AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Archive for June, 2008

Fukui’s Fool Festival Revisted

Posted by ampontan on Monday, June 30, 2008

REPEAT PLAY CITY: Take another look at the post on the Baka Bayashi Festival held every June in Fukui City for a reminder of how much fun that old time religion in Japan can be.

Posted in Festivals | Leave a Comment »

IWC: International Whaling Circus

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, June 29, 2008

We do not like (animals) much for themselves, for what they are — only for the fictions we have imposed upon them…We ascribe to the animals we like intelligence, compassion and a sense of playfulness; to those we despise stupidity, savagery and cold-bloodedness. The wolf, as a case in point, falls into the first category these days whereas 100 years ago it would have fallen most definitely into the latter.
– Rod Liddle, The Spectator

ONE OF MY UNCLES was known for having a quirky sense of humor. During the 1992 American presidential campaign, a three-way race involving George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot, he often said that he hoped for a Perot victory because “the circus over the next four years” would be hugely entertaining.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your taste in these matters), Perot lost, and Americans were instead treated to eight years of a different circus: the Clinton Administration, known in some quarters as the Exploding Cigar Presidency.

Who’s to say that a Perot Administration wouldn’t have been even more uproarious?

But with the emergence into the international Big Top of minor acts masquerading as center ring attractions, promoting self-important and eccentric notions as life-or-death issues, politics is no longer the only source for free circus entertainment. The ringmasters of the mass media give them microphones and the spotlight and give us the best seats in the house. Then they both turn all of us into their pantaloons.

The latest performance was sponsored by the International Whaling Commission during its annual meeting in Chile last week.

That doesn’t mean people were eating corn dogs and watching seals balance balls on the tips of their noses while the commission conducted its business. The delegates spent a week debating quotas and the question of whether the body should transform itself into a whale protection group or maintain its original function of being a conservation group. The countries that caught whales last year get to catch just as many whales this year. Meanwhile, meetings will continue to find a compromise between the whalers and the anti-whalers.

Japan can continue to hunt some 1,000 whales per year for scientific purposes after the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in Santiago agreed Wednesday to postpone any far-reaching decisions on the protection of these cetaceans.

But nothing ever stops the media from painting a different picture, however. How’s this for a lead sentence to a news report?

Whales emerged the big losers as a weeklong International Whaling Commission meeting wrapped up in Chile on Friday, said conservation groups…

Let’s try that same approach to rewrite a lead sentence from a different story that appeared a month ago.

Cows emerged as the big losers as the South Korean government lifted a ban on American beef imports, said vegetarian groups…

Take another look at that Rod Liddle quote at the top of the post. The man’s on to something.

The lead sentence of the news report is written to make it seem as if whales are just as involved as a human lobbying group. Strange ideas seem to have captured some elements of the popular imagination. Try this from a month ago.

Great apes should have the right to life and freedom, according to a resolution passed in the Spanish parliament, in what could become landmark legislation to enshrine human rights for chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utans and bonobos.

Both reports start with assertive declarations of goofy ideas as if they were actual facts, followed with a few words to weasel out of any responsibility for the game being played.

1. Whales are the big losers—say conservation groups.

2. Great apes should have the right to life and freedom—according to a Spanish parliament resolution

And journalists wonder why so many people give them a hard time.

The biggest surprise of the IWC meeting didn’t involve Japan. Greenland, represented by Denmark, applied for permission to allow its aboriginal inhabitants to catch an additional 10 humpback whales in addition to the special whaling concession they already receive.

The IWC’s scientific body endorsed this request. But environmentalism is now the hip religion, and we all know how the scientist Galileo fared against the Church. The request was denied, with the EU voting as a bloc against it.

Some found the European tactic difficult to digest. As we recently saw, South Korea has stringent restrictions on whaling (despite a long Korean history of whale-eating), and the EU move cheesed even them off.

South Korea described the EU bloc vote as “interference with the legitimate process of this organisation and the due process of law”.

How much longer will it take the Koreans to realize that in these enlightened Dark Ages, religious faith in environmentalism transcends science and the due process of law?

For the real circus atmosphere, the media had to go outside the IWC venue itself. They filed more stories about the whaling circus than they did about the decisions of the international whaling body itself.

Such as:

From Australia to Japan, California to Chile, surfers around the world are uniting to protect humpback whales from world No.1 hunter Japan – by getting towns and communities to adopt the giant mammals. Sixty towns in Australia alone have adopted whales under the initiative by Surfers for Cetaceans, set up by surfers to protect whales and dolphins.

In Australia, the markings on humpbacks’ tails – dubbed fingerprints because they are unique – are lifted up over the entrances of towns that have adopted whales so the flourishing whale-watching industry there can identify its adoptees.

“No longer are they just a whale out there in the ocean, they are a whale with a story, a name, a family, a history and a personality. There are some that are theatrical in their approach when they come in touch with humans.”

Rod Liddle’s starting to look like a genius.

They also filed this detective story for mystery fans:

Forensic-style DNA sampling of whale meat in Japanese markets turned up fin whales that can’t be accounted for, Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute reports….Meat from at least 15 individual fin whales was being sold in 2006 and 2007 — two more than the Japanese government reported killing as part of its scientific whaling program during the same period, Scott Baker, associate director of the institute, said Friday.

Consider if you will what sort of people would conduct “forensic-style DNA” sampling of whale meat in Japanese markets and trumpet the news that they found one John Doe whale a year.

Then consider what sort of people would think it was important.

Some people prefer eroticism to stories about sleuths:

For Yves Paccalet, a French naturalist and philosopher who helped push through the 1986 moratorium, the intelligent and highly-social creatures may be so exhausted from their centuries-long combat with humankind that they have simply have given up the fight.

“The psychological consequences of our aggression have compromised their will to live,” said Paccalet, who worked extensively with French marine explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. “To reproduce, whales need a large number of individuals to ensure that they meet, and then to frolic and excite each other. Otherwise, a species may give in to a kind of sexual melancholy and simply stops breeding,” he told AFP.

Fancy that: A Frenchman speculating on whale sexuality.

A media circus with whales as the main attraction isn’t complete without an article hinting that the Japanese are still the cruel, unfeeling beasts of World War II. After all, look at what they do to their own children!

Japanese 10-year-olds taken on school trips to whale slaughter

Japanese children as young as ten are watching whales being slaughtered to teach them the “cultural importance” of Japan’s controversial commercial whaling industry.

This was the lead to an article ostensibly about the IWC meetings.

Never mind that it’s not controversial in Japan. Never mind that the whales were already killed and the children watched them being processed, not “slaughtered”. Some of those children have already seen fish being cleaned—people do catch a lot of fish here–so the sight of a whale being cut up is unlikely to cause nightmares.

If they really needed a shocking, bloody word, they could have used “butchered” instead. But that might spoil the fun.

After all, isn’t that what Westerners do to cows?

There have to be clowns to make it a real circus, and when it comes to a whaling circus, there’s always one man who can be counted on to wear the cap and bells—Jolly Roger himself, Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd. Here’s one report:

Canadian-born renegade sea captain Paul Watson has set his sights on sinking Japan’s whaling industry, the largest in the world — and reckons he is halfway there.

He reckons he’s halfway there because the Japanese took only half of their whale quota last winter after he harassed them with just one ship. Now he’s going to get a second ship.

That’s reminiscent of the famous fictional seaman, Captain Queeg:

I proved with geometric logic that a duplicate key to the icebox existed.

Clown isn’t the only word that could be applied to Cap’n Watson, however. There’s also pirate. In an excerpt from a Newsweek interview:

Q: You have argued that your tactics are legal. How so?

A: We are upholding the UN Charter of Nature and operating within the principles of this charter which allows for non-governmental organizations to intervene to uphold international conservation law. For instance, in 1986, we sunk half of Iceland’s whaling fleet…

And vigilante

Sea Shepherd campaigns are guided by the United Nations World Charter for Nature. Sections 21-24 of the Charter provides authority to individuals to act on behalf of and enforce international conservation laws.

Go on a sea hunt of your own and see if you can spot any justification for his behavior in those sections.

And then there’s the word buffoon:

Paul Watson launched the 5th Sea Shepherd Antarctic campaign to stop Japanese whaling on Thursday June 26, 2008. The campaign is called Operation Musashi after the legendary Japanese strategist and samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, a personal role model and hero of Captain Watson. “Sea Shepherd intends to transform Setsuninto – the sword {harpoon} that takes life – to Katsujinken – the sword {harpoon} that gives life.” said the press release.

The media assures us that they are impartial, so surely there are stories presenting the opposite viewpoint. It took a bit of digging to find any, but here’s one about a colorful old salt from the whaling fleets. It starts off by telling us that the good guys in the white hats don’t like him:

Reviled by conservationists, Icelandic whale meat exporter Kristjan Loftsson is unapologetic, saying anti-whaling groups and nations are neurotic and that whale meat is highly profitable — and delicious.

“Those who speak loudest, the UK and US, Australia, they used to whale before but they couldn’t manage their whales, so everything is gone. So they have no interest in this any more,” Loftsson told Reuters in an interview.

“Whales are just like any ordinary fish,” he said. “But in Iceland the bottom line is it has to be sustainable. If it is sustainable you do it, and if it is not you stop. We also do that with fisheries, there’s no difference.”

“It tastes just like any ordinary, very good red meat. You can eat some of it raw. Depending on which loin (cut) of the whale, whale meat is most like tuna,” he added.

Just as consumers have to go upmarket to get quality in an automobile or fine wine, they also have to leave the mass market to get quality in journalism. The best place to find that last week was National Geographic:

If (Iceland, Norway, and Japan) are permitted to whale a little, the idea’s proponents argue, then their hunts can be monitored and the effects of these hunts better understood.

“It would resume our science-based methods for determining how many whales can be safely harvested from a particular population,” said Andrew Read, a marine conservation biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, (who) has served on the IWC’s scientific committee for more than a decade.

Susan Lieberman is the director of the World Wildlife Fund’s global species program. She said whaling itself does not help conservation, but a compromise that ended unregulated killing would be worth considering. “I think governments have an obligation to try to see if they can bridge the gap here,” she said.

They even present an opposing viewpoint–but not first:

Patrick Ramage directs the global whale program for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which opposes any compromise that would allow for a resumption of commercial whale hunts. “We should be discussing how Japan, Norway, and Iceland will join the vast majority of IWC member countries in putting down their harpoons, picking up cameras, [and] going whale watching,” he said.

No wonder those sensitive whales are sexually frustrated. Who could perform with all those voyeurs watching your every move—and taking pictures!

National Geographic also wonders why everyone focuses on Japan.

Why is Japan’s Whaling Bogeyman when Norway Hunts Too?

For the anti-whaling lobby, Japan appears to be its Moby Dick, a foe to be singled out and endlessly pursued…But are the attacks fair, when other nations also engage in substantial amounts of whaling—and unlike Japan, in open defiance of international conventions?

…Japan is the “head of the zombie and needs to be cut off,” said Willie Mackenzie, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace U.K…

…Shigeko Misaki, a former spokeswoman for the Japan Whaling Association, said the anti-whaling campaign has gone too far.

“It has almost become a religion, that whales are the only symbol of the marine ecosystem,” she said. “People who believe this religion think all Japanese people are evil, because we kill whales…

Claire Bass of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, conceded that cultural differences do color the debate.

“Japan manages whales under their fisheries agency. They basically see them as big fish,” she said. “We see them as intelligent, charismatic, captivating creatures. So I wouldn’t deny there’s a difference in the starting point at which we view whales.”

You did read that Rod Liddle quote a second time, didn’t you?

Once upon a time, the circus paraded through town, pitched its tent, gave a couple of weeks of performances, and then left for a new city. Now, driven by the demands of the infotainment culture, the print and visual media offer us fire-breathers, sword-swallowers, and bearded ladies 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

And they just give the tickets away.

Japan and Australia

Before the Chilean media extravaganza there was an overlooked prelude in Tokyo when Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd met Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo.

Last year, when Mr. Rudd was still in the opposition, he was free to talk tough about the cetacean slaughterers. He vowed to track every move of the Japanese whaling fleet in the South Pacific to collect evidence and haul them before the International Court of Justice.

Now that Mr. Rudd is in office and his words actually have consequences, his attitude seems to have changed.

Rudd told reporters at a joint press conference after the meeting at Fukuda’s office:

”On whaling, Prime Minister Fukuda and I agreed that you can have disagreements between friends. We’ve also agreed that this disagreement should not undermine in any way the strength and positive nature of our overall bilateral relationship and we will be working in the period ahead diplomatically in search of the solution on this question.”

Did Mr. Fukuda remind his visitor that Japan is the biggest customer for many important Australian exports? It’s more likely that Mr. Rudd didn’t need to be reminded and turned out to be a paper tiger instead.

This did not go over well back home in Australia:

In 2005 Kevin Rudd said: “We cannot afford another year of complacency. The Howard government must act immediately to take Japan to the International Court of Justice.”

In 2007, the then leader of the Opposition said it was necessary to “take Japan to international courts such as the International Court of Justice or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to end the slaughter of whales”. He also said: “Obviously, that approach of international pressure through the IWC has not worked.”

The threat of taking Japan to the ICJ was not even raised in talks with Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda….What has become clear is that Australia stands to lose more at an international court than Japan because it would expose Australia’s tenuous legal position of controlling waters in the Southern Ocean.

Following this costly debacle, Australia then went to the IWC meeting in Chile with a radical proposal to completely invert the commission’s role and turn it into whale protection group completely banning whaling, instead of a whale harvesting body setting sustainable levels of the hunt.

On the other hand, Japan went to the IWC with a plan to avoid divisive votes for a year and reform the processes of the commission. Japan, as an act of good faith, continued its own suspension of the hunt for 50 humpback whales but has kept the legal right to take 900 whales next year.

But one Australian found out that not all Japanese are barbarous whale-murderers.

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith met on the 26th for talks with Hatoyama Yukio, the secretary-general of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. Here’s a story the latter told Mr. Smith, according to a report in the Sankei Shimbun.

“Actually, my wife served some home-cooked whale this morning. I don’t believe in eating whale, so I turned it down, but it is in fact a popular dish on the Japanese table.”

Back-translating from the translation into Japanese, Smith’s reply was, “You’re a braver man than I. My policy is to eat everything my wife serves.”

Mr. Hatoyama later said his wife had made a type of whale stew for breakfast. He also explained that he didn’t eat whales because people from the district he represents in Hokkaido were trying to develop whale watching as a tourism resource.

And yes, it is stretching it a bit to have us believe that the wife of a politician in his 60s doesn’t know he refuses to eat whale and serves it to him in a breakfast stew on the very morning he is to meet the Australian foreign minister.

But the Japanese will recognize the practical application of their proverb, uso mo hoben, or, circumstances may justify a falsehood. Mr. Hatoyama first established common ground with his visitor by telling him that he too, like most Australians, does not eat whale out of principle.

At the same time, he also made it known that plenty of Japanese like whales a lot–to eat. He then told the foreign minister that the extreme obstructionist tactics used by environmental groups for the whaling survey fleet “cannot be overlooked”.

I’m not sure that Mr. Smith swallowed the story about the breakfast any more than Mr. Hatoyama swallowed his wife’s whale stew.

But he certainly got the point, delivered most diplomatically.

Posted in Environmentalism, Food, I couldn't make this up if I tried, International relations | Tagged: , | 23 Comments »

Mom & pop shops in Japan and South Korea

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, June 28, 2008

THREE WEEKS AGO, we had a post describing South Korean Prof. Che Kei-ho’s defense of the Japanese colonization of the Korean Peninsula. The professor incorporated in his argument the unenlightened attitude of the Joseon Dynasty rulers, whom he said were anti-progress, anti-commerce and industry, and anti-intellectual. Prof. Che maintained that it was inevitable a stronger power would colonize such a backwards place.

This week, a discussion of that same Joseon attitude popped up in an unexpected source in which an entirely different point was being made. That source was Nihonjin to Kankokujin: Naruhodo Jiten, a book consisting of short articles two or three pages in length written for a Japanese audience. These articles compare and contrast daily life and customs in the two countries.

One article contained a discussion about small shopkeepers, particularly for eating and drinking places. The authors paint with a broad brush, of course, but their explanation of why most of those shops in South Korea are operated by women instead of men, as is usually the case in Japan, is interesting in light of Prof. Che’s lecture. Here’s a summary/translation of that article.

*****

“The shops (in South Korea) are left to the wife, while the mainstream conservative husbands get to do whatever they like. Yet seldom do their wives and children criticize the men for their behavior. This is perhaps due to the lingering influence of the system of paternal authority, or the old concept of respecting men and demeaning women (danson johi in Japanese), but the prestige of the man as the head of the household is maintained. That the women’s efforts have been successful enough to allow the families to buy their own homes can only be a source of envy for Japanese men, who often have to work like dogs in the same circumstances.

“Of course, not all Korean families that operate successful and profitable shops have a man lying in front of the TV set all day. But the idea that the shop would be very profitable if the husband were to cooperate and apply himself to the business is how the Japanese think. Those shops (in Korea) where the husband is enthusiastic about the business are successful in their own way. But the reason most men are not interested in doing that sort of work has its origins in an old Korean attitude that has been handed down to the present.

“There is an old tradition in Korea that commerce is an ignoble occupation. This attitude of the privileged classes who controlled the Joseon Dynasty filtered down to the common people. That’s why some still consider the sight of a man in an apron welcoming customers to the shop to be unseemly.

“It’s a different story with larger enterprises. It’s perfectly acceptable for men who owns a restaurant chain with several outlets to stand in a suit and greet the customers. That’s an upgrade in rank from petty commerce to business enterprise, and from shop proprietor to company president. Japanese find it difficult to understand, but there’s a wide, unbridgeable chasm between petty commerce and a business enterprise in South Korea.

“One exception in Korea are those people who lost their jobs due to corporate restructuring in the late 90s and opened a small shop with the intent of turning them into a larger business enterprise. Those men did wear aprons and toil in front of the stove.

“This historical background is the same reason there are few shinise (Japanese for long-established shops) in Korea that boast of having been in business for decades or centuries. Most parents would rather see their sons succeed in a large business enterprise than hand over a shop to them. In contrast, a Korean is likely to be puzzled by Japanese shop owners who are proud of their unbroken line of succession. Some might think the only reason the current shop owner is operating the business is because he lacks the talent to do something better.

“Of course, we cannot overlook the Japanese colonial control of Korea and the Korean War as factors for the lack of shinise. These two factors cut Koreans off from the economy and industry that existed previous to them. While it’s not unusual to find shops in Japan that have existed since the Edo period (1603-1868), it would have been difficult in Korea for shops from that era to continue to operate even if the proprietors wanted to.

“Since the end of the Korean War, the attitude in Korea toward shinise has started to change. As society has become more affluent, people are starting to appreciate such things as “traditional flavor”.

“Perhaps the day that the “heavy hips” of the men of the house grow lighter is also not far off.”

Afterwords:

If the article’s positive tone and the lack of nationalistic or ethnocentric propaganda are not what you were led to expect by what you’ve heard or read elsewhere, you shouldn’t be surprised. It’s typical of the contemporary Japanese attitude toward South Korea.

Posted in Books, Food, South Korea, Traditions | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

An interview with Edano Yukio

Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 27, 2008

FOR THE BETTER PART OF THREE DECADES, Japanese reformers from every hue of the political spectrum have been hammering away to reform and rebuild the superstructure installed in 1955. That’s when two center-right, anti-leftist parties merged to create the Liberal Democratic Party. Except for ten months in the early 90s, the LDP has ruled continuously since then, either alone or in coalitions with smaller parties.

Of course they’ll succeed in the end, but the pace of progress is the same as it is everywhere: one step forward, two steps back, and three years of waiting for the next step.

Some reformers, such as former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro, have actually worked from within the LDP to effect the reforms they sought. Mr. Koizumi has been the most successful, perhaps validating the claim that one has to be a part of the system to change it. But then again, it’s a rare political specimen who receives massive public support by repeatedly promising to destroy his own party.

Many others have been drilling at the foundations of the old regime from the outside. One of the most tireless has been Edano Yukio, an influential member of the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party. He started his national political life as a member of the Japan New Party, a small group led by Hosokawa Morihiro. It was Mr. Hosokawa who served in 1993 as the first prime minister of a non-LDP government in nearly 40 years.

Since then, Mr. Edano has passed through several minor political parties, including the New Party Sakigake, which actually joined a ruling coalition with LDP in the 90s. He later became one of the first Diet members to join the DPJ, Japan’s primary opposition party.

The Edano Philosophy

What are his core beliefs? The political philosophies of the DPJ members cover such an impossibly wide range of views that it would be difficult to imagine a comparable group existing in the West, much less functioning successfully. Also, the basic premise in Japanese party politics is to put group loyalty first. That can sometimes make it difficult to pin down what an individual really thinks. (And remember, these are politicians–what they think can change depending on the wind direction.)

In some ways, Mr. Edano would seem to be in the party’s center-right camp. He is known as being extremely well-versed in policy, but somewhat lacking in political skills. He has served in several positions in the party’s shadow Cabinet, and he helped write the party’s platform for the 2003 Diet election.

His website advertises his opposition to pork barrel politics, dependence on the bureaucracy, and centralized government. He makes a point to mention his work with LDP reformer Ishihara Nobuteru on policy issues in the Diet. He wants to revise Japan’s Constitution, citing as one reason the need to limit public sector authority. Mr. Edano also says that he favors the devolution of authority, and is an opponent of waste, fraud, and abuse in government. That last is no mere boilerplate; it is one of the most critical issues of the day in this country.

In addition to a career spent championing reform, he is also known for a hard line against the Chinese. He publicly met with the Dalai Lama in a Tokyo hotel in 2006. He supports the religious leader’s return to Tibet and the establishment of self-rule based on the principles of Tibetan Buddhism. He also notes this would first require the democratization of China.

Party Dissension

Of particular interest in the current political climate is his long association with Maehara Seiji, with whom he shares the leadership of a DPJ faction, and his equally long dislike of Ozawa Ichiro, the DPJ’s president and political leader.

Mr. Maehara was a member of the Japan New Party with Mr. Edano, and together they joined the New Party Sakigake before finding a home in the DPJ. As we’ve seen before, Mr. Maehara has lately been fraternizing with LDP reformers, causing some to wonder if he might throw his lot in with that group to create yet another political party. (We’ll talking more about Mr. Maehara in the days ahead.)

Meanwhile, Mr. Edano and his fellow traveler are hammering away at another political leader of the old school–the president of their own party, Ozawa Ichiro. They are working to replace him ini the party election to be held in September.

No one is very surprised. He bolted the Japan New Party more than 10 years ago because he thought Prime Minister Hosokawa was paying too much attention to Mr. Ozawa’s whispered instructions from behind the curtain. He was the DPJ member most adamantly opposed to a merger with the boutique party Mr. Ozawa later created, and said he would resign from the Diet if it happened. (The merger happened in September 2003, and he didn’t resign from the Diet. Empty threats are not uncommon in Japanese politics.)

While favoring Constitutional reform, he has also said that a true debate over revising the document wouldn’t happen until both Abe Shinzo and Ozawa Ichiro were removed as heads of their parties. Now that Mr. Abe is long gone, he’s half-way there.

The Nishinippon Shimbun interviewed Edano Yukio last week, and here is the English version.

*****

Give us your frank impressions about the political situation as the first gridlocked Diet session comes to an end.

It took the ruling party about six months after last year’s upper house election to get used to the new situation, so there were abuses. They finally relented, which resulted in successes.

What were the abuses?

They–and the mass media–were under the mistaken impression that any decision of the government and the ruling party would be the final decision. They said they wanted to hold discussions (about issues), but they gave no indication of where they were willing to compromise. They just said to come to the table. That’s no way to make progress. It took time for them to understand it was natural for the changes in the Diet to lead to different results in Diet debates.

Do you think the current situation is normal?

Actually, even with the gridlock, it hasn’t been at all unusual for the opposition’s opinions to bring about change in the legislative proposals submitted by the Cabinet to the Diet. We finally got (the LDP) to see that that’s how the Diet would be in the future.

How would you evaluate the Fukuda Administration?

The Cabinets of Koizumi Yuichiro, Abe Shinzo, and Fukuda Yasuo are all the same administration. The Fukuda Administration’s low support rate reflects the voters’ judgment of the negative legacy of the Koizumi-era ideas, such as the new health care system for the late-stage elderly. I hope we are able to make the point that LDP governments are the problem, rather than wonder who in the LDP would be best to lead the government.

The DPJ has been criticized for giving priority in all issues to creating a political crisis.

We might have to think about how that misunderstanding can be corrected. It’s natural for there to be many different opinions on policy matters. It was a kindness that the party allowed the opening of internal debate at an early stage.

What is your evaluation of Ozawa Ichiro, who has switched to a policy of confrontation?

It is not the place of a member of the DPJ group of parliamentarians who chose Ozawa as its head in an election to give a third party-like evaluation.

Some in the party think Mr. Ozawa should be reelected by acclimation in the fall election.

Regardless of who the candidates are, the winner will stand at the head of the party and lead it to victory in the national election. A proper party election will be indispensable for enhancing that person’s influence and suitability. True influence will come when that person is selected after several choices have been presented to the party members and supporters.

Are you thinking of running?

As of now, I haven’t thought about it at all. My theory on leadership is that you start thinking about it when the people around you recommend you as being suited for it.

What do you think the public is looking for from politics today?

Mr. Koizumi talked about privatizing the postal system for 20 years. The people responded very positively to his strong beliefs. They seek a leader in whom they can place their trust. Politicians who lack a seriousness of purpose and can’t communicate their message won’t be trusted.

Many are skeptical that the DPJ has the ability to lead a government.

Nobody knows whether anyone has the ability or not until they are given responsibility for the government. When Mr. Abe led a government, he didn’t have the ability.

Will there be a political realignment?

Both the LPD and the DPJ expect the other to split up, but that’s not possible. The only (solution) is to seek a (Diet) majority in an election.

Afterwords

Mr. Edano’s observation that both parties are trying to outlast the other in the hopes that their opponent will crumble is particularly apt. It’s not a good way to run a government, but both parties do seem to be playing a game of last man standing. And it’s not out of the question that either or both will get their wish.

There are several areas of agreement between Mr. Edano and the LDP reform wing, which makes it difficult to determine just where he differs from them. He has long been associated with DPJ founding member Kan Naoto, who is known for being somewhat to the left of center. Therefore, it might be that Mr. Edano would favor more generous social welfare policies than the semi-libertarian types in that LDP group.

Posted in Government, Politics | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Tokyo sword exhibit

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, June 26, 2008

THOSE READERS living in Tokyo have a chance to see a remarkable exhibit of the Japanese swordsmith’s art at the Seikado Bunko Art Museum until July 27. Those who live elsewhere can read about the exhibit in this well-done and informative article in The Japan Times.

The museum is showing 30 swords from its collection of 120. The oldest in the exhibit dates from the 10th century. And the entry fee is cheap!

The cultural articles in the Japan Times, by the way, are usually superb–in marked contrast to what passes for political reporting on their pages.

Posted in History, Martial arts, Traditions | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Looking for the DPJ pony

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 24, 2008

THERE’S AN OLD JOKE in the United States about twin boys, one of whom was an extreme pessimist and one of whom was an extreme optimist. Their parents were worried about their unbalanced outlook and decided to consult a child psychologist.

The doctor tried to treat the pessimist first by taking him to a room filled with new toys to change his attitude. But instead of being thrilled at the sight of the toys, the boy burst into tears. When the puzzled psychologist asked the boy why he was crying, the pessimist answered, “If I played with all those toys I’d only break them.”

The psychologist then tried the same technique to treat the optimistic twin. This time, he took the boy to a room filled with horse manure. But instead of being repelled, the boy became excited, jumped into the middle of the room, and started digging with his bare hands.

The astonished psychologist asked the boy why he was so happy. He replied, “With all this manure, there must be a pony in here somewhere!”

The hyper-optimistic twin in the joke is an apt analogy for what has become of those supporters of the Democratic Party of Japan, the country’s largest opposition group, who believe against all evidence that the party is the best hope for political and governmental reform.

A case in point was the DPJ notification sent this week to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party that it would reject the nomination of Keio University Prof. Ikeo Kazuhito for a seat on the Bank of Japan Policy Board. There already have been several soap operas starring prospective BOJ appointees in the Diet this year, but this one may be the cherry on top of the sundae.

The LDP nominated Prof. Ikeo at the end of last month, and the DPJ initially said it would approve the nomination.

But the DPJ has an alliance in the upper house with the People’s New Party, a splinter group consisting of politicians thrown out of the LDP when they refused to support former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s plan to privatize the postal, banking, and insurance systems of Japan Post. The privatization bills were ultimately passed, but not after some serious political hardball and a snap election in the lower house showed that the electorate overwhelmingly supported Mr. Koizumi’s proposal.

The so-called postal rebels were later allowed to return to the party, but a few of the diehards chose to form the PNP instead.

One of the critical issues in Japan today is the need to drastically reduce the bureaucracy’s influence on political and governmental policy, and to cut the cozy ties between bureaucrats and some members of the Diet. Because of their fierce opposition to the privatization of what was originally a Cabinet ministry, the PNP is seen by some as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

The PNP has only four seats in the 480-seat lower house, and four seats in the 242-seat upper house.

The DPJ first told the LDP it would support Prof. Ikeo’s nomination, but as of yesterday they had a change of mind/heart. Why?

The PNP informed its DPJ allies that it wouldn’t support the professor because he was in favor of postal privatization three years ago, and that they would end their alliance in the Diet if the DPJ backed his nomination.

The qualifications for the job opening on the Policy Board require expertise in monetary policy and have nothing to do with the privatization of government services.

The result will be a vacancy on the BOJ policy board until the next Diet session in the fall.

What does that tell us about the DPJ? The putative reformers have gone back on their word because the PNP, the tip of the tail, wagged the dog. They allowed themselves to be controlled by a miniature party of anti-reformers, thereby hindering the smooth operation of government. It demonstrates that their real priority is creating a political crisis by leveraging alliances to give them numerical superiority in the Diet, rather than adhering to and fighting for their stated principles.

That’s assuming they have any principles other than using whatever means are available to take power.

And some people think they’ll pursue enlightened policies once they form a government?

Here’s some unsolicited advice for the friends of the DPJ: Keep right on digging. After all, there’s bound to be a pony somewhere in all that crap.

Afterwords: Here is an article written by Prof. Ikeo titled Integrity is Indispensable for Capital Market Development. At least someone in the room recognizes the importance of integrity.

Posted in Government, Politics | Leave a Comment »

Matsuri da! (89): You art what you eat!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 24, 2008

THE INTRODUCTION OF WET PADDY rice cultivation some 2,000 years ago defined the Japanese nation. Growing rice was once considered a religious act, in which the spirit of the rice plant was invoked. It required labor-intensive farming, advanced water control systems, and the combined effort of the greater community. That created the environment in which the traditional extended family system evolved.

Until modern times, the rice crop was the standard used for managing land and levying taxes. The word for cooked rice itself is synonymous with a meal; the other foods served with it, even expensive beefsteak, are considered o-kazu, or side dishes.

Children in the region where I live are sent on field trips at least once during their school career to plant rice by hand. Dressed in gym class t-shirts and shorts, they slosh around in the wet rice paddy in bare feet to find out first hand how to place the seedlings in the mud to make sure they don’t fall over. What better way to understand the work required to put their daily bowl of rice on the table?

The Daijosai, sometimes translated as the Great Food Offering Ritual, is the third of three ceremonies through which a new tenno (emperor) ascends the throne. The preparations include an ancient divination technique to select consecrated paddies for growing the rice to be used. It is cultivated using ritual procedures, and when harvested is sent by special minister to the ceremony site. The tenno offers this rice to the sun goddess Amaterasu and other divinities before eating it himself to partake in spiritual communion with them.

“You are what you eat” is a concept as old as humankind and has been incorporated in religious worship throughout the world. The Catholics believe in the concept of transubstantiation, in which the bread and wine of the Eucharist are changed into the body and blood of Jesus. Believers partake of this on Sunday mornings, after confessing their sins on Saturday.

And that’s how the Japanese came to believe that the tenno was a living god.

June is the month for planting rice in Japan, and the start of the season is celebrated by hundreds of rice-planting festivals everywhere in the country.

One is the Yukisaiden Otaue Matsuri held on the 1st in Okazaki, Aichi, shown in the first photo below. The first festival was for planting the rice used in the Daijosai of the Taisho tenno, the current tenno’s grandfather. The song, dance, tools, and clothing used in the ceremony have been designated intangible folk cultural treasures of the city

Members of a local preservation society and sixth-graders in primary school trooped into the fields to plant 2,500 rice stalks by the traditional method as they sang a local rice-planting song. Girls or young women are usually the ones to do the ceremonial planting, and the language even has a special word for them: saotome.

All the rice planted was of the same Banzai variety used in the Daijosai 90 years ago. The rice was derived from the leftovers a local farmer discovered in his farmhouse in 2005.

Sometimes the planters work to a song or musical accompaniment. The 23 saotome in the Suwa Taisha Shinto shrine festival in Suwa, Nagano, however, plant the seedlings on signals from a foreman. These saotome are in their teens and 20s and were selected to represent each district served by the shrine. The harvested rice will be offered at the Niinamesai, the Shinto harvest festival, in November.

All 33 saotome in the festival held in Goshogawara, Aomori, on the 16th were high school seniors. A local high school conducts the festival every year, rather than a Shinto shrine. The girls wear clothing made by predecessors who did the planting 10 years ago. It looks like comfort was their primary consideration.

It required 55 saotome from local junior high and high schools for the Taga Taisha shrine festival in Taga-cho, Shiga, however. The girls received the rice plants at the shrine and proceeded to the paddy. After they arrived, miko, or shrine maidens, ritually purified the paddy with hot water. Only 32 of the girls did the planting, while the rest performed the dances and songs. The rice will be harvested in September at the Nuibosai ceremony and offered for consecration in November at the Niinamesai.

Meanwhile, it took only five saotome to do the planting in Maeda Toshiharu’s 200-square-meter paddy in Torahime-cho, Shiga, but the rice will still be sent to the tenno as an offering. Here the miko performed the ceremonial dance and the first ceremonial plowing before the high school girls did the dirty work.

The festival of the Tsumakirishima shrine down south in Miyakonojo, Miyazaki, was held on the 7th with 12-grade girls serving as the saotome. This event started sometime during the Edo period (1603-1868), but stopped in 1940 because of World War II. The older folks in Miyakonojo remembered how much they enjoyed it, however, so they decided to start it up again in 1989. It’s been an annual event ever since.

Here they use a special variety of red rice. Not all rice is brown—there are 1,500 varieties in Japan, and some of them come in different colors. It’s a veritable rainbow coalition of cereal diversity. There are even varieties of black rice, which my wife and I add to the genmai (brown rice) we eat for dinner. We mix it because the black rice is gummy and sticky and not ideal for eating by itself. I tried it once, and it didn’t work out well. Cleaning the rice cooker afterward wasn’t so appealing, either.

One saotome said the festival was a lot of fun because she enjoyed the sensation of her bare feet squishing in the warm mud. I wonder if that was the girl smiling for the camera. Hi there!

Miyakonojo’s festival was suspended during the war and didn’t get restarted until almost 50 years later, but the Hikamianego Shinto shrine in Nagoya has kept theirs going since 1933 without a break. Legend has it that this shrine was established in 195 and moved to its present location in 690. Note that those dates have only three digits.

The 10 saotome working in the shrine’s sacred paddy aren’t schoolgirls, but flesh-and-blood farming folk or employees of the local agricultural cooperative. The report says they sing a planting song as they work. They do resemble a chorus line, come to think of it.

The festival of the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine in Kyoto is well known throughout the country for being photogenic, even though it is relatively recent—it started in 1948. It was held on the 10th, with girls performing the o-tamai (rice paddy dance) as both men and women handled the planting.

The rice will be harvested in another Nuibosai festival and offered to the divinities. Reports say the festival mood is solemn. Those folks up on the wall do look like a serious bunch, don’t they? That’s the o-temai the girls are doing.

The local farmers also play an important role in the Nitta Shrine festival in Satsumasendai, Kagoshima, as they swing bamboo sticks called yakko in a ritual to drive away the insects. Here the planting is done by 24 men and women, this year in the rain, as they sing a rice planting song.

Singing in the rain! Whistling while they work! Swatting insects with bamboo sticks!

The Tashibunosho district of Bungotakada, Oita, looks remarkably like a farming village in the Japanese middle ages. Their planting festival was held on the 8th by the Usa Jingu shrine. It started with a Shinto ceremony and was followed by 150 planters taking care of business, with the paddy’s owner and students from Beppu University helping the saotome.

They start planting when Buddhist priests from the Fuki-ji temple give them the high sign by blowing on conch shells. This is an example of ecumenism Japanese style—many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples once shared the same facilities, and the Usa Jingu and Fuki-ji were a combined operation as far back as the 12th century.

This one’s not such a solemn affair. It starts with a comical sketch of a cow dummy and a herder in the paddy. The cow gets stuck in the mud and falls over, and later runs amok to avoid the work. Perhaps she didn’t care for her bare hooves squishing in the mud.

The miko do all the work at the 300-year-old festival of the Yutoku Inari shrine in Kashima, Saga. They serve as the saotome to plant the rice, perform the o-taue dance, and provide the musical accompaniment with clappers and flute. Maybe they ought to think about organizing a union.

This rice is also harvested at a Nuibosai festival, and some of it will be made into sake for the Niinamesai.

The high school girls are back as the saotome in Mitoyo, Kagawa, for the festival conducted by the Hokohachiman-gu shrine. This event is nearly 100 years old, and the rice will be used for a December Niinamesai. They alternate the use of private paddies, and this year’s field was chosen as the lucky one for the first time in nearly 50 years. Crop rotation with a long lead time makes it easy on the local farmers.

Instead of an o-temai, they perform a lion dance, or shishimai, to the accompaniment of taiko drums

You can be serious and still have fun, as this event held last Saturday demonstrates. The planting in Himeji, Hyogo, was not part of an old Shinto ritual. It was to create rice paddy art using eight rice varieties with different colors. Viewing the paddy from above after the rice plants grow will reveal a picture of the Himeji Castle. The 1.6-hectare rice paddy covers nearly as much ground as the castle itself.

About 100,000 rice plants were used for the planting, which took three days to finish. On the first day, 340 people turned out and used a diagram to plant the different strains in just the right spots. Pointillism in agriculture.

The castle is slated to undergo major repairs this fall. The chairman of the organizing committee said they conducted the event not only to promote tourism, but also to reeducate area residents about food and farming.

The paddy castle magic will be best seen in mid-July, and the prime view is from Mt. Shosha, which has a convenient ropeway for carrying people to the summit.

Is this another take on “you art what you eat”? Or is it art you can eat?

Posted in Festivals, Food, History, Imperial family, Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Popular delusions and the madness of crowds in South Korea

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, June 22, 2008

“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one!”
– Charles Mackay

THE QUOTE ABOVE comes from Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, published in 1841 and still one of the most insightful books on the human condition ever written. Mackay states his intention in the preface to the first edition:

The object of the author in the following pages has been to collect the most remarkable instances of those moral epidemics which have been excited, sometimes by one cause and sometimes by another, and to show how easily the masses have been led astray, and how imitative and gregarious men are, even in their infatuations and crimes.

He made it even clearer in the preface to a later edition:

In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.

Most contemporary references to the book cite incidents from the three chapters on economic bubbles, particularly the Dutch tulip mania in the 1630s. But Mackay’s book covers a wider range of human behavior, which he classified in three groups: National Delusions, Peculiar Follies, and Philosophical Delusions.

Lest anyone dismiss these stories as humoresques or curiosities from a less enlightened age, we should realize that the nexus of modern communications and information technology, including television, personal computers, the Internet, and the mass media, has allowed this aspect of the human character to flourish.

For an excellent example, we need look no farther than the current popular delusion and madness of the crowd in South Korea over President Lee Myung-bak’s decision to allow imports of American beef after a five-year ban.

Try this post by Sonagi at The Marmot’s Hole for a brief but penetrating look at the phenomenon. Most astonishing is his account of the misinformation published in the International Herald Tribune. (The links to Korean newspapers are unfortunately not in English, but you’ll get the idea.)

Sonagi provides us a taste with this quote:

During the Saturday rally, a high school girl took the microphone and said before the crowd: “I drove four hours to join this rally because I don’t want to die.”

Whenever there is a new advance in information technology, some people talk as if it will change the world. It won’t, of course; it’ll just make it easier for some to conduct their business, some to have a new toy for killing time, and for others to behave like the fools they are.

And we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that the business of the mass media is anything other than to profit from this behavior by encouraging it. Claiming that their mission is to speak truth to power and give voice to the powerless is only a popular delusion within the infotainment guild.

None of the rest of us has to fall for it.

Disclaimers: I’m an American who almost never eats beef, supports free trade among nations regardless of the nations involved, and thinks that protectionism hurts everyone in the long run.

Posted in Books, Mass media, Popular culture, South Korea | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Some like it hot…and steamy!

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, June 22, 2008

NOW HERE’S A PASTIME it would be very easy to get accustomed to. Hotels and ryokan, or Japanese-style inns, at the Yunogo Spa in Mimasaka, Okayama, held an annual event earlier this month in which Japanese iris plants (iris ensata) are placed in the bathwater. It took place on the 7th, one day before Tango-no-Sekku, the traditional boys’ festival, under the lunar calendar.

Legend has it that floating some ensata iris in the tub that day will repel illness and evil spirits. Does it work? Well, anything’ s possible, and even if it doesn’t, the steam elicits a pleasant fragrance from the iris.

It’s such a good idea that the Yunogo Spa Tourism Association has made a point of doing it every year since the mid-80s. This year, the event started with a Shinto ceremony at a local shrine located at the springhead for the waters, which have been a popular destination for the past 1,200 years. Then the association distributed about 1,500 plants to the 27 facilities in the district.

At the Yunogo Sagi Onsenkan shown in the photo, two miko (Shinto altar girls) tossed in about 200 plants at the facility’s outdoor bath. What a pair of duds those two guys in the tub are! If I were in an outdoor bath and those two miko showed up with some iris plants for the water, I’d certainly be a lot more friendly and hospitable. I might even invite them in to take the waters.

Would it work? Well, anything’ s possible, and even if it doesn’t, the steam elicits a pleasant fragrance from the iris!

Reports say the event has become established as a local custom the residents have come to associate with the delights of early summer. So what better event to describe on the first day(s) of the season?

Posted in Traditions | Leave a Comment »

The grand game on the Korean Peninsula

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, June 21, 2008

PEOPLE WHO INSIST ON DEBATING Northeast Asian history at the top of their cyberlungs owe it to themselves and to the rest of us to realize that some issues are too complex for two-dimensional, monochrome explanations.

That should be clear from reading this Korea Times review of Early Korean Encounters With the United States and Japan, a collection of essays written in English by Lew Young-ick.

As other Korean historians have pointed out, the Joseon Dynasty’s misrule created a backwards and xenophobic state that seemed ripe for the picking by imperial powers. Explains reviewer Lee Hyo-won:

(Japan) sought to manifest its imperialistic ambitions on the Korean peninsula, which would additionally act as a buffer against the perceived Russian threat. Japan would also be able to generously “share” the blessings of their newly acquired Western culture.
“Inadequately equipped” for such advances, the xenophobic state started to recognize “the beneficial aspects of Western civilization.” The alarmed Korean rulers “tried to gain time by dilatory tactics, hoping in the meantime to achieve national ‘enlightenment’ and ‘self-strengthening.’” In 1882, Korea signed the Shufeldt Treaty with the U.S., establishing its first diplomatic ties with a Western state.

However, Korea’s tributary debt to China was omnipresent, and the agreement, according to the author, “was the strategic calculation of the Chinese statesman Li Hongzhang, namely to ‘play the American barbarian’ off against the Russian ‘barbarian.’” Li’s main aim was leveraging China’s assertion of suzerainty over Korea.

Nevertheless, King Gojong (1852-1919), the second to last Joseon monarch, saw the U.S. treaty as a potential buffer against Japan’s growing imperialistic tendencies and, to Li’s discontent, repel China’s suzerainty.

And:

…after the Shufeldt Treaty, Korea was “set adrift on an ocean of intrigue which it was quite helpless to control” (Tyler Dennett), with subsequent pacts with Great Britain and Germany (1883), Italy and Russia (1884), France (1886) and Austro-Hungary (1889). The small peninsula thus became “a major playground for contending imperialistic powers.”

On the one hand, $30 is a lot to pay for a 249-page book, but the KT article cites reviews that praise the collection of papers and keynote speeches as being very readable.

All of us (including the KT reviewer) would benefit from the realization that it’s not possible to unravel the tangled skein of the past as long as people want to use history as a weapon in the present, and that pointing misdirected fingers will yield no benefits for the future.

Posted in Books, China, History, International relations | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Were Japanese comfort women hired as nurses?

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, June 21, 2008

THE JAPANESE-LANGUAGE arm of the Kyodo news agency reports that Kanto Gakuin University history professor Hayashi Hirofumi and a group of researchers have discovered in the U.K. National Archives a notification issued by the Imperial Japanese Navy immediately after the war ordering military hospitals to hire Japanese comfort women as auxiliary nurses. The Japanese document was decoded by Allied forces.

Those are the facts contained in the article. Kyodo continues by offering speculation.

Prof. Hayashi and the other researchers think it is likely that if the comfort women were hired as nurses, the Allies would have considered them to be civilian employees of the military. Therefore, since the comfort women were supposedly employed by the military at war’s end, the researchers believe this is important historical data supporting the view that the military was deeply involved in the control of the comfort women during the war.

The researchers also think that making the comfort women into nurses suggests the possibility that the authorities wanted to conceal their existence from the Allied forces.

In conclusion, the article says there have been previous reports that the comfort women had been turned into nurses, based on testimony from former military personnel and an account in a book by an Australian journalist, but this is the first time documentary confirmation of the order has been found.

The article does not provide the date the notification was issued and says nothing about how many comfort women actually were hired as auxiliary nurses at military hospitals.

Prof. Hayashi has been digging for documents related to the comfort women for some time, as his English language website shows. He wrote the Structure of Japanese Imperial Government involved in Military Comfort Women System while at a university in California in 2001. Here is an excerpt:

The first (concrete example) is (a) 1938 Home Ministry document regarding (the) dispatch of a staff officer of the 21st Army stationed in the Southern part of China to Tokyo in order to recruit comfort women. This staff officer, accompanied by a section chief of the Ministry of War, requested the Police Bureau of the Home Ministry to recruit women. The Police Bureau then (issued a notification) in the name of the Chief of the Bureau to prefecture governors to select appropriate managers for the recruitment and to offer assistance to them in this matter. The Office of Army General Staff itself was also deeply involved in this operation. Each prefecture accordingly selected appropriate managers to gather women, who would have to be issued necessary identification papers before they were sent to China. These tasks were carried out by the police. So the order came down from the governor to the chief of police bureau and then to chiefs of police stations that mobilized a number of police officers.

The speculation and this excerpt give rise to some questions.

The notification ordering that the comfort women be hired as nurses refers to Japanese women. It’s not possible to speculate on the motives of the Imperial Japanese Navy, but would they really worry after the war was over what the Allies would think about the Japanese military telling Japanese government authorities to recruit Japanese women as military prostitutes?

What prompted them to issue this notification?

Why would the Allies care in 1945 how the Japanese military dealt with Japanese citizens during the war?

Prostitution was not against the law in Japan at that time. And as the excerpt from the 2001 paper suggests, the women were recruited, not abducted.

When I wrote this, the Japanese-language Kyodo article had been published more than 20 hours before. Yet I could not find a translation on their extensive English language website, nor anywhere else on the web.

That is not to say one won’t appear, or has been published and I couldn’t find it. (The Japan Times in particular loves these types of articles.)

But why wouldn’t an English-language version appear? Does Kyodo think overseas readers aren’t interested in comfort women who were Japanese nationals? Are Japanese women who were recruited and hired for the job, rather than abducted, insufficiently newsworthy? Does it complicate the preferred narrative?

As an aside to those who like to believe that the Japanese nation either doesn’t discuss this issue or wants to pretend it never happened, the article ran on page three of the Nishinippon Shimbun this morning.

UPDATE: Thanks to reader Lyons Wakeman for providing a link to a Japan Times story.

Don’t look to that newspaper for integrity in journalism, however. They bend over backwards to obscure the fact that the women in question were Japanese, inserting it only parenthetically in an easily overlooked passage in a quote from the document itself. (The Japanese-language Kyodo article made it clear in the first sentence.) And they still insist on the term “sex slaves”, even though some of these women were obviously prostitutes.

And how’s this for a weaselly construction? “The document may well be the first seemingly official text to indicate…”

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Posted in History, Military affairs, World War II | 30 Comments »

Japan’s elderly a risk to reform

Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 20, 2008

GIVE CREDIT where credit is due: Reuters’ Linda Seig gets it right when she reports that the demands the elderly are placing on Japanese social services are a threat to fiscal reform.

“It’s quite clear that the older you get, the more dependent you are on public services so the older you get, the better big government sounds,” said Jesper Koll, CEO of investment advisory firm Tantallon Research Japan. “The risk is very high of being dragged toward bigger government and greater inefficiency.”

Here’s a hopeful sign: some in the opposition Democratic Party of Japan favor taking a conscientious approach to policy rather than use the dissatisfaction as a political weapon.

Not all influential Democrats agree with the party’s current strategy and many of their policies are still sketchy, so just what steps the party would take if it took charge is murky.
“We can’t simply pander to the elderly,” former party chief Katsuya Okada told Reuters in a recent interview. “If we did, younger generations would criticise us.”

The younger generation also might pull the plug on the old folks’ life support system.

And extra credit should go to Reuters for noticing that the DPJ’s policies “are still sketchy.”

Here’s some more background on the realities of Japanese demographics.

Posted in Demography, Government | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

An interview with Yosano Kaoru

Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 20, 2008

ONE REASON it’s been difficult to create a political system in Japan centered on two parties with clear-cut differences in political philosophy is that the beliefs of individual politicians even within the same party tend to be all over the ideological map. A case in point is Yosano Kaoru of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

When Mr. Yosano was first elected to the Diet, he joined the faction of prime minister-to-be Nakasone Yasuhiro. A fellow faction member who also won his first Diet seat in the same election was Hatoyama Yukio, now the Secretary-General of the Democratic Party of Japan, the primary opposition party.

Former Prime Minister Nakasone is known for his long-held desire to rewrite the Japanese Constitution, especially to allow a greater role for the military. He was the pioneer in the large-scale privatization of state-owned enterprises in Japan, overseeing the process that put the Japanese National Railroad, now known as JR, and NTT, the phone company, into the private sector.

Mr. Yosano backs the privatization of Japan Post, which would lead one to think he’s part of the LDP’s small-government, growth-oriented wing. Yet he makes a point of calling for an increase in the consumption tax, which is nobody’s idea of a libertarian crusade. He favors a return to an electoral system with multiple-member Diet districts, part of the agenda of those who support political realignment, but has accepted political contributions from a trucking industry group that opposed the conversion of the gasoline surtax funds to the general account, the issue that brought the Diet to a near-halt earlier this year. That would seem to place him in the big government camp.

A grandson of the poets Yosano Tekken and his wife Akiko, known as modern Romanticists, he is a man of many interests. He is an amateur go player with a seventh-dan ranking who plays friendly games with opposition leader Ozawa Ichiro. He’s also very knowledgeable about computer technology, and builds several personal computers from scratch every year by himself.

He’s been elected to the Diet nine times and held several Cabinet positions, most recently serving in the important Chief Cabinet Secretary post during the waning days of the Abe administration. He’s no stranger to either political or personal adversity; he’s been voted out of office twice and sent back to the Diet twice more. In fact, former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro once said the party would have tapped Mr. Yosano as prime minister instead of him had it not been for that second election loss. After taking a break from politics two years ago to recover from cancer of the larynx, he has returned to the center of events in Nagata-cho and is again being mentioned as a potential PM.

He recently sat for an interview with a Tokyo correspondent from the Nishinippon Shimbun. Here it is:

*****
What are your views on the “Twisted Diet”? (The term used to refer to the legislative gridlock that occurred when the opposition party took control of the upper house)

The DPJ is avoiding realistic politics. When it comes to the point that a policy decision just has to be made, they avoid it every time. They’ve got a majority in the upper house, so I want them to be part of a responsible decision-making process. In the Diet now, decisions on issues depend entirely on the DPJ.

What sort of overtures would you make to the DPJ?

I would take the approach of seeking a proper cooperation on policy. But the DPJ keeps walking away.

You’ve made the argument that a new policy-making mechanism needs to be created for the nation.

There are (different ways to accomplish that), including a grand coalition (between the LDP and the DPJ), which did not get very far, periodic cooperation on policy, or a partial policy coalition. Political realignment is another method. But in today’s political system, the two blocs are constantly at odds with each other. We can’t stand by and allow that situation to continue. In the end, the people will suffer.

What is the most realistic policy?

The idea of a grand coalition has been pretty much pawed over. As long as the DPJ keeps running away from it, a partial policy coalition is unlikely to happen. Since that’s the case, the natural course of events would bring about the possibility of a political realignment, either before or after the (next lower house) election.

It will be difficult for the ruling party to maintain its two-thirds supermajority in the next election. (If that supermajority is lost), how will you deal with that in the Diet?

There’s no way to deal with it. That’s why people will start discussing a coalition or a political realignment.

How would you evaluate the Fukuda Cabinet?

They could improve in two ways. First, they need to find a way to deliver their message to the people, and I’m not talking only about Prime Minister Fukuda. Words are very important. They must choose their words and better communicate the thinking of the administration and the party.

Second, they have to demonstrate to the people once again which policies they consider the most important.

What traits are particularly important for a prime minister?

The ability to convincingly present important policies to the people. And the persistence to make those policies a political reality.

You’ve been mentioned as a possible successor to Prime Minister Fukuda.

That talk started up all of a sudden, and it surprised me. I’ve never thought of it as a real issue. There is work I want to do, however.

You insist that the consumption tax must be increased, but can you continue to make that claim before an election?

We’d be in real trouble without anyone who is capable of telling the truth. The people understand, and they’ll see right through anyone who’s trying to hide something.

When do you think the best time would be to dissolve the Diet?

Public opinion polls show the Cabinet has a bad support rating. The LDP’s rate of support is now in territory the party has never experienced before. In this climate, there is no effective medicine that will change everything overnight. The only option for us is to work simply and honestly to implement our policies, and that will take time. (The election) won’t be anytime soon.

*****

Afterthoughts

1. Note how Mr. Yosano has edged closer to political realignment as the only solution for the political stalemate. Don’t be surprised if others join him.

2. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Fukuda said the time had come to make a decision about the consumption tax. Translation: He wants to raise it. As we’ve seen before, Mr. Fukuda seems to be in league with the Ministry of Finance bureaucrats and their political allies who favor the increase. (The Rising Tide, or growth wing of the LDP, would raise taxes only after taking other steps first.)

Mr. Yosano seems to indirectly confirm here that his group’s strategy will be to try to pass a tax increase while Mr. Fukuda is in office and stick him with the responsibility. Meanwhile, they’ll delay the lower house election as long as possible and contest it with a different prime minister.

3. Only a committed partisan could disagree with Mr. Yosano’s assessment of the opposition DPJ’s behavior. I hold no brief for LDP Secretary-General Ibuki Bunmei, but he was dead on when he said they were acting like primary school boys with a loaded pistol.

Everyone in Japan wants to see a viable opposition party. But since the DPJ’s upper house election victory last July, it has failed to present itself as a positive and proactive force with a reasonable plan for governing the nation. They instead chose the negative course of obstructionism and confrontation without offering serious policy alternatives. Had they taken the high road, they might well be in power today, and the people would be tossing flowers at their feet.

The DPJ let the prize slip through their fingers yet again, however. Their primary asset still remains the ruling party’s blunders rather than their own approach.

And now the public, the media, and the political class are starting to draw conclusions.

Posted in Government, Politics | 1 Comment »

South Korea: Where there’s a will, there’s a way to eat whale

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, June 19, 2008

“The Whale Festival was ironic. I’m really envious of Japan, where they can openly eat the meat from whales they catch in their scientific surveys.” – A South Korean restaurant proprietor

TAKE A QUICK GLANCE at the two photos with this post: Don’t they seem as if they might have been taken at a centuries-old festival in a Japanese whaling town? Then take a closer look, particularly at the priest’s headgear. The photographs actually came from the annual whaling festival that’s been held in Ulsan, South Korea, for more than 10 years now.

The Koreans love their whale meat just as much as the Japanese do, but they have a harder time getting it due to stringent domestic regulations on whaling. But where there’s an appetite, there’s a way, as this summary of an article written by Kamiya Yukiko that ran in the Nishinippon Shimbun makes clear.

There’s more here that will remind of you Japan than just the photos. Some of the things the Koreans told Ms. Kamiya could have been uttered word for word by many Japanese!

*****

Fish poaching is rampant in the waters off the Korean peninsula, and the authorities have their hands full uncovering the illegal operations. In Ulsan, the southeastern city that was once the country’s largest whaling port, many people are calling for amendments to relax the tough Korean restrictions.

The city’s southern ward is home to about 40 shops serving whale meat. During the local whale festival held in May, chefs and restaurant proprietors from Shimonoseki, the home port of the Japanese scientific whaling fleet just across the Korean Strait, came to participate in a Japanese-Korean food tasting event. The Japanese contributed sukiyaki and curried rice, while the Koreans served boiled whale meat and sashimi.

Ko Jong-gu, the chairman of the local civic group that sponsored the festival, said it was organized to protect the local whale eating culture.

“The fishing industry is suffering because the number of whales is increasing and they are eating the local mackerel and squid. We want to the government to lift some of its restrictions on whaling.”

The chief municipal officer of the city’s southern ward, Kim Du-gyom, declared:

“South Korea prohibits the fishing of dolphins less than four meters in length. We’re going to start a petition drive to get the government to amend the law.”

The International Whaling Commission temporarily suspended commercial whaling for 13 species of larger whales in 1982. South Korea overlaid that with additional restrictions on the commercial whaling of smaller species. But whales can still wind up on restaurant tables if they are obtained as by-catch (accidentally caught in nets with other fish), or if they died and were washed up on shore. The restaurants must file an application with the authorities to serve them, and applications have risen from 190 in 2000 to 606 last year.

Because a single whale can sell for as much as 35 million won (about $US 34,200), the local fisherman refer to a whale catch as “the ocean lottery”. Illegal fishing is rampant in southeast Korea, and since the end of last year the Korean Coast Guard has snagged 80 fishermen in their dragnet. That has resulted in a reduced supply of whale meat, which in turn has forced restaurants to offer smaller servings. The whale meat shortage is viewed as the reason for the start of the petition drive.

According to the Council to Promote the Resumption of Whaling in South Korea, whale meat was a popular substitute for beef and pork, particularly among the people who fled to the southern part of the country during the Korean War. Said Council Chairman Byon Chang-myong, “Whale culling is necessary to protect the maritime industry and the dietary culture.”

But not everyone agrees. O Yong-e, the representative of a local environmental group, says,

“The reason the municipal officer (Kim) began talking about whaling was to win votes. There is no scientific backing (for the claim that whaling is) harming the fishing industry.”

Concerned about the possibility of demonstrations led by environmentalists, the ward decided to suspend its petition drive. They are now formulating a petition to the government to establish a special whaling district, primarily to promote tourism.

The official position of the South Korean government, however, is that the country does not support whaling, and the government has given no indication that it will move to amend the law.

Meanwhile, this year’s whale festival was a big success, drawing an estimated 250,000 people.

*****

And I’ll bet they all had a whale of a good time!

Here’s a link to a BBC article from a few years ago explaining that the folks near Ulsan have been eating whales since before the days of Beowulf. You’ll be able to guess what the British think about it before you click on the link, but it’s worth reading anyway. At the end, the author tries to convince the reader that the custom is dying out because a few young people he talked with didn’t like whale and thought it was fogey food.

The plural of anecdote is not data, but there’s no explaining that to a journalist. The rules in their business are different.

And here’s a nice video of the Ulsan whale festival on YouTube. It’s a skoche over eight minutes long. There’s the typical dopey narration by a foreigner in the first minute, but stick with it. (I think he’s inaccurate when he says the Koreans claim they catch whales for scientific reasons. That’s the Japanese approach.)

Festival fans will enjoy it. The music is great—more evidence for my theory that the Koreans are the most naturally funky people in this corner of the world! And the traditional drumming and dance troupe with teenage performers makes it worth watching to the end.

Posted in Food, South Korea, Traditions | Tagged: , | 8 Comments »

Hiranuma: Koizumi would have been burned at the stake!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 17, 2008

WHAT DOES A POLITICAL MAVERICK look like in Japan? That term has always been applied to former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro for his willingness to rock the political boat, rip apart his own party, cut the bureaucracy down to size, and pursue market-oriented reform.

Not to mention that hairstyle.

But other political mavericks graze on the political landscape. One of them just formed a political study group called the Yajin no Kai, whose name some take the liberty to translate as the Group of Mavericks. (It could just as easily be translated as the Group of Hicks.)

Hiranuma Takeo

The trail boss for that group is Hiranuma Takeo (first photo), a former Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry in Prime Minister Koizumi’s Cabinet. Do these two mavericks, who were once in the same party and worked together politically, share an affinity for each other?

Smile when you say that, podnuh. In fact, Mr. Hiranuma recently told a private gathering that in another era, Mr. Koizumi would have been burned at the stake.

But let’s start at the beginning.

In 2005, Prime Minister Koizumi was so intent on getting his Japan Post privatization scheme passed into law that when the upper house of the Japanese Diet rejected the bill, he dissolved the lower house (because he couldn’t touch the upper house members serving fixed terms), tossed out of his own Liberal Democratic Party those members who voted against the legislation, and called a new election. After his supporters triumphed in one of the greatest landslides in Japanese electoral history, a cowed upper house passed the bill the second time around.

One of the LDP members he booted from the party was his own Cabinet minister— Hiranuma Takeo, a diehard opponent of privatization.

Some of those who found themselves out in the political cold were later readmitted to the party by Abe Shinzo, Mr. Koizumi’s successor. Others, such as Watanuki Tamisuke, formed a new smaller party called the Peoples’ New Party.

But Mr. Hiranuma, one of the so-called postal rebels who successfully defied Mr. Koizumi to win re-election, chose to remain an independent, neither returning to the LDP nor joining the PNP.

He’s got bigger fish to fry. Since the end of last year, he has been studying the possibility of forming a new party. He says that he wants to create a “third (magnetic) pole” in Japanese politics.

By a third pole, Mr. Hiranuma means a grouping devoted to true conservative principles. And by that, Mr. Hiranuma means conservative in the sense of Japanese traditionalism.

Since then, he has agreed to serve as the senior advisor to the True Conservative Policy Study Group, whose 70 members are headed by former LDP Policy Research Council Chairman Nakagawa Shoichi (Ibuki faction). This is just one example of how politics makes for strange bedfellows in Japan: Mr. Nakagawa originally supported the Japan Post privatization but threw his lot in with Mr. Hiranuma because of personal and factional ties. (There will be more examples of strange political bedfellows to follow, all of which will be work safe.)

The former METI chief has in mind a new conservative grouping consisting of elements from the LDP, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, the PNP, and anyone else he can round up. He insists that political realignment in Japan is necessary to resolve the problem of the “twisted Diet”, i.e., government gridlock caused by the opposition’s majority in the upper house. “It is my mission,” intones Mr. Hiranuma, “to create a third pole so that legislation important to the nation can pass.”

Earlier this year, he said he would try to coax members from the opposition into his orbit, saying his effort “won’t work unless we create a political crisis by taking some of the DPJ members.” Who better than a maverick to do a little cattle rustling and rebrand the steers?

But that was then, and this is now. As the Sunday Mainichi weekly magazine reported in its 25 May edition, he has stepped up the rhetoric and crawled between the political sheets with an unusual assortment of characters. Here’s how the magazine reported it.

From the Sunday Mainichi

At a private gathering in Yoshino, Nara, in May, Hiranuma Takeo spoke on politics in general, and former Prime Minister Koizumi and Prof. Takenaka Heizo in particular.

“When I was first elected (1980), politicians used to say that Japan could never achieve economic growth of more than 2% even if we stood on our heads. Now, they want to raise the consumption tax from 5% to 10%. The denizens of Nagata-cho (the neighborhood where the Diet is located) don’t talk about their dreams and hopes.”

Hiranuma was speaking to a meeting of the Nihon Saisei Itteki no Kai (literally, the Association of One Drop for Japan’s Revival) to rally popular support and contribute to Japan’s development. The group, led by former Labor Minister Murakami Masakuni (second photo), is conducting a series of debates from the right wing/conservative perspective. Hiranuma appeared because the two men knew each other when they were part of what is now the LDP’S Ibuki faction. (Ibuki Bunmei is the LDP Secretary-General.)

Says a political journalist: “Murakami has consistently supported Hiranuma since leaving office. An example was when Prime Minister Koizumi dissolved the Diet for the election in September 2005 over postal privatization. Murakami allied himself with the postal rebels to defeat the privatization bill in the upper house (the first time). He also hopes to see Hiranuma become prime minister.”

About 70 people were present at the meeting, including two independent lower house members and one former lower house member. Suzuki Muneo of the New Party Daichi was supposed to be there, but had to cancel at the last minute to attend a funeral.

In Fine Form

“Mr. Koizumi was prime minister for five years and five months, and he followed skinflint economic policies the entire time. He said he would shift power from the center to the regions, and from the bureaucracy to the people. He kept talking about a sanmi ittai economic policy that sounds like something out of Christianity. (N.B.: For an explanation of that term, see the Sidebar in the second post below.)

“When he said that he would shift the funding sources to the heads of local government, everyone flocked to him because it sounded like a great idea. But he cut the allocation of central government tax revenues to local governments and central government subsidies to boot.

“Where I’m from in Okayama, there’s a shopping district that dates from the Edo period (1603-1868). Now all the shops on the street are shuttered. That’s how big the gap between the center and the regions has grown. That’s what the sanmi ittai reforms brought!

“I opposed the postal privatization bill because the details of the (deal with the) Long Term Credit Bank of Japan became clear. Claiming non-performing loans, Mr. Koizumi poured 8 trillion yen of public money into one bank. He even suckered the scholar Takenaka with the line of, ‘let the private sector do what the private sector can do’. The upshot was that the bank was sold to Ripplewood Holdings for one billion yen (actually 121 billion yen). If that happens again with the postal savings and insurance funds (340 trillion yen; roughly $US 3.14 trillion), it’ll be a catastrophe.”

He was just getting started.

“If this were the Middle Ages, both Mr. Koizumi and Takenaka would be burned at the stake. You’re all laughing, but if you bought the stock of the bank that was sold for a billion yen, it would cost 230 billion yen now.

“Why did Takenaka resign from the upper house of the Diet? He can make two million yen for an hour’s speech. He can’t make that money when he’s wearing a Diet member’s badge.”

Birds of a Feather?

On the evening of 28 April, one day after the opposition DPJ candidate won a lower house by-election in Yamaguchi, Mr. Hiranuma met with opposition leader Ozawa Ichiro in Tokyo. The meeting was set up by DPJ upper house member Kawakami Yoshihiro.

A Kawakami supporter claimed that the MP arranged the meeting as a favor to both men for supporting him in his election to the upper house last year. The Sunday Mainichi, however, says that at the get-together Mr. Kawakami encouraged Mr. Hiranuma to form a new party, and his listeners responded positively. The magazine speculates that a Hiranuma-Ozawa alliance, rumored for two years now, might be in the offing.

On the 8th, the day before Mr. Hiranuma’s Yoshino speech, he met at an upscale traditional Tokyo restaurant with Watanuki Tamisuke of the PNP (another postal rebel), Suzuki Muneo, PNP Secretary-General Kamei Hisaoki, and lower house member Shimoji Mikio of the Sozo Party Okinawa, a small regional party. The gathering was nominally to celebrate Mr. Watanuki’s 81st birthday, but the members decided to meet regularly and discuss ways to attack the government and LDP. This was the birth of the aforementioned Group of Mavericks/Hicks.

The magazine quotes an unidentified former cabinet member as saying that this group might become the core of Hiranuma’s new party.

In his Yoshino speech, Mr. Hiranuma also said:

“We must form a trustworthy “third pole”. I will make it a point to look after those politicians who lost elections by opposing postal privatization. People will come to me to recommend themselves or others as candidates…members of prefectural assemblies, former politicians, their aides…I’ll interview every one of them, and if I think they’ll hold firm to their beliefs, I’ll support them.”

A potential member of the new party attending the meeting remarked, “A true conservative force has to be created in Japan. Mr. Hiranuma is foremost among the few people in Japan capable of that.” Another person present, who said that he’s allied with the DPJ, observed, “It would be a good party for people who otherwise have no place to go. Mr. Ozawa is originally a conservative, so they should be in synch.”

Note: Reports earlier this year suggested that Mr. Hiranuma was going to try to recruit both former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, and former Defense Minister and PM aspirant Aso Taro into the fold because they are supposed to be politically simpatico. The Sunday Mainichi article does not mention them.

*****

The Murakami Forecast

An extremely influential LDP politician who headed the party’s upper house members, Murakami Masakuni was one of the Gang of Five who controversially selected Mori Yoshiro in secret to replace Obuchi Keizo as prime minister after the latter’s stroke. Though he resigned due to a financial scandal (and is now in jail), Mr. Murakami is said to still wield significant influence behind the scenes.

The Sunday Mainichi attached a brief interview with Mr. Murakami to the end of its piece about Hiranuma Takeo, in which the former “upper house don” gave his predictions for the next two years. Here they are:

In two years the LDP-New Komeito coalition will not be in power. The next election will see a shift in the LDP’s strength relative to the opposition DPJ, resulting in an Ozawa Administration. The DPJ won’t have the numbers to form a government by themselves, but they will ally with Hiranuma’s new party for an anti-LDP, anti-New Komeito government. Once it is out of power for two years, the LDP will break up.

*****
Comments

  • Down-at-the-heels shopping districts

Mr. Hiranuma claims that the Koizumi reforms caused his local shotengai, an older type of Japanese shopping district, to hit the skids. I don’t know anything about the streets of Okayama, but I do know about another tumbleweed-infested shotengai in the city of 180,000 where I live.

It was doomed before Mr. Koizumi became prime minister, and the merchants knew it. If one factor could be cited in its demise, it would be the amendment of the Large-Scale Retail Law (at American insistence), which once limited the establishment of large retailers in or near urban areas.

As the local shotengai, a 10-minute walk to the west of my house, became the commercial equivalent of a ghost town, a shopping mall as large as any I saw in the U.S. until the early 80s (when I came to Japan) was built a 10-minute walk to the east. Later, the largest shopping mall I’ve ever seen was built a 10-minute drive to the northeast. I’ve visited only selected shops there (such as the huge Kinokuniya bookstore), but it would take the better part of a day to investigate everything inside.

An acquaintance who runs a store selling timepieces saw the handwriting on the wall and left the old shotengai to open a new shop in the mall near my house. Most people aren’t as helpless as some would have us believe.

The old shotengai, by the way, had very little parking, and most of that in commercial lots that cost money. The two malls have free parking space galore.

  • The Demise of the LDP

Saying that the LDP would break up if it were to spend two years in the opposition is the easy prediction. Here’s the prediction Mr. Murakami won’t make: The Democratic Party of Japan would break up before it spent two years in power.

First, there are too many incompatible groups within the party for it to survive a disposition of the spoils and the determination of a uniform party policy. People have kept their mouths shut until now for the sake of party unity. They’ll stay open loud and long once they’re in a government together.

Second, we have the example of Mr. Ozawa’s previous experience at governing—albeit behind the scenes—with a coalition consisting of eight oil-and-water groups during the Hosokawa-Hata administrations. They lasted a combined total of 10 months.

If either an Ozawa Administration or the DPJ itself sticks around longer than that, chalk it up to the favors of Lady Luck.

************************
Mr. Hiranuma’s Strange Political Bedfellows

Hiranuma Takeo has pulled together quite the rogue’s gallery of supporters, if this article is to be believed. Here’s the cast:

Murakami Masakuni

On 15 May, Mr. Murakami began serving a 26-month jail term for accepting bribes from the mutual aid foundation KSD. His predictions above were given in the context of what the political situation will look like after he is released from prison.

He is one of the most influential Japanese lawmakers ever to do jail time. Here’s another.

Suzuki Muneo

A former LDP lower house representative from Hokkaido, the name of Suzuki Muneo (third photo) was synonymous in 2002 for political thievery and prevarication. He spent 437 days in the pig box, as they say, after being charged in two cases of influence peddling for local lumber contracts. That hard time might still be the record for a Japanese Diet member. Some of his aides were also arrested for bid-rigging housing and power plant construction projects.

In brief, Mr. Suzuki was the classic empire-building, influence-peddling pol. He had cozy ties to the Foreign Ministry and ambitions for even higher office. His new party is essentially a vanity vehicle.

Kawakami Yoshihiro

Mr. Kawakami was elected to the lower house as an independent loosely affiliated with the LDP and joined the Kamei faction. He rebelled against the postal privatization plan, was defeated in the lower house election of 2005, and thrown out of the party. He later joined the DPJ and was elected to the upper house last year.

He is a strong supporter of public works projects on the grounds that they are essential for the regional economy, and supports the normalization of relations with North Korea. He insists that the abductee problem was solved after Prime Minister Koizumi’s two visits to the country. He thinks Pyeongyang is telling the truth about the incidents, and he also thinks Japanese authorities lied when they claimed that the remains of Yokota Megumi provided by the North were not hers.

Shimoji Mikio

A visit to the Japanese language website of the Sozo Party Okinawa (Mr. Shimoji is the biggest fish) shows that they call for (a) a move away from politics dominated by the bureaucracy, and (b) the devolution of authority to regional areas, particularly Okinawa.

If there is any serious political principle this group holds in common, it’s doing a better job of hiding than Wally.

*****

As of last year, Mr. Hiranuma raked in the third-highest amount of contributions of any politician in Japan. A hardliner on North Korea, he traveled with the abductees’ family association to Washington last November to lobby against the lifting of sanctions. He supports visits by the prime minister to the Yasukuni Shrine on 15 August. He is opposed to female emperors. He signed the full-page ad in the Washington Post denouncing the House comfort women resolution, and claims there is no evidence for their coercion. He says his life’s work is to rewrite Japan’s constitution from scratch, because the present one was written with excessive American influence during the Allied Occupation.

The point here is not whether one agrees or disagrees with Mr. Hiranuma’s political philosophy or positions. This staunch traditionalist is in league with two political jailbirds who in several ways represent the worst flaws of the postwar political system. He is a supporter of Kawakami Yoshihiro, a politician who likes pork barrel public works projects, and thinks that North Korea is telling the truth and Japan is lying about the abductees–an opinion 180 degrees from his own. One member of his political coterie is an Okinawan fighting against the power of governmental bureaucrats and for the devolution of power.

Before surrendering to the authorities, Mr. Murakami predicted a governing Ozawa-Hiranuma coalition in two years.

And yet there are people who believe that an Ozawa-led DPJ government is the answer to the question of how to bring serious reform to Japan.

A more realistic question is whether it could stay together long enough to agree on lunch.

*****
Here’s a link to Hiranuma Takeo’s English website, and specifically, the story of his experience on 15 August 1945, the date of Japan’s surrender. Remember that he was six years old and had survived the horrific Tokyo air raids that March.

I recommend that you read the story and accept it for what it is. Put aside your judgments of the people involved, whatever they may be, and imagine yourself as that six-year-old boy.

*****

Thanks to Aceface for tipping me off about the Sunday Mainichi article.

Posted in Government, Politics | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

 
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