JPRI Working Paper No. 89, October 2002
The Makiko-Junichiro Show
By Murray Sayle

A personable, middle-aged woman, humiliated beyond bearing, bursts into tears of rage and frustration. Her boss reacts with a crude male-chauvinist taunt and fires her. Their tiff sets off a snowballing scandal, stalling a nation's economic recovery, maybe the world’s. A villain is arrested, more run for cover. It sounds like the improbable plotline of a TV sitcom, because that’s what it is. Already known after its battling stars as the Makiko and Junichiro Show, Japan’s political and financial crisis has kept Japanese glued to their screens most of this year, pausing only for the midsummer break. The slot resumes in the autumn, and as they say in showbiz, this one is set to run and run.

The casting can only be called inspired, even when real life made the call. In the female lead: Makiko Tanaka, 58, former foreign minister, mother of three, only daughter of Kakuei Tanaka, Japan’s most admired, reviled and powerful prime minister of the postwar years, a force in Japanese politics until he died in 1993, while still appealing a jail sentence for taking a $2 million bribe from the U.S. Lockheed Corporation. Ms Tanaka freely concedes that she would have had no chance of being elected to the Japanese parliament nine years ago if she’d not been her father’s daughter—rather as if Chelsea Clinton were to claim a family seat in Congress. But once in Tokyo, Ms Tanaka quickly became a political star in her own right, thanks to her gift for TV. Some 99 percent of Japanese homes have color sets, giving the country the densest diffusion on our TV-soaked planet. Japan’s parliament is covered unflinchingly, face-to-lens, with the speech writers, image sculptors and spokespersons who cocoon the politicians of more prudent democracies not yet in sight. TV crews stalk the corridors of power, hunting sound-bites. Parliamentary proceedings are broadcast in real time, with question sessions, modeled on the venerable British original, jump-cutting from Q to A to Q. Japanese national politics are as entertainingly unreal as a TV reality show. Before she was driven into the wilderness, Tanaka was a TV magnet.

She has won the Best Smile of the Year and Executive Fashion awards. She can think on her feet and speaks in forthright, easy-to-follow Japanese (and similar English—she went to a Quaker high school in Philadelphia and the commerce faculty of Waseda, one of Japan’s top universities, where she joined the dramatic club). On-screen and off, Makiko Tanaka retains the common touch made famous by her father, son of a bankrupt horse dealer who himself left school at thirteen. “She even walks like him,” says an admirer. Tanaka père was among the first Japanese politicians to scent the humanizing potential of television, singing Japanese folk-songs dressed in a business suit incongruously teamed with a rice-farmer’s wooden clogs. Soon after his death in 1993 his daughter, previously an obscure housewife, stumped her father’s old stronghold in jeans and T-shirt and scored 90 percent of the vote. She has dressed more stylishly for parliamentary appearances but is no less eye-catching among the drab suits of the poker-faced, tongue-tied run of the male Japanese politicians. Whatever it is that makes a TV star, nature and nurture gave Makiko Tanaka in double measure.

The image of the male lead, prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, owes more to art. A trim 60, a stripling by Japanese standards. Koizumi has neither Tanaka’s mobile face nor her quick wit, but he compensated with a trade-mark hairdo like no other ever seen on Japanese screens. Son and grandson of politicians, Koizumi had much the same name-recognition in his family constituency as Tanaka has in hers, but suburban Yokohama is not the national TV arena. Photos of the young Koizumi show him with straight black hair, worn long, like many Japanese of his vintage. The Koizumi of recent years sports a permanent-waved, steel-grey mane covering his ears and tumbling down to his collar, the inspiration of a trendy hair stylist in his electorate, Teruo Nakagome. “He needed something different and easy to care for,” Nakagome has recently explained. Koizumi complements his attention-grabbing hairstyle with light-toned suits, ranging from summer casual to a candy-striped outfit he wears with a red rosette when visiting schools, and a collection of neckties variously described as bright, loud or vulgar. His face is oddly mask-like but his movements, as seen on TV, are lithe: he sprints to the podium to respond to questions, and lopes from office to office along the camera-infested corridors of the Tokyo parliament waving to the electronic electorate and tossing soundbites over his shoulder to the puffing posse of reporters struggling to keep up with him. Elected at thirty on his family name, Koizumi had spent almost three decades in parliament, with unspectacular terms as minister for posts and telecommunications, health and welfare—not usually springboards to the pinnacle of power—when his breakthrough came last year, rather like the understudy who goes on at short notice, outplays the lead and takes over top billing to rave reviews.

True, Koizumi had an easy act to follow. His predecessor, Yoshiro Mori, a ponderous, bull-necked former college footballer—Tanaka called him “fatso”—was the most wooden prime minister of recent Japanese history, certainly of the electronic era. Mori was widely known to owe his position to a classic backroom deal within the Liberal Democratic Party, which has been in power, with one brief interregnum in the early 1990s, since 1955, presiding first over Japan's astonishing recovery from the lost war and then its mysterious economic stagnation, and racked by periodic scandals ever since Lockheed engulfed the elder Tanaka in 1976. In office Mori was a man of few words, many of them embarrassing gaffes, like his assertion that Japan is “a land of the gods with the emperor at the center”—a World War Two slogan that alarmed Japan’s Asian neighbors and more than a few modern-minded Japanese as well. With an election looming in 2001, Mori’s approval rating down to 10 percent, a sagging economy and three million unemployed—a danger signal in a society that sees work as the only purpose of life—the LDP, as it usually does at the bottom of fortune’s cycle, dumped its lusterless leader in another backroom deal, hoping for a successor who at least could plausibly be billed as a new broom.

Koizumi was generally written off as a nuisance candidate with no following in the party, and therefore no future. Ms Tanaka publicly called him a henjin, the Japanese equivalent of “weirdo.” To make things worse, when Koizumi ran in the spring of 2001 for president of the party and thus prime minister, he was still a loyal member of the intra-party faction headed by the same prime minister Mori who had just been discarded as a certain election-loser. The LDP, however, had reacted to criticism of the underhanded way Mori was jobbed into office by introducing a new system, rather like a U.S. political convention, which gave LDP supporters in the constituencies a say in
choosing the party leader.

Cameo TV appearances had already given Koizumi wide public recognition, reinforced by his campaign pledge to “change Japan by changing the LDP.” This sounds like sweeping the rascals out without sweeping another lot in, as did another Koizumi promise, “structural reform without sanctuaries.” Since the LDP has been in power close to a half-century, the “sanctuaries” Koizumi has never to this day specified could only mean the long-standing, cozy “iron triangles” of powerful bureaucrats, hungry LDP politicians, and the businessmen who court official favors, cash in hand. Koizumi was thus attempting what still sounds like walking on water—running against his own party, the one that had nurtured three generations of Koizumis. Ms Tanaka, later explaining “I thought he had good intentions,” threw her popularity behind Koizumi. Between them, the pair dominated a campaign fought almost entirely on TV. Koizumi won the LDP presidency by 123 votes out of 141, and thus became prime minister in April of 2001. To maintain his TV team’s momentum, Ms Tanaka had to have a top cabinet post as well. Koizumi named her Foreign Minister. The new-broom administration—with some familiar faces—scored an unheard-of approval rating of 80 percent, better than the Emperor’s. The Tokyo stock index hit 13,827, from which euphoric peak it has been steadily sinking, weighed down by economic and political turmoil and America’s own troubles

The Makiko-Junichiro Show

Some Japanese political commentators saw Tanaka’s unexpected appointment as a poisoned gift to a possible rival, since polls have often named Ms Tanaka as the politician most Japanese voters would like to see as prime minister. Others accused Koizumi of “theatricality,” as if that was a low trick in the age of mass communication. Still others noted that Koizumi had long been a loyal part of the Japanese establishment, and that his loudly-trumpeted break with the past was more of style than of substance—his floppy hairstyle and snappy suits would likely not be tolerated in the higher bureaucracy, in the top ranks of business, or even if worn by a public school teacher. But Koizumi has always belonged to one of the LDP’s squabbling factions, whereas Tanaka has dismissed the factions’ role as “collecting money to buy votes,” and has never joined one, despite the notorious fact that the biggest and wealthiest faction of all was founded by her father—to her fans, yet more evidence of her plain speaking and independence of spirit.

Tanaka did have other qualifications for her new job. Her gender, fluent English, good looks and outgoing personality guaranteed that Japan’s position would be well covered at international gatherings, where her predecessors have usually been glum faces in the crowd, easily mistaken for waiters. She had often acted as her widowed father’s interpreter and hostess when he was the foreign and then prime minister, and had charmed such diverse figures as Leonid Brezhnev, George Bush Senior, Queen Elizabeth II and Imelda Marcos, whose vast wardrobe and undemocratic outlook left her less than impressed—”and I never even noticed her shoes” she has recalled.

Of particular relevance to her new post, Tanaka accompanied her father on his ground-breaking visit to China in 1972, assuring her an attentive hearing from Japan’s huge neighbor. There were, however, reasons for suspecting deeper calculation in her appointment. When she arrived, the Foreign Ministry, long believed to be squeaky-clean (Japan’s future empress, crown princess Masako, came from it) was, as Tanaka said “a hotbed of corruption.” Japan’s ultra-secretive spook outfit, the Cabinet Research Office, is funded by off-budget government grants, and international gatherings have been similarly paid for by officials using personal credit cards. These practices, hair-raising to Western auditors, date from pre-computer days when Japanese ministries were given global sums every year to spend as they thought fit. Even for Japan, cash control at the Foreign Ministry was unusually lax: higher officials are graduates from the best universities and all (including Princess Masako) have been sent to Oxford, England, to acquire British accents and a pseudo-patrician indifference to book-keeping.

The result of such “aristocratic” practices was surprising only because it took so long to surface. In Mori’s time a middle-grade foreign ministry official was caught using secret funds to keep a string of racehorses, yachts and a mistress in a smart apartment—outraging Japanese voters worried about their jobs. Scandal followed scandal: one official taking kickbacks on the hotel bills of state guests, another who paid for sex with underage girls he met through the Internet. Tip-offs about some of these activities must have come from within the foreign ministry itself, pointing to bitter divisions on policy sharpened by personal spite. Some critics have thought, in view of the outcome, that Tanaka came poorly prepared to clean up this den of gentlemanly thieves, a more urgent task than the management of Japan’s diplomacy. Until she was forty-nine her only responsibility had been supporting her politician husband, Naoki Tanaka, who had taken the family name, and their three children, and caring for her ailing father in his sunset years. She is clearly not a virtuoso of bureaucratic routine or office intrigue, and has few friends in the LDP, which she joined soon after she was elected. Her only previous ministerial experience was an undemanding stint as director-general of the science and technology agency in the coalition cabinet of Tomoichi Murayama, which further alienated the LDP old guard—Murayama, Japan’s first socialist prime minister in forty-seven years, offered a cautious apology to China and the rest of Asia for Japan’s aggression during World War II, much to the disgust of the LDP’s nationalist right-wing. Her appointment as foreign minister could have been seen from the start as mission impossible, her chances of success slim, a surety that her ambition would go no further. Nonetheless, the team of Koizumi and Tanaka and their impressionistic promises of reforms easily carried the elections of July 2001. The duo’s approval rating stayed above 80 percent, and even that of the battered LDP improved slightly. A political marriage, it was called; but like most made-for-TV unions, it soon began to founder on the harsh reality outside the studio.

L’Affaire Suzuki

Ms Tanaka had scarcely settled into her new office when she began to suffer almost daily televised harassment during the parliament’s question time. The harasser was an LDP old-timer from the northern island of Hokkaido, previously little-known, Muneo Suzuki. (See Axel Berkofsky, “Corruption and Bribery in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” JPRI Working Paper 86 [June 2002].) Within a week the Junichiro and Makiko Show had acquired the heavy villain every sitcom needs. Short, balding, and fifty-four, Suzuki was perfect for the part. A farmer’s son, he has a speaking style that advertises his provincial roots and an exaggerated humility rising to high-pitched yelling that suggests either a hair-trigger temper or the feigned rage of a samurai warrior as seen in Japanese TV serials. Unlike Koizumi and Tanaka he started from nowhere, getting into politics as a legislator’s secretary while still a student of political science and economics at the outstandingly obscure Takushoku university. At age 35 he was elected to parliament. There followed a series of minor government posts over the next fifteen years, culminating in 1997 in the director-generalship of the Hokkaido Development Agency and concurrently that of Okinawa, and last November, the key party post of director-general of the LDP election office—the career of a typical local boss tightly focused on his own electorate and the pork-dispensing potential of a party perpetually in power, with no loftier national ambitions.

Suzuki made his public debut, predictably, on television. His part concerns four foggy, fishy islands that were seized from Japan in the dying days of World War II, the Soviet Union’s reward for entering the war a week before it ended. Japan has been trying to get them back ever since. The two northernmost islands, Iturupu and Kunashiri, are part of the volcanic Kurilechain. South of them, Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets are within sight of Hokkaido, Suzuki’s suzerainty, and both were administered as part of Hokkaido in pre-war days. The Russians want to hang onto them, partly for the rich fishing, more importantly because they guard the sea route to Vladivostok. Japan’s long-held official view is that all four must be returned before a peace treaty with Russia can be signed. Suzuki’s personal policy—not without merit—was to try for the southern pair and leave the other two for future haggling. This, it emerged, was the issue that had deeply divided the foreign ministry, rather than the share-out of bribes, as had been rumored. At first it seemed an unequal contest: Tanaka was now foreign minister, Suzuki held no official position whatever in the ministry. In his smarmy mock-humble mode, the farmer’s son billed himself as the underdog: “the foreign minister is the grand champion, I hold only the lowest rank,” he snivelled, using the terminology of sumo wrestling. The reality turned out to be the reverse. Tanaka had only her TV popularity going for her, while Suzuki had actually been running the foreign ministry behind the scenes for years. Only a few days into Koizumi’s premiership, one of the mysterious “sanctuaries” had come to light, but the premier was noticeably slow to back his forthright foreign minister.

The sub-plot, Tanaka vs Suzuki, or Beauty and the Beast, has kept Japan entertained for months. Before she arrived at the ministry an official, Jiro Kodera, a supporter of Tanaka’s (and the Japanese government’s, and her father’s) demand that all four islands should be returned to Japan, was transferred as ambassador to London, reportedly at the behest of Suzuki. Tanaka ordered him to return forthwith to his Tokyo post, chief of Russian affairs, after he had spent only three hours at London airport. The Japanese parliamentary system gives back-benchers unlimited right to question ministers in their role as part of the executive. Suzuki in his best bullying manner subjected Tanaka to a two-hour grilling on Kodera’s recall and related matters, including a charge of “returning to cold war times” by demanding all four islands from Russia. A rattled Tanaka responded by trying to get Suzuki’s questions limited to one hour. According to Suzuki, Tanaka had told her supporters in the ministry that people came in three kinds: “family, staff, and enemies.” Tanaka denied saying it. Suzuki called her a liar. Tanaka did say that Japan’s system of proportional representation by which Suzuki had been elected was liable to send “nonsensical old men” to parliament (Suzuki is actually four years younger than Tanaka, but looks older). But Tanaka claims she had no particular nonsensical old man in mind. A committee chairman called her apology “insincere.” The bickering went on all summer and fall of 2001. The fate of the remote northern islands is not of much concern to most Japanese, my neighbors tell me, but the real issue—whether Tanaka or Suzuki was in charge of the Foreign Ministry—was a powerful, easy-to-follow plotline.

That she had many enemies at the Foreign Ministry was signalled by a steady stream of leaks about Tanaka’s failings. She had held up a meeting for half an hour, it was said, while choosing her costume and accessories; she did not turn up at all to confer with visiting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage; she sent a secretary out to buy a ring matching one she had mislaid. Things came to a head in January, 2002, when an international conference was called in Tokyo to put together an aid package for Afghanistan at which more than three billion dollars was pledged. The heads of two non-governmental organizations active in Afghanistan, Peace Winds Japan and Japan Platform, complained that they had been barred from the conference at the last moment by “an order from the foreign ministry.” The head of Japan Platform, Kensuke Onishi, said that a ministry official had told him on the eve of the conference that Muneo Suzuki was angry about a statement Onishi had made in a newspaper that “the government cannot be trusted” and suggested he apologize to Suzuki. When he declined, Onishi was denied entry to the conference.

Questioned in parliament, and thus on TV, Tanaka said her ministry’s top official, Yoshiji Nogami, had twice acknowledged to her that the ministry was forced to obey Suzuki’s order to bar Onishi. Nogami publicly denied that he had mentioned Suzuki’s name. A would-be parliamentary peacemaker suggested that there had been a “misunderstanding.” Unsoothed, Tanaka snapped: “I am telling no lies. It was no misunderstanding. They shouldn’t evade the issue.” Suzuki told the TV cameras that “Ms Tanaka has a habit of telling lies.” A party boss, Tadamori Oshima, privately tried to persuade Tanaka to accept the ministry’s version of events. Tanaka left the meeting in tears of rage. “I am trying to do my best,” she told the ever-present electronic reporters. “I told Oshima that if he thinks that what bureaucrats say is correct and he’d rather not believe the minister, then ‘Do as you please.’”

Asked to comment, Koizumi remarked offhandedly “tears are women’s greatest weapons. When women cry, men cannot compete with them. Everyone knows that.” A group of female lawmakers called on Koizumi to withdraw his remark about women’s tears. Commentators noted that Koizumi, although chairman of the Council for Gender Equality, is hardly an exemplar of harmony between the sexes: he has remained single since his divorce in 1982 after a mere four years of marriage, has never since allowed his former wife Kayako to see their two older sons, and has had only one frosty encounter, at his own mother’s funeral, with his third son, born after the separation and whose very existence is ignored in Koizumi’s official biography.

Scenting dissension in the ruling party, the opposition boycotted deliberations on the upcoming budget until the Tanaka-Suzuki dispute was resolved. On January 29, 2002, Koizumi dismissed Tanaka, demoted her official deputy Nogami, and asked Suzuki to quit his steering committee post. The next public opinion polls showed a precipitous drop in Koizumi’s approval rating, from 80 percent to 40 percent, from which it has lately recovered slightly but only for want of a plausible successor. The polls don’t identify respondents’ gender, but it is clear that Japanese women voters are deserting Koizumi in ever-growing droves.

The Aftermath

Suzuki’s triumph was short-lived. Two weeks after Makiko’s departure from the cabinet, Kensho Sasaki of the Japanese Communist Party asked Suzuki in parliament whether he had pressured the foreign ministry to restrict contracts for building a goodwill earthquake shelter and evacuation center on Kunashiri, one of the disputed islands, to construction companies in Nemuro, Suzuki’s home base. Newspapers consulted their files and reported that the edifice was named “Muneo House,” and produced photos of a beaming Suzuki, dwarfed by grateful Russians, inaugurating it in 1999. “I have never told the foreign ministry to use this or that company,” Suzuki replied. It turned out that there were only two construction company in Nemuro that could handle the job, and that the company landing the contract had contributed $67,000 to Suzuki's campaign chest. Dissatisfied with his replies, parliament again summoned Suzuki, this time as a sworn witness, exposing him to penalties for perjury. Suzuki was still evasive, shouting at his interrogators and running a finger around a damp collar. It was reported that Suzuki regularly read diplomatic dispatches, that there was another Muneo House in Africa where Japan sends much aid, that his parliamentary secretary was a giant Congolese using a fake passport, and that he exercised other influence over the foreign ministry where he had no formal standing. Days later Suzuki called a televised press conference to announce that he was resigning from the Liberal Democratic Party, but not his seat in parliament. Dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief, Suzuki explained that he was “an old-fashioned politician.” The description was all too true: Suzuki’s public persecution of Tanaka had not only made him a national figure, but had uncovered a “sanctuary” typical of those supposedly targeted by Koizumi.

How they work is explained by commentator Hau Boon Lai. In Japan’s version of democracy, bills have first to be approved by internal committees of the ruling party before they go to parliament to become law. Members of these committees have virtually unrestricted (and unrecorded) access to the bureaucracy, an access severely limited and wide open to public scrutiny in English-speaking countries. The ministries, on their side, need the cooperation of politicians to get their departmental budgets through parliament. Businesses find it advantageous to contribute discreetly to the campaign funds of their political friends, hoping for favorable treatment by the civil servants. Thus have grown up many zoku, or “tribes” of parliamentarians with a shared stake in the same industry. They range from the biggest, looking out for the interests of rice farmers, through electronics, highway construction, brewing, home building and a myriad economic groups down to the smallest, a two-legislator tribe that defends the growers of wasabi, the horseradish used to season sushi, and even to some one-man tribes like Suzuki’s.

While destitute politicians are as rare in Japan as anywhere else, such political contributions theoretically go into politics: pianos for kindergartens, condolence money at funerals, neckties for influential voters, drinks for supporters’ gatherings—or, as Tanaka put it with her trade-mark incisiveness, “for buying votes.” The former foreign minister aloofly ignored the fall of her tormentor Suzuki, but has turned her tart tongue against her former boss, Koizumi. Accusing him of betraying his pledge to reform the LDP, she told the House of Representatives, “I think the prime minister himself has joined the resistance forces. He has extremely bad people around him.” Accusing Koizumi of ordering her to clean up the foreign ministry and then failing to back her, she used a homely metaphor any Japanese woman (so my wife tells me) understands: “I felt as if someone was stepping on my skirt to hold me back, while that same person”—obviously she meant Koizumi—”kept telling me to go ahead with my reform work.” Professor Katsue Abika Reynolds of Hawaii University comments: “The image of strong ‘reform’ government was generated through the consonance of . . . Koizumi’s voice and Tanaka’s voice. Having lost Tanaka, Koizumi finds his government hanging in the balance.” The plot was moving.

Revenge drives most of the samurai dramas that compete with politics on Japanese TV. The first real-life victim was Kiyomi Tsujimoto, at 41 a younger, less ladylike Tanaka of the left, who specialized in needling Koizumi on his most vulnerable point, his dignity. “No self-control!” she jeered when Koizumi excused himself, obviously for a bathroom break, during a heated question session. The taunt was not forgiven. A right-leaning magazine published figures, almost certainly leaked from a ministry, showing that Tsujimoto had diverted to her office expenses all but $400 of a $2,000 monthly salary paid (from public funds) to her “policy secretary” for minimal work. The system of state-paid “policy secretaries” is widely abused: one LDP lawmaker employs his son, concurrently a full-time hospital director, as his secretary, claiming that the son talks to constituents nights and weekends. The pert Tsujimoto conceded, inevitably on TV, that she had done wrong and, dry-eyed, removed her member’s lapel badge, announcing that she was resigning from parliament, but not from her party, for which she would continue to work. Many other parliamentarians, she urged, should do the same if they were interested in advancing their principles rather than themselves—a barbed reference to Suzuki and the many other predatory, bribe-hungry LDP “tribes.”

Once begun, the bloodletting spread like the action of a kabuki melodrama, with the curtain still nowhere in sight. Koichi Kato, once viewed as a future LDP prime minister, resigned from parliament after a long-serving political aide was charged with evading more than $200,000 in income tax. The aide, it was alleged, had transferred more than $70,000 a year to Kato’s personal bank account as rent for a luxurious condominium in a fashionable part of Tokyo. Then an even bigger LDP fish, the president of the upper house, Yutaka Inoue, denied that his policy secretary had pocketed $500,000 from the president of a failed construction firm who hoped to land a major contract in Inoue’s electorate. The company president said that after failing to get the main contract he demanded his firm’s money back. Inoue told a parliamentary meeting that the construction company had intimidated his policy aide into paying it $75,000, recommended that the aide file a charge of extortion, and then resigned.

On June 20, the Lower House voted to lift Muneo Suzuki’s parliamentary immunity, whereupon he was arrested and lodged in the Tokyo Detention House, an upscale prison. One of his aides had thanked a timber firm for a $40,000 reward for helping it out of legal difficulties and had carelessly left the courteous e-mail on the office computer. In the Japanese manner, leaks now began to shower on the fallen Suzuki: he had paid for his Tokyo house with $300,000 diverted from political funds and transferred another $800,000 to his own bank.

In the most surprising plot twist so far, Koizumi called on his one-time leading lady Makiko Tanaka to rebut, with documentary evidence, a charge by two weekly magazines that she also had diverted to her own use the state-paid salaries of an unspecified number of secretaries who were employed by her family-owned firm, in apparent violation of the meant-to-be-strict Political Funds Control Law. Considering the vast fortune her father made out of politics, the charge suggests sloppy book-keeping rather than dishonesty, but Tanaka has yet to disprove it. The parliamentary session ended on July 31. A week later Tanaka resigned from parliament, “so as not to further aggravate public distrust in politics,” as she explained in a front-door TV interview. Her son Yuichiro has announced that he will not contest the vacant seat, although his name would guarantee his election. Running not with, but against, the Tanaka clan, the LDP is likely to do dismally in the bye-election set for late October.

Meanwhile, what’s been happening to Japan, while The Show has monopolized TV coverage night after night? To be sure, not much. Makiko Tanaka was followed in the foreign ministry by another woman, Yoriko Kawaguchi, one with a very different style. A governessy former bureaucrat and whiskey-firm executive, Ms. Kawaguchi visibly runs a tighter ship than her predecessor, but the cameras leave her severely alone, and it is doubtful that she will bring a single vote to the LDP, of which she is not even a member. Prime Minister Koizumi’s promised search-and-destroy of “hidden sanctuaries” has so far uncovered only Suzuki’s, for which he can scarcely claim credit. His economic program has so far confirmed only his scheme to privatize mail delivery, passed in an Upper House committee only after televised fisticuffs; but the private sector shows no signs of investing in the 100,000 alternative mailboxes it will need to break into the letter-carrying business. Nor has anyone suggested that duplicate postmen will do much do avert the threat posed by Japan’s towering public debt, approaching 140 percent of GNP—a debt that has led the international rating agencies to downgrade Japan’s creditworthiness below Botswana’s, which—disgusted commentators point out—gets substantial aid from Japan.

In truth, what we have been watching is government by scandal, a Japanese tradition many centuries old, deceptively rescripted for TV. It has been said that Japan is really much like any other country, only more so. Politics is everywhere local—where the voters live—while pretending to be national, where the power to spend money is concentrated. Clannish, conservative, divided by geography into pockets of population separated by rugged mountains, most Japanese see Tokyo as the treasure-house where they send local men and women to bring home the loot. With a largely homogeneous viewership, TV has turned Japan’s politics into national entertainment. Its faceless hometown practitioners need a camera-grabbing leadership, someone to put on a convincing show, while the real deals are cut in back rooms. Hence the Koizumi and, while her star shone, Makiko Tanaka drama. Some kind of glacial reform is indeed under way, but it originated in the depths of the bureaucracy, owes nothing to politicians, and may take decades to show results, if it ever does. Meanwhile Japan’s debts balloon, the rating agencies tut-tut, and the Show—after the summer break—goes on. It makes great TV—which is, of course, the idea.

MURRAY SAYLE is an Australian journalist who has lived in Japan for more than a quarter of a century. He publishes regularly in the London Review of Books, the New Yorker, and is the author of numerous JPRI Working Papers and Critiques.

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