AOYAMA VIEW 08.08.2019

From Olympics to politics: a review of recent moves at home and at neighbors

One-year milestone to Tokyo 2020 Olympics and the folly of IOC timing the games for this hottest time of the year took the whole column last week. Recent developments in politics, both local, regional and global, deserve a review of their own. Some of the play going on rank equally high in folly, even more in hilarity if the consequences were not so serious.

Let‘s start with a look at Upper House election results.

By and large, it turned out much as expected: the ruling coalition easily kept its majority, but lost its 2/3 super majority. This will put new blocks on Abe-san‘s road to his long-time dream of renewing the US written constitution, but does not impact progress in other government policies, economic or social. That‘s exactly what the voters wished in surveys: they are happy with the the steady progress and stability in their daily lives, but not sure about the necessity to change the 1947 basic law in any way.


The 48% voting rate – the second lowest in post-war history – reflected the same attitude: we are happy with the progress under Abe‘s watch, so why to vote? Just keep going and give us more benefits. The opposition parties did not manage to arouse public with any attractive alternative to Abe‘s policies, they‘re just happy to oppose all government policies and blow up any mistakes it makes. Yet, there‘s enough voters, who neither like Abe, so urban Democrats and populist Ishin managed to gain some extra seats.

The conservative thinking was especially evident among the young people, who have seen their job opportunities remarkably improved. No wonder their voting rate was barely over 30%. Many confessed they don‘t even know any other party than LDP as Abe has ruled through all their adult life.

As for women, female candidates won only 28 of the total 124 new seats, but in Japan this stands as good result – top level with the 2016 Upper House vote. 

Prime Minister Abe in pre-election commercial (FCCJ)

In big cities, women ruled just like in Scandinavia: half of the seats went to ladies in both Tokyo and Yokohama and LDP‘s Tamayo Marukawa got by far most votes of all candidates in the capital city. More surprisingly, female candidates backed by the unified opposition beat LDP‘s “ojisan” in the party‘s traditional agrarian power holds Niigata, Yamagata, Akita and Ehime. 

LDP was lucky to have strong female candidate of its own in Masako Mori to keep its seat in Fukushima. It was lucky for Finland, too, as Ms. Mori is the leader of “Finland friends” in the Diet: had she lost her seat, Embassy would have been forced to try find a new one.

Newly elected Yasuhiko Funago of Reiwa Party (ANNnews)

Among the more colorful results, the newly named Reiwa party won two seats for heavily paraplegic candidates, who can hardly communicate at all in addition to being tied into their wheelchairs. It‘s actually a “wheel bed” for one, who can express himself only through sensors installed in his mouth connected to his PC. The janitors at the soon 100 year old Diet building quickly installed wheelchair ramps in stairs and removed tables and seats in the main hall to accomodate the two roll in for their first working day in the new parliament.

The Reiwa party leader, an ex actor, missed the cut himself despite getting one million votes. He claims he will sweep the next election with more than 100 candidates and become Japan prime minister himself with his populist agenda “cut taxes, pay more benefits”. Who still says Japan politics is stale? 

The problems of the paraplegics in the society got big promotion from this naturally. It made all think how much more needs to be done to make all buildings, homes, roads and railway stations easy to navigate for them. Good promotion has been done already with the heavy media exposure of Paralympics that will follow soon after the “normal” Olympics. The media coverage has been almost on equal level for both and many paralympic sport heros are now known as well as their “normal” colleagues.

Another Reiwa phenomena was the return of Muneo Suzuki, who got back his civil rights amidst the big number of amnesties traditionally granted in connection of new Emperor ascension. The old LDP veteran lost his rights years ago when he was convicted for trying to manipulate Foreign Ministry officials to advance peace treaty with Russia. Ever popular in Hokkaido despite that, the voters re-elected him to Diet this time under Isshin flag.

The strangest winner was the Anti-NHK Party – “The Party To Protect People from NHK” officially – who got through its founder with its single policy of opposing obligatory fees for the public broadcaster. The next day, two other weirdos in Parliament joined him on this worthy mission. We surely are all kinds here!

Yet, these are just sideshows that add color to the otherwise “boring” result – stability rules here. Just think of Ukraine: the ruling party is now a brand new one established by a TV comedian elected for President and backed by another newcomer party led by a rock musician. And no need to remind readers which Big Country is now led by another TV-personality.

As for voting rate, we cannot compete with North Korea where 99,98% voted for the ruling party‘s candidates same weekend.

"The Party To Protect People from NHK" Leader Takashi Tachibana (Creative Commons)

So what‘s next for Abe? Apart from the Constitution change that he remains determined to push through by gaining support from opposition party members and the usual post-election minister line-up change to maintain support from his own troops, he says other important issues are making peace treaty with Russia and bringing back all kidnappees from North Korea. In today‘s light, these have next to no possibility to come through. Hopefully he finds more practical goals closer to people‘s daily lives worthy of consideration, too.

At least two East Asian countries act like they would be getting well along (Creative Commons)

In reality, Abe‘s biggest challenge is to maintain the economy on even keel in the global trade strorms and push through the October VAT rise to 10% without causing collapse in consumer spending. Before that the PM must tackle the bilateral trade deal with USA, who jumped out of the TPP deal just when it was about ready and now wants to have same low tariffs for its agricultural products as Australia, NZ, Mexico and others got. 

Following the grace period granted by Trump to his friend to ride out the Upper House election, the talks started last week and it seems clear the requested concessions have been agreed already in advance. Purchases of a few million tons of US soybeans to patch up for China‘s absence will also help boost up the friendship between the two leaders. That would also serve Japanese trading companies, who have been instrumental in performing the actual business to China for US farmers. Of course, they‘ve been happy to supply soybeans from Brazil instead this year, but the nationwide purchase and logistic organisations they built in USA years ago with big money have been left idle.   

In  contrast, when it comes to North Korea, Abe seems badly let down by Trump, who is guided by South Korea‘s Moon to “make a deal” with Kim at almost any condition. The American president now openly confirmed Japan‘s worries that he does not care about North‘s nuclear weapons nor missile shootings as long as they are not ICBM‘s that can reach to US continent despite all his promises to Abe otherwise. It‘s a big letdown from Abe‘s claims he has good grip of the mercurial Trump.


With similar letdown from Russia‘s president Putin on his island recovery efforts and Kim paying no attention to his courting for talks, Abe has changed the focus on Moon and his South, a case with more believable credentials. Yet, as predicted in  last column, Korea has managed to use its grip on Western media to turn the story around into its old  traditional victimization by evil Japan. South‘s exaggerated, emotional and theatrical reaction to the small bureaucratic change in Japan‘s export procedures – entire Korean economy, nay all global technology supply chains are under threat according to Moon! – was quickly expanded into national consumer boycott of Japanese products and tourist travel to Japan, even cutting off people-to-people contacts, sister city relations, cultural exchanges and school kids‘ soccer tournaments.

Escalating the feud further, Abe government decided last Friday to take Korea off its list of most favored trading partners citing collapse in trust only to give more ammunition to Moon‘s victimization stories. Explanation that ROK was the only Asian exception on the list that consisted of “reliable” West European and North American trading partners – including Finland! – while China, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore etc had no problem missing out, did not seem to help.


Not perhaps the most popular football player
in Korea at the moment (Creative Commons)

According Koreans, the move was tantamount to “economic invasion” on scale of Toyotomi Hideyoshi‘s 1592 raid and  “outrageous affront against the entire Korean nation”. A few days before they said same about Ronaldo, the Portuguese soccer start not showing up on the field in the friendly match between his Italian team and local All Stars. “We will never buy Juventus shirts” was the call for national boycott then.

Over the weekend Moon declared already “economic war” against Japan and attacked Abe personally with various deragatory terms in nationally broadcasted TV speech. Seems that Portugal and Ronaldo have been saved from this fate so far. Guess bashing them is less likely to bring Moon votes.

Aoyama View remains same as last month: Abe-san should not have opened this Pandora‘s box however important it was to somehow respond to Moon government allowing Korean civil activists to seize Japanese private property for their claims of past misgivings over 70 years ago.

It has been a surprise to find out how dependent on Japanese technology input the famous Korean electronic behemoths are and how close and trustful the business relation has been. Surely now with the political interference, Koreans will move to reduce their dependence and it will be Japanese chemical exporters and machinery makers, who will suffer. With the national boycott of all Japanese products, Japanese consumer goods in Korea and domestic retail and hospitality industries at home, who benefited from 3,8 million Korean tourists here last year, will take a hit, too.

We experienced all this with China in 2010, but somehow Abe must have thought Koreans are different. With economy in shambles, exports diving, consumers overdebted, promised jobs and better salaries not materializing, peace and harmony with North turning out pipe dreams, Moon popularity has collapsed and he is prepared to do anything to blow up the feud with Japan.

Wounded animals are the most dangerous. Abe should have known.

Korea's import share of semiconductor- and chipmaking
equipment in 2018 (Nikkei Asian Review, Oxford
Economics, Korea International Trade Association)

Timo Varhama

Tokyo August 8, 2019