Japan’s conservative Nippon Kaigi lobby: Worth worrying about?

TOKYO–The recent spate of western media articles on Nippon Kaigi – a conservative Japanese lobbying group (and somewhat akin to a “Political Action Committee” in America) associated with Prime Minister Abe — suggests Japan is heading for a police state, and soon afterwards will be looking overseas for somewhere to invade.

This makes for good reading, but what is the actual danger? Prime Minister Abe and his ideas about the Japanese Constitution, World War II and its aftermath, democracy, etc., have always been clear to anyone who bothered to listen and do some homework. His views, which align with much of Nippon Kaigi’s ideology, do indeed represent a slice of Japanese society — and the upper rungs of it as well – but it is still just a slice.

This is not surprising. In most modern societies one finds a full range of political perspectives – each of which somebody will find frightening. Indeed, a Republican wandering into a meeting at the Democratic National Committee would believe they’d stumbled across malevolent fanatics looking to destroy the Republic. A Democrat pitching up at a Trump rally would perhaps feel the same way – and both would be equally convinced they are correct.

Tadae Takubo, chairman of Nippon Kaigi

Tadae Takubo, chairman of Nippon Kaigi

Fascist vehicle?

A key question regarding Nippon Kaigi (and Mr. Abe) is whether Japan writ large is warming to their ideas about constitutional revision and becoming “fascist” – as a National Review article recently warned — whatever that loaded, vague term means?  One just doesn’t see a groundswell of support for Nippon Kaigi’s nationalistic ideas — even among LDP supporters. Indeed, the fan club of a popular Japanese pop group, SMAP, is around thirty times larger than Nippon Kaigi’s reported 38,000 person membership.

Abe and the LDP’s recent electoral success had little to do with plans for amending the Constitution or correcting a “masochistic” view of Japanese history as Nippon Kaigi complains, and Abe agrees. Rather, it had more to do with an inept opposition unable to articulate a coherent, attractive platform and a sense among more of the voting public that PM Abe and the LDP at least have a plan that might improve people’s living conditions.

Will Abe and Nippon Kaigi be able to slip through major revisions to the Constitution while nobody is looking?  Or even through persuasion?  It will not be easy.

PM Abe does not snap his fingers and get what he wants.  He faces considerable opposition (both personal and principled) even within the LDP – which includes a wide range of opinions across the political spectrum, to include factions that appear more leftist than conservative. And Abe still depends on a coalition with Komeito — essentially the political wing of the Soka Gakkai religious group that tied up with the LDP for political advantage some years ago. Besides giving opportunism a bad name, Komeito is at best ambivalent about Abe and Nippon Kaigi’s controversial proposals.

The Japanese bureaucracy’s ability to stymie PM Abe and Nippon Kaigi should not be underestimated either. Indeed, despite relatively high public approval ratings, Abe has still been unable to convince the Ministry of Finance to raise defense spending beyond an illusory increase. METI has done similar effective work slow-rolling his plans to promote defense exports.

Additionally, despite the LDP coalition’s majority, Japanese politics is not a placid affair. Wait until PM Abe tries to push through Constitutional amendments and opposition emerges and coalesces – especially if Abe overreaches and tries to do too much. In any event, he will need to make his case. And if Japan’s economy remains moribund – better than even odds – there will be a further swing against the LDP.  Try explaining why arcane constitutional changes about the individual’s duties to the nation matter to people who are irked that the Abe administration cannot improve living standards.

The Japanese public is smarter than one might think and can make up its own mind —  either way.  Indeed, some of the western expert commentary on Nippon Kaigi and Abe’s policies has a whiff of foreigners knowing what’s best for Japan, even more than the Japanese themselves.

And a good bit of commentary since Abe took over is afflicted with what Charles Krauthammer might call “Abe Derangement Syndrome” – a belief that Abe is Lucifer incarnate and an existential threat to Japan. His alter ego, Nippon Kaigi, is the latest proof of this, as if any more were needed.

Once again, evidence is thin.

Abe is frequently derided as a militarist for wanting to revise Article 9 of the Constitution (renouncing use of force and prohibiting Japan having a military).  Article 9 was in fact reinterpreted out of any plain meaning within a year of being enacted in 1947, and successive administrations – including the Democratic Party of Japan during its turn in power in the late 2000’s – have continued “re-militarizing” Japan and upgrading Japan Self Defense Force capabilities.

As for Abe (and Nippon Kaigi’s) alleged desire to strangle Japan’s free press:  The Japanese mainstream media has always been spineless regarding certain subjects (political corruption, government and industry collusion, and organized crime and rightist activity) and suffers from a lack of investigative reporting.

Self-censoring Japanese media

However, there never has been anything – even today – that prevents the Japanese mainstream media from showing some backbone – or as the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee might have said, ‘Clank when it walks.’  Despite these shortcomings and Abe’s reputed pressure, from the leftist Asahi to the rightist Sankei, Japan’s media has a full range of political and editorial perspectives and critiques of government policy.

Curiously, the most important bellwether to watch in this area is efforts to suppress the “shukanshi” – the weekly magazines. These periodicals are looked at askance in some quarters, but are where scandals and other “investigative” reporting are done.  The shukanshi don’t yet seem to be on Abe or Nippon Kaigi’s “hit list.”

Japan's Prime Minister and leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Shinzo Abe attends a news conference following a victory in the upper house elections by his ruling coalition, at the LDP headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, July 11, 2016. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Japan’s Prime Minister and leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Shinzo Abe attends a news conference following a victory in the upper house elections by his ruling coalition, at the LDP headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, July 11, 2016. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Abe’s achievements

Giving credit where it’s due, PM Abe deserves praise for a successful foreign policy – having improved relations with a number of countries and enhanced Japan’s reputation and influence. Not bad for Lucifer. He perhaps deserves a pass for “Abenomics” not turning around the economy, given that none of his predecessors over the previous 20 years were any more successful. Foreign critics freely give economic advice to Japan, but one might ask how well their own countries have done?

Despite doubts about Nippon Kaigi’s power, one should not dismiss the organization.  It does have access and influence in parts of the ruling and political circles – which is what lobbying groups are supposed to do. But access and influence and Prime Ministers don’t last forever. Can Nippon Kaigi turn Japan into what it wants to turn it into – assuming it even knows exactly what it wants?  (Talk to ten Nippon Kaigi members and one can get ten different answers.)  A degree of skepticism is warranted.

Countries, especially those with consensual governments, are complex organisms, and it’s rare that a lobbying group can “steamroll” an entire society.  Also, one notes that today’s Japan is very different than 1930’s era Japan. One might also ask where is the “muscle” necessary to suppress the considerable opposition. The Army? No. The Police? No. The Yakuza? Perhaps, but highly unlikely.

Regarding lobbying groups in general, one hesitates to call the Japanese kettle “black.”  As just one example, one might argue that Wall Street is equally pernicious but with more to show for its efforts, having subverted financial regulators and one might fairly say both political parties.

Much of the commentary on Nippon Kaigi and Abe reminds one of breathless stories about the Trilateral Commission, the Moral Majority, the Neocons, and even Saul Alinsky’s Kenyan Muslim acolyte in the White House – controlling America from behind the scenes for a sinister agenda. Like all conspiracy theories, the proponents have cult-like certainty they are correct and plenty of “evidence” to back it up – and will not be budged.

Stories like Nippon Kaigi and its ideas about making Japan great again make good headlines. However, there is always more to a country than the headlines. It just requires some effort to write that story.

Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo with 20 years of experience in Japan as a US diplomat, business executive, and as a US Marine Officer.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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