The Hidden Side to Noda’s Frontiers Project

Suzuki Yoshikatsu [Profile]

[2012.05.09] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 |

Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko is actively working on building a long-term political vision using the word “frontiers” as a label and theme for the initiative. Following in the footsteps of Prime Minister Ōhira Masayoshi (1978–80), who created nine policy research groups during his term in office, Noda has put together the Frontier Subcommittee of the Council on National Strategy and Policy, providing it with four panels. Discussion kicked off in these panels in February and has been continuing at a rapid pace. With the leadership election of the Democratic Party of Japan scheduled for September and reports coming in that Noda may dissolve the House of Representatives and hold a general election even before that, however, his frontiers project has attracted the smell of affectation and political convenience.

Revering Ōhira

Noda gives the impression of quietly holding a strong resolve to execute his ideas. When he was senior vice finance minister, the finance minister at the time, Fujii Hirohisa (currently head of the Democratic Party of Japan’s Tax System Research Committee), said to him, “If you want to become prime minister, learn from the politics of Ōhira.” Since then, that predecessor has been in Noda’s thoughts. The new frontiers that Noda has set his sights on are ideas that he has cultivated since before his appointment as prime minister and are based upon the long-term vision that was created by Ōhira.

In August 2011, shortly before he announced his candidacy for leadership of the DPJ and became prime minister, Noda expressed these thoughts when he had breakfast in a Tokyo hotel with Ōhira’s son-in-law, Morita Hajime (former executive secretary to the prime minister and former transport minister). He is reported to have said that he had great interest in the policy research groups that Ōhira created and asked Morita to tell him about them. At the time, Noda’s strategy was to win the election for DPJ president held late that month, get the National Diet to approve a hike in the consumption tax, retain his hold on power by getting reelected as DPJ president in the election scheduled for September 2012, and then lay out a long-term vision with his frontiers project to put forward in the next lower house election, which must be held by summer 2013. However, Morita told him that Ōhira’s research groups were more than 10 years in the making and that his strategy could not work that easily.

Ōhira’s Vision: Ahead of Its Time

There were nine policy research groups of Prime Minister Ōhira. These were:

  1. Research Group on the Age of Culture
    (Chaired by Yamamoto Shichihei, owner of the publisher Yamamoto Shoten)
  2. Research Group on the Garden City State Concept
    (Chaired by Umesao Tadao, director-general of the National Museum of Ethnology)
  3. Research Group on Strengthening Family Foundations
    (Chaired by Itō Zen’ichi, professor at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University)
  4. Research Group on Solidarity with Pacific Rim Nations
    (Chaired by Ōkita Saburō, chairman of the Japan Center for Economic Research)
  5. Research Group on Comprehensive National Security
    (Chaired by Inoki Masamichi, president of the Research Institute for Peace and Security)
  6. Research Group on Foreign Economic Policy
    (Chaired by Uchida Tadao, professor at the University of Tokyo)
  7. Research Group on Economic Management in the Age of Culture
    (Chaired by Tachi Ryūichirō, professor at the University of Tokyo)
  8. Research Group on Historical Development of Science and Technology
    (Chaired by Sassa Manabu, head of the National Institute for Environmental Studies)
  9. Research Group on Life in a Pluralist Society
    (Chaired by Hayashi Chikio, director-general of the Institute of Statistical Mathematics)

Although this is a list of noted academics, economists, and other experts, it is actually based on the network of intellectual contacts that Morita and Nagatomi Yūichirō (former bureaucrat at the Ministry of Finance and former special advisor to the prime minister) built up over many years.

The final report was put together after Ōhira died unexpectedly. He was struck with a cardiac infarction on May 30, 1980, the day that a general election was announced, and passed away on June 12. It was nonetheless widely acclaimed for the ideology and vision expressed within it, which were seen as ahead of its time, and it still receives high praise today.

Noda’s Quick-Fix Vision

At Noda’s prodding, the Frontier Subcommittee of the Council on National Strategy and Policy was set up to create a long term vision for policy. This consists of four panels: the Frontier of Prosperity Panel, the Frontier of Happiness Panel, the Frontier of Peace Panel, and the Frontier of Wisdom Panel. These panels correspond to the “PHP” (prosperity, happiness, and peace) terms played up by the famous industrialist Matsushita Kōnosuke, with “wisdom” added to the end. Matsushita was the founder of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd., now called Panasonic Corp.

The secretary-general for the subcommittee, who will take a central role and collate the reports, is Nagahisa Toshio, the executive director of the PHP Research Institute, a policy think tank established by Matsushita. He has a very close relationship with the prime minister and is the mastermind behind the frontiers ideology.

According to Nagahisa’s blog, the selection standards for membership of these panels are as follows: (1) The heads and deputy heads of the panels are to consist of 50% men and 50% women; (2) with the exception of the chairperson and the deputy chairperson, the panel members are to be younger than Prime Minister Noda, with their activities based in local municipalities; and (3) younger bureaucrat officials will be recruited. These standards reflect the will of Noda, who believes that a vision for the future cannot be created without input from women, the young, and local districts. Tasked with thinking about what kind of country Japan should be in 2050, the subcommittee is expected to formulate guiding principles for extricating the country from the feeling of entrapment that grips it.

The first subcommittee meeting was on February 1, 2012, and debate was soon kicked off in each panel and has since been proceeding at a frenzied pace. As if to accelerate the process even more, on April 2 the prime minister issued instructions for an interim report to be collated by the end of May.

With his political opponent Ozawa Ichirō in mind, the prime minister attempts to highlight his concern for the real world, rather than the political world. However, his actions surrounding the frontiers initiative smack of an ad-hoc and rushed endeavor launched in a political landscape lacking transparency.

  • [2012.05.09]

Senior commentator at Jiji Press and editor-in-chief of Diplomacy magazine. Analyzes Japan’s foreign affairs and domestic policies. Joined the Political Affairs Department at Jiji Press after graduating from Waseda University. Served two stints in the United States, one based in Washington, DC, and the other as bureau chief in New York. Works include Imada ni tsuzuku “haisenkoku gaikō” (A Defeated Nation’s Diplomacy: Japanese Relations with Two Great Powers) and Ozawa Ichirō wa naze TV de nagurareta ka (Why Ichiro Ozawa Was Hit on TV: Visible Politics and Invisible Politics in a Televised Age).

Related articles
Other columns

Video highlights

New series

  • From the editor in chief
  • From our columnists
  • In the news