Japanese Politics: Still 猫に小判

Yves here. Readers asked our Japan-watcher Clive for his take on the snap election in Japan, where voting takes place this Sunday. Contrary to the norm for Japanese politics, there may be less here than meets the eye. In addition, Clive provides an update on Japanese media and official statements on the TransPacific Partnership negotiations.

By Clive, a regular Naked Capitalism commenter and self-confessed Japan-o-phile

(translation – “putting a nickel out as cat food”, or in other words, doing something completely useless. As we’d say in England, “that’s about as much use as a chocolate teapot”)

I’ve been following the story of the Japanese election, but unfortunately it has been a complete non-event – in so far as it has merely gone through all the expected stages with all the familiar actors making all the usual moves. What would definitely have been worth more detailed reportage and analysis was if any of the left leaning (perhaps “alternative”, as in an alternative to the dominant Liberal Democratic Party or LDP, is a better word) parties had used the opportunity to elucidate even semi-coherent alternatives to what the LDP is offering. But no.

For those who need a recap, incumbent Prime Minister Abe called a snap election in what was billed as a referendum on so-called “Abenomics”. “Abenomics” didn’t amount to much more than a dose of neoliberalism in terms of economic policy (monetary easing and aiming for fiscal neutrality if not outright retrenchment) with some territorial posturing and a potential mild resurgence of militarism thrown in for good measure. In other words, pretty much the last things Japan needed. It was, however, like all elections a gamble and it has been a useful illustration of the resultant staleness of Japanese politics – reflecting, it has to be said, a similar malaise in both U.S. and European politics too (Scotland, Greece and perhaps Italy or Brazil in South America being honourable exceptions).

If ever there was a political establishment which wasn’t that weighed down by baggage of conventional economic thinking, it was Japan’s. Japan has not been slow to cast its ideological net around in the hope of catching some good ideas about how to manage a country’s economy. Unfortunately, in Japan as elsewhere, new economic thinking struggles to get coverage in anything other than a few outlets operating way, way outside the mainstream. I’m giving the LDP more tolerance than it probably deserves by saying that, in seeking what is effectively a mandate to halt further rises in sales taxes, Abe is at least willing to consider following a “deficits don’t matter” policy.

What are the other options being offered to the lucky Japanese voters? Being a sucker for lost causes, I read through the entire manifesto of the Japanese equivalent of the Democrats (the Democratic Party “Minshutō”) and, like the Japanese, went in search of anything resembling a meaningful expression of unconventional or even fresh policies.

The Democratic Party’s manifesto is long on describing the problems facing Japan and criticising Abe’s record (which falls into the “shooting fish in a barrel” category) but is pretty short on explaining what those alternatives might be. I feared when reading some of the text I might end up having to translate the Japanese language equivalent of “hope and change”; luckily I was spared that. When I could find specifics in amongst all the aspirational rhetoric, it was more-or-less the kind of thing that the U.S. Democrats are offering U.S. voters. Problems of inequality and failure by big corporations to do anything other than hoard capital from the rest of the economy are correctly identified. But none of the solutions want to risk frightening any big business horses. If Hillary fails to get nominated as the next Democratic candidate for the 2016 U.S. presidential election, she’d fit right in if she wants to consider a career change and go into Japanese politics.

I did get a glimmer of hope when the manifesto turned to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but my hope quickly waned as the Democratic Party stopped short of committing to pull out of negotiations with the U.S. Here’s their policy in full on the both the TPP and on trade deals in general:

We will obtain a thorough disclosure of information (about the contents of the potential provisions of any treaty texts), and take a tough stand on the TPP that does not hesitate withdrawal (from negotiations).

· The Democratic Party will promote a high level of international economic partnership and take a leading role in (defining) the world’s (trade) rules.

· For the TPP specifically, we will act in Japan’s national interest on the exclusion of the five most important areas for Japan which are covered by the treaty. We will not hesitate to withdraw (from the TPP negotiations) and take a tough negotiating stance when it comes to negotiating matters of agriculture, forestry and fishery products, ensuring food safety, and preserving our system of national health insurance.

·Through the enactment of a “Law to Promote the Freedom of Information”, we would proceed with information disclosure about any Economic Partnership Agreement negotiations.

Clive again: So, if the Democratic Party of Japan does get to form a government (or gets more influence through a sizable minority in the Diet), they say they will protect key elements of Japanese agriculture, industry and the social safety net where healthcare is concerned. Of course, sell-out watchers in both the U.S. and Europe can spot plenty of wriggle room in that manifesto (cough) commitment. “Tough on the U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, tough on the causes of U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman” … ? Hmm. Perhaps. Hardly worth risking holding your breath though for it in Tokyo I don’t think.

And in reality, Abe’s LDP is doing pretty much all of that already, just being a bit more coy about it. Publishing the draft TPP or Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) texts would however be very interesting. The U.S. would be furious I imagine. Which is why I can’t see it happening.

But all in all, it is slim pickings there from Japan’s main opposition party. And it would take a real shock for the Democratic Party to receive an outright majority. What will be interesting is if Abe and the LDP do get returned to form a government whether a new electoral mandate will result in a more thorough ditching of the previous destructive insistence on long-term balanced budgets. Or even overt outright monetisation of the deficit. Far more likely though, to use another feline analogy from Japan, is the next government will continue to act like a “borrowed cat”: Timid and wary in public when it is more worried about who is watching it.

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  1. Clive

    Update: Exit polls predicting a fairly resounding victory for Abe’s LDP

    Home > NHK WORLD News

    Breaking NewsDec. 14, 2014 – Updated 11:01 UTC (20:01 JST)

    Coalition to secure two-thirds

    NHK projects a decisive victory for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his coalition in this general election.

    NHK’s exit polls and analysis suggest that Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and its partner, Komeito, could secure two-thirds of the seats in the Lower House.

    The LDP will secure way more than a majority of seats in the chamber on its own. It could even reach its record of 300.

    Meanwhile, it would be difficult for the largest opposition Democratic Party to build on its pre-election strength of 62 seats in any significant way.

    LDP’s coalition partner Komeito is expected to take 31 to 36 seats in the Lower House.
    The coalition could secure a two-thirds majority, or 317 seats in the 475-seat chamber.

    That’s important because if the Upper and Lower Houses
    differ over legislation, lawmakers in the Lower House
    can enact bills with a two-thirds majority on a vote.

    And the approval by a two-thirds majority in the Lower
    House is one of the prerequisites for amending the

    The Liberal Democratic Party alone will secure 275 to 306 seats.

    So it’s certain the LDP will have more than 266. That threshold is called an absolute stable majority.

    It’s the number of seats needed to chair all 17 standing committees in the Lower House and occupy more than half of the spots on each committee.

    That dominance enables the ruling camp to approve bills smoothly at the committee level before they are put to a vote in the chamber.

    And the LDP could reach 300 seats, which is the party’s best showing ever in a general election. Its pre-election strength was 293.

    The largest opposition Democratic Party is expected to take 61 to 87 seats.

    So, the DPJ is likely to take more than the 62 seats it had heading into this election.
    But it would be difficult for the party to make major gains.

  2. steviefinn

    Thanks for that – As you say it appears as though like many other examples that the mainstream parties are all toeing a similar line. I wonder how bad it will have to get before there is any sign for an effective force to provide an alternative to Neoliberalism – probably when enough people get badly screwed, as in Greece & Spain.

    It’s good to have a ” Our man in Japan ” as my knowledge & I suspect that of many others is very limited.

    1. fds

      We vastly overrate Japanese culture, particularly its ability to chart independent courses and/or generate original ideas and application of said ideas. In fact, the main reason why J-land is more successful than other Asian countries is its programmed culture that promotes harmony and undermines corruption, which is the norm in that part of the world…

      Since the war it’s been copy Americaaa. That was fine until neoliberalism came and, after the requisite ten years lag, Japan has been applying it full throttle for ten years now. Off shoring and part time work is progressing apace.

  3. Jim Haygood

    Years ago, Japanese colleagues living in the US were utterly taken aback by the American practices of mounting petition drives and writing letters to Members of Congress.

    Such an idea had never occurred to them in Japan, where it was considered obvious that Diet members are owned by the lobbies who sponsor them. To actually write them a letter, expressing an opinion on a political issue, was regarded as so naive and presumptuous that only a child would attempt it.

    Japan invented the kabuki show. Politics is its most dynamic and highly developed manifestation. I think we’re turning Japanese …

  4. flora

    Many thanks for this post. So, rather than an election that might result in economic change away from neoliberalism this election forestalls change, results in stasis and puts off new elections for several more years. Losing an election can still set the stage for change and future wins. (Winning by losing.) Then I read this:

    “What would definitely have been worth more detailed reportage and analysis was if any of the left leaning (perhaps “alternative”, as in an alternative to the dominant Liberal Democratic Party or LDP, is a better word) parties had used the opportunity to elucidate even semi-coherent alternatives to what the LDP is offering. But no. ”

    DPJ sounds remarkably like US Dems. And US Dems, in my view, are just neoliberals with a ‘kinder face’ than the US Rep neoliberals. Hope that isn’t true of the DPJ.

  5. Fair Economist

    “Abenomics” didn’t amount to much more than a dose of neoliberalism in terms of economic policy (monetary easing and aiming for fiscal neutrality if not outright retrenchment)

    This shows that “Abenomics” isn’t about jump-starting the economy (which requires *both* loose monetary policy and substantive deficits) but about transferring money to the wealthy. Loose monetary policy helps the economy, and in particular stops meltdowns, but it also transfers even more wealth to the wealthy by inflating asset prices. At the same time Abe’s “retrenchment” is taking the form of shifting taxes onto ordinary people via sales tax increases. So he’s using fiscal “retrenchment” as an excuse to move money from the 99% to the 1% and preventing a resultant economic collapse with easy money – which *also* shifts money from the 99% to the 1%.

    He absolutely doesn’t need a mandate to *not* continue increasing the sales tax. It’s just that two successive massive sales tax increases would put Japan in a depression, easy money notwithstanding, and he’d end up standing for re-election in *that*. He’s trying to get a longer time in office so the economy can recover some from the recent throttling so he can throttle it again.

    He’s turning out to be yet another in the depressingly large group of “conservatives” who are basically trying to impose fascist policies (corrupt practices to enrich the wealth, evisceration of democratic governance, and militaristic jingoism), minus the mass murder.

  6. jsn

    Great update! Thank you.

    Wouldn’t it be nice to see something like Warren’s speech on CITI focused on the secret text of the TPP?

    Also, thanks for the Japanese idiom in the headline, seems to me “putting a nickel out as cat food” is a great metaphor for QE: nothing real is nourished by money in place of meat, it just makes the corporations fatter.

    1. hunkerdown

      And wouldn’t it be great if we had beer? Really “great” beer like KeystoneXL beer that comes in a bottle shaped like a pipeline?

      The Gilens-Page study predicts that absolutely no official will touch it in an effective manner, simply because the oligarchy is some 90% behind maximally liberalized trade, and that the odds of a successful opposition are no better than 2:1 against. But yes, would be nice.

      Also, thanks for the Japanese idiom in the headline, seems to me “putting a nickel out as cat food” is a great metaphor for QE: nothing real is nourished by money in place of meat, it just makes the corporations fatter.

      Also a great metaphor for austerity. In fact the US narrowly avoided an entire supercommittee founded on that very premise.

  7. David Littleboy

    Just a minor quibble:

    “I’m giving the LDP more tolerance than it probably deserves by saying that, in seeking what is effectively a mandate to halt further rises in sales taxes, Abe is at least willing to consider following a “deficits don’t matter” policy.”

    I don’t think that Abe is “seeking … a mandate to halt further rises in sales taxes”. The rise in the sales tax to 10% is just being delayed. Abe has already reduced corporate taxes by the amount of the sales tax, and presumably is overjoyed that the DPJ handed him the sales tax increases on a silver platter. The right in Japan thinks the rich and the corporations are overtaxed as it is, and love the regressive consumption tax. Despite the DPJ promising that the consumption tax revenue would be spent for the elderly, it’s all going to reducing corporate taxes. Spending on the elderly won’t be going up.

    Since the LDP has traditionally been the party of pork-barrel politics, it would not be out of character for them to follow a “deficits don’t matter” policy. (Heck, LDP largesse doled out to supporters is largely why Japan is so in debt. The major dam project (Yanba Dam) that the DPJ (thought they had) killed has already been resurrected. Shades of the B1 bomber!

    1. Clive

      Yes, what the new Abe administration chooses to do on the fiscal side — and also how far it is prepared to go on Yen devaluation (which is a double-edged sword both economically and diplomatically/in international politics) — is the one interesting thing which might emerge now. I can’t really call what will happen (and, for whatever happens, what the driver will be). There are a lot of moving parts to watch. But it all rather smacks of Game of Thrones-esque elite manoeuvring rather than a serious attempt to engage popular debate.

      The most depressing thing I heard repeatedly today as I discussed the election with friends and family still resident in Japan was the profound sense of “it really is a non event and we’re even more dismissive of politics than we were before”.

      1. flora

        “it really is a non event and we’re even more dismissive of politics than we were before”.

        Sounds like what was said in the US after the November elections here. If the DPJ and the US Dems cannot or will not articulate an alternative to neoliberalism then I guess it’s left to us, outside party structures, to formulate and articulate that alternative.

      2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        As long as all other nations have to earn real currency (read global reserve currency) money to get out of trouble, they will all attempt to devalue relative to the dollar.

        I don’t know why gold bugs think some countries would prefer their currencies strong(er).

    2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Which country is so exceptional that she is exempt from Japanese style pork-barrel politics under such ‘deficits don’t matter’ zeitgeist?

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      It reminds me of the movie, Ballad of Narayama, directed by the same director I referenced yesterday.

  8. different clue


    American scholar and Man of Letters Dr. Hunter S. Thompson phrased the same concept this way . . .
    ” as useless as tits on a boar hog.” I wonder how many other ways there are to say it.

  9. different clue

    I wonder whether “Abenomics” wasn’t meant to be merely the bait which would get the Japanese public voting for Abe long enough to give Abe time to pursue his real agenda . . . restoring a sort of Fascist Militarism 2.0 to Japan. Why is Abe so closely aligned with the YasukuNazi Shrine project to rehabilitate the Class A War Criminals, pretend nothing bad happened at Nanjing, the Comfort Women were happy volunteers, etc.?

    Japan might have deNazified itself the way German did, but the US Occupation Authorities worked to prevent
    that from happening, and now the HiroHitlerite fascist holdovers are working very hard to come back into power.
    I know I am being nasty and unfair, but am I entirely wrong?

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      That reference about Hirohito reminds me of another movie, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On.

      As for the American Occupation, another Imamura film comes to mind – Pigs and Battleships (or as I call it, How To Make Money With Giveaways from the American Occupiers).

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        And for how American gangsters ran Tokyo during the period, House of Bamboo is a great movie, with a very interesting actress, Shirley Yamaguchi.

        She grew up in Manchuria and Beijing, went to high school there and became one of the hottest stars in Shanghai during the 30’s and early 40’s while almost all Chinese didn’t know she was Japanese. Her Mandarin Chinese was that good.

        After the war, she was to be executed for being a traitor when she revealed her Japanese citizenship.

        She then married the artist, Isamu Noguchi and lived in Los Angeles and appeared in several American films.

        In the 70’s, she went back to Japan and was elected to the Diet, working to improve better Sino-Japanese relations and recorded a few songs in Hong Kong…really beautiful songs.

        She recently passed away.

        Before she died, someone went to interview her about a rumor that Kawashima, who was really ethnic Manchu and was a descendant of a Qing emperor, escaped her execution. When told of the living room arrangement of a recently dead woman, she exclaimed “Older brother!*”

        *That’s another story.

    2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      We have our own supply of volunteer Eastern European comfort women…for both civilians in New York and other large cities, and our servicemen and women.

      I don’t know if they are taking jobs away from Americans.

  10. YY

    Neko ni koban is literally giving a cat money. The cat not having use for but also implies that the cat is undeserving (irony considering the number of cats that welcome money/customers as in maneki neko) of, money. But that would sort of mean that the citizenry are undeserving of the democratic right to vote. Not, that they find the process, this time around, utterly lacking in merit. The uselessness of the vote is more reflective of what is being offered (which the writer gets right) than the undeserving nature of the voters. So the cat in this instance is being given crap and not anything as valuable as coinage.

    1. Clive

      No. While the construct of the simile is superficially similar to the English-language “pearls before swine”, which in Western cultures has an emphasis on the human giver (of the pearls) bestowing something of considerable value on an ungrateful animal receiver (the swine), in the Japanese version the nuance is entirely different.

      To a Japanese person, the focus is on the cat and the cat’s reaction to what they have had handed down to them. This is best illustrated by a picture. If you look at this example (which I think has been drawn by a native Japanese) you can understand better. Note the addition in the image of the question marks to signify a perplexing sense in the cat and the quizzical expression. If I’d been the artist, I would have added the caption “WTF am I supposed to do with this then?” to convey the “this is not really of any use to me” sense. But I think the picture is for a young audience so that probably wouldn’t be entirely appropriate.

      In another example here you can see that the cat’s reaction isn’t one of ungratefulness, but rather “Am I really expected to eat that inedible stuff?”

      Note that in neither example is the human making “gift” pictured; what the human thinks or doesn’t think isn’t the centrepiece of the Japanese phrase. It’s all about the cat and the cat’s reaction.

      Proverbs are amongst the most difficult things for a non-native speak to translate and use in the correct way. You really have to check with a native speaker you are using them in the correct context. The one I’ve used at the top of the article is starting to suffer from a mistranslation on several internet translation services where the primary English meaning is indeed often given as “pearls before swine” which is not correct.

      As an aside, I’ve started to notice this as an increasing trend with “free” translation services. Often, they are “crowd sourced” meaning that contributors can make their own suggestions of translation candidates for a word or phrase. While this can be useful, without a good editor checking things, mistakes can creep in and then become entrenched. For example, put the phrase into Google Translate and, unfortunately, the primary meaning is now given as “pearls before swine”. The accurate translation “really big waste of resources” is listed in the secondary meanings.

      1. YY

        I don’t know the origin of pearls before swine, but a wild guess would be China. In Japanese it is “buta ni shinju”. This is very close to the idea of lipstick on a pig, but also is the first thing that will come up in one’s mind when looking for a simile close to neko ni koban. Neko ni koban would definitely be Japanese origin as domesticated cats have always had a close relationship to every day life and language. Koban is a historical term for coins, that is, there are no koban in circulation other than as toys, props, metaphors, or antiques. Never the less there is no implication that the money in question is not of economic value.
        Buta ni shinju is somewhat insulting to pigs but neko ni koban is not necessarily insulting to cats. That said the implication still is that a cat has no use for money and therefore it is a waste of money to give it to a cat.

        1. Clive

          We should definitely set up a NC language / cultural exchange class :-)

          I didn’t know the origin of “pearls before swine” myself until I just looked it up now (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pearls_before_swine) — it’s actually a biblical reference (man, those pigs really do sound angry ! “ungrateful” is far too nice a word for being torn to pieces). So it is not at all the same as the Japanese proverb.

          I’d say that the actual value of the gold coin being offered to the cat is neither here-nor-there (and the use of the kanji 小 meaning “small” “little” does imply it wasn’t a significant amount, although it was of course gold — but then all coinage at the time would have been gold or silver). Whether it was worth a lot or not very much doesn’t seem to be key to the metaphor. The emphasis I intended was on the cat (i.e. voters) being given something they can’t understand and is of no use to them when what they wanted was something more appropriate to their needs. They are trying to eat it, but without much success and are left wondering why they can’t be given something a bit more palatable.

          1. YY

            I understand your point but this cat does not fit the bag, as it were. That said the borrowed cat is probably more of a stretch as cat on the best behavior out of its own territory (whether borrowed to be a useless mouser or not, apparently not relevant) would not be the behavioral norm for a government that has had a renewal of life on basis of a increased mandate. I probably should mention that my understanding of the language is based upon native knowledge, which by the way can be totally wrong. However on matters that relate to common perceptions within a culture there is stuff that is not so clearly understandable just by translation.

            1. Clive

              Happy to defer YY, in my view when it comes to language and the correct interpretation “the native speaker is always right”. Glad we’ve had the chance to add some more cat links to the internet, we don’t want to risk a shortage ;-)

  11. different clue


    Thanks. Without that explanation I would have assumed that “giving money to a cat” was a metaphor for pure irrelevance or uselessness, not a reflection on the cat for being “unworthy” of the money. Actually, I like it better as a metaphor for pure useless irrelevance of that being offered. Like “pearls before eagles”.

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