Koizumi must face up to collective defense issue

August 1st, 2004

There has been almost no reaction from abroad to the outcome of the latest House of Councillors election. This is only natural, simply because election results become international news headlines only when they are impressiveenough to make a changeover of power possible.

Japanese media made a big fuss over what they termed the “major advance”made by Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan) in the July 11 upper house contest.

What really happened in the race, however, was simply a drop by one in thenumber of seats held by the Liberal Democratic Party in the upper chamber compared with the party’s preelection strength, and a gain by one in theseats held by the LDP’s ruling coalition partner, New Komeito. This means that the strength of the ruling camp in the upper house did not change atall. Given that Minshuto, the major opposition party, was unable to mount even a vague threat to the absolute majority of the ruling coalition, it is only natural that the election outcome drew little attention overseas.

The only thing, as far as I know, worthy of note in relation to the significance of the upper house election was referred to briefly by The Wall Street Journal a few days after the election.

“By LDP-party rules, Mr. (Junichiro) Koizumi’s term as prime minister ends for good in 2006, and before then he won’t face any more general elections,” it said.

“This means that he doesn’t have to worry about making concessions to the old guard for the sake of staying in power,” the Journal added.

With these remarks, the newspaper pointed out the primary significance of the latest upper house poll.

Tallying gains and losses in the parties’ upper house seats has little meaning. What is truly important is the fact that the administration of Prime Minister Koizumi, having managed to weather potentially explosive political events in the past year–an LDP presidential election, the lower house election and the upper house election–has proved itself to be able to hang on to power, thus obtaining a free hand in policy handling for the coming two years.

Generally speaking, elections with controversial issues tend to workadversely for the party or parties in power. The headway Minshuto made in the upper house race this time was attributable mainly to the split in public opinion over the government-run pension plans, which was due largely to procedural blunders in the release of information relevant to the issue. Though cited by media as the other main factor behind the LDP’s poor electoral performance, it is disputable whether the nation’s sending of troops to Iraq actually hurt the party much.

Takeshita farsighted

A case in point in past national elections was the argument over the prosand cons of introducing the consumption tax.

The task of creating the consumption tax was undertaken by two administrations led by Yasuhiro Nakasone and Noboru Takeshita, respectively, during the period from 1982 to 1989. These administrations can be said to have been the last authentic LDP Cabinets, as they retained vestiges of what is known as the 1955 regime, characterized by the one-party rule of the LDP.

Starting with a plan to adopt a sales tax formulated by the Nakasone Cabinet, the consumption tax came into being after many twists and turns. The creation of the consumption tax came at the cost of the conventional pattern of LDP one-party rule,which had lasted for nearly half a century, ushering in an age of realignment of political parties.

In 1989, the final year of the Takeshita Cabinet, the prime minister made a visit to Thailand, where I was serving as ambassador.

Subjected to criticism for launching the consumption tax and reeling from the suicide of one of his secretaries, Takeshita appeared resolved to resign soon as prime minister.

In a discussion on that occasion, Takeshita, in a reflective mood, said to me: “At least I was able to introduce the consumption tax. I’m convinced the tax will turn out to be crucial in securing the future of government finances.”

Takeshita’s typically candid and unaffected remarks, made in the closing chapter of his long career in the political arena, underlined his devotion to the task of ensuring the nation’s long-term health, and remain fresh in my memory even today.

That is exactly the same frame of mind I expect Koizumi to have at this juncture.

Contrary to the political environment that surrounded Takeshita, Koizumi is blessed with extremely favorable circumstances for pursuing a long-range approach.

Given that there will be no national elections throughout his remaining tenure in office, Koizumi does not have to worry about fluctuations in the popular support rates for his Cabinet.

There is no need to seek popularity by normalizing diplomatic relations with North Korea. This issue could be settled by even an unskilled politician if he was willing to close his eyes to Pyongyang’s continued opacity regarding its nuclear development programs and turned a deaf ear to the concerns and contempt shown by people of sound judgment in the United States and Japan regarding the communist country’s behavior.

If Koizumi really is determined to accomplish his reform goals at the riskof “destroying” the LDP, as he has threatened to do more than once, he should deem things such as normalizing diplomatic ties with North Korea tobe among the first things the opposition, after Koizumi’s “destruction” of the LDP, would address with zeal. There is no justification for wasting hisprecious time on such a trifle.

Postal reform a worthwhile task

Koizumi has pointed out, and has been praised by others for, his extraordinarily firm resolve to tackle the challenge of privatizing the three postal services–mail delivery, kampo life insurance and postal savings.

Although I am not an expert on this issue, it may safely be said the resolve of the prime minister is definitely a good thing, since the envisioned task is certainly a worthwhile one.

Supposing that cash–nearly double the amount available to the megabank to be created through the planned integration of Mitsubishi Tokyo Financial Group and UFJ Holdings–is handled under the same market principles as those for private sector businesses as a result of the privatization of postal services, Koizumi’s initiative will be an undertaking of major significance to the structural reform of Japan in its entirety, particularly if the problem of non-functioning governmental investment projects funded by cash from postal services is settled properly in the privatization process.

There certainly will be objections from vested interests to the privatization, but Koizumi should nevertheless apply his leadership fully on this issue.

In the event, however, that the resistance forces prevail and postal service privatization ends up in an ineffective compromise, the invaluable two-year period from now on will have been wasted.

2 overriding priorities

Paramount among the important tasks Koizumi should carry out in the next two years are those that the government, though perceiving the need to carry them out, has so far been unable to address for fear of a setback in subsequent elections. In particular, there are two key jobs: doing away with constraints on the exercising of the nation’s right to collective self-defense and raising the consumption tax rate.

Koizumi has gone on record as saying that he will not to take up these two challenges as long as the current Cabinet is in place.

His stance would be understandable if a national election was scheduled for the near future. But Koizumi does not have to fret over what impact his actions would have on election results.

A new Koizumi Cabinet to be formed through a cabinet reshuffle scheduled for September should put an end to government inaction over the two key tasks.

Accomplishment of the two all-important tasks, even if the Koizumi administration is driven to collapse as a result and the nation’s political system plunges again into chaos, would without doubt leave the nation with a legacy to be remembered for a long time.

To all outward appearances, the LDP’s ruling coalition partner, New Komeito, is opposed to both tasks. But it is uncertain whether New Komeito would break away from the ruling camp if the prime minister expressed a firm resolve to push ahead with them. As there will be no national election while Koizumi is in office, the secession of New Komeito would have little, if any, impact on the future course of the nation’s politics.

Should New Komeito turn its back on the LDP, the LDP, as the ruling party, would merely have to do without a majority in the upper house.

Regarding the consumption tax, if the government pursues the goal of having revenues from the tax used exclusively for social security- and pension-funding purposes, the possibility would then arise of Minshuto, which is in favor of this idea, working in cooperation with the LDP to compile relevant legislation, as happened when both parties worked together to facilitate the enactment of a law allowing the imposition of sanctions on North Korea.

It therefore follows that the reshuffle of LDP executives, also scheduled to take place in September, must lead to the appointment of men of high caliber in terms of political ideals, men who are insightful in formulating policies, so that they will be able to engage in constructive consultations with sound-thinking members of the major opposition party.

This of course applies not only to the consumption tax issue, but to all the other key issues, including national security and diplomatic policy toward China, Taiwan and North Korea.

Current LDP Secretary General Shinzo Abe is a young politician, but appears to be a man of high competence, so if he has to quit the key LDP post to take the blame for the party’s performance in the latest upper house election, he should be replaced by someone who does not pale in comparison to him.

Separate from top law revision

More important than anything else is the issue of the exercise of the nation’s right to collective self-defense.

This is a problem that requires a farsighted national strategy and should be dealt with more urgently than anything else.

Nobody knows if U.S. President George W. Bush will be reelected for another four-year tenure in office, so the issue involving Japan’s exercising of its right to collective self-defense should be solved by the end of the year, while the current Bush administration, which includes a number of officials friendly to Japan, is in office. Settlement of this problem by 2004 would be immeasurably beneficial to future efforts for boosting Japanese-U.S. cooperation as well as Japan’s own long-range national interests.

No Diet resolution is necessary for resolving the problem.

The only thing that is necessary is for the prime minister to make a declaration that the conventional, absurd, government-backed interpretation of the concept–that is, that Japan, though having the right to collective defense, cannot exercise that right–should be abandoned.

If the prime minister were to make such a declaration, the only thing left to take care of would be the clerical process of ensuring that the new government stand is reflected in remarks by Cabinet members and other government officials in and outside the Diet.

Noteworthy in this connection is that the issue of conceptualization of the exercise of the nation’s right to collective defense has nothing to do with the issue of revising the Constitution.

Should the Constitution be revised and certain constitutional rights be bestowed through the revision, the problem will remain as long as the government interpretation prohibits its exercise.

The task of revising the Constitution should be the ultimate undertaking of the Koizumi Cabinet. The government should take its time with the constitutional revision issue. It really is a knotty problem since the supreme law cannot be changed without approval by two-thirds of all members of both houses of the Diet, a process that requires painstaking efforts to have win over legislators who tend to vacillate in their opinions on the issue. There may be various phases in which Koizumi’s leadership will be tested in addressing this challenge.

The problem concerning the right to collective self-defense, which is of grave significance to the future of the people of this country, however, must not be sacrificed to the highly complicated, time-consuming procedures for revising the Constitution.

After all, the two have been separate from each other from the beginning.