Politicians to Watch

House of Representatives Member Saitō Ken


Does the world of Japanese politics, caught up in ongoing confusion, have a future? This is the first in a series of interviews with up-and-coming politicians from the ruling and opposition parties. Our first interviewee is Saitō Ken, a well-reputed freshman Diet member from the opposition LDP.

Saitō Ken
Born in 1959. Graduated from the University of Tokyo, where he majored in economics, and joined the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (now the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry), where he held positions in various fields, including energy policy, small business affairs, and information technology policy. Took part in the Japan-US automobile negotiations starting in 1994, served as executive assistant to the minister, and was seconded to Saitama Prefecture as vice-governor. Left the ministry in 2006 and sought political office, winning a seat in the House of Representatives from the south Kantō proportional-representation block in the August 2009 election. His works include Tenraku no rekishi ni nani o miru ka (What Should We See in the History of Falls?).

Japanese Politics Hasn’t Changed to Keep Up with the Times

TAKENAKA HARUKATA Since 2006 Japan has changed prime ministers every year. This has caused great concern about the state of Japanese politics even among people overseas. In this series of interviews we will be asking Japan’s up-and-coming politicians for their thoughts about the causes of the current confusion and policy issues for the future.

So what do you see as the biggest cause of the confusion in Japanese politics?

SAITŌ KEN Various elements are involved, such as problems with the electoral system, but I think the biggest problem is that Japan has entered a period of transition. For a number of decades, from the postwar period of rapid growth until the 1990s, both tax revenues and employment kept increasing, and the economy kept growing. The principal function of politics was to figure how to allocate the profits generated by this ongoing growth. So it was a type of politics dominated by those good at dividing the pie—in other words, political bosses. But now the pie is shrinking, and the qualities required from politicians have changed. Unfortunately, though, Japanese politics continues to be the politics of bosses. That’s what I see as the reason things aren’t going well.

TAKENAKA By politics of bosses, do you mean the sort of pork-barreling politics at which the Liberal Democratic Party used to excel?

SAITŌ Yes. And that was probably what caused the LDP’s defeat in the 2009 general election. Henceforth I believe politics must undertake even things that the public dislikes. The former style of politics no longer works, but old-fashioned bosses are still running the show; this lag in changing the political modus operandi is the biggest cause of the current confusion.

Bold Moves to Fight the Flight of Industry

TAKENAKA What do you see as the biggest issue for the Japanese economy today?

SAITŌ I’d say it’s the hollowing out of industry. When increasing numbers of enterprises move their operations offshore, Japan loses both jobs and tax revenues, and we find ourselves in a very severe situation. The trend has existed for some time, but it has grown much more serious since the Democratic Party of Japan came to power [in September 2009]. The DPJ is seeking to ban manufacturers from using temporary workers from agencies and to hike the minimum wage to 1,000 yen an hour, and the government has committed to reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent in 15 years; meanwhile, the yen has risen to a rate of 75 yen to the dollar, and the corporate tax rate is 40 percent. On top of that, the earthquake and nuclear plant accident will mean higher electricity charges, along with uncertainty about the steady supply of power. Under conditions like these, how are manufacturers going to manage to keep operating domestically? It’s no wonder that the number of companies moving overseas is surging.

TAKENAKA It’s a serious situation. How can the flight of manufacturing be stopped?

SAITŌ Countries in Asia are now engaged in vigorous competition to attract excellent companies from around the world. South Korea, China, and Thailand are devoting tremendous efforts to this drive. Japan needs to be aware of this competition and commit itself to participate in it so as to get some of these companies to come here. We need to offer incentives like, say, a five-year corporate tax holiday for companies that set up new plants in the earthquake-struck Tōhoku region.

TAKENAKA Are measures that drastic required?

SAITŌ We should offer a package of incentives for companies opening new plants in the disaster area—freedom from labor regulations and holidays from taxes on corporate income and property. It would be hard to offer these breaks nationwide, but it should be possible in the disaster area. Some may complain that it’s unfair, but I think it’s the job of elected political leaders to overcome such objections.

TAKENAKA How many other legislators in the LDP share your view on this?

SAITŌ There are probably a lot who are thinking vaguely along these lines, but it’s just a few who are tackling the issue seriously. Even so, I intend to pursue this. I’m absolutely determined to work on policies to counter the hollowing out of industry.

TAKENAKA How do you intend to go about it in concrete terms?

SAITŌ Authority concerning measures for the disaster area will be concentrated in the soon-to-be-established Reconstruction Agency. I’ll also consider proposing member-sponsored legislation, if necessary, to put together additional measures, such as the establishment of special zones, which are something that people have been talking about a lot. I think the most important point is to have the political will to get it done without fail.

The Lack of Speed in the Reconstruction Drive

TAKENAKA In what ways has the DPJ administration been lacking in its handling of the disaster reconstruction effort?

SAITŌ It has lacked speed. I find it hard to understand why the process of disposing of the rubble is still lagging even half a year after the earthquake struck. The process of making payments in the disaster area from the budget for reconstruction is also lagging. In the former days of LDP rule, there were legislators serving as cabinet ministers who would tell the people in their ministry, “Go ahead and do it. I’ll take responsibility.” And if the bureaucrats still failed to act, the minister would give them a piece of his mind and order them to hurry up. That produces action. But the DPJ politicians just spend their time complaining. They don’t have specific measures to make people and things move. And when bureaucrats occasionally take the initiative to do something, they get scolded for acting without orders. So they shrink back and become all the more inactive.

TAKENAKA I often hear comments about how civil servants have turned timid since the DPJ came to power.

SAITŌ This is especially true of those in the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry in the wake of the nuclear plant accident. They seem to have lost their drive to undertake anything new, and they haven’t come out with any plans for reconstruction. They’re just waiting for instructions from the troika of senior politicians in the ministry [the minister, senior vice-minister, and parliamentary secretary]. The best solution would be to oust the DPJ and achieve a change of government without delay, but presuming that’s not possible, my view is that it would be all right for us to enter into a grand coalition with the DPJ just for the purpose of reconstruction from the disaster. That idea isn’t much liked within the LDP, though.

TAKENAKA What’s your thinking about funding the reconstruction effort? Will it be necessary to raise taxes?

SAITŌ I think the government should issue reconstruction bonds to be repaid over a period of fifty years or so. If the repayment term is set at five years, higher taxes will be required, but a disaster requiring large-scale support from the national government occurs only once in several decades, so it should be possible to repay the debt gradually over an extended period without tax hikes. The disaster this time has been identified as a “once in a thousand years” occurrence—which is not to say that we can take a thousand years to pay off the debt. [Laughs]

Japan-US Ties as the Linchpin of Our Foreign Policy

TAKENAKA Moving on to foreign affairs, I’d like to ask you what you see as the most important foreign policy issue for Japan today.

SAITŌ Japan-US relations. After the DPJ took over, the plans for relocation of the Futenma facility in Okinawa [US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma] ran aground, and over the two years since then Japan has suffered various losses. One example is the area of territorial disputes. We’ve fallen back considerably during the past two years with respect to the Northern Territories, Takeshima, and the Senkaku Islands. Russia, South Korea, and China, which didn’t make moves as long as Japan-US ties were solid, saw an opening and have become more assertive of their claims. Rebuilding the ties of mutual trust between Japan and the United States may seem roundabout, but that’s the first step we need to take in order to get our foreign policy back on its feet. I believe that a strong Japan-US relationship is also important for dealing with the appreciation of the yen, which recently reached a new record high.

TAKENAKA So you see the issue of the strong yen as being linked to the bilateral security relationship?

SAITŌ On the issue of the exchange rate, sometimes the United States is adversely affected too. So up to now the two countries have helped each other out. Even if it’s not possible to carry out joint intervention in the foreign exchange market, we could reasonably expect the vice-minister of finance for international affairs and his American counterpart to take action leading to talks at the ministerial level and the issuing of a joint declaration stating that the current level of the yen is too high.

TAKENAKA That’s true. Ordinarily the vice-minister of finance makes that sort of move.

SAITŌ Maybe he’s not moving simply because the minister of finance hasn’t instructed him to.

TAKENAKA: So he could be waiting for instructions lest he be scolded for taking matters into his own hands. Meanwhile, the person in the position to give instructions lacks the required knowledge, so the yen continues its upward climb.

SAITŌ That’s the reality of the “politician-led decision making” that the Democrats say they espouse. We need to start rebuilding Japan-US relations by doing something about the relocation of the Futenma facility. Probably the only option is to return to the original plan that the LDP spent about fifteen years putting together and negotiate patiently with the people of Okinawa.

If I Become Prime Minister . . .

TAKENAKA What specifically would you like to accomplish if you became prime minister?

SAITŌ I have yet to win an election in a single-member constituency. So as a practical matter I’m not in a position to think about “What if I were prime minister?” [Laughs] I have my hands full just trying to win in the next election. Maybe if I win in that race, the one after it, and the one after that, I might be in a position to sit back and think about that sort of thing.

Of course, I do have an agenda as a person who has chosen to pursue a career in politics. That would be to review the Japan-US security relationship. It’s not going to get me any votes, though. [Laughs]

TAKENAKA What specific shape would you aim for?

SAITŌ Instead of focusing on ideals like Article 9 of the Constitution [renouncing the use of military force], I’d aim for an approach under which the Japanese defend their own country. Surely it’s not right for us to sit and wait, hoping that the Americans will be quick to show up if something happens. I’d like to ask the Japanese people, “Are you taking care of your country’s defense with your own hands?” Taking another look at the Japan-US security relationship with a view to achieving autonomy for Japan would make the Japanese people firm up their attitudes, I believe.

TAKENAKA Is there anything else on your agenda?

SAITŌ The combined reform of social security and taxes is an issue we can’t avoid. In the sense that it involves standing on one’s own two feet, it’s similar to the issue of the security relationship. In the case of social security, I’d like to establish a clearly defined setup and tell people, “The country will support you up to this point. Beyond that you’re on your own.” If you leave things vague and let people form the notion that the country will look after them all the way, they’re liable to stop thinking for themselves and become dependent.

TAKENAKA A lot of people do seem to have the idea that the country should look after them all the way.

SAITŌ Yes, I think they do. That’s why we need to make a clear statement that there’s a limit to the support they’re going to get. If we do that, people will have to think for themselves.

The Heavy Burden of Electioneering

TAKENAKA In order to pursue your policy agenda, you have to keep winning elections. As a practical problem, are elections all that difficult?

SAITŌ Campaigning takes tremendous amounts of time and energy. My district is in the part of Chiba Prefecture adjoining Tokyo, and I commute daily between there and the Diet. (*1) Sometimes I’ll go to Tokyo to attend the Diet during the day, return to Chiba in the late afternoon for an event like a kindergarten summer festival, and then head into Tokyo again for some other gathering.

TAKENAKA I suppose you spend the weekends attending local festivals and other events?

SAITŌ There are lots of festivals during the summer. This year my record was attending ten in a single day. These tend to be small-scale events organized by local neighborhoods or shopkeepers’ associations, with families sitting on sheets spread on the ground, and I go around to each group, handing out my cards. I spare no effort making the rounds of these events.

TAKENAKA I guess that’s a part of electioneering, but is it really necessary?

SAITŌ It’s necessary in order to win elections, and it may also be necessary as a form of political activity. The chance to listen to people directly is valuable. It gives me a real feel for the fact that the thinking in Nagatachō [the Tokyo district where the Diet is located] is a world apart from the thinking back home.

TAKENAKA You were originally a civil servant [at the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, METI since 2001] yourself. In concrete terms how does the thinking of the voters differ from that of insiders in Tokyo?

SAITŌ First of all, people truly have an aversion to bureaucrats. I figured we weren’t popular, but the sentiment turned out to be much stronger than I anticipated. Part of it may be due to bureaucrat bashing in the media, but there are also plenty of people who speak about the bad experiences they had themselves when they visited one government ministry or another for their work. Maybe one person in a thousand will concede, “Some of the bureaucrats are actually good people,” but everybody else bears a serious grudge against the whole lot.

TAKENAKA How do you talk to people with that sort of mistrust?

SAITŌ All I can do is interact with as many people as possible and get them to know me. Earlier I mentioned going to festivals; I shake hands with everybody I see and ask for their support, bowing and explaining, “I’m weak at elections.” Some people may ask if that’s enough and suggest I should talk about policies, but everybody has met many other people, and I believe that they can judge whether somebody’s a bad person or not to a fair extent even just from a brief encounter.

TAKENAKA So it’s handshakes over policy?

SAITŌ Both are necessary, but not many people will listen seriously to talk about policy. When I adopt a modest posture and go around greeting everybody, they think, “For a former bureaucrat, he’s unassuming.” So in that respect I can actually earn extra points thanks to my background. [Laughs]

TAKENAKA With so much of your time taken up by electioneering, how do you find time to think about policy?

SAITŌ Sometimes I have policy discussions with people who come to see me at the Diet Members’ Building when I’m there on weekdays, and I also study policy at meetings within the LDP. During my career at MITI and METI I was involved in economic policy, energy policy, and trade negotiations. Thanks to that foundation, I can manage to keep up with the issues. I think it would have been hard for me to follow the high-level discussions involved in drafting actual legislation if I had become a Diet member without any sort of experience.

Elections in Japan are too much of a drain on legislators, especially in the case of the single-member districts of the House of Representatives. In Britain a party will sometimes assign completely “safe” districts to a member they particularly value, but we don’t have any sort of arrangement like that in Japan. Instead we have micro-electioneering in all the single-member districts around the country.

TAKENAKA So legislators who focus on policy disappear from the scene.

SAITŌ That’s why the bureaucrats did the policy making.

Assess Politicians by Their Results

TAKENAKA In closing, I’d like to ask about your image of the ideal leader. Specifically, could you tell me which of Japan’s postwar prime ministers you respect the most?

SAITŌ Nakasone Yasuhiro [1982–87]. On the foreign policy front, he built a “Ron-Yasu” first-name relationship with US President Ronald Reagan, and domestically he succeeded in implementing many reforms, including privatization of the national railways. He also displayed great crisis-management skills in his handling of the Korean Air Lines Flight 007 incident [in which a South Korean passenger plane was shot down after violating Soviet air space]. And he formed a mighty team with Gotōda Masaharu as his chief cabinet secretary. I’d say assessing politicians comes down to a matter of looking at the results they achieved.

Saitō’s desk in his office at the Diet Members’ Building: This is where policies are born.

(Translated from an interview in Japanese. Photographs by Takashima Hiroyuki.)

(*1) ^ Saitō is referring to the single-member constituency in which he ran unsuccessfully in 2009 and will run again in the next general election.—Ed.

Saito Ken Takenaka Harukata politics Diet Democratic Party of Japan Liberal Democratic Party election electoral system flight of industry Japan-US relationship yen appreciation Nagatacho