Thursday, December 31, 2009
The color of winter in Mito City, Ibaraki Prefecture on February 7, 2009.
Panorama of the Pond in Yoyogi Park, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo Metropolitan District on March 29, 2009.
Pottery for sale in Kasama, Ibaraki Prefecture on April 29, 2009.
Isohiyodori (Monticola solitarius)in Izu Kogen, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan on May 31, 2009.
Sunlit spires of Mizugakiyama, Hokuto City, Yamanashi Prefecture on June 7, 2009.
Children's outdoor kabuki. The 12 p.m. performance of "Hebihime" in Karasuyama, Tochigi Prefecture on July 25, 2009.
Headwaters region of the Soca River. Triglav National Park, Slovenia on August 5, 2009. (Click on this one- it is worth it.)
Matsumushiso (Scabiosa japonica). Kirigamine, Suwa City, Nagano Prefecture on September 6, 2009.
Painters looking at the peaks of Shiragamon, Kasagadake and Asahigadake. Tenjin no Daira, Minakami Township, Gunma Prefecture on October 18, 2009.
The Amida Nyorai of the Kotokuin. Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture on November 8, 2009.
Surfers await a wave before Mt. Fuji. Fujisawa City, Kanagawa Prefecture on December 6, 2009.
Monday, December 21, 2009
The lead article of the latest edition of the magazine Shukan Asahi brings together a passel of politics mavens to rate the performances of various members the Hatoyama Cabinet at this, the year's end.
Receiving the highest score of 96 points from the judges is, unsurprisingly, State Minister for Administrative Reform Sengoku Yoshito. The minister responsible for the sessions that shone a light into the national budget's darker corners, Sengoku looked more like a goat than a hero when Democratic Party Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro stripped the Government Revitalization Unit of all its freshman members after their nominations had already been announced. The GRU's exposure of the astonishing variety of failed or moribund projects still drawing funds from the public purse resurrected Sengoku's stature. He will remain in political hot water for some time, having been one of the first Democrats to call for Ozawa's resignation as party leader after the arrest of Ozawa's political secretary Okubo Toshinori in the spring (Okubo's trial started on Friday). In terms of the achievements he has overseen, however, Sengoku is in fine fettle.
On the other end of the ledger, receiving the rock-bottom score of 24 from the Asahi Shukan judges is, unfortunately, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirano Hirofumi.
The Chief Cabinet Secretary has numerous responsibilities, including:
1) convincing the people of the government's good faith
2) preventing the prime minister from tripping himself up
3) keeping the government's program on course in the manner of a duck swimming: moving forward smoothly and seemingly effortlessly on the surface, paddling like all heck underneath.
Based on these criteria, can one argue that Hirano does not deserve the miserable rating he has received from the Shukan Asahi judges?
Most everyone is dumping on Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio for his vaporous pronouncements, his too quick willingness to appear in agreement with his interlocutors (when in his heart, he knows that he does not agree with them) and his hanging on as if for dear life to the promises made in the DPJ's Manifesto. Everyone knew about these attributes (they should not be contemptuously derided as faults - that is too easy) of the man before he became the PM.
In criticism one must be accurate...and not criticize the wrong man for the wrong thing.
It was Hirano's responsibility to mitigate the potential bad effects of the PM's more incorrigible habits as well as rein in the quirks of this decidedly quirky cast of Cabinet officers. If Hirano did not think himself up to the task of ringmaster of this circus then he should not have accepted the position.
Hatoyama's mistake, for which he should be criticized, was in offering the Chief Cabinet Secretary post to Hirano, his faithful lieutenant, rather than to a more forceful and independent-minded candidate. A prime minister of course needs a loyalist in the Chief Cabinet Secretary position. He also needs someone who engages himself/herself in the management of the government with relish, dispatching enemies and cowering allies with a sharp mind and an even sharper tongue.
Hirano so far does not seem to fit that bill.
Over the New Year's holidays the PM, Hirano and other DPJ members of the Cabinet have the time to meet and talk about what worked during these first few months and what did not. It is possible that out of these discussions new management structures or understandings of roles will emerge. The current government is far from disfunctional. Nevertheless, its indiscipline is generating too much far too much news.
A more energetic, even volcanic Chief Cabinet Secretary seems a necessary first step to a smoother-running policy-implemention machine.
Friday, December 18, 2009
Brought to us via the good offices of The Washington Times.
Of all things.
The DPJ is seeking a revision of the law that would forbid the director-general of the Cabinet Legislative Bureau -- the office of the government that has come to be the source of interpretations of the Constitution -- from giving testimony in the Diet. It seems they have a notion that it is up to the politicians to interpret the Constitution and for bureaucrats to just follow in line.
The Imperial Household Agency and the Cabinet Legislative Bureau are the specialists in determining whether laws are in compliance with the Constitution or not. It is a matter of course that their opinions be listened to first of all in a spirit of humility and cool-headedness.
Leadership of politicians does not mean that one can just interpret the Constitution any way one wants to, ignoring accumulated precedents. It is even worse to use high-pressure language in attempt to cower bureaucrats and silence them. One cannot fall into this error.
Now I have a whole lot of problems with this editorial (that "It seems they have a notion that" strawman, for example) but none greater than with the "It is a matter of course" (tozen da) exhortation.
Your see there is the little matter of the Constitution of Japan itself, which states:
Article 81: The Supreme Court is the court of last resort with power to determine the constitutionality of any law, order, regulation or official act.
That under the five decades of LDP rule the Supreme Court exercised its right to declare laws unconstitutional a pitiful number of times does not mean that the Supreme Court will forever fail to carry out its role under the separation of powers. Only that during the last five decades the Court felt cowed by the LDP and the bureaucracy.
And that, me hearties, strikes me as unhealthy.
As for the humbling authority the Asahi attributes to the CLB and the IHA "as a matter of course," it seems Richard Samuels' question still applies.
Evidently, the revolution underway in Japan has not yet extended its reach to the editorial offices of the nation's media giants, not even its purportedly most liberal ones.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
It is what in poker is referred to as a call.
Japan needs more time for decision on US baseAfter describing in ominous tones the threat of a breakdown of Japan-U.S. relations should Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio deviate from the path laid down by the previous regime and disgraced former Vice Minister Moriya Takemasa, those who warned of an apocalypse need to hope that hellfire and brimstone rain down forthwith upon the Japanese government's head.
By SHINO YUASA (AP) TOKYO — Japan needs several more months to decide on the relocation of a major U.S. military base on the southern island of Okinawa, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said Tuesday, a delay likely to frustrate Washington.
The U.S. had hoped for a resolution by year-end, but Hatoyama said a hasty decision would be irresponsible.
Okinawa residents complain about base-related noise, pollution and crime, and many want the airfield closed and its functions moved off the island entirely.
A 2006 reorganization plan, made under the previous conservative government, was aimed at lightening the load on Okinawa, which hosts more than half the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan under a security pact forged after World War II.
So far, the responses have been less than infernal.
In Washington, the U.S. Marine Corps commandant said Japan's decision to delay the relocation of the U.S. military base was unfortunate.No, of course not. The Democratic Party of Japan never said that it wanted indefinite talks. The DPJ wants Futenma moved just as much as anyone.
Gen. James Conway told reporters Tuesday that moving forward on the base movement is "absolutely vital to the defense that we provide for the entire region."
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley offered a more muted response, saying President Barack Obama's administration was willing to give Japan a little more time to deal with what he calls a complex issue. But he said talks would not be indefinite.
What the DPJ asked for was a review together with the United States of a plan that had languished in limbo for 12 years, unenforceable by the very party that drew it up.
Which begs the question: who in the U.S. Administration made the decision to test the DPJ's willingness to bet the whole Japan-U.S. relationship on the DPJ's promise to review the building of a heliport off the coast of Henoko?
Because whoever that was, he or she has miscalculated. The DPJ did not fold. Believe the DPJ policy unrealistic, call it airy-fairy, the party leadership has held its ground.
From the 2009 DPJ Manifesto:
日米地位協定の改定を提起し、米軍再編や在日米軍基地のあり方についても見直しの方向で臨む。Whether or not one may believe the move of the elements of the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station to a new base to be constructed over a coral reef off of Camp Schwab in Henoko City is a good idea; a bad idea but the best we can do; an unkept promise to the United States government; or a betrayal of the Okinawan people, one needed to at least understand that if the DPJ were to include the pledge in its manifesto and then win a smashing victory at the polls, the party was going to do its damnedest to deliver on its promise.
"We promise to propose revisions to the Status of Forces Agreement and will furthermore address the realignment of U.S. Forces, the role-and-placement of American military bases and other matters from the point of view that a rethink may be in order."
It is a measure of the cynicism of the views of those monitoring the political speech of this blessed land that Washington was not informed of the DPJ's sincere commitment to the promises it was making to the electorate.
Monday, December 14, 2009
Just how heretofore unnamed Japanese officials got the go-ahead to lobby the Congressional Commission on Strategic Posture of the United States -- a body headed by former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry -- to recommend that the Pentagon keep the nuclear TLAM-N, a weapons system the U.S. Defense Department wants to scrap, when Japan is ostensibly opposed to war in general and nuclear war in particular, without the public being alerted to these lobbying activities and without a uproar in the press or a housecleaning in the responsible ministries after the news of the lobbying activity becoming public, is beyond me.
The reason why the TLAM-N may not be a worthwhile weapons system? It's a little problem called "clobbering."
For the Commission's final report on America's nuclear posture, visit this page at the United States Institute of Peace.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Pandolfini's Rules of Chess, Rule #8:The Imperial Household Agency has seen reason. It is going to allow Xi Jinping, the heir apparent to the presidency of the People's Republic of China, to have an audience with the Emperor sometime this week. The hyper-sensitive bureaucrats of the Agency baulked at giving up one of their prerogatives: insisting on one-month's advance notice for anyone wishing to meet His Highness. It must have been especially galling to give up their precious to Ozawa Ichiro, currently leading his politial allies and minions on a visit to China.
If you can't determine whether to accept or decline a sacrifice, accept it.
Given the Democratic Party of Japan's ownership, for the time being, of majorities in both Houses of the Diet, annoying the Secretary-General of the Democratic Party of Japan with tendentious adherence to internal regulation (How, if the rule was promulgated in order to protect the health of the Emperor, does the Imperial Household Agency know how the Emperor will be feeling in one month's time?) is probably not the smartest thing to do. Next year's Agency personnel budget might end up a little bit on the tight side, possibly.
By taking the course of valor, the Agency is allowing the possible emergence of a new tradition in China. Current President Hu Jintao also met with the Emperor when he himself was in the dauphin position in the Politburo.
Up until the fall of the Qing in 1910, the imperial institution in China granted symbolic legitimacy to those who ruled in East Asia, both the mandarins of the central Chinese Imperial Government and the kings of the countries surrounding China (Japan's tenno being the notable exception). Each new accessor to power remained symbolically less-than-legitimate until it received the Chinese emperor's imprematur.
China's present day rulers, having ground China's own imperial institution into ash, are bereft of a suitable symbolic assessor of a candidate's suitability for leadership. A visit to Thailand, the last survivor of the tributary kingdoms, might possibly provide a link to the past. It would, however, represent a humiliating reversal of status for the Chinese supplicant. Visits to the barbarian capitals of the former slaves of the Vikings (Moscow) or that rabble of rebellious barkeeps and farmers (Washington) would send all the wrong messages about the direction of history's flow. A visit to one of the great capitals of Europe would be even worse, admitting European justifications for colonialism were not utterly without merit.
However, Japan's imperial house provides is a direct link to a past purely East Asian and very nearly a meeting among equals. When the incipient leader of modern China meets the ancient line of Yamato, each side gains honor. That the Japanese would go against their own rules and receive China's heir apparent at short notice would be proof just of the greatness of China but the greatness of the one chosen to lead China.
That relations between two traditions are chilly, with the Emperor's father as one of China's grand historical baddies, gives the whole rushed application a frisson of uncertainty.
Xi might just want to show that a junior Chinese leader can importune the Emperor. I expect that when the two meet, Xi will not contort himself into an L-shape like that young American president did.
I look forward to the video.
Saturday, December 12, 2009
Looking at the border of many of the blogs on Japan, one cannot help but notice it: many who write on Japan tend to also try to capture its physical image. There seems to be a strong correlation between blogging and photography, as if the two activities are of a kind. Both seek to record a moment as it "really" (and yes, the quotation marks are necessary here) happened, frame it in an own idiosyncratic way, heighten the details, label the result and then set it out where all the world can see.
Some notable examples of the tendency:
- Writing from the point of view of a technologist and a lover of finely engineered things (and well-lit food) is Janne Morén of Janne in Osaka. His paired Flickr site is
- Vincent of Achikochi shares the full range of his life between Yokohama and
- Gen Kanai of the eponymous
Gen Kanai blog
Mozilla in Asia provides visual documentation of the life of the peripatetic internet proselytizer at http://www.flickr.com/photos/gen/.
Someone at Mutantfrog Travelogue maintains the Flickr site http://www.flickr.com/photos/mutantfrog/. Perhaps all of the co-authors share their images.
- Phaedrus/CJW of the luminous Climbing and Hiking in Japan provides more jaw-dropping imagery of Japan's peaks, cliffs and alpine bowls at http://www.flickr.com/photos/phaedrusredux/.
- Simply beyond category is D of Japan Without the Sugar.
whose smashing photo blog http://kanagawaphoto.blogspot.com/ and Flickr site http://www.flickr.com/photos/7280851@N08/ fill me with despair and awe.
Worthy of dishonorable mention is the current reigning court jester Our Man In Abiko who offers a typically bent vision of this blessed land at .
his You Tube channel.
The exception to the rule seems to be Tobias Harris of Observing Japan.
Then again, that Mr. Harris is not fiddling about with cameras is perhaps the reason for his heretofore amazing prolixity.
Photo image: Mass model shoot at the beach in Hota, Chiba Prefecture on July 19, 2009. Image credit: MTC.
Friday, December 11, 2009
Democratic Party of Japan Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro travels to China (ever notice nobody calls it "the PRC" anymore?) with 600+ persons in tow, including 146 members of the Diet, one day after the governments of the United States and Japan call off talks on the Futenma situation (let us not call it a "problem" or a "crisis", shall we? Moving Futenma Marine Corps Air Station has been a 12-year odyssey of procrastination). The sight of Ozawa and Hu Jintao on the armchairs in Beijing is sure to drive the U.S. Asian policy community even further into crisis mode.
[By the way,
Then again, Ozawa is such a farsighted political player he probably stage-managed the breakdown in talks with the U.S. as an oseibo for his Chinese hosts, confident that he can patch matters up with the Yanks later. He may have already selected the Christmas gift the officials of Japan will be giving their American counterparts this year.
In the same way you can trust in the DPRK regime going back on its promises, you can trust in Ozawa's having a plan - a crafty, opaque and unnecessarily infuriating plan -- but a plan, nevertheless.
He is that good at his game.
Later - For a historical perspective on Ozawa's mass pilgrimages to The Country At The Center Of The World, please check out Professor Joshua Fogel's charts of Nara and Heian Era embassies to the Tang and the Muromachi Era embassies to the Ming, brought to us by the the Japan history blog Frog in A Well.)
Thursday, November 26, 2009
If the leaders of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) feel misunderstood by the outside world, it is not because they are paranoid. The longstanding direct ties between analysts of Japan and what was, for this last decade, the only game in town, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) means there is distinct lack of an infrastructure of understanding. Tapping into the inner workings of the DPJ mind was until recently the interest only of an esoteric priesthood.
Unfortunately, part of the injuries to DPJ's global image are self-inflicted. The DPJ's leaders had little interest it seems in packaging the party message for the international marketplace. Since the party leaders were focused on winning elections at home, their lack of caring about the international image of the party is comprehensible. Had the party leadership cared about presenting the DPJ as being an alternative to the LDP, rather than the party in the default, take-it-or-leave-it position of being the alternative to the LDP, then the DPJ would certainly have produced a less ungainly and wooden translation of its manifesto.
The first problem with the translation is in the presentation. The English language manifesto is a barren, barely formatted PDF image document, its content uncopyable and unsearchable. The the Japanese version of the DPJ manifesto, is not just a jazzier pdf document, it can be navigated and searched. The use of formatting, bold and different size type also provides a visual architecture for the DPJ's policy statements.
The second problem is the translation itself. To be sure, the translation is not wrong in an ordinary sense. It supplies the numbers, the nouns and the basic concepts without major formal errors. However, the vocabulary and syntax in the translation gives little hint of the verve of the Japanese manifesto, where the language is at once wonderfully succinct and slyly supple.
Take, for example, the DPJ's statement on constitutionalism. For someone wanting to have an overall sense of the DPJ's philosophy of government, finding out what the party's attitude is toward the Constitution of Japan would be pretty important .
Unfortunately, this is not an easy task. First you have to find the statement - all alone on the last page of the official translation, as if it were some kind of postscript.
Then you have to wade through it. I have posted a jpeg image of the statement below. Please click on the image to see an expanded version. Come back when you have finished.
As a translation, the text is not unintelligible. But even when concentrating, is the average reader likely to discern what issues the DPJ is trying to address?
This is blasphemous -- because the original text is
1) a stubborn commitment to a literal interpretation of the Constitution - in defiance of past practices - and
2) a pledge to amend the Constitution should the people find that the current written text no longer acceptable - a promise the DPJ's predecessor never, ever managed to deliver upon even once.
Below is my first attempt at an unwinding of the Edwardian syntax and anachronisms of the official version so that the ideas and issues dear to the DPJ come into greater focus. There is also a conscious attempt to jolt some life into the text even at the cost of completeness...
Toward a Free and Freewheeling People's Debate over the Constitution
"That which those who are sovereign have determined shall play the fundamental role in the limitation of the exercise of state power" -- that is what a constitution is, in modern constitutional thought. It is not a set of moral precepts or duties that the people must fulfill -- nor is it a type of society or certain set of traditions or values that a particular Cabinet may consider important. The Democratic Party of Japan believes that the people support the principles of the Constitution of Japan as written -- namely, "popular sovereignty" "defense of fundamental human rights" and "pacifism"-- and that they do so with conviction. While taking great pains to uphold the Constitution, the DPJ feels nonetheless that it has a responsibility to offer amendments to the sections that are insufficient and revisions for those sections that are in need of revision. It shall do so from the point of view of working "together with the people" and with a sincere commitment to the theory of what a constitution is.
In the autumn of 2005, the DPJ released its "Proposals for the Constitution." Based upon this document, the party hopes to have free and freewheeling debate on the Constitution of Japan with the citizens in a variety of venues. We will continue to actively examine particular sections of the Constitution where a majority of citizens desire a revision -- and where a broad consensus for a revision could be achieved without friction in the Diet.
I have taken a few liberties with the sentence structure and vocabulary. I invite suggestions for improvement.
Nevertheless, I think that the above text does a better job in clarifying the DPJ's commitment to a doctrine of literalism, where the words in the Constitution are potent and mean what an average person of sound mind would understand them to mean.
A radical departure from past practice, in other words.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
For the past week the citizens of Japan have been the stunned witnesses of an unfamiliar phenomenon: a new regime addressing the excesses of its predecessor. In clockwork proceedings of subdued brutality, the grimly-named Government Revitalization Unit (GRU) has been reviewing the budgetary support of 447 programs, a fraction of the thicket of government supported programs that had proliferated over the fifty-four year rule of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). For those watching the live webcasts or the excerpts broadcast on nightly television, the proceedings have been the first solid evidence that the government is serious about bringing change to Japan. For the participants, particularly members of the elite central government bureaucracy, the proceedings have demonstrated their diminished horizons under Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).
The GRU proceedings are decidedly humble-looking affairs. The sessions are being held in a commandeered Tokyo gymnasium, with the three GRU working groups separated by temporary partitions. The commissioners and those summoned to testify sit on simple chairs at folding tables set up in an O arrangement, while the press and observers sit in ranks of chairs set up alongside. Should anyone wish to talk, he or she has to pick up an old style handheld microphone from the table.
Each GRU session is an hour long. It is half venture capital investment conference, half Stalinist show trial. Bureaucrats in charge of a government budget allocation or executives from non-profits explain as fast as they can what a program is doing and why it deserves continued funding. Experts from the Finance Ministry offer their assessments of the history of the government's support of the program. GRU commissioners then pepper the program's defenders with questions -- what progress the program has made toward its stated goals, which the private sector competitors fulfill the same function – anything to pick apart the funding request. The program's defenders quietly plead for understanding and more time; the commissioners cut them off. Just before the hour ends, the commissioners vote and the session chair announces its decision.
The GRU judgments so far have been stunning in their consistent negativity. Of the 244 budget requests reviewed during the first five days, 243 have been rejected. "Reapply with a new proposal," "No budget increases," "Reduce budget request," "Cease activity" have been the responses. Just one program has received the GRU's stamp of approval: a Health, Welfare and Labour Ministry fund supporting theater productions in the nation's after-school activity centers.
The GRU sessions have given the citizens a sense of the immense scale of the activities the government of Japan has been funding. The GRU's ludicrously large task of examining 447 programs – a task it is halfway to completing – represents only a fraction of the 3000 programs and funds now receiving central government support. Thanks to the 243 negative assessments, some 1.4 trillion yen (about $15 billion U.S. dollars) will be returning to the Finance Ministry for redistribution in the regular budget.
While the sessions have resulted in the elimination of funding for possibly valuable science programs (the lost funding for the national supercomputer program looks more and more likely to be restored) they have for the most part demonstrated to the public what the public had long suspected: that an immense amount of their tax yen was going to waste on frivolous or hopeless projects.
The sessions have also exposed just how poorly the nation's bureaucrats perform when they are asked to explain themselves. The defense of the funding requests has been at times lackadaisical, at other times obtuse. Some of the defenders have even made the mistake of questioning the commissioners' right to run the sessions as they see fit – a stunning display of petulance for persons who are essentially begging for mercy.
The poor quality of the defense has been particularly surprising given the direct threat the decisions pose to many current and former bureaucrats. Sitting bureaucrats of the Finance Ministry have been willing collaborators with the GRU commissioners as the Ministry has an institutionalized loathing of these funds and subsidies. For the officials of other ministries, the reduction of the budget allocations under a ministry's purview threatens that ministry's prestige and power. The non-profit organizations and institutions that have been the primary recipients of these ministry-administered funding are furthermore the major suppliers of amakudari ("descent from heaven") positions – sinecures for bureaucrats whose services are no longer needed by their ministry. Eliminating the government funding effectively eliminates the sinecures: without subsidy, non-profits do not have the means of paying the retired bureaucrats. Loss of subsidy also kills their motivation: the main reason why non-profits would hire retired bureaucrats was because the retirees could attract the funding.
Given that the judgments of the GRU pose threats to livelihoods and lifetime earnings, the lack of intensity and sincerity in defense has been striking. Some of those testifying have even laughed along with the commissioners at the ridiculousness of the programs they have been sent to explain. For the public watching the proceedings over the Web and in nightly news excerpts, this indifference has been the most galling revelation: that not even those with a potential to personally profit from these allocations think them fully defensible.
The big winner in the process so far has been the DPJ. The party promised the voters in August that a DPJ victory would bring radical change. Through the GRU sessions, the DPJ seems to be delivering it. Whether it is the change the country needs is another question: cutting back on current government spending programs is an unorthodox way of addressing the problems of a deflation-wracked economy performing far below its productive potential. Nevertheless, the GRU proceedings have reinforced the DPJ's image as the party that cares about how tax revenues get spent. For a citizenry exhausted by the weight of decades of iniquitous government spending, the sight of members of the bureaucracy and their dependents squirming is satisfaction enough.
Image: The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices. Shinjuku, Tokyo Metropolitan District. November 1, 2008. Image credit: MTC
Friday, November 20, 2009
The lucid and ferocious R. Taggart Murphy has published a pair of fine articles on the Japan-U.S. relationship and the current fiscal and currency situation that dispell a lot of the doom and gloom currently being peddled on these subjects.
I do not disagree with most of the points Murphy raises in his essays. Nevertheless, I find it hard to reconcile the one essay's view with the other. I cannot fully share Murphy's optimism:
The world does indeed underestimate the human capital and immense creativity to be found in the least corner of this blessed land...and yes, the political situation has grown more responsive and less cynical.
Of course Japan faces formidable problems, but the world has been underestimating the place for 150 years now and really shows no sign of learning from this history. Yes, many of Japan's savings have been wasted, yes, the birth strike by Japanese women is both understandable and worrisome, yes, we're in for some rough years particularly for an economy that has long relied on exports as its primary engine of growth. Those exports are unlikely to recover any time soon. But the levels of human capital here and the immense creativity of the population are still enviable. To be sure, the country has been poorly served by its leaders, but perhaps even that is changing.
At the same time, the United States has been the consumer of last resort for Japan's products, whether as direct exports, as components assembled in other Asian countries or as Japanese machine tools and equipment for assembly and production lines set up in other Asian economies. The collapse in the buying power of the U.S. consumer brought on by the U.S. housing crisis and economic slump poses a fundamental conundrum to Japan's economic planners. To date, they have not been up to providing a solution. The growing Chinese market is not a perfect substitute for the damaged American one. Having been hit hard by the global economic crisis and forced to undergo structural change right in the midst of it, Japan may have suffered one blow too many.
From what I see from the windows as wander the backcountry byways, I find myself asking whether or not the damage to the finances and collective psyche have been too great. Everywhere I see the signs of a gathering stasis -- the grass growing over collapsed houses; the commercial zones all shuttered on a Sunday afternoons; the silent factories, their corrugated metal walls peeling; great age of those working in the vegetable patches and rice paddies; the silent playgrounds...and I find myself all at once hearing the plaintive first few bars of U2's "Running to Stand Still" as the background track to the emptying landscape.
In part this is a natural progression for a country such as Japan.
However, even in the great cities the edges are less sharp. The trains seem to drift imperceptably off their schedules; the cracks and wrinkles appear more pronounced. Even as we are witnessing the flowering of a new revolutionary order, the thrill of August fades. There is a growing quiet outside, with local administration and social life growing more and more desperate, and an increasing doubt that the rescue mission has come in time.
* "Koke no musu made" is the final verse of the national anthem. Translated, it means "Until the moss covers it."
Image: Grimacing jizo statue. Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture. September 3, 2006. Image credit: MTC.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
And on the fourth day, they found something they liked.
Since November 11, the three working groups of the ominously named Government Revitalization Unit have been doling out brutal summary judgments on government-supported programs.
Freeze planned increase.
Yesterday, for the first time, one of the working groups came to a heretofore unheard of conclusion regarding the program it was examining:
Approved, as budgeted.
The winner of this first reprieve from the budgetary scythe?
The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labour's financial support of theater productions in the nation's child recreation centers (jidōkan).
The decision stunned Iki Noriko, the ministry official summoned to defend the program before the Unit. She stumbled away from the working group meeting area, her head bowed down toward the floor. As the camera crews and clots of journalists swarmed about her, she tried to apologize for her singular success:
"This is not what we expected..."
Image: Child kabuki production. Karasuyama, Tochigi Prefecture. July 25, 2009. Photo credit: MTC.
Friday, November 13, 2009
Would you like to hear some of the prize winners?
mirai no tame ni
For the futures
of all of us
the consumption tax
shakai o tsunagu
The consumption tax
tying together society
minna de osamete
let us pay them together
build the nation
Propaganda does not get much more precious than this...
...a bit of light-hearted counterpoint as 447 government-supported programs are being dragged out, one by one, to face Hatoyama's Stalinist-sounding Government Revitalization Unit* (Gyosei Sasshin Kaigi) in order to plead for continued support from out of the people's taxes.
Image: Prize-winning haiku in praise of taxes. Tokyo Metropolitan District. November 13, 2009. Image credit: MTC.
* This is the translation The Japan Times is using.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
"Hatoyama-san. I am sorry. I come without a fixed plan to reduce America's carbon emissions, thus abdicating my country's natural role as the leader in the fight against anthropogenic climate change, the greatest threat facing us all. I have no plan to free our countries from petroleum dependency, thus guaranteeing that we will continue to bankroll the petroleum tyrannies which have grown in number over the last decade, swallowing up once-promising elected democracies.
I come asking for your help in regards Iran and Afghanistan whilst saying in nothing in public about America's role in the creation of the problems posed by these states. I will not openly recognize the unfairness of pressing allies to help out in reining in Iran when it was the CIA that overthrew the elected government of Iran, installing a puppet monarch -- or in pacifying Afghanistan, when it was the U.S. that armed and arranged for the training of the anti-Soviet forces that were to transmogrify into Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
I am not going to apologize, of course, for my country's having seemingly learned nothing from Japan's real estate/equity markets bubble. I certainly will not apologize for Americans having harangued the Japanese government for failing to to prevent the Bubble or for not responding with proper speed and sufficient scale to stop an overall economic collapse. I will also not pay tribute to the Japanese policy makers who managed to keep unemployment in Japan low during the worst parts of the so-called Lost Decade when I and my team have allowed unemployment to soar past 10% in just one year.
I am also sorry that I will be making oblique, negative references to your proposition that Japan needs to relocate its central foreign policy axis to a point in between China and the United States without ever mentioning the shadow cast on U.S.-China relations by the immense store of U.S. Treasuries and other dollar assets China has piled up over the last six years, effectively bankrolling America's wars, tax cuts and fiscal profligacy.
As a Pacific islander, I should express a greater sympathy for the burdens placed by both your government and mine on the people of Okinawa. I will not say anything, however, that could annoy my military commanders or interfere with their schedules. "
"Dear Obama-san. I too am sorry.
I came into power without actually having thought through what my goals are. I do have a long list of things-to-do in my party's manifesto, much of which I have a real chance of enacting due to the immense parliamentary majority I enjoy. However, if you ask me what the five main goals are for my tenure, I would respond with a quintet of platitudes.
My country has a crashing birth rate, is deeply in debt and faces a rapidly growing army of retirees. I have no idea how to respond to these worsening problems. Enacting the policies listed my party's manifesto will likely exacerbate my country's already staggering fiscal crisis.
I will promise you all kinds of international economic contributions in lieu of sending Japanese into harm's way. There is no realistic means, however, for me to finance all of my pledges to you and keep my promises to my voters. You do not need to guess who it is I will shortchange.
As the father myself and in honor of your two young daughters, I should pledge that Japan will do its utmost to join with the international community in wiping out the twin scourges of child pornography and child abduction. I will offer vague promises of action, maybe.
You have come so far and I have nothing of substance to give you. I wish that I could tell you that will be around for a long time, so you can rely on me to make up later for having nothing for you now. However, I hired an idiot as the accountant for my political funding organization, who then engaged in activities that I have, in Diet session, said look criminal to me. Given Japanese law I am likely to lose my premiership and might even be forced to give up my Diet seat."
"We should apologize to both our peoples for pretending that there is much of anything we can do about the threat posed by North Korea except engaging in humiliating and pointless on-off negotiations, continuously refining missile defense and maintaining the threat of a nuclear attack on North Korea, should the least thing happen to Japan."
"We should. But we won't, will we?"
"No, because saying so would expose the inconsistency between our stated faith in dialogue, our wishes for a world free of nuclear weapons and our peoples' desires for closure -- and the dogged presence in North Korea of a dirt-poor regime insensitive to anything but the threat of ultimate annihilation."
"But surely the people of our countries can understand the necessity of being inconsistent?"
"Yours probably can but not mine."
Image: Kohauchiwa kaede (Acer sieboldianum) and kuromatsu (Pinus thunbergii) on Mutsuishiyama, Okutama Township, Tokyo Metropolitan District. November 3, 2007. Image credit: MTC.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Oh my! According to Kyodo News:
Ozawa lashes out with scathing remarks on ChristianityWhere to begin? Not with "Islamism" for sure, whatever that might be.
The Japan Times
Ichiro Ozawa, secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan criticized Christianity on Tuesday, saying the religion is "exclusive and self-righteous" and that Western society is "stuck in a dead end."
Ozawa also said "Islamism is also exclusive, although it's somewhat better than Christianity" regarding exclusiveness.
The comments will no doubt cause a stir as he is the most influential figure in the ruling party.
He made the comments to reporters after meeting with Yukei Matsunaga, chairman of the Japan Buddhist Federation, a body of 102 Buddhist sects and groups, in Koyacho, Wakayama Prefecture.
Christianity "is an exclusive, self-righteous religion. Western society, whose background is Christianity, has been stuck in a dead end," Ozawa said.
I doubt that Ozawa is expressing anything resembling his views of Christianity. Ozawa's nonsense jawing is about votes -- lots of them -- and a personal vendetta.
Yesterday Ozawa was paying his first visit ever to Koyasan. His host was Koyasan's lead abbot and thus the symbolic head of the Shingon tradition in Japan. In addition, the gentleman in question is the chairman of the Japan Buddhist Federation (Zen Nihon Bukkyokai).
How likely is it that Ozawa, having arranged this unprecendented meeting, would not try to butter up his host with a passel of pro-Buddhist rigamarole?
For the more political psychology minded, Koyasan is located in Wakayama District #3 - the electoral district of Nikai Toshihiro, once Ozawa's most trusted lieutenant. Nikai parted ways with Ozawa and rejoined the Liberal Democratic Party after Ozawa forced the break up the LDP-Liberal-New Komeito coalition in 2000.
Nikai is the only remaining LDP House of Representatives member from Wakayama. He won reelection with the open support of the New Komeito -- a very interesting choice on Nikai's part. Acceptance of New Komeito support means a willingness to be seen as being beholden to the apostate lay Buddhist Soka Gakkai -- the public enemy #1 of most mainstream Buddhist sects.
From Ozawa's point of view, a short jaunt to Koyasan offers the opportunity to lure Shingon tradition voters disappointed with Nikai to the pull the lever for the DPJ in the 2010 House of Councillors election. Both of the current members of the House of Councillors for Wakayama are from the LDP and the DPJ would certainly love to walk away with one of those seats next July.
Of course, these political considerations were the furthest thing from Ozawa's mind yesterday. As he told gathered reporters, "I did not come here in an elections effort. I paid reverence and now my heart is cleansed."
Duplicity -- is it in his very nature or did he learn it from past masters?
Now as for whether or not Ozawa's remarks on Christianity were "scathing" might depend a lot on what he actually said - and what one believes "scathing" means.
Ozawa referred to both Christianity and Islam as being haitateki ( 排他的 ) meaning "rejectionist of other beliefs" -- which Kyodo News has rendered as "exclusive" -- as opposed to Buddhism, which he posits as exhibiting a greater inclusiveness.
Is this, in fact, wrong? Also, is it such a peculiar thought to express, coming out of a meeting with the chairman of an organization linking 102 different different Buddhist congregations?
As for Ozawa's accusation of Christianity's being dokuzenteki ( 独善的 ) I am not confident that it has same resonances as "self-righteous." In literal terms, dokuzenteki means "the sense that one's own way alone is good." Is "good" the same as "right" in this instance?
Now as for the "dead-end" quote, the Asahi Shimbun quotes Ozawa as saying:
「排他的なキリスト教を背景とした文明は今、欧米社会の行き詰まっている姿そのものだ。」This Kyodo translates as saying, "Western society, whose background is Christianity, has been stuck in a dead end."
When I translate all of what Ozawa said, however, including the vital sugata sono mono da ending, I find Ozawa delivering a somewhat different message:
"As for the civilization that has as its background this exclusionist religion of Christianity, right now its manifestation is this Euro-American society that is hitting a wall."Ozawa is still being dismissive of Christian civilization but on the grounds that its (purported) triumphalism is not backed up by proofs of its excellence.
Now as to the question whether Euro-American society is a manifestation of Christian civilization - that is beyond the boundaries of my bailiwick.
I would have to chalk up the somewhat overwrought article as an attempt drum up international interest in the never-out-of-style "Ozawa is evil" line when the real story -- Ozawa Ichiro will say anything when pandering in the hopes of winning votes -- is not news at all.
Note on sourcing: I do not normally quote articles at length out of respect for copyright. The Japan Times, however, scrubs its archives so quickly one cannot follow normal linking protocols to material presented on their site.
Image: Head of the Amida Nyorai statue in the Kotokuin, Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture. November 8, 2009. Photo credit: MTC.
Friday, November 06, 2009
When President Barack Obama visits Japan on November 12-13, he will be accompanied by a brigade of assistants with many years of experience dealing with Japanese officials, academics, business executives and journalists. The president will likely review briefing papers that explain with clarity and without bias Japan’s current political and economic situation. He may even skim through a book or two, seeking further insight into a frustrating and fascinating ally.
All of which will likely leave President Obama still unable to answer a simple question: just what exactly is he supposed to do while he is in Japan?
He could, of course, try to just sleepwalk through the visit, restricing himself to a self-limited and self-limiting series of mannered gestures:
- pay tribute to the Japan-U.S. security alliance
- thank Japan for its civilian contributions to global peace and security
- promote Japan's and America's common vision for trade and economic development in the Asia-Pacific region.
Facts on the ground, however, are inconvenient things, and not supportive of a business-as-usual approach. The new, Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)-led government has serious reservations about many agreements underpinning the Japan-U.S. security alliance, including the long-standing agreement to close the Futenma Marine Air Station. Japan's contributions to global peace and security, while substantial, have been shrinking, with the world's second largest economy and longtime #1 official development assistance (ODA) donor now only fifth in the world in terms of the aid it gives other countries. As for a common vision, Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio has pursued multilateral trade initiatives and international economic frameworks that exclude the United States (at least for now) whilst leaving hanging in the air some rather flowery rhetoric about Japan needing to distance itself from the United States.
Departing from the script and confronting the new reality in Japan would be the preferable course for President Obama to follow. Doing so would require Mr. Obama would need to know what the new reality is – and what status, if any, he holds within it.
The answers to those questions are not likely please U.S. government ears.
He is a distraction – Mr. Obama arrives in Japan as the DPJ-led government enters its second month in existence and just days after the opening of the first non-Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-dominated House of Representatives session in over a half-century. There is too much in flux everywhere – in the Diet, in the ministries, in the prefectures, in the parties – for anyone to put aside what he or she is doing to play host to a VIP. All of the different parts of Japan's systems of governance are renegotiating their positions and responsibilities vis-à-vis one another. In this charged and uncertain atmosphere, the arrival of even such a historical, important and charismatic figure as President Obama becomes an unwelcome complication. This is especially true for the official host of the visit, Prime Minister Hatoyama, who is trying to bring up to speed an untested and revolutionary form of government whilst keeping the political freelancing of his allies Ozawa Ichiro and Kamei Shizuka to a minimum, all the while avoiding being drummed from office by whatever accounting shenanigans prosecutors and the LDP might find in his political fundraising records.
This is nothing, however, compared to...
A deal is not necessarily a deal – Prior even to the fraught visit of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Japan, when the differences in the views between the governments of Japan and the U.S. on the validity of certain agreements became manifest, U.S. government officials were promoting the concept that bilateral agreements signed prior to the August 30 elections were commitments between national governments and thus not open to renegotiation.
This assertion betrays an ignorance, willful or innocent, of Japan's political history, and a contempt for the Japanese people's judgment. From 1955, the year the LDP was founded, until the August 30th election, the LDP had held a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives Except for a brief 10 month period in 1993-94, when a fragile anti-LDP coalition government held sway, the LDP was the party of government over that time. So institutionalized was the LDP's hold on power that Japan was described as being ruled by "the 1955 system." And it was a system, with the LDP in charge of everything from the Cabinet, to the prefectural governments, to the neighborhood assemblies of the tiniest mountain hamlets.
All ruling parties have natural advantages over challengers. By virtue of their control of government they control budgets and regulations. They also control the political agenda, thereby putting the initiatives of their supporters front and center.
What was miraculous about LDP was its ability to persevere despite overwhelming evidence of its failure to properly manage the country or even itself. No embarrassment -- the exposure of massive, corruption permeating the party; the twenty-year long collapse and stagnation of Japan's economy; a series of uninspiring, short-term leaders (including, it its final, desperate years, a trio of prime ministers who failed to complete even a year in office) – could topple its from its perch.
The cause of LDP's magical invincibility was not all that mysterious: the Japanese electoral system was crippled. The Constitution of Japan lacked a mechanism for reapportionment of electoral districts. Japan's Supreme Court lacked the intestinal fortitude to create robust alternative mechanisms on its own, or to enforce fairness in political campaigns. Thus as an 80% rural agrarian society transformed itself into an 80% urban society the number of Representatives from rural constituencies remained fixed and peculiar 1950s era electoral rules metastasized (every election is followed by the arrest of dozens of candidates and election workers for what in most countries are normal political activities) to the advantage of incumbents.
Under the frozen system, elections increasingly became vote auctions, where small numbers of super-empowered marginal voters were bought off with regulatory protection, budget outlays and government contracts. The LDP thrived by exploiting and encouraging the proliferation of structural iniquities, shamelessly and openly, for decades.
Even after some basic electoral reforms were enacted in the early 1990s, the LDP kept its grip on power, though it had to employ increasingly opportunistic methods in order to do so. First it formed a chimeric coalition government with its arch-enemies, the Socialists. Then it selected a president (the long-serving Koizumi Jun'ichiro ) whose main campaign pledge was a promise to smash his own party. The LDP hung on though the last three years and three prime ministers in the most pathetic manner of all: by refusing to call an election.
Now in international law there is the concept of "odious debt" – of national debts incurred by an oppressive regime that a successor regime has the right to refuse to pay. It is a rarely invoked concept – international bankers, not surprisingly, do not think highly of it – but it rests upon a sound principle: that the people, once the yoke of an oppressor has been thrown off, should not be forced to make good on debts incurred by the oppressive regime.
Given the decades the LDP clung to power and the manner by which it managed to do so, it is not difficult to understand that many in the present coalition government consider a whole host of the Japanese government's obligations to be "odious" ones – obligations that they should be allowed to examine to ascertain whether or not they really are in the national interest, and if they determine that they are not, should be able to repudiate.
The agreement to transfer Marine Corps elements from the Futenma Airbase to Henoko is seen, along with the Yamba Dam project, to be the ultimate expression of an odious obligation. It was an LDP solution to an LDP problem: keep American bases off the main islands (even though the amphibious ready unit, the ships the Marines are supposed to ride on, are homeported in Sasebo and the Marine fighter jets are housed at Iwakuni); keep the Okinawans down and quiet; and keep visiting Americans alternately enchanted and frustrated by disingenuous reports of progress toward the goal, which somehow had to along the way destroy vital dugong habitat. As the Prime Minister and others in the DPJ point out, not even 12 years of LDP governments could bring the Futenma transfer to fruition. That he and his party should be condemned for not imposing an arrangement they oppose on a population that does not want it baffles them. That the United States government continues to insist that they do so exasperates them.
So what is President Obama going to do? Does he simulate understanding for the new government's positions, and in so doing infuriate American defense planners who want Japan to get moving on Futenma and doing more in Afghanistan? Does he lecture from the mountaintop, telling the Japanese he meets what is in their best interest, as if they cannot figure it out themselves? Does he look thoughtful and say nothing, even as the press is yelping, and wish silently he were already in China?
A tricky little trip, this will be.
Friday, October 30, 2009
In remarks dedicated to encourage those whose lives have been cast into turmoil by the project's cancellation, Tanigaki offered a string of sympathetic bromides, blissful in their lack of self-awareness.
"They have absolutely not listened to the locals," he said.
"I want them to understand the feelings of those who had their homes moved for the dam," he said.
"It is extremely regrettable that the decision was announced with prior consultation," he said.
"There is a history here and facts as to how we came to this point. If the dam is lost, there is a question of drawing the picture of how the people here will rebuild their lives," he said.
The people of the valley had opposed the construction of the dam for decades. They had fought desperately for their traditional way of life, knowing full well they would lose everything under the dam's waters. Decisions about their futures were made far away, in Tokyo, without the input of the locals.
These events were not part of a hidden history. The whole debacle was amply covered by the press over and over. Indeed, it was the vociferous opposition of the local populace at the outset and the eventually gargantuan price tag required to buy off the locals that won Yamba the notoriety making it worthy of inclusion in the DPJ’s party manifesto -- as a project the party promised it would single out for elimination.
Yet it is only now, 50 years into the project, that the president of the LDP, the party that has been in power over those 50 years, feels outrage at a government failing to pay heed to the opinions of those living at the dam site.
Only a miracle must have prevented attending members of the press from falling over in fits of giggles.
These mist covered mountains
Are a home now for me
But my home is the lowlands
And always will be
Some day you'll return to
Your valleys and your farms
And you'll no longer burn
To be brothers in arms...
- Mark Knopfler, "Brothers in Arms"
Had Tanigaki-san had kept his mouth shut prior to and during his tour of the construction site --and thus avoided exposing the glaring contradiction between his personal concern for local opinion and his party's 50 year history of overriding it – the visit to the site would still have served notice of the hopeless political situation of the LDP.
In order to make a splash in the news, the president of the LDP had to travel deep into the spine of mountains, far from the nation's population centers, to a prefecture that is an LDP stronghold, demanding the revival of an LDP pet project.
Seemingly no one explained to Tanigaki-san that his party has already secured the votes of the construction-addicted mountain voters -- every single pro-Yamba Dam vote -- and his party still got completely wiped out in both the district and party elections.
Did no one point out to the party president that there are no new votes to be won out there?
Unfortunately "out there" is all the LDP has anymore. Like a guerilla army, the political writ of the LDP is restricted to the remotest, interior mountainous districts of the country. The party holds on to a few urban and suburban districts -- but these are islands surrounded by DPJ seas.
As for a return to the lowlands, last Sunday's by-elections for vacant seats in House of Councillors in Shizuoka and Kanagawa made clear that that eventuality may come about only if the LDP gives up and disarms. Even with miserably low voter turnouts – a once key factor the perpetuation of the LDP's dominance -- the results humiliated the party's candidates and its leaders. With fewer than 36% of the voters showing up in Shizuoka Prefecture, the DPJ-backed candidate thumped his LDP challenger by 160,000 votes. In the Kanagawa election, where the voter turnout was below 26%, the DPJ candidate buried his LDP rival by over 200,000 votes...and that was with the Communist Party running own candidates in both elections, siphoning off 90,000 and 230,000 progressive votes in the prefectures, respectively.
So much for popular appeal of the new, softer, more approachable, more humane LDP, as supposedly typified by Tanigaki.
So what are the portents for next year's House of Councillors elections, when the LDP will try to prevent the ruling coalition from seizing an unqualified majority of the seats in Diet's upper house? In elections run on exactly the same format - that is to say on a prefecture wide basis?
Terrible. Pitiable. Hopeless.
The LDP's partner in opposition, the New Komeitō, issued no instructions to its voters in Shizuoka and Kanagawa. In effect, New Komeitō party central did not support the LDP's candidates. Since in a very rough calculation New Komeitō voters provide about 25% of current LDP support in district elections, the lack of guidance essentially made the LDP's defeats foregone conclusions.
With the LDP out of power and thus unable to deliver any policy goodies to the New Komeitō in the Diet, how likely is it the New Komeitō leadership will issue orders to its supporters to plump down for the LDP district candidate in July next year?
When, it must be pointed out, the overmatched Tanigaki will almost certainly still be the LDP's standard bearer?
Photo of Tanigaki Sadakazu courtesy of Shikoku News.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Kamei has done the government's dirty work in getting rid of Nishikawa. It was not a terribly difficult task: Nishikawa was already one of the walking dead after the details of the botched privatizations of the chain of Kampō no Yado inns came to light. When the Democratic Party of Japan prevailed in the August 30 elections, the promise to the coalition partner People's National Party to end postal privatization came due. Kamei, the sworn foe of postal privatization, was made minister in charge of postal reform -- a fine Orwellian title meaning of course the minister in charge of halting postal reform.
Since the election and the appointment of the new Cabinet, Nishikawa has been reduced to waiting for the chop. Actually getting rid of Nishikawa, however, carried political risks. He was an appointee of former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun'ichirō, who had thrown the political world into turmoil over the issue of privatization of the post office. After expelling Kamei and his allies from the Liberal Democratic Party for their opposition to privatization, Koizumi led the LDP to a stunning victory in the 2005 House of Representatives election. The public, which was lukewarm to privatization initially, came to strongly support it.
Sacking Nishikawa, wounded as he was by the Kampō no Yado affair, carried the risk of being perceived as a repudiation of the judgment of the voters in 2005. Drafting Kamei into service as Nishikawa's executioner offered an opportunity of containing potential blowback. Blame for backtracking on reform could be assigned to Kamei's own private animus toward postal privatization.
Only a sense of his own indispensability or an overwhelming nihilism, however, can explain Kamei's decision to name Saitō as Nishikawa's replacement. Saitō was the top bureaucrat in Japan's least loved and most feared ministry, and was forced into early retirement by reports of his subordinates being wined and dined by real estate speculators.
A poster boy, in other words, for everything the DPJ is supposedly against.
Even the usually less-than-astute LDP president Tanigaki Sadakazu could not help but find a glaring contradiction:
"How does this (appointment) square with opposition to the appointment of a former old boy of the Finance Ministry to be the head of the Bank of Japan?"From very first days of Kamei's tenure in his appointed posts it has been clear that he does not care a fig about the country's fiscal and financial health. Nor does he seem to care about injuring the reputation of the coalition. Rather than respect the fundamental economic truth that every decision implies tradeoffs, he has gone for the irresponsible, easy score every time, shrugging off every opposing voice as "ignorant."
In nominating Saitō, however, he has walked out to the edge of the plank. Prime Minister Hatoyama probably still hates to think that his first big decision will be to undo the coalition government that he inaugurated to much fanfare only a month ago. However, he scarcely needs the PNP's votes anymore and Kamei has made himself not just a distraction but a weeping sore in the side of the goverment from day one.
Tick tock. Tick tock. Tick tock.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
It had been three years and two months since a president of the LDP had paid a visit to Yasukuni...that LDP president being none other than the celebrated Mr. K.
Abe Shinzō did not go to Yasukuni while in office.
Neither did Fukuda Yasuo nor Asō Tarō.
Tanigaki...a lover of Chinese poetry...whose grandfather Major General Kagesa Sadaaki had been pulled out of China and planted on Rabaul by order of Tōjo Hideki for being too solicitous of the Chinese...
It was grim viewing
In the first segment, six governors of the Kantō Plain are (the governors of Gunma, Tochigi, Saitama, Ibaraki and Chiba Prefectures and the Tokyo Metropolitan District) paid a visit the site of Gunma Prefecture's miserable Yamba Dam project, demanding in a photogenic way that the project be continued. Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintarō, taking his loss in Olympic vote out as he should -- that is to say upon the citizens -- served as the spokesman of the spitting mad half dozen. NHK should have perhaps mentioned the backgrounds of the sextet but it did not.
So let us see.
Ōzawa Masaaki, Gunma, the aggrieved prefecture - member of the LDP running an LDP stronghold. In addition, the Ōzawa family business is a construction company.
Ishihara Shintarō, Tokyo - shock author, right wing celebrity, member of the Diet for the LDP for 25 years.
Morita Kensaku, Chiba - actor and celebrity. Originally elected to the Diet as an independent with leftwing support. Joined the LDP in 1994. Member of the Diet for the LDP until 2003. Elected governor of Chiba in 2009 with LDP support.
Ueda Kiyoshi, Saitama - former member of the Diet for the Democratic Party of Japan, but as a part of the DPJ's now extinct nationalist right wing. In his last run for governor he received official support from only the LDP and the New Komeitō, though DPJ friends did campaign work for him.
Hashimoto Masaru, Ibaraki - former central government bureaucrat in the Ministry of Home Affairs. First elected with broad center-left support. In most recent reelection (for his fifth consecutive term) received official support of only the LDP and the New Komeitō
Fukuda Tomikazu, Tochigi - former bureaucrat in Tochigi Prefecture's construction bureau. Resigned to become a private contractor in the construction business. Elected governor with official support of the LDP and the New Komeitō.
I think that the point is made.
In the second segment was a long video essay on the attempts of political appointees to take charge of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC). The editors of the segment clearly felt sympathy with the politicians, selecting the video clips where the bureaucrats appeared to be either stone-faced organization men or grinning sycophants.
The segment revealed the bureaucracy's entirely predictable response to DPJ's demands for control of the Ministry: the bureaucrats give it to them. All of it. The right and responsibility to make a decision about every single, painfully obvious item in the budget.
Last night's report followed the very young parliamentary secretary Ogawa Junya, himself a former MIC bureaucrat, from his first day when he boldly tells the assembled grim top echelons of the ministry "Bureau chiefs and directors, staying around in the office means nothing to me. If you stay late on the job, I will not value your effort!" to the point a few weeks later when he is driven over the edge of exhaustion by his former superiors as they seem to be unable to make even the most basic of decisions by themselves.
If Kan Naoto does not get his Strategy Office up and running soon -- and through it provide a template against which the political appointees can measure the significance or insignificance of the decisions they are being asked to make -- then it will be difficult to keep some bureaucrats from eating the political appointees alive.
Monday, October 19, 2009
He even gets one commentator to say the magic word (hint: it starts with an "r").
The long-awaited assault on the parasite ministries has only just begun.
Friday, October 16, 2009
Friday, October 09, 2009
In just three short weeks, he has:
- accused the Nippon Keidanren and its members of pushing up Japan's rate of murder-suicides (a Japanese report with the PM's reaction is here).
- undermined the perceived independence of the Bank of Japan but suggesting that its stated intent to find an exit from extraordinary purchases in the commercial paper market represent the BOJ's "talking in its sleep" (Japanese report here).
- fought an open turf war with Minister of Internal Affairs and Telecommunications Haraguchi Kazuhiro over the privatization of the Post Office (in Japanese here)
- blown the minds of financial writers everywhere by suggesting a moratorium on the payments of bank loans taken out by small- and medium-sized corporations -- with the possibility of extending the moratorium to household mortgages .
This last proposal raises the prospect that the Government of Japan, itself an immensely indebted institution, will be forcing Japan's relatively healthy banks to go on a starvation diet.
The proposal has predictably sent financial writers into a tizzy. For a start, the government's chief administrator of the financial system seems to be undoing a decade's worth of work stabilizing the financial system...not to mention turning common notions of finance, economics and property law on their heads.
Some have attributed the seeming inability of anyone, even the Prime Minister, to rein in Kamei's wayward tongue to the government's still being wet behind the ears in terms of its decision making structures. Kamei himself seemingly believes in his own indispensibility, that the prime minister will not ask him for his resignation because the PM cannot bear the loss of People's New Party votes in the House of Councillors. Kamei indeed has taunted the prime minister, telling TV Asahi that if the PM disagrees what his Financial Services minister is saying, he should can him. To dig the knife in even further, Kamei suggested that the PM has nothing to complain about, since Kamei's debt moratorium proposal is merely putting into practice the PM's stated philosophy of an economy based on "fraternity" (yūai) rather than free market principles.
Before running around in circles panicking at the Hatoyama Administration's seeming inability to punish insubordination by a member of the Cabinet, one should keep a few points in mind:
He's probably right - Kamei Shizuka may be offering some rather unorthodox proposals about how to manage a financial system -- but then, Japan has a pretty unorthodox financial system. The banks, having been burned by their own incapacity to write down their bad loans during the 1990s and the searing restructuring finally forced upon them by Gomi Hirofumi and Koizumi Administration, are paranoid about creating new non-performing loans. In the current downturn they have been reluctant to lend and perhaps a little to eager to squeeze collateral from out of bankrupts. A moratorium on repayment would, in this environment, is equivalent to a temporary increase in lending, but one with no need for risk analysis.
Kamei's criticism of the Bank of Japan's announcement on commercial paper is probably spot on. When the world economy is showing only the first hints of restabilization, the inflation rate is negative and when the fiscal stimulus plan is in flux due to the change in ruling parties, the BOJ has no business announcing a pullout from extraordinary support measures. That Finance Minister Fujii Haruhisa is echoing Kamei's criticisms indicates they have a sound basis in theory and practice.
As for Kamei's views on suicide-murders, he may have a point...maybe. The suicide rate this blessed land was puttering along well under 20 per 100,000 population per year until the 1998, when it jumped to more than 25 per thousand, where it has stayed pretty much every year since. 1998 was the year of the Takushoku Bank and Yamaichi Securities failures, when the government of Japan began to subject the banking system and by extension borrowers to the more severe judgments of the markets.
It's possibly all just a show - Kamei has ordered his vice minister and his deputy to draw up enabling legislation for the moratorium. A proposal is due tonight. In the drafts being discussed, however, the term of the moratorium has been trimmed down from three years to one, with only an option for extension to three years. According to reports, implementation would be on a per institution basis, with the go-ahead on a bank's moratorium depending upon the soundness of the bank's capital. It would also be voluntary, with the borrower applying for the freeze on payments -- which would mean the borrower would be putting everyone on notice that he has a structural inability to make his payments. For those with a resonable business plan that only needs a little more time to come to fruition this might be a reasonable course of action. For others, however, applying for relief would be tantamount to declaring oneself a huge credit and counterparty risk.
Not exactly an attractive proposition.
Ozawa is on the case - Kamei's People's New Party provide the ruling coalition with five crucial votes in the House of Councillors. Together with the five votes of the Socialists and the one vote of the Japan New Party, the DPJ along with its conjoined twin the Shinfūryokukai, controls 123 votes in the 240 seat (2 seats are currently vacant, with by-elections pending) chamber.
Without the PNP's 5 votes, the coalition remains three votes shy of a majority in the House.
On Wednesday, however, DPJ Secretary-General Ozawa Ichirō had an all smiles meeting with four independent members of the House of Councillors, whom he invited -- and whom seem eager -- to join the DPJ.
If and when the four independents join the DPJ and assuming that the peculiar beast that is the Shinfūryokukai does not lose its collective mind, then the government will be able to survive a loss of the PNP's support.
At which point the threat value and significance of Kamei's blustery talk will fall further and faster than the U.S. dollar.
Wednesday, October 07, 2009
As, I suppose, they were designed to do.
Would it not be ironic that in the aftermath of the defeat of the Liberal Democratic Party, whose passionate intertwining with the construction sector led to the birthing of uncounted thousands of public works projects costing uncountable trillions of yen transforming Japan into a fortress against nature, leading to the party's being shackled to reputation of environmental and fiscal nihilism -- that the purportedly wasteful and pointless flood-control and wave-action defenses actually turned out to be crucial to beat back rising seas and supertyphoons?
That Japan, courtesy the LDP, would turn out to be the only country prepared for the consequences of climate change?
Tuesday, October 06, 2009
A leisurely, happy morning.
Suddenly, with about 5 minutes remaining before the hour, the program was interrupted by the news flash: former Finance Minister Nakagawa Shōichi had been found dead in his Setagaya home.
The participants were a bit taken aback. However, with the prodding of the announcer, they got back to their discussion, and in the final seconds, were even laughing at a witticism.
It was a sorry, sad failure of propriety...but what could the guests do? Since they were talking about the economy, they would have to bring up the point that Nakagawa was the former finance minister...and the last thing anyone wanted to remind viewers (or in my case, listeners) of his great humiliation.
And then, with Nakagawa only 56 years of age, an alcoholic and the son of suicide, the inevitable first thought was that he had died at his own hand.
What could they do, in the circumstances? What would I do?
I hesitated to turn on the laptop, to type out some message or brief blog post. The day was already getting late, however...and I really did not have much to say more than what I had said in Reflections on these Men Broken.
So I too just let it go.
A man has died, one became at one point the butt of jokes around the world. He worked his way up to the position of Finance Minister despite being seriously ill for much of his adult life. In terms of his inner world, he likely suffered greatly, his personality not suited for the responsibilities thrust upon him.
We should be careful to not go overboard in self laceration or attributions of possible merit, however. While it is right to feel sympathy for the sick man and his family members, we should not lose sight of the twisted system in which Nakagawa Shōichi operated and which he did too little to change.
Like so many of the LDP leaders in its years of precipitous decline, Nakagawa was born, as they say in the United States, "on third base, thinking he had just hit a triple." He was the son of a powerful LDP politician who, in meeting his end at the age of 57, gave Shōichi an early start on his climb up the political ladder. Keizō Obuchi's and Ryutarō Hashimoto's fathers also died prematurely – making it possible for these two men to amass sufficient seniority to become prime ministers at the ages of 58 and 61, respectively. Obuchi's Keizō death in office in turn opened the door for his daughter Yūko to become the youngest minister in history.
Nakagawa and his fellow hereditary politicians had an immense head start on their countrymen.
In terms of his politics, Nakagawa may have just happened to be at the right place at the right time. A staunch, dogmatic nationalist, he would have been anti-mainstream in the late 60s, the 70s and the 80s. However, after the march of Japan's economic prowess had come to a shuddering halt, leaving many citizens groping for answers on how to better their lives, he and his fellow hardliners found themselves aboard an escalator to high office.
(I must credit Tobias Harris for suggesting that the relationship between the economic slump and the rise of the nationalist right was serendipitous, not determined. The bursting of the Bubble did not compel a rise of nationalist feelings among the citizens. It merely blew open a hole in the national narrative into which fantabulist nationalism could insinuate itself.)
As Okumura Jun has noted on numerous occasions, Nakagawa was a sight better than his most of peers in the brains department. Yes, but then his peers....well...
We can recognize that Nakagawa Shōichi rose to the highest positions in political life. We can also be candid and admit that he did so within an institutionalized, hereditary, exclusive, seniority-based, hierarchical structure that, because it was charged with the rule of a democratic country, also had to be corrupt.
Was he a prisoner of heredity and social expectations? No doubt.
Had he been wiser or perhaps luckier in his choices of friends and mentors, though, he might have liberated himself.
Resquiescat in Pacem.