Sunday, December 21, 2014

Countering Japanese Government’s Stance on the Comfort Women

The Committee of the Historical Science Society of Japan's Critique of the Japanese Government's Stance on the Wartime “Comfort Women” Issue
December 16, 2014

Reprinted from the Asia-Pacific Journal (Japan Focus), (English translation December 5, 2014)

Introduction

The Historical Science Society of Japan’s (HSSJ, Rekishi gaku kenkyukai) on December 7, 2014 issued a public statement on the wartime comfort women controversy that has gone viral in recent months in Japan and internationally. The text, made available at its website one week prior to Japan’s snap election, is an English translation of the group’s statement made in the fall of 2014. For more than half a century, the JSSJ has been a progressive voice for historians on social, cultural, and political issues of contemporary Japan. Now it is speaking out at a time when the media and government are mobilizing to silence independent and critical voices.

In the summer of 2014, the Asahi Shimbun acknowledged that its early report on the comfort women, published in the 1990s, contained erroneous information based on interviews with Yoshida Seiji, whose testimony has long been discredited not only by neonationalist commentators and scholars but also by progressive historians. It remains something of a “mystery” why the Asahi Shimbun decided to publicly acknowledge its “false report” this year—or, indeed, why it did not admit it much earlier. In any case, Japan’s rightwing had a field day, not only attacking the integrity of the Asahi (whose sales have fallen as a result), but also ratcheting up a campaign against the Kono Statement of 1993 in which the Japanese government admitted that the Imperial Japanese Forces were directly and indirectly involved in the establishment and administration of comfort facilities.

Neonationalist efforts to whitewash Japan’s wartime misdeeds, from the comfort women to the Nanjing Massacre to forced labor and the medical, biological and chemical warfare atrocities of Unit 731, are hardly new. Indeed, they have been a constant since the 1970s; now, however, the rightwing has its champion in Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. Worse, the sentiment of the Japanese public over the issue of comfort women appears to have moved toward Abe’s side since the late 1990s, despite the fact that the majority of Japanese still oppose many of his policies, including the attempt to undermine Article 9 of the Constitution, a new secrecy law, and a higher sales tax.[1] Though Abe remains cautious about renouncing the Kono Statement apologizing for Japan’s comfort women system, a statement which was not based on Yoshida’s testimony but rather on the direct testimony of victims, he vows to attack what he insists are groundless aspersions of Japan as a nation involved in “sexual slavery.” The HSSJ’s public statement criticizes the Abe administration’s efforts for the revision of wartime history, clarifying the points of contention and pointing out flaws in the arguments made by the administration and its neonationalist allies. 
 
[1] Another recent survey indicates that Japanese university students still strongly support renewed apology and compensation.

Committee of the Historical Science Society of Japan
Public Statement

On August 5 and 6, 2014, the Asahi Shimbun, one of the largest newspapers in Japan, carried articles reviewing its past coverage of sexual slavery, or “comfort women,” in the Japanese military and retracted some of its past articles alleging that women were taken away to the military brothels by force. The affected articles cited the testimonies of Seiji Yoshida, a former member of a semi-governmental organization for wartime mobilization. Certain politicians and sections of the media have pounced on these retractions, arguing that they have disproved the fact that women were forcibly recruited by the Imperial Japanese Army, and, in some cases, arguing that the women were not subjected to violence at all. It is particularly disturbing that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his cabinet appear to adhere to such a view.

The Historical Science Society of Japan has examined the issue of wartime sexual slavery through various forums. For example, on December 15, 2013, it co-hosted a symposium with the Japanese Society for Historical Studies titled “Rethinking the ‘Comfort Women’ Issue: Military Sexual Violence in World History and in Everyday Life.” Based on historical research, we outline below five problems associated with the Japanese government’s stance on Japan’s wartime sexual slavery.

First, at a Diet session, Abe commented that “false reports” by the Asahi Shimbun “gravely damaged Japan’s reputation abroad” and that “the groundless defamation of Japan as ‘a state that was involved in sexual slavery’ has spread globally” (the House of Representative Budget Committee session, October 3, 2014). The view that Abe expresses is at odds with his administration’s policy to abide by the Kono Statement, which was released by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono in 1993 and which officially acknowledged the involvement of the Japanese military in the establishment and operation of military brothels, including the forced recruitment of women. Moreover, as Abe himself acknowledges, it is clear that the Kono Statement is not based on Yoshida’s testimonies, and so the veracity of the statement is not undermined by Asahi’s retractions. Thus by upholding the Kono Statement on the one hand, while simultaneously casting doubt on its substance on the other, the Abe administration is attempting to take the people of Japan and the rest of the world for fools. Their actions are also further escalating tensions with Japan’s East Asian neighbors, who want Japan to squarely face up to its past wrongdoings.

Second, regardless of the veracity of Yoshida’s testimony, it is clear that the Japanese military authorities were involved in the forced recruitment of women. In fact, as early as the 1990s, historians had already pointed out the inconsistencies in Yoshida’s statements, and since then have carried out wide-ranging studies on the Japanese military authorities’ involvement in the forced recruitment of women using sources other than his testimonies. Let us emphasize here that the term “forced recruitment” is not limited to cases of “breaking into houses and kidnapping” (Abe’s statement in the House of Representative Budget Committee session, October 6, 2006). The term also applies to cases where women were recruited against their will through coaxing, threats, and human trafficking. With regard to the former type of forced recruitment, it is already known that such cases took place in Semarang, Indonesia and Shanxi Province, China among many other places. There are also many testimonies from victims attesting to such coercion taking place on the Korean peninsula. With regard to the latter type, it is known to have taken place over a wide area, including the Korean peninsula, and there is no room for doubting the violence it entailed. It does not matter that Yoshida’s testimonies were fabrications; the overall body of historical evidence leaves no doubt that the Japanese military authorities were involved both directly and indirectly in the forced recruitment of women.

Third, it is important to remember that not only were victims forcibly recruited, but that they also were subjected to extreme violence as sex slaves. As recent historical studies have shown, the system of sexual labor into which the women were recruited truly amounted to sexual slavery; they were deprived of the freedom to choose a place of residence, to go out, to quit, and to refuse giving sexual service. The presence of coercion in the recruitment process is undoubtedly a serious issue, but the fact that, as sex slaves, the victims’ human rights were trampled upon needs to be repeatedly stressed. The discrediting of a single source on the recruitment must not be used as an excuse to deny the issue as a whole.

Fourth, recent historical research has demonstrated that not only were the women subjected to direct violence, but also that the entire system of military sexual slavery was part of an imperialist structure that legitimatized discrimination. Even if some women did “consent” to becoming prostitutes, this should call into question the everyday realities of class, racial, and gender inequality and injustice that formed the backdrop to such “consent.” To focus solely on the question of whether there was direct coercion, without considering the political and social context, is to miss the full picture.

Fifth, we must not shut our eyes to the way in which the Asahi Shimbun’s retractions have been reported in sections of the media and the damage such coverage has wrought. The disproportionate focus on the “false reports” has helped ignite and spread a fierce public backlash against the Asahi Shimbun. There are even cases in which university professors who used to report the issue of sexual slavery for the Asahi have been targeted in this vicious hate campaign. Not only have individuals been slandered, but some universities––namely Hokusei Gakuen University and Tezukayama Gakuin University––have received violent threats demanding the dismissal of their instructors over the issue. Such threats clearly constitute an attack on academic freedom, and as such they need to be resolutely confronted.

Thus the approach to sexual slavery in the Japanese military being taken by the Abe administration and sections of the media is problematic in many respects. Abe stated at a Diet session that the Japanese government “will make sure that correct perceptions of history are formed based on objective facts, and that Japan will gain a fair evaluation from the international community” (the House of Representative Budget Committee session, October 3, 2014). However, by following the Prime Minister’s interpretation of “objective facts” and “correct perceptions of history,” Japan will end up committing the folly of transmitting to the world the irresponsible stance of the Japanese government, which continues to distract from the truth. We must also point out that, above all else, this stance represents a further insult to the dignity of the victims of wartime sexual slavery, who have already borne terrible hardships. We urge the Abe administration to squarely face up to the damage that Japan inflicted in the past and sincerely address the victims.

October 15, 2014

Friday, December 19, 2014

Election Win Gives Abe More Time for Change

By William Brooks, APP Senior Fellow
and Mindy Kotler, APP Director

Japan voted for stability in the December 14th Lower House elections. The election was not about change. In contrast, the election for Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was about winning time for change. The election brought him time to continue his promised policy changes such as constitutional revision. Without the snap election, Abe would have had only two more years of a guaranteed Lower House majority. Now, barring any political setbacks, he has four or until 2018.

Whereas Japan’s voters are uncomfortable with change, the Abe Administration is focused on a number of substantial ones. The prime minister wants to revise the constitution, not just Japan’s no-war clause Article 9 but also the clauses on human rights, civil liberties, and the Emperor’s divinity. He wants to enhance Japan’s military posture and extend the right of collective self-defense. And he wants an economic overhaul in Japan that includes opening markets, loosening labor regulations, altering agricultural practices, returning to nuclear power, and empowering women.

The Lower House election did not give Abe a mandate. Opposition forces made some gains and he still needs his coalition partner the Komeito, which is less enamored of his plans. Abe will have to work hard to convince the public to accept each aspect of his agenda. This will take time and this he now has.

No Mandate, Just TINA
The LDP’s December 14th win was not a “mandate” to steamroll their agenda through the Diet. The party remains strapped to a sometime reluctant coalition partner, the Komeito, to achieve a two-thirds super-majority. Compromises will continue to be necessary and negotiated.

Voter disinterest, as demonstrated by a record low turnout of 53%--down 6.6 points from 2012—was not simply a factor of bad weather. Only 10 years ago voter turnout was nearly 70%. Japan’s media summarized the mood of the electorate as “TINA”, meaning “There is no alternative.”

An Asahi Shimbun poll the day after the election supported this view.  More than seven out of ten respondents said the LDP won big because of the opposition’s “lack of appeal.” Only 11% attributed the ruling coalition’s lopsided victory to the voters’ positive evaluation of Abe’s policies. Almost 80% said none of the opposition parties are capable of governing the nation. However, about 60% said the ruling coalition captured too many seats. According to the survey, 53% of respondents expressed “concern” about the premier’s future policies and only 31% had “expectations of success.

The opposition, despite its nonstop attacks on the “failure” of Abenomics, was unable to unseat the feeling that there was no replacement to Abe’s policies. It was easy for Abe and the LDP to exploit this resistance to change. Although Japanese opinion polls showed that voters did not feel the economy improved—reinforced by negative GDP numbers—most were uncomfortable with new alternatives. They were willing to give Abe more time to make Abenomics work

The disorganized opposition was also a factor. Not enough candidates were fielded to put up a significant fight. And the party platforms were less specific than those of the LDP. The voters were so disenchanted with the major opposition party the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) that its leader lost his seat and the party’s leadership.

Yes, the ruling coalition won, but the LDP lost four seats and the Komeito picked up four. Thus, the two parties’ numerical strength is the same as before the election. Interestingly, the Party for the Next Generations, often a proxy voice for the Abe agenda lost big, going from 20 seats to only two. The DPJ picked up 11 seats to end with 73, keeping it the major opposition party. The real opposition winner was the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), which captured the anti-LDP vote by more than doubling its seats in the Lower House, rising from eight to 21. The JCP comes across in Japan as the last socialist force standing, a pacifist protector of the Constitution from change, and an advocate of a basically unarmed Japan.

Amending the Constitution
Abe’s main goal for extending his tenure four years is to give himself enough time to amend or rewrite Japan’s Constitution. The two-thirds majority that the ruling coalition now holds in the Lower House allows it to override any bill rejected by the Upper House. But in order to amend the Constitution, as Abe plans, it will take two-thirds in the Upper House as well, which the coalition does not have.

The next Upper House election is in the summer of 2016. Unless the LDP suffers a crushing defeat in the Upper House in this election, it is possible that Abe will preside over a long-term administration until the term of office of Lower House members expires in 2018.

Despite the pro-LDP vote in the Lower House elections, there is a division between the electorate and the elected in their support for amending the Constitution. At its heart is changing Article 9 and allowing for collective self-defense. A Mainichi Shimbun poll before the election found only 35% of the public favoring Japan’s use of the right of collective defense and 51% opposed. Even among Abe supporters in the poll, only 57% were in favor of collective self-defense and 31% opposed.

In contrast, another Mainichi Shimbun survey of those returned to the Diet found that 83% favored amending the Constitution. This totaled 390 of all those elected, exceeding two-thirds (317 members) required for the Lower House to initiate amendments to the Constitution. Asked whether they think Article 9 of the Constitution should be amended, 57% (267 members) answered yes.

In the Asahi Shimbun mentioned above, only 3% felt that the Abe Administration should focus on amending the Constitution. Respondents felt social security and the economy should be of primary concern.

Neighbors” Reaction
China and South Korea have reacted predictably to the election. The see the LDP’s win as an endorsement of the “rightward policies that deny past history.” Those countries believe Abe’s commitment to amend Japan’s pacifist Constitution as creating even more conflict with them. Abe laid the groundwork for repairing damaged ties with China, and it seems likely he will continue to do so. A visit to Yasukuni or a fishing boat collision could produce set back.

Ties with South Korea are at rock bottom. It will take a lot of patient diplomacy on both sides to inch the relationship forward. The media war between the two countries over the Comfort Women issue has yet to abate. Abe will have to distance himself from such mud-slinging and accusation, and take the high road toward a future-oriented relationship that would be in Japan’s national interests.

There are domestic advantages to hostile neighbors. It can encourage further political support for stability and unity. Coupled with doubt about the reliability of allies, an uncertain security environment helps justify the range of defense changes and enhancements advocated by the Abe Administration.

Alliance Deepening; Okinawa Worsening
On the Alliance, relations with the U.S. under Abe have continued to improve over the past two years. Spring should see the completion of a new set of defense cooperation guidelines that will further deepen ties. The Okinawa base issue, however, could become a thorn in the relationship if Abe is not careful.

The loss of Okinawa seats was the LDP’s and Abe’s biggest calamity in the otherwise smooth election. The prefecture is now dominated by anti-base activists, starting with the governor, who vows to block the relocation of the Futenma Air Station to Henoko Point, where a runway is to be built. In this hostile political environment, Abe will have to somehow build new channels of support and expand economic packages to the prefecture. Passage of casino gambling legislation made get an added push. Henoko will not be built by bulldozing the project over local protests. Yet blocking the Futenma relocation only delays its closing. Neither is a satisfactory solution.

Year Ahead
The LDP faces another election: the national unified local elections in April. To sweep these local assemblies, the LDP will have to soft-sell unpopular policies such as support for TPP and restarting nuclear power stations. Prime Minister Abe will have to tread lightly on controversial decisions until those elections are over. An early decision on TPP, for example, could reverberate wide across the farming prefectures that are against the agreement and at the base of the LDP.

There are also warnings of complacency and over-reach of, Kantei, the prime minister's office. Komeito is wary that Kantei may act arbitrarily. After signing the coalition agreement with Abe on December 15th, party leader Natsuo Yamaguchi stressed that, “We agreed not to become arrogant and to manage the administration steadily.” At his news conference on December 15th, Abe himself said: “We will lose the people’s support instantly if we become arrogant with the majority we enjoy and lose our humility.”

Until May, Abe will be cautious in both initiating and implementing domestic policies. He will continue his photogenic multi-national trips to shore up international support for Japan’s peaceful development and to emphasize his world leadership. At home, Abe will be patient. He will wait until he has solid domestic political backing, which he currently does not have. In all, he is buying time.

Edited 12/20/14

Monday, December 15, 2014

Comfort Women and the UN - Washington Seminar



The UN and the Comfort Women: 
Sex Slavery in International Law

Thursday, December 18, 2014
Noon-1:30PM 

Presenter
Dr. Etsuro Totsuka
Professor of Law

Whittmore House, Library
1526 New Hampshire Avenue, NW
Washington, DC, (202) 232-7363

Free, Reservations HERE, Lite Lunch

Dr. Etsuro Totsuka is currently a visiting scholar at Georgetown University Law Center. In 2010, he retired from Ryukoku University, Kyoto, Japan, where he taught international human rights law at its Law School. Dr. Totsuka has held many distinguished positions including Bengoshi, Advisor to the Japan Federation of Bar Associations on External Affairs, and as visiting fellow at many universities throughout the world including the London School of Economics in the UK, Seoul National University in South Korea, and the University of Washington, Seattle in the US. Since February 1992, Dr. Totsuka has advocated to the United Nations on behalf of Japan's military sexual slavery victims (the "Comfort Women"). He has published widely on a number of human rights issues including the “Comfort Women” and the treatment of the mentally ill under Japanese law. He has a number of awards and honorary appointments. These include the Jinken-Sho (Human Rights Award) by Tokyo Bar Association in 1991 and the Honorary Fellowship of the (British) Royal College of Psychiatrists in 2006. . He holds B.Sc. and B.A. from Rikkyo University, Japan; LLM, LSE, University of London; and Ph.D. from Ritsumeikan University.

Sponsors

Asia Policy Point is an independent, nonprofit research center studying Japanese and Northeast Asian science, security, history, and public policy

US-Korea Institute is a research center of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University to increase information and understanding of Korea and Korean affairs.

Defending Women's Words

The Daily Telegraph in "Japan's nationalists attack Angelina Jolie war film" quoted my observation on these Japanese right-wing attacks on Louis Zamperini. The Rightists contend that he exaggerated the brutality of his experience as POW of Japan. They suggest his memoirs, like those of the Comfort Women, are fabricated and designed to embarrass Japan.

Astounded by this reaction, I tried to emphasize to the reporter the political realities in the United States involved in questioning the heroism of a World War II veteran. I said,
It is one thing to question the memories of illiterate women who were forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military. It is quite another to question the memory of a white male Olympian who was a disciple of Billy Graham.
Many found the quote outrageous as implying a moral judgment that the suffering of the Comfort Women was somehow less important or less deserving of public attention than that of a white, male veteran. On reflection, I understand that perception, but I was really trying to make two different points. Let me explain.

First, I meant to point out the relative difficulties of uncovering the truth about the victims of Japan’s war crimes and how the Japanese right exploits these. So much depends on the victim’s personal story and their traumatic memory. Little documentation survived the ordered massive destruction of records held by Imperial Japan.

This challenge for historians is compounded by the fact that until very recently few cared about women’s accounts of their war experience. War was about men and their triumphs, struggles, and failures. Few records exist about the Comfort Women because no one at the time felt their existence significant enough to record. And they themselves generally could not write of their experiences. They became invisible by the silence.

Indeed, Japanese military ship manifests listed the trafficked Comfort Women merely as “logs” or “items.” And the American military did nothing to investigate why they found Comfort Women on the battlefield. They simply saw the women as a quaint Japanese “amenity.”

The Comfort Women have had to struggle to have their words believed. And they have had to wait until society understood what happened to them was wrong and that it was ok to discuss sexual violence. It was not until the 1970s that rape was recognized as about power not sex and that trauma recognized as creating deep psychological scars.

The racist and sexist ideologues of the Japanese right believe it is easy to question the memories of women who were forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military. They play upon prejudices toward Koreans and old, embedded misogynist views of women. They feel safe that the former comfort women are poor and illiterate living on the fringes of society. Few, they reason, will defend them. 

They are mistaken.

Second, the Japanese right continues to believe that the Comfort Women cannot be heard and have no constituency. In this they are wrong. They are even more wrong to think that about the American POWs of Japan. Whereas the support groups for the Comfort Women had to be built, the ones for Mr. Zamperini already exist.

Veterans' organizations from the VFW to Rolling Thunder, current and past Olympians, conservative Christians, and University of Southern California alumni will all rally to protect his memory. Embedded in today’s America is a “thank you for your service” given to all veterans. Politically, both the veteran’s organizations and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association are large and powerful.

Denying the history of America’s WWII veterans is more difficult than doubting the words of abused, marginalized women. Neither denial is honorable or acceptable. But men documented their war in newspapers and books. The war crimes trials across the Pacific documented and focused on the maltreatment of male prisoners of war.

It is interesting to note that on the Rev Graham’s Association homepage is an advertisement for “After Unbroken: The Rest of the Louis Zamperini Story: Captured By Grace.” The movie, Unbroken, will be released on Christmas Day. The book Unbroken has been on the bestseller list, among the top ten, ever since it was released in 2010. A young reader’s edition is now available.

The Comfort Women denials have offended Americans. The denials of POW abuse will enrage Americans. But maybe that is what Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and his supporters want.

For those interested in the history of the American POWs of Japan, I maintain another blog focused on this subject HERE.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Monday in Washington, December 15, 2014

THE FUTURE OF HOMELAND MISSILE DEFENSE: A FRESH LOOK AT PROGRAMS AND POLICY. 12/15, 9:00am-Noon. Sponsor: International Security Program, CSIS. Speakers: Vice Admiral James Syring, Director, Missile Defense Agency; Dr. Kathleen H. Hicks, Senior Vice President, Henry A. Kissinger Chair, and Director, International Security Program, CSIS; Dr. Michael O'Hanlon, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution; Dr. James Miller, President, Adaptive Strategies, LLC; Dr. Robert Soofer, Professional Staff Member, Senate Committee on Armed Service; and more.

NATIONAL RECONCILIATION AND NEGOTIATION: THE PATH FORWARD IN IRAQ AND SYRIA. 12/15, 9:00am-2:00pm. Sponsor: Foreign Policy Institute, SAIS, Johns Hopkins; Middle East Institute; New America; Dean’s Office, SAIS, Johns Hopkins. Speakers: Harith Al-Qarawee, Fellow, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University; Abbas Kadhim, Senior Foreign Policy Fellow, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University; Robert Ford, SAIS '83, Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Senior Fellow, Middle East Institute; Hind Kabawat, Senior Program Officer- Syria, United States Institute of Peace; Matthew Spence, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East Policy; and more.

THE ESCALATING SHI’A-SUNNI CONFLICT: ASSESSING THE ROLE OF ISIS. 12/15, 9:30-11:00am. Sponsor: Stimson Center. Speakers: Joseph Bahout, Visiting Scholar, Middle East Program, Carnegie; Omar Al-Nidawi, Director for Iraq, Gryphon Partners LLC; Geneive Abdo (Moderator), Fellow, Middle East Program, Stimson.

RETIRING AROUND THE GLOBE: IS AMERICA’S SYSTEM THE BEST? 12/15, 10:00am-Noon. Sponsor: Financial Services Roundtable; OECD. Speakers: Senator Orrin Hatch R-UT; Pablo Antolin, lead author of OECD’s Pensions Outlook; Ed Farrington Executive Vice President of Natixis Global Asset Management; Jim McCaughan, CEO of Principal Global Investors; Edmund F. Murphy III, President of Empower Retirement.

THE FUTURE OF U.S. FOREIGN POLICY. 12/15, 11:00am-12:30pm. Sponsor: Center for American Progress (CAP). Speakers: James Mann, Scholar-in-Residence, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, author of Fall 2014 American Prospect article, "On Realism"; Christopher Preble, Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies, Cato Institute; Kim Holmes, Distinguished Fellow, Heritage Foundation; and Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress; Author, Spring 2014 Democracy article "Against Disengagement"; Moderator: Lawrence Korb, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress.

RUSSIAN-CHINESE INTEGRATION STRATEGIES FOR EURASIA: FORMING A NEW CONDOMINIUM? 12/15, Noon-1:30pm. Sponsor: East-West Center in Washington. Speakers: Dr. Vitaly Kozyrev, Visiting Asia Studies Fellow, East-West Center in Washington, DC; and Dr. William Norris, Stanton Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

MODERN TIMES IN NORTH KOREA: SCENES FROM ITS FOUNDING YEARS, 1945-1950. 12/15, 4:00-5:30pm. Sponsor: Wilson Center (WWC). Speaker: Author, Suzy Kim is Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian Languages & Cultures at Rutgers University. 

Japan's Unwanted Election

Japan’s Unwanted Election first appeared in Asia Policy Point's Asia Policy Calendar sent to members on December 8, 20014. By Dr. William Brooks, APP Senior Fellow and Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins, SAIS.

Prime Minister Abe’s decision to dissolve the Lower House and hold a snap election in mid-December was personal. It was a calculated move to shore up his weakening political base within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). If he can provide his party with a substantial win, he can guarantee his remaining Japan’s prime minister for a full six years. Abe believes he needs that much time to complete his reform agenda, which includes revising the Constitution.

The call for elections stunned members in Abe’s own party. The opposition parties were caught off guard and have had to scramble to cobble together slates of unified candidates. The ruling LDP, initially reluctant and fearing a major loss of seats, has been reassured by polls that suggest their landslide victory.

Although Japan is officially now in a recession, the election will not be a referendum on Abe’s economic policies. Nor will it be a judgment on controversial issues such as collective self-defense or nuclear energy. Both have been carefully avoided as campaign issues.

Instead, the election will be about stability. Voters appear just afraid enough of inexperienced government management to keep the LDP. They are just indifferent enough to who is in charge to continue to vote for the LDP and its coalition partner the Komeito. The result will be for the LDP to keep a comfortable majority in Lower House.

Waste of Time and Money
"Why?" was immediate reaction to Abe’s surprise call for an election. The public saw little or no justification for a snap election. Abe, himself, was not sure. He changed rationales frequently.

At first. Abe cited the need for a referendum on his decision to delay for a year and a half a consumption tax hike to 10%. Yet, there was no opposition to this. Later, he said it was about “Abenomics.” With the economy entering a recession, this did not make sense. Big business leaders have been critical, calling the election a “waste of time and money” (Keidanren). One business magazine complained, “No matter how you look at it, there is no justification.”

In November, the Japanese economy slipped officially into recession. Growth rates had been negative for three quarters since October-December 2013. The January-March quarter saw consumers rush to buy expensive goods before a consumption tax hiked from 5% to 8%. Slow income growth in Japan is a key factor, with prices rising faster than wages.

Consumers continue to avoid buying big-ticket items, like autos, computers, and electrical appliances. The weak yen (now around 120 to the dollar) has helped some exporters, but has made imports more expensive, including food and daily necessities. It has hurt small companies which rely on imported materials. Big companies, benefiting from a rising stock market, are flush with cash, but not investing at home.

Power struggle masked as an election
Abe was reportedly surprised by the GDP showing minus growth. The Finance Ministry had assured him before he first raised the consumption tax that growth would resume in the fall. Startled, Abe responded by postponing the second planned tax hike.

Some powerful figures in his party opposed and challenged his move. With Abe’s popularity plummeting, linked initially to scandals in which two cabinet ministers resigned, talk has begun about his replacement. To reassert control, Abe felts that dissolving the Lower House for a snap election would reestablish his dominance. Thus, the election is a power struggle masked by a “referendum” on the success of his economic policies.

Local chapters of the LDP are unhappy with the surprise election. Local assembly members have to face unified local elections next spring and expect to have their hands full preparing for those races. A snap election requires enormous energy from the LDP’s local support bases, often run by elderly staffers. They fear that they will be too weary to prepare for the spring elections. Reports suggest that many are not overly cooperative with the national election. If this is true, the vote-gathering machine of the LDP in the regions may not be operating at full speed for the December election.

Referendum on Failed Policies
If the election is a referendum on a “failed” economic policy, what is the electorate to do? They cannot vote for the LDP because of satisfaction with the state of the economy – most polls show up to an 80% dissatisfaction rate.  They cannot easily vote for the opposition parties, particularly the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) that they had thrown out of office in 2012 because of its policy failures. The DPJ is offering nothing new in its 2014 campaign manifesto. 

The opposition is good at caustic criticisms of Abe policies, accusing him of holding a snap election to mask his failure to grow the economy. Yet, with little to offer as solutions there is no incentive for voters even to cast protest votes against the LDP. Despite their critical views on Abe’s policies, most people are not upset enough to step out of the mainstream. In fact, many of the undecided voters – up to 50% in some polls – frustrated or indifferent -- just may decide to stay home on Dec. 14. If it is still snowing heavily in the mountainous regions, as it does in early December, many definitely will stay home.

The latest polls show the electorate’s dilemma well. The Kyodo poll for November is typical of most opinion surveys. It found that the Abe Cabinet’s disapproval rate (47.3%) now outpaces the approval rate (43.6%). Despite such public dissatisfaction, 28% of the respondents said they would vote for the LDP in the proportional representation segment, while only 10.3% indicated they would vote for the largest opposition party, the DPJ. But 41.2% were still undecided.

Significantly, 84.2% of the public said that they do not feel that the economy has improved under Abe, and 35.1% saw the economy as the important campaign issue. If such is the public’s view, it would seem safe to conclude that LDP will not do well in the election, but such may not be the case, even if there is a large turnout, including the undecided voters.

Other media surveys, such as the Asahi Shimbun, predict that the election outcome will give the LDP and its coalition partner 300 seats or more. The Mainichi in the latest survey gives the coalition even more seats, which could give it a two-thirds majority in the Lower House. Only one survey, a district-by-district tally by one weekly magazine predicted that the LDP could lose over 60 seats (it now has 295) and thus its majority by sinking below the 238 line. The LDP has ruled 266 seats for the coalition as the targeted goal.

Why the discrepancy? The weekly expects the opposition parties to do much better than expected, thanks largely to cooperation to run unified candidates. Running candidates against each other only split the vote for the opposition, giving the win to the LDP candidate. The weekly also expects the number of LDP votes will drop, as well. This combination could result in many wins for the opposition candidates in districts where the LDP won in the previous two elections.

More of the same thing?
It is an open question whether the opposition picks up seats or the LDP again wins big. There are a high proportion of unaffiliated and undecided voters. The Prime Minister has taken care to remove as much controversy from the campaign as possible to focus on the mere issue of stability. Collective self-defense (CSD), membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and even restarting of nuclear power plants are strangely absent from the campaign literature and speech-making.

Tough decisions by Abe on TPP and legislation on CSD will not come until next year. Moreover, the voters see Japan’s relations with the U.S. as relatively good, sour ties with China slowly improving, and Abe’s efforts on the North Korea abduction cases a noble effort. As for poor relations with South Korea, most Japanese blame Seoul. 

In an unwanted election, in which the only issue is the economy, and the only cards seem to be held by the ruling parties, voters lining up on December 14, though disgruntled, may feel they have little choice but to stick to more of the same thing. Be prepared for the election results to reinforce another long reign of the LDP. And one that will further embolden Mr. Abe.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Monday in Washington, December 8, 2014

A STRATEGIC APPROACH TO MALARIA. 12/8, 8:30am-3:30pm. Sponsor: Global Health Policy Center, CSIS. Speakers: Dr. Alan Magill, Director, Malaria, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Dr. Bernard Nahlen, Deputy Coordinator, President’s Malaria Initiative; Dr. Mead Over, Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development; RADM Colin Chinn, Command Surgeon, U.S. Pacific Command; Dr. Mark Fukuda, CDC Malaria Advisor, President’s Malaria Initiative Greater Mekong Subregion; and more. 

HARNESSING THE POTENTIAL OF NATURAL GAS: ADDRESSING METHANE EMISSIONS. 12/8, 9:30am-12:30pm. Sponsor: Energy and National Security, CSIS. Speakers: David Allen, Melvin H. Gertz Regents Chair in Chemical Engineering, University of Texas at Austin; Greg Guidry, Executive Vice President, Unconventionals Americas, Shell; Steven Hamburg, Chief Scientist, EDF; Janet McCabe, Acting Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, EPA; Dave McCurdy, President, American Gas Association; John Podesta, Counselor to the President; Carrie Reese, Environmental Compliance Manager, Pioneer Natural Resources; and Martha Rudolph, Director, Environmental Programs, Colorado's Department of Public Health and Environment.

RUSSIA’S GLOBAL SELF: FIVE DIFFERENT FACES. 12/8, 10:00-11:00am. Sponsor: Johns Hopkins SAIS Center for Transatlantic Relations. Speaker: Nina Belyaeva, professor and chair of the Public Policy Department at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.


U.S. POLICY IN THE ASIA-PACIFIC: U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY AND RISING CHINA. 12/8, 11:30-1:30. Sponsor: Asian Studies Center, The Heritage Foundation. Featured Speaker: The Honorable Jim Talent, Former United States Senator from Missouri and Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee; and Member, National Defense Panel.
THE TRADE PROMOTION AUTHORITY (TPA). 12/ 8, Noon-1:00pm, Brown Bag, Washington, DC. Sponsor: Women in International Trade. Speaker: Hun Quach, Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Congressional Affairs.

ENERGY DIPLOMACY AND NATIONAL SECURITY CHALLENGES IN THE MIDDLE EAST. 12/8, Noon-1:30pm. Sponsor: American Security Project (ASP). Speaker: Amos J Hochstein, Acting Special Envoy, Bureau of Energy Resources.

SHADOW FINANCIAL REGULATORY COMMITTEE12/ 8, Noon-1:30pm. Sponsor: American Enterprise Institute. Speakers: Richard J. Herring (cochairman), The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania; George G. Kaufman (cochairman), Loyola University Chicago; Marshall Blume, The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania; Kenneth W. Dam, University of Chicago Law School and Brookings Institution; Franklin Edwards, Columbia University; Robert A. Eisenbeis, Cumberland Advisors; Edward Kane, Boston College; Paul H. Kupiec, AEI; Albert S. Kyle, University of Maryland; Frank Partnoy, University of San Diego School of Law; Kenneth E. Scott, Stanford Law School; David Skeel, University of Pennsylvania Law School; Chester Spatt, Carnegie Mellon University.

RETHINKING THE ASIA PIVOT: U.S. POLICY IN THE PACIFIC AND THE SOCIAL MOVEMENTS THAT ARE CHALLENGING MILITARISM IN THE REGION. 12/8 Noon-1:55pm. Sponsor: Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). Speakers: Ko Youkyoung is a long time peace activist in South Korea as the former director of the National Campaign for Eradication of Crimes by U.S. Troops in Korea and member of the Korean Women’s Network against Militarism, SAFE-Korea. She is also a member of the PyeongTaek Peace Center and Raymond Palatino is a two-term congressman who represented Kabataan (Youth) Partylist in the 14th and 15th Congress of the Philippines. He is currently the Southeast Asia editor of Global Voices and a columnist of The Diplomat online magazine.

HUMAN RIGHTS BEFORE CARTER. 12/8, 4:00-5:30. Sponsor: Wilson Center, History and Public Policy. Speaker: Prof Sarah B. Snyder, American University, author of Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War: A Transnational History of the Helsinki Network (2011).

SMART WOMEN, SMART POWER. 12/8, 5:00-7:00pm. Sponsor: CSIS. Speaker: Ambassador Samantha Power, US Permanent Representative to the United Nations; Nina Easton, Senior Editor, Washington Columnist, Fortune, Chair, Fortune Most Powerful Women International; Linda Hart, Vice Chair, Board of Trustees, CSIS.

HUMAN RIGHTS IN NORTH KOREA AND US POLICY. 12/8, 6:00-8:00pm. Sponsor: U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS; The Sejong Society of Washington, DC. Speakers: Robert King, special envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues at the US State Department; Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK); and Daniel Aum, Donald Wilson Fellow at the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights and author of the report, “Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea: The Case for US Leadership and Action."

ASIA IN WASHINGTON: EXPLORING THE PENUMBRA OF TRANSNATIONAL POWER. 12/8, 6:30-8:00pm. Sponsor: Worlds Affairs Council. Speaker: author Kent Calder, SAIS Professor of Japanese Studies.