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An endangered liberal voice

Newspaper reporters occasionally visit Seiichiro Murakami at his office inside the Diet Members No. 1 Building. The door sign reads “Office of the Chairman of the Deliberative Council on Political Ethics of the House of Representatives.”

Murakami, 61, is a Lower House member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and claims to be the 18th-generation family head descended from a pirate group bearing the name Murakami, active in the Seto Inland Sea centuries ago.

He started attracting the attention of news media after he denounced the state secrets law, which was passed by the Diet late last year, branding it as “nothing more than a hobby” of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He was the only member of Abe’s LDP to abstain when the bill came to a vote.

Murakami is well versed in policy matters, as he collects data, analyzes them, draws up charts and prepares answers to various policy issues all on his own. He is a pure conservative liberal on fiscal, economic, diplomatic and security policies, and does not hesitate to bitterly criticize the Abe administration’s ultra-easy money policy, right-leaning diplomacy and attempt to restart nuclear power plants now off-line.

He is seen as a nuisance by Abe and his close associates and does not have many friends in the LDP, now united in praising “Abenomics,” economic policies named after the prime minister. He is becoming increasingly popular among reporters of late, especially those from the city news sections of their respective media. This is not unrelated to the fact that liberal forces within the LDP have been on the wane.

The LDP once had a liberal tradition built up by leaders like Shigeru Yoshida (prime minister 1946-47 and 1948-54), Hayato Ikeda (1960-64), Masayoshi Ohira (1978-80) and Kiichi Miyazawa (1991-93) as well as former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato.

Where has the glorious history of the party’s liberalism gone and in which direction is the Abe administration leading the nation? It may well be worth listening to the warning bells sounded by Murakami, who has become a member of a “politically endangered species.”

He says that during this past new year holidays, he toured his constituency more extensively than usual because he thought the LDP would face an uphill battle in the next national election. The party, he says, “has become quite arrogant after it garnered 70 percent of the Diet seats with only 40 percent of the total vote cast.”

Murakami sees a similarity between the Abe administration and the early days of Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto’s administration (1996-98): Abe is “controlled by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI),” the successor to the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), which controlled the Hashimoto administration.

He bases this observation on the fact that Hashimoto chose Kenji Eda, then an MITI bureaucrat and now head of the Unity Party, as his chief executive secretary, and Abe has chosen METI bureaucrat Takaya Imai for that position. Murakami says although METI is skilled in coming up with ideas and writing legislative bills, fewer than 20 percent of its ideas are enacted into law.

“The nation,” he cautions, “will be hit by disaster” if the reckless “three arrows” of Abenomics is pursued.

According to Murakami, the first arrow, which is quantitative monetary easing, is not leading to a boost in capital investments and wage hikes because corporate Japan is stuck with excessive production facilities, indicated by the pileup of companies’ internal reserves worth $200 trillion.

Under the circumstances, Murakami says, large amounts of money have flowed into stocks and into real estate, creating asset mini-bubbles. “I am more worried about a negative impact resulting from the bursting of these bubbles,” he adds.

Murakami is also critical of Abe’s “second arrow,” which is an increase in government fiscal spending to stimulate the economy. He compares this to an octopus injecting a shot into one tentacle while eating its other tentacles.

He calls attention to the fact that Japan’s current fiscal conditions are similar to the worst period of World War II. If market players perceive that the Bank of Japan is underwriting bonds issued by the government, it will push up long-term interest rates, dealing a fatal blow to the nation’s fiscal and monetary regimes and economic recovery, he warns.

Murakami condemns Abe’s “third arrow,” which he says is a growth policy filled with slogans but devoid of concrete steps.

Nor is Murakami happy with Abe’s hard-line stand on matters related to diplomacy and security. He laments the deterioration of Japan’s relations with neighboring China and South Korea.

“What should leaders learn from history? Otto von Bismarck of Prussia defeated Austria before the Franco-Prussian War but did not permit his troops to make a triumphal march into Vienna because he thought it unwise to unnecessarily create hostile feelings among Austrian people. Thus he succeeded in persuading Austria not to side with France against Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War and was able to win the war,” says Murakami.

“Political leaders must have long-term vision. If they give priority to satisfying their emotions, they will only bring misery to their citizens.”

He takes Abe to task for the visit late last year to Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines Japan’s war dead. “You cannot make a friend by hitting somebody in the head then telling him that the door is open for friendly talks,” he says, “I personally do not like the idea of any other country criticizing a Japanese citizen who pays homage at Yasukuni — one of my blood relatives was killed in the operation to take Imphal in northeastern India in 1944. But without the expansion of trade with China at the private level, you cannot expect Abenomics to work. Nobody sees the total picture.”

As chairman of the LDP’s subcommittee investigating the nuclear power plant disaster in Fukushima Prefecture, Murakami insists that the government should first work on resolving problems that affect Fukushima residents as a result of the tragedy before taking steps to restart idled nuclear power stations. He also calls for ending the nuclear fuel cycle project.

As the formative experience for his opposition to the state secrets law, he recalls reading Erich Fromm’s “Escape from Freedom” (aka “Fear of Freedom”) some 40 years ago while studying in the University of Tokyo’s Department of Liberal Arts.

He says the book shows how feeble humans are, unable to bear the weight of freedom, and how difficult it is for one to carry through with speech and political activities that have been thought out freely.

He adds that the book’s description of how Weimar Republic democracy succumbed to Nazism is useful in discussing how Japan and its democracy should be steered under the Abe regime.

With regard to the state secrets law, one may recall what happened within the LDP 26 years ago when the government tried to enact a law for preventing espionage activities. The idea did not prevail, as it was bitterly opposed by then young and liberal lawmakers within the LDP.

In the April 1987 issue of Chuo Koron monthly magazine, eight liberals at the time — Sadakazu Tanigaki (later LDP president); Tadamori Oshima (later LDP vice president); Eisaku Sato (an Upper House member who later became Fukushima governor, unrelated to an ex-prime minister of the same name); Yukio Hatoyama (later prime minister); Seiken Sugiura, Katsuhiko Shirakawa and Yoshio Yatsu, all Lower House members; as well as Murakami — argued against the anti-spy bill.

A quarter of a century later, five of the eight have already stepped down as Diet members while Tanigaki and Oshima no longer speak out in the government or in the LDP. That leaves Murakami as the sole voice of the LDP liberal spirit as expressed in the magazine.

The LDP appears to be losing its intra-party balance. High expectations are placed on Murakami’s activities, which, it is hoped, will serve to nurture liberal forces outside the LDP and mobilize them. Whichever party takes the lead in that direction will play a central role in reshaping Japan’s political landscape.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the February issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.