Category Archives: Japan

Naruhito could soon become Japan’s next emperor

Naruhito, Japan's crown prince, would assume the Chrysanthemum Throne if his father Akihito were permitted to abdicate. (Sebastien Bozon / AFP - Getty)
Naruhito, Japan’s crown prince, would assume the Chrysanthemum Throne if his father Akihito were permitted to abdicate. (Sebastien Bozon / AFP – Getty)

Japan’s long-serving emperor, Akihito, stunned his country Monday in a video address, during he heavily hinted that the Japanese parliament should consider permitting his future abdication.Japan

The emperor did not fully endorse legislation to allow abdication, out of respect for the tradition that emperors do not intervene directly in Japanese politics. But at age 82, Akihito, who has suffered from increasingly poor health in recent years, made it abundantly clear that he believes that his retirement would be a good thing for the Japanese people — if the current government finds a way to amend the imperial succession laws. In addressing the Japanese people directly, and in reinforcing the emperor’s role as a symbol of postwar pacifism, Akihito also contrasted with the post-imperial views of prime minister Shinzō Abe, perhaps the most nationalist of Japan’s postwar civilian leaders.

No matter what happens, Akihito’s address signals that his son, the 56-year-old Naruhito, could take a much more high-profile role in the future. If the Diet enacts legislation permitting abdication, Naruhito might even soon become Japan’s new emperor.

The abdication question is now just one of several issues on Abe’s desk after his dominant Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP, or 自由民主党, Jiyū-Minshutō) made gains in elections last month in the House of Councillors, the upper house of the National Diet (国会, Kokkai), the Japanese parliament. Among other things, Abe has postponed a long-planned increase in the national consumption tax and has doubled down on what’s already been nearly four years of fiscal and monetary stimulus to improve Japan’s long-stagnant economy. Above all, he still harbors dreams of revising Japan’s pacifist constitution by amending Article 9, the famous provision that outlaws war and technically forbids a standing Japanese army (though, in reality, the so-called Japan Self-Defense Forces have more personnel than the United Kingdom’s army).

Akihito’s Monday afternoon address, however, brings the Japanese imperial tradition to the forefront of Japan’s often muted (by American standards, at least) political agenda. The Chrysanthemum Throne dates back nearly three millennia as the world’s oldest continuing hereditary monarchy. Japan’s emperors, however, traditionally wielded more moral and spiritual power than actual power. That was true in the Tokugawa era, and it’s been true since the end of World War II when the United States and its allies rehabilitated the imperial institution to use Hirohito, who reigned from 1926 to 1989, as a link from pre-war to post-war Japan.

Hirohito, in the immediate postwar period, admitted publicly that the emperor was not, in fact, a god. Akihito’s wife, Michiko, is the first commoner to serve as empress, and they have tried to make the throne more accessible to the Japanese people. Naruhito, in particular, has indicated that he would like to continue to break down some of the formality surrounding the imperial family. Continue reading Naruhito could soon become Japan’s next emperor

What 21st century Americans can learn from Tokugawa-era Japan on guns

19th century Edo-period painting of Kiso Kaido highway with a view of Mt. Fuji.
19th century Edo-period painting of Kiso Kaido highway with a view of Mt. Fuji.

The horrific massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, early Sunday morning has, not unpredictably, set off a new round of calls for more stringent gun control, especially on the American left.USflagJapan

As Chris Murphy, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, held a filibuster on the floor of the US Senate Wednesday and Thursday to demand that Senate Republicans agree to hold a vote on gun control, the one measure that both sides seems even potentially likely to agree is a bill to deny (or delay) gun purchases to individuals on the national ‘terrorist watch list.’

Even that bill is controversial. On both the left and the right, critics rightly argue that the terrorist watch list and the related ‘no fly list’ are compiled in a way that violates basic due process. To use these as a proxy to restrict additional rights, such as 2nd amendment freedoms, only magnifies the due process problem with these secret lists. It’s hard to imagine that the US Supreme Court would uphold as fully constitutional a new law that ties gun restrictions to the terrorist watch/no fly lists, at least in their current forms. Imagine, too, what could happen if a president Donald Trump decided to list all of his domestic political opponents on a ‘watch list.’

But put that aside for a moment. Imagine a world where Republicans and the National Rifle Association agreed, for instance, to re-introduce the ‘assault weapons’ ban that was initially passed in 1994 and that phased out in 2004.

As Dylan Matthews has written at Vox, however, it is not clear that the measures that most Democrats support, including president Barack Obama and presumptive presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, would accomplish significant reductions in mass shootings or gun homicides.

He argues that the United States would have to go much, much farther, including the kind of mandatory confiscation and widespread bans on firearms that Australia’s conservative government (at the time) introduced after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, which left 35 people dead and 23 people wounded:

Realistically, a gun control plan that has any hope of getting us down to European levels of violence is going to mean taking a huge number of guns away from a huge number of gun owners.

Other countries have done exactly that. Australia, for example, enacted a mandatory gun buyback that achieved that goal, and saw firearm suicides fall as a result. But the reforms those countries enacted are far more dramatic than anything US politicians are calling for — and even they wouldn’t get us to where many other developed countries are.

As Matthews notes, there’s only so much that American politicians can do in the current political climate. Moreover, the 2nd Amendment potentially places real constitutional limits on gun control. After the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, I’m not so sure that even the current Court, deadlocked with four generally conservative justices and four generally liberal justices, would necessarily give its blessing to an Australia-style reform.

But the fundamental problem isn’t necessarily constitutional or legislative. It’s culture. Americans have a gun culture unlike anywhere else in the developed world. Until and unless Americans eliminate that culture (not likely anytime soon), it’s going to prove impossible to enact the kind of gun control legislation that could show dramatic reductions in gun violence.

As a Millennial gay man living in downtown Washington, I don’t really care for guns. Hunting bored me, even when I was a kid in rural Ohio. But I’m not everyone in the United States, and many law-abiding Americans love their guns — as a means of protecting their homes, as a principled symbol of individual liberty, for the sport of hunting or just for the love of firearms in its own right. I would personally love an American culture that looks more like European culture or Japanese culture. But no one could make that happen unilaterally, even if he or she were elected president tomorrow with a majority in both the House and the Senate.

Any effort to eradicate the number of guns in circulation in the United States would be most successful if you went back in time to the middle of the 20th century. It’s hard, frankly, to think of a single policy issue that suffers more from path determination (including rail and public transportation). Even more, if you’re a leftist and you care anything about civil liberties, you should also be worried about the kind of police power you would need to round up the vast majority of guns in the United States, because it would rival the kind of force you would need to, say, round up 11 million Mexican immigrants for deportation.

What’s fascinating is to chart the trajectory of gun culture in Japan. An early adopter, Japan was one of the first countries to experiment with the gunpowder invented in nearby China, and it might have started using very primitive firearms as early as the middle of the 13th century. Throughout the 16th century, however, Japan was a country divided and at war, among various daimyo (feudual lords) across the islands we today recognize as Japan. Firearms, imported from traders in Portugal and the rest of Europe, played an important and lethal role in those civil wars. In particular, firearms played a pivotal role in Oda Nobunaga’s victories in the 1570s and early 1580s that largely unified the island of Honchu. Continue reading What 21st century Americans can learn from Tokugawa-era Japan on guns

Some thoughts on Japan

Tokyo's Shinjuku neighborhood at nighttime.
Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood at nighttime.

Readers will note Suffragio‘s sparse publication schedule over the Memorial Day holiday and the following week. Japan

That’s because I’ve been traveling in Japan (for the first time, though not the first time in Asia), and though I had been planning to scale down my writing on world politics, I hadn’t expected to spend quite so much time walking, talking, eating, drinking and exploring in a culture in which I’ve tried to immerse myself, at least as time has allowed, in the three months leading to the trip. I hope to spend much of the rest of the summer continuing to learn more about the country’s history, food and, above all, its cinema. (And, of course, its politics — senatorial elections are coming quickly in August).

A bamboo grove on the outskirts of Kyoto.

In any event, everyone needs a break from world politics, especially in an American presidential election year that’s atypically unpredictable. There’s only so much one can write about Brexit.

If interesting, here are some of my thoughts about 11 days in Japan.

The train rolls up before 6:30 am in rural Mie peninsula.
The train rolls up before 6:30 am in rural Mie peninsula.

The best infrastructure in the world. I am tempted to say that the United States could benefit from Japan’s counter-occupation for a few years. I understand why Japan, which has a smaller area and a denser population (especially on Honshu, the most populous island), has a more plausible rationale for a high-speed rail network than the United States. But to come from Washington, D.C., where the Metro system is experiencing dangerous fires and unimaginable levels of dysfunction, the sophistication of Japan’s infrastructure is staggering by contrast. Japan’s 1990s-era bullet trains were faster than today’s Acela Express, the so-called ‘high speed’ train that runs from Boston to Washington. Continue reading Some thoughts on Japan

Why Obama will almost certainly visit Hiroshima

US secretary of state John Kerry became the highest-ranking US official to pay his respects to the victims of Hiroshima this week. (Telegraph)
US secretary of state John Kerry became the highest-ranking US official to pay his respects to the victims of Hiroshima this week. (Telegraph)

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, had not even appeared at Hiroshima’s peace memorial before word leaked that US president Barack Obama could visit Hiroshima at the end of May following the G7 meeting in Shima, Japan.JapanUSflag

The Obama administration, it’s safe to say, is in full legacy-building mode.

Last month, Myanmar’s government transitioned to a democratically elected government (and, yes, Kerry’s predecessor at State, Hillary Clinton, played a critical role in US support for Burmese democracy). There’s the landmark deal of the ‘P5 + 1’ countries with Iran to bring more transparency to its nuclear energy program and, possibly, its nuclear weapons ambitions. There’s the opening to Cuba after decades of isolation and resentment on both sides of the Straits of Florida, and Obama’s historic visit to Havana.

Kerry is now the highest-ranked US official to visit Hiroshima, but a presidential visit would be exponentially more important — and symbolic — for at least three reasons. Continue reading Why Obama will almost certainly visit Hiroshima

Seoul-Tokyo relations at heart of US ‘Asian pivot’ wishlist

abelincolnPhoto credit to AFP / Getty.

Courting controversy for his refusal to issue a formal apology from Japan to South Korea and other Asian neighbors whose nationals were conscripted into service as ‘comfort women’ during World War II, Japanese prime minister nevertheless embraced the United States in a joint address to the US Congress Wednesday:South Korea Flag IconJapanUSflag

My dear friends, on behalf of Japan and the Japanese people, I offer with profound respect, my eternal condolences to the souls of all American people that were lost during World War II.

Though Abe expressed deep repentance for Japanese actions that caused suffering to Asian neighbors, and though Abe said that Japan must not avert its eyes from that, he bluntly noted that ‘history is harsh’ and that ‘what’s done cannot be undone.’ Presumably, that includes the abduction of women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during World War II across much of Asia, chiefly in Korea, which remained under Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945. Even discussing the issue today is still widely controversial in both Japan and South Korea, but it’s enough of an affront to South Korea that South Korean president Park Geun-hye has only met with Abe once — and apparently, she was less than impressed with Japanese diplomacy.

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RELATED: Japan is once again an essentially one-party country

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Abe’s refusal, and the refusal of prior Japanese prime ministers, to apologize has caused diplomatic tension with China and, more importantly for US purposes, South Korea, which US officials hope can become a closer Japanese ally in their mutual quest to balance China’s growing regional power. Though the US-Japanese relationship is strong today, it’s odd, upon reflection, that a Japanese official would apologize to the country that deployed not one, but two, atomic bombs on Japan while remaining recalcitrant vis-a-vis Korea.

Mike Honda, a Democratic member of the US House of Representatives from California and himself an American of Japanese descent, brought Lee Yong-soo, a Korean woman forced into service as a ‘comfort woman’ in 1944 at the age of 16, to Abe’s congressional address in protest.

Mistrust between the two countries runs deep. Surveys show that Abe is more unpopular throughout South Korea today than North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un.

The apology issue was the most contentious of a broad portfolio of policy issues between the United States and Japan, as Abe continues his red-carpet visit to the United States, which included a personal tour of Washington’s monuments with US president Barack Obama (pictured above with Abe) and a state dinner on Tuesday night.
Continue reading Seoul-Tokyo relations at heart of US ‘Asian pivot’ wishlist

Ozawa, Japan’s one-time ‘shadow shogun,’ survives wipeout

ozawaPhoto credit to Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty.

In Japanese politics, few figures loom larger than Ichirō Ozawa (小沢 一郎), who has been a MP in Japan’s parliament since 1969.Japan

On Sunday, he faced the largest challenge of his political career, when as the leader of the People’s Life Party (生活の党, Seikatsu no Tō), he struggled to hold onto his own constituency in northern Iwate prefecture, campaigning in his home city of Ōshū for the first time in three decades.

As it turns out, Ozawa (pictured above) held off his opponent by more than 10 points, winning one of just two seats for the People’s Life Party. So while Ozawa will return to the House of Representatives, the lower house of Japan’s parliament, the Diet (国会), he will do so as an increasingly isolated relic after reaching the pinnacle of leadership in both the dominant Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP, or 自由民主党, Jiyū-Minshutō) of prime minister Shinzō Abe (安倍 晋三) and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ, or 民主党, Minshutō), which held power for three tumultuous years from 2009 to 2012.

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RELATED: Japan is once again an essentially one-party country

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Known for decades as Japan’s ‘shadow shogun’ for the power he wielded behind closed doors, it’s no exaggeration to say that Ozawa is one of the leading figures of postwar Japanese politics. He was a vital figure in the LDP’s 1980s dominance, and he was instrumental in leading the only two movements that have dislodged the LDP’s six-decade political hegemony. In 45 years of political life, Ozawa himself has gone from conservative to liberal and back again with no clear ideological compass beyond gaining (and regaining) power. Although he’s a controversial figure, there’s no doubting that he has played a greater role than nearly anyone else in Japan in the effort to create a truly multi-party system, even while he’s disparaged Christianity as an exclusionary religion, claimed to ‘hate’ Europe and once derided Americans as ‘mono cellular’ and ‘simple-minded.’

At age 72, and leading a caucus that contains just one other legislator, few would disregard Ozawa’s ability to mount yet another comeback, especially if Abe’s efforts to stimulate Japan’s economy, once again tumbling into recession, ultimately fail. That’s especially true with few credible opposition figures in sight.  Continue reading Ozawa, Japan’s one-time ‘shadow shogun,’ survives wipeout

Japan is once again an essentially one-party country


As expected, Japan’s prime minister Shinzō Abe (安倍 晋三) and the governing Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP, or 自由民主党, Jiyū-Minshutō) easy won snap elections called less than three weeks ago.Japan

Despite growing doubts about Japan’s precarious economy, which entered an official recession last quarter, Abe maintained a two-thirds majority in the lower house of Japan’s parliament. The most amazing fact of the election is that Japan’s opposition parties, despite a feeble effort against Abe’s push for reelection, lost virtually no ground.

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RELATED: Abe calls snap elections in Japan as recession returns

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Nevertheless, it’s hard not to conclude from the results and the sudden December election campaign that Japan today has essentially returned to one-party rule for the time being. It puts a grim end to a period that began in 1993 with the first non-LDP government in over 40 years, and that culminated with the clear mandate of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ, or 民主党, Minshutō) in the 2009 general election. The DPJ cycled through three different prime ministers in three years, and it often appeared to stumble in its efforts to respond to the global financial crisis, longstanding declines in demographic and economic trends and the 2011 meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactor.

By December 2012, with promises of a massive new wave of monetary and fiscal stimulus, Abe (pictured above) swept the DPJ out of office, wining a two-thirds majority in conjunction with its junior coalition partner, the Buddhist, conservative and generally more pacifist Kōmeitō (公明党). That coalition, which controlled 326 seats in the House of Representatives, the lower house of Japan’s parliament, the Diet (国会), will now control 325 seats after Sunday’s election.


After its defeat in 2012, the Democratic Party elected Banri Kaieda (海江田 万里) as its new leader, essentially its fourth party head in four years. Kaieda, however, presented as an uninspiring choice for leader and he never seemed to grasp just how much rebuilding would be required in the aftermath of the party’s wipeout. Kaieda lost his own Tokyo constituency on Sunday, and will step down as party leader. But with just 198 candidates contesting the 325 seats elected directly, the DPJ was unprepared to wage a credible campaign to retake the Japanese government. Continue reading Japan is once again an essentially one-party country

Abe calls snap elections in Japan as recession returns


Barely hours after the news that Japan is entering a recession, with an annualized GDP drop of 7.3% in the second quarter and 1.6% in the third quarter, prime minister Shinzō Abe (安倍 晋三)  has announced snap elections that will be held sometime in mid-December.Japan

Ostensibly, Abe’s rationale is his determination to postpone the next installment of Japan’s consumption tax increase, which jumped from 5% to 8% in April and is set to rise further to 10% in 2015.

But that’s an obvious fig leaf — the consumption tax is the legacy of the opposition government that Abe defeated in his landslide victory in December 2012.

Instead, Abe hopes to maximize his government’s relative popularity and to take advantage of a scattered opposition to win a rapid mandate next month and extend the LDP’s control for another four years instead of waiting to face voters in 2015 or 2016, when the opposition could be stronger and when Abe’s policies might be even less popular. Abe also faces an internal LDP presidential election next year — it will be hard for rivals to attack Abe so soon after a successful election victory.

Ultimately, however, the election is also a referendum on ‘Abenomics,’ the most audacious experiment in neo-Keynesian economic policy today. Continue reading Abe calls snap elections in Japan as recession returns

Weekend municipal elections from Japan to France


It’s another busy weekend for world politics — especially with regard to municipal elections in two G-8 countries.

Here’s a quick weekend update of the three world elections taking place today and tomorrow.

Maldivian parliamentary electionsmaldives

First, the Maldives on Saturday elected all 77 members of the Majlis, the unicameral Maldivian parliament. The parliamentary elections follow the highly botched presidential election last autumn — the initial September vote was annulled and Maldivian election officials postponed the vote to the point of constitutional crisis. By the time the country held a new vote in November, it pushed through a runoff just five days later. Former president Mohammed Nasheed, who won the first round, lost the runoff to Abdulla Yameen, the half-brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who previously governed the Maldives between 1978 and 2008. 

The polls are already closed there, and the voting has gone smoothly, according to initial reports. Results are expected on Sunday, and the contest pits Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party against Gayoom’s Progressive Party of Maldives. 

Osaka municipal electionosakacity osakaprefectureJapan

In Japan, Osaka’s controversial mayor Tōru Hashimoto (橋下徹) is forcing a mayoral election after resigning in February in what amounts to a power play over his plan to unite the city of Osaka and Osaka prefecture into a larger ‘Osaka-to’ region.

Though no major party is running a candidate against Hashimoto (pictured above), the popularity of the former television personality has fallen rapidly both at the national and local level.

His bid to join forces with former Tokyo mayor Shintaro Ishihara to form the right-wing Japan Restoration Party (日本維新の会, Nippon Ishin no Kai) made waves in December 2012 when it nearly became the second-largest force in the lower house of the Japanese Diet, but Hashimoto’s rising star has faded over the past 15 months, not least of all because of his insensitive comments that attempted to justify the use of ‘comfort women’ — Korean sexual slaves — by Japanese soldiers during World War II.

Though Hashimoto will likely win reelection in the Osaka vote on Sunday, his critics have attacked the election as an unnecessary waste of taxpayer money.

Hashimoto, who served as the governor of Osaka prefecture between 2008 and 2011, has served as the city of Osaka’s mayor since 2011. In 2010, he founded the Osaka Restoration Association (大阪維新の会, Ōsaka Ishin no Kai) under the banner of ‘One Osaka,’ his longtime campaign to unite the prefecture and the city as one larger metropolis, like the structure of Tokyo’s combined metropolitan government. Osaka is Japan’s second-most populous metropolitan area, and Osaka prefecture, which encompasses the city of Osaka, is home to 8.9 million residents.

The plan faces opposition by the Osaka city council, where Hashimoto’s Osaka Restoration Association doesn’t hold a majority. Though there might be gains in merging the prefecture and city governments, critics fear that Hashimoto is more motivated by the possibility of creating a regional political empire. The central government also opposes the plan, because it might mean ceding power from the federal to the prefectural level.

Paris (and other French) municipal electionsFrance Flag Iconparis

French municipal elections are also taking place this weekend — the first round will take place Sunday, with second rounds to follow next Sunday, March 30.

The indisputable highlight of the French elections is the Paris mayoral race, with Bertrand Delanoë stepping down after 13 years in the office. The race will almost certainly result in a runoff next week between first deputy mayor Anne Hidalgo, the Andalusia-born candidate of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, a moderate who served as a former minister of ecology, sustainable development, transport and housing and as campaign spokesperson for Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012.

The vote takes place amid one of the worst bouts of air pollution that Paris has seen in recent years, which caused the city government to impose emergency restrictions on automobiles last week.

Though polls forecast a tight race, Hidalgo has held a consistent, if narrow, lead over Kosciusko-Morizet for nearly a year — the most recent BVA poll from mid-March predicted that Hidalgo would win the second round by a margin of 53% to 47%.

Outside Paris, however, the elections are a test for the struggling administration of France’s socialist president François Hollande, and an opportnity for France’s far-right Front national (FN, National Front), with its leader Marine Le Pen hoping to win at least some mid-sized towns and villages in the FN’s traditional stronghold in the Mediterranean south and in the economically depressed post-industrial north.

Who is Yoichi Masuzoe?

yoichiTokyo certainly seems to have a fondness for electing colorful characters as its governors — and its newly elected governor appears like he will be no exception.Japantokyo

Yōichi Masuzoe (舛添 要), who easily won the Tokyo gubernatorial election on Sunday, first became well-known in the 1990s as a television commentator.  In 1998, he wrote a book, When I Put a Diaper on My Mother, which detailed the process of caring for his elderly mother and gave Masuzoe a platform to discuss health and aging in Japan.  That’s particularly relevant for Japan, which has the world’s second-highest median age (44.6, just 0.3 years higher than Italy), and where the population peaked at just over 128 million in 2010 in what demographers believe will be a massive depopulation over the coming decades.

Masuzoe (pictured above) first ran for the Japanese governorship in 1999, though he placed third with just 15.3% of the vote.  Elected to the House of Councillors, the upper house of the Diet (国会), Japan’s parliament, in 2001, Masuzoe rose through the LDP ranks.  He chaired a constitutional panel in 2006 that advocated amending Japan’s Article 9, thereby allowing the Japanese Self-Defese Forces to become a full army.  Shinzō Abe (安倍 晋三), who was then in his first stint as Japan’s prime minister, appointed Masuzoe as Japan’s minister for health, labor and welfare, a position he held between 2007 and 2009, when the LDP suffered its most severe postwar electoral defeat.

He left the LDP in 2010 to form the New Renaissance Party (新党改革) at a time when his national profile seemed to be rising.  But by the time a national election came along in December 2012, the LDP was set to win a landslide victory under Abe and his economic program, popularly dubbed ‘Abenomics.’  Eclipsed by the Japan Restoration Party (日本維新の会), a merger of the two new parties of Tokyo’s governor at the time, Shintaro Ishihara (石原 慎太郎), and Osaka’s young mayor, Tōru Hashimoto (橋下 徹), the New Renaissance Party failed to win a single seat.

Today, the Japan Restoration Party is setting its sights somewhat lower after a disappointing result in the July 2013 elections to the House of Councillors and a series of bad publicity for Hashimoto, who defended the use of ‘comfort women‘ by Japanese soldiers in World War II in May 2013, has called snap elections in Osaka, where he’ll stand for reelection after proposing the merger of Osaka’s city and prefectural governments.

But Masuzoe is today riding high — running as an independent with the support of the LDP and its conservative Buddhist ally, New Kōmeitō (公明党, Shin Kōmeitō), Masuzoe won the election in a near-landslide, garnering more than double the support of his nearest challenger, Kenji Utsunomiya (宇都宮 健児), a Japanese attorney and anti-nuclear activist, and the runner-up in Tokyo’s December 2012 gubernatorial election.   


In third place was the man who once threatened to knock Masuzoe from his frontrunner perch — Morihiro Hosokawa (細川 護煕), who served as prime minister between August 1993 and April 1994, leading the first non-LDP government since 1955.  Though he resigned over accusations of bribery, and thereupon left politics, the DPJ recruited him for the 2014 Tokyo race.

Though Hosokawa had the formal support of the DPJ and Masuzoe the formal support of the LDP, several top Democratic Party figures backed Masuzoe.  Junichiro Koizumi (小泉 純一郎), the LDP architect of economic reform in the 2000s, backed Hosokawa, in large part due to his anti-nuclear stance.

In contrast to Utsunomiya and Hosokawa, who pledged to limit spending on the 2020 Olympics and opposed a return to nuclear energy, Masuzoe supported return to nuclear energy and now stands a good chance of ushering Tokyo through to the 2020 Olympics with plenty of LDP patronage, though Masuzoe will face reelection in 2018.  Earlier Monday, Abe’s government appeared to push with renewed vigor to restore Japan’s nuclear power capability just three years after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, and at times, the Tokyo gubernatorial race felt like a showdown between Abe and Koizumi, arguably the two most successful political figures in Japanese history of the past two decades.

The truth is that Tokyo voters weren’t thinking about the contest as a referendum on nuclear power, but competent city governance.  Abe, still basking in the success of his economic program (though that success may be somewhat less impressive than it was half a year ago), was always going to cast a large penumbra in the race.

Moreover, Utsunomiya and Hosokawa split the mostly anti-Masuzoe vote — had they united, they would have stood a strong chance at overtaking him, thereby denting the political invincibility that Abe and the LDP have enjoyed since December 2012.   The fourth-place candidate, Toshio Tamogami, a former general in the Self-Defense Forces, waged a largely nationalist, militaristic campaign, enough to win 12.4% of the vote that might have otherwise gone to Masuzoe.

Masuzoe expressed other odd views during the campaign — he indicated, rather bizarrely, that he didn’t believe women were capable of leading the country, inspiring an equally ‘sex boycott‘ among Tokyo women.

Back in Tokyo, Masuzoe is in good company historically though, given that the Tokyo governorship has attracted some of Japan’s most colorful politicians on the left and the right.

Continue reading Who is Yoichi Masuzoe?

14 potential game-changers for world politics in 2014


Though I rang in the new year with a list of 14 world elections to watch in the coming year (and 14 more honorable mentions to keep an eye on), I wanted to showcase a few more thoughts about what to watch for in world politics and foreign affairs in 2014.

Accordingly, here are 14 possible game-changers — they’re not predictions per se, but neither are they as far-fetched as they might seem.  No one can say with certainty that they will come to pass in 2014.  Instead, consider these something between rote predictions (e.g., that violence in Iraq is getting worse) and outrageous fat-tail risks (e.g., the impending breakup of the United States).

There’s an old album of small pieces conducted by the late English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, a delightfully playful album entitled Lollipops that contains some of the old master’s favorite, most lively short pieces.

Think of these as Suffragio‘s 14 world politics lollipops to watch in 2014.

We start in France… Continue reading 14 potential game-changers for world politics in 2014

Japan pushes forward with consumption tax hike


Earlier this month, Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe (安倍 晋三) moved forward with plans to increase the top rate of Japan’s consumption tax from 5% to 8%, effective as of April 2014 — and he is expected to allow the rate to rise further to 10% in autumn 2015. Japan

It was the first major policy decision since Abe led his party, the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP, or 自由民主党, Jiyū-Minshutō) to a landslide victory in the July vote that elected one-half of the seats (121) in the House of Councillors, the upper house of Japan’s parliament, the Diet (国会).  That vote was essentially a referendum on Abe’s big-spending economic stimulus program — widely called ‘Abenomics’ — following Abe’s equally impressive victory in December 2012 in the elections for the House of Representatives, the Diet’s lower house.

It’s notable for three reasons. Continue reading Japan pushes forward with consumption tax hike

Quivering for the fourth arrow of Abenomics (and other Japanese policy matters)


As widely expected, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP, or 自由民主党, Jiyū-Minshutō) surged to an overwhelming victory in Sunday’s national elections in Japan to determine half of the seats (121) in the House of Councillors, the upper house of the Diet (国会).  While the victory wasn’t enough to give the LDP a two-thirds supermajority in both houses of the Diet, it was enough to usher in a new era of continuity, with the government of prime minister Shinzō Abe (安倍 晋三) set to consolidate power after winning election in the lower house, the House of Representatives, last December.Japan

The result leaves the LDP, together with its ally, the Buddhist conservative New Kōmeitō (公明党, Shin Kōmeitō) with a majority in the upper house, and that will give the LDP the ability to push through legislation without needing to compromise in the House of Councillors and it makes Abe the strongest Japanese prime minister since Junichiro Koizumi (小泉 純一郎) in the early 2000s and ends a seven-month period of a ‘twisted Diet,’ with control of the upper house still in the hands of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ, or 民主党, Minshutō).

But the LDP looked set to fall just below an absolute majority in its own right:


In contrast, the LDP holds 294 seats in the 480-seat House of Representatives, and together with the 31 seats of New Kōmeitō, holds a two-thirds majority.  That the LDP doesn’t hold an equally impressive advantage in the upper house is due to the fact that only half of the seats in the House of Councillors were up for election yesterday and, among those 121 seats, the LDP’s dominance is clear:


That also means that the Democratic Party doesn’t face an immediate wipeout, and it will remain the chief opposition party — in fact, their 59 seats in the House of Councillors is actually more than the 57 seats they currently hold in the House of Representatives.  That will give the DPJ a legislative base from which it can attempt to rebuild itself as a political force and to position itself for 2016, when Japan’s next elections are likely to come.  Banri Kaieda, a fiscal hawk who assumed the party’s leadership after its December 2012 defeat, will stay on for now as leader.

But the Democrats weren’t the only losers on Saturday.  It was perhaps an even more difficult election for the Japan Restoration Party (日本維新の会, Nippon Ishin no Kai).  A merger between the two smaller parties of Osaka mayor Tōru Hashimoto (橋下徹) and right-wing, nationalist former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara (石原慎太郎), it emerged with 54 seats in the House of Representatives in December to become as the third-largest party.  But it won just eight seats on Saturday, and the party now seems likely to split up.  That’s largely due to Hashimoto’s awkward comments suggesting U.S. soldiers in Okinawa should be permitted to use prostitutes and controversial comments that largely defended the ‘comfort women’ system, whereby Japanese soldiers forced women in enemy countries to serve as sexual slaves.  But it’s also due to the fact that nationalist tensions stemming from a standoff with the People’s Republic of China over the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands in Chinese) have calmed somewhat since last December.

One success story was the Japanese Communist Party (JCP, or 日本共産党, Nihon Kyōsan-tō), which won eight seats on Saturday, bringing its total to 11. Founded in 1922, the JCP has not been a strong force in recent years.  Though it has left its Marxist roots in the past, it has gained a modest amount of strength since the 2008 global financial crisis and it supports ending Japan’s military alliance with the United States.

But beyond the horse-race dynamics of Saturday’s result, what can we expect from Japanese policy in the next three years?  Here’s a look at eight key issues that are likely to dominate the LDP’s agenda, at least in the near future.  Continue reading Quivering for the fourth arrow of Abenomics (and other Japanese policy matters)

Will the real Japanese opposition please stand up? (Hint: It’s all about the factions.)


Four years ago, Japan looked like it had finally moved toward a truly competitive party system after years of virtual one-party rule by the dominant Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP, or 自由民主党, Jiyū-Minshutō).Japan

But after a landslide LDP victory last December ushered former prime minister Shinzō Abe (安倍 晋三) back into office, the LDP once again controls over two-thirds of the seats in the House of Representatives, the lower house of Japan’s Diet (国会).  After Sunday’s House of Councillors elections, the LDP is overwhelmingly expected to re-take control of the upper house from the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ, or 民主党, Minshutō), giving Abe a much easier time in implementing policy, likely for the next three years.  The LDP might well even find that it controls over two-thirds of the upper house as well.

Abe (pictured above) swept into power, nearly decimating the DPJ that had governed Japan from 2009 through last December, on a platform of massive monetary and fiscal intervention to boost the Japanese economy in what’s become known as ‘Abenomics.’  With approval ratings over 70%, Abe seems to have succeeded, at least in the short-term, in boosting confidence in his party and his ability to stimulate Japan’s economy after over two decades of deflation and low growth.

Critics fear, however, that if Abe controls a two-thirds majority in the House of Councillors as well, he’ll be in a position to push through amendments to Japan’s constitution, potentially paving the way for a controversial push for a more militarized Japan in the future.

Things are looking decidedly bleak for the Democratic Party.  Although only half of the seats in the House of Councillors are up for reelection, the DPJ’s grasp on power there is extremely narrow — it holds 106 seats to 83 seats for the LDP and 19 seats for the LDP’s more conservative, Buddhist ally, New Kōmeitō (公明党, Shin Kōmeitō).  Moreover, the Democratic Party would have been playing defense in this year’s elections regardless of its dwindling popularity — it will be defending 44 seats and other opposition parties will be defending 26 seats, while the LDP will be defending just 34 seats and New Kōmeitō will be defending just 10.

None of Japan’s other third parties seem capable of breaking through either.  The one party that seemed to have some momentum in December’s elections was the Japan Restoration Party (日本維新の会, Nippon Ishin no Kai), a merger between Osaka mayor Tōru Hashimoto (橋下徹) and right-wing, nationalist former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara (石原慎太郎).  In particular, it was the youthful Hashimoto’s charisma that seemed to propel the party to win 54 seats in the House of Representatives last December, giving it nearly as many seats as the DPJ (which fell back to just 57 seats).  But the party’s fortunes have collapsed over Hashimoto’s comments indicating that U.S. soldiers in Okinawa should be allowed to use prostitutes and that ‘comfort women’ — civilians that Japanese soldiers forced into sexual slavery during World War II — were a necessary evil at the time.

Polls indicate that virtually no party can stop the LDP’s projected sweep — one representative poll earlier this week indicated that the LDP would win 43% and New Kōmeitō would win 8%, while the Democratic Party, the Japan Restoration Party and two other third parties, the liberal reformist Your Party and the Japanese Communist Party would each win just 6%.  That result would essentially thrust Japan back to its norm of one-party rule, leaving the Democratic Party potentially permanently shattered and permitting Abe to push forward with a pro-nuclear energy policy (still controversial after the 2011 Fukushima meltdown) and otherwise implementing a more nationalist Japan.

Or would it? Continue reading Will the real Japanese opposition please stand up? (Hint: It’s all about the factions.)

Who is Haruhiko Kuroda?


When Shinzō Abe (安倍 晋三) returned to power in December 2012 in a landslide victory, he did so with a platform of fiscal stimulus that makes previously profligate governments of the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP, or 自由民主党, Jiyū-Minshutō) seem like budget hawks.Japan

What a difference three years in opposition makes.

Abe previously served as prime minister from 2006 to 2007, a term most distinguished for Abe’s nationalist rhetoric with respect to the People’s Republic of China.  Although the LDP has never been terribly allergic to public works projects, Abe returned to office with a campaign pledge to use government as a tool to spur the Japanese economy in a way that no Japanese government has contemplated since low-growth malaise took hold in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Audacious doesn’t begin to describe what’s already become known as ‘Abenomics,’ and with a two-thirds majority in the lower house of Japan’s Diet, Abe has already embarked on a program of ¥12 trillion ($136 billion) in spending on public works and other stimulative measures designed to be a down payment on up to ¥200 trillion in spending over the next decade.  That’s even more striking in contrast to the prior government controlled by the now-decimated opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ, or 民主党, Minshutō).  DPJ prime minister Yoshihiko Noda (野田 佳彦) spent much of his time in office passing an increase in Japan’s consumption tax from 5% to 10%, which should take effect starting in 2014, though all bets are off if the LDP wins a rout in this summer’s elections to the Diet’s upper chamber, the House of Councillors.

But the truly radical step has been Abe’s willingness to advance a vision of monetary policy that, until now, has been advanced only by the likes of Paul Krugman and other folks with views less orthodox than your average central banker.

During the campaign, Abe blatantly called on the Bank of Japan to raise its inflation target to 2% or even 3% after years of deflation, and he pledged to force the Bank of Japan to purchase construction bonds from the Japanese government, making it clear that he is willing to intrude on the traditional independence of Japan’s central bank.

Last year, it was seen as a radical step when Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke set an explicit U.S. inflation target of 2% for the first time in a century of U.S. central banking history.

With the term of BoJ governor Masaaki Shirakawa (白川 方明) ending in April 2013, Abe was always certain to get his way on monetary policy.  With Shirakawa’s early exit, however, Abe has gotten a head-start in nominating Harhuiko Kuroda (黒田 東彦), currently the head of the Asian Development Bank, as the next BoJ governor.

Kuroda (pictured above) has been the president of the Asian Development Bank since February 2005, and he previously served as a vice minister of finance for international affairs from 1999 to 2003 and as a special adviser to the LDP’s reformist former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi (小泉 純一郎).  He will take over at a time when interest rates have been at zero for years, and deflation has been a problem for Japan for so long that investors expect structural deflation.

Gavyn Davies at FT Alphaville speculated earlier this week prior to the nomination that Kuroda is both pragmatic enough to win confirmation and audacious enough to pursue an aggressive easing campaign:

[He] has been very critical of the BoJ’s failure to eliminate deflation, and has strongly supported aggressive balance sheet expansion, and forward policy guidance, to achieve a 2 per cent inflation target. He has not, however, argued in favour of BoJ purchases of foreign bonds, which is one of the litmus tests being used by investors to gauge the attitude of the new incumbent…. Mr. Kuroda might be seen as a compromise candidate who could win the support of the Upper House of the Diet, a chamber which Mr. Abe does not control.

There are about a half-dozen bank governors who really, truly matter in terms of establishing what’s considered mainstream global monetary policy — and Kuroda will likely now be one of them, joining Bernanke, European Central Bank president Mario Draghi, Swiss National Bank president Thomas Jordan, and Canadian central bank governor Mark Carney, who is set to replace Mervyn King as the Bank of England governor in July 2013.

Kuroda’s appointment is important not only to Japan, obviously, but to the world in at least two ways.

First, monetary policy in the Abe-Kuroda era will have a ripple effect on the global economy — after all, Japan does have the world’s fourth-largest economy with a GDP of around $4.6 trillion, just about 30% of the size of the entire U.S. economy.  Markets, in fact, are already moving in anticipation of expected monetary easing — the value of the Japanese yen has dropped about 20% since last October, and the value of Japanese stocks has risen by 28%.  It goes without saying that if Abe can spur the Japanese economy out of deflation and into a phase of higher growth, with greater Japanese consumption, it would boost the global economy, as well as the U.S. economy.

Second, to the extent Kuroda succeeds in his experiment, it will provide a more ambitious central banking precedent that could pull monetary policy worldwide to a more relaxed view about inflation.

But the strategy isn’t without potential pitfalls. Continue reading Who is Haruhiko Kuroda?