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State secrets bill shows Abe’s tin ear for local politics

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Former U.S. Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, one of America’s most influential politicians of the late 20th century, had some sage advice for those who thought about national or international politics. “All politics,” O’Neill warned, “is local.”

It’s a lesson Tokyo’s political and media class too often forgets or ignores. In the case of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the negative reaction around Japan to his forcing the state secrets bill through the Diet just adds to the perception he has a tin ear for local politics.

Had Abe or his Cabinet listened more and spoken less, they would have discovered the law was not just a “national” issue. From Osaka and Kobe to Fukushima, Fukui and Okinawa, local leaders were skeptical at best and have concerns that are not going to go away.

In Osaka, Mayor and Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) co-leader Toru Hashimoto, of all people, rose to defend freedom of the press and open government from the old, mostly Tokyo-based, nationalist right-wingers in his party who welcomed the law as a way to return the country to the 1930s of their dreams. Hashimoto’s opposition was not political grandstanding. Like many Osakans, he saw the secrecy law as an ill-considered attempt by Tokyo control freaks to roll back government transparency and, Hashimoto believes, government efficiency.

In neighboring Kobe, there was a different concern. Since the mid-1970s, the city has required foreign military vessels entering the harbor to declare whether or not they have nuclear weapons. The regulation was aimed at U.S. warships, and none have visited Kobe since the ordinance was passed. But Kobe citizens and local politicians now worry their city will be found guilty of violating the law’s provisions on defense if it continues to enforce the ordinance.

In Fukui and Fukushima, the worry is what happens to information about nuclear power plants, rather than technical data. Shimin Ombudsman, a national confederation of government watchdogs, publishes information about the cozy financial relationship between nuclear power and local governments. And all local governments seek more information about the plants to facilitate better cooperation between their operators and local police, fire and emergency rescue teams. Could such information be at least partially classified by paranoid bureaucrats or politicians under the law’s opaque goal of “preventing terrorism”?

The Fukushima Prefectural Assembly formally questioned the law, while Fukui Prefecture said it’s not applicable to nuclear power stations. This echoes Tokyo’s assurances. But it’s also a political warning to Abe that Fukui, which hosts 13 commercial atomic power plants, is not going to simply salute and say, “yes sir,” and walk away if told by the central government that whatever nuclear plant-related information it seeks has been classified.

And then there’s Okinawa. Some proponents of U.S. military installations might welcome the law as a great way to shut up — and shut out — the anti-base movement’s constant demands for information. But this would be a mistake. Okinawan politicians, especially those in the local Liberal Democratic Party chapter who support the bases, also understand that actions by Tokyo resulting in less, not more, transparency about the bases is only going to create more political headaches for them.

In addition, over the past couple of years Okinawa’s anti-base movement has changed tactics. It’s reached out to allies in Washington, with whom it regularly consults for information on what the U.S. government is doing.

Just because Tokyo has classified something about Okinawa doesn’t mean it will remain a secret because Okinawans have more of an ability to seek out the same information in the United States, where the information may be publicly available.

Whether due to hubris or a genuine belief he can ride out any opposition, Abe believes he’s weathered the storm and that, whatever political price he and his ruling LDP eventually pay for the secrets law, it will be small. He will no doubt continue to assert that the law is a national issue that has no effect on local government.

However, as last week’s breakup of the opposition group Your Party showed, and as O’Neill would have known, even if it really is about local government none of the time, it’s about local politics, i.e. the attitude of your voters, all of the time.