Past political wisdom clue to solve crises

When the Great East Japan Earthquake occurred on March 11, 2011, I thought: “The post-World War II era is over, and the post-quake era has begun.” Five years later, natural calamities had become the new norm across the Japanese archipelago, with unprecedented storms and floods taking place almost annually. Every year on March 11, people worry about huge quakes that might occur just under Tokyo or in the Nankai Trough off the Pacific coast of Japan.

The situation is not limited to natural calamities. In 2020, the novel coronavirus spread swiftly all over the world, including Japan. Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine just when we were seeing a ray of hope that the COVID-19 pandemic might be drawing closer to its end.

We are watching the man-made disaster of a nightmarish war unfold before the natural disaster of an infectious disease had subsided. An exhausting array of adversity is occurring, especially since the beginning of the Reiwa era in 2019.

How can the administration of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida cope with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a man-made disaster? The details of what it will do regarding this issue are not yet known. Inaugurated in October 2021, the administration is now in its fifth month, and its public approval ratings have plateaued amid the coronavirus pandemic. Although I don’t think the administration has implemented effective COVID-19 measures, it seems likely to have its fiscal 2022 budget easily approved by the Diet, due to the weakness of the opposition parties. The administration has so far come up with no significant policies.

Kishida has emphasized economic security as a key policy agenda for his administration, but substance is elusive when it comes to his showpiece policy initiatives such as “the Reiwa version of the income-doubling plan” and the “Digital Garden City Nation” vision. Both initiatives are unique to Kochikai, an intraparty faction of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party headed by Kishida. Likewise, the image of his foremost policy goal, creating “a new form of capitalism,” remains far from clear.

Unlike former Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga, Kishida appears to be composed and calm no matter what. So, is the Japanese political sphere unstable in an otherwise stable environment, or stable in an otherwise unstable one? Is the Japanese populace about to start thinking of distancing itself from Kishida?

Bereft of genro

While Japan now faces a trilemma of damage from natural disasters, COVID-19 and the war, there seem to be signs of an intraparty power struggle within the LDP. As this rivalry comes to the fore, I am reminded that Japan has long been bereft of politicians with the high caliber of the genro, or retired elder statesmen who existed from the Meiji era (1868-1912) to the early years of the Showa era (1926-89), to serve as advisers to the emperor on the appointment of prime ministers.

Today, it is common practice for Japanese politicians to prove their political clout by staying on as parliamentarians. Abe, Taro Aso and Suga, who together kept the LDP in power for a long time, show no signs of retiring as active Diet members. Aso, a past prime minister who heads his own faction, assumed the dual post of deputy prime minister and finance minister in the Abe and Suga administrations. He is now vice president of the LDP, of which Kishida is the president. Abe became the head of Seiwakai, the largest faction within the ruling party, in November 2021 to retain his influence within the LDP.

As for Suga, there are plausible rumors that he may head a yet-to-be-formed faction. Former LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai, who leads his own faction, appears to be so keen to rival the three former prime ministers that he shows no signs of retiring, either.

During the LDP’s heyday in the Showa era, leading members ambitious to become prime minister trailblazed faction-centric politics. Faction leaders worked within their own factions and in the cabinet, ascending the political ladder with their eyes set on the post of prime minister.

When the Heisei era (1989-2019) began, politicians were involved in a storm of political reform. As a result, the pre-established arrangements no longer worked, preventing faction leaders from assuming that they could eventually be prime minister. At the time, faction chiefs were temporarily ridiculed as “apartment caretakers,” but the factions managed to survive this difficult period.

After the Abe-Suga era, Kishida became prime minister while chair of Kochikai, the prestigious faction founded in 1957 by Hayato Ikeda, who later served as prime minister. Ikeda was known as the right-hand man of Shigeru Yoshida, who was prime minister in 1946-47 and 1948-54. The fact that an incumbent faction chief is now at the helm of government may make some people feel that faction-based politics have returned.

Factional politics are synonymous with power struggles. Therefore, when those with experience holding key government posts visibly compete to retain as much power as possible, they’re regarded as trying to emulate the “insei” (rule by retired leaders) political style. In contrast, the genro of the past made it their ideal to advise on the overall political sphere by distancing themselves from their own power base and instead weighing in on future politics from a broad perspective.

Advice from broad viewpoints

When referring to genro, the first leader who comes to mind is Kinmochi Saionji, who played a key role in steering prewar politics in the Showa era. After his tenure as an active political leader, including being prime minister in 1906-08 and 1911-12, Saionji moved to Zagyoso, a villa he built in Okitsu, Shizuoka Prefecture. When requested by the emperor to come to the Imperial Palace, he traveled to Tokyo by train. As he chose to live far from Tokyo, he was able to think about things happening in Japan in a global context and from time to time reproved leading politicians as required. As a result, whatever he said drew public attention.

In postwar Japan, the political leader who followed Saionji’s example to behave like a de facto genro was none other than Yoshida, to whom the Kishida-led Kochikai can trace its source.

Yoshida is known to have had aristocratic tastes — he disliked party politicians, and adamantly resisted postwar democracy. He led Japan to regain its independence from the Allied occupation and was devoted to the country’s postwar reconstruction. Nevertheless, he ended up being forced to resign under a barrage of criticism.

Later on, Yoshida helped Ikeda become prime minister in 1960-64 and Eisaku Sato in 1964-72. In other words, Yoshida made a genro-like comeback during Japan’s high-growth period and kept a close eye on politicians in Tokyo from his house in Oiso, Kanagawa Prefecture.

Yoshida was a prolific writer of letters, all beautifully handwritten, which he sent to leading politicians. His style was reminiscent of the “politics of correspondence” that was common among Meiji-era genro politicians.

Yoshida continued to show genro-like clout in the Japanese political sphere throughout his life. He always focused on how this country’s politics should evolve in the future. He wrote a personal letter to Nobusuke Kishi, who was prime minister in 1957-60, despite knowing they could barely get along and their political beliefs were incompatible as well. Yoshida got Kishi to agree to his plan to let Ikeda succeed Kishi as prime minister.

Yoshida disliked tolerance and patience. For example, he impatiently demanded that Ikeda hand over the position of prime minister to Sato. He steadfastly prevented Ichiro Kono, an LDP leader, from becoming prime minister.

Kishi, too, wanted to be a de facto genro. Following the examples of Saionji and Yoshida, he moved to Gotemba in Shizuoka Prefecture 10 years after resigning as prime minister. He was credited with getting the United States to agree in 1960 to revise the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty of 1951, a development that cost him the post of prime minister. He then continued his campaign for Japan to adopt a constitution of its own making and rectifying the U.S. occupation policies in Japan. He was known to be tacitly aiming to make a comeback as prime minister.

Kishi follows Yoshida

However, the prevailing circumstances gave Kishi an opportunity to emerge as a de facto genro. At the time, Japan saw six politicians — Kakuei Tanaka, Takeo Miki, Takeo Fukuda, Masayoshi Ohira, Zenko Suzuki and Yasuhiro Nakasone — become prime minister one after another over the 15-year period from 1972 to 1987. As their tenures were relatively short, some, including Tanaka, Miki and Fukuda, chose to stay on as faction chiefs even after serving as prime minister.

Those who remained as faction chiefs continued to control their factions even though there were already candidates for prime minister within each. This can be likened to a company president promoting himself to the post of chairperson.

When Suzuki was prime minister, he appointed Kishi as supreme adviser to the LDP to counter Tanaka, who was nicknamed the “shadow shogun.” Suzuki wanted Kishi — who was no longer a parliamentarian — to give advice from a broad viewpoint as a de facto genro.

As we look at the current political environment, we have Aso as a grandson of the de facto genro Yoshida and Abe as a grandson of the de facto genro Kishi. Prime Minister Kishida has succeeded the faction that was derived from Yoshida. How do the incumbent prime minister and his predecessors intend to steer Japan’s politics, which are facing crises?

There’s a tendency in society these days to take no notice of whether politicians have relations with genro or whether their factions are prestigious. Is that the right choice?

History shows there was a time when genro and prestigious factions distanced themselves from power struggles and provided advice from a broad perspective. Even today, when we trace this history, we may find it worthwhile to gain an unexpected opportunity for overcoming the ongoing crises.

■ Mikuriya is a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo specializing in Japanese political history and a fellow at the university’s Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology. He served as acting chair of the Reconstruction Design Council in Response to the Great East Japan Earthquake and acting chair of the Advisory Council on Easing the Burden of the Official Duties and Public Activities of His Majesty the Emperor.