You are a minister on the campaign trail trying to manufacture popularity for an upcoming election. You and your election team decide to take to the streets to distribute some promotional freebies. You print your name, face, a heartfelt slogan and a snapshot of your local policy platform onto a cheap sheet of round paper or cardboard. So far so good. Then, you notice it is 30 degrees celsius outside, so you attach a handle onto the leaflet, make it into a fan, and hand them out to sweaty constituents at a summer festival. Ok, now you have gone too far. You are fired.
Midori Matsushima, now former Justice Minister, did exactly this with her leaflet (pictured left) and was later forced to resign this month amid accusations of vote-buying. According to opposition DPJ lawmaker, Renho Murata, because Matsushima’s leaflet came with a handle and a fan-like frame, it was technically an ‘uchiwa’ (a paper fan). According to Renho, this qualifies as a ‘donation’ of ‘an item of monetary value,’ which is a violation of Article 139 of the Public Office Election Law (Japanese link). The Electoral Commission agreed with Renho.
Cue a flurry of fan-related political assaults across the parliamentary floor in both directions. Renho Murata, having led the attack against Matsushima, then faced questions herself regarding her own round paper leaflet (pictured right), which she had distributed while campaigning for election to the House of Councillors in 2010. In response, she maintained that without a handle or frame, her leaflet does not fit the traditional definition of an ‘uchiwa’ and is therefore perfectly legitimate. The Electoral Commission agreed with her, again, and her non-uchiwa leaflet got the green light.
So, what are we to make of all this triviality? For one, pushing legal loopholes is a very dangerous game. The prohibition against ‘donations’ or distributing ‘items of monetary value’ is a minefield of legal ambiguity that is as easy to get entangled in as it is to exploit. Take, for example, Article 139’s ban on serving any food or drink during an election campaign, ‘except tea and some sweets that are served only ordinarily.’ This means in theory that serving an extra cookie with a mildly expensive brand of tea could make the difference between lawful hospitality and an illicit indulgence of corrupt intent.
Indeed, if one were to take a fastidious interpretation of a clause as vague as a prohibition on ‘items of monetary value,’ then one could reasonably outlaw Renho’s leaflet too, for while it might not much resemble an effective ‘uchiwa’, it could certainly resemble a coaster/ place mat, or mouse-pad, or dartboard, or makeshift poopascoopa, or wobbly table stabiliser, or a myriad of other items.
But did she design the leaflet with such intent? Well, here marks the outer layer of the law – an area of almost unintelligible legal ambiguity (termed ‘zaruhou’ in Japanese). It is the frontier, the penumbra, the gray area of regulatory loopholes where the letter of the law ends and the drama of interpretation begins. Here is the quarrelsome task of determining when an act of self-defence becomes murder; when a genuine campaign contribution becomes a bribe; when harmless hospitality becomes self-serving indulgence – or, if you are in Japan, when a leaflet becomes a fan.
Just days after Matshushima’s disgraced ‘uchiwa’ was brandished in parliament, another fan-like leaflet came under investigation, this one belonging to LDP Deputy Defence Minister, Akira Satō. This leaflet – definitely an ‘uchiwa’ – was approved without spectacle, however, because it had been placed at a reception desk, rather than actively distributed.
When you work in an industry obsessed with scoring points and saving face in front of the voting public, the line between legal and illegal, job and no job, can become deceptively blurry. And it tends to turn politics into something of a fanfare – the kind of fanfare that convenes multiple times to debate nuances in the definition of a fan; that makes a politician as high up as Matsushima, Justice Minister, equivocate on what is clearly an ‘uchiwa’; that can get Matsushima’s ‘uchiwa’ (costing a mere 80 yen a piece to make) sold in Yahoo auctions for 16,500 yen; and that can doubtless make anti-politics cynicism regrettably more fashionable.
IT WAS NOT LONG AGO that political scientist Ethan Scheiner aptly described politics in Japan as “democracy without competition”. In fact, that was in 2006, when the fortress of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had been standing tall in government for over fifty years of almost uninterrupted rule, still guarded by its own loyal brand of bureaucracy and clientelism, and enjoying a new leash of life under the charismatic and popular reign of Junichiro Koizumi.
The scene is a little different now. The LDP may be back in power, but this time, they’ve had to recover from their landslide defeat in 2009, and overcome the incumbent Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), as well as a whole kaleidoscope of parties vying for the so-called “third force” in the party system.
After former DPJ prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda announced that he would dissolve government and call an election for a month later, a flurry of smaller parties formed, merged and re-shuffled. The People’s Life First Party founded by Ichiro Ozawa was formed out of the Tomorrow Party of Japan, Nuclear-Free Party and Green Wind (Japan is, by the way, a world leader in terrible party names). The Japan Restoration Party (JRP), which eventually assumed the position of the “third force”, winning 54 seats (only 3 less than the incumbent DPJ), was formed from a partnership of right-wing heavy-weights, Toru Hashimoto and Shintaro Ishihara. A total of 1,504 candidates ran – a record high under the current election system.
There was much competition, but it was not much in the way of a contest. The eventual one-sided nature of the election in favour of the LDP suggests rather that it was a case of quantity of opposition parties over quality. With around 40 per cent of people polled days before the election, saying they were undecided, “third force” parties were scrambling for the votes of the disaffected. But the sheer number of parties and the extent of the pre-election shuffling seemed instead to have had a dizzying and distracting effect on the electorate, some of whom opted for the right-wing JRP option, but most of whom decided to run with the more familiar and enduring LDP. If 2009 was about “change”, 2012 was about “political stability” (which 54 percent of respondents in an Asahi Shimbun poll cited as their main concern).
Healthy competition is not simply a matter of having a large number of parties. It takes infrastructure, a party machine, and a backbone to withstand the rigours of party politics without fragmenting. The DPJ has taken this approach in the past, but it remains to be seen after the latest election blow, whether or not the backbone has been knocked out of their previously sturdy frame.
Social anthropologist, Chie Nakane in her insightful book Japanese Society, wrote that in Japan “a change of leadership is a very critical period for the continuance and stability of the group”. She cites the Buddhist sage, Hōnen who returned to find his disciples bickering after periods of absence, and said “you shall not stay together, but each go (your) own separate way”.
This has been the default response for the LDP after large-scale political defeats and leadership failures. After their election defeat in 2009 for instance, many LDP party members, mostly from the sprightly Koizumi faction, went their ‘own separate ways’, either joining other parties or forming their own – Your Party, the New Renaissance Party, the Sunrise Party – hence why there were so many parties competing in 2012. The same happened in 1992-3, when more than fifty LDP members left to form other parties (Shinseito, New Party Sakigake and others) after Morihiro Hosakawa left the LDP and a vote of no-confidence was passed against the Miyazawa government.
This approach places much emphasis on a leader, perhaps more so than a cause, which means that when one’s leader falls, one can tend to drift with the tides of power. As specialist of Japanese politics, Sarah Hyde, notes in her book The Transformation of the Japanese Left, many of these defectors soon “returned to the home of the LDP” after the LDP’s narrow victory in the 1996 general election, allowing the party to “return to within striking distance of its former glory”.
As such, one might not be surprised to see renegade LDP members slowly trickle back into the party ranks of the LDP now in power. Indeed during Shinzo Abe’s first stint as prime minister in 2007, he re-opened the party to the rebels that Koizumi had shut out (on account of disagreements on postal reform), bringing back what Chuo University’s Steven R. Reed called the “traditional non-policy” of the LDP – “if you win, you are LDP”. Such realpolitik fluttering has an expression in Japanese – nagaimono niha makarero (which roughly translates as “if you can’t beat them, join them”). It is precisely the sort of acquiescence that would, if now adopted by a despondent DPJ, make them a very spineless sort of opposition.
The DPJ should not commit an LDP-style exodus of their cause, as described by Chie Nakane. The DPJ has assumed the prospective role of the “other party” in a burgeoning two-party system, and has, since its inception in 1998, shown just how pregnable the LDP fortress can be. They should bear this in mind while the LDP looks to re-establish old ties and re-build its shattered walls.
In light of two giant electoral mood swings, two things have become clear – the LDP is not as infallible as it once was, and the DPJ cause is not as lost as it might seem. Ever since the LDP split the first time round in 1993, the evolution of Japan’s party system has more rapidly gathered pace. The brief Horikawa-led eight-party coalition government that followed the ’93 LDP split (which lasted only 10 months), managed to pass the electoral and political reform that would set the stage for a two-party arrangement. This esoteric reform introduced a mixed-member system including single-member districts and PR. It was a way to clean up party funding away from corruption, but was a major driver of party system change.
The neo-liberal reforms that were so forcefully pushed forward by “cool biz” Koizumi, the LDP maverick in 2001-2006 (reforms that were also championed by the DPJ in its nascent years), also contributed to the end of much of the old ways of politics in Japan. He led an assault on clientelism and ‘convoy capitalism’ (an economy of shifting state-capital to favoured sectors), taking away some major incumbent advantages, and breaking down much of the traditional LDP-socialist wing of his own party.
Both parties have been playing catch up in this new setting since. And now, with the Shinzo Abe-led LDP positioning itself ideologically on the Right – hawkish on security policy and neo-liberal on economic policy – the DPJ will have plenty to get stuck into in opposition (especially if the even more right-wing JRP stick around). In power, the DPJ was moderate on security policy and preferred to prioritize welfare and social programs over growth. The party will have to build on these ideological wedges if it’s to become more than a party for protest votes. But first, if the evolution of Japan’s party politics is to go on, the DPJ will need to check it still has its backbone – the same one it used to pull itself back up after major defeat in the election of 2005.