Shiozaki out, Takenaka in? Who’s to blame for Abe’s sputtering?

Though the Japanese media has been running speculation of a cabinet reshuffle or other personnel changes in the Abe cabinet since January at least, the Daily Yomiuri has come out with one of the first English-language pieces discussing the possibility that I’ve seen from a major media outlet. According to the Yomiuri, the blame for the many mishaps that have dogged the Abe administration is falling on Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki, who would be “the main target for reshuffle”:

Shiozaki has been criticized for his lack of ability to coordinate the Cabinet’s crisis-management and damage-control systems. When scandals involving Cabinet ministers emerged, Shiozaki only said they should be held accountable for the alleged scandals.

A chief cabinet secretary is supposed to have the Prime Minister’s Office report all the facts to him, conduct investigations based on them, check whether the government can overcome opposition grilling in the Diet and media criticism, and decide whether to protect the cabinet ministers in question or have them resign. But things are different under the Abe Cabinet.

Partly because of lack of political experience, Shiozaki has failed to keep a tight grip on the reins of the bureaucrats in Kasumigaseki and coordinate policies with the ruling parties sufficiently. It is worrying that he is so inflexible in his thinking. Because of his inability to delegate, he inserts study meetings into holiday schedules. Thus, he has less leeway of mind than the play of a steering wheel.

The Asahi, never to be outdone, has its own English article on Shiozaki-directed criticism. I feel like this report is more balanced and attributes the criticisms to actual sources rather than editorializing within the article. It also draws different conclusions, saying that Shiozaki has become a Rumsfeldian sponge for criticism from Abe’s critics:

On Jan. 14, LDP Policy Research Council Chairman Shoichi Nakagawa berated Shiozaki in a telephone call, telling him that his habit of setting up task forces one after the other to deal with major policy issues could easily result in a storm of media criticism.

Shiozaki was clearly taken aback, according to sources.

Some lawmakers say the task force policy serves only to make some Cabinet ministers less willing to follow the party line.

For example, Shiozaki has proposed setting up task forces on strengthening cooperative relations with Asian nations, another to deal with the declining birthrate and yet another to consider how to revive economic growth.

In spite of these problems, LDP lawmakers thus far have refrained from criticizing Abe directly.

They fear that if they do so, they will be branded as trying to engineer a coup against the Cabinet.

For this reason, they are sharpening their knives against Shiozaki, whose job makes him the government’s most senior spokesman.

Shiozaki has been getting panned in the media since the Abe cabinet’s inception for being the most arrogant and domineering personality in a cabinet that’s full of them. While the Yomiuri article cites “failures” without really going into detail, it is pretty representative of the type of reactions the “hated Chief Cabinet Secretary” (as he was described in a January Bungei Shunju article) has been getting. He’s been accused of both dominating Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy meetings that are supposed to be the domain of Minister of State Hiroko Ota, taking the initiative on North Korean abduction issues, as well as crowding out Special Advisor Hiorshige Seko, who’s supposed to be in charge of PR. While the economic reform agenda may yet be the underappreciated gem of the Abe administration, it’s clear that Abe’s PR response has been just awful.

There’s a great piece detailing who did what in all the Abe blunders of the past 5 months entitled “Support Rates Plummeting, the ‘Abe Kantei’ is no Longer Functioning” that ran in the March issue of Bungei Shunju that you can read in Japanese here. I want to summarize one incident mentioned in the article over which Shiozaki was judged to have messed up playing the role of nemawashi (consensus-builder): the attempt by Abe in late November/early December to move a special account dedicated to road construction to the general account, including the national gasoline tax. Though the highway public corporations were privatized in 2005 as part of Koizumi’s plans to eliminate a major source of wasteful spending, reform of the special account was put off as too politically volatile at the time.

The idea was proposed by CEFP Minister Ota as a way to boost Abe’s falling approval ratings. Both Shiozaki and Abe approved of the policy, and Abe in particular thought that reforming a tax that’s been in place since 1954 would be a good way to showcase his policy of moving beyond the postwar era. But Shiozaki had absolutely no experience as a liaison charged with building consensus within the LDP. Abe announced that he intended to reform the special account for highways, including the gasoline tax, at a meeting of the CEFP and then left the rest to Shiozaki. But his overtures to some of his political allies hit a snag, since the gasoline tax, at 3 trillion-yen per year in collected revenues, is a major source of funding for road construction, probably the biggest source of pork-barrel spending in Japan (and therefore the basis of many politicians’ support). They suggested he try to reform an auto tax that is charged on the weight of the automobile, since there is no legal basis for the funds to be set aside for road construction. He called Seko for help, but Seko, who’s a PR expert not a well-connected politician, thought it was too late to move forward with the policy as Abe outlined it since no one would go along with a complete separation of the gas tax from the special account. A trip to the LDP’s top upper house member Mikio Aoki was similarly unsuccessful: “The upper house won’t take responsibility if it doesn’t come in a form that builds necessary roads.”

In the end, Shiozaki had to rely on Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Advisor Atsuo Saka, whom Abe reportedly “loathes” but can’t technically replace. Shiozaki met with Saka along with Finance Minister Koji Omi and Transportation Minister (and former Komeito President) Tetsuzo Fuyushiba. Saka, sensing an opportunity, suggested a compromise: agree to free up only 1.8 trillion yen of the gasoline tax and put off the debate on sweeping reform. Saka was more than happy to play consensus-builder, but the newspapers excoriated both Shiozaki and Abe, saying that the development was a “loss” for kantei-led politics and a blow to the reform agenda.

Now, I don’t think all the administration’s mishaps are Shiozaki’s fault — Abe’s executive secretary Inoue, Sec Gen Nakagawa, Seko, and others have all had trouble working together and made their own mistakes — but it could be that replacing him with someone less headstrong might help ease tensions.

That’s not to say there aren’t other theories. This fascinating report (parts 1 2 3 from “Masanari’s Inside Politics Report,” a column in Fukuoka-based Datamax suggests that Abe’s cabinet has been coopted by skillful bureaucrats, mainly the above-mentioned Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Advisor Atsuo Saka, who is described as the “shadow prime minister”. When the Abe cabinet was established in September, pro-Koizumi Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Masahiro Futahashi was replaced (because he was for revising the imperial statutes to allow a Japanese empress) by Junzo Matoba, a former confidant of Abe’s father, former Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe. However, according to the article, it’s been 10 years since the 73-year-old ex-Finance Ministry bureaucrat Matoba has been involved with politics, making him the product of a previous generation. Matoba made Saka his advisor. Saka is an elite bureaucrat and former executive secretary to PM Hashimoto. In his term as a Councillor in the Cabinet Secretariat, Saka fought economic and postal (and later MIC) Minister Heizo Takenaka’s reform plans tooth and nail, only to find himself booted from the Cabinet Secretariat into semi-retirement as Vice President of the government-affiliated Norinchukin Bank. The elderly Matoba has since left day to day operations to Saka, who has used the opportunity to launch a campaign to kill Abe’s attempts to strengthen the Prime Minister’s office and ban amakudari, the practice of retired bureaucrats landing cushy private-sector positions in industries they once regulated.

So what has Saka been up to? According to Masanari, Saka has set up the “Saka Salon,” a place for reporters close to Saka to get inside information on what laws will be postponed or which ministers might get replaced. So once the “leaks” from Saka make it into the headlines, Shiozaki and Abe often have no choice but to go along with it just to save face and avoid confusion.

“Bureaucrats” (perhaps led by Saka) have also pitted top cabinet members against each other, focusing their efforts on Shiozaki. An unnamed kantei source explains:

The bureaucrats tried to create discord between Shiozaki and the 5 special advisors to the prime minister. When Yuriko Koike, advisor on national security issues, moved to create a Japanese version of the US National Security Council, they told Shiozaki, “National security is the responsibility of the Chief Cabinet Secretary.” They also took advisor Kyoko Nakayama out of the game by telling Shiozaki that “the Chief Cabinet Secretary is in charge of this.” That way, Shiozaki, weighed down with all the work of the special advisors, deflated and couldn’t coordinate legislation. He had no choice but to rely on the bureaucrats.

Then they went after Executive Secretary Yoshiyuki Inoue. They whispered to him “There are people trying to give the prime minister bad information.” Inoue, who controls the PM’s schedule coordination, believed them and issued a “restraining order” against the senior staff of the ministries from meeting Abe alone. He even strictly limited senior LDP officials from entering the Kantei. (same source)

This has supposedly led to both Shiozaki and Abe with a lack of good information, making it easy for the bureaucrats to run circles around them.

Of course, media campaigns led by crafty bureaucrats behind the scenes are nothing new. Naoki Inose’s “The Power of Highways,” which describes Inose’s experiences from 2001-2003 as a key member of a committee to put together a plan to privatize the public highway corporations, goes into detail about how highway corporation officials ran campaigns to discredit Inose himself and convince the public that the corporations needed an infusion of tax money in order to achieve successful privatization (that campaign is still going on and may yet succeed).

The major media usually document the goings-on of the top level officials because those are the easiest to report on. But Japan, even today, has a very powerful bureaucratic class that largely operates under the radar (the same goes on in the US, basically — when’s the last time you read anything about HUD?), and it’s worth looking at. It’s also important to consider the possible motives of sources when reading news in any way related to Japan’s government.

It doesn’t change my conclusion of the situation though: If Shiozaki really has been co-opted, then it might be time for Abe, who is a true believer in a “presidential prime minister” to try and find someone less eager to do other people’s jobs for them.

Other speculation in the news these days: If there is a cabinet reshuffle, former MIC Minister Heizo Takenaka may be positioning himself to earn a cabinet position once again, reports ZAKZAK. He’s been spotted dining with Abe, and he’s also made a series of TV appearances and published several articles defending Abe’s policies and performance. However, there are many in politics and bureaucracy who can’t stand the fierce tactics that Takenaka employed during the Koizumi years to push the reform agenda. But Takenaka is proud of his achievements, as might be discerned from the title of his recent piece in monthly magazine Voice entitled “Fighting Tactics to Pin Down the Bureaucrats.” Appointing Takenaka would have its merits, say some: Takenaka is somewhat popular as the promoter of the Koizumi reform agenda, and there aren’t that many other supporters left within the LDP for Abe to appoint because, well, he already appointed them all.

If Takenaka is considered for a return to the cabinet, there would be some question of what position he’d get. Economist Takuro Morinaga mentioned in a January TV appearance that the government was threatening to appoint Takenaka as Bank of Japan Governor if the bank didn’t follow the government line on interest rate policy. But that would place him outside of the policymaking process, so if I could choose I’d want him to get the MIC/postal privatization portfolio again. The article mentions that Abe would have to strike a “balance” between showcasing the reformist agenda and unifying the party. But I am all for bringing back Takenaka since it would allow Abe to showcase the structural reform agenda plus it would further weaken the anti-structural reform elements within the LDP — two net positives. More importantly, as someone who has not only literally written the book on how to keep bureaucrats from ruining well-intentioned policies, but actually has a track record, just maybe he can help Abe in that regard as well.