AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Archive for September, 2009

Cover art on the road

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 30, 2009

THE TOKAIDO, Japan’s busiest transportation corridor, links Tokyo and Yokohama, the country’s two largest cities, to Osaka (#3) via Nagoya (#4) and Kyoto (#7)–every one with more than a million people. Those who want to hit the road have their choice of JR’s Tokaido main railway line, the Tokaido Shinkansen, and the Tomei and Meishin expressways.

Hiroshige scene of Shirasuka

Hiroshige scene of Shirasuka

The Japanese have been hitting this road for a very long time. Records show that government officials used parts of it in the ninth century. But it wasn’t until Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first of the Tokugawa Shoguns, ordered the construction of 53 post stations along the road in 1601 that it became a key part of the national infrastructure. In those days, the Tokaido (which means East Sea Road) connected Tokyo, then called Edo, where the Shogun held court, with Kyoto, the home of the Imperial Court.

The Shogun also ordered the country’s feudal lords to alternate their residence between their home fiefdoms and Edo once a year, all the better to keep an eye on them. (Those who lived in less accessible places had to show up only once every three years.) In short order, the road became a pageant of Japanese humanity–the pomp and circumstance of daimyo processions with the lords carried in palanquins suspended from poles shouldered by retainers, while everyone else, including monks, samurai, and just plain folks, traveled by horseback and on foot. Small businesses catering to the travelers thrived along the roadside and in the post station towns. And what better scenery for a trip could there be than the views of the sea to the east and Mt. Fuji to the west?

It was inevitable that the Tokaido would grow larger than life in the popular imagination, and it came to be used as the subject of many works of art and literature. Perhaps the most famous of these is Hiroshige’s woodblock prints of The Fifty-Three Stations of Tokaido dating from 1832.

The road also inspired the creation of a new folk art form in the town of Otsu in what is now Shiga, when artists began producing inexpensive prints in quantity to be sold as souvenirs to the people passing through. Called otsu-e, or Otsu pictures, the form is still used by contemporary artists. Meanwhile, the centuries-old originals, originally meant to be quick one-offs for a quick buck, are exhibited in art museums in Japan and overseas.

With all those travelers doing all that traveling, a cottage industry of travel guides was sure to follow. In a brilliant stroke, Jippensha Ikku combined one such guide describing the sites and scenes along the route with picaresque tales of the adventures and misadventures of two Edo men on a pilgrimage to the Ise Shrine. The collected stories were called Tokaidochu Hizakurige, translated as The Shank’s Mare, and it is still available in English today. Hiroshige contributed some artistic synergy by carving woodblock prints illustrating scenes from the book.

The days of palanquin-borne feudal lords, samurai, and a pair of rascals surreptitiously sliding into the futon of women slumbering in roadside inns are long gone, but fascination with the Tokaido still remains.

manhole covers

Count among the fascinated Tsujino Fumiyo, a 70-year-old resident of a Mie town that was one of the 53 post stations on the Tokaido. Four years ago, Ms. Tsujino started taking art classes in her home town, which seems to have developed her powers of observation in addition to her artistic sensibilities. She noticed that new manhole covers on the neighborhood roads featured a decorative design. She then learned that the 53 municipalities which were once post towns also had manhole cover art depicting scenes of local interest.

That inspired her to take rubbings of all 53 manhole cover varieties. She dragooned her husband into driving her to the sites, after first asking municipal officials where to look for the objets trouvé. It took her about 30 minutes to do each rubbing, including the preliminary washing, and four years to collect them all.

In keeping with the spirit of the famous Miyazawa Kenji poem Ame ni mo Makezu (Undeterred by Rain), she stuck with her mission regardless of the weather. It isn’t hard to picture in the mind’s eye her husband patiently holding an umbrella while she focused on bringing the grimy industrial art of the streets to a wider audience.

Mission accomplished! She colored and mounted all 53 rubbings, and recently displayed them at the Tokaido Manhole Cover Design Exhibit in Kusatsu, Shiga. Admission to the exhibit was free.

The lucky visitors were treated to scenes that included a kimono-clad beauty borne across the Oi river in Shimada, Shizuoka, a mythical dolphin-like creature called the shachihoko from Nagoya, and the Otsu Festival in the aforementioned city of Otsu.

Now I ask you—doesn’t it speak well about a place when it turns the street entrances to its sewers into something that can be hung on a museum wall without a hint of irony?

Afterwords:

Do not fail to unfurl this interactive map of the 53 stations of the Tokaido. Clicking on any of the stations brings up the Hiroshige prints of that particular site. The only advantage a real museum has over this virtual one is that you can accidentally on purpose strike up casual conversations with nearby women that strike your fancy.

And don’t overlook this previous post on otsu-e.

Posted in Arts, History | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Shimojo Masao (1): The preconditions for an East Asian entity

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, September 29, 2009

ONE OF THE SEGMENTS on the masthead is an article about Takeshima written by Prof. Shimojo Masao for the Mainichi Shimbun. Here is a biographical sketch of Prof. Shimojo that appeared with the article:

Shimojo Masao

Shimojo Masao

“Born in Nagano Prefecture in 1950, Dr. Shimojo was awarded a Ph.D. from Kokugakuin University. He went to South Korea in 1983 and taught at several institutions. He served as the senior lecturer at the Samsung Training Institute and visiting professor at Inchon University. Dr. Shimojo returned to Japan in 1998 and was named a professor at the Takushoku University Institute for International Development. His published works include “The Road to Overcoming Japanese-Korean History” (Tendensha).”

In addition, Prof. Shimojo’s field of specialization is Japanese intellectual history, and his knowledge of Northeast Asian history is second to none. His second language is Korean. (He also takes credit for giving Samsung the idea to develop refrigerators used exclusively for kimchee!)

He has agreed to contribute to this website by writing a short essay about once a week. The essays will be written in Japanese, and I’ll translate them into English. Here is the first one.

*****

The Preconditions for an East Asian Entity

There has been a change of government in Japan for the first time in half a century, and a Democratic Party of Japan administration has taken power under the leadership of Hatoyama Yukio. Among his policy initiatives, the concept of an East Asian entity or community similar to the European Union is receiving widespread attention. The alliance with the United States has been the cornerstone of international relations for Japan since the Liberal Democratic Party came to power. People are discussing whether the change of government might mean Japan has chosen to turn away from the U.S. and place a greater emphasis on Asia.

A full understanding of the distinctive historical characteristics of East Asia is required before embarking on such a course, however. While Japan, the Korean Peninsula, and China on the continent are close geographically, the history of their social systems is different. They have less in common than the members of the European Union, which had shared Christian beliefs and intermarriage of the ruling classes.

In Japan’s case, a social system that incorporated regional authority was formed after the establishment of the Kamakura Shogunate in the 12th century, and the foundation of a market economy was created. That is why Japan, with a system closely resembling capitalism, was quickly receptive to Western civilization after the Opium War of 1840.

In contrast, a system of centralized authority was maintained in China and on the Korean Peninsula despite the arrival of modernization. For many years, they had what amounted to planned economies. The history of Japan vis-à-vis China and the Korean Peninsula is that of relationships similar to the one between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The achievement of an East Asian entity depends on whether Prime Minister Hatoyama is possessed of the awareness of those historical differences and the insight to perceive what is necessary to overcome them.

- Shimojo Masao

Notes:

Prof. Shimojo used the phrase 脱米入亜, which is a reference to (and reversal of) the famous 1885 “Datsu-A Ron” article by Fukuzawa Yukichi that calls for Japan to disassociate from Asia in favor of closer ties to the West.

The author’s second language is Korean. Therefore, readers with questions about article content, or comments they want the author to see, should write them in Japanese, if possible.

That might make it difficult for people without Japanese ability to be able to participate in any discussion of these articles that may arise, which is counter to one of my objectives here. Those unable to handle Japanese and who really want to comment or ask questions can send me an e-mail and I’ll try to translate. Please remember that my time is limited, so try to keep it concise and to the point.

Here’s a link to the Amazon page for Prof. Shimojo’s books in Japanese.

Posted in China, History, International relations, South Korea | Tagged: , , | 29 Comments »

Situation vacant

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 28, 2009

ONE FINE DAY, Japan will have a real government at last. Despite a few positive moves in that direction by the recently installed Hatoyama Administration, however, it’s starting to look as if that day isn’t going to dawn anytime soon.

Driving in reverse

People are asking questions about members of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan’s policy study group attending the briefings of various ministry bureaus. The problem is that the party members are not bound to uphold the confidentiality of what they hear.

New Health, Labor, and Welfare Minister Nagatsuma Akira discussed the issue with reporters after a Cabinet meeting on the 25th. He said:

“We’re thinking of a method in which we would appoint them as a sort of project team under Cabinet authority and have them work as part-time civil servants, for whom the confidentiality requirement applies.”

The reason the electorate voted in such massive numbers for a change in government was because they thought it was an urgent priority to disconnect the government from bureaucratic control.

How they manage to disconnect themselves from the bureaucracy by becoming part of it remains to be seen.

Legislation?…Oh yeah, that!

Here’s Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio on convening a Diet session in October:

“No decision has been made. We haven’t made a decision yet on what bills we’ll propose. Now we’ll start thinking about whether an extraordinary Diet session is necessary. There are two elections coming up (on 25 October to fill vacant upper house seats in Kanagawa and Shizuoka) and we have to see what happens.”

In other words, the people who’ve been telling us they’re ready to handle the reins of government for the past two years still haven’t got a program ready, though it’s been apparent for most of the year that they’d win the election.

Apparently, by-election campaigns take precedence over the Diet’s business.

The Nikkei points out that Mr. Hatoyama has a full diplomatic schedule next month, including summits with the leaders of China and South Korea. Why summits should be a priority isn’t clear, however. Both countries will be right there where they’ve always been for the foreseeable future, and there are no bilateral problems that either could be or need to be solved right away. That means there’s no real reason for Mr. Hatoyama to give them all his milk and cookies just yet.

As a small-government guy, I think it’s a capital idea for legislatures to meet as infrequently as possible—they only wind up getting into mischief and causing trouble for normal people—but would it have been too much to ask of the DPJ to have settled on what they want to do in Nagata-cho before they got there?

Aren’t they supposed to be the policy wanks, the ones who brought party platforms into Japanese politics?

Then again, if the DPJ wins both of those upper house seats, they might be able to disconnect themselves from one of their useless coalition partners and get to work.

And speaking of useless coalition partners…

More Cowbell from Kamei

It was almost a tradition in Japanese politics for one of the members of a new Liberal-Democratic Party Cabinet to shoot his mouth off within a week of being sworn in and wind up shooting himself and the party in the foot.

Well, the new Financial Services Minister Kamei Shizuka is an ex-LDP stalwart, so maybe he’s trying to keep the tradition of loose cannon fusillades alive.

Recall that Mr. Kamei recently said he favored a three-year moratorium on bank loan repayments for small businesses and homeowners—including some interest payments—and using public funds to prop up any banks that might have trouble making ends meet by forgoing all that income.

Mr. Kamei fired off several salvos on a TV broadcast yesterday as a counterattack to the legions of those who were appalled at the idea, including members of his coalition.

“Banks that are so weak that their stock would fall because of what I said aren’t qualified to function as banks.”

The Asahi dryly wondered whether a statement that employs “vague standards” to discuss the qualifications of banks is appropriate for a Cabinet minister with such broad oversight over those institutions.

“(If this measure) causes investors and citizens to lose their faith (in the banks) to such an extent, the financial institutions themselves should reflect on the reasons for their problems.”

Oh. It’s all their fault.

Finance Minister Fujii Hirohisa has said neither he nor the Bank of Japan thinks the measure is necessary. You may fire when ready, Kamei:

“We agreed to introduce that as a policy measure (during the negotiations to form a coalition). I don’t know what he’s talking about after all this time, but he’s just talking to himself.”

Meanwhile, overseas institutional investors started looking for the nearest exit.

In other news, he’s converted to the Hatoyama philosophy of high school student government:

“People can’t live under this radical philosophy of market supremacy, in which the strong eat the weak. I’m only trying to implement yuai (fraternal) politics.”

Mr. Kamei is also the Minister in Charge of Bloviating About Japan Post Privatization. Haraguchi Kazuhiro, the new Internal Affairs and Communications minister, has offered a suggestion for Japan Post’s reorganization. Said the Man in Charge Around Here:

“I’m the Minister in charge of Japan Post. It’s not that person’s (Haraguchi’s) position to make characterizations (literally, draw pictures) about matters that are my responsibility.”

I’ve remarked several times on Ozawa Ichiro’s propensity for creating inherently unstable coalitions, but this must be a record. The new Government’s only two weeks old and already one of the Cabinet ministers is telling two of his colleagues where to get off.

Despite the criticism from within the ruling party and business and financial circles, Mr. Kamei thinks he’s sitting in the catbird seat:

“If they’re so (opposed), they might hope that the Prime Minister will replace me. But that’s not possible.”

Here’s the problem–Mr. Kamei is right. During the campaign Candidate Hatoyama also came out in favor of a debt repayment moratorium while stumping for DPJ lower house MP Kawauchi Hiroshi, a member of the Hatoyama group/faction. Mr. Hatoyama said the moratorium was Mr. Kawauchi’s idea, but he also supported it. Though it went unremarked at the time, that part of the speech was filmed and is up on YouTube.

This has the potential to get really ugly.

On second thought, maybe it’s a good idea to put off a new Diet session until the by-elections after all.

UPDATE:

Oh, my. According to the Asahi, at a press conference on the 28th, Mr. Hatoyama now said:

“It’s not the case that (the three coalition partners) agreed to go so far as a moratorium.” (モラトリアムということまで)

You know how they say charity begins at home? Maybe yuai does too–starting with the coalition government. If Mr. Hatoyama can’t sell it there, how can he expect to sell it anywhere else?

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government, Politics | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Open primaries

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 28, 2009

DANIEL HANNAN, a member of the European Parliament for Southeast England since 1999, has an idea for improving British Parliament.

The essence of democracy is that the country gets a regular chance to turn the rascals out. But, as things stand, almost every seat is owned by one or other of the main parties. If you live in one of these seats, the only way your MP will lose his job is if his party de-selects him. So, being a rational human being, he will tend to side with his Whips against his constituents.

What does that have to do with this country?

Notwithstanding the many new members of the Diet that were coined in the last two lower house elections, that system would also be a tonic for Japanese politics.

Put it to the test yourself by changing just a couple of words in the last sentence and applying the entire passage here:

So, being a rational human being, he will tend to side with the party bosses against his constituents.

Follow the money to find out why.

What could be more democratic than letting the people decide?

Mr. Hannan explains that the benefits would be more than philosophical:

Open primaries would abolish the concept of a safe seat, restoring the independence of Parliament and ensuring that the legislature was once again an effective check on the executive.

In Japan’s case, it would establish the independence of the Diet and ensure that the legislature was an effective check on the executive for the first time.

An additional benefit would be to end the hypocrisy about hereditary candidates. The people would get whom the people want.

By taking power out of the hands of the party bosses, it would also spark a political realignment almost immediately.

Combine that with a residency requirement preventing people from parachuting into a district from somewhere else in the country, and some of the excellent ideas floating around for reforming the upper house, and you’d be cooking with gas.

Posted in Government | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

More from Mac in No Shinkansen Sticksville

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 28, 2009

READER MAC enjoys sending occasional reports on the people he meets in a part of Japan he calls No Shinkansen Sticksville. It only goes to show the sort of interesting folks you can meet and have fun with if you look. Here are three of his latest. Two were appended as notes to a previous missive here.

*****
Still out here in ‘No Shinkansen Sticksville’ where the lack of any street lighting makes the tanktrap-like concrete ditches around the rice fields a major cause of untimely death of drunken ojiisan making their way home on rattling old rides.

I went to a slideshow talk of a very pretty, waif-like 21 year old who had just returned from a 5,000 km bicycle ride around eight East African countries … alone. By herself.

Yamasaki Mio had also clocked up to 6,000 km around Japan before marrying the handsome Yamada Kohei, a Japan Overseas Cooperation (JICA) development worker in Malawi, who had become famous for recording a Number One hit in the Chichewa language, Ndimakukonda. A love song about HIV (AIDS) he hoped would reduce the stigma of HIV there. All profits going back to support charity work there. The pair act as official goodwill ambassadors for Eritrean tourism. (See here and here, both in Japanese.)

Our local biker’s NPO has sent out thousands of bikes, recycled from outside of railway stations etc, to Mozambique, reducing gun crime by swopping them out for old Russian and American weapons left by the last civil war.

That’s not the story though.

Hanging around outside, I spoke to another slim young woman I had seen before playing tabla (an Indian percussion instrument) at a Hindu chanting session called a sankirtan down at the local guesthouse. She too had spent a couple of years abroad working with women in Pakistan, where she had learnt to play them.

Looking at her mamchari (single speed shopping bike), we had a good laugh at her expense because she had stuck a ‘Harley-Davidson’ chopper-style sticker on the back mudguard. We thought it was very funny.

No, she politely explained, she did actually own a Harley-Davidson Sportster as well … but was thinking of selling it now because it was not good for the environment.

Yup … just your average, quiet, sunny weekend in a racist, inward and conservative country like Japan filled with whacky geeks waiting to restore the Emperor and invade China again.

***
A short postscript to the above.

The woman with the Harley-Davidson – who like most women Harley-Davidson owners in Japan (yes, there are many) was waif-like and, aesthetically, would not have looked out of place at a department store cosmetic counter – had also spent time in Syria and Iraq as an aid worker.

The woman cyclist and AIDs worker were planning to ride the Silk Route from China to Turkey next, and then the ridge ride from North down to South America. And, on the basis of her record to date and sincerity, why should I doubt her?

Not only am I secretly impressed by the women who work and ride on Harleys in Japan (they have special day courses in how to pick the behemoths up – part of the driving test here – and ‘chop’ them low so they can reach the ground), you can imagine my thrill when the female pilot of a chrome-framed, hard-tailed, Shovel-head bobber, resplendent in a 60s bubble-visored Fonda helmet and style to match, actually waved at me as she rode past one day.

Of course, not all Japanese women like the fat, lowboy Yankee aesthetics. Others prefer the more lean, restrained British “rocker” style. And do they actually ride oily, old vintage Triumphs, Nortons and Enfields? They not only ride them but they apply themselves to fix and restore them. (See here, in English with a link to a Japanese site.)

Yup … On Any Sunday … in a racist, inward-looking and conservative country like Japan.

*****
I find it deeply touching that 20 or 30 individuals give up their days voluntarily to prepare and send off goods to a distant and culturally alien African nation, with whom they have no colonial debt for having screwed up in the past and may never see. The organization in question was recently bequeath a townhouse property by a little old lady, now deceased, who wanted to see some good coming of it and run it as an African cafe and Fairtrade shop.

- Mac

*****
Here’s the first paragraph of the website linked in the second report above. I have no idea who wrote it…:

It is always humbling to see the respect, the passion and the efforts Japanese people invest in their love of all things British. And generally done with an enthusiastic professionalism with which they make it very clear why in 60 years – and having been burned and nuked to the ground – theirs is the 2nd strongest economy in the world and Britain is slipping down to be a gutter of a Third World nation. The innate Japanese sense of understated cool, the appreciation of fine aesthetics, the sense of independent defiance that has set them apart from other…East Asian nations. It is something that a lot of Westerners find very difficult and try hard to diminish by using negative racial stereotypes.

…but he gets it.

If what you know about Japan is derived from the English-language mass media, then everything you know about Japan is wrong.

*****
Or, to paraphrase a quick jibe I just saw on another site:

“I’m reminded of the (apocryphal) Fleet Street headline: “Fog In Channel. Continent Cut Off.” In this case: Fog in Journalism Guild front yard. Japan cut off.”

Posted in Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

Beijing’s investment bankers

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 28, 2009

CANADIAN COLUMNIST George Jonas tells the story of a laugh he recently shared with a businessman friend when the latter admitted that 15 years ago he could never have imagined the reason for his latest trip to Beijing: to raise capital.

Jonas briefly examines the reasons why China now has its own versions of the fat bald guy in a top hat from the Monopoly game, and notes that the Chinese decided the Soviets had it backwards by putting glasnost before perestroika.

After several false starts, the view gradually emerged that keeping dissenting intellectuals on a tight leash but giving merchants and entrepreneurs some incentive, a little wiggle room, might be the way to keep China’s rulers in power.

Mr. Jonas is quick to assure readers that he sees nothing at all praiseworthy about this development:

If this summary makes me sound like an apologist for Dengism-Huism, I’m most assuredly not….China’s discovery that capitalism works is no news to me. As far as I’m concerned, if it works in a slave society, in a free society it works even better.

He concludes:

Hu doesn’t solicit my advice, but if he did, I’d tell him as long as Barack Obama is in the White House, China need not worry about America’s missiles. Obama’s secret weapon is America’s debt.

The entire article is here.

Posted in China | Leave a Comment »

The means, the motive, and the opportunity

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 27, 2009

IT MIGHT SEEM ODD that a former professor of the Western classics would have a clear insight into the reasoning of those Japanese leaders who thought in late 1941 they had a golden opportunity to create an empire in East Asia.

But it begins to make sense when you realize the professor in question is Victor Davis Hanson– an expert on ancient warfare, analyst of modern warfare, and commentator on contemporary politics.

As Prof. Hanson notes, the Japanese decision to go to war is commonly ridiculed. The scoffers cite the well-known opposition of Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, the man who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor. Some offer an alleged quote from the Admiral warning that the attack would awaken the sleeping giant. (Though he almost certainly believed it, there is no direct evidence that the Admiral either said or wrote it.)

Instead, Hanson points out:

(T)hat correct analysis enjoys the benefit of hindsight, and does not explain why rather intelligent militarists for some reason believed that they could win, or at least within six months of aggrandizement, obtain a truce. That they could not, and destroyed their country in the bargain, is not the point. Nor is “fanaticism” a completely adequate exegesis for Pearl Harbor; logic of a sort is.

He then offers six logical reasons why those “intelligent militarists” thought they might get away with it.

He concludes:

Almost all six calculations within a few months (say after the pivotal Midway and Guadalcanal battles) proved flawed. But that again is not the lesson. At the time, the Japanese, being aggressive militarists, drew logical conclusions about their self-interests, which only in hindsight seem preposterous, and largely because of the phenomenal, but easily unforeseen response of the United States.

In the second half of the article, Mr. Hanson applies the same analytical perspective to a contemporary geopolitical situation unrelated to Japan.

Posted in History, World War II | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Kyushu companies

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 26, 2009

HERE’S HOW Nippon Keidanren, or the Japanese Business Federation, describes itself:

Nippon Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) is a comprehensive economic organization born in May 2002 by amalgamation of Keidanren (Japan Federation of Economic Organizations) and Nikkeiren (Japan Federation of Employers’ Associations). Its membership of 1,609 is comprised of 1,295 companies, 129 industrial associations, and 47 regional economic organizations (as of May 28, 2009).

The mission of Nippon Keidanren is to accelerate growth of Japan’s and world economy and to strengthen the corporations to create additional value to transform Japanese economy into one that is sustainable and driven by the private sector, by encouraging the idea of individuals and local communities.

Kyushu Keidanren, or the Kyushu Economic Federation, has 736 corporate members. It sent a questionnaire to its members asking for their opinions regarding 21 policies of the new Hatoyama Administration. They received responses from 150.

The respondents had their choice of two answers: (1) “Definitely want (them) to do it,” and (2) “Definitely want (them) to rethink it” (i.e., We don’t like this at all).

While the survey subjects are businesspeople at larger companies and not citizens at large, the results are worth examining because it highlights a potential disconnect between what the public wants the Government to do, and what the Government thinks it should do.

Here are the three questions that received the most favorable responses, and the three questions that received the most unfavorable responses. Let’s start with the nays first.

* Eliminating tolls on expressways
Yes: 6.7%
No: 54.7%

* Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 25%
Yes: 5.3%
No: 35.3%

* Paying child-rearing subsidies
Yes: 8.7%
No: 32.0%

It might come as no surprise to see they’re opposed to the “global warming” policies, but I didn’t expect that answer for the other two. Some might think corporations would welcome toll-free expressways because it would reduce overland delivery costs, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Here’s what they liked:

* Reducing personnel costs for national civil servants by 20%
Yes: 35.3%
No: 2.0%

* Drastically revising the system for formulating national budgets
Yes: 32.7%
No: 2.7%

* Devolving authority and financing sources to local governments
Yes: 28.7%
No: 3.3%

It seems clear that people consider the priorities to be smaller, more local, and more efficient government. It remains to be seen whether the new Government understands that.

Shinise

Speaking of corporate surveys, the Fukuoka branch of Tokyo Shoko Research conducted a survey of companies in Kyushu and Okinawa that are at least 100 years old. There’s a word in Japanese for old, established firms with a good reputation: shinise. TSR thinks companies that have been around that long are good investment risks.

They found a total of 1,470 centenarian corporate citizens in the region. The oldest is Kawaguchi Bunten of Nagasaki, a food products retailer that opened in 1470. In other words, it had already become established by the time Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Of the 10 oldest companies, the youngest is Toyo-kan, a ryokan, or Japanese inn, which opened in 1614.

Three date from the 16th century. One is a Fukuoka City shop that’s been selling handmade calligraphy instruments since 1501.

A breakdown by business sector shows that 46.9% are in retail or wholesale sales–not surprising–and 28.2% are in the manufacturing industry.

Tokyo Shoko Research, incidentally, is an old-timer too. It was founded in 1892.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government, History | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Why journalism is important

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 26, 2009

Do you love it?
Do you hate it?
There it is
The way you made it.
– Frank Zappa

READER and frequent commenter Aceface, who is employed by a major Japanese media outlet, has been keeping abreast of the reaction to the Justin McCurry article in The Guardian about Japanese “rent-a-friends” that has generated some discussion here recently.

He’s been sifting through the comment section to see what The Guardian’s readers have to say about that article.

Now I understand that the folks who post in The Guardian’s comment sections are the subject of considerable mockery and disdain in Britain. I’m also well aware that the same sort of people hang out and write in those sections of American newspapers, where the same sort of bilge is never far from the surface.

But those comments give us an idea of how the consumers of news view Japan. Here are three that Aceface dug up:

“I find it rather sad actually. That the Japanese, in all their “efficiency,” have not managed to be able to find a balance between wealth and “society” is lamentable. That people, in a related matter, are willing to become spouses of robots, rather than seeking to connect with other humans, seems to me to be pretty scary.”

Or:

“Because of the Japanese sense of superiority and homogeneity, I imagine, they’d rather associate with a fake friend that actually befriend the Korean or other non-Japanese-born person next door. Truly sad and scary.”

And:

“The (Western) First World ranks above the rest of the world, not just because of its wealth, but in its ability to create a society made up of social human beings of all stripes. That Japan has chosen to deviate completely from this trajectory is to its detriment, and I believe that ultimately, it will be proven to have erred in placing so much faith in machines rather than encouraging real human contact.”

Why do these people “know” that Japanese marry robots, have a sense of superiority and homogeneity, would rather associate with fake friends than Koreans, or have chosen to deviate from the civilization that is the Crown of Creation?

Because they read it in the newspaper.

Here’s another commenter on the blog of Daniel Drezner writing about a slapdash post stemming from a short-circuited conclusion–which in turn was inspired by a hideously deformed article in The New York Times about the Japanese government’s policy toward Brazilian guest workers.

“The xenophobic mindset of Japan, is something akin to the Wahabi equivalent in Islam – if it goes so far as to exclude ethnic Japanese, from Brazil!”

He knows because he read it on a blog written by a university professor who read it in a publication that likes to pretend it’s The Paper of Record. (For more detail on that particular story, here’s my post on the subject.)

Tyler Cowan is an economist at George Mason University who has a blog called Marginal Revolution. During a trip to Japan, he was surprised to see so many vending machines and wondered why in this post.

I was astonished at the content of some of the comments on a blog written for educated and presumably well-informed people. Here is my comment in full. It explains why I thought there were more vending machines here than elsewhere and responds to what the other commenters said.

*****

Some points to consider, offered by a resident of Japan for 24 years:

1. Most vending machines in Japan are owned outright by the commercial establishment where they’re located. That means they are an extension of the business enterprise itself. That includes Shinto shrines and medical clinics.

2. Beware of the trap of thinking that Tokyo=Japan. Most people in Japan don’t live in Tokyo and they DO use (and depend on) their cars. Toyota didn’t get where it is today by selling all its product overseas.

3. Beware of the trap of thinking that American dietary habits=the global gold standard. Most refrigerators sold in Japan today are larger than the ones I grew up with in the United States. Yet very few Japanese will buy immense bottles of soft drink or buckets of ice cream and stick them in the refrigerator/freezer. They tend to eat smaller quantities at one sitting.

My Japanese wife was initially impressed by her first visit to an American supermarket, but wound up close to appalled before she walked out the door. It is difficult for Americans to realize how gluttonous it all seems to someone not used to that lifestyle.

Of course, Japanese men will buy cases of beer–in larger bottles–but instead of putting them into the refrigerator all at once, or taking up space in the house, place the bottles on the porch or outside the kitchen door, secure in the knowledge that the beer is unlikely to be stolen.

And while I’m at it…

“Use a vending machine and you get to avoid human interaction. Prejudice?”

No, just completely unaware of daily social interaction in Japan.

“They sell cars door-to-door in Japan…”

That’s not how most people buy them, however.

“…could it have anything to do with the fact that it’s been easier to carry coins in Japan since they’re hollow in the middle?”

Only two coins have holes in the middle, the holes don’t make them easier to carry, and they are not the coins most likely to be used in vending machines.

“Most urban Japaneses rarely make a meal at home…”

I would love to see the statistics on that one. Particularly for families.

“The “high ratio of small stores” is a byproduct of law: super-malls and big stores like Carrefour/Walmart aren’t allowed to be built there…”

Twenty years out of date.

“Vending machines in Japan must…carry products that are not easily accessible.”

The overwhelming majority of Japanese vending machines sell either beverages, cigarettes, or less frequently, ice cream.

“I have heard from expats that the painful level of politeness demanded of even small human transactions adds to the appeal of automation.”

Bum steer. If an expat told you that, I can almost guarantee that their degree of language fluency is negligible.

“Vending machines are, of course, always open.”

Not for beer or ciggies after 11:00 p.m. where I live.

“Japan has few immigrants and I don’t think their teenagers work.”

The jobs that high school students in the US do are performed by college students in Japan. I teach two college classes at a national university, and 95% of my students have part-time jobs working in shops and restaurants.

I don’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings, but you know what Keynes said about truth-telling.

Still, the lack of accurate information about Japan–in the information age, no less–is sobering.

*****

Why is so much of the educated public’s knowledge of Japan so incorrect?

Because they got it from the newspaper.

I urge those of you with the courage to wade through the cloaca of public opinion to read this previous post on what sort of comments the moderators at the BBC website think are acceptable about Japan. Keep in mind that the network warns posters in advance about defamatory comments or comments about racial hatred. The BBC didn’t think its rules applied to people calling for the wholesale murder of Japanese.

How did those posters from their opinion of Japan?

They based it on what they read in the newspaper or saw on the BBC.

*****

The late author Michael Crichton delivered a speech in 2002 in which he addressed the issue of media credibility. He observed:

“(T)here are some well-studied media effects which suggest that a simple appearance in media provides credibility. There was a well-known series of excellent studies by Stanford researchers that have shown, for example, that children take media literally. If you show them a bag of popcorn on a television set and ask them what will happen if you turn the TV upside down, the children say the popcorn will fall out of the bag. This effect would be amusing if it were confined to children. The studies show that no one is exempt. All human beings are subject to this media effect, including those of us who think we are self-aware and hip and knowledgeable.”

Here is his conclusion. I’ve emphasized the last part:

Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect…

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.

But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t.

*****

Responsible citizenship, however one chooses to define that, depends on a fully informed citizenry. People form their conception of issues based on what they read and watch in the print and broadcast media. That is particularly the case for international issues and circumstances in a country they are unlikely to visit or ever know much about.

While journalists are not responsible for the reactions that take place once the chemicals are placed in the beaker, they are responsible for the content of the inserted chemicals that cause those reactions and their deliberate placement of the beaker over a Bunsen burner to accelerate the reactions.

Responding to my post about his Guardian article, McCurry wrote:

I now feel totally vindicated in my choice of profession.

I’d feel totally ashamed if the fruits of my labor were partially responsible for creating this image of Japan overseas. I’d think the time had arrived for hansei, or serious self-reflection on my errors.

Instead of contributing to the world’s enlightenment about things Japanese, journalists as a class bear the primary responsibility for creating the environment in which the ignorance shown above breeds. But that’s not exactly what they would have us believe they’re doing, is it?

If what you know about Japan is derived from the English-language mass media, then everything you know about Japan is wrong.

And we all know why.

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Posted in Mass media | Tagged: , | 29 Comments »

L’etat c’est moi

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 26, 2009

ONE KEY FEATURE of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan’s political program is to exploit the government’s unused financial assets, excessive budget allocations, and waste in existing programs to ladle out the recovered largesse to various groups of the citizenry. Outside the party itself and its most ardent acolytes, however, there is a near unanimity of consensus on the impossibility of funding the schemes in the way it proposes for more than a year, if that long. But government subsidies enacted for political objectives have a way of lasting forever, unfortunately.

Gucci, Pucci, and Fiorucci for The People

Gucci, Pucci, and Fiorucci for The People

The success of the new Government’s efforts will hinge on their ability to tease out funds from money already earmarked for expenditure, including funds in the FY 2009 supplemental budget. That’s why Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio has asked all the Cabinet ministers to look for waste and extravagance in their budgets that can be diverted to the administration’s priorities. For example, it’s already been announced that the controversial manga museum project will be suspended. Mr. Hatoyama wants the ministers to submit their reports by 2 October.

Fukushima Mizuho, the Minister of State for Consumer Affairs and Food Safety, Social Affairs, and Gender Equality, and the chief of the minor coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party of Japan, this week held her first official meeting with the deputy minister and parliamentary secretary to examine those parts of the current FY supplementary budget for which she’s responsible to see if she can pry loose any of the money.

The 2 October deadline was more than enough time for them. In fact, it took them only three hours to conclude that every last yen in her ministry’s allocation was absolutely essential.

Now that’s governmental efficiency!

She later told the press:

“I am responsible for suicide prevention measures, strengthening local government consumer organizations, and support for domestic violence. Basically, there’s nothing to cut because the new Government is trying to achieve politics that put a priority on human life.”

Ms. Fukushima’s background is that of a radical leftist lawyer who has been associated with Marxist terrorist groups, and who heads the Party Formerly Known As The Socialists. Is it any surprise that she would consider all of the money in her ministry as a crucial asset for the public sector?

It’s axiomatic in politics that the farther left the politician, the more likely he is to believe that the rules and regulations that apply to everyone else don’t apply to his pet causes. Besides, we already know that the bureaucracy believes it needs all that money to spend on office space and furniture and transportation expenses and softball uniforms while it thinks about the ways it can help The People.

Does anyone doubt that given a 2 October deadline, any owner of a small or medium-sized business in Japan would be able to shake loose a substantial piece of change from that budget without disrupting any essential government services?

Does anyone doubt that if a neutral party with an interest in streamlining government were given a free hand, that white elephant of a ministry would be out of the Cabinet, its constituent elements broken up, their status downgraded to those of an agency or bureau, and their functions either consolidated or eliminated?

How quickly the pigs learn to walk on their hind legs!

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

More from the mailbag

Posted by ampontan on Friday, September 25, 2009

AN E-MAIL MESSAGE arrived today from a Westerner who works for a Japanese government office in the European Union and recently started reading this site.

The correspondent agrees with the view that the English-language mass media does an inadequate job of covering the news about Japan. He related an incident that he allowed me to quote here. The emphasis is mine:

I…often attend Japan related seminars. At one last year where former Tokyo BBC Bureau Chief William Horsley was speaking, I challenged him on why the Western press is so silent on Japanese matters. His response was something along the lines of “tell me anything about Japan that is newsworthy”.

That explains a lot, doesn’t it?

He continued:

If only the Western press decided to dig a little deeper they would find a plethora of newsworthy stories – Japan’s true relationship with China and East Asia (Yasukuni aside), the true level of influence Japan has in Western, particularly American, economies, the justice system that finds 98% of people guilty, technology innovations, environmental issues etc. But no, we get stuck with articles on anime, panty vending machines and rent-a-crowd weddings. Why is that?

That’s an excellent question.

I’d also add that Japan is still in the process of reordering and remodeling its government, both at the national and sub-national level. While the subjects at issue can be a bit dry, the debates about those subjects and the people participating in those debates can be fascinating.

Thanks to the correspondent for allowing me to quote the e-mail.

Posted in Mass media | Tagged: , | 22 Comments »

“The DPJ doesn’t have a growth strategy”

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, September 24, 2009

THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN recently interviewed Hosei University Prof. Komine Takao, an economist who once headed the Research Bureau of the Economic Planning Agency and was an official in the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport. In particular, they asked him about the economic policies of the Hatoyama Administration. Here’s how it went:

*****

The growth strategy of the Hatoyama Administration is based on expanding domestic consumption by providing financial assistance to households. What do you think of that?

That sort of thinking has no value as a growth strategy. They’re not talking about something beneficial, such as reducing taxes or implementing other fiscal measures, which would result in economic growth as incomes continue to rise. They’re just discussing how to divide up the pie among corporations, the government, and the citizens. But the pie itself won’t get any larger.

A growth strategy is how to make the pie larger. Even if some benefits accrue this year, they’ll be short-lived.

To put it in extreme terms, the DPJ doesn’t have a growth strategy.

How should growth be depicted?

Utilize the blessings of globalization, increase imports and exports, primarily to Asia, and then expand domestic demand as the benefits are returned to the people. The only growth strategy is to take the royal road (i.e., the proper path).

Improving productivity demands aggressive investment in R&D for technology. Operating resources will have to be diverted to growth sectors, such as long-term care and medical treatment. Demand is rising for high-quality medical treatment and long-term care, but working conditions are poor, including low wages, and there is a labor shortage.

Services should be diversified, and there should be a conversion to a mechanism in which high quality services are available on an out-of-pocket basis. That’s how the latent demand for medical treatment and long-term care will be actualized.

What is the biggest problem for the management of the economy?

There is absolutely no discussion of current economic conditions, or what sort of growth rate is envisioned over the medium- to long term. The DPJ way for macroeconomic management seems to be “the daily life of the people” itself.

Economic growth raises incomes, and price stability means stability in daily life.

The Minister of Economic and Fiscal Policy should have the extremely important role of analyzing daily economic trends, formulating the government’s perception of the economy, and delivering that message. There seems to be a lack of interest in that.

There are discussions of reevaluating public works projects.

There have always been vested interests, whether for roads or for dams. One problem in the past has been that there was no change in the proportion of the budget allocated to public works projects.

The biggest advantage in the change of government is that (the new government) has no pre-existing ties, so that presents an excellent opportunity to determine a new sequence of priorities.

I wonder if their rollout of policies hasn’t been reckless, however, such as their announcement of the suspension of dam construction projects so soon after they took office. It takes time, but they should gather the people involved and discuss the issues. That would smooth out the rough edges.

There have been strong objections from business and financial circles of the new Government’s targets for reducing greenhouse gases.

There are some advantages to setting strict targets. The strategic utilization of regulations could change the course of the economy and society. For example, when the price of oil quadrupled during the first oil crisis, people were alarmed that the Japanese economy would collapse.

But Japan developed the technology to cut back on oil consumption, which transformed the industrial structure. The economy evolved in such a way that growth could be achieved with very little increase in oil consumption.

It might have been the case that we were able to achieve something unanticipated.

Financial Services Minister Kamei Shizuka is calling for the introduction of a moralistic system with a moratorium on the repayment of debt by small businesses and others.

That’s out of the question. It’s absurd.

In a system based on contractual agreements, it is not legally possible to change the terms of the loan relationship at the time the contract was made before the loan is repaid. Several problems would ensue, including the flight of foreign capital if the situation in Japan were perceived to be that severe. It would also put small and medium-sized lending institutions in a serious bind.

The contempt for moneylenders making a profit without working for it seems to stem from a reading of The Merchant of Venice.

He doesn’t seem to have asked the opinions of specialists or the people involved. I can only say that he is treating the authorities responsible as his personal property.

*****

MEANWHILE…

Those nefarious oil barons are at it again. Now they’ve gone and bought out another one of the good guys.

Which one?

(Prof. Mojib Latif of Germany’s Leibniz Institute) is one of the leading climate modellers in the world. He is the recipient of several international climate-study prizes and a lead author for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He has contributed significantly to the IPCC’s last two five-year reports that have stated unequivocally that man-made greenhouse emissions are causing the planet to warm dangerously.

Oh, no! What did he do?

(L)ast week in Geneva, at the UN’s World Climate Conference–an annual gathering of the so-called “scientific consensus” on man-made climate change –Latif conceded the Earth has not warmed for nearly a decade and that we are likely entering “one or even two decades during which temperatures cool.”

The Eco-Church worshipers have been reduced to sputtering that Dr. Latif also said he thinks global warming will resume again. Except he isn’t sure when or why, and he was wrong the last time, and he agrees with people who say climate change is cyclical, and, and, and…

But this week in New York, Prime Minister Hatoyama addressed the world’s largest congregation of thugs and despots at their jamboree on the left bank of New York’s East River and promised that Japan will cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels.

Somebody needs to tell Mr. Hatoyama a few things, in addition to the statements of people like Dr. Latif and the long line of scientists to precede him. For one thing, the terms of art in the English language have changed. Now that even the Eco-Church can’t deny that the globe has stopped warming, they’ve been warming up to the phrase “climate change” instead. And that phrase “greenhouse gases”? It’s so yesterday! Please–now it’s “carbon pollution”. Didn’t you listen to President Obama’s speech while you were there?

He might also have profitably listened to Chinese President Hu Jintao, who said during his two-minute greeting that his country would take “determined action”, but who was equally determined not to specify what that action or its targets would be.

Then Mr. Hatoyama could be told that:

“As the International Energy Agency concluded, the major nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ‘alone cannot put the world onto the path to 450-ppm trajectory, even if they were to reduce their emissions to zero.'”

Someone also might remind him that the U.S. has pledged to reduce emissions by only 20% from 1990 levels by far-off 2050, and “the 80% target means reducing fossil-fuel greenhouse-gas emissions to a level the nation last experienced in 1910.”

Horse, meet buggy!

Then again, if Prof. Komine thinks the DPJ doesn’t have a growth strategy…

Nah!

While some of the speeches in New York might have been diverting as an exercise in observing public lunacy, particularly those from the Libyan and Iranian leaders, Mr. Hatoyama should have focused on this line from Mr. Obama:

“Nor do alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long gone Cold War (make sense in an interconnected world).”

Translation: If China, Russia, or North Korea start to get really uncool, don’t you Japanese go calling us on the phone and ask for help.

If you don’t care for my interpretation, you could always ask the Czechs, the Poles, the Israelis, the Hondurans, or even the Iranian demonstrators for theirs.

But I admit there could be other ways to render that. Heck, now that everyone knows Mr. Obama isn’t interested in keeping his story straight on anything from one week to the next, there might not be any real interpretation at all.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Environmentalism | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »

Card games

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 23, 2009

LAST WEEK, new Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya gave an interview to the Nishinippon Shimbun’s Tokyo correspondent. It was unremarkable for the most part, save for this passage:

Will you extend the law that provides for the Indian Ocean refueling activities when it expires in January?

There will not be a simple extension.

Is there any leeway for an extension based on the condition of prior approval in the Diet?

There will not be a simple extension. (I won’t say) anything more than that, or anything less than that. I have no comment on the details. We want to have different cards available.

*****

Cards? Cards? When did Japan’s commitment to participate in the UN-approved NATO mission in Afghanistan become a poker game?

Diplomatic cards are used when dealing with hostile or potentially hostile nations to outmaneuver them and gain an advantage. The United States played the “China card” of recognizing the PRC as part of its geopolitical strategy against the Soviet Union.

The UN approved the NATO mission a second time specifically to give Japan the justification it needed for participation. It’s a matter of principle. You either support the mission or you don’t. If you support it, extend it, and if you don’t, end it.

This is not an issue to be manipulated for some imagined advantage either abroad or at home, and trying to do so will only wind up harming Japan. What does he think Japan will win by playing this “card”? I really hope he doesn’t have the Okinawa bases or the SOFA in the back of his mind.

It would have been one thing had he said that the Government wants to keep its options open while it examines the alternatives. But this ain’t mah jongg, and Ozawa/Tanaka Tammany-style politicking doesn’t translate well from the Diet to foreign affairs.

You’re in the Government now, Mr. Okada. It’s time to put away the petty parliamentary games and put on your long trousers.

On 24 April 2004, the Japanese oil tanker Takasuzu was anchored at a terminal near Basra in Iraq when three boats filled with explosives on a suicide mission approached the site at high speed. There was a gun battle with ships from the multinational forces, and one of those boats was destroyed in a huge explosion a few hundred meters away from, and on a direct course to hit, the Takasuzu. No Japanese were hurt, though the tanker suffered minor damage.

Two American sailors and a guard on shore were killed, however.

You think it’s a card game? One of these days, somebody just might pull out the No Blood For (Japanese) Oil card on you.

UPDATE:

Prime Minister Hatoyama has been talking about this issue with his British counterpart, Gordon Brown. Mr. Brown asked him what he intended to do. Here’s the answer, as reported by Breitbart:

“Our country will consider what would be the best way to contribute to the future of Afghanistan,” Hatoyama was quoted by the officials as saying to Brown.

As one example, the new Japanese leader said, “We may instead choose to provide vocational training to Taliban soldiers to help them to return to society, offer the soldiers stability and happiness, and eventually bring about peace in all of Afghanistan,” according to the officials.

It seems as if Yuki-chan might have eaten a bit too much sun for breakfast this morning.

It’s beginning to look as if the recent election was the first time in world history government power was transfered from a group of tired old men to a junior high school girl playing dress up in her grandfather’s clothes.

This has the potential to get really ugly.

Afterwords:

The Sunday before last I met Prof. Shimojo Masao face-to-face for the first time in a few years (see the article on Takeshima at the top of the page). He is utterly disgusted at the attitude of Japanese politicians of all parties toward international relations. “They’re just not interested,” he said.

Indeed.

Posted in Government, International relations | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

More journo snickering at Japan, #4,625

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 23, 2009

HERE’S ANOTHER overseas correspondent in Japan wasting his own time and that of his readers at the breakfast table: Justin McCurry of the Guardian.

His latest article falls squarely into that old standby category of space filler: Japan as the Goofball Kingdom of East Asia. This one’s about how the Japanese are so desperate for companionship they’re renting “fake”, “phony”, and “bogus” friends.

Here’s the first sentence:

Best man Ryuichi Ichinokawa took his place before the assembled wedding guests, cleared his throat and for the next few minutes spoke movingly about the bride and groom.

So who’s the fake, Justin? This is a dead giveaway that McCurry has (a) never been to a Japanese wedding, (b) didn’t go to this one, or (c) doesn’t understand enough Japanese to understand what went on if he did. I’ve been to about 20 nuptials here, and I’ve never heard a nakodo (go-between), or what McCurry is referring to as a “best man”, speak “movingly” at any of them. Indeed, most people have trouble staying awake during those speeches.

Perhaps he means that Mr. Ichinokawa pinch hit for one of those people who give separate introductions of the bride and groom. They’re usually more interesting, because they give guests a glimpse of what the man and woman have actually done in their lives, but “moving” is not a word that applies to the ones I’ve heard.

After a successful debut making the wedding speech, the requests came flooding in, says Ichinokawa, who takes days off from his job at a toy manufacturer to go on assignment.

How much is a “flood”? Don’t ask the author. I doubt it would be enough to get his stockings wet. It’s probably not even the word that Mr. Ichinokawa used. People with full time jobs in Japan have a lot less discretionary time off than in the U.S. (and presumably Britain), and fewer opportunities to use them. Approval also requires a lot more explanation, both to one’s superiors and to one’s colleagues. Mr. Ichinokawa is unlikely to be devoting very much time to this sideline, which is apparent from this sentence:

He even managed to keep his wife in the dark about his extra-curricular activities until two months ago, when she spotted him in a cafe being interviewed by a Japanese reporter.

Keeping one’s wife in the dark about one’s comings and goings, particularly on weekends or holidays when weddings and school sporting events are held, is no easy matter in Japan. Yet a Japanese reporter knew about it and his own wife didn’t?

Note also that one Japanese news outlet found this phenomenon so unusual they decided to file their own man-bites-dog story about it.

The number of rent-a-friend agencies in Japan has doubled to about 10 in the past eight years.

It took as many as eight years to go from five agencies to “about” ten in a country of 127 million? Ah, sang McCartney, look at all the lonely people!

The best known, Office Agent, has 1,000 people on its books.

How many of these 1,000 people are active, and how much time they spend at this job, are more true facts that McCurry can’t be bothered to find out doesn’t tell us.

In recent months demand has surged for…

What constitutes a “surge”? Nah, don’t ask the author.

But as with the other members of his guild elsewhere, he does manage to find the space to practice sociology without a license:

The rise of the phony friend is a symptom of social and economic changes, combined with a deep-seated cultural aversion to giving personal and professional problems a public airing.

Snort! And what social and economic changes might those be?

Don’t ask the author.

As for being averse to airing one’s dirty laundry in public, the U.S. and Britain could certainly learn a thing or two—or three or four or five—from Japan. I know which cultural standard I prefer.

There are hundreds of fascinating stories McCurry could file about Japan if he would only bother to look. But hey, why do some real work when you can spitball your way through life?

Most puzzling of all is why McCurry thinks this minor “rent-a-friend” trend in Japan is worth writing about. The journalistic puffery employed to fill column inches is apparent before one is halfway through the piece.

But perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on him. Maybe he led a sheltered life in England before his Tokyo assignment. That might explain why he’s so unfamiliar with the concept.

The lad seems to have never heard of gigolos.

Or prostitutes, for that matter.

Posted in Foreigners in Japan, Mass media, Social trends | Tagged: , | 52 Comments »

Japan’s political kaleidoscope (4): Too many cooks, too many crooks, and too many kooks

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 21, 2009

The devil’s greatest achievement was to have persuaded so many people that he doesn’t exist.
– Baudelaire

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity–but don’t rule out malice.
– attributed to Albert Einstein

The essence of the Democratic Party of Japan now is a three-tiered structure of the Finance Ministry, Party Secretary-General Ozawa’s troops, and public sector labor unions. It will be impossible to maintain this structure without tax increases.
– Nakagawa Hidenao

THE NEW JAPANESE COALITION GOVERNMENT led by the Democratic Party of Japan—with the People’s New Party and the Socialists Democratic Party of Japan invited to hop in the jalopy to buy their upper house votes and relieve the DPJ of the chore of conducting serious negotiations with more responsible legislators—faces a minefield of potential problems as they embark on their magnificent adventure.

Their most serious obstacle is a lack of internal unity. Many in Japan are calling this a “mosaic government” in reference to the incongruent philosophies of the DPJ’s constituent groups, and that doesn’t begin to account for the polar opposite philosophies of their coalition partners. The glue that held the DPJ together this long was the dream of taking control of the government. Now that they’ve reached their version of the promised land, they’re behaving like the crew that tore down the house but still has to figure out how the plumbing and electricity works. And rather than hit the ground running, they’ve hit the ground after running into each other.

The government was in power for just two days before squabbles broke out among Cabinet ministers, and the junior coalition partners began complaining that the DPJ is blowing them off.

Referring to their disagreements with the DPJ, SDPJ Secretary-General Shigeno Yasumasa told a group of reporters gathered in the Diet building, “We’re not on the same page.” PNP head and Cabinet member Kamei Shizuka complained directly to DPJ bigwig Kan Naoto on an NHK TV broadcast yesterday that the minor parties were being shut out of policy decisions.

Meanwhile, the Government must also overcome the skepticism of both the public and the news media that they are competent enough to be trusted with the nation’s car keys, and that they are committed enough to do what they’ve promised to do. That promise is to take the first steps on what the public thinks as their most important mission—wresting control of policy from the nation’s bureaucracy and strengthening local government.

That the public is skeptical is not in doubt. Skepticism might seem odd considering the party’s lopsided lower house majority and their receipt of about 56% of the popular vote nationwide. But an Asahi Shimbun survey published on 2 September shows otherwise. When asked whether they thought the DPJ victory was the result of voter support for their policies, here’s how the respondents answered:

No: 52%
Yes: 38%

Moving on to specific policies….

Wait! Enough! Screw that for a lark. I refuse to go along with the conspiracy of silence from those who primly cop a responsible commentator pose while ignoring that the launch of the new government has combined the slapstick of third-rate provincial vaudeville, leftover LDP hackery refried to hide the odor and slapped with a different label, and enough hypocrisy to choke a televangelist.

Yes, the Liberal Democratic Party had it coming, but it’s not what the Japanese people had coming. I wrote recently that based on past performance, a DPJ-led government had the potential to have more rings than the Ringling Bros., but no one could have predicted that Nagata-cho would turn into the world’s biggest Big Top.

Here’s the short version: Japan’s new government has too many cooks, too many crooks, and too many kooks—and some of them are the same people!

The Cooks…

The Chef de Cuisine

Sometimes called the executive chef, the chef de cuisine is the man whose name is on the menu. But he’s just as likely to spend his time visiting other restaurants or writing cookbooks.

Japan’s new executive chef is Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio, who says he intends to reorient the government to make it Cabinet-directed, and who doesn’t say he is continuing a process begun by Koizumi Jun’ichiro and interrupted by his successors.

His position alone makes him a center of power both in the government and his party. One of the DPJ’s founding members and the head of his own faction/group, he used his substantial family fortune to keep the party afloat for several years. What could be more natural than assuming that he is the primary actor in the Government?

Well, there’s this: During the party’s six-day election campaign in the spring to select a new leader when Ozawa Ichiro resigned after his chief aide was arrested for accepting illegal contributions, one Japanese weekly reported that a secret document was circulated to the party’s MPs, who had the exclusive right to vote in the election. The document was said to have been a full frontal attack on Mr. Hatoyama’s opponent, Okada Katsuya, for his weakness during his previous tenure and his responsibility for the party’s rout in the 2005 lower house elections. The debacle, it asserted, was partly due to Mr. Okada’s lack of a spine. It claimed that the party would be much stronger with the “soft” Mr. Hatoyama as the front man and the “hard” Mr. Ozawa wielding a billy club behind the scenes.

So who’s the boss?

The Sous Chef

Nominally the second in command to the Chef de Cuisine, the sous chef often runs the kitchen and creates and cooks the food to be served, and you already know who I’m talking about before I type his name. So does the rest of Japan. Typical of recent reporting was this headline in the Shukan Post:

Ozawa Ichiro Controls the New Government—and Japan!

The new DPJ secretary-general (i.e., party head) will be the Shadow Shogun himself, Ozawa Ichiro, the man for whom an apt comparison would be the kuroko of joruri puppet theater. The kuroko manipulate the puppets in full view of the audience, but are dressed in black and masked to create the collective fiction of invisibility.

Mr. Ozawa is the kuroko who taught the DPJ how to win elections—mostly using all the Tammany techniques and political jiu-jitsu picked up from his mentor Tanaka Kakuei during his days in the LDP. He was also the kuroko of the short-lived Hosokawa and Hata administrations, the only other non-LDP governments since 1955 and another unwieldy amalgamation of incompatible elements.

After leaving center stage, Mr. Ozawa embarked a task more suited to his abilities–non-stop nationwide campaigning and canvassing in local election districts. As a result, an estimated 130-150 of the 308 DPJ members in the lower house and nearly one-third of the full membership now owe their seats to him. In practical terms, that means he has more command over their loyalty than does the party.

Everyone knows he is capable of picking up his ball and taking his team to start a new game elsewhere, as he threatened to do so nearly two years ago when the rest of the DPJ top brass blew their collective top over his proposed coalition with the LDP under Fukuda Yasuo. The Faustian bargain between Mr. Ozawa and the veterans who predate him in the party has allowed him to create a second center of power on which the nominal head, Hatoyama Yukio, must depend. During the DPJ election campaign, it was stressed that a vote for Hatoyama was a vote for party unity. Many saw in that slogan an implied threat that a vote for Okada as party leader meant that Mr. Ozawa would walk.

Money talks, and we all know what walks

The Shukan Bunshun reported that Prime Minister Hatoyama wanted to keep Mr. Ozawa in his position as acting president and Okada Katsuya as party secretary-general.

When word reached the puppet master, he exploded: “Hatoyama and the people around him are clueless.” Another acting party president, Koshi’ishi Azuma, said to have developed close ties with Mr. Ozawa, had to intervene on his behalf with Mr. Hatoyama.

Why the insistence on the position of party secretary-general? Because money talks. In that position, he has control of JPY 17.3 billion (about $U.S. 190 million) in 2010 in government subsidies for the party, a substantial rise from this year’s total of JPY 11.8 billion. He’s just following the literally golden rule of Tanaka Kakuei: Politics is numbers, numbers are power, and power is money.

The new prime minister has no illusions about whom he’s dealing with. Here’s Mr. Hatoyama quoted in the 25 February 1999 Yukan Fuji:

“Mr. Ozawa fled the LDP five years ago only because he lost in a power struggle in his faction and in the party. He’s raised the banner of governmental reform to prevent the people from realizing that.”

And we all know what they say about politics making for strange bedfellows.

Chief Kan Opener

Long-time DPJ stalwart and former party president Kan Naoto is in the Cabinet as both Deputy Prime Minister and the head of a new group called the National Strategy Bureau. What the national strategy will be, and what the bureau will do exactly, we don’t know—and neither does he—but he’s going to be in charge of it. It’s Standard Operating Procedure for the DPJ to come up with a policy or an idea and then figure out what to do with it only when it’s time to do the work.

Kamei Shizuka of the People’s New Party made a phone call to Mr. Kan to find out more about the bureau. Here’s how one newspaper reported it:

Kamei: What will you do at this National Strategy Bureau?
Kan: I don’t really know. There are several things I’d like to do, but for now, I can only grope my way forward.

The DPJ party platform says: “The National Strategy Bureau will create a national vision for the new era, and formulate the budget framework under political direction.” It’s supposed to consist of about 20 people. As is par for the DPJ course, there’s no mention of what its specific authority will be, whether “the national vision” will have anything to do with foreign policy, and how it will be involved with budget formulation. For all we know, it might turn out to be a political salon allowing the rookies and the rank and file to do some coffeehousing while the heavyweights take care of business somewhere else.

It is nearly axiomatic that everything the DPJ says is subject to change at any time, and sure enough, Mr. Hatoyama explained this week that the NSB will handle the framework of the budget while the Ministry of Finance will handle the details.

The foundation document for the party’s platform is their Index of Policies 2009, last modified in July. It’s on the party website, but only in Japanese. Here’s what it says about the budget:

民主党政権では、国民を代表する政治家が自ら予算を編成します…官邸に各省の大臣などを集め、予算編成の基本方針を決定し、省庁ごとに政治家が主導で予算を編成します。
Under a DPJ administration, politicians representing the people will formulate budgets. The Cabinet ministers will meet in the Prime Minister’s office, determine the basic policies for the budget, and then politicians will direct the budget formulation for each ministry.

But, you protest, key to civil service reform is to keep the MOF at arm’s length from that process. The MOF is notorious for being the bureaucracy’s worst offender at policy meddling. Takenaka Heizo, the man who directed fiscal policy and reform in the Koizumi Administration, fought a five-year running battle with the ministry and warned in December 2007 that the zombies had returned under Yasuda Fukuo. The DPJ promised to put an end to that for good by putting the civil servants in their place.

And just like Brutus, the DPJ are honorable men and women all.

Some think that Mr. Kan has ambitions of his own. If he decides that he would make a jolly good successor to Prime Minister Hatoyama, the National Strategy Bureau would make a jolly good launching pad. Meanwhile, moves are already underway in Okayama, Fukui, and Mie to establish local strategy bureaus in the party at the prefectural and municipal level. No one knows what their strategies will be either, but roughing out the framework for the central government’s budget won’t be one of them. Their efforts, which are partly designed to create stronger local party organizations, will likely be coordinated on some level with the Cabinet-level body.

And mark Mr. Kan down as being a bit miffed at Hatoyama Yukio. It’s reported that when he found out decisions for Cabinet posts had been made without his input, he quickly called the prime minister, incredulous that he wasn’t asked for advice.

Short-Order Cooks

Need flapjacks, a Philly cheese steak, or legislation made to order? Last weekend, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported that the DPJ had decided to create yet another new organization, tentatively called the Party Leaders’ Council, referring to DPJ senior executives. The council will consist of five members, including Messrs. Hatoyama and Ozawa, and will determine party strategy for the Diet. While decisions about Diet business have to be made somewhere in the Government, there was no explanation why that requires another new organization, and whether it will limit its purview to the Diet. One has to wonder at this point if the party leadership is dominated by the type of people who would rather draw up attractive menus than do any actual cooking behind a stove.

Chefs de Partie

These cooks, also called line chefs, are responsible for organizing and managing a small team of workers to ensure the restaurant’s work area is under control. Who better to keep the workers in line than the many DPJ members who started out in life by organizing workers, particularly those in the Japanese Teachers’ Union and the All-Japan Prefectural and Municipal Workers Union? They provide the foot soldiers and the muscle for the party’s election campaigns.

That’s no surprise for a party with more than a few ex-Socialists, both in the Diet and in executive positions at party HQ. In fact, says Tsujimoto Kiyomi of the Socialists Democratic Party of Japan, the DPJ is now more dependent on labor unions than was the Socialist Party itself. (The SDPJ added the second word in their name after the Berlin Wall fell for protective coloration.) Before the recent election, the number of DPJ Diet members with ties to the old Socialists was estimated to be just under 30, and they also brought many aides and staffers with them when they left the party in 1996.

The DPJ claims it’s committed to the devolution of governmental authority to local governments and reducing the number of civil servants. We’ll see how long that commitment lasts now that the public sector employees’ union helped put them in power.

How close is the party leadership to the unions? The first order of business for both Mr. Hatoyama and Mr. Ozawa the day after the general election was to visit union rallies in Tokyo to thank them for their help.

The Journeyman C(r)ook and the Apprentice Chef

The inherently unstable DPJ—more of a coalition itself than a party—organized a ruling coalition with two mini-parties from the opposite ends of the political spectrum, the PNP and the SPJ, supposedly because they need their votes to get bills passed in the upper house.

A Study in Body Language, or, Why a picture is worth a thousand words

A Study in Body Language, or, Why a picture is worth a thousand words

The three parties finally agreed on the terms for a coalition government last week. Here, the word “agree” means that the DPJ generally acceded to the demands of the two smaller parties after negotiations, though it’s a mystery why they wouldn’t have known what those demands would have been months ago and worked them out in advance.

What did the two microparties demand? The creation of yet another power center. The DPJ caved in to their insistence for forming—you guessed it—a new council consisting of the three party heads to function as a separate group within the Cabinet, even though both PNP head Kamei Shizuka and SDP head Fukushima Mizuho were awarded Cabinet posts.

Mr. Kamei’s accusation on NHK that the DPJ was cutting them out of the policy loop is a reference to the ruling party making policy decisions outside this council.

The Journeyman C(r)ook

The PNP is a splinter group of ex-LDP oldtimers who want to halt postal privatization, the most important governmental reform of the past 20 years. One of the reform’s objectives was to prevent the bureaucrats from diverting the funds in the postal savings and life insurance accounts to build all those bridges and roads to nowhere.

You know—putting the bureaucracy in its place.

The DPJ has always known exactly what the PNP wants to do, yet their platform clearly states that Japan Post will not return to being a state-operated enterprise. Their initial proposal in the coalition talks was to “consider” freezing the sale of government-held stock and reorganizing the enterprise. The PNP, however, demanded—and got—a firmer commitment to freeze the process without specifying what they intend the future form of it to be.

Party boss Kamei Shizuka has already served time in the Cabinet during his LDP career, most notably as Construction Minister in the days when there was enough pork on the hoof to start a new Commodities Exchange.

Mr. Kamei wanted to head the Defense Ministry, but settled for the Financial Services portfolio and Minister in Charge of Bloviating about Japan Post. The DPJ may already be regretting that decision, however. It turns out his party’s knowledge of economics seems stuck in the era when there was actually a need for postmen to hand deliver all the mail. Like most everyone else in the country, the DPJ probably didn’t read their website.

Here are some of their proposed solutions:

Solution 1: Shut down the Osaka Nikkei 225 Futures Market
Problem with Solution 1:
This Osaka market accounts for 59% of the country’s stock price index futures trading and nearly 100% of the options trading. Stock futures trading often performs its function of price discovery more rapidly than the stock market itself. Though the October 1987 stock market crash in U.S. was blamed on the fall of stock index futures, it was actually an early warning of the crash rather than the cause.

Solution 2: Eliminating mark-to-market accounting
Problem with Solution 2:
Bankers and their advocates hate this accounting method, while accountants, investor advocates, and banking analysts love it. It forces financial institutions to value their assets at true market prices, which could make them swallow huge losses during a market downturn. In other words, eliminating the practice enables them to hide those losses. The banking industry would rather value the assets based on future cash flow, and no, they have no idea what that will be either. Beth Brooke, global vice chair at Ernst & Young LLP, has said, “Suspending mark-to-market accounting, in essence, suspends reality.”

The idea was floated by some in the LDP in 2003, but Takenaka Heizo and the Koizumi Administration successfully resisted the suggestion. The man who proposed it was Aso Taro.

Solution 3: Eliminating capital adequacy requirements for banks
Problem with Solution 3:
These requirements determine how much money a bank can lend, but some think they can cause a credit crunch because banks will cut down on their loans to meet the requirements. The danger of elimination is obvious—a lending institution has to have something to back up its loans. But even Mr. Takenaka thought it was important for the requirements to be flexible.

This solution is being proposed as the discussion in the rest of the world is moving in the direction of raising capital adequacy requirements.

Solution 4: Issuing JPY 200 trillion in non-interest bearing government bonds (About $US 2.2 billion)
Problem with Solution 4:
Bonds of this type are sold at a discount to par value rather than with coupons, and the intention here is to fund the deficit. The problems involve the greater provision of central bank money, the potential for raising the fiscal premium, and damaging the credibility of the currency.

Solution 5: From Mr. Kamei himself—a three-year moratorium on debt repayments by small businesses, and the injection of public funds into banks that become financially strapped by the lack of income due to the moratorium.

Isn’t it fascinating that a man whose party’s website inveigles against the “strong eating the weak” is ready to have taxpayers bail out banks as one leg of his Rube Goldberg economics? Mr. Kamei says the SDPJ is for it too, and he wants to get it done by the end of the year.

I thought I told all you whippersnappers to sit down and shut up!

I thought I told all you whippersnappers to sit down and shut up!

The Mainichi Shimbun editorializes that these loans, combined with home mortgages, total JPY 300 trillion nationwide and account for 70% all bank loan portfolios. They worry the moratorium could cause bank failures among regional banks in particular. Mr. Kamei’s suggestion has already started a sell-off of bank stocks.

Finance Minister Fujii Hirohisa says nothing has been decided, and told reporters, “If the economy was really that bad, it would be one possibility to consider, but the Bank of Japan has not said that’s the situation we’re in.”

But Mr. Kamei insists it’s settled. He also said that he’d listen to Mr. Fujii’s opinions, but, “It won’t be discussed. It isn’t a matter that we’ll decide after discussion.”

The Finance Minister backed down.

Are Cabinet ministers in this administration to act as feudal lords, with the ministries as their personal fiefdoms? Where’s Prime Minister Hatoyama when you really need him? Where are all those newly created government policy bodies when you really need them? When it comes to that, where are all those Finance Ministry bureaucrats when you really need them?

Then again, Bloomberg quoted Prime Minister Hatoyama as saying that “he’ll avoid more bond sales, so new spending will depend on his success in shrinking the bureaucracy and public works programs”.

Richard Daughty, the COO of a financial advisory services company in the U.S., writes financial commentary under the name of The Mogambo Guru. He referred to Mr. Hatoyama’s claim as “Standard Political Crapola (SPC)”.

Though Mr. Kamei’s been in office less than a week, it was enough time for him to also cross swords with Haraguchi Kazuhiro, the new Internal Affairs and Communications minister. Mr. Haraguchi floated a plan for the reorganization of Japan Post into three independent companies rather than four companies under the aegis of a holding company. Said Mr. Kamei:

“I’m responsible for Japan Post, and I’ll take the responsibility and decide.”

The chastened Mr. Haraguchi explained, “It was just an illustrative example”.

The Apprentice Chef

Meanwhile, the other coalition partner, the SDPJ, has an agenda of its own. One of their goals is to eliminate the American military presence in Japan. Rather than support a greater Japanese defensive capability in its place, however, they also believe that people shouldn’t use weapons to defend themselves. (We’ll get to more of that later.) This is just what Mr. Hatoyama doesn’t need with the Americans wondering about his intentions after the translation of his goofy article from Voice magazine appeared in the New York Times, but hey, these are the people his party wants in government.

During the negotiations to create the coalition, the SDPJ declared:

“The proposal of amendments to the Japan-U.S. Status-of-Forces Agreement should be made from the perspective of minimizing the burden on the people of Okinawa, and the approach to the reorganization of American forces (in Japan) and their bases should be reconsidered.”

The DPJ balked, and the negotiations grew unpleasant. At one point DPJ representative and now Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya got so fed up with SDPJ head Fukushima Mizuho that he stormed out of the room. He charged that the DPJ wasn’t offering concrete proposals but delivering political lectures instead. Once a Socialist, always a Socialist.

Ms. Fukushima merely responded by going over his head and calling Hatoyama Yukio. And then going over his head by calling Ozawa Ichiro.

The DPJ finally compromised by changing the language to, “move in the direction of” reevaluating the agreements. They suggested the language be softened to create good relations with the Obama Administration in the U.S. Ms. Fukushima was delighted, and was shown crowing about it on TV to the other 11 members of her party with Diet seats.

Ms. Fukushima was angling for the Environmental Ministry portfolio, because, as she noted, they have a larger staff. Instead she settled for the new Consumer Affairs Ministry, which makes one suspect someone in the DPJ has a sense of humor. That’s just the sort of pretend-important Cabinet post the LDP once awarded to their female politicians as apprentice chefs to give them some experience in the political kitchen while using them as tokens to convince female voters they take them seriously. It’s surprising that Ms. Fukushima, who began her professional career as a radical feminist attorney, fell for it. But then a seat at the table of power is enough to trump principle for most leftists.

Who’s in charge here?

Before the recent election, the DPJ had 114 members in the lower house. They now have 308, for a net gain of 194 seats. The PNP had five; they now have three. The SDPJ stayed even at seven, but now have three directly elected MPs instead of only one. The reason for that increase was not due to greater popular support, but the DPJ’s choice to abstain from fielding a candidate in those districts.

The DPJ has far more than the 241 votes it needs for a lower house majority. Yet, in the upcoming administration, the handful of MPs from the formal coalition partners, and particularly their two party heads, will have a greater influence and say on the direction of the government than the 194 new DPJ members, who represent the popular will today.

That the DPJ created a coalition which includes the PNP and the SDP makes it difficult to avoid the accusation that their Government is a distortion of the democratic process and inimical to the expression of the popular will.

…The Crooks…

The reason I referred to Kamei Shizuka as a journeyman c(r)ook was recently explained in this Japanese-language blog post by Ikeda Nobuo. Mr. Kamei seems to have a knack for making money from shady deals with shady companies with a yakuza presence lurking in the background. One incident mentioned is described in a 1989 Yomiuri Shimbun article, which reports he made profits of JPY 400 million (about $US 4.18 million) in excess of market valuation in a 1987 stock sale that an official termed “an unnatural transaction.”

Perhaps that explains why he doesn’t like mark-to-market accounting.

It’s bad enough that a single-issue splinter party has an influence on policy far out of proportion with its numerical strength. It’s even worse that a man who might be mobbed-up is now in the Cabinet and punching far above his weight. But the DPJ put him there.

Suzuki Muneo

Meet former LDP lower house rep from Hokkaido Suzuki Muneo, the postwar record holder for jail time for a national legislator: 437 days, for bribery. Two of his top aides were also nailed. Mr. Suzuki had carved out a minor suzerainty in the Foreign Ministry. Though he had no official position, he had enormous influence over senior bureaucrats on policy and overseas aid projects.

After his release from prison, he became an advocate for decentralizing government, albeit under centralized control and direction, and an economic demagogue in the style of Kamei Shizuka. He was reelected to the Diet as head of a vanity party.

He was also sentenced to another two-year term for bribery in 2004 and has lost every subsequent appeal. The case is now before the Japanese Supreme Court. The next loss means another jail term and a five-year ban on public office.

But Mr. Suzuki is a pal of Ozawa Ichiro, and has influence among the voters in Hokkaido, where the carnage for the LDP was particularly gruesome this past election.

So the DPJ appointed the ex-con whose name is synonymous with lying and being on the take to chair the lower house Foreign Affairs Committee.

…And The Kooks

More troubling than the number of cooks and crooks in the governmental kitchen is that many of the people involved are not part of the reality-based community. The problem is best described by British novelist, journalist, and commentator James Delingpole, who recently published a book titled, Welcome To Obamaland: I’ve Seen Your Future And It Doesn’t Work. He says:

“In it, I warned the U.S. of the ‘smorgasbord of scuzzballs, incompetents, time servers, Communists, class warriors, eco-loons, single-issue rabble-rousers, malcontents and losers who always rise to the surface during a left-liberal administration….it becomes a problem – as you’re about to discover, if you haven’t already – when your ruling administration consists of nothing but these people. No longer do they qualify as light relief. They become your daily nightmare…. Making these predictions was a no-brainer because it’s exactly the same process as we’ve witnessed in Britain these last twelve years under New Labour.'”

He might just as well have been talking about Japan. We’ve already seen that the PNP is the Government’s version of a “single-issue rabble-rouser”, but there are even worse. Much worse.

Japan Teachers’ Union

No group is more committed to putting ideological blather and self-interest before the public good.
– Jonah Goldberg, on teachers’ unions

The goals of the Japan Teachers’ Union include improving the Japanese educational system so that it more closely resembles the systems in the United States and Great Britain. The California public school teachers appreciate those improvements so much that 25% of them now send their children to private schools.

They share the same disdain for individual achievement as their overseas cousins, as they want to do away with competitive examinations. Political indoctrination of the students starts early and focuses on the supposed sins of Japan rather than its achievements and opportunities. Former Chief Cabinet Secretary Machimura Nobutaka once said that the LDP would have been open to more detailed discussions of Japanese wartime responsibility in schools had there not been so many Marxists among the faculty.

The JTU recently cleaned up its website, most likely in anticipation of a successful election result. Once upon a time, it featured amateurishly drawn cartoons that revealed both their politics and the arrested development of their sense of humor. But tools are available to retrieve erased pages. Here’s an example of one of their eliminated cartoons featuring a likeness of what apparently is supposed to represent former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.

JTU cartoon 1

For another taste of their junior hi humor combined with their “resistance”, try this article in Great Britain’s Guardian from three years ago describing the antics of school teachers who dislike Kimi ga Yo, Japan’s national anthem, and the imperial system:

Japanese who object to being forced to sing their country’s national anthem have a secret weapon: the English language. Kiss Me, an English parody of the Kimigayo, has spread through the internet and was sung by teachers and pupils at recent school entrance and graduation ceremonies, local media reported yesterday.

“Teachers and pupils”? See what I mean about indoctrination beginning early? The 11-year-old wise guys are indoctrinating the teachers in pre-adolescent spitballery.

Leftwing teachers unions regard Kimigayo, which is based on an ancient poem wishing the emperor a “thousand years of happy reign”, as a symbol of Japan’s militarist past.

When they say ancient, they mean more than a millennium. Though Kimi ga Yo was not officially adopted until about 10 years ago, it has been the de facto anthem for much longer.

Here are the complete lyrics:

May your reign
Continue for a thousand, eight thousand generations,
Until the pebbles
Grow into boulders
Lush with moss

Grab yer firin’ iron! Them’s fightin’ words!

Did some Japanese manipulate national symbols for their own ends during an ugly period of the nation’s history? Yes, as has every other nation in the world. But one reason children are sent to school is to learn the national narrative. The agenda of “leftwing teachers”, other than those in Soviet bloc-type countries, is to denigrate the national narrative by poisoning the minds of the students. The full Japanese national narrative is not defined by one gruesome chapter, nor is it an unending tale of imperialism! capitalism! racism! sexism! war-mongering! These people so dislike their country one is forced to wonder if the real object of their dislike is themselves.

Then again, perhaps they’re not used to tradition in matters such as these. Sergei Mikhalkov wound up writing three sets of lyrics to the Soviet/Russian anthem from 1943 to 2000. The first version was in praise of Stalin, the second version was Stalin Who?, and the third version is in praise of the Fatherland. Keeping the same tradition for more than 1,000 years? How conservative and L7 can you get!

The Japanese in this camp loudly proclaim that they are defenders of the Constitution, i.e., Article 9, the peace clause. Very few fall for it, however, because if they were true defenders of the Constitution, they wouldn’t hold in such contempt the first sentence of Article 1:

The Emperor shall be the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people…

Those who watched the Japanese election returns on TV saw JTU alumnus and Acting DPJ President Koshi’ishi Azuma preening on stage with the other party leaders after their big victory. He’s already said more than once this year that education without a political element is not possible (despite being against Japanese law). Everyone knows what political element he has in mind. Mr. Koshi’ishi’s pre-election position in the party was equivalent to that of Ozawa Ichiro and Kan Naoto, and he retains that influence. But even the DPJ wasn’t dumb enough to put him in the Cabinet and make him a sitting duck. He’ll just roll up his sleeves and go to work out of the public view.

DPJ

Here are some excerpts from the DPJ website in English:

We do not seek a panacea either in the free market or in the welfare state. Rather, we shall build a new road of the democratic center toward a society in which self-reliant individuals can mutually coexist and the government’s role is limited to building the necessary systems.

Does that not fairly scream of Third Way nonsense without writing the actual words? Saying that one is a believer in the Third Way is similar to some of those who call themselves bisexuals. The former is just a leftist who knows better than to parade on May Day carrying a red flag, while the latter have sesquicentennial encounters with the opposite sex to avoid coming all the way out of the closet and admit being gay.

And note the false equivalence between the free market and the welfare state. Pavarotti and Johnny Rotten were both singers, but that didn’t make them equals.

We shall restructure the centralized government from the perspective of devolution toward citizens, markets, and local governments.

They plan to do that by making direct government payments to parents for child rearing in lieu of tax deductions, by making direct government payments to families for high school tuition, and by making direct government payments to individual farmers.

The real DPJ political platform is the Index of Policies, on which the so-called Manifesto is based and then cleaned up for public consumption.

Unlike the Manifesto, the Index—which was last revised in July—is not in English. It’s also recently been tucked away on the party website under the Manifesto section, whereas before it was in full view. Some Japanese have said they find the language in the Index “peculiar”, and they have a point. I haven’t been through all of it—it’s long and packed with boilerplate and platitudes—but it does have some peculiar ideas for a party that claims to be devoted to citizens, markets, and local government.

Such as:

“We will proceed with consideration of an International Solidarity Tax that taxes specified economic activities across national borders, and which will be used as the funding source for international organizations to conquer poverty and support developing countries.”

What we have here is a policy with a retro-Bolshie name to levy an unjustifiable and ill-defined tax to fund an enterprise that anyone who goes through life awake knows will fail. Looks like all the highway signs on the DPJ Third Way read Merge Left.

According to the Index, they also want to maintain the inheritance tax to “Return part of (a person’s) wealth to society”. And here I thought that a person’s wealth was already a part of social wealth. Japan’s inheritance tax was 70% in 2005, which means that a lot of people spent a lot of time and trouble finding ways to get around it.

The party wants to establish a Permanent Peace Study Bureau in the Diet Library. One has to admit that does have potential as a job creation scheme. They’ll need a full janitorial staff to deal with all those cobwebs.

They also want to prevent suicide by spending a lot of money on analysis and studies for suicide prevention. They intend to make it an obligation of publishers to produce textbooks that children with weak eyesight can read. They want to levy stiffer taxes on stiffer drinks to promote health, which is sure to please those taxpayers who have one or two stiff drinks a month and are in excellent health, but will pay the same rate as the lushes.

Perhaps the most peculiar of word choices is found in the section that discusses the party’s stance against North Korea. Their approach comes across as somewhat hardline. But the section is titled, “The core development of diplomatic relations with North Korea”, or in Japanese, 北朝鮮外交の主体的展開.

This part – 主体的 – which corresponds to “core”, is seldom used in Japanese, and it has no bearing on the explanation that follows. But the word is used quite frequently in North Korea. There it’s pronounced juche, and it’s the ruling philosophy of the North Korean government.

The arrested development of their sense of humor is a more widespread malady than I thought.

The Socialists Democratic Party of Japan

In most Western countries, the socialists and the social democrats are the girly men of the left, unable to bring themselves to the truly whacked position of the remaining Communist poseurs. Perhaps that’s because they realize they would lose their opportunities for making money in the stock market and real estate investments under a true Red regime.

In Japan, those relative positions are reversed. The SDPJ are the vicious, vaporous, anti-life, and anti-reality bunch, while the JCP is better behaved and actually has some integrity.

Consider: The North Koreans attempted to assassinate then-South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan during a 1983 visit to Rangoon by detonating three bombs by remote control. The president was not killed, but 21 people were, including three South Korean Cabinet ministers and four Burmese.

The Chinese government criticized the North Korean government in the state media and broke off official contact with Pyeongyang for several months. Japan’s Communist Party also condemned it, saying that terrorism had no part in their movement. Japan’s Socialists?

North Korea was unconnected with the incident in any way because it was not beneficial to them.

For years they claimed that it was impossible for the North Korean government to have abducted Japanese citizens. When Kim Jong-il finally fessed up, their successors in the SDPJ excused the abductions by saying it didn’t compare in any way to Japanese behavior on the Korean Peninsula during the war.

The party’s website is not in English, but it does proudly proclaim that boss Fukushima Mizuho attended the Socialist International conference this year. It’s adorned with a few of the global-standard Socialist illustrations of a rose held aloft in a fist. Their environmental policies—cap’n’trade, anti-nuclear power, anti global “warming”—are the usual blast of hot air one expects from watermelons, so-called because they are green on the outside and red on the inside. Then again, the SPDJ has never bothered to hide its crimson exterior.

The DPJ voluntarily chose the SDPJ as their coalition partners and gave the party head a seat in the Cabinet. They helped boost the party’s chances in the recent election by refraining from running a candidate in districts with prominent SDPJ members. That’s how they picked up two directly elected seats in the lower house.

Fukushima Mizuho

The SDPJ boss hasn’t always been so chummy with the DPJ. She once said, “The LDP and the DPJ are only as different as curry rice and rice curry.” Now that she’s part of the government headed by the latter, it would seem that she has developed a more discriminating palate.

She and husband Kaido Yuichi are both attorneys. Ms. Fukushima has focused on radical feminist causes, and she’s written three books on sexual harassment and domestic violence. She’s also written another called Konna Otoko to ha Zettai Kekkon Suru na! (Under No Circumstances Marry a Man of This Type!). She and her husband have frequently associated with people linked to the Chukaku-ha, or Japan Revolutionary Communist League, and defended them in court trials.

They must have had plenty of work. From the late 60s to the early 90s, Chukaku-ha led or was involved in numerous open battles with police, sabotaged the railroad in 33 Tokyo and Osaka locations when it being privatized, attacked LDP headquarters with a flamethrower mounted on a truck, conducted fatal arson and bombing attacks, and fought bloody battles with two other groups on the ultra-left, resulting in an estimated 100 fatalities. Their slogan is “Workers of the world unite under the banner of anti-imperialism and anti-Stalinism!” That presumably means they were down with K. Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and Mao.

In May 1991, Chukaku-ha changed course and decided to focus its efforts within trade unions and mainstream left-wing movements. One of those efforts was a petition drive to prevent Japan’s use of military force in the event of a foreign invasion. Ms. Fukushima signed it.

Registered as an attorney in 1987, Ms. Fukushima first won election to the Diet in 1998, though it is only a proportional representation seat in the upper house. She is one of the few party leaders in Japanese postwar history who have been unable to win a Diet seat in a direct election, or unwilling to try.

Let’s have Madame Chairman speak for herself. Here’s a brief transcript from her 2005 appearance on the TV show Asa Made (Until Morning), being interviewed by Tahara Soichiro.

Fukushima: I am absolutely opposed to the use of sidearms by police officers. For one thing, even perpetrators of crimes have their rights. The police must not be allowed to injure criminals at all. Even if it is a brutal criminal with a lethal weapon, the police should approach the arrest unarmed.
Tahara: And what happens if a police officer does that and is killed?
Fukushima: Well, that’s the job of police officers…(Shocked sound from the people in the studio. Showing irritation at the response, she continues)…Besides, if a criminal puts up that much resistance, there’s no need to go to all that trouble to arrest him. There’s no problem with letting him escape.
Tahara: But what if the criminal who runs away kills someone else at a different location?
Fukushima: That’s a separate problem…

Here’s an excerpt from a recent Diet debate about the possible interception of an incoming North Korean missile.

Fukushima: If the intercepting missile hits the target, debris will fall. If it misses, it will fly outside the country. Can you say there won’t be any harm caused to the citizens either in Japan or in other countries?
(Then) Foreign Minister Nakasone Hirofumi: If it presents a danger of damage to the lives and property of our people, that missile should be intercepted as a matter of course.
(Then) Defense Minister Hamada Yasukazu: But there would be more damage if the missile would be allowed to fall. If it’s intercepted in space, most of the debris would burn up and not fall to earth. It’s important to destroy the missile first and minimize (its potential for harm).
Fukushima: If we miss, it will harm the national interest, and if we hit it, what happens if it turns out to have been just a satellite?

There was laughter at this remark from opposition benches for some reason, but then we’ve already found out about the sense of humor of the Japanese left.

The DPJ thought she would make a dandy Minister of State for Consumer Affairs and Food Safety, Social Affairs, and Gender Equality in the new coalition government, and so appointed her to that position.

Tsujimoto Kiyomi

Currently the SDPJ’s head of Diet strategy, Tsujimoto Kiyomi came up with the idea for taking cruises on a Peace Boat to the countries that Japan invaded during the war when she was a Waseda undergraduate in 1983. It’s not easy for a spunky coed to organize a project on that scale, regardless of her commitment or idealism, so she needed some help.

She received that help from Kitakawa Akira, who later became what is described as her common-law husband, and Oda Makoto.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and intelligence service archives became available, it was discovered that Mr. Oda had been a KGB agent. Mr. Kitakawa was a member of the Japanese Red Army, a revolutionary terrorist group formed in 1971 that was responsible for bombings, airplane hijackings, and armed attacks throughout the world. One member was caught with explosives on the New Jersey Turnpike in the 1980s and spent time in an American jail. Several members were granted asylum in North Korea, and the Japanese government is trying to extradite them. It remains an obstacle to the normalization of relations.

Though vicious, the group’s membership was always small, and they immediately had problems finding the money to survive. It was provided by Palestinians starting in 1972.

Join me in solidarity to smash the country and make the world safe for large purple vibrators

Join me in solidarity to smash the country and make the world safe for large purple vibrators

The Peace Boat, meanwhile, expanded the range of its voyages and visited the Middle East. Cruise members met several times with Yasser Arafat, perhaps to thank him for his money and ask for more. It was eventually awarded Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. That is an honor they share with Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice (he speaks in tongues on television), the Brazilian Federation of LGBT Groups (Associação Brasileira de Gays, Lésbicas e Transgêneros, ABGLT), the Advisory Commission of the Evangelical Church in Germany, The American Civil Liberties Union, The Association for the Advancement of Psychological Understanding of Human Nature, The Centre for Women the Earth the Divine, The Italian Confederation of Labour, Conscience and Peace Tax International, Fraternite Notre Dame, Inc., and the International Academy of Architecture. That would suggest the designation is as easy to obtain as a package of free tissues outside any large train station in Japan.

Mr. Kitakawa was responsible for JRA activities in Europe, and he was eventually deported from Sweden. Back in Japan, he founded the Daisansha publishing company, which has released six of Ms. Tsujimoto’s books.

She was recruited by former Socialist Party leader Doi Takako to run for the Diet, and she won her first election in 1996. A few years later, Shigenobu Fusako, the founder of the Japanese Red Army was arrested in Takatsuki, Osaka, Ms. Tsujimoto’s home district. She was in the company of Yoshida Mamoru, a member of Tsujimoto’s staff in Takatsuki.

As an MP, she started receiving national exposure in the early years of the Koizumi Administration with her semi-hysterical challenges of the prime minister during question time. She does have spunk, however, and it was great television, so a star was quickly born.

It just as quickly faded after her success went to her head and she accused the aforementioned Suzuki Muneo during his questioning in the Diet of being a “trading house for suspicion”. Mr. Suzuki, semi-hysterical himself, blew up in a memorable rant.

Those of you who enjoy interesting coincidences will be delighted to know that not long afterwards, investigators just happened to discover that she had been raking off funds from the money that was supposed to be paid to her political aides. It was suspected that she gave some of the money to Mr. Kitakawa. She was sentenced to two years in jail with a five-year stay of execution.

Ms. Tsujimoto resigned her Diet seat, but Japanese voters can be a forgiving lot, and she’s back, though keeping a much lower profile.

Again, let’s let the lady speak for herself. Here’s one:

“It’s not possible that the peace-loving North Koreans would abduct anyone.”

Golly, where have we heard that before?

She has a strange conception of loyalty for a Diet member:

“I don’t want to be a Japanese. I want to be an international person.”

Perhaps I should have spelled that “internationale”.

Indeed, she has been so internationale in general, and pro-North Korean in particular, that some Japanese have wondered if she is a naturalized Korean with family roots in the northern part of the peninsula.

Here’s how she views her duties as a national legislator. She was speaking informally to a person she didn’t realize was a reporter:

“They say a Diet member should protect the lives and property of the citizens, but that is not my intention. My role is as a ‘national destroyer’ MP who will try somehow to destroy the framework of the state.”

There’s a bit lost in the translation, as Ms. Tsujimoto is making a pun. The word for Diet member is 国会議員 (kokkai gi-in). She replaced the first two characters with the homonym 国壊 (kokkai), which means “national destruction”.

She also has a unique sense of fun. During a feminist conference sponsored by the owner of a shop for sex toys, the amusingly named Love Piece Club, she autographed a large purple vibrator for an auction.

Now nobody objects to the ways people choose to get their kicks, but one would expect a Diet member to show some discretion at a public event.

Sidebar

The Love Piece Club has a website. One of the pages is here, which displays the nude snapshots a photographer took of the “Buy Vibe Girls” at the Yasukuni Shinto shrine bright and early one morning. Ordinarily, it’s standard Internet practice to warn of photos that aren’t work safe, but any work supervisor who caught you looking at these is more likely to feel sorry for you than angry at you.

The title of the page, by the way, is Nobody Knows I’m Lesbian. Come on, Mina, who are you trying to kid? All anyone has to do is look at your picture.

Now, former combatants and ex-cons Tsujimoto Kiyomi and Suzuki Muneo are part of the ruling coalition, proving beyond doubt that politics makes for the strangest of bedfellows.

One wonders which one brought the large purple vibrator.

Ms. Tsujimoto, a politician convicted of skimming public funds, who pals around with terrorists, who would rather be known as the national destroyer than a Japanese, and who has vowed to wreck the framework of the state, was appointed by the ruling DPJ to serve as Vice-Minister for the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport. That ministry is responsible for the national infrastructure and dealing with disasters.

Here’s the best part: No one in her party likes the idea at all. Ms. Tsujimoto’s own initial reaction was:

やだ、やだ、やだ、やだ!

That’s what a four-year old throwing a tantrum might say when told to take some unpleasant medicine—No, no, no, no!

She gave in after being told that party head Fukushima Mizuho signed off on it. But then Ms. Fukushima claimed she didn’t sign off on it. But then she admitted that she did.

With Ms. Fukushima occupied by her make-work duties in the Cabinet, Ms. Tsujimoto was being counted on by the party to be the face of their campaign in next year’s upper house election. Those with a Machiavellian turn of mind might wonder if the DPJ purposely wanted to give her some make-work duties of her own in the bureaucracy. That would prevent her from being the poster girl of the SDPJ campaign, making it easier for the DPJ to take them out in the election and form a government without their help.

It’s a wrap!

I have nothing but the deepest sympathy for those Japanese who were so fed up with LDP rule that they felt compelled to vote for the DPJ and its coalition of too many cooks, too many crooks, and too many kooks in the hope they would receive clean government, real reform, and responsible political behavior.

If we’re lucky, perhaps they’ll manage to achieve some of their promised reforms during their administration, particularly shutting off the entry of bureaucrats into public sector jobs. They might yet reinsert the jackhammer into the foundation of the structure of interests that holds the country back. Maybe their conduct will spur the rejuvenation of a sharp opposition party, regardless of label, whose members will be decisive enough to ditch the mudboaters before refloating their political ship.

Credit where credit is due

Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya

Mr. Okada has opened attendance at his press conferences to all members of the Japanese news media, ending the kisha club monopoly in which only certain outlets get direct access to the politicians. Now the weekly magazines, Internet publications, and sports newspapers (some of their political reporting is better than you think) can attend. This development was not reported by the Asahi Shimbun, the Yomiuri Shimbun, or the Nikkei Shimbun, which constitute Japan’s press monopoly. Perhaps they’ve taken lessons from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and most of the American TV networks.

I’ve said before that the DPJ always carries banana peels in its back pocket for pratfall practice, and this time Prime Minister Hatoyama showed off his best Buster Keaton form. Before the election, he promised that he would open up his press conferences too. The reporters asked if he would put that in the party platform. He said no, it wasn’t necessary to go that far.

The only reporters allowed at Mr. Hatoyama’s first press conference were those in the kisha club.

Maehara Seiji

The new Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport, Mr. Maehara is often criticized by the party’s left wing and DPJ hacks because he (a) is not left-wing, (b) believes in a strong national defense, (c) intensely dislikes Ozawa Ichiro and his presence in the party, and (d) is capable of apostasy by working with the Koizumian reformers of the LDP, including rebel Watanabe Yoshimi. If there’s anything the left hates more than common sense, it’s a traitor.

One of his first announcements as MLIT chief was the suspension of the Yamba Dam project in Gunma. This was immediately hailed by all those anxious to end the ties between construction industry pork and the government once and for all.

But they couldn’t even get this one right. The governments of the six prefectures that will be affected by the decision were not at all pleased. Tokyo in particular is concerned about the water supply for the exploding population in some areas of its jurisdiction. Mr. Maehara is going to visit Gunma later this week and talk to local officials. Some are so upset they say they won’t attend if the decision is not changed.

Also opposed to the decision is the Gunma governor–who is affiliated with the DPJ. The governor was miffed that the prefectural government wasn’t consulted before the MLIT announced the decision.

In other words, the party that promised to decentralize government and devolve authority to local governments made an arbitrary central government decision without any input from local government and a governor on their own team.

Finance Minister Fujii Hirohisa said no final decision had been made, but the MLIT is behaving as if they’re going to shut it down. Mr. Fujii deferred to Mr. Maehara.

Except Mr. Maehara spun around again and deferred to the locals. He’s now said the legal procedures to halt the project won’t begin until the “understanding” of the six prefectures is obtained.

Now you know why some charge the DPJ wasn’t ready to assume control of the government. All of this, including discussions with the local governments, should have been worked out long ago. Mr. Maehara says he is merely executing one of the planks in the DPJ platform. That was the same platform the party kept revising after its initial release just last month.

Kawabata Tatsuo

Mr. Kawabata was named Education Minister, much to the relief of those who were apprehensive about Koshi’ishi Azuma winding up with that job. The JTU wants to roll back the education reforms of the Abe administration, particularly the new teacher certification requirements. But at his initial press conference, Mr. Kawabata said that would be only one of several options examined over the next four years. Those experienced at reading bureaucratic tea leaves think that means the JTU might not be getting carte blanche in the new Government after all, though they warn that Mr. Koshi’ishi has yet to be heard from.

Unfortunately, Mr. Kawabata talked up a proposal for extending teacher training to six years—the same amount of classroom time as a Japanese medical doctor. But then classroom instruction is hardly brain surgery. Every extra minute seated in a classroom staring out the window while some teacher drones on about classroom teaching is a minute wasted. If the objective is to improve classroom instruction, that time would be better spent being actively involved with life as it’s actually lived.

Afterwords:

Sorry for not keeping my promise. The last post said the next one would be “tomorrow”, but that turned into two weeks. I had some work to do, and wading through the sheer deluge of information related to today’s topic took some time.

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