02 August 2005

Wait a Minute, Mr. Shuuhaijin

We Americans rightly mock and belittle our postal "service", but the Japanese take their post office very seriously -- perhaps a bit too seriously in at least one recent instance.

By way of explanation, it should be noted that Japan's post office is a markedly different animal than its American counterpart. In the United States, the post office is many things -- a network for interpersonal communication (although e-mail is better) and package distribution (although FedEx and UPS are better), a public space for communicating information concerning criminal activity (although "America's Most Wanted" is better) and taxation policy (although irs.gov and TurboTax are better), and a means of permanent employment for thousands of angry loners and social misfits (although euthanasia is better). In Japan, for reasons I don't entirely understand, the post office handles not only mail delivery but also commercial banking and insurance. According to the Wall Street Journal, personal savings accounts and life insurance programs administered by the post office comprise a quarter of Japan's $14 trillion in personal financial assets. Largely because substantial portions of these post office-held assets are invested, somewhat inefficiently, in government securities and because the post office itself is subject to governmental manipulation, these assets have enabled pork-barrel (sushi-barrel?) spending by Japanese politicians.

Prime Minister Koizumi has undertaken a massive reform of Japan Post, proposing to split the agency into three separate businesses -- one will handle mail delivery, another will handle banking services, and the third will handle insurance. It's my impression that the political scale of this reform would be approximately that of the contemplated Social Security reforms currently being discussed over here. Certainly, the stakes in the Japan Post overhaul are quite high for many concerned -- politicians don't want to lose their source of financing for pet projects, post office workers don't want to jeopardize their sweetheart employment deals, and others have vested interests in the status quo. Nevertheless, Koizumi has made this reform a centerpiece of his administration, and it looks likely to succeed at this point -- it was passed by the more-powerful lower house of the Japanese parliament by a narrow margin and passage by the upper house is expected shortly.

During the fierce battle over the measure, Koizumi had threatened to call a general election if the reform was not passed. It was expected that such an election would result in a loss of political power by Koizumi's ruling LDP party generally and by opposition LDP members and Koizumi himself specifically; for this reason, Koizumi's threat had been termed the "suicide bomb dissolution". The "bomb" will likely not be used, but it seems at least one LDP legislator either didn't get the message or took post office reform a bit too personally. As first mentioned by Chrenkoff, Agence France-Presse reports that:
A RULING party MP who once headed Japan's world trade negotiations hanged himself overnight, prompting speculation he was troubled after switching sides in a high-stakes vote on the post office.

Yoji Nagaoka, 54, a former elite bureaucrat who was in his second term in parliament, committed suicide at his home in Tokyo, a police official said.

Nagaoka was part of a faction of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) opposed to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and his plan to break up the post office. But he voted in favour of the reforms when they passed the 480 member lower house by a mere five votes on July 5.

The Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, quoting unnamed people close to Nagaoka, said he had been troubled over what side to take on postal reform.

Koizumi's opponents immediately said the LDP had put too much pressure on MPs over postal reform. Koizumi has threatened a new election if the proposal fails in the upper house which is due to vote by August 13.

"He must have been distressed about how he was forced to change his political beliefs due to pressure from the LDP executives," said senior LDP parliamentarian Takeo Hiranuma, seen as an aspirant to succeed Koizumi, as quoted by Jiji Press.

Shizuka Kamei, head of the LDP faction to which Nagaoka belonged, said the party leadership was too aggressive. "Executives should not go so far."

Jiji Press said Nagaoka hanged himself with a necktie from the handrail of the stairs at his home and did not leave a suicide note.

Koizumi told reporters he was surprised by Nagaoka's death.

"I regret this, though I don't know what the reason for it was," he said.

Call it a Japan Post-mortem, I suppose. Chrenkoff summed it up well -- "Today's discussion topic: are Japanese politicians taking things too seriously? Or the American politicians not seriously enough?"

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