Reform Without Wasted Draws- The Legend of Koizumi might be my favorite show of the season, even though so far it’s only a five or six minute long OAV. It’s not an especially deep political satire, but I thought I would take a post to enlighten the filthy gaijin in the audience about some of the basic politics of modern Japan. I’ll try to make it interesting even if you’re someone who cares more about cartoons than economics.
(Full disclosure: I currently work for the U.S. government as part of an internship arranged by a certain former CIA front/neoliberal brainwashing institute, but oddly enough I’m a socialist politically, so you paper tigers out there can take my analysis with a grain of reactionary salt.)
So who is this Koizumi guy?
Koizumi was prime minister for the Liberal Democratic Party, which, oddly, is the more conservative mainstream Japanese political party (you will usually just see them as ‘LDP’). They have completely dominated Japanese politics since a decade after the end of WWII (with the exception of a brief interruption in 1993) up until last year, when they finally lost to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which for some reason is more liberal than the Liberal Party.
Koizumi was at no point shot by snipers, North Korean or otherwise, but he was a hero to a lot of Japanese because he had the good fortune to be in charge of the country when it was coming out of the Lost Decade, a 10-year long recession that us Americans will probably be comparing our situation to in the near future too (lol monetarism+’too big to fail’). He was also kind of a colorful character, and liked to pull all kinds of big ‘fuck you’s like dissolving the Diet when they wouldn’t sell off the Japanese Postal Service, and visiting a shrine that memorialized some Japanese war criminals. It doesn’t hurt that several of his relatives have been politicians and one died executing a kamikaze attack. He was also fairly tight with Dubya, and approved expanding the Japanese Self-Defense Force (the armed forces) and deploying them in Iraq (albeit mostly as a humanitarian aid unit that has thus far suffered no losses). All this combined to make him, for a time, extremely popular, although I think it’s fair to say that there’s an element of satire to his portrayal in the anime.
What about the other guy?
Taro Aso has a fairly similar CV, he served as a LDP PM and encouraged the Emperor (who, if you were wondering, is a largely apolitical and ceremonial figure) to visit the same controversial shrine that Koizumi did. He loved shooting his mouth off and was somewhat famous for misreading his speeches (think Dubya). His nationalism took a somewhat uglier form than Koizumi’s, he talked a lot of smack about minorities and made a point of antagonizing China (more on that later).
The biggest difference between the two is that while Koizumi served for five years and was regarded in some circles as a hero, Aso was so wildly unpopular that less than two years after his appointment he managed to lose the majority his party had held for the better part of a century. Aso’s approval ratings hit single digits before he gave in and called for new elections. Yes, less than ten percent of the country approved of the government, which is another experience that Americans may have to look forward to if our infatuation with the new administration wears off before the economic slump does.
One reason that Aso may have received such a cool portrayal in the anime despite his short, miserable tenure is that he was well-known as an otaku, and was often called ‘Rozen Aso’ by the press because his affection for the popular loli doll manga. Akihabara rallied behind him for a time, but it should surprise no one to learn that nobody in politics really cares what nerds think.
They’re both LDP? Jeez, aren’t there any other parties?
Until recently there may as well have not been, as I mentioned the LDP has held a stranglehold on the legislature for a very, very long time (1955 to be precise, when many political parties reorganized themselves to form the LDP and DPJ we know today).
However, proportional representation means that Japanese politics is about more than just what one party got the most votes. The Social Democrats and Japanese Communist Party hold a handful seats, as do the People’s New Party and New Party Nippon, which are both fragments snapped off of the LDP that now have aligned with the DPJ (privatizing the post office made some otherwise loyal LDPers really mad, although there’s a healthy dose of party politics there too). Point is, politics in Japan isn’t about red states and blue states. Although two large parties dominate, votes in the legislature can still easily come down to third parties, and the people themselves espouse a wider spectrum of political views.
Brief shout-out to my comrades in the JCP. I’ve read that the party is actually somewhat orthodox, and it does have very historical roots; it was founded as an underground political party in the 20s and opposed Japan’s entry into the second world war. However it never played well with the Soviets or Maoists, and has a realist agenda of reform and socialism within the democratic framework of one neutral, non-interventionist state (so definitely Trots). These aren’t hairy American hippies or bloated Russian apparatchiks, they’re serious politicians who have a good chance of actually helping the working class through changes to healthcare and labor policy; if I voted in Japanese elections I would probably vote for them. Okay, advocacy speech over!
Speaking of awesome opposition parties, you may recognize this guy from the picture at the top of the page! (Fun fact: he also ran for president of the United States!)
Okay, so I know the players, what are the issues?
I’ll talk about foreign policy (since that’s mostly all of what I know), beginning with the U.S. When Japan surrendered at the end of WWII, the U.S. was nice enough not to turn it into an impoverished shithole with impossible restitution payments or leave it as a burned-out shell from the firebombings of the large cities. But they did occupy the country with tens of thousands of troops, with the largest concentration being on Okinawa, part of the dribble of smaller islands south of Kyushu. The numbers have shifted over the years, but today there are still about thirty thousand uniformed soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, and about the same number of non-uniformed Department of Defense employees, contractors, and military family members.
Well as it turns out, putting thirty thousand twenty-somethings who have been indoctrinated in a culture of macho violence and American exceptionalism on a small southeast Asian island that they consider theirs by right of conquest does not lead to civil harmony. It leads to rape, lots of rape, along with brawls, murders, muggings, and deadly drunken car accidents (as well as aircraft crashes), many of which go unpunished by the local authorities because the American government simply flies the perpetrators out of the country before they can be prosecuted.
(Fun fact: the best part of all this is that Okinawa isn’t originally Japanese at all, the islands are populated by several distinct races aside from the Yamato with their own cultures and even language, and they’ve been bounced around between independence and Chinese or Japanese control for centuries. They were most recently annexed by Japan in the 1870s and made into second class citizens of the Japanese Empire. During the battle of Okinawa, tens of thousands of noncombatants were killed in fighting or slaughtered by the Imperial Army, who insisted that they not surrender to Americans, many times the number of allied casualties. A quarter of the civilian population died in the battle, and the remainder survived to live under military occupation, all because of a war started by a country they didn’t choose to join.)
Anyway, the point is that since the Japanese government regained control of the Ryukyu islands (which include Okinawa) from American military control in 1972, the number of women and girls kidnapped and raped every year by American soldiers has gotten a lot more press. The new DPJ administration has made saying ‘no’ the the U.S. a major part of its foreign policy by reopening negotiations on a helicopter base that the U.S. thought was a done deal and canceling a refueling contract with the Navy in the Indian Ocean. Part of it is the national disgust at the continuing occupation, part of it is the fears of nuclear weapons being stationed in and around Japan, but a portion of the new anti-American sentiment is about the expansion of Japanese power. Some Japanese think its time the country began acting more in its own interest in international affairs, and some have even called for the amendment of the constitution that limits the size of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces.
Haha, look at those clowns.
Silly commercials aside, the JSDF is no joke, they have apache and cobra helicopters, squadrons of an F-16 analogue manufactured by Mitsubishi, and one of the largest and best-equipped navies in the world. Their missile boats are stuffed with high-end American tech, although in strict accordance with the JSDF’s mission they lack Tomahawk or other cruise missiles.
Why all the firepower for such a peaceful country?
Part of the problem is this asshole, Kim Jong Il, Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, the North, obviously). Largely due to his harebrained policies and strongman posturing, North Korea is a starving mess of outdated guns and poorly-educated citizens who live in fear of being reported for some real or imagined crime that will land them in prison camps that are essentially hell on earth. I don’t care for fearmongers in the U.S. who pretend that the DRPK poses any kind of threat to the American mainland, but it can’t be denied that it is heavily armed, possibly with nuclear weapons, and hugely unpredictable.
On the other hand, despite the size of North Korea’s armed forces, there’s little they could really do to Japan. Their airforce is aging poorly, half of it is circa 1950s and the most modern thing they have is forty MiG-29s, which are mainly deployed to defend Pyongyang. Their navy is almost entirely tiny coastal patrol boats strapped with Silkworm antiship missiles, they lack the range to hang with Japan’s Kongo class ships, armed with modern Harpoon missiles and Aegis systems. And of course the huge Army, which is mostly starving peasants with a few weeks of indoctrination and some Kalishnokovs, aren’t going be able to just swim over the Sea of Japan to invade. It’s not unlikely that they’ve been able to develop basic atomic weapons, but there’s a world of difference between setting off a bomb underground and fitting that bomb into a missile that can fly hundreds of miles and accurately strike a target, and the much-vaunted Taepodong-2 has yet to hit anything but the Sea of Japan (and then only in peices). More to the point, actually hitting Japan, a more or less neutral nonaggressor, with any kind of missile would pretty much guarantee retaliation by the U.S. and the Republic of Korea (the South), and an end to any kind of help from China, which is the DPRK’s last and only friend. Kim is fucking horrible at running a country, but he’s not dumb enough to throw it all away for one sucker-punch at relatively benign Japan.
So why are they seen as such a big scary threat?
Well, for decades now the DPRK’s intelligence agency has been abducting people, sometimes in cross-border raids and airplane hijackings, sometimes at home in their own countries, and taking them back to the North for interrogation and to force them to teach Japanese language or South Korean mannerisms at spy schools. Or in some cases, just because Dear Leader feels like it. In 2004 Koizumi was able to negotiate the return of some Japanese citizens who had been held hostage for years, and the bodies of several more who had died in captivity, but negotiations broke down, and it is likely that some remain, along with many South Koreans. The terrifying randomness of the kidnappings and the horror of living in the DPRK are enough to make Kim the ultimate bogeyman in the region. And given his well-known volatility, even knowing that there’s no logical reason for him to nuke me I might still sweat when he shot a missile directly over my head, especially when the government was nice enough to freak everyone out by setting up Patriot missile launchers in the middle of towns and cities.
Of course part of why the DPRK is being especially shitty to the rest of the world right now is that Dear Leader probably has pancreatic cancer, and is in the process of choosing a successor. The nuclear muscle flexing could be a way to try to raise domestic morale and make sure that when Kim passes he’ll leave a united country to his son. But which son? There are four, and exceedingly little is known about them, considering that one could come to power in a country with nuclear weapons. The one appearing in the anime is the eldest, Kim Jong Chul, but he probably won’t be succeeding his father because of his foreign proclivities. These are referenced in the show by his iconic mouse ears; he was arrested at Narita airport with a fake Chinese passport and claimed he was going to visit Disneyland in Tokyo, causing massive embarrassment back home and for China which is where they deported him to. The second son, Kim Jong Nam, is rumored to not be manly enough for his father, who seems to have decided on the third son, Kim Jong Un. Will the new Leader be as repressive as the last? Will he begin liberalization? Or will he turn out to be stark raving mad and attempt to invade China/South Korea/the moon? No one has a fucking clue because the inner workings of DPRK politics are essentially a mystery, since they mostly go on in Dear Leader’s senile old head.
What about that other Korea? There are two, right?
Relations with the South are somewhat more genial. The countries share a lot of culture and history, but it’s not all roses, as you see in the picture above. Some of that shared history involves invasions and massacres and sex slavery and human experimentation. But oddly enough the real sticking point is a miserable cluster of rocks in the Sea of Japan between the two countries. Not even a cluster, a pair, called either the Liancourt Rocks, the Dokdo, or the Takeshima depending on who you ask. They lie about halfway between the two countries and are good for absolutely nothing except arguing about (check out the wiki discussion page for a taste). The conflict over who owns them inspired the men pictured above to hack off the heads of several pheasants, which apparently are Japan’s national bird. I picture Japanese people reading the headline and leaning over to ask a friend “hey, did you know we had a national bird?”. (Fun fact: Japan’s bird is actually the green pheasant, a subspecies not found outside Japan. What the protestors are killing is a common pheasant, which, I am told, in Japan is known as the Korean pheasant.)
(Another fun fact regarding those human experiments: after the end of the war, there were plenty of witnesses in China, Korea, and the Soviet Union willing to testify against the members of the biological warfare unit. But the American military, and several unethical scientists, were so eager to get their hands on the human experiment data that they would never be able to collect themselves that they cut a deal with the would-be war criminals that exonerated them of all charges in return for the results of their work. Just a reminder that as horrible as Japanese war crimes get, Americans were tripping over themselves to be just as horrible.)
Who were those guys at the end of the show?
Of course the real regional powerhouse, as the anime points out, is China, or more specifically the People’s Republic of China. It’s important to distinguish, because there are still two Chinas; the big one that owns all the American debt and the small one that most people know as Taiwan (it’s technically the Republic of China). Both countries to this day claim to be the one and only real China, and to control all the land that both of them occupy (plus Tibet for the PRC and Mongolia for the RoC). Both countries seethe at any hint that you think the other country has any right to exist at all, and no small part of regional politics is trying desperately to pretend you completely agree with whichever China you’re trying to negotiate with at the moment.
Japan does a lot of business with both Chinas, ten trillion Yen in exports last year to the PRC and three trillion to Taiwan (and that in an off year!), which makes the PRC their biggest trading parnter after the U.S. (8 trillion in 09 exports). So it’s definitely in their best interests to keep relations on the level, but as with Korea there is the elephant in the room of the hundreds of thousands of people murdered (some in truly horrifying ways) and enslaved by the Japanese Empire when it annexed and invaded a fat chunk of southeast Asia. Things can get strained when nationalist politicians like Koizumi and Aso go out of their way to piss off the rest of the region by visiting the Yasukuni shrine, the temple where Japanese religious authorities say they have enshrined the kami of all Japan’s casualties of war, even the ones guilty of crimes against humanity. It’s kind of crazy that some committee can anger a billion people by deciding to put the imaginary ghosts of war criminals in a certain pretty building, but that’s politics!
(Fun fact: the imaginary ghosts were actually moved there secretly in 1959 (1978 for the 14 A-class war criminals), it was not announced that the imaginary ghosts were moved until some time later for fear of causing a diplomatic incident. Shame on the Japanese government for hiding their movements of imaginary ghosts! Without complete transparency of these completely transperent spirits, how can we know that they haven’t been moved directly into Chinese premiere Hu Jintao’s left nostril? It must be awesome having a job where you can start international conflicts over the placement of things that don’t actually exist.)
Of course, no international relationship would be complete without a territorial dispute over a barren rock. Introducing the Senkaku Islands! They have a total area of 7 square kilometers and a population of zero, but some geologist suggested there might be oil and/or natural gas nearby so it is likely that Japan, Taiwan, and the PRC will still be arguing over who owns them long after Tokyo, Taipei, and Beijing have transformed into futristic space cities or flattened into radioactive dust. The most recent developments here are the sinking of a Taiwanese fishing boat and a tense moment when a Japanese navy vessel sailed too close to the islands for comfort. The PRC also caused a bit of a stir when they put the JSDF on high alert by sneaking a Han class nuclear submarine into Japanese territorial waters for what it claims were technical reasons (this may actually be true, the type 091 is a deeply shitty submarine best known for giving its own sailors radiation poisoning).
I’m going to cut this short, it’s gotten much longer than I intended and I am dead tired of copying and pasting links. I hope some of you knuckleheads read the whole thing, if there’s any interest I may do a follow-up on domestic politics. Feel free to share your thoughts or experiences with regards to Japanese politics in the comments section.