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 AOYAMA VIEW

Power play in Japan and elsewhere - some potentially serious, some not
When you are reading this you will know the Lower House election result. Because of travel out of Tokyo on election day I'm writing this one day before. It looks pretty clear: LDP will not only keep all its seats but even add some more and the party will celebrate Abe as the victorious leader. The early strong wind died out of Koike-san's sails past two weeks: after all, her offer of "reform" was not that much different from LDP's conservatism. Instead, Edano's new-born Democrats look more liberal alternative for those who don't like Abe and might have got more votes than Koike's "Hope".

Most of all, however, voters went for status quo because "it's economy, stupid" as Bill Clinton used to say. It's not only that Nikkei index has hit its highest point since 1996 following longest lasting continuous growth period since sixties and record profits at big companies, but the outlook for jobs even for normal people is now just as strong and even salaries have started to rise; better not to take any risk for changing horses now. The advance polls showed that double as many young people below 30 years age supported LDP than old over 60 years, a clear sign how much job numbers have improved for them. It's not really Abe's achievement, just demographics, but hey, who cares? Earlier, it was the old people who went for LDP afraid of all talk of "reform" to their pensions and healthcare benefits. Many did that again, I'm sure.

Then there was the City-Country divide. It was well summed up by a 73 year old lady from a small Gumma village: "Rural Japan is not Tokyo. Saying "Let's change Japan" might go down well in Tokyo, but it won't strike home here. Strong ties to central government are necessary for us. "We have no option but to support LDP." Just 100 km away from Tokyo but consisting of 90% of forest and mountains, her village population has halved in past 20 years down to below 2000 inhabitants with average age 70.6. Locally collected taxes make just 20% of the village budget, the rest comes from central government coffers. That's demographics, not Abenomics, for you again!

No wonder LDP has been doing its best to resist reduction in the number of countryside Parliament seats despite the rapidly declining population there. Challenged time and again in courts by activists, it has managed to keep Supreme Court from declaring any election "unconstitutional" as long as the misrepresentation has been kept around 1 vote in remote areas against 2 in big cities. To keep this limit, once again, 10 small single-seat constituencies were merged to others for this election, the minimum necessary.

The British type single-seat areas, which make majority of the seats, also strongly favor big parties, whereof there is now only One. In fact, the new split-up of opposition parties has made it even more difficult to challenge the LDP power. Facing its 280-300 seats, the biggest opposition party, either Hope or new Democrats now, might have just 50 seats after this election. In many places, the typhoon on Sunday also made voters stay at home and low voting rate always favor the incumbents.

More than the actual vote result, it's interesting to see what happens now afterwards. Will the reconfirmed strength of LDP and Abe-san bring about any changes in his policies, economic or social or constitutional, beyond the election promises? How will the internal power relations within LDP develop and who will be in the new minister line-up that PM usually sets up after election? How close co-operation the equally conservative Kibo will provide to its election opponent? What happens to ex-DPJ heavyweights like Maehara and Noda, who ran as independents? How will Edano-san guide his new Democrats? Will they ally themselves with Communists as the old DPJ did in the previous Upper House election? Answers will all fold out in next few weeks.

As said earlier, this was another useless election just to extend Abe rule and clear him out of favoritism scandals, but it brought about quite a change in the political field outside the ruling parties. Nothing much was ever about to change in Japan's policies, so all the drummed up drama made it look like a storm in teacup in comparison to the potential global impact of the China Communist Party's once-in-five-years convention spectacle that started last week. We have to wait for a few days more what will come out of the behind-the-doors machinations among the Party leaders there; no public debate or vote takes place and you have to read the result from the order the new Standing Comittee member march on the spectacularily decorated massive stage after their closed door session. The expected outcome is that president Xi will have managed to man all seats with his own men to make his rule as powerful as Mao was. "It's likely to look like a coronation rather than an instititutionalized transition to a party leader's second term", predicted one China expert.

Once Xi has absolute power, he will be able to start his real agenda whatever it is. Until now his every move has been carefully coreographed to get all the pieces in place one by one for this moment, all the time wary not to shake the balance inside the party or outside the country. Even opponents have been thrown to jail not in one big purge but one by one with trumped-up verdicts of corruption - ridiculous in a country where it's commonplace all through from bottom to top. Xi knows there is heaps to do to rationalize the giant country's economic structures, clear out corruption etc, but the immediate impact what many of us outsiders watch for is eventual "coming out' of his foreign policies. Will he turn positive with more harmony and peaceful relations, new openings for foreign business and investment? Or will he turn China even more agressive against neighbors and more protective of China's own industries and big companies?

North Korea's combatative leader Kim Jong Un must be watching the outcome more anxiously than any other. Until now Xi has tolerated his impish behaviour against China's orders to cool it down and made minimum cuts into crucial flow of money, food and oil to its erstwhile vassal. Will that change once Xi doesn't have to care any more of old party cadres' nostalgic memories of the war together against the mutual "imperialist enemy" 60 years ago? Until now Kim has calculated to be safe from any aid cutback and kept insulting Xi time after time with his missiles to play to his own supporters. Now it could become different. Maybe that's why it's been surprisingly quiet from Pyongyang past few weeks: no missiles or bomb tests against all expectations.

The unpredictable US president stumbles into this potential sea of change physically with his visit to Japan, China and Korea just two weeks from now. In Tokyo, it's all hunky-dory with his "best buddy" Abe, fresh from his election win, showing him around the town for photo opportunities: a speech at Parliament, meet with Emperor as well as with parents of North Korean kidnap victim Megumi Yokota whom he mentioned in his UN speech, maybe even a game of golf. Assurances of eternal friendship and accolades to Abe will be overflowing. A speech at American Chamber of Commerce is scheduled in as well for the US business interests.

In Korea, too, there's always the photo opportunity at DMZ looking sternly to "over there" like all US leaders have always done. But what will happen in talks in Beijing between the newly strengthened Xi and the steadily weaker and increasingly erratic US president? There's a growing rumor that Trump is planning to attack North in order to pump up his popularity at home soon after his Asian tour. The Chinese side will surely be asking him to hold back from that so they would not look accomplished in it.

When China president was having dinner with US hosts in Florida, Trump suddenly surprised him with the news that his Navy just attacked Syria with cruise missiles. Xi was about to suffocate into his pudding but held his face. Could Trump do the same to him with North Korea when having dinner in Beijing? Noodles would surely fly all over!

Timo Varhama  
Tokyo, October 21, 2017   


Previous Columns

10 October 2017
"Abe's useless snap election sparks big changes he did not count on"

26 September 2017
"North Korea boost Abe popularity - opportunity to extend his rule"

7 September 2017
"Kims'allah, Japan is OK and doing well"

28 August 2017
"From North Korea's missiles to Turku Terror and US Navy Mishaps"

17 August 2017
"Raining cats and dogs, missiles and threats, but strong sunshine in economy"

27 July 2017
"Forests, floods, fish and consumer prices - stories too good and data too bad to be true"

21 July 2017
"From Cool Finland to Hot Tokyo: A Round-Up of Recent Happenings"

26 June 2017
"Anniversaries and Memories: Finland, Japan, USA."

19 June 2017
"Rainy Season in Japan, Political Storms in Europe"

8 June 2017
"Trump impact spreads - Japan struggles with workforce issues"

30 May 2017
"Taormina to Tokyo: Heavyweights and fashionable ladies"

"New Missiles, Diet Debates, Yet Big Business in Big Profits - Down on Ground Challenges Remain Basic and Simple"

9 May 2017
"Golden Week, Special Trains, Luxury Spending, Even North Worries Makes for Good Business"

20 April 2017
"North Korea, USA both worry Japan - Koike worry Abe and LDP even more"

5 April 2017
"Spring, Sakura and New Year Start in Japan - Commotion, Tensions Rise Around the World"

27 March 2017
"Questions Unanswered, Unasked – Lifestyle and Surveys Bring Light"

21 March 2017
"Finland in Focus: Friendship, Dictionary, Music, Food - Even Elevators?"

13 March 2017
"Uncertainty Increases Around Japan - At Home Rebuilding Uncompleted in 6 Years - Abe Popularity Takes a Hit."

3 March 2017
"Book Readers, Police Jokes, Nerdy Napoleon and Poison Scare"

24 February 2017
"Populism, Ignorance and Isolationism Leads to Mayhem and Mess"

16 February 2017
"Golf Diplomacy, Chocolate Festa and Hokkaido Deams-Come-True"

9 February 2017
"Tokyo overcoming winter, business changes, political battle and Trump threats "

2 February 2017
"Warm Feelings in Japan, Wild Winds from USA"

20 January 2017
"Ready for Rooster? It will be a wild ride!"



About the Columnist

The columnist is a Japan veteran among Finnish business, our Chamber ex-president and today Member of the Board of Trustees.
After running a major Finnish industry company's Japan business for over 20 years, he is now Senior Associate in a strategic consulting company.

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