Ripple in still watersMinister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Nishikawa Koya (House of Representatives, North Kanto Proportional) resigned yesterday, 173 days after he was appointed to the position. He was immediately replaced by Hayashi Yoshimasa (House of Councillors, Yamaguchi Prefecture) his predecessor in the post. (Link)
Where there is no pebble tossed
Or wind to blow.
-- Garcia and Hunter, "Ripple" (1970)
By picking up the unemployed Hayashi, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has tried to limit the fallout from the loss of a third minister from his second Cabinet, this after his first Cabinet became the longest-serving team of the postwar era. (Link)
Dogged questioning of Nishikawa in Diet Budget committee had become a distraction. The committee's vital work of approving of the next year's budget, due on March 31st, is already seriously off-schedule thanks to the double whammy of a December House of Representatives election and a February start for the Regular Diet Session. With the Nishikawa questioning it looked like it was going to run completely off the rails. Final stage negotiations for Trans Pacific Partnership looked similarly imperiled.
The violations of campaign finance law in question were not huge -- one illegal campaign donation of 1 million yen (USD$8,400) and another of 3 million yen (USD$25,200). The violations were of a technical nature -- made before a legally mandated embargo of one year had expired -- and before Nishikawa became a member of the government. Nishikawa's office, which accepted the donations, had no practical way of knowing the donations violated the law. Nishikawa also had his office return the donations even while arguing he and his people had done nothing wrong.
The opposition would not let go of the issue, though. Questioners called Nishikawa up out of his seat so often, forcing him to repeat his explanations so many times, he finally had to throw in the towel, crying, "No matter how much I explain [the donations], those who do not understand will not understand." (Link - J)
What he probably wanted to say was "Those who do not want to understand will never understand" or better yet "Those whose paychecks depend upon their not understanding will not understand." Such would have been perceived as rude -- and Nishikawa needs no more trouble.
There were good, non-legal reasons why the prime minister had reason to accept, if not demand, Nishikawa's resignation.
First was the principle of equality of the sexes, i.e., "What is good for the goose is good for the gander." Last year Obuchi Yuko and Matsushima Midori had to tender their unprecedented twin resignations for campaign violations, and quickly, for what in Matsushima's case were violations of comically minute scale. Sticking by Nishikawa, dragging out budget deliberations when Obuchi and Matsushima were so easily jettisoned for far less important legislation threatened to raise hackles within the LDP.
Second, the torture of Nishikawa -- for torture was what it was -- caused a sudden and extremely inconvenient of eruption of The Bad Abe. On the 19th and 20th Abe, seated in the prime minister's chair, heckled DPJ members during their time, snapping, "Well, what about you? You take donations from the Japan Teacher's Union!" -- loudly enough to be easily audible, earning the PM a warning from Budget Committee chairman Oshima Tadamori. On the 23rd Abe apologized for making the remarks, asking to have them withdrawn from the official record of the sessions. (Link - J)
To be sure, Abe has had a rough time hanging on to his agriculture ministers. He had to replace three in his first, year-long stint in the premiership. The first of his ag ministers, Matsuoka Toshikatsu, indeed became the first cabinet minister to commit suicide while in office since soon-to-be-arrested-as-a-war-criminal Prince Konoe Fumimaro in 1945.
The open question is whether the Nishikawa resignation represents a significant violation of the unwritten rules of the Diet. One of the most preposterous and yet durable concepts in Japanese politics is misogi -- "ablution" -- whereby a politician or a party in trouble with the law (OK, OK, an LDP politician or the LDP) is cleansed of the stain of scandal by reelection in a general election. (See these Okumura Jun posts making mention of the concept)
The thought that opposition parties and public prosecutors would actually play along with such a LDP-serving concept is hard to swallow. However, one finds misogi references sprinkled throughout the literature.
Nishikawa was already the target of opposition criticism in the fall extraordinary session. He should, logically, have been let off the hook by the 14 December 2014 House of Representatives election.
However, Nishikawa did not actually win the public's approval in December. He lost the contest for his Tochigi district seat, albeit by the tiniest of margins (46.54% vs. 46.69% of the vote). He returned to the House of Representatives and the cabinet via the proportional "zombie candidate" route.
So in a formal sense Nishikawa was not in line to claim retroactive immunity through a misogi of voter approbation.
However, it would be unwise to put too much stock in misogi restraining the opposition from tying up the Abe government into knots over the rest of this session. The Tanigaki Sadakazu-led LDP's scorched earth tactics during the Kan and Noda administrations (where the LDP would not vote for legislation delivering on LDP campaign promises) dug a nearly bottomless well of ill-feeling in all of the opposition parties save perhaps the Japan Innovation Party. The opposition will be drawing on that resentment for years to come, harassing Abe cabinet members and Abe himself on the most piddling of deviations from absolute rectitude.
The future -- especially a future where one of today's opposition parties takes power -- be damned.
For a sense of the spectrum of indigenous opinion on what has just happened:
A "This is just the beginning of the discussion" editorial - from the Mainichi Shimbun (Link)
A "Nothing to see here, folks. Let's all move along" editorial - from The Yomiuri Shimbun (Link)
The truth is somewhere in between.
Later - The proposed decapitation of JA-Zenchu figures into the decision to accept Nishikawa's resignation. Since I think the reform of Japan Agriculture is bogus, or at least misrepresented, I am going to just let the whole matter slide.
Later still - The Japan Times has checked in with a report that seems to confirm the Mainichi's view of the current political climate as the more correct one. (Link)