democratic Party of Japan voters would turn to them.

Liberal Democratic Party Poised for Return: By process of elimination, then, it seems inevitable that the Liberal Democratic Party, which was decisively thrown out of power in August 2009 and has not undergone any substantial reforms in the meantime, will be returning to power in December. A key point to watch is whether this party and its close ally New Komeito can gain a House of Representatives majority on their own, or if they will be forced to invite a smaller party into a governing coalition. Lucky Shinzo Abe, who recently became his party leader by default, appears headed back to the premiership of the nation, also by default.

Economy Enters Recession: Economic figures indicate that Japan has fallen into an economic recession as of this past summer.

Liberal Democratic Party in the Lead: The main conservative opposition Liberal Democratic Party continued to hold a solid lead over its rivals as the election season began in earnest in late November. Every public opinion poll showed them well ahead of their rivals and it was widely assumed that Shinzo Abe would be returning as Japan’s prime minister in mid-December. Abe was not, in fact, campaigning very well in late November, but his political party was basically the only one with the organization in place to fight effectively.

Third Pole Gains Definition: The Japan Restoration Party and Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto have been preparing the “third pole” in Japanese politics for most of the year. During the spring and summer, public opinion polls suggested the possibility that Hashimoto could sweep away the two major established parties in a landslide victory, but in recent months Hashimoto’s reputation has declined significantly. Acknowledging this trend, in late November Hashimoto’s Japan Restoration Party agreed to absorb the new Sunrise Party and make former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara the new overall party leader. The Hashimoto-Ishihara combination both strengthened and weakened the “third pole.” On the one hand, it combined the political bases of two major politicians and strengthened its appeal to conservatives and the right wing. On the other hand, it also meant that Ishihara’s many enemies and detractors lost interest in the Japan Restoration Party as a viable alternative to the two major parties. This rapidly resulted in Yoshimi Watanabe’s Your Party—a smaller but significant outfit dedicated to free market reforms—pulling away from any plans to completely merge with the Japan Restoration Party; and, perhaps even more significantly, it consolidated the move toward the creation of a “fourth pole,” or a party to serve the views of the center-left. Public opinion polls were suggesting that the Japan Restoration Party had a good chance of gaining the second-largest number of seats after the Liberal Democratic Party. Toru Hashimoto admitted that there was essentially no possibility that the “third pole” could capture a House of Representatives majority, but they might become a large and influential bloc.

Tomorrow Party of Japan becomes Rallying Point for Liberal-Left: One thing which has been obviously missing from Japanese politics in recent months is any credible political party on the left-of-center. The favorite in this election—the Liberal Democratic Party—is center-right and is led by one of its most hawkish politicians, Shinzo Abe. The current ruling party, the Democratic Party of Japan, was a center-left party a couple years ago, but party conservatives emerged as the mainstream more recently and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is himself a confirmed moderate conservative. The “third pole” option, too, has now clearly morphed into a hard right political party led by former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, an outspoken hawk. There was no standard-bearer at all on the left who had any reasonable chance of making an impact in the coming general election. In late November, however, that suddenly changed. The environmentalist Shiga Prefecture Governor Yukiko Kada announced her intention to create the “Tomorrow Party of Japan” aiming at, among other things, the end of nuclear power within ten years and the empowerment of women. Her announcement grew in significance when People’s Life First leader and legendary powerbroker Ichiro Ozawa announced that he was disbanding his own political party and would join Governor Kada’s new outfit. Four other left-leaning microparties either completely merged with the Tomorrow Party of Japan or else indicated that they would be allying themselves with it. Quite unexpectedly, then, Japan’s liberals and leftists had a major party to vote for.

Nuclear Power at Stake: Nuclear energy policy was one of the biggest issues in the coming general election. The presumed next prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was also the only one arguing openly in favor of preserving nuclear power. If Abe does head the next government, a fierce battle between his regime and the anti-nuclear forces is almost sure to break out. Most of the other parties favor the abandonment of nuclear energy in Japan, although they disagree about just how quickly this phaseout should be implemented.

December 2012

Election Campaign Season: Twelve political parties and a record 1504 candidates registered to compete in the December 16, 2012, general elections in which 480 new lower house lawmakers would be seated. Every public opinion poll agreed that the old Liberal Democratic Party was poised for a major victory and that its leader Shinzo Abe would be returning as Prime Minister after a five-year absence from the nation’s leading post. The main question remaining was whether or not the Liberal Democratic Party and its smaller ally New Komeito Party would gain more than 320 seats, a supermajority that would allow them to override the opposition-controlled House of Councillors. Meanwhile, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda were heading for a massive and historic defeat. Having won 308 seats in the August 2009 elections, predictions for the December 2012 elections had them taking only 70 or 80 seats this time around. A defeat on that scale would likely lead to Noda’s resignation as party leader and possible elevation of DPJ Policy Committee Chairman Goshi Hosono to the leadership position. As for the much-discussed “third pole” in Japanese politics, they were confronted by a number of organizational obstacles and committed a few gaffes that limited their ability to massively reshape the political scene. Nevertheless, polls suggested that the third pole parties, the Japan Restoration Party and Your Party, might pull down a combined 50 seats, which would give them a reasonable position to build from in the coming months. Finally, the new liberal-left alternative, the Tomorrow Party of Japan, did not have enough time to establish its footing properly and appeared headed toward a disappointing result of 10 or 15 seats.

Projecting the Next Government: With the victory of the Liberal Democratic Party considered by many to be nearly a foregone conclusion, much media attention was focused on the nature of the government that presumed future Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would form. If the statements of Abe and some party executives are to be believed, the Liberal Democratic Party intended to form a coalition with only its long-term ally, the New Komeito Party. As to the question of how it would manage to pass its legislation through the House of Councillors, the suggestion is that the Abe government would form agreements with opposition parties on an issue-by-issue basis. Of course, should the government manage to gain a 320-seat supermajority in the general election, they would also have the option of strong-arming their bills through the Diet by repeatedly resorting to a lower house override of the upper house. At any rate, the political system had distinctly shifted to the political right and many signs pointed toward Abe’s desire to radically alter Japan’s security policies and constitutional regime. With the hard right Japan Restoration Party expected to become one of the two largest opposition parties, it did not seem that much resistance could be expected from that quarter. Indeed, the most effective brake on rightwing radicalism in the next government appeared likely to come from the moderate New Komeito Party, the Liberal Democratic Party’s coalition partner.

North Korean Rocket: The fact that the Japanese political world was fully engaged in election season brought no respite from foreign policy tensions with Asian neighbors. Tokyo and Pyongyang had recently seemed headed toward more dialogue and more stable relations, but this suffered a setback when North Korea announced its intention to fire a rocket and deliver a satellite into space. As happened last time, the Noda administration deployed PAC-3 missile interceptors in Tokyo and Okinawa Prefecture in case objects might fall on Japanese territory. However, the North Korean rocket launch, when it occurred, was much more successful than last time and appeared to complete its mission as planned.

Airspace Intrusion: China interrupted Japan’s campaign season with a security crisis too. Although Chinese ships are now routinely sailing into waters claimed by Japan near the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands, for the first time a Chinese government airplane challenged Japanese-claimed airspace near the islands. The Japanese Air Self-Defense Force scrambled F-15 jets in response to the intrusion, although it seems it took them a long time to recognize the nature of the situation. The US government reportedly warned China against continuing such violations.

General Election Results: The Liberal Democratic Party led by Shinzo Abe won a landslide election victory on December 16, giving them not only a solid House of Representatives majority, but, when combined with their smaller ally New Komeito Party, a supermajority capable of overriding the opposition-controlled House of Councillors. In the 480-seat House of Representatives, the Liberal Democratic Party won 294 seats and the New Komeito Party won 31 seats, totaling 325 and above the crucial 2/3 threshold of 320 seats. On the other hand, then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan suffered the worst results ever for a Japanese ruling party in the postwar period, gaining only 57 seats (compared to the 308 seats they gained in the last general election in August 2009). The result was so disastrous that Noda and all of his closest allies quickly resigned their party leadership positions and were replaced by Banri Kaieda, a former rival of Noda and his group. Meanwhile, the “third pole” parties did pretty well. The new Japan Restoration Party took 54 seats, a result that put them right behind the Democratic Party of Japan, and should they maintain their earlier alliance with Your Party, which gained 18 seats, they were potentially the second-most powerful bloc in the National Diet. The strong performance of the Japan Restoration Party is significant in policy terms because it means that, for the first time, there will be a large opposition party to the political right of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party. Finally, it should be noted that the Liberal Democratic Party’s landslide victory is a fragile one in spite of the number of Diet seats it gained. Due to nature of the electoral system, in single-seat constituencies Abe’s party won 79% of the seats with only 43% of the vote. Moreover, after the elections public opinion polls showed that only about one-third of the Japanese public thought it a good thing that the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito Party had won a supermajority.

The Second Abe Cabinet: With the victory of the Liberal Democratic Party, Shinzo Abe returned to the premiership more than five years after he resigned in disgrace in September 2007. This event marked only the second time in the Japanese postwar period that a former prime minister was able to make such a return to the top office. Also making a comeback was the last Liberal Democratic Party prime minister, Taro Aso, who was appointed to a powerful combined position of Deputy Prime Minister, Finance Minister, and Financial Services Minister. In general, the cabinet posts went to one of three types: experienced party veterans, talented politicians in their late 40s and 50s, and rightwing ideological allies of the prime minister. The latter group included some figures who are almost guaranteed to stir up trouble in the months ahead, especially in terms of Japan’s relations with its East Asian neighbors. Initial public opinion polls showed the Second Abe Cabinet at a healthy 60% support rate.

Economic Recovery: The eyes of most analysts had been on whether Shinzo Abe would immediately launch into his long-term personal project of reshaping Japan’s postwar political culture in ways more conducive to his ultraconservative political vision or else act in a pragmatic fashion by moving closer to the political center. The initial signs were that Abe was putting priority on the economic revival of Japan, which is something about which there is a firm positive consensus in Japan. In late December, almost all of the economic news for Abe was good. The stock market bounced back to pre-March 11, 2011, disaster levels and the exchange rate of the Japanese Yen eased to levels not seen in a couple of years, giving much-needed breathing space to Japan’s troubled exporters. The next House of Councillors elections will be held in July 2013 and it appears that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made the strategic decision to stifle his rightwing impulses until that electoral contest is out of the way.

Nuclear Policy Reversal: Another issue that was being watched carefully was nuclear energy policy. Prime Minister Abe quickly signaled that he would pursue a pro-nuclear policy and attempt to reactivate the nation’s nuclear reactors, but opposition from many quarters looked robust.

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