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Friday 3 September 2021

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (45)

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (45)

Dear Japan Society members and friends

Well, it’s not often one can write something like this: I hope you all had a better summer than Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga! We all knew that Japan’s summer of sporting contests at the Olympics and Paralympics were going to be followed by two electoral contests, one for the LDP leadership (now scheduled for 29 September) and one for the Lower House of the Diet, at a date unknown but expected to be some time between mid October and 28 November, the latest date permitted by the Constitution. But neither we nor, I imagine, Mr Suga knew quite how hot a summer it was going to be, both meteorologically and politically, with bad portents for him not just from low approval ratings but also from the 22 August mayoral election in Yokohama, which is his own constituency and where his chosen candidate was soundly defeated. In some ways, admittedly, as a party leader taking the role in succession to such a dominant and long-serving prime minister as Shinzo Abe, it had always felt likely that Mr Suga’s time in the Kantei would be quite limited. Even so, despite those grim portents, with the Olympics as backdrop and time so short before the general election Mr Suga’s decision to bow out came as quite a surprise.
It’s not the business of this blog to engage in speculation about what might now happen at either of the two elections this autumn. But, if I may, I will offer three observations, two serious and one frivolous. The first arises from what seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to this sort of news especially in the international media: the assertion that such a resignation brings "political instability" to Japan, as the Wall Street Journal wrote in that article, or “political volatility”, as was seen in other formulations. If any change in political leadership amounts to instability then I suppose this is true, though not very meaningful. My observation is that the paradox of this sort of party politics in Japan is that the decision of LDP heavyweights, and in the end Mr Suga himself, that he should stand down is actually a sign of the opposite: an attempt to prevent instability by changing leader, so as to maintain the continuity of the LDP-Komeito coalition in power and also, hence, of its policies. 
The second also arises from a familiar saying, perhaps cliché, that we often see quoted when intra-party politics becomes prominent: it is that “an inch ahead is darkness” in Japanese politics. The contrarian in me always wants to dispute this notion, but it actually does contain a truth that is relevant to at least the first of this autumn’s contests. This is that as much of LDP politics is about personalities and power, rather than policies, the critical forces at work tend to be party factions and interest groups, whose deals and decisions do take place largely behind closed doors, even if not truly in darkness. For that reason, although public opinion polls will certainly play a role in those manoeuvrings, given the imminence of the general election, other factors will also play their parts.
This nevertheless leads me to my frivolous comment. It is that, as things stand, it looks as if there might be so many candidates in the leadership election that the LDP might do well to borrow from the Olympics and hold heats so as to narrow the field down. More seriously, the factional bargaining is really the likely field-whittler, but we can still look forward to a lot of names being bandied about before the campaign proper begins on 17 September. At the Japan Society, we can readily organise a webinar about these elections, hoping to cast a bit of light into the darkness, and it would be interesting to hear from members as to whether you would find this more useful and interesting before 29 September, to assess the race, or whether you’d prefer to wait until afterwards so as then to assess the result. Or of course both.
Meanwhile, we have other contests to assess: the Olympics. I am delighted that on 9 September we will welcome to our webinar series Robert Whiting, arguably one of the top, and certainly most experienced, writers about sports in Japan though also about much else in Tokyo life. Bob Whiting has lived in Japan for most of the past 60 years, having arrived in 1962 as a 19-year-old American serviceman, which also means that the 1964 Olympics were among his formative experiences. In 2014 he wrote a five-part retrospective for the Japan Timesabout 1964, which then led him to write his recent memoir of his whole period (so far!) in Japan, Tokyo Junkie: 60 years of Bright Lights, Back Alleys…and Baseball. As he has written books about organised crime as well as organised sports, it promises to be a wonderfully wide-ranging conversation. With the Fukuoka District Court having on 28 August handed down Japan’s first ever death sentence for a Yakuza boss, it will be fascinating to hear Bob’s take on the evolution of organised crime in Japan and society’s attitudes towards it.
Coming up at the Japan Society there are also many rather more benign subjects. Most imminently, this weekend is your last chance to design a Yuru-Chara mascot for your chosen region of the UK, with the competition’s closing date of 5 September to coincide with the completion of the Paralympic Games and thus of Japan’s summer of sport. Do please enter: if anyone wants a bit of inspiration, or just fun, one of my favourite Twitter feeds is Mondo Mascots. In webinars coming up this month and next topics will range from postwar calligraphy and abstract painting on 16 September, to the Shikoku Pilgrimage on 25 September, to the making of Senbei crackers on 9 October. And last but not least, let me mention that the Japan Society’s Annual General Meeting will take place online on 22 September at 11.00am: full details to follow shortly.

* Image © Louie Martinez

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