Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Japanese Politics Primer, Part 2: PM Parade

Part one.
Part three.

Unfortunately the last installment ended up being much longer than I had originally envisioned, but that was somewhat necessitated by the depth and density of the material. Hopefully this time will be a little easier to swallow and possibly more entertaining, since we'll be talking about the fact that the Japanese Prime Ministership has been a complete gong show going on seven years now.

Even if you're totally unfamiliar with Japanese politics, you've probably caught wind of this development in the media at least a couple of times (for some reason it was particularly popular fodder when Kan was in power). The gist of it is that ever since 2006 we've been presented with a new PM almost annually, the situation becoming successively more absurd and the reasons more sigh-inducing.

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Koizumi Jun'ichiro (2001-2006)

I think Koizumi might be my favourite Japanese Prime Minister ever. Not particularly for his policies or anything, which I'm not even that familiar with, but because he was fun to watch, even if he was kind of before my time. He's become a bit of a minor legend, with newsanchors regaling us with tales of his Segway expeditions, need for speed, dress-up sessions, discovery of some psychadelic mushrooms, and, of course, his magnificent hair. He was kind of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau of Japan in that way. Though he attracted international criticism for his visits to Yasukuni Shrine, he was ultimately one of the most successful politicians in Japanese history. He enjoyed considerable popularity and pushed through a number of reforms, but after his postal privatization bill was defeated in 2005 he announced that he would step down the following year in order to make way for his successor.

Abe Shinzou (2006-2007)

Koizumi endorsed no one, and the Jimintou leadership convention appointed Abe, who easily led them to victory in the 2006 election. For the most part he continued on with the policies that Koizumi had set into motion, but also made enemies with stupid moves like stoking existing WWII textbook controversy, denying the existence of comfort women, and trying to mess with the Imperial orders of succession. His worst mistake by far was to suggest that Article 9 of the Japanese constitution needs to be changed. Because oh man, that is just asking for heat. Article 9 is the one that prohibits Japan from having a real army and Abe had been thinking that maybe Japan needed one of those after all. Of course, this brooked a huge argument over whether trying to destroy the constitution was unconstitutional, which it was, unless you look at it retroactively. On the other hand, his Asian foreign policy is generally praised as taking positive steps towards understanding and reconciliation, in spite of the comments he made in that area.

Less than a year after his ascension, he stepped down, citing serious stomach problems, because this is a culture where you can speak publicly about gastrointestinal trauma without being publicly ridiculed. There is some speculation about whether this was a legitimate medical issue or merely an excuse allowing him to gracefully dodge responsibility, but it's kind of a useless argument as it's all conjecture. It's still a lame way to go out regardless, though. That said, we may not have seen the last of Abe.

Fukuda Yasuo (2007-2008)

Fukuda was kind of unremarkable and in fact, the only thing about him that particularly sticks out in my mind is that he looks kind of like a turtle. After some discussion over whether he or Aso Tarou should assume the Prime Minister's seat, he took over from Abe in quite undramatic fashion and proceeded to not accomplish much of anything at all. He did come up with some stupid word choices and the occasional superfluous sexist or xenophobic just, you know, kind of thrown in there for flavour. A big contributing factor to his eventual fall was his inability to cooperate with the Minshutou, as exemplified by his statement that Japan would continue to provide United States naval forces with fuel even though the Minshutou had made it quite clear they would tolerate no such thing. Mostly, though, he is noted for his ineffectiveness, so in hindsight it's not surprising that he didn't last. Realising that the Jimintou and Minshutou were hopelessly at loggerheads and it was all his fault, he resigned out of nowhere following the failure of his medical reform package.

Asou Tarou (2008-2009)

A high-ranking Jimintou guy since the early Koizumi days, Asou was left heir apparent with Fukuda gone, and he gladly leaped into action. Asou is easy to hate, but I kind of like him. I find his completely unearned cockiness just somehow endearing, his smirking sneer oddly compelling. His unbelievably ignorant and inflammatory comments are also amusing in their own way, insulting Jews, burakumin (butchers, morticians, etc), Ainu, Zainichi, Korea, China, America, and Japan. He's kind of a magnificent asshole. Shockingly, the voting public were, it would seem, not so keen on him, as he called an election and promptly got kicked to the moon, giving the Minshutou an unprecedented majority. Having presided over the party's worst loss in its history and (so it seemed at the time) possibly having destroyed it outright, he immediately resigned as party leader. Intriguingly, he is a professed manga fan, inspiring Otaku Nation to take him as their own, with a billboard in his image once erected in Akihabara.

Hatoyama Yukio (2009-2010)

Hailing from Hokkaidou, Hatoyama pulled off a victory mostly by being less repulsive than Asou, not an especially impressive feat. Counterpoint: I realise that looks should be irrelevant in evaluating a politician, but holy hell, this guy's face is goddamn terrifying. You're welcome. Naturally, he does deserve some credit for taking down the ordinarily invincible Jimintou, and he also pushed through an impressive number of reforms, although he doesn't quite compare to Koizumi in terms of either numbers or necessity. What ultimately took him down, a mere six months in the job, was a couple of poor foreign policy decisions. The American military's presence in Okinawa has been a contentious issue for decades, and promising a round of base-kibosh was less than savvy, especially when the DPRK sank an ROK submarine and indirectly forced him to keep it open. Throw in the de rigeur financial scandals that come with the territory and his party ultimately compelled him to step aside. Interestingly, Hatoyama comes from a whole family of politicians.

Kan Naoto (2010-2011)

Hatoyama's deputy stepped in to replace him, and it turns out he had no shortage of past transgressions against good taste, which is surprising considering that I mainly remember him for how incredibly bland he was. Not that I was really paying attention at the time, so maybe I'm just totally off. Like his predecessor, he managed to piss a whole bunch of people off by dicking around with stuff that ought not to be dicked around with, in this case the consumption tax. For whatever reason, the Japanese public is strongly, strongly against even the possibility of a rising consumption tax, which has always seemed strange to me given that Canada's is substantially higher, but then again, we also have much stronger social services. His foreign policy was outright incompetent; the current Senkaku dispute, which political analyst Tougou Kazuhiko believes will develop into something truly worrisome within the next year, first broke under his watch, and also antagonized the nuclear-equipped DPRK after its island bombardment. But perhaps his worst failure was the poor handling of the 2011 Touhouku Earthquake relief, and after a little touch-and-go he too stepped down, mostly voluntarily.

Noda Yoshihiko (2011-present)

Finally we arrive at our current Prime Minister, a well-intentioned guy who is at least more likeable than those of recent memory. He has pursued an agenda of nuclear non-proliferation as best he can, this being one of the Minshutou's main tenants, but the opposition's constant dickish interference anytime he's tried to do almost anything at all has seriously stymied any initiatives he might like to take. In kind of an interesting case of rollover, he evoked ire in the same vein as not only Hatoyama but Kan as well, by trying to both double the consumption tax and incite an Asia-Pacific war. After realising that nobody wanted him around anymore, but pretending not to, he called an election for December 16th and proceeded with an elaborate show of looking as though he believes he might be re-elected.

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The way things stand, Abe seems poised to re-take the Prime Minister's seat, but on an absolute scale he's not actually all that popular. Personally, I hope that this means that he will last only one more year before making way for yet another...someone who will last. It would be fun if the man who kicked off the one-year term trend was also the last one to continue it, 'cause that would not only bookend things nicely but also maybe mean we could stop faffing about and get some work done.

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