AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Archive for February, 2009

Wings of a man

Posted by ampontan on Friday, February 27, 2009

FOR THE PAST WEEK, I’ve been spending an hour a day at a local organization here in Saga reviewing their video assets to see what can be uploaded to the web and used for publicity. One of the videos I watched this week was the film Ningen no Tsubasa (Wings of a Man), which the organization was responsible for producing.

wom

Made in the mid-90s, the movie depicts a few years in the life of Ishimaru Shin’ichi, a native Sagan who was a star pitcher for the forerunner of the Chunichi Dragons in the early 1940s. He later became Japan’s only professional baseball player to die as a member of the kamikaze special attack squadron.

The movie was screened throughout Japan, particularly in schools, as it received the approval of the Education Ministry and the National Association of Parents and Teachers.

It was extremely well done for a low-budget, independent project. Not only is it worth watching on its own, it’s very educational for people with an interest in that period of Japanese history.

Some of the more noteworthy aspects include:

  • A home plate umpire forgetting that it was no longer acceptable to use the enemy word sutoraiku for a called strike, and quickly switching to yoshi! (The word hazure was used to call a ball.)
  • The baseball uniforms evolving into semi-military uniforms by mid-war
  • The baseball players enrolling in night school at university to avoid the draft, until that deferment was ended
  • The cruelty of some zealots in the Japanese military, both toward other soldiers and toward civilians
  • Officers pressuring their men to “volunteer” as kamikaze pilots because a failure to do so would disgrace the entire unit
  • Members of Ishimaru’s family and his fiancé’s family encouraging him to choose a path that would enable him to survive a war they realized Japan would lose.

In addition to being an eye-opener for those who don’t know much about those days, the film might delight those people who appreciate Japanese dialects. All the dialog in the scenes taking place in Ishimaru’s hometown is performed in very broad Saga dialect.

Wayne Graczyk of The Japan Times gave the film a favorable review when it appeared, but his article doesn’t seem to be on-line. Here’s another review from the excellent Kamikaze Images website.

It’s a shame that the movie exists only on videocassette (and probably the original film, somewhere), because it was made before the DVD era. The organization doesn’t have the funds to produce a large volume of DVDs, though they might be able to handle a one-off. Those people in Japan who still have video decks and are interested in borrowing a copy can talk to Mrs. Yamashita at 0952-25-2295.

It’s been more than 10 years since I saw the film the first time, and watching it again this week reminded me of something.

Anyone who can get through this film without crying—or at least being on the verge of tears—has got a heart of stone.

Posted in Films, Sports, World War II | Tagged: , | 8 Comments »

Mr. Koizumi speaks up at last

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Kanson minpi
- A Japanese term for putting the government and its officials above the people

WITH THE POSSIBLE EXCEPTION of the Trobriand Islanders, who thought pregnancy occurred because the ancestral spirit Baloma animated a spirit-child to enter a woman’s belly, the most ignorant people on the planet have got to be the Japanese political class, regardless of their party membership.

Consider: When Koizumi Jun’ichiro, the icebreaker of Japanese politics, left office in 2006 after five years of reform, deregulation, and drama, he bequeathed public approval ratings of 70% to his successor, Abe Shinzo. In the subsequent 30 months, the Three Stooges who followed him as prime minister have managed to drive their own approval ratings down to the teens. Political failure on that scale is no accident—politicians have to actually work at it to be that unpopular.

Messrs. Abe, Fukuda, and Aso all applied the same losing strategy in their own unique ways by rolling back the wildly popular Koizumian reforms. First, Mr. Abe allowed the return of the postal privatization rebels thrown out of the Liberal Democratic Party by his predecessor. Mr. Fukuda followed by allowing the return of the wolves of the Finance Ministry bureaucracy into the political henhouse. And now, Prime Minister Aso is dragging his feet on bureaucratic reform and dropping strong hints about “reexamining” (i.e., killing) the privatization of Japan Post because he never liked it to begin with.

Every one of these examples is a demonstration of kanson minpi in action.

Aso Taro shoved in the direction of progress

Take for example the recent controversy over the practice of watari, an informal job placement program run by government ministries and agencies in which they find employment for retired bureaucrats in enterprises or groups involved in sectors they once supervised.

Where's Baloma when you need him?

Where's Baloma when you need him?

Even the Japanese political equivalent of a Tobriand Islander should realize that the Japanese public detests the extreme bureaucratic intrusion into government affairs that makes it tantamount to a shadow government, as well as the privileges those bureaucrats enjoy. The solution should be simple—ban the practice of watari, win the acclaim of the Japanese public, and use that as a springboard for winning elections.

But no, Prime Minister Aso and the rest of the crew members of the LDP’s Mudboat-maru can’t summon the political courage to make the denizens of Kasumigaseki behave as the public servants they’re supposed to be. The prime minister at first did not want to revise current government ordinances to ban the practice. He had to be bludgeoned into it by the LDP’s reform wing and the party’s coalition partners in New Komeito. Another element in the calculations must surely have been that failure to take action would be used as a weapon by the opposition in the next election.

The government eventually established a “personnel exchange promotion center” to consolidate the bureaucracy’s job placement efforts and restrict job placements to one per employee. But this is indefensible—why should the taxpayers foot the bill for an employment agency for personnel leaving government service, must less the upper levels of the bureaucracy? Shouldn’t those who presume to be a national elite and the real power of government use their own initiative to land on their feet in cushy new jobs like the fat cats they are?

Mr. Aso at last began singing a different tune. He said he wanted to create an ordinance to ban watari by the end of the year, replacing the current ordinance that allows it to continue until 2011. The new ordinance would take effect in 2010, thereby moving up the schedule by a year.

Instead of all this rigamarole, the answer is to prohibit all bureaucrats from working at any group, organization, or entity subject to the supervision of the ministry or agency where they were formerly employed.

That would at least partially limit the influence of bureaucrats on government operations and be met with hosannas by the Japanese public. In fact, the only people who wouldn’t care for it would be the bureaucrats themselves. But why shouldn’t they hit the pavement with their resume and use the same resources as everyone else to find employment?

Koizumi: E-nuff!

Prime Minister Koizumi once vowed to produce reform, foster deregulation, and break up his own political party. After seeing his handiwork turned into shambles by his successors, it would be natural if he felt as if he had hacked a trail through the jungle only to have the vines and underbrush grow back over the trail mere months after he passed through.

Are these noodniks the best you could do?

Are these noodniks the best you could do?

Mr. Koizumi has been strangely quiet since stepping down in the fall of 2006, showing little or no public sign of concern about the course of his reforms since then. There were some brief flurries in the news when his former aide, Iijima Isao, floated a trial balloon last spring about a possible comeback to form a multiparty reform government. Later that year, he also formed a multiparty study group with sympathetic members of his own party and former opposition leader Maehara Seiji. But considering how brusquely his reforms were neutered, and how openly politicians in both the ruling and opposition camps were talking about throwing more monkey wrenches into the path of postal privatization, his weak response seemed to suggest that he didn’t care anymore.

That ended abruptly two weeks ago.

The trigger was the following comments by Mr. Aso on postal privatization:

“I couldn’t support it.” (At the time of the Diet vote on the bill)

And:

“During the election, most of the voters didn’t realize it would be broken up into four companies.”

At a meeting at party headquarters of a group committed to maintaining the process of privatization, Mr. Koizumi was downright scathing about Prime Minister Aso and his behavior:

“Rather than being angry, I have to laugh. I’m just dumbstruck. We won’t be able to contest the election if we can’t trust what the prime minister says.”

He also didn’t have anything good to say about the individual stimulus proposal the budget, which was originally the idea of the party’s New Komeito coalition partners, and Mr. Aso’s handling of the surprisingly unpopular issue:

“The PM has called it sordid, said he personally wouldn’t accept the money, and then claimed ‘I didn’t say that’.”

Ah, well, politicians do like to be on all sides of an issue, don’t they?

More chilling for the LDP elders was his threat to vote against the bill when it comes back to the lower house after the inevitable rejection by the opposition-controlled upper house. A straight party line vote of the ruling coalition would enable this measure to pass through a two-thirds supermajority.

“I don’t think this bill requires a two-thirds override for it to pass.”

But then why did he vote for it the first time?

He has a low opinion of the leadership skills of Mr. Aso as well as the LDP honchos:

“When the younger (party members) express critical opinions of the prime minister, the party leadership says, ‘Don’t fire your rifles from behind’. But considering recent conditions, the prime minister is firing from the front at the people who have to stand for election.”

One of Mr. Koizumi’s favorite games is to use his image of eccentricity as a trump card, so he also trotted out this blast from the past:

“They’re calling me a man on whom common sense has no impact, or a weirdo, but I think I’m a normal man who is full of common sense.”

While the former prime minister enjoys playing this part, it is worthwhile to remember that he enjoyed occasional popularity ratings of more than 80% (and 70% when he left office), he engineered an election victory that delivered the second-largest lower house LDP majority ever, and he served the third-longest term as prime minister in postwar history.

The impact

It is not possible to overestimate the significance of this criticism. First, it gave a much-needed second wind to the LDP reformers. Said upper house member Yamamoto Ichita, a long-time Koizumi supporter (Machimura faction):

“It’s been a while since we’ve seen Prime Minister Koizumi so angry. This speech will be a detonator and breathe life into the party’s reform faction again.”

The speech also generated a barrage of speculation that the party will force Mr. Aso from office before the election that must be held this year. Regardless of what happens, he is essentially a dead man walking.

The prime minister can’t even hand out promotional material without a blowback. The weekly e-mail magazine distributed by the prime minister’s office has seen readership drop by half from its peak during the Koizumi administration (the falloff was not that pronounced during the Abe and Fukuda administrations), coupled with a sharp increase in critical comments from the recipients. Such as:

“If you’re going to ignore the results of the previous lower house election, then you should dissolve the Diet.”

And:

“I didn’t think you would go that far to treat the people like fools.”

Also significant is the venue at which Mr. Koizumi delivered his criticism. The audience for his remarks consisted of his heirs in the party, committed to privatization, deregulation, devolution of central government authority, keeping the bureaucracy on a leash, and commonsense economic policies.

Those in attendance included Nakagawa Hidenao, who is clearly working to organize a potent political force capable of surviving the upcoming election debacle and either outlive the rump elements of a depleted LDP, or take the party over entirely. While still acting as if he is willing to work within the party, he was recently removed from a position of responsibility in the Machimura faction, the party’s largest, for his criticism of Prime Minister Aso.

Said Mr. Nakagawa at the meeting:

“A reexamination of the plan to break up (Japan Post) into four companies is tantamount to reexamining the complete privatization that Prime Minister Koizumi achieved. We must call on all party members to take steps to maintain the (decision) for privatization.”

It is also worth noting that 18 people were present at the meeting. That’s two more than are needed to deprive the LDP of its supermajority in a Diet election and prevent the legislation from being enacted. Did Mr. Koizumi bring up a possible vote against the stimulus measure merely as leverage to maintain the course of privatization, or would he rally MPs to vote against it and therefore reject it entirely. A Koizumi-led lower house defeat for the bill would make it very difficult to postpone a general election that the LDP would surely lose.

Finally, we should also note that unidentified members of the opposition found Mr. Koizumi’s comments risible. One of them suggested the former prime minister was behind the times.

There you have a good indication why the opposition is still the opposition and not the ruling party. It’s been fewer than three years since Mr. Koizumi stepped down, and his ideas are still viable. (Indeed, they are permanently viable, the current financial crisis notwithstanding.) And it’s not as if anyone in the opposition party has a record that comes close to matching his achievements. It’s possible the opposition’s observation gave the former prime minister a second reason to laugh.

Koizumi Jun’ichiro once claimed that he wanted to destroy the LDP. While he certainly remodeled it during his tenure, he didn’t destroy it. But his recent speech might be the blow that eventually accomplishes his original aim. Perhaps the only question remaining is whether the reform wing forms a new party of its own, leaving the mudboat wing to disintegrate and sink, or whether they take control of the party for themselves.

Afterwords: Also attending the meeting was former Defense Minister Koike Yuriko, whom Mr. Koizumi supported for prime minister in the party election that chose Aso Taro. Ms. Koike is a staunch supporter of the policies of both Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Nakagawa. She does not have much support within the LDP, however, as she is seen as something of an opportunist.

The mass media tend to dismiss her, but she is worth paying attention to for at least one reason. Ms. Koike was a member of the now-defunct Liberal Party, headed by current opposition leader Ozawa Ichiro of the Democratic Party of Japan. She became a strong Ozawa supporter after reading his book Blueprint for a New Japan, which called for smaller government and the encouragement of greater individual initiative.

When Mr. Ozawa merged his party with the opposition DPJ, she chose to join the LDP instead, at least partly because the reformers in that party were more kindred spirits. She has publicly taken Mr. Ozawa to task several times for abandoning nearly all of the principles he laid out in his book.

And that is a critically important matter. It would behoove the media to focus on Mr. Ozawa’s core political beliefs—assuming he has any–or whether his political activity is just a semi-permanent political pastime of schmoozing with da bhoys to create coalitions the way some boys trade baseball cards.

What policies would he pursue if he in fact became prime minister?

Anyone else who thinks they know is fooling himself. And those folks who think he is the best bet to achieve the reforms Japan needs might want to consider that with Mr. Ozawa, what you see is not always what you get. They just might find that what Japan would get under an Ozawa Administration would be an unpleasant surprise.

It’s not as if it can’t happen here. Ask the left-wing bloggers in the U.S. what they think of the new President’s wholesale adoption of George Bush’s terror war policies.

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

Uehara Koji in America

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, February 18, 2009

FORMER YOMIURI GIANTS star pitcher Uehara Koji signed a two-year contract in the off-season with the Baltimore Orioles. Uehara is the first Japanese player to sign with the Orioles, so both the team and its fans are intensely curious about his progress with the team now that spring training got started this week.

While I’m working on my next post, I thought I’d provide the links to several blog posts from different reporters covering the Orioles to give you an idea how things are going. The initial verdict: Everyone is very impressed with his sense of professionalism as a pitcher as well as his sense of humor.

Uehara delivers

Uehara delivers

Here are some reports from Peter Schmuck of the Baltimore Sun. (Yes, that’s his real name, and he has a sense of humor about it.)

Schmuck talks about Uehara’s first bullpen session here, saying that it was probably the most watched session in Oriole history.

This post provides more details on the session. Uehara says the American ball is slippier than the Japanese version, but that he’ll get used to it. His pitching coach, Rick Kranitz, jokes with him by saying that he just gave an interview to the Japanese media in Japanese, so now Uehara has to give an interview in English. The pitcher replied, “No problem!”

Roch Kubatko is a former Sun reporter now working for MASN, the sports network shared by the Orioles and the Washington Nationals. Here’s a quick note from his blog about Uehara’s first day.

This report describes how Uehara has taped a list of the names of all the players to his locker so he can get to know everyone quickly.

Kubatko chimes in on the first bullpen session here. Pitching coach Kranitz adds some more comments, saying he’s “very impressed”.

Here’s a slightly longer article by Spencer Fordin on the MLB website. He offers some quotes from Uehara’s new manager, Dave Trembley:

“One, it looks like he’s done it before,” said manager Dave Trembley. “He’s able to repeat his delivery, and that’s probably what’s allowed him to have the success that he’s had. He repeats his delivery, and he makes it look easy. I don’t think he broke a sweat. And obviously, that has occurred because he’s worked very hard. You can tell.”

In this blog post, Fordin describes the deal between Uehara and pitcher Jaimie Walker, in which Walker–a salty old Southerner–will teach Uehara a new English word every day, and Uehara will teach Walker a Japanese word.

What he doesn’t explain is that the first English word Walker taught Uehara was (1) unprintable in the newspaper and (2) so funny the whole team was laughing about it all day. Your guess as to what the word was is as good as mine!

Finally, in this post Fordin says that watching Uehara interact with his new teammates is fascinating.

Andy MacPhail, the Orioles general manager, is known for his insistence on recruiting players with solid personalities and good character, and it appears as if Uehara fits that pattern.

Other reports say that the Oriole players are “buzzing” about Uehara’s pitching ability, and that he’s better than they expected.

Still, it’s early in the spring, and how much success he will have against the toughest division in baseball (with the Yankees, Red Sox, and last year’s AL representative in the World Series, the Tampa Bay Rays) is still to be determined. But the first signs are encouraging.

Note: I don’t know how long those links are going last, so click them while they’re hot.

Posted in Sports | 5 Comments »

What’s the problem with feeling good?

Posted by ampontan on Friday, February 13, 2009

THOSE CONSUMERS of the news produced by the print, broadcast, and Internet media who pay close attention to the content they receive realize that at least 90% of it is intentionally presented to manipulate their emotions—usually in an unpleasant, negative way. The idea is that most people are suckers for the cheap entertainment of cheap thrills, and they’ll keep coming back for more as long as it’s mildly interesting and easy to access. Newspapers wouldn’t survive without them, and television is nothing but one long cheap thrill, broadcast 24/7.

Nowhere is this principle more evident than in the international coverage of Japanese-Korean relations. Overseas observers could be forgiven if they thought the citizens of the two countries were possessed by a mutual revulsion so powerful it prevented any kind of meaningful reconciliation or interaction. More than a few members in the Korean print media are actively complicit in creating that impression, though this tone in the coverage of bilateral relations is largely absent in Japan.

But that’s the hidden price one pays for trusting media content.

While some mutual revulsion may remain, it has largely given way to more realistic, up-to-date, and practical considerations, as I’ve repeatedly pointed out on this site. Most normal people under the age of 70 no longer have time for this nonsense in their 21st century lives, unless the media is their substitute for a hookah.

Another example of the growing importance of what I’ve called the Kyushu-Busan paradigm (see here and here) was on display last week, though it went largely unremarked by the media outside the immediate region. It seems that some people just don’t enjoy good vibrations.

A ceremony was held on 2 February in Busan, South Korea, to mark the start of the Fukuoka-Busan Friendship Year commemorating the 20th anniversary of official ties between the two cities. Roughly 1,400 attended the ceremony, including business and political leaders from Kyushu and the southeastern Korean Peninsula.

Said Busan Mayor Hur Nam-sik:

Cooperation between the two cities in such sectors as the economy, culture, and tourism will contribute to the peace and prosperity of all of Northeast Asia.

During his address, Fukuoka City Mayor Yoshida Hiroshi said:

We have taken the first step toward the realization of the supranational economic sphere concept. I hope we become pioneers in the integrated development of Asia.

Does that sound like mutual revulsion to you? It sounds to me like people getting on with the business of being alive and realizing that it’s in everyone’s best interests to enjoy the company of their neighbors on the opposite shore of the Korea Strait.

Quite a bit was achieved during the ceremonies. The chambers of commerce of both cities signed a formal partnership agreement, as did two municipal-affiliated cultural organizations.

Arrangements were also made for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks of the Japanese major leagues to play an exhibition against the Busan Lotte Giants this August in Busan and next spring in Fukuoka. The major league teams will be involved in their respective seasons this year, so only the minor league affiliates will take part, but the big boys will square off during exhibition season next March.

For entertainment, there was a joint performance by the Seika Girls High School Brass Band of Fukuoka City and a dance team from Busan. Ah, well. Perhaps television does have its uses after all.

Beware of the temptation to dismiss the whole affair as an empty municipal government exercise in feeling good. Follow the links above and you’ll discover that it’s just the latest positive step in a regional relationship that is several millennia old.

A subsequent survey conducted by the Nishinippon Shimbun in Fukuoka City and the Busan Ilbo in Busan turned up two interesting facts, however.

First, 70% of the people in both cities don’t even know that this is the Fukuoka-Busan Friendship Year. That’s not surprising—the larger events are scheduled for later, and the activities so far have been confined mostly to business and governmental circles.

The second fact is more important, however: More than 60% of the respondents in both countries said that this sort of regional exchange should continue even if relations between the national governments turn temporarily sour, as sometimes happens.

And there you have the big story. It is inevitable that the regional ties between these two areas will continue to thrive despite all the flaming arrows, finger-chopping, pheasant-killing, flag-burning, textbook editing, and political grandstanding and demagoguery that provide the kindling for the cheap thrills served cold at the breakfast table or hot in the comment section of hyperactive blogs.

It’s curious. Everyone likes good news in their lives. Why don’t they like it in the world?

Afterwords: Thanks to Margaret, Martin F., Trapped in Brazil, and new friend Waynenet for their kind comments while I was taking care of business. Once you get out of a groove, it’s sometimes hard to get back in again!

Posted in International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea | Tagged: , | 25 Comments »

 
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