Commentary / Japan

Will Tokyo's 'deep state' strike back?

by Kuni Miyake

A long-awaited American political extravaganza began last week in the U.S. House of Representatives. Two high-ranking U.S. diplomats, Ambassador William B. Taylor, Jr. and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George P. Kent, testified under oath in an impeachment hearing at the Intelligence Committee.

U.S. President Donald Trump, as always, tried to ignore this lethal revolt by a group of defiant career diplomats. He might call it fake news, a witch hunt or an attempt by the “deep state” to destroy his administration. Trump supporters believe that he is fighting day and night against the vested interests of the secret establishment in Washington.

The U.S. mainstream media were literally in frenzy of excitement. Although the witnesses’ testimonies didn’t indicate any smoking gun, CNN televised the entire hearing all day long. By contrast in Tokyo, the Japanese media were rather sober and didn’t seem to understand why Trump’s phone call to Kiev really matters.

The Asahi Shimbun, for example, almost nonchalantly reported that “House hearings begin over Trump’s Ukrainian scandal,” in which “the U.S. president allegedly pressured his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Mr. Trump’s political enemy as ‘quid pro quo’ for resuming military assistance to Ukraine.”

Friends of mine in Tokyo often asked me what’s wrong with Trump’s phone conversation with his counterpart in Kiev. Since this kind of irregularity seldom happens in Japan, many were surprised when I told them that Trump’s behavior could constitute a bribery case in the U.S.

I tried to explain the concept of “bribery” in plainer language for ordinary citizens. Suppose, I said, Japan decided to extend economic assistance to a developing nation in Africa. If a Japanese politician or Cabinet minister interfered and said “I would suspend the aid program if I didn’t get a kickback money.”

Of course that would be a crime and then, what if the minister said, “I only say yes if the recipient government does my Japanese friend a special favor”? I also told my friends that bribery is one of the reasons for presidential impeachment as stipulated in the U.S. Constitution. The following is my take on this political episode.

First, Japan’s domestic politics are helplessly stable but ridiculous. Upon my return from Bangkok last week, the breaking news of the day was the “florid spending” for the annual cherry blossom party hosted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Critics say the occasion to honor good citizens “turned into an event of political patronage.”

As the Guardian reported last Thursday, quoting the Asahi, “Voters from Abe’s local constituency have even been offered bundled travel packages to go to Tokyo and enjoy river cruises on the weekend of the festivities.” Japan’s opposition parties threatened to suspend Diet deliberations for this scandal. But why?

Abe’s supporters paid an appropriate amount for the travel package. Although politically incorrect, this is a kind of favor every parliamentarian in Japan does to his/her constituents everywhere. I am not trying to defend the Abe administration but just saying that the impeachment inquiry in Washington dwarfs Tokyo’s cherry blossoms party “scandal.”

Second, now that America’s deep state is striking back, what about Japan’s, if it exists? For the past few years, the Trump administration has targeted the State Department as a symbol of Washington’s establishment or what Trump calls the deep state. Sadly, the department has been literally demoralized and virtually destroyed.

To Trump, the two American career diplomats who appeared in the House Intelligence Committee must be typical warriors of the deep state. Kent’s snobbish bow tie or Taylor’s quiet yet arrogant storytelling must have irritated the president and many of his supporters in the so-called swing states.

The Foreign Ministry, Japan’s counterpart to the U.S. State Department, had experienced something similar but less horrifying in the past. The first time was when the Liberal Democratic Party lost its majority in the general election in 1993. Fortunately, the new reformist prime minister’s pressure on the Foreign Ministry was not destructive.

The second was more serious when the Democratic Party of Japan won the election in 2009. The new DPJ administration didn’t trust the Japanese bureaucracy and the Foreign Ministry in particular. It tried to declassify top-secret diplomatic documents and to appoint non-diplomat ambassadors to Washington or Beijing.

The administrations of Yukio Hatoyama and Naoto Kan, for example, not only endangered the Japan-U.S. security arrangements in 2009 but also appeased Beijing and sent it the wrong message when the drunk captain of a Chinese fishing boat rammed a vessel of the Japan Coast Guard near the Senkaku Islands in 2010.

Damage was done to Japan’s national interests but the Japanese diplomats at that time were silent. Unlike now in Washington, there were no impeachment inquiries or Diet hearings at which incumbent career diplomats could testify. Diet committees did not subpoena Foreign Ministry officials, either.

Having said that, Foreign Ministry officials, and the Japanese bureaucracy in general, now face the third and most serious threat from the Prime Ministers’ Office. The office has the authority to appoint and dismiss every senior bureaucrat, including vice minister and directors-general, at ministries and agencies.

The new authority, the Cabinet Personnel Affairs Bureau, which was established in 2014, has dramatically changed the status and power of Japan’s bureaucracy. With this, the prime minister and his staff have an absolute authority over the bureaucracy, the Tokyo version of the deep state.

Japan’s foreign service officers have not been as vocal as Taylor or Kent. It is probably because Japan, unlike the U.S., has no diplomatic bribery or misdemeanor case at the top of the administration. This, however, doesn’t mean that Japan will never have such a possibility.

The real question is whether the Japanese bureaucrats will or can revolt or speak out, when necessary, against the incumbent prime minister of the day. If this happens, will the prime minister call them “agents of the deep state” or will the Japanese media protect the anonymous whistleblowers? That remains to be seen.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.