AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Archive for April, 2008

Was Japan’s Lizzie Borden lucky?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 29, 2008

POLICE BLOTTER CASES seldom get covered on this site, but yesterday’s verdict in a Tokyo murder trial brings up some aspects of the criminal justice system that the Japanese media don’t seem to be addressing.

Here are the facts, in brief:

Mihashi Kaori
Shortly after getting married in March 2003, Mihashi Yusuke, an employee of a securities firm, began beating his wife. The beatings were severe enough that she was admitted to a shelter for domestic violence victims with a broken nose and a bruised face in June 2006. She returned to her husband a month later.

Mihashi Kaori (photo) eventually asked for a divorce, but her husband refused to grant one on her terms. Her lawyers also allege that Mr. Mihashi had taken nude photographs of his wife and threatened to make them public if she insisted on a divorce.

On 12 December 2006, Mrs. Mihashi killed her husband by hitting him in the head with a wine bottle when he was asleep. The evidence showed that she kept whacking him in the head with the bottle just to make sure–an autopsy revealed 10 separate head wounds. She then used a saw to cut his body into five pieces in their Shibuya apartment and hid the pieces in Tokyo.

Mrs. Mihashi was given a psychiatric evaluation by two doctors, one selected by the defense attorneys and the other selected by the prosecutors. In their judgment, the defendant was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and therefore not criminally responsible for her acts.

Presiding Judge Kawamoto Masaya did not agree, however. Here’s what he said:

Her husband physically abused her soon after they were married, and she began hallucinating. The content of the psychiatric evaluation is reliable…it can be said that her married life was a (living) hell, she felt despair, and on the spur of the moment, she was seized by a homicidal intent. Her psychiatric problems, however, did not create a problem with her capacity to assume responsibility (for her act).

He continued:

She was fully capable of understanding her responsibility. She committed a brutal act by persistently and repeatedly striking her husband in the head, cutting his body into five pieces, and disposing of it. She also trampled on the emotions of her husband’s parents, who were concerned about the safety of their son, by sending them an e-mail that led them to believe he was alive.

Mrs. Mihashi impersonated her husband and sent a text message to her father-in-law on his cell phone telling him not to worry for the recent lack of communication.

The judge also said:

Her motive for murder is understandable, but she repeatedly took several rational steps to conceal what she had done and prevent the discovery (of the crime). These included buying a saw, cutting up the body, and disposing of it.

Cultural note: Cutting up a body and disposing of it is a crime in Japan, and Mrs. Mihashi was charged with that offense in addition to murder.

Judge Kawasaki sentenced her to 15 years in jail. The prosecutors asked for 20, and they’re not certain yet whether they will appeal for a longer sentence.

Mrs. Mihashi’s defense attorney was not pleased:

This contravenes the Supreme Court ruling that psychiatric evaluations of a defendant’s competency should be respected, and is (therefore) unfair.

When asked whether she would file an appeal, he said:

I think she should, but (Mrs. Mihashi) has said she will not appeal. I’ll discuss it with her again.

Mihashi Yusuke’s parents, however, claim that their son was not a wife-beater. They also complained about media coverage of the case that they thought focused excessively on their son’s behavior. (Sound familiar?)

All the information available to us is second- or third-hand, filtered through the media and its infotainment agenda, so it’s impossible for any of us to have an informed opinion. That’s not the reason I bring up the case here, however.

In May 2009–little more than a year from now–Japan’s legal system will undergo a revolution. Trials are currently adjudicated by a panel consisting of three judges. Starting next year, that panel will be expanded to include six citizen judges serving on a case-by-case basis. The presiding judge will be responsible for determining the sentence.

Decisions will be made by majority vote, so citizens can overrule the judges. The judges will be able to overrule the citizens only when all six citizens vote to convict and all three judges vote not guilty. (Here’s a previous post about this with plenty of links.)

Yesterday’s verdict makes me wonder:

  • Would the citizens be more likely to accept the psychiatric evaluation in Mrs. Mihashi’s case than were the judges?
  • Would a citizen panel with more women than men tend to sympathize with defendants such as Mrs. Mihashi? How would a citizen panel with more men behave?

The Japanese public supports the death penalty by an overwhelming margin. (Surveys usually find support to be more than 70%; the previous post on the judicial system links to an article citing a survey showing 80% support.)

  • Would a citizen panel that voted to convict a defendant of murder push the judges to impose a sentence tougher than 15 years? Will the change in the system lead to more executions?

The Japanese have traditionally been more deferential to authority than people in other countries, and some think the members of a lay citizen panel would tend to defer to the judges. Twenty years ago, I would have agreed. But Japanese society has changed so much since then that I’m not sure it’s safe to make that assumption today.

That opinion also fails to take into consideration what might happen once citizens on the panel begin to realize they can exercise real power.

The new legal system is just one of several changes that will transform Japanese society in the coming years. As is usually the case, that transformation will be largely sotto voce. How those changes will reconfigure the life of the nation is anyone’s guess.

Note: Here’s an English language account by the Japan Times, noteworthy if only for all the information it leaves out.

Posted in Legal system | 2 Comments »

Li Yang and Crazy English: Crazy like a fox

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 27, 2008

SEVERAL ARTICLES about China’s Li Yang and his Crazy English teaching approach have appeared on the Internet over the past few years, and he also does business in Japan and South Korea, so people in Northeast Asia are already aware of him.

I wanna speak perfect English!

But his recognition factor outside the region is likely to skyrocket now that The New Yorker has given him their full treatment. They’ve used him as the face for this report on Chinese efforts to mobilize the population and encourage them to learn English for this year’s Olympic Games. China’s organizing committee has recruited Li to provide as many people as possible with as much English fluency as possible before the world pays them a visit later this year.

Some aspects of the article will be familiar to people in Japan—the Chinese attitude toward English education is reminiscent of the Japanese approach about 20 years ago:

China has been in the grip of “English fever,” as the phenomenon is known in Chinese, for more than a decade. A vast national appetite has elevated English to something more than a language: it is not simply a tool but a defining measure of life’s potential. China today is divided by class, opportunity, and power, but one of its few unifying beliefs—something shared by waiters, politicians, intellectuals, tycoons—is the power of English. Every college freshman must meet a minimal level of English comprehension, and it’s the only foreign language tested. English has become an ideology, a force strong enough to remake your résumé, attract a spouse, or catapult you out of a village. Linguists estimate the number of Chinese now studying or speaking English at between two hundred million and three hundred and fifty million, a figure that’s on the order of the population of the United States. English private schools, study gadgets, and high-priced tutors vie for pieces of that market.

There’s a good reason why that fever is raging, but if you’re from an English-speaking country and have never lived abroad, it might be difficult to understand the imperative to learn the world’s lingua franca.

(T)he gap between the English-speaking world and the non-English-speaking world is so profound that any act of hard work or sacrifice is worth the effort.

This quote from another article five years ago goes a long way to explaining regional attitudes and Li’s appeal:

“Don’t take me as China.” Li Says. “Take me as Asia.” Because Crazy English isn’t just for the Chinese. Li believes all Asian countries are facing the same problem of speaking “terrible”, “stupid” English. So it is not surprising that Crazy English would be popular in other Asian countries. “What is surprising,” he adds, “is that Koreans would want to learn from a Chinese.”

Yet another factor is at work, though Li is more blatant about it than some Japanese teachers and students I have known:

“One-sixth of the world’s population speaks Chinese. Why are we studying English?” he asked. He turned and gestured to a row of foreign teachers seated behind him and said, “Because we pity them for not being able to speak Chinese!”

Indeed, Li’s approach highlights one undercurrent in English education throughout Northeast Asia: using English as a tool for national development and catching up to the West. According to Mark Abley’s Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, Li’s personal motto is “stimulating patriotism, advocating national spirits, conquering English, revitalizing China.” He is also critical of the Chinese educational system for failing to instill confidence in the students. I’ve heard some Japanese teachers say the same thing almost verbatim.

What are some of the emotions Li is manipulating? This broader article on ESL provides a hint:

During a question and answer session with the crowd, one student told Li that he hated the Japanese for their rape and occupation of the mainland prior to World War II. The student then said he didn’t want to study Japanese because of this hatred.

“If you really hate the Japanese, then you will learn their language,” Li told the student and the crowd. “If you really want revenge against Japan, then master their language.”

Again, these are not exclusively Chinese attitudes—I’ve met a few people in Japan with an identical outlook, and undoubtedly there are some of the same type in South Korea. (Japan’s national successes have tended to dissipate the emotions that give rise to this mindset, particularly among the younger generation.)

Substitute Japan and Japanese in the above sentence with America/Anglosphere and English, and you’ll see one element of the driving force behind English education in this part of the world. The other half of this yin and yang combination is a sense of inferiority, with the concomitant chagrin over the injustice of being saddled with a sense of inferiority in the first place.

Calling the program Crazy English is a stroke of genius. It provides the students with the justification for liberating themselves from centuries of cultural conditioning that expected people to be reserved and act within a group context instead of being openly assertive as individuals. Crazy people get to do anything they want.

Therefore, Li Yang is not just an English teacher—he’s also a motivational expert. (In fact, he interpreted for Anthony Robbins during the latter’s tour of China.) The technique for which he has become famous is having the students rear back and shout English phrases–a method that worked very well for him during his own days at university. His method focuses first on pronunciation, and then progresses to the memorization and presentation of recitations.

That’s a logical progression because it reinforces the student’s budding confidence, both internally and in front of an audience. Eventually confidence grows to the point at which the student will no longer have to deal with foreigners while hobbled by a sense of inferiority.

The author of the New Yorker piece oddly overlooks this point, and in fact seems to misunderstand the confidence factor in foreign language study altogether:

He had harnessed something universal—the cloak of confidence that comes with slipping into a language not one’s own—and added a Chinese twist.

I’ve studied Japanese, watched other foreigners study Japanese, and seen (and taught) Japanese studying English for many years now. A foreign language is not a “cloak of confidence”—in fact, it’s usually the opposite, and that’s the reason Li employs his trademark technique. The confidence comes after one has mastered the language, and it transcends those occasions when one is speaking the language. That confidence doesn’t become part of the speaker’s wardrobe—it becomes part of the speaker’s skin.

If a foreign language is to be compared to an article of clothing, it more closely resembles a stage costume than a cloak because it allows the speaker to perform as someone else altogether. Scores of Japanese housewives have told me that they can say things in English they wouldn’t dream of saying in Japanese. But the mere fact that they’re speaking English doesn’t make it work–they have to get good at English first.

Watching this YouTube video of a Li lesson/performance (at least I think it’s him) makes things much clearer. Just like any good educator, he’s part showman, and he’s superb on stage. It’s also easier to see why he gets people to shout in groups: not only does it break down individual inhibitions and increase individual confidence, but the group energy and dynamics serve to amplify everyone’s confidence. Traditional Northeast Asian culture may emphasize the group and discourage individualism, but within every person everywhere is the desire to step into the spotlight and shine as a star.

It’s no wonder that so many people are so enthusiastic about studying English Li’s way. Even if they don’t become fluent in the language and never use it in a meaningful way, they will have tremendously enjoyed being a part of the experience and come away feeling good about themselves. That makes it worth the money they spend on his books, courses, and seminars.

And that’s what has made Li Yang famous, a cultural figure, and gloriously rich.

You didn’t think his motivations were exclusively patriotic, did you?

Posted in China, Education, Language | 5 Comments »

Cars losing cachet in Japan?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A NEW SOCIAL TREND in Japan? The Japanese Automobile Manufacturers’ Association revealed the results of its FY 2007 market trend survey showing that younger Japanese are less interested in car ownership than ever before.

Still driving an Isuzu

Still driving an Isuzu

The key figure in the survey is the percentage of primary drivers younger than age 30 in all households that own cars. (The primary driver is defined as that person with the greatest frequency of automobile operation in the household.) This percentage slid four points from the survey conducted five years ago to 7%. That’s the first time this percentage has ever been in single digits.

An association source says this percentage stood at 19% in 1995. Those in the 20-29 age group also accounted for 19% of the population that year. They now account for 14%. Therefore, the decline in primary drivers in that age group has been steeper than the drop in the ratio of that group to the overall population during the same period.

A similar survey conducted by the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living of men in their 20s uncovered a parallel trend. When asked what they would spend their money on, 31% of the guys in 1996 answered cars. That figure fell to 16% in 2006.

These surveys do not show a corresponding decline for people in their late 30s and older.

An analyst from Demeken (an abbreviation of the Japanese for Digital Media Research Institute) says this represents a shift in the attitude of the generation who grew up in the Internet era amidst the detritus of the collapse of the bubble economy in the 1990s. The people in this age group, he suggests, place more importance on use rather than ownership.

He notes that many in the youngest adult generation view cars merely as a means for transportation and not as a status symbol, as they were for previous generations of postwar Japanese.

Buttressing this analysis is the 35% increase in the number of rental cars in Japan during the 10-year period ended in 2006. Meanwhile, automobile sales fell during that period. (The largest decline occurred from 1995 to 2001).

The Nishinippon Shimbun, the newspaper in which this article appeared, views this as a matter of concern. They’re based in Fukuoka, and local governments and business organizations in northern Kyushu have been lobbying hard—with great success—to attract companies in the auto industry.

The article failed to provide a breakdown by region for these figures, however. It’s a lot easier to get around without a car in Tokyo or Osaka than it is in an area with a lower population density. With the exception of those who live in Fukuoka City, most people in Kyushu would find a car-less life quite inconvenient.

Nevertheless, there has been a noticeable shift in the attitude toward automobiles compared to the early 80s, when I first came to Japan. In those days, it was still the rule for people to work on Saturdays (at least half a day). I was surprised then at the number of people in their 20s whose idea of a good time on Sunday was to go on an all-day automobile jaunt. They had no specific objective for their trip, such as to attend a concert or sporting event. After driving a few hours in one direction, they’d have something to eat, fool around a little bit, and then turn around and drive back home.

That doesn’t seem to be the case now.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

Matsuri da! (81): It’s good to be growled at!

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 20, 2008


THE SHISHI-MAI, or Lion Dance, is commonly performed at Japanese festivals today in more than 9,000 forms. According to this excellent site on the right sidebar describing (and selling) Japanese Buddhist statuary:

(It) is performed while wearing the headdress or various masks. Shishi masks take on many forms, some with horns, others looking like a dog, a deer, or a lion. This dance was probably introduced to Japan by or before the 8th century owing to frequent Japanese missions to China’s Tang Court during the 7th-8th centuries AD. Shishi-mai dances became widespread in Japan thereafter as both a form of festival entertainment and as a means to ward off evil spirits, to pray for peace, bountiful harvests, and good health.

The Nirami Shishi-mai is thought to be a forerunner of the Shishi-mai, and is still performed in Takaoka, Toyama. KBS TV filed this report of its performance on the 18th. Jump on it–who knows how long the link will last?

Here’s what the announcer is saying, translated into English.

The Nirami Shishi-mai, said to be roughly 700 years old and the original form of the Shishi-mai (Lion Dance), was offered at the Keta Shinto Shrine in Fukushiki Ichinomiya, Takaoka, on the 18th.

The Nirami Shishi, which originated roughly 700 years ago at the Keta Shinto Shrine in Takaoka (Toyama) and is characterized by relaxed movements, is a homespun version of the Shishi-mai. The participants wear simple costumes and there is no appearance of the Tengu to tease the lion.

That’s why it’s thought to be the original form of the Shishi-mai, and has been designated an intangible cultural folk treasure of Takaoka.

During the festival, the Nirami Shishi dance is offered in front of the main hall of the shrine after the lion leads the mikoshi (portable shrine) around the shrine grounds. The lion, which is more than seven meters long, then performs the old and unique ritual.

Legend has it that being glared at by the lion will drive away evil. The onlookers were thus overwhelmed by the powerful impact of the lion as they offered their prayers.

For a look behind the scenes, here’s a YouTube video showing two men practicing the dance without costume.

Posted in Festivals | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Matsuri da: Repeat play city!

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 20, 2008

FREQUENT POSTER KEN sends along a note about the Takayama Festival in Gifu:

One of said 3 most beautiful festivals in Japan has begun as follows.

There was an Ampontan post about that same festival last year at this time. You can see the report with links to other photos and more information here.

Posted in Festivals | 4 Comments »

Matsuri da! (80): The elegance of autumn

Posted by ampontan on Friday, April 18, 2008

ELEGANCE SEEMS TO HAVE BECOME the theme for cultural posts this week, which reminded me that I still had a couple of stories I wasn’t able to fit in before. Better late than never!

The first involves a samurai parade from a Shinto shrine to a Buddhist temple under a canopy of fall foliage. That was the 18th Sekigan-ji Autumn Leaves Festival at the Sekigan-ji, a Buddhist temple noted for its attractive fall colors, in Tamba, Hyogo. (Here’s a nice photo of the temple itself.)

The participants were recreating an event from the early part of the 14th century. Ashikaga Takauji, the first Muromachi shogun, and his son Yoshiakira took refuge in this temple after suffering a defeat in battle. Here’s a good summary of Takauji’s career, during which he fought to restore the direct rule of the tenno (emperor), and then changed his mind two years later and backed another guy instead. This was, if I’m not mistaken, the last gasp for direct Imperial rule in Japan.

The parade was led by two people on horseback in the roles of Takauji and Yoshiakira. Following them were 50 people dressed as samurai and warrior priests. The two men and their retinue walked the three kilometers from the Hiyoshi Shinto shrine to the temple.

The scene of men wearing 14th century armor walking underneath a tunnel of autumn leaves surely delighted more than a few photographers and spectators.

Meanwhile, the Kumano Nachi shrine in Nachikatsuura-cho, Wakayama, held its own autumn leaves festival on 14 November. The shrine’s chief priest and about 20 parishioners dressed up in Heian period garb and gathered at the Mongaku falls downstream from the larger Nachi falls. They also recreated a historical scene involving the Chrysanthemum Throne, but this was more literary in tone than martial.

The group set afloat on the Nachi River some leaflets containing waka, or Japanese poetry, creating an autumnal tableau with the colors on the river surface echoing those of the trees.

This custom originated when the Kazan tenno abdicated the throne after ruling from 984-986 and became a Buddhist monk. Kazan, who is thought to have been mentally unstable, was conducting ascetic practices on Mt. Nachi when he was moved by the autumn leaves. This inspired him to write some waka, which he then collected and wafted onto the river.

Is that not an aesthetically overwhelming image?

A final ineffable sigh…before I go off in search of a good old-fashioned mikoshi wrecker for the next matsuri report!

Note: Be sure to click on the link for the Kumano Nachi shrine!

Posted in Festivals, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

And now for the news from North Korea

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 17, 2008

WHO’S THE MOST FAMOUS foreign news reader in Japan? You might be surprised—it’s none of the glorified magazine models who appear on the BBC, CNN, or Fox (though a few middle-aged women were fans of the late Peter Jennings due to the ABC news excerpts NHK broadcast on their satellite channel).

Take a look at the accompanying photo to see the overseas announcer instantly recognizable to anyone in the country who watches television news. And here’s the best part—almost no one knows her name!

You will be burned alive in a sea of flame!

Thanks to this report in the English-language version of South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo, we find out that her name is Ri Chun-hi, a 65-year-old grandmother and 1971 graduate of the Pyeongyang University of Dramatic and Cinematic Arts. Ms. Ri is surely even better known in South Korea—her responsibility is to deliver news reports for an overseas audience. The photo here shows her announcing North Korea’s nuclear test on 9 October 2006.

What’s the reason for her celebrity? A recent profile in the North Korean magazine Naenara put it this way:

“She grasps the hearts of viewers with her strong and appealing voice…She strikes the enemies so severely that they have become dumbfounded when she announces statements and talks.”

Some people describe her grasp on the hearts of viewers in a different way, however. A few years ago, one of my Korean language tutors, a university student in Japan, said that the standard North Korean broadcasting style “gives me the creeps”. (Well, that’s not what she said in Japanese, but that’s what she meant.)

That’s probably one reason excerpts of her reports are broadcast so frequently here without a Japanese voice-over: her intonation and tone are so artificial, and so quickly shift from exaggerated bellicosity to patriotic fervor, one could easily imagine her as a state broadcaster in George Orwell’s 1984. It was not for nothing that she was recruited from drama school rather than journalism school. (That’s also probably better training for television news, but I digress.)

The unadulterated taste of the Pyeongyang propaganda technique likely does creep out most Japanese and Korean viewers. The contrast between the brisk but understated broadcasting style in Japan provides a perfect implied contrast with just how different daily life in North Korea must be. Pictures with voice inflections are worth a thousand words in the broadcast medium.

And really, let’s be honest–these broadcasts also have plenty of cheap entertainment value.

Ms. Ri may not get the multi-million dollar contracts awarded to the “anchors” on American network television, but the article does say that she is well-remunerated by her country’s standards:

“She lives…in a house in a beautiful place in Pyeongyang, the capital,” the magazine said. “The modern dwelling house and car were given to her as gifts by the state.”

Then there are the other perks:

North Korea’s female news announcers enjoy the privilege of getting their hair styled at the country’s best beauty salon, Changgwangwon in Pyeongyang. They are also allowed opportunities to try on clothes made by the national clothing institute before anybody else.

Judging from her picture and considering the universality of the feminine psychology, it wouldn’t surprise me if the thought of going on a diet has crossed her mind from time to time. Other North Korean women should be so lucky.

Here’s another unintentional glimpse of life behind the kimchee curtain in North Korea, courtesy of Naenara:

Their hairstyles and clothes lead the country’s fashions.

Lucky for us, there’s a YouTube clip of Ms. Ri delivering this very announcement on DPRK TV. It’s only about 1:15, which is enough to get the flavor if you don’t know Korean.

You’ll get the idea, but I’ve seen her in better form. She’s much more emotive when she’s delivering the propaganda ministry’s florid invective.

Postscript: The Chosun’s report says that TV news reports in North Korea often begin with the phrase, “Our Korean People’s Army supreme commander Kim Jong-il.” I’m pretty sure that “supreme commander” here is the same word as shogun in Japanese, though the Koreans are not about to use that expression. The two languages have a lot of words in common, but the pronunciation is of course different. Another is the word that first appeared on screen in the YouTube clip: podo. It’s identical to hodo in Japanese, and means “news report”.

Posted in Mass media, North Korea | Leave a Comment »

Are Japan’s political tectonic plates shifting?

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, April 16, 2008

JAPAN’S POLITICAL CLASS didn’t need to gulp down any coffee to kickstart their morning—all they had to do was scan the brief newspaper article reporting that former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro had summoned a meeting of business and political leaders last week to confirm plans for periodic confabs to discuss political issues in a Japan plagued by government gridlock.

In addition to Mr. Koizumi’s supporters and associates in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party–most notably Koike Yuriko–others with seats at the table included Maehara Seiji, current vice-president and former president of the largest opposition group, the Democratic Party of Japan, and several of his allies.

The meeting was held on the evening of the ninth—the same day the DPJ had rejected the LDP’s fourth nominee for a post at the Bank of Japan. That the rejection generated considerable frustration within the LDP is no surprise, but there are indications the DPJ’s obstructionism is causing more than a little unpleasantness within the opposition party as well.

The newspapers are calling this a “study group”, which is sometimes the form new political groupings take in Japan when the participants are scouting the prospects for creating a new faction or party. They plan to begin regularly scheduled meetings after the weeklong holidays in the beginning of May.

During the meeting, Mr. Koizumi is reported to have said:

Two (potential) candidates for prime minister are here. This could be interesting.

According to a person present, the guest list included the following:

Okuda Hiroshi, former chairman of the Keidanren, a past president and chairman of Toyota and a special Cabinet advisor. Toyota has generally kept some distance between itself and the LDP in the past because of its union’s ties with the DPJ. Mr. Okuda, however, openly mobilized Toyota support for Mr. Koizumi after the prime minister shocked (and electrified) Japan in 2005 by dissolving the lower house of the Diet and calling a new election to push through his plan for privatizing the postal ministry.

The LDP Contingent

Koike Yuriko, former Environmental Minister in the Koizumi Cabinet, and a national security advisor and briefly Defense Minister in Abe Shinzo’s Cabinet. Some observers think she has a chance to become Japan’s first female prime minister, and everyone assumes she wants the job. Her background also includes membership in the now-defunct Liberal Party, then headed by the current opposition head Ozawa Ichiro, when it was the junior partner in a coalition government with the LDP. Politics makes for some strange bedfellows in Japan.

Motegi Toshimitsu, a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, former Senior Vice Foreign Minister in the first Koizumi Cabinet and the Minister of State for Okinawa in Second Koizumi Cabinet

Hayashi Yoshimasa, also a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government, and an upper house member (unlike the previous two, who are lower house members). He has Finance Ministry connections, as does Mr. Koizumi.

Nishimura Yasutoshi, a lower house member in the Machimura faction (to which Mr. Koizumi once belonged in a former incarnation), and known to be politically close to Abe Shinzo

The Gang from the DPJ

Maehara Seiji, the second potential prime minister, is known for specializing in security and defense issues, and favors revising the Constitution to allow Japan more leeway to conduct military operations (by eliminating the second paragraph of Article 9, the so-called Peace Clause). He is also on excellent terms with Abe Shinzo, and was not averse to the suggestion for a grand coalition between the two parties that caused Mr. Ozawa so much trouble last fall.

Sengoku Yoshito, a member of the Maehara group (the DPJ doesn’t like to call them factions), he has held several shadow cabinet positions. Interestingly enough, he also directly criticized Mr. Koizumi for the deterioration of relations with South Korea during his term.

Genba Koichiro, a lower house member who is also in the Maehara group.

Fukuyama Tetsuro, ditto.

Also stopping by to say hi was Mikitani Hiroshi, the president and chairman of Rakuten, a giant in Internet shopping in Japan, and one of the 10 largest Internet companies in the world. Their website has the second highest total of unique hits in the country, behind only Yahoo!

In retrospect, neither the meeting itself nor the participants should have been entirely unexpected. Mr. Koizumi has downplayed any interest in a major post-retirement political role by referring to himself as “a man of the past”, but he has become more active since February. Was it a coincidence that his former political right-hand man, Iijima Isao, sat for an interview with a friendly magazine at the same time and floated what looked like a trial balloon for a Koizumi comeback?

In the interview, Mr. Iijima offered a white knight scenario by suggesting that Mr. Koizumi is the only person with the experience and credibility to break through the current impasse and take political reform to the next level. He further noted that it wouldn’t be necessary to form a new political party; it would be enough for Mr. Koizumi to “take the ship out of the harbor and into the sea”, and that a crew of 50 members each from the LDP and the DPJ would be enough to man the ship.

In addition to political gridlock, the Koizumi allies within the party are dismayed at LDP recidivism by failing to maintain the momentum of his political and governmental reforms. The former prime minister’s Man Friday in the Cabinet for implementing those reforms, Takenaka Heizo, has criticized Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo for allowing the LDP of the bad old days to come back “like a zombie” since he took office in September.

For his part, Mr. Maehara and his group members share some common ground with the LDP reform wing; indeed, they perhaps have more in common with them than they do the left-leaning and leftist elements of their own party. They are also likely to be among those in the DJP unhappy with Mr. Ozawa’s leadership (an unhappiness that predates the party’s strong showing in last summer’s upper house election), and his tactics in the Diet since then.

To be fair, Mr. Maehara has reportedly been telling associates since last week’s meeting that it is not a formal study group. Discretion is the better part of valor, and it’s still too soon to be burning bridges.

Whether this leads to the political realignment that everyone is talking about, to the comeback of Koizumi Jun’ichiro, or merely to informal political discussions across party lines held in expensive restaurants, Mr. Koizumi’s description of the latest development was dead on:

This could be interesting.

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Matsuri da! (79): Take tea and see!

Posted by ampontan on Monday, April 14, 2008

THERE’S SOMETHING BOTH SOOTHING AND ELEGANT about tea–unless your idea of tea is to throw it overboard into the Boston Harbor. The tea ceremony, for example, is one of the most refined of Japanese traditions. Even tea plantations have a certain quality that places them a cut above the ordinary agricultural enterprise. I visited a tea farmer south of Ibusuki in Kagoshima about 10 years ago, and walking through his fields was such a peaceful experience it almost felt as if I were in a formal garden. (Of course, the pine forest to the east and the view of the sea a 10-minute drive to the south contributed to the mood.)

tea-prayers

The tea farmer told me that during the season—which is right now—he had to work pretty much round the clock for about six weeks, but during the rest of the year, maintaining his plantation didn’t require his constant attention. Still, when they’re out harvesting tea, farmers don’t dress like the women in the photo.

Two of those women are miko, or shrine maidens, from the Kumano Hongu Taisha, a Shinto shrine in Hongu-cho, Tanabe, Wakayama. Helping them were five women from a sort of women’s auxiliary group associated with the shrine. They are shown picking the new tea from a field just behind the shrine for the New Tea Festival held on the 9th. During the festival, samples of the crop are offered to the divinities and members of an organization for local tea producers offer prayers for better quality. The event is held every year just before the harvest begins.

Each tea-producing area in Japan has its special varieties, and in the part of Kyushu where I live, the tea grown in Yame is considered to be the finest. In Hongu-cho, the miko were picking otonashi tea, which is a local specialty. Otonashi tea has been grown in the area for more than a millenium. The story goes that people came from the capital in Kyoto to visit Kumano and planted some. Perhaps they were Japanese versions of Johnny Appleseed.

According to the producers’ organization, 40 households cultivate otonashi tea on about 7 hectares in two neighborhoods in the district. During the peak production years of the mid-60s to 70s, about 12 hectares were devoted to cultivation, but the aging of the population has resulted in fewer farmers, and that has resulted in less tea.

The harvest began a few days early this year on April 28 and is expected to continue to about May 10.

Wakayama has thoughtfully provided a short English page on otonashi tea, which you can see here. There’s a brief explanation of its characteristics and a photo of a hillside plantation. (You don’t have to listen to the RealAudio; it’s just a woman reading the English text you see on the page.) Here are two larger photos on a Japanese page.

I’d like to try some of that myself—green tea is my beverage of choice throughout the day—but it’s not so easy to have an otonashi tea party. Most of the crop is sold in Hongu-cho for use in the home or as gifts. Next time you’re in Wakayama, be sure to bring me back some!

Posted in Festivals, Food | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Henporai and his photos

Posted by ampontan on Monday, April 14, 2008

HENPORAI is involved with the production of a Japanese-language website on festivals that I sometimes visit. He also has a blog that he uses mostly for photographs of smaller festivals and other events and scenes that he finds interesting.

I can recommend the blog even to those who can’t read Japanese, because the photos are excellent. Most of the photo blogs I’ve seen have been created to show off the artwork of the photographer. The photos here might not be of the type that are exhibited in galleries, but Henporai has an excellent eye and his pictures are always worth a look. I especially recommend it to people who want to see what Japan looks like outside of the big cities.

The main page for the site is here.

Posted in Festivals | 1 Comment »

How (not) to deal with China

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 13, 2008

JOHN POMPHRET, editor of the Washington Post’s Outlook section, runs a blog on the Post website called Pomphret’s China. For his posts, Mr. Pomphret uses the experience gained from serving as that newspaper’s Beijing bureau chief for six years.

In his latest entry, he gushes over a linguistic device that Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (who is fluent in Chinese) used during a recent speech at Beijing University. He suggests that Western countries could employ it as a model for dealing with China in the future. Mr. Pomphret seems to contradict himself in the post, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

The piece is headlined, “Australia to China: Let’s Not Be Friends”. It contains an explanation of the connotations of the word “friendship” as it is applied to foreigners in China today:

Rudd’s brilliance in the speech involves turning the Chinese term “friend” on its head. Friend (pengyou in Chinese) and frienship (youyi) are two of the most distorted concepts in modern China culture. In modern China, a friend is someone who will do you favors and who expects favors in return. A “foreign friend” is someone the Chinese party-state expects will carry water for them and NEVER criticize them.

Whenever a Chinese official called me “foreign friend” (waiguo pengyou), I knew some type of horrible deal would soon be asked or expected of me.

Here’s what Mr. Pomphret thought was brilliant:

So what did Rudd do? He went back — way back — into Chinese history, to the 7th century AD, and used another word for friendship (zhengyou).

“A true friend,” Rudd said, “is one who can be a zhengyou, that is a partner who sees beyond immediate benefit to the broader and firm basis for continuing, profound and sincere friendship….A strong relationship, and a true friendship,” he told the students, “are built on the ability to engage in a direct, frank and ongoing dialogue about our fundamental interests and future vision.”

Clever perhaps, but brilliant overstates it by more than a bit. The contradiction is the declaration in the headline—let’s not be friends—with Mr. Rudd’s actual use of the phrases “true friend” and “true friendship”.

Mr. Rudd’s assertion that “a true friend…is a partner who sees beyond immediate benefit to the broader and firm basis for continuing, profound and sincere friendship” comes across as empty political boilerplate. Read it over a couple of times and watch how quickly it evaporates. Then try to imagine how convincing the Chinese found it.

Mr. Pomphret’s enthusiasm for the Australian PM can perhaps be ascribed to a practice common among the mass media, in which a newspaper or broadcaster tends to lionize those people with whom it shares political viewpoints.

The blogger seems to have forgotten, however, that one G8 nation has considerably more diplomatic experience with China than the others. And he probably wasn’t aware that a prominent politician from that country also used the Chinese language to tell them to knock off the friendship talk and get down to brass tacks. Former Japanese Foreign Minister Aso Taro—who might well become Japan’s next prime minister—described his 2006 meeting with then-Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing during an interview published in the February issue of Shokun! magazine.

Here’s what Mr. Aso said. The translation is mine:

“The chief characteristic of the Chinese government’s diplomatic stance is to give priority to their own benefit. They’ll join hands with anyone if they think it will be beneficial to them. They are a formidable country in that regard. I’ll give you an example.

“This happened during my meeting with the Chinese foreign minister in Doha, Qatar, in May 2006. Talks (between our countries) at the foreign minister level had been suspended for some time. Li Zhaoxing kept going on and on about Japan-China friendship, but I just brushed it off and told him, “I’m not interested in that at all.” An approach and response based on emotions will at times be very damaging to the national interest.

“He seemed suspicious of what I was saying, so here’s what I told him. I said that what we needed was “Japan-China Mutual Benefit”, and we should both recognize that Japan-China friendship was a means to that end. I took out a piece of paper, wrote 日中共益 (Japan-China mutual benefit) in kanji on it and handed it over to him.

“When the meeting was over, he immediately came over to me and quickly extended his hand for a handshake.”

As Mr. Aso noted elsewhere in the interview, there hasn’t been any Japan-China friendship during 1,500 years of diplomatic relations. (He wasn’t taking a hard line; he was just stating the facts as he saw them.) But he also pointed out that an examination of the long bilateral relationship shows the Japanese can disregard a few years of chilly ties without having to worry about it.

Rather than follow Mr. Pomphret’s suggestion that the West use Mr. Rudd’s approach, the better course might be to take a tip from Mr. Aso and the Japanese experience. Bilateral friendship implies shared values. The Chinese nation is a totalitarian hegemon without a shred of respect for human rights. What advanced democracy shares such values as the forced sterilization of women and the absence of free elections?

The Australian prime minister knows enough Chinese to refuse the dubious distinction of “foreign friend”, and has enough wit to make a point by employing a linguistic gambit. Unfortunately, that is as likely to influence the Chinese as a Free Tibet bumper sticker.

Mr. Rudd suggests that friends look beyond benefit to engage in an honest dialogue. The Japanese foreign minister understands that the Chinese accept no nation as a friend unless they benefit from it, and they’re not at all interested in honest dialogue on someone else’s terms. He knows that for China, “the broader and firm basis for…sincere friendship” is their own self interest.

Mr. Rudd’s fluency in Chinese is an advantage when talking to university students in Beijing, but Mr. Aso’s more practical approach is an advantage when actually dealing with that country in a bilateral relationship.

That’s because he speaks their language.

Posted in China, International relations | 1 Comment »

Matsuri da! (78): How low can you go?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 13, 2008

Don’t move that limbo bar
You’ll be a limbo star
How low can you go?
- Limbo Rock (Jon Sheldon, William E. “Billy” Strange)

HOW’S THIS for a bright idea? Religious institutions where they encourage people to have some playground fun!

That seems to be the motivation for the Shinto shrines in Japan which have what are called mini-torii. The torii is the distinctive shrine gateway, and it serves as both the marker of the sacred space and as a symbol for the shrine itself. It’s usually erected near the start of the path leading to the main hall.

But just because something’s sacred doesn’t mean it can’t be used for amusement. One example is shown in the first photo, which is a scene from the Flower Festival at the Awashima shrine in Unzen, Nagasaki. (You might remember that Unzen was the location of some severe volcano eruptions in the early 1990s.)

In addition to the regular torii at the front of the premises, the Awashima shrine has three mini-torii. It’s a festival custom for women to try to crawl through these gateways. Successfully squeezing through all three is said to bring several benefits, such as safe childbirth, the rearing of healthful children, and a happy marriage. (Perhaps I should rearrange the order of those benefits!)

The torii are made of stone and have inner dimensions of 33 centimeters, 30 centimeters, and 27 centimeters. The women pass through the largest one first and then go on to the smaller ones in succession, which is supposed to represent the process of childbirth.

Meanwhile, the Awashima shrine in Uto, Kumamoto (this Awashima is written with different kanji), bills itself as having the number one mini-torii in Japan, as you can see from its Japanese-language website.

They also have three mini-torii that people crawl through, though all three have 30-centimeter-square openings.

Since mini-torii are the shrine’s specialty, the parents in the district asked the authorities to create some special ones so their kids could crawl through in the hope of helping them pass school entrance examinations. That’s how the shrine’s chief priest came up with the idea for the one he’s showing off in the photo. The shrine has assembled it during the exam period during the past two years, and this year it was left up until March 31.

The pencils are 60 centimeters high and have a diameter of 10 centimeters. The inner opening is also 30 centimeters square. Pencils usually have six sides, but the priest must have been divinely inspired to make these with five. The word for passing a test in Japanese is gokaku, with a slightly elongated o sound. Make the o sound shorter, and the word can mean “five angles”.

It might not be so easy for some women—or bigger students—to pass through those torii, but it’s got to be easier than a camel passing through the eye of a needle on the way to heaven!

Posted in Festivals | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

A millenium of elegant pursuits in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Friday, April 11, 2008

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
- Oscar Wilde

WE’VE ALL SEEN THE NEWSPAPER PHOTOGRAPHS of young Japanese girls in thrall to the fashion extremes of baroquely decorated fingernails, sun lamp skin tones, white eye shadow, and hair the color of beach sand.

But we all know that the modern newspaper is to information what McDonald’s is to nutritious food, and the priority content for the dailies is still that old stand-by, the man-bites-dog feature.

Though it’s the truth that those girls and their male counterparts do exist, it isn’t the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It’s just as true that there still exists here an active interest in an artistic milieu distinguished by a centuries-old sophisticated elegance. All you have to do to see it is point your camera in a different direction and look.

The following events held within the past 10 days are examples of what I mean.

Geisha Fashions

A historical fashion show was presented on the first of the month at Yoshino Park in Kagoshima City, featuring models dressed in the clothing of geisha from the Kanto and Kansai regions at the end of the Edo period (1603-1868). (Kagoshima is in the extreme southwest of the country, and not very close to either the Kanto [Tokyo] or the Kansai [Osaka] regions.)

Elegance in Kagoshima

An added treat was that the park’s cherries were nearing full bloom, so the visitors were able to combine the beauty of a hanami, or flower-viewing party, while drinking in the beauty of the outfits and the models.

The show consisted of two models exhibiting the Kanto outfits and two showing off the attire of their geisha sisterhood in the Kansai. Each was on view for 15 minutes apiece, giving the other three plenty of time to change clothes. (That’s essential with kimono.) Meanwhile, a local instructor in kimono dressing explained to the audience the characteristics of the two styles—including details down to the different methods for tying the obi, or belt—as well as the customs of the age.

Unlike contemporary fashion shows, the audience was allowed access to the models in costume after the show to take photos and to examine the patterns more closely. One woman in the audience, captivated by the experience, said that the kimono were even more gorgeous under the cherry blossoms. Now there’s the whole truth and nothing but the truth!

The Genji Show

The Tale of Genji (also on the right sidebar), commonly agreed to be the masterpiece of Japanese prose literature and the world’s first great novel, is now 1,000 years old. To commemorate its millennium, an event was held in Otsu, Shiga, where Murasaki Shikubu wrote the work at the Ishiyama Temple, which was established in 749. The opening ceremony was a fashion show at a hotel on the shore of Lake Biwa, featuring clothing worn by nobility during the Heian period (794-1185).

Elegance in Ozu

Afterwards, those in attendance were treated to a boat ride to the Ishiyama Temple—this is Japan, of course it still exists—to recreate a visit said to have been popular among the Heian nobles. That was followed by a colorful parade in front of the temple gate.

As part of the commemorative events a Genji Dream Gallery was set up on the temple grounds. On display were embroideries depicting famous scenes in the story and robots recreating the characters. This is Japan, of course there were robots!

Hanezu Dancing

Kyoto demonstrated yet again that it is still the capital of sophisticated elegance at the annual Hanezu Dance performed by 21 girls aged 10-12 at the Zuishin-in, a Buddhist temple in the city. Hanezu is said to be a word that describes the color of plum blossoms, which are the inspiration for the headgear the girls are wearing in the photo.

The dance is held to commemorate the early Heian waka poet Ono-no-Komachi, who seems to have been born up north in Akita (where a Shinkansen train and a variety of rice are named after her). She spent the last years of her life at the Kyoto temple, however, and is remembered for her erotic poetry.

Elegance in Kyoto

The dance itself, which the girls performed four times, recreates the event for which Komachi is still best known. The high-ranking courier Fukukusa no Shosho was madly in love with her, and Komachi promised that she would become his lover if he visited her every night for a hundred nights. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The courier came callling faithfully every night, but failed to make the date once towards the end. Some versions of the story have him becoming ill on the 99th night. The desperate lover was overcome with despair and died. And when Komachi learned of his death, she was overcome with sadness.

As well she might be! Zama miro, as some Japanese could have said–it served her right for playing that age-old game and missing out on the chance to find out just how good a man can be!

But the Japanese don’t say that—it’s just my old Western philistinism reemerging from hibernation. Instead, they’ve kept the story (and her poetry) alive, again for more than a millennium. In fact, novelist and butch militarist Mishima Yukio was so taken by the tale he adapted for the modern stage an older Noh play about her, called Sotoba Komachi. (Here’s a review of his version and here’s a text of the original.) And grade school girls dance in honor to this erotic poet on the grounds of a Buddhist temple that was founded in the year 991 and still exists today.

Really, the Christians, Jews, and Muslims don’t know what they’re missing!

Waka Drinking Party

While the female waka poets played games of love, their male counterparts used to indulge in elegant pursuits of their own, one of which was called kyokusui no en (or sometimes gokusui no en).

Elegance in Kobe

This palace amusement originated in China long ago, and became popular in Japan during–you guessed it–the Heian period. Here’s what happens: the poets gather by the side of a brook that passes through a garden. A cup of sake is filled, placed on a platform designed to look like a waterfowl, and floated down the stream. The poet must dash off a poem on the spot, in brush and ink no less, and must drink the sake if he fails to come up with a poem by the time the tray bobs by.

In other words, this is the world’s most cultured drinking game. Fortunately, waka are only 31 syllables long, or else there would be a lot of drunken louts lying on the grass with very little poetry to show for their efforts. (Which is what happened to a lot of Western poets, come to think of it.)

A kyokusui no en was reinstituted in 2001 to celebrate the 1,800th anniversary of the founding of the Ikuta Shinto shrine in Kobe in the year 201—yes, it still exists—and this year’s version was held earlier this week. The party consisted of poets in period costumes and about 300 visitors. The poets included seven members of the prefecture’s waka club and Ido Toshizo, the governor of Hyogo, all of whom wrote waka on the theme of the family.

Hey, if grade school girls can dance in honor of an erotic poet at a Buddhist temple, then grown men can certainly write poetry and drink at a Shinto shrine if they want!

Four different events in four different cities in fewer than 10 days…looks like a pattern to me!

If your taste runs to those girls with the gloopy fashion and makeup (and let’s face it, they wouldn’t resort to camouflage if they were all that attractive to begin with), then all I can say is, bon appétit! They aren’t the only game in town.

Postscript
A representative from the Japan Waka Club came to Kobe for the Kyokusui no En, and contributed the following poem before the sake cup floated by:

老いふたり
かそかに生くるわが家にも
光あれよと白梅の咲く

I might have the line breaks wrong on that. I pretty much stick to translating modern Japanese, not having much time to study the older forms of the language nor the talent for poetry. But it would be fun to see what someone else can come up with!

And don’t pass up the photos of the Ishiyama Temple!

Posted in History, Traditions | Leave a Comment »

Oracles, pundits, pretenders, and political hacks

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 10, 2008

ONE OF THE PERKS of being an ex-president or prime minister is that people tend to take your political punditry seriously. Thus it was no surprise to see the ripples spread throughout the media after Koizumi Jun’ichiro, one of the most successful and popular prime ministers in Japanese political history, commented on the timing of the next lower house election at a Liberal Democratic Party reception in his native Kanagawa Prefecture.

Well, that’s what everyone thinks he was talking about. There was a touch of the Oracle of Delphi about Mr. Koizumi’s statements. Here’s a direct translation of the first sentence:

“It seems as if the wind of the important ‘something-or-other’ has now started blowing.”

There is a well-known Japanese preference for using indirect and intentionally vague speech; in this country, a sentence that directly translates to “This is that” will be perfectly clear in context. Therefore, Mr. Koizumi’s listeners applied their considerable experience at inference to understand that he was referring to the preparations for the election.

But there was no doubt about his meaning when he continued:

“It won’t be like the overwhelming victory of the previous lower house election. We’re really going to have to brace ourselves.”

He then added, “The “distorted Diet” (i.e., with the opposition in control of the upper house) signals the advent of a major transformation. When I was prime minister, I often used the words ‘boldly and flexibly’, and those traits are critical now. This isn’t a case of just the strong surviving. Those politicians and political parties capable of responding to change will also survive.”

Koga Makoto, the Chairman of the LDP’S Election Strategy Council, was another guest at the party and almost as elliptical when discussing the looming election:

“I have continually maintained that the lower house of the Diet won’t be dissolved this year. Now, I can’t say there won’t be an election within the year, and I must be allowed to say that (the situation) is dangerous. We’ll have to use all our strength to stand up to this headwind.”

The broadcast media turned to commentator Miyake Hisayuki, known for his close ties to the LDP, for his translation, and he spelled it out in more detail. Mr. Miyake repeated the claim that Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo will not be permitted to decide the timing for the dissolution of the Diet and the subsequent election. (That will be the decision of the backroom bigwigs, and was supposedly made clear to Mr. Fukuda when he took office.) What he will be permitted to do is retire with honor (yutai in Japanese) following the July G8 summit, rather than have to face the electorate with slumping poll numbers after presiding over the probable reinstatement of the gasoline surtax. Mr. Miyake thinks the Diet will then be called into an extraordinary session just to dissolve it.

Who’s Next?

The term yutai contains the nuance that the person retiring is voluntarily removing himself to allow younger people of talent to advance. So for whom would Mr. Fukuda be getting out of the way? Nobody’s pitching a tent in public yet, but everybody knows that former Foreign Minister Aso Taro wants the job—and besides, he’s all of four years younger than the prime minister. As this Yomiuri article points out, Mr. Aso has been driving up his stock with the party’s rank and file by stumping for local candidates around the country. He’s also working to widen the base of his support and floating policy proposals to create a de facto platform.

Mr. Aso surprised many observers in last year’s intra-party election to replace Abe Shinzo by winning a substantial share of the votes after the party’s heavy-hitters lined up to put the fix in for Mr. Fukuda. Even within the LDP, there is a sizeable group that wants no part of any behavior that smacks of…well, traditional LDP behavior.

But he was criticized in some quarters, most notably by former Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro, for a lean and hungry look that looked a little too lean and hungry. Circumspection is still a highly regarded virtue here. Therefore, as the Yomiuri article notes, Mr. Aso is trying to keep his head down this time around.

By Their Fruits You Shall Know Them

The opposition, of course, doesn’t have to be circumspect. They can say anything they like, and in the case of the Democratic Party of Japan, often do. For example, DPJ chief Ozawa Ichiro said on NHK radio and television last Sunday that his primary target date for dissolving the Diet and holding the election was before the July summit.

And there’s the disadvantage of direct speech—one receives a direct view of the exposed speakers. Unfortunately for Mr. Ozawa, the continued exposure of his thoughts makes him seem more like a provincial pol interested only in immediate tactical advantage than a statesman with a strategy to benefit the greater good.

One doesn’t have to look far for examples. After his party won control of the upper house last July, they chose to confront the ruling LDP over the issue of refueling Allied ships in the Indian Ocean to support the NATO anti-terrorism effort in Afghanistan. The problem was not that the DPJ challenged the LDP’s political supremacy—that’s what political parties are supposed to do, and it was inevitable after the thrashing they administered to the ruling party in the polls.

His blunder was that by trying to withdraw Japanese support (and succeeding only in temporarily halting it), he weakened the trust of the world’s democracies in Japan as a dependable ally. The more responsible course would have been to choose an issue for confrontation that did not impair Japan’s standing in the developed world. Instead, he wound up wasting everyone’s time.

Mr. Ozawa’s next idea was to challenge the government over the renewal of the 25-yen-per-liter gasoline surtax, which expired at the end of March. Overhaul of this part of the taxation system is a much-needed reform and a winner with the public. A real opportunity was lost, however, due to the party’s short-sighted approach and failure to present a feasible alternative for revenue sources before throwing a wrench into the works. Instead of focusing on the accomplishment of real reform, they merely tried to gain leverage with the electorate by causing problems for the LDP.

Their effort temporarily succeeded—the tax expired and they will force the LDP into the unpopular position of using their supermajority to reinstate it. But again, the opposition party took no one but themselves into account. The central government distributes most of that tax money to prefectural governments. The expiration of the tax means that the local governments will receive nothing at all (for now) instead of the 3.8 trillion yen that had been planned. As a result, 33 of Japan’s 47 prefectures had to partially freeze expenditures. Prefectural governments throughout the country are financially strapped (some are worried about bankruptcy) and need the funds generated by the gasoline surtax for more than just road construction and repair. They account for 8% of the entire budget of Iwate, to cite one example. Additionally, the failure to receive the expected outlays forced Ishikawa and Tochigi to suspend operations unrelated to roads.

The DPJ head’s response to their difficulties has been cavalier, at best. He suggested in the Diet today that all the money should be returned to “the people” because Japan doesn’t need any more new highways or major road repair.

See what happens when you spend too much time in chauffeured vehicles?

Mr. Ozawa’s next bright idea is to hold the lower house election sometime before the G8 Summit three months from now, earlier than the timing suggested by Mr. Miyake. He of course realizes this will be an unusually important election with as-yet-unforeseen ramifications. It will therefore require the concerted attention of the entire Japanese political class. He also realizes that a pre-summit election means a new prime minister will have to immediately shift gears after an intense campaign to capably represent Japan at the meeting of the world’s leading industrialized nations.

Why is a proposal for a pre-summit election selfish and myopic? Because the eight summit nations have a system with a rotating presidency, and each year the nation holding the presidency hosts the proceedings, sets their agenda, and determines which ministerial meetings will occur.

This year is Japan’s turn to be president. The new prime minister will have to do more than show up after attending a few briefings: He’ll have to run the show.

Japan’s Delphic oracle declared that it is important to be bold and flexible, and that the political survivors will be those capable of responding to change. But Ozawa Ichiro is brazen instead of bold, stubborn and unyielding instead of flexible, and hinders rather than facilitates the responsible implementation of the dynamic changes that people on both sides of the aisle know need to occur.

It’s a shame he doesn’t listen. If he were to accept counsel from someone besides himself, the entire country might benefit.

Posted in Politics | Leave a Comment »

Mac’s question about Japan and Tibet

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, April 9, 2008

FREQUENT POSTER MAC asked an off-topic question while replying to another thread. The question is so good, however, it deserves to be asked where everyone can see and hear it:

What face are the Japanese people going to show amidst all this Olympic Torch/Tibet/Human Rights kerfuffle? It’s a high stakes card to play, but I would say with China’s credibility on the way down, Japan have an opportunity to raise theirs. Whose example are they going to follow on this one?

Whose example indeed?

Posted in China, International relations | 42 Comments »

 
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