Tokyo Shimbun on the Faltering Council for Economic and Fiscal Policy

Even though today is a lamer-than-lame newspaper holiday, I thought I’d take some time out of my busier-than-usual schedule to introduce a sharper-than-you’d-think editorial from the unexpectedly-lucid-and-candid Tokyo Shimbun:

A Thought to Begin the Week: The CEFP Has Forgotten How to Fight
May 6, 2007

The Council for Economic and Fiscal Policy, which is supposed to be an “engine for reform,” has started to lose steam. Most papers emanating from the Council look like they were written by the bureaucrats, and we do not see an attitude of striking at the vested interests.

The CEFP debates the Basic Policy (an outline of the Kantei’s budget proposal) and critical issues of economic and fiscal policy an advisory body to the prime minister. The meetings are attended by the PM, who serves as chairman, the Minister of State for Economic and Fiscal Policy, who runs the meetings, along with 4 private-sector members, the Chief Cabinet Secretary, the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry, the Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications, and the Governor of the Bank of Japan.

Legally, the Council is no more than a forum for “investigative deliberations,” but during the Junichiro Koizumi administration it had become a de facto “policy-making institution.” How did it get that way? It had a lot to do with their dynamic style of infighting.

Strategies Formed at Behind-the-Scenes Meetings

Former MIC Minister Heizo Takenaka, who was a key actor in the Koizumi-era reforms, wrote in a recent book that there were 3 interrelated keys to managing the Council: “strategizing at behind-the-scenes meetings,” “unified statements from private-sector members,” and “authoritative statements from the prime minister.”

You may think: “What? There were secret meetings?!” But in fact that’s what happened. Prior to Council meetings, Takenaka held detailed discussions with his small group of trusted staff made up of secretaries and reformist bureaucrats, finalized policies, and submitted them to the Council as private-sector member papers. In other words, he finished deliberations behind the scenes before his policies were brought out in the open for debate.

And that’s not all. He made backdoor preparations for critical policies and objectives that were close to being finalized, and even the occasional conclusion to debate on policy details, by meeting with the prime minister beforehand. He would then allow the opposing forces to speak for as long as they like at the actual meetings, then have the prime minister make a definitive statement when he saw that the debate had played itself out.

And statements from the prime minister carry considerable weight. The last word would then become the conclusion, finalizing the direction of reform. It may not have gone exactly according to plan all the time, but this sort of scrupulous planning was absolutely critical to promoting reform. It feels like this is a secret that needs to be told now.

Make Proposals that Kasumigaseki Won’t Like

In the same book, Takenaka points out that “passion of the minister of state” and “conflict with the opposing forces” are golden rules for reform. In order to garner public interest and get public opinion on the reformists’ side, dramatic battles with the opposing forces within Nagata-cho (Tokyo’s political district) and Kasumigaseki (location of most bureaucratic offices) are essential. Takenaka pragmatically states that “Battles are actually welcome.”

Compared to the previous Council meetings, at present we are forced to conclude that they have lost the power to reform. That is made obvious by the conspicuous absence of scuffles with the opposing forces.

At the start of 2007, Kasumigaseki went after proposed reforms to the civil service with vigor. The placing of retiring bureaucrats in private-sector jobs using the government’s authority and budget to pressure companies will be banned completely. But even after this bill is submitted to the Diet, the opposing forces in Kasumigaseki are poised to continue their fight against the new proposal from behind the scenes.

Yet except for civil service reform, we can’t fight the impression that the Council is lamely debating topics with little element of conflict with the bureaucracy, such as economic growth, globalization, and productivity issues. One bureaucrat gave us the inside story:

“That’s because Minister Ota has avoided battles with Kasumigaseki and started meeting with bureaucrats at the paper-writing stages. If the bureacrats get their hands on something beforehand, it’s already clear who will win. There is just no chance for fierce conflict at the meetings.”

The last word from PM Shinzo Abe have also tended to fall short at “Please continue to consider this thorougly.” The number of reporters attending post-meeting press conferences has also shrunk.

Policies such as using IT to boost productivity are certainly important policies. Compared to before, the economy is steadily recovering, and we can understand that there is a diminished sense of crisis. Still, there will be no reform if all the Council talks about are general topics that receive unanimous approval.

Looking at the policy challenges listed early this year, they include issues such as fundamental reworking of government functions/organization (including reform of Independent Administrative Corporations), creation of a progress schedule for fiscal spending reform, and regional autonomy, but they have yet to be debated. These are just the sort of issues that Kasumigaseki hates, and therefore the ones that should be prioritized.

There are those who say “There is little benefit in making a show of bureaucrat-bashing.” However, isn’t breaking the current enmeshed system of vested interests, as seen in bureaucrat-led bid-rigging, what reform is about? If the Council aims to be the engine of reform, it cannot avoid a fight.

Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Hiroko Ota, who worked as Deputy General Director for the Minister and Director General for Economic and Fiscal Management under Takenaka, should understand this. Before she became minister, she even published a book titled “The Battles of the Council for Economic and Fiscal Policy,” from which we quote the following:

“Even if the Winds are Strong”

“Both the fight with vested interests and tension with the government ministries and agencies will likely continue. We should be much more concerned if the tense relationship evaporates easily… We must keep on fighting even if the winds are strong, and I think that if the pressure dies down under the current conditions, that means that the Council’s allure and raison d’etre have disappeared.”

We’d like her not to forget that original feeling.

Comment: I wouldn’t count on it. Abe’s pet causes, like constitutional reform and education, along with the possibly disruptive results of the upcoming Upper House Election, leave little room on the agenda for the relatively less sexy issues of economic reform. Abe will be happy to leave economic issues relatively out of the public light as long as the economy remains stable. And if an easy victory on civil service proves elusive, watch for that to fall to the wayside as well (which is sort of already has).

But with the Abe administration, the practice of setting up kantei-led committees to take the lead on policymaking (essentially to take the lead away from the traditional committees that operate under the auspices of various ministries) has caught on in the areas he really cares about, and while none of them have escaped derision in some corners of the press, they have continued to produce results in one form or another, such as the attempt to create a US-style National Security Council. While Koizumi was never able to get the LDP consensus he needed for his pet issues, Abe has the allies on national security etc (and the Diet numbers) to go the more traditional route.

Leeds-based Jazz Bassist has a hep name

Cafe Adam might be an acquired taste, but I wish my namesake all the best anyway:

To put it bluntly Café Adam are absolutely ridiculous, but that’s the whole point! Comprising the technical ability of Jazz bassist Adam Richards and manic vocal talents of Adam ‘Benbow’ Browne, the two Adams have undeniably created something that they can entirely call their own.

I feel it’s important to point out that I have seen Café Adam before, because musically and conceptually they are quite difficult to digest. Heavily influenced by the likes of Kraftwerk, The Fall and extreme electronic music pioneers Whitehouse, Café Adam sound like Techno Pop terrorists. Very political and very un-PC at the same time, they blast out songs about wearing women’s clothing, cooking ‘poncey’ food and why you shouldn’t take a full time job at a bank. Armed with slogans like ‘Café Adam will take your face off’ Adam ‘Benbow’ Browne delivers his lyrics with a manic jerkiness reminiscent of Ian Curtis and with all the pompous melodrama of a Morrissey chorus. It may take you a little time to fully ‘get’ Café Adam but it might just be worth the effort.

Japan Times, Foreign Office organ?

In an 1937 article from the journal Far Eastern Survey, I saw The Japan Times described as a “Foreign Office organ.” There is no mention on the Japan Times’ own history timeline they had ever been anything other than an independent media organization, but a quick Google search turned up this article on the very topic from the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. The following paragraph summarizes the questions discussed in this article.

Here’s what we need to know about The Japan Times: How close was the paper to official Japan, and to what extent did it serve as a mouthpiece of the Japanese government (in itself neither unusual nor categorically inadvisable at times of international tension)? Closely connected to these questions is a third: Were The Japan Times’ acquisitions in October and December 1940 of Japan’s two best-known English-language newspapers, The Japan Advertiser and The Japan Chronicle, motivated purely by the desire for total media control and the need to speak with one voice through one conduit to the Western world, or were other plans afoot? A fourth, more speculative, question is whether The Japan Times could have served a more temperate purpose during the crisis in U.S.-Japan negotiations in 1940-41.

The author discusses the perennial problem of where to draw the line between journalists’ access to government officials and inappropriate cooperation or agreement with them – an issue recently being discussed with great frequency in the United States following various scandals – and concludes that “the reputation of The Japan Times as an official mouthpiece may well have been earned in its early years, but it was less deserved in early Showa, when most other newspapers not only took their lead from government sources but zealously exceeded official enthusiasm for expansion in East Asia and for the cause of ‘Holy War.’ ” This statement includes the period of time – 1937 – in which the reference I discussed at the beginning of the post was published.

On the other hand, the Japan Times’ acquisition of the two rival English language
newspapers in October and December of 1940 was likely orchestrated by Foreign Minister Matsuoka Yosuke, so as “to have an organ close to the Foreign Office in which their opposition to the Military Party could be expressed.”

However, Matsuoka’s access to the Japan Times, and hence his ability to promulgate pro-diplomacy messages to the foreign media through Japan’s sole surviving English language newspaper was eliminated in July 1941, when “the second Konoe Cabinet resigned in order to form a third Cabinet for the express purpose of jettisoning Matsuoka.” (Matsuoka had been trying to persuade the cabinet to abandon the Soviet-Japanese neutrality agreement and join Germany’s declaration of war against the Soviet Union. This would also have complicated the ongoing negotiations with the United States for the purpose of avoiding war between the two countries, in which Matsuoka was attempting to trade a withdrawal from continental China in exchange for recognition of Manchukuo and a guarantee of safety for trade routes of resources through the South Pacific.) This left publisher Go Satoshi to pen editorials which ended up inflaming relations between Japan and the Allied powers, although it is unclear whether this was at the behest of the subsequent Foreign Ministers or not.

The article concludes that “The Japan Times (until Matsuoka’s fall from grace) made a doomed but valiant effort to set up a rational, internationalist alternative to the bellicose rumblings emanating from the General Staff and the Foreign Ministry,” but also brings attention to the fact that after Matsuoka’s departure the paper’s editorials, written by Go, contributed to the climate of mistrust that led to the breakdown of negotiations, which eventually caused Japan’s attack against Pearl Harbor. While the Japan Times of today (which in my experience has a generally liberal and pro-internationalist slant) should hardly be criticized for the ways in which it was used as a vehicle of propaganda during wartime under an imperialist regime, I imagine that the readers of this blog will be as interested as I was to learn a bit about the history of a newspaper whose articles all of us read with regularity. Now I am curious to know if the Japan Times’ close relations with the Foreign Ministry continued after the war, and how the country’s primary English language news source may have been used by the occupying American authorities and post-occupation government of Japan.

On a tangential note, Matsuoka Yosuke was arrested and indicted as a class-A war criminal by the Tokyo Tribunal, but died of tuberculosis before the verdict was read, without his ever having actually appeared in court. Based on the brief biographies of Matsuoka that I have read, I’m not entirely sure on what grounds he was charged. It may have been related to his orchestration of the alliance with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, although Japan was not yet engaged in war against any allied powers by the end of Matsuoka’s term of office. He also advocated war against the Soviet Union, but was ignored and in effect fired for that position. However reprehensible his attempts to promote Japanese-Soviet war may have been, it seems a little bit peculiar to prosecute someone for a policy which was never taken up by the government or military. It also seems possible that his efforts to avoid war between Japan and the US may have been a possible argument in his defense, which due to his premature death was never made. I would be very curious to know exactly what the charges against him were.

Update: I forgot to mention that Matsuoka is also one of the 14 class-A war criminal suspects controversially enshrined in Yasukuni. Apparently Emperor  Hirohito mentioned him by name as one of those who should not have been enshrined, and whose listing caused the Emperor to cease visiting the shrine.