AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Archive for October, 2009

Pot dog

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, October 31, 2009

HE MAY HAVE BEEN just a working stiff of a canine, but his bosses knew that Lusukasu never dogged it on the job. So, to commemorate his devotion to duty, officials at Nagasaki Customs held a retirement ceremony for the drug detector earlier this month. Instead of a gold watch, which the pooch has no use for, they gave Lusukasu a certificate of appreciation. He’s got no use for that either, but it’s a nice gesture and cheaper to boot.

pot dog

Lusukasu and his co-workers

Lusukasu became a public servant in 2002 and was assigned to Moji Customs in Kitakyushu. In an unusual move for a dog in his line of work in Japan, he was transferred to Nagasaki in April this year. Was that due to an exceptional sense of smell and greater amounts of contraband being smuggled into the country at points further south? The report didn’t say.

He’s nine years old, which would make him about 60 in human years, or just about the right age for retirement. Plans call for the former narc to take it easy on the island of Amami. Said Hoshino Mitsuhiro, a self-employed businessman who will handle his care and feeding, “After his long years of service, we should let him relax on this southern island”.

Lusukasu’s big score came in April 2008, when he sniffed out 1.5 kilograms of cannabis in a package sent by mail from overseas.

Not to demean the accomplishments of an illustrious career, but he could have stumbled across more weed than that walking down the hall of my college dorm any night of the week!

Afterwords: Sorry for the posting delay. Had a problem with the modem, which threw my work schedule out of whack. It seems to be OK now.

Posted in Popular culture | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Yankee come home

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 28, 2009

IT COMES AS NO SURPRISE that Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute–as isolationist as the rest of the Capital L Libertarians–would call for an end to the current military arrangements between Japan and the United States. But he is also perceptive enough to realize that:

America’s alliance with Japan — like most U.S. defense relationships — is outdated…Americans should support a transformation of the alliance…The current relationship remains trapped in a world that no longer exists.

Mr. Bandow therefore concludes:

There should be no more troops based on Japanese soil. No more military units tasked for Japan’s defense. No more security guarantee for Japan.

His suggestion that wealthy allies should foot the bill for their own defense makes sense. He includes South Korea and Europe as well as Japan in that category.

Japan has the world’s second (or third, based on purchasing power parity) largest economy, yet Tokyo remains dependent on America for its security, a minor military player despite having global economic and political interests.

And:

The Marine Expeditionary Force stationed on Okinawa is primarily intended to back up America’s commitment to South Korea. Yet, the South has some 40 times the GDP of North Korea. Seoul should take over responsibility for its own defense….Even more so the Europeans, who possess more than 10 times Russia’s GDP. If they don’t feel at risk, there’s no reason for an American defense guarantee. If they do feel at risk, there’s no reason for them not to do more — a lot more.

He also employs economic considerations in his argument:

The U.S. essentially is borrowing money from China for use to defend Japan from China.

Yet he seems oddly naive about the current state of affairs in East Asia. Another possibility is that he knows exactly what the story is, but his isolationist viewpoint means that he doesn’t care. For example:

There are historical reasons for Tokyo’s stunted international role, but it is time for East Asian countries to work together to dispel the remaining ghosts of Japan’s imperialist past rather than to expect America to continue acting as the defender of the last resort.

In addition to the historical reasons, there is also the messy business of a pacifist constitution that the United States largely wrote. And those remaining ghosts exist only because the governments of Japan’s East Asian neighbors periodically load their populations onto the carnival ride and drive them through the Haunted House again.

Those are also current relationships that remain trapped in a world that no longer exists.

Tokyo should spend whatever it believes to be necessary on its so-called “Self-Defense Force.” Better relations with China and reform in North Korea would lower that number. Japan should assess the risks and act accordingly.

Now he’s just playing games. Japan has bestowed enormous amounts of ODA on China over the years and assiduously built strong business and economic ties with the country. Tokyo hasn’t been a military threat to Beijing for decades. Meanwhile, if the Chinese have no intention of recreating their East Asian hegemony, they’re certainly doing a good imitation of it. Better relations with China depend on China–not new Japanese priorities.

And yes, reform in North Korea would lower that number, and if I hit it big on the winning number of the lottery, I could spend every winter in the Caribbean. Neither is likely to happen anytime soon.

The entire article, which has already appeared in the Korea Times, is here.

Posted in China, International relations, South Korea | Tagged: , | 6 Comments »

You decide!

Posted by ampontan on Friday, October 23, 2009

No one from the private sector will accept the position as president of Japan Post (if President Nishikawa is forced out). After President Nishikawa steps down, it is very likely that his replacement will be either someone who was a career bureaucrat, or someone from the private sector who will compromise with the bureaucracy
- Takenaka Heizo, in the September issue of Voice

THERE WERE SEVERAL REASONS why it was important to privatize Japan Post. First, there is no need for the government of an advanced, developed nation to operate a banking system, an insurance system, and a postal system, much less in competition with that nation’s private sector.

In addition, the funds in the banking and insurance system were controlled by Japan’s Finance Ministry, the bureaucratic entity most likely to arrogate a political role for itself. By law, these funds can only be invested in government bonds. Those investments were the lifeblood of the Iron Triangle of big business, bureaucracy, and government (i.e., the Diet) that ran Japan Inc. That was the source of funds for all the corruption and the Bridges to Nowhere.

The privatization of Japan Post was the most important such step since the Japan National Railway was broken up into regional private sector companies during the Nakasone Administration. Former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro dissolved the lower house of the Diet and held a special election specifically to take this issue to the people in 2005. The result was the second-largest majority for the governing party in postwar history. In fact, it was a supermajority that allowed the Government to override any defeats in the upper house. Mr. Koizumi’s support when he left office stood at 70%.

The terminally clueless mudboat wing of his party squandered this advantage, however, and in the following election, in August this year, the opposition DPJ nearly reversed those numbers in the lower house. It was clear that the electorate rejected the LDP because it had turned its back on reforms and minimizing the political influence of the bureaucracy. They wanted the DPJ to continue those reforms.

After little more than a month in office, we can now take it as given that the DPJ is, from several perspectives, a party of charlatans. While some members are just as earnest in their desire for reform as the Koizumians, the party itself is controlled by people for whom power is the real objective. Policy is just something that can be replastered to suit the times, in the words of their political puppeteer Ozawa Ichiro.

The intent of the DPJ has been obvious ever since they formed an alliance with the People’s New Party, which consists solely of reactionaries whose only objective was to reverse Japan Post’s privatization.

Any remaining credibility the DPJ had as serious reformers ended yesterday when Saito Jiro was appointed the new head of Japan Post. As Mr. Takenaka predicted, his background is in the bureaucracy. But not just any ministry—it was the Finance Ministry itself, the Big Swinging Dick of Kasumigaseki. And he was not just any bureaucrat. The Asahi referred to him as “the Don of the bureaucratic alumni”. Mr. Saito once held the position of administrative vice-minister of the Finance Ministry.

That was the same position once held by Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio’s father, Iichiro.

Mr. Saito comes with the added advantage of having had close ties to Ozawa Ichiro since the latter last pulled the strings of the Hosokawa Administration 15 years ago. He was selected by PNP head Kamei Shizuka, who, like all men of low cunning, seems to have been too clever by half.

If nothing else, the selection will give the new government an early lesson in damage control—if it survives the damage. Japanese author, university professor, commentator, and blogger Ikeda Nobuo thinks it’s possible the Cabinet might fall before the Diet is convened, but of course that remains to be seen. A Google news search in Japanese shows there are already more than 500 articles on Mr. Saito’s selection. Every major Japanese newspaper has slammed the pick.

Prime Minister Hatoyama thought it was wonderful, however. He said:

“It’s a very good (selection). A very interesting personnel (choice).”

He seems not to have been intentionally ironical.

Mr. Hatoyama also defended the choice by saying that Mr. Saito had left the bureaucracy 14 years ago. He did not, however, refer to his party’s opposition to Muto Toshiro as the head of the Bank of Japan because of his ties to the Finance Ministry. Mr. Muto had left the bureaucracy only eight years before that.

Referring to that apparent contradiction, Chief Cabinet Minister Hirano Hirofumi said:

“I think any comparison between the two is a little different.”

When pressed by reporters to explain why, he answered,

“I think it’s different. That’s my awareness.”

Fukushima Mizuho, the head of the Social Democratic Party of Japan, a coalition partner, said:

“It was a compromise choice. Rather than whether he was a former bureaucrat, I think they emphasized policy”.

Everyone listening to this statement knew that Ms. Fukushima would have wet her pants in public had the LDP made the same selection.

As usual, the most penetrating observation came from Takenaka Heizo, the man who was more responsible than any for launching Japan Post on the road to full privatization:

(The Hatoyama Cabinet) says it wants to eradicate amakudari (cushy post-retirement jobs in government for retired senior civil servants), but in truth, this is just watari (the repeated hiring of former bureaucrats) under the leadership of the politicians…The idea that they are disassociating themselves from a reliance on the bureaucracy is a falsehood…It is the de facto renationalization of Japan Post”

You get the idea.

I could go on, but as it turns out, I’m going to be away for the weekend and won’t be back until Monday.

Until then, you can take part in the first Ampontan poll, which is shown below. Don’t hesitate to get clicky and make your voice heard. Every vote counts!

See you next week!

Posted in Government, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Perverting the popular will

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, October 22, 2009

THE CONTINUING TURMOIL within the Cabinet of Japan’s ruling Democratic Party over the funding sources for their campaign pledge to provide annual subsidies to families with children threatens to confirm the electorate’s worst pre-election fears about the party. Those fears included:

1. A lack of competence in governance
2. The absence of party unity
3. An inability to keep their word
4. Giving priority to political crises over policy
5. Their true intentions

The DPJ translated their platform into English and placed it on their website, which is linked on the right sidebar. Here’s what it says about the child allowance:

“We will pay a child allowance of JPY 312,000 per annum (about $US 3,450) for all children until they finish junior high school.”

According to their platform, this will require an outlay of JPY 5.5 trillion annually. Critics both outside and in the party have insisted for more than a year they wouldn’t be able to fund the plank in the manner they propose. (Some said they could only come up with half of it that way, and only for the first year.) Now the new Government is admitting what everyone else had known all along.

<em>L-R</em>: Hatoyama, Kumagai, Hirano

L-R: Hatoyama, Kumagai, Hirano

Bedlam erupted when some in the Cabinet suggested that local governments and private-sector businesses be made to foot part of the bill. Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Haraguchi Kazuhiro objected that this contradicted their platform promises and would require holding a new election to gain public support.

Those who would make local governments and businesses pay tried to justify their proposal by claiming that the party platform did not specifically state that the national government would be liable for all expenses.

One of them, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirano Hirofumi, said this at a press conference on the 19th:

“The choice of cooperation from local government is possible.”

Note the use of the word cooperation as a euphemism for coercion. Note also that the stratagem itself is the essence of duplicity.

Responded Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio during a speech on the 20th in Yokohama:

“’Local government liability’ is not what I have in mind…Of course the national government will bear the full liability. The nation’s finances are very tight, so the Finance Ministry had the idea of having local government be partially liable. That’s too cold-hearted. I will definitely build a consensus in this direction (i.e., national government) as the prime minister.”

Note that Mr. Hatoyama tries to shift the blame on the Finance Ministry, the most powerful of the bureaucracies and the primary offender among those in Kasumigaseki that would usurp political authority.

But if the Finance Ministry hasn’t changed its ways, why has the new government outsourced the compilation of the new budget to them, as this otherwise fawning editorial from the Mainichi suggests? The DPJ also promised in their platform to make sure politicians handled these matters in the future.

At a press conference that same evening, Mr. Hirano retorted:

“The (prime minister’s) statement carries weight, but we must decide on a specific proposal that includes the prime minister’s opinion.”

Just who’s in charge around here? Are we to believe the prime minister does not set the policy for his own Government? That he has to spend the time to create a consensus for an issue that no one thought existed two weeks ago? Why is the Chief Cabinet Secretary contradicting the prime minister–his boss–within a matter of hours?

For another example of the inscrutability of Japanese politics, Mr. Hirano was selected because he was considered a Hatoyama ally and confidante.

This brought an immediate response from Mr. Haraguchi:

“Once the national government makes a decision, the automatic assumption that local governments should also bear financial liability calls into question our qualifications to promote devolution and reform.”

Mr. Haraguchi is taking an admirable stand on principle, and he’s right to tie the financing issue to the platform promises of greater regional autonomy.

Unless they’re going to try to weasel out of that promise, too.

As inevitable as death, taxes, and duplicitous politicos was the explosive response from Osaka Prefecture Gov. Hashimoto Toru. The wildly popular Mr. Hashimoto was the most prominent of the nation’s governors who spent the spring and summer preaching the gospel of the decentralization of the national government, the devolution of authority, and the end to unfunded mandates. He’s already declared that his prefecture would no longer pay the personnel expenditures for those national civil servants working in Osaka.

The DPJ had to have known he would be livid. Several members of the party’s leadership visited Osaka during the summer specifically to win his endorsement. The party even humiliated itself by retracting and amending its platform after a highly publicized presentation because the governor thought it wasn’t tough enough on the issue of devolution.

Here’s what Mr. Hashimoto said:

“It’s dictatorial politics for the DPJ to arbitrarily decide something and then tell the regions to put up the money. It’s a Communist state. (The use of the expression) ‘Local authority’ (in their platform) was a disguise.”

After the party’s landslide victory at the end of August, some members now apparently assume they can dispense with Mr. Hashimoto and other local reformers and do as they please. Then again, it’s not as if the DPJ was fond of the governor to begin with. The photo above shows Mr. Hatoyama and Mr. Hirano with Kumagai Sadatoshi, the candidate they endorsed in the Osaka election that Mr. Hashimoto won.

A sign of what’s to come?

Will the party continue to come up with excuses to do as it likes regardless of the popular will? There already have been some troubling signs.

Here’s Health, Labor, and Welfare Minister Nagatsuma Akira speaking to ministry employees on 17 September:

“The party platform (contains) our orders from the people.”

And Education Minister Kawabata Tatsuo speaking to his employees the same day:

“The party platform is not a promise. It is something that has weight, instructions that the people said we must carry out. The people have mandated that I implement it as quickly as possible.”

This is, of course, arrant nonsense. The DPJ is in power because they are not the LDP, and for no other reason. Most voters didn’t bother to read their platform, and few could even say what’s in it other than the two or three planks most commonly discussed on television.

Then again, the party didn’t make all of it easy to read either, as a look at the printed version makes clear. They put all the grass for the goats in large print and color up front. Then, starting on page 16, in print small enough for an insurance policy, they advance a different agenda. For example:

“Establish an institution for the relief of the infringement of human rights, and ratify the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”

That protocol gives individuals the right to complain to a UN body after they’ve exhausted legal procedures in their home country;. i.e., they can’t win their case. It is designed to address individual violations of human rights in the more benighted parts of the world of which Japan is not a part. To cite one example, South Africa in the apartheid era made all its civil servants speak to citizens in Afrikaans only. An appeal based on the use of that protocol ended that policy.

It should go without saying that Japan has no problems of the sort. Unless, of course, one thinks that private sector public baths banning foreigners in some Hokkaido towns after drunken Russian sailors urinated in the shared tubs constitutes an infringement of human rights requiring UN attention. The objective of the leftist elements in the DPJ is to enable the creation of a cottage industry of rights hustlers similar to the shakedown operations run by Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and others in the U.S.

Other countries that have not signed the Optional Protocol include the United States, Great Britain, India, and China.

Also lurking in the fine print is a proposal to provide public support to non-profit organizations. Gee, do we have to ask who the beneficiaries of that one will be?

Does anyone really think it is the people’s mandate for these parts of the platform to be implemented as quickly as possible? A better question would be whether as many as 1% of the electorate has even heard of those planks.

Bait and switch, deceit, and a manifesto that contains stealth provisions and disposable policies–those weren’t part of the people’s mandate either.

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

China is not healthy for children and other living things

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 21, 2009

SO SUGGESTS James Fallows in The Atlantic, who recently moved back to the United States after an extended stay in Shanghai and Beijing.

He notes:

The health situation for ordinary Chinese people is obviously no joke. After stalling, the Chinese government recently accepted a World Bank estimate that some 750,000 of its people die prematurely each year just from air pollution. Alarming upsurges in birth defects and cancer rates are reported even in the state-controlled press.

And then goes on to report that the streets are even more dangerous.

…(T)he big threat to foreigners was not in the air but on the streets. “I tell my patients, the most important ‘medical’ step you can take is to put on a seat belt in a car, wear a helmet on a bike, and run for your life in crosswalks,” a Chinese doctor said. Road safety is that bad. For the foreign diplomatic corps, the leading cause of death is traffic accidents.

Nevertheless, he concludes by urging those foreigners interesting in going to China not to let the air or the streets stop them.

“I am amazed at how well people do here, considering,” another Western-trained doctor said. “It is an exciting place. It’s a historic time. People seem to feel alive.” That made sense when I heard it—in China I had felt terrible, but alive—and makes me say that foreigners who want to go should not be deterred.

Here’s the link.

Posted in China, Environmentalism | Leave a Comment »

Peace and love

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, October 20, 2009

IT WOULD BE EASY to understand if people outside Japan were to swallow the media-created image of the country as being populated by dorky otaku, airhead gyaru enthralled by designer brands and octopus tentacles, sexless married couples, whale-murdering xenophobes, and loners so socially inept they have to rent friends. What else are they given a chance to see? Even some self-isolated foreigners living in the country carrying their excess baggage of preconceived notions fall for it.

But there’s more to Japan than meets the media eye. As old American television program had it, “There are a million stories in The Naked City. This is one of them.”

Here’s one of the 127 million stories in Japan, translated from the 1 October issue of the weekly Shukan Bunshun.

*****
The new Democratic Party candidate Kushibuchi Mari (41) defeated Liberal Democratic Party incumbent Ito Kosuke in Tokyo’s District 23 in the recent election. A former official of the NGO Peace Boat, Kushibuchi was all smiles when she and her husband were photographed in front the Diet building on her first visit. Her husband seems to be receiving more attention than she is, however.

Li Song

Li Song

Her husband is Li Song, one of the directors of the Japanese branch of the Federation for a Democratic China, an activist group working for Chinese democracy. According to a Chinese journalist, “He is quite well known among the democracy activists in Japan. At the torch relay ceremony last year in Nagano (for the Beijing Olympics), he was involved in activities related to the Tibet issue.”

Born in Harbin in 1967, Li came to Japan in 1989 after the Tiananmen massacre. A Chinese activist describes how he met Kushibuchi: “The two of them met in 1994 while working on Peace Boat activities. Li also worked with Peace Boat the next year on relief efforts after the Hanshin Earthquake. When Tsujimoto Kiyomi ran for office the first time as a Social Democratic Party candidate in 1996, Kushibuchi managed her election office and Li drove her campaign car.”

Li earned a reputation as an extremist during a June 1997 demonstration eight years after Tiananmen. The activist explains:

“When Wu’er Kai-shi, a student leader during the Tiananmen demonstrations, visited Japan, he was refused entry to the Chinese embassy at Motoazabu. Li was following Wu’er as his driver. He got upset and crashed the car into the barrier at the checkpoint set up by the Japanese police.”

Li was arrested for obstructing police officers in their official duties. Newspapers at the time ran photos of the car and its windshield, which the police had smashed with their riot sticks. This directly led to his marriage with Kushibuchi.

“After Li’s arrest, it was found that he had overstayed his visa. For some reason he had not applied for a special activities visa. To prevent his deportation to China, Ms. Kushibuchi came forward and said she was his fiancé.”

He was provisionally released from custody, and the two were later married.

Li instantly become a hero to some for his bold action, but not all of his compatriots were pleased. Said one, “We’ve been working peacefully for democratization, but that one incident tarred us as a violent organization. After that, the police shadowed us whenever we had a meeting.”

Kushibuchi Mari

Kushibuchi Mari

Before this month’s 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese embassy’s public safety division was concerned that “the anti-government activist who is the husband of a new Diet member might stage a political disruption when Prime Minister Hatoyama was visiting from Japan.”

This reporter tried to contact Li by telephone to ask him about it, but he replied, “I am not accepting any interview requests. If you want to know about the Diet member, ask the person herself.”

Ms. Kushibuchi’s office replied, “We consider the activities of Li Song and the political activities of Kushibuchi to be separate. We will not respond to a request for an interview.”

We hope this does not become a headache for the Hatoyama Administration when a new feeling of friendship is emerging between Japan and China.

*****
Afterwords:

I translated this article for the reasons I stated above.

But as a personal opinion, I hold no truck for either of these two. Working for the democratization of China and earthquake relief is indeed commendable. One has to wonder, though, about Li Song, a political refugee who couldn’t be bothered to get his visa straight after eight years in the country, and who thought he was going to accomplish something by pointlessly ramming a car into a police roadblock at a foreign embassy in that country. All he accomplished was discrediting his organization in the eyes of the authorities.

As for Ms. Kushibuchi, all she’s ever done in her adult life is work for Peace Boat. That organization was founded by Tsujimoto Kiyomi with the help of her Significant Other, a Japanese Red Army member expelled from Sweden for terrorist activities, and a man later identified as a KGB agent. They admired the peaceful Yasser Arafat so much they sailed to visit him several times. As for Ms. Tsujimoto, now part of the new Government, she inadvertently told a reporter her aim was to destroy the Japanese state.

It is not unreasonable to assume that Ms. Kushibuchi chose to run as a DPJ member because she realized she would be unlikely to win as an SDPJ member. So few of them do, after all. It is also not unreasonable to assume that she shares some, if not most, of Ms. Tsujimoto’s political philosophy.

Nor does it speak well to her view of openness as a servant of the people in a democracy by stiffing a request from a reporter to ask reasonable questions about her husband. That’s a basic requirement for people in political life.

Then again, there are probably many things she’d rather not talk about publicly.

Posted in China, Foreigners in Japan, Government | Tagged: , | 11 Comments »

Bait and switch

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 19, 2009

NOW THAT the Japanese electorate has unwittingly jumped from the frying pan into the fire by selecting the country’s Democratic Party to lead a government, people are starting to get scorched. Everyone knew before the election that the DPJ’s principal talents were obstructionism and harangues more suited for postgraduate seminars and smoky union halls than a legislature, but people held their noses and voted for them anyway. Entropy had finally had its way with the Liberal Democratic Party, and that party’s mudboat wing stepped up to the challenge by committing the de facto equivalent of hara-kiri.

By trying to implement a platform whose individual provisions never polled all that well and won’t work well at all, the new government is making manifest its shallowness, petit authoritarianism, and disregard of anything outside its self-interest.

From the Mainichi Shimbun

The vernacular edition of the newspaper carried a story that described a chilly conversation last week between Sengoku Yoshito, the Minister of State for Administrative Reform, and Nagatsuma Akira, the Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare.

Mr. Sengoku initiated the conversation about the JPY 12.4 billion-program for one-time payments of JPY 36,000 to parents of children aged 3-5. That program was started by the Aso Administration at the behest of its New Komeito coalition partners. The payments were supposed to have been made by the end of the year.

The Mainichi quoted Mr. Sengoku as telling Mr. Nagatsuma:

“The special child support allowance was begun by New Komeito, so it has to be cut”.

He also said this was a “Cabinet decision”, though why Mr. Nagatsuma—a Cabinet member—was not present when the decision was made was not explained.

The program was a likely candidate for the axe anyway, because it was adopted to please the former government’s junior coalition partner and to deflect attention from the DPJ’s more extensive child subsidy proposal before the election. That alone doesn’t explain the antagonism, however.

What does? Despite sharing a similar political outlook, the DPJ has shown no interest in bringing New Komeito into their ruling coalition. Indeed, they’ve gone out of their way to harass them in the Diet. They’d rather try to reconcile the irreconcilable paleo-old guard of the PNP and the viperous left of the Social Democrats and govern as if they were in a four-legged race.

That’s because the DPJ’s Shadow Shogun, Ozawa Ichiro, has detested New Komeito for years. If the Mainichi report that this was a Cabinet decision is true, now we know who’s making decisions for the Cabinet.

For an insight into the inscrutability of Japanese politics, by the way, Mr. Sengoku is considered to be an Ozawa opponent within the party.

In the end, the Government canceled the program and held a press conference to “apologize to the people and local governments.”

No one was mollified.

From the Asahi Shimbun

The Aichi Prefecture Mayors’ Conference was held last week in Nagoya, their first meeting since the new government took office. All but one of the prefecture’s 35 mayors attended. The mayors passed a resolution asking the Government to assume full financial liability for the DPJ’s own child allowance proposal, as per their political platform, instead of sticking local governments and the private sector with part of the bill. Some participants complained that the DPJ’s ineptitude is causing turmoil in local government.

Said Inuyama Mayor Tanaka Yukinori (affiliated with the opposition LDP):

“The ministers just jump the gun with these statements, without specifying what is wasteful and what was wrong about the previous expenditures.”

Here’s Toyota Mayor Suzuki Kohei on the work his his city already performed for the Aso Administration policy:

“Our efforts wound up being a waste of time and money. (Some municipalities had to hire temporary employees.) When (the Government) says, ‘We’re a new administration,’ some local governments think that’s an insufficient reason or explanation.”

The sentiments were echoed by Aichi Gov. Kanda Masaaki, a guest at the meeting:

“There is uneasiness and turmoil in the communities. I’m going to do everything I can to hold local conferences to convey our concerns to the government.”

From the Nihonkai Shimbun

Tottori Gov. Hirai Shinji was even more scathing. At a press conference on the 15th, he said:

“The people ordered kabayaki (grilled eel), but they were served up something already eaten alive by a viper.”

In reference to the new Government’s inability to deal with the Finance Ministry bureaucrats, Mr. Hirai noted:

“Whenever the Finance Ministry says anything, they just swallow it whole and keep putting it on the tab of local government. Nothing at all has changed. In fact, it’s gotten worse.”

It might be that local governments could be a more effective check than the nominal opposition party, the LDP, which seems to be missing in action at the national level.

Then again, the Hatoyama Administration isn’t in the mood to listen, regardless of the number of conferences Aichi Gov. Kanda holds.

On television

On the 18th, Deputy Finance Minister Noda Yoshihiko reiterated that the Government is still considering having local governments and businesses cough up some of the money for their child allowance scheme.

Bait-and-switch, inflexibility, and policies that smack of Mussolini-style corporative fascism are no way to run a government, son.

Let’s reduce reliance on the bureaucracy by expanding it!

Back to Sengoku Yoshito, the Minister for Administrative Reform, who also appeared on TV on the 18th touting his latest reform idea. He wants to reorganize Mr. Nagatsuma’s MHLW:

“Its jurisdiction is so broad in scope that the problems arising there every day come up nowhere else.”

The Aso Administration was also interested in reorganizing the ministry last May, but, as with the Aso Administration itself, nothing came of it.

His proposal would seem to be hypocritical for a party that co-opted local reformers by promising to disassociate from the bureaucracy, and then changed its tune to disassociating from a reliance on the bureaucracy once they took office.

Instead, he suggests creating three new Cabinet ministries, each with a name that only the left could dream up:

  • The Ministry of Children and Families
  • The Ministry of Education and Employment
  • The Ministry of Social Insurance

The LDP had the capital idea of privatizing the Social Insurance Agency, but the agency itself torpedoed that plan by leaking the news of the colossal, decade-long foul-up of pension records. (All the more reason to privatize, is it not?) Then-DPJ-head Ozawa Ichiro said it should be merged with the National Tax Agency.

But now the DPJ is the party in power. Now they want to make it into a ministry of its own.

The idea behind coupling education with employment was that the Education Ministry, which also includes culture, sports, science, technology, and God knows what-all, was another candidate for reorganization. Mr. Sengoku did not explain why there was a need to end one Rube Goldberg bureaucracy just to create another. Nor was any justification provided for the existence of full-fledged Cabinet ministries focusing on labor, children, or families; it was as if no justification were needed.

In other words, Mr. Sengoku’s idea of governmental reform is to create three useless ministries where one existed and none are needed. Yes, let’s not rely on bureaucrats any more. As if that weren’t enough, he also said he was going to think of other ways to efficiently reorganize the central government.

Well, what sort of administrative reform can one expect from a former labor lawyer who was first elected to the Diet as a member of the Socialist Party? Did anyone really think he was going to consider central government downsizing?

Here’s another one on the inscrutability of Japanese politics: Mr. Sengoku is affiliated with the DPJ’s Maehara-Edano group/faction, which is considered to be on the Right within the party.

Meanwhile…

People outside of Japan are starting to draw conclusions about the new government, particularly those in financial circles.

Phill Tomlinson thinks stagflation will continue:

Many Keynesian economists are still baffled by Japan. Over the years, policy after policy has been proposed by their school of thought, all of which involve some form of government action, but time and time again they all seem to fail. The classic Keynesian rebuttal whenever these policies fail is “Well, the authorities didn’t do enough”. Just like they apparently didn’t do enough during the Great Depression.

And:

The reason why they never recovered to their previous highs was exactly what the Government did, they took over and tried the command economy approach. Roads to nowhere, propping up banks that were insolvent, not allowing private enterprise to take over the means of production. Rather than money going into the private sector, Japanese savings that were accrued during their economic miracle were funneled into Government bonds, wasteful Government consumption. It was quite simply a classic stagflation that is still ongoing.

That was published on the same day it was reported the Government would try to prop up debt-ridden Japan Airlines by putting its ownership in the hands of a quasi-public corporation without having it go through bankruptcy.

Meet the new boss.

Even worse than the old boss.

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

Shimojo Masao (3): North Korea’s insistence on bilateral talks

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, October 17, 2009

HERE’S the third in a series:

*****
Why Does North Korea Insist on Achieving Bilateral Talks with the U.S.?

One North Korean objective for its insistence on bilateral talks with the United States is to maintain the current order. It is a historical fact that the state established on the Korean Peninsula considered relations with the great powers to be of utmost importance. An ironic result of its approach was that the life span of that state was longer than those of the Chinese dynasties, which boasted immense authority as a suzerain. Both the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties lasted roughly 500 years each, but that same period in China saw the rise and fall of the Five Dynasties/Ten Kingdoms, as well as the Song, Liao, Jin, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties.

The state on the Korean Peninsula was incorporated into the Chinese tributary system as a vassal. Therefore, it was difficult for a change in dynasties to occur on the Korean Peninsula if local unrest did not occur simultaneously with the waning of a Chinese dynasty. Those on the peninsula had to resign themselves to accepting military sanctions when the Chinese suzerain was at full strength.

If the North Korean regime were able to engage in direct negotiations with the United States, the world’s superpower, and obtain an ironclad promise that the current order would be maintained, it would legitimize their continued existence, both domestically and overseas. That would enable them to hold at bay the United States, China, South Korea, Russia, and Japan in the Six-Party Talks, and seize the initiative in those talks. Obtaining that diplomatic card is the North Korean expectation for bilateral talks with the United States.

Historically, this type of diplomacy is based on playing up to the powerful, in the sense of using a great power to maintain one’s own position.

- Shimojo Masao

Posted in China, History, International relations, North Korea | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

From the frying pan into the fire

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, October 17, 2009

Politicians are interested in signaling goodness, but not interested in doing good.
- Roger Koppl

SOME WESTERN ACADEMICS and commentators have recently wondered in print why Japan doesn’t “punch above its weight” in international affairs, and then did their readers a favor by answering their own question. While the conclusions resonate nicely inside the Ivory Tower, the inaccurate assumptions or pre-existing biases on which most are based render them useless. They should try a close shave with Occam’s razor instead.

The Japanese political class is incapable of punching above its weight in international—or domestic—affairs, because its members are ignorant of the realities of the world outside Nagata-cho and the world outside Japan, are self-satisfied in that ignorance, and are loathe to learn or do anything that would jeopardize their status.

That description could be worn by the slobbering, snorting, overfed cattle that constitute the political class everywhere, but it fits the average Japanese pol like a bespoke suit from a Ginza haberdasher.

Some have been gushing on the web about how the Japanese election was a mandate for change in the same way Americans voted for change and Barack Obama last November. While it is true that the Japanese voted for change, it wasn’t because they were enthralled by the teleprompter-dependent speechery of a man now shown to be dressed in the Emperor’s new clothes. Rather, their choice was determined by the wish to avoid the black hole of the Liberal Democratic Party’s anti-charisma combined with a national sense of faute de mieux.

Where has that leap of faith landed them? From the frying pan into the fire.

Exhibit A

From the Asahi:

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said he will compile a new supplementary budget centered on economic stimulus and employment measures to prevent the economy from faltering again.

“We have to do everything possible to bolster employment,” Hatoyama told reporters during a trip to Beijing. “We also have to allocate money to improve the safety net and stimulate the economy. We’ll need economic measures that double as job measures.”

Mr. Hatoyama has thus declared to the world that he is a receptacle of received misunderstanding—of the nature of economies, governmental stimulus, and the failure of those policies overseas.

The government is expected to finalize the list of programs to be canceled out of the 14 trillion yen first fiscal 2009 extra budget, compiled by the Aso administration, by the end of this week.

All the better to redistribute the pork in ways that fits the cut of the new administration’s jib. To wit:

On Sunday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano said the government plans to begin handing out a child allowance in June.

Where will that money come from?

Well, Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport Maehara Seiji is cancelling more than just dam projects. In Kyushu alone, he nixed the plan to widen to four lanes the Nagasaki Expressway from Nagasaki to Tarami, eliminated the funds for surveying obstacles at the Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Oita, and Kagoshima airports, stopped the earthquake proofing of buildings at the Civil Aviation College in Miyazaki City, and cut from JPY 10 billion yen to JPY 4.9 billion the expenditures for land preparation to extend the runway at the Kitakyushu Airport.

There doesn’t seem to be any Bridges to Nowhere on that list. Absent expert testimony, some of those projects seem reasonable.

In addition to the Nagasaki expressway, the Government plans to axe all the projects to widen highways in the supplementary budget. There was no word on how the Government plans to deal with the anticipated extra traffic if they ever deliver on their promise to eliminate highway tolls.

The Government also expects recover about JPY 300 billion by cancelling a fund to promote the integration of farmland, but that won’t reduce outlays. They’re just going to shuffle the money from one pile to another by giving it to inefficient individual farmers instead.

The impact of the recession is such that tax revenue for the current fiscal year is forecast to be far below initial expectations.

So don’t spend money you don’t have!

How much don’t they have? The Government expects about JPY 40 trillion in tax revenue, but admits that it might be even less. Meanwhile, the preliminary budget of the party that was going to cut the waste out of government spending comes in at more than JPY 93 trillion–the highest in Japanese history. And a different Asahi report states that the actual amount will rise to as much as JPY 97 trillion due to “unspecified itemized requests” from each ministry.

Who knew double-talk could be so expensive?

Another way they could pry loose some funds is to live up to their platform plank of reducing civil service expenditures by 20%, and do so in a way that doesn’t force local governments to hire the personnel dumped from the national bureaucracy.

But since local government workers’ unions constitute a large part of the party’s campaign foot soldiers, that’s another promise they’re unlikely to keep.

Were the Government’s priority a sound Japanese economy instead of legal vote-buying schemes, it wouldn’t be shifting the money of the mind dreamt up for the previous administration’s stimulus from its left hand to its right, printing it up at the Treasury, or creating it through government debt instruments.

Moreover, the government faces a daunting challenge in its bid to prop up the economy without adding significantly to the country’s huge debt levels.

Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii said Friday the amount of new government bonds to be issued this fiscal year will be kept at 44 trillion yen–the sum envisioned by the previous government–or lower. But a large second extra budget would make that pledge difficult to honor.

That pledge lasted as long as the fireflies in summer. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirano Hirofumi admitted that deficit-financing bonds were a possibility for the 2010 budget if there were revenue shortfalls. He was seconded by the prime minister:

Pre-election Hatoyama

“If we increase (the issue of those bonds) we will not be able to maintain the state.”

Post-election Hatoyama

“I don’t think we should issue (those bonds) to begin with, but it is necessary to determine whether or not an unavoidable situation will emerge, while considering a situation in which tax revenues plunge.”

He was right the first time.

These were the same people who thought it would be easy to shake JPY 20 trillion loose from wasteful government spending. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lotta shaking goin’ on, does there?

Incidentally, until Japan Post is fully privatized, all the money in their savings accounts and insurance policies—20% of the nation’s personal financial assets—can only be invested in government bonds, rather than the other instruments private sector banks can invest in.

Is the opposition to Japan Post privatization by the DPJ and the People’s New Party starting to make sense now?

For all their talk about putting the lives of the people first, the DPJ—as well as the LDP mudboat wing—doesn’t seem to care about economic policies that would enrich the lives of the people over the long term. They would rather signal goodness than do good.

Well, then what?

Those who insist that government spending is as good as private sector spending for sustained economic growth and long-term employment increases fail to understand efficient resource allocation. The government is incapable of determining the best way to use capital goods and other resources. Only the market, consisting of millions of independent actors, works that out, over time.

Rather, it spends to salvage inefficient sectors and prevent politically painful economic adjustments. If the sectors receiving the stimulus funds were producing what the consumers want at prices they were willing to pay, a stimulus wouldn’t be necessary.

A government stimulus will not generate the tax revenue needed to pay down the national debt either, if only because the stimulus is just a money reshuffle. No new wealth will be created. To be blunt, it’s just another form of central economic planning, but some people would rather believe their fantasies than their lying eyes.

What to do instead? That question was answered long ago.

  • During the first two years of his term, U.S. President Warren Harding nearly halved federal spending and cut taxes by one-third. Those policies continued under Calvin Coolidge and unemployment fell to 1.6% by 1926. The resulting economic growth from 1920-1929 was phenomenal.
  • Despite the laissez-faire label, Herbert Hoover was a believer in strong federal intervention. During his four-year term, real per capita federal spending rose 82%, falling to 74% during the Roosevelt administration from 1933 to 1940. Unemployment rose sharply after the 1929 stock market crash, but six months later was nearly back to pre-crash levels. It skyrocketed after Hoover’s interventions, and Roosevelt’s policies kept it at that level, including during the double-dip depression of 1937.
  • U.S. President Ronald Reagan cut taxes, spending, and unnecessary regulation and intervention without reshuffling the money, and created a quarter-century of stout economic growth.

It is as if the DPJ believes that national wealth is created by parthenogenesis.

That would be understandable in the case of Hatoyama Yukio, once you’ve seen the family mansion.

Hatoyama family mansion

But neither he nor his party as a group have given the slightest indication that they’ve spent any time thinking about the creation of national wealth.

Exhibit B

The hard-bitten ex-cop and current Financial Services Minister Kamei Shizuka came of age when no one much cared about the Japanese economy other than the Japanese, and the Japanese only cared about achieving First World levels of prosperity even if it took collusion between big business, government, and the bureaucracy to get there.

Life imitates art

Life imitates art

Mr. Kamei has now bitten hard into a philosophy of debt moratorium that calls for a debt repayment holiday for SMEs and injecting public funds into any financial institutions that would suffer as a result. The minister might have had his arm twisted to come up with that last proviso. He’s already said that any banks requiring financial assistance during a debt repayment moratorium are too weak to survive.

Some speculate this grim nonsense stems from a desire for revenge for the bankruptcies of some of his corporate financial backers after last year’s financial crash. Others think he’s doing it just to raise the profile of his splinter party among small businesses.

When he defends these policies, he comes across as a 3-D version of the cartoon character Yosemite Sam plugging away at a room full of varmints:

“There are few people in the LDP now who sing the praises of market fundamentalism…(if) their thinking doesn’t change, it’s possible that one mega-party will be formed in the future.”

He added that this “might take some time”, perhaps after next summer’s upper house election.

While today’s LDP may now know as little as the DPJ about how to lay the tarmac for future prosperity, that’s not the most interesting part of his statement.

In October 1940, the Japanese government sponsored the creation of the Imperial Rule Assistance Association. Many of the organizers intended that it become—well, a mega-party—and some political organizations voluntarily disbanded to join. The objective was to create a “new political structure”. It included the bureaucracy and the military in addition to political parties. The prime minister was automatically the head of the association, which had a nationwide branch network. From June 1942, it assumed control of local governmental units from the national bureaucracy. Weakened by a lack of autonomy, the association was dissolved in June 1945.

In other words, Mr. Kamei looks forward to a political realignment resembling the configuration in place in Imperial Japan during the height of the Second World War.

The minister is also rather spry for a man in his 70s, which is perhaps due to his sixth-dan ranking in aikido. Watch him stoop to sixth-rate demagoguery in this recent conversation with Keidanren head Mitarai Fujio:

“The increase in murders among family members is because (big business) does not treat people as people.”

He also complained that the heads of big businesses no longer share their earnings with small businesses during good economic times, but retain those funds as internal reserves. When Mr. Mitarai asked if he thought that was their responsibility, the minister replied, “You must feel responsible,” in the same language a primary school teacher would use to scold children for a cafeteria food fight.

For his part, Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio was nonchalant about his Cabinet minister shooting from the lip. He observed, “That sounds like something Mr. Kamei might say…perhaps he was extreme in has language, and was impolite.”

That also sounds like something a prime minister might say when he realizes he stepped in it by choosing that man as a coalition partner and it’s now stuck to his shoe. Then again, Mr. Kamei has been seated prominently at Mr. Hatoyama’s right hand during Cabinet meeting photo ops.

The rebuttal

People here used to say that the most effective political opposition in Japan was the United States government. Now it seems as if the only people willing to put Mr. Kamei in his place are in the overseas media. For a taste of that, plus a devastating critique of Japan’s political class, try this article in the Wall Street Journal:

(A) proposed loan repayment moratorium for small- and medium-sized businesses…is the brainchild of Shizuka Kamei, the new banking and postal-services minister. Mr. Kamei thinks SMEs, the engine of employment for developed economies, need help in the downturn, but not the tough love of competition or—perish the thought—bankruptcy. So he commissioned Kohei Otsuka, a senior vice minister at the Financial Services Agency, to study how the government might force lenders to forgive SME debts. Financial-sector stocks promptly tanked.

And:

Japan may not have a state-owned financial system like China, but it is still state-directed. Japan runs an essentially circular financial system where savers deposit money at domestic banks, the banks buy ever-more worthless government debt, and then the Diet shovels that money back out to favored political constituencies and export industries. The current Democratic Party of Japan-led government, headed by Yukio Hatoyama, plans to tweak this model, but not fundamentally change it: rather than redistribute the public’s money to business, the DPJ wants to give it to families.

The minister’s political ideas may date from the 1940s, but his economic ideas are more up-to-date: Japan from the mid-1950s

Mr. Kamei said late last month “financial inspections should aim at turning around struggling corporate borrowers instead of leading them to go bankrupt.” That’s a recipe to paper over a problem, not fix it.

Without a financial system that efficiently channels money from lenders who have it to borrowers who need it, Japan will have a hard time growing its moribund economy…The last time Japan tried to paper over a growing pile of bad loans, bail out failing lenders and businesses and pay off political constituencies, the world’s second-largest economy sunk into a lost decade of growth. Then again, maybe it never really escaped.

Except for skipping over the successes of former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro and his financial jack-of-all-trades Takenaka Heizo—which the rest of the country’s political class and media are trying to paper over—this brief piece contains more honesty and common sense than anything I’ve run across in the Japanese print media.

Other than Takenaka Heizo’s magazine articles.

Who’s in charge here? (1)

There are enough loose cannons in Fort Kamei to frag an entire platoon of junior officers. The Hatoyama Administration is barely a month old, and already he’s angrily told off the Finance Minister, the Chief Cabinet Secretary, and the Internal Affairs Minister for daring to express opinions about policies he considers to be in his bailiwick. Yet he’s not shy about butting into matters that aren’t part of his portfolios. At a press conference earlier this week, he wondered aloud if all the American military forces in Japan were absolutely necessary. He cited as an example the Yokota air base near Tokyo.

At the same press conference, he sounded off about Justice Minister Chiba Keiko’s proposal to allow Japanese women to keep their maiden names after marriage. Said Mr. Kamei:

“I don’t understand the psychology behind the idea that family names must be different. The husband, wife, and children will have different names. That would turn the home into something like an apartment house. Would it be a good idea for all the nameplates (on the front of the house) to be different?”

That was during the afternoon. At another press conference in the same place on the same morning, Fukushima Mizuho, the Minister in Charge of Womanhood, Motherhood, Shop Till You Drop, and Tossing Her Mini-Party a Lollipop—who kept her own maiden name after marriage—supported the same proposal.

Exhibit C

They are the people who believe all conflict stems from avoidable misunderstanding. Who think that the world’s evils spring from technologies, systems, complexes…and everything else except from the hearts of men, where love abides. Who mistake wishes for possibilities. Who put a higher premium on their own moral intentions than on the efficacy of their actions. Who champion education as the solution, whatever the problem. Above all, the Goodists are the people who like to be seen to be good.
- Bret Stephens

Many Japanese metaphorically slapped their heads when they realized that Prime Minister Hatoyama was serious about his goofy vision of yuai (fraternity), more suitable as a topic for a middle school public speaking contest than the pragmatic business of international statecraft.

But he’s not alone. Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya—like his boss, a boyish-looking bon-bon from a fabulously well-to-do family rich enough to let its scions play at politics—paid a surprise visit to President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan in Kabul.

They politely avoided talking about Japan’s looming suspension of its refueling mission for NATO forces in the Indian Ocean. What they discussed instead was the Japanese offer to provide job training for the Taliban—you in the back row, stop that snickering!—as well as their living expenses during the training. Mr. Karzai said it would be difficult but possible. Now why would the president blow his chance at free money from overseas by laughing out loud?

Injecting some adulthood into the discussion was Foreign Minister Rangin Spanta, who asked that Japan continue funding Afghani police salaries because maintaining public safety was also important.

It’s a good thing he didn’t ask for help from the Japanese police. Some in the ruling coalition would have thrown a fit because the policemen would have to behave like policemen and carry weapons.

One wonders, however, what job training—I know, it is hard to keep a straight face—Mr. Okada is talking about. For example, when they were in power, the Taliban banned:

…pork, pig, pig oil, anything made from human hair, satellite dishes, cinematography, equipment that produces music, pool tables, chess, masks, alcohol, tapes, computers, VCRs, television, anything that propagates sex, wine, lobster, nail polish, firecrackers, statues, sewing catalogs, Christmas cards, employment, education and sports for women, movies, music, dancing, hanging pictures in homes, clapping during sports events, kite flying, and beard trimming.

Well, that pretty much leaves out any employment that involves electricity. Unless it’s used to wire the dynamite for blowing up the Buddhist statues at Bamiyan.

It doesn’t seem to have occured to either the prime minister or the foreign minister that the Taliban really aren’t interested in the modern world. From the horse’s mouth:

“(E)lections are incompatible with Sharia and therefore we reject them…We want to live a life like the Prophet lived 1400 years ago and jihad is our right. We want to recreate the time of the Prophet.”

But then a Goodist isn’t going to let practical considerations get in the way of demonstrating his Goodism.

Mr. Okada has also said in regard to Afghanistan:

“I don’t think that support means just sending the military.”

Leaving aside the question of what he would know about military support, he’s right, of course.

The other support becomes effective, however, only when the military goals have mostly been achieved. But understanding that requires an understanding of the objectives and the application of military force.

It also requires the knowledge that the Taliban have become a real danger to the government again. Vocational school is unlikely to solve that problem.

Who’s in charge here? (2)

Mr. Okada later chose to expound on the East Asian rhapsody that Mr. Hatoyama is so enthralled with. He said the entity might include Japan, China, South Korea, the ASEAN nations, India, Australia, and New Zealand.

People noticed that the United States was left off the list. True, it isn’t part of East Asia, but then neither is India. But any move away from the U.S., real or imagined, is exaggerated after the brouhaha that erupted following the appearance in the New York Times of Mr. Hatoyama’s translated magazine article.

When asked his opinion, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirano Hirofumi did some paperhanging of his own:

“I haven’t heard yet from the foreign minister whether the U.S. would be included or excluded.”

Mr. Hirano also added that the bilateral relationship is the basis of Japanese foreign policy.

The Japanese media took this to be backtracking from the foreign minister’s comment, and a statement that the government hasn’t made a decision yet. Considering the range of opinions inside the party and the absence of any pressing need to pursue the issue, that decision might get made on the 12th of Never.

Is it too much to ask of this lot to synchronize their policies?

Exhibit D

Who needs an opposition party when anyone in the Cabinet is happy to serve in that role, depending on the issue, the time of day, and the phase of the moon.

One of the main planks of the DPJ election campaign was the payment of a cash allowance to families with children in lieu of a tax deduction. Their platform called for the national government to make all the payments.

After a month in office, it finally dawned on the Government that what everyone—including their supporters—had been saying for the past two years was right on the money: Namely, they didn’t have the money to do it. (It will require JPY 5.3 trillion every year when fully implemented.)

That’s when Health, Labor, and Welfare Minister Nagatsuma Akira, who is starting to look as if he’s in over his head on any issue that doesn’t involve national pensions, floated the idea of local governments and private-sector companies kicking in some money too.

It seems as if we’ve got another 21st century supporter of the Imperial Rule Assistance Association here.

Local governments in Japan, already pushed to the point of insolvency, are so inflamed over unfunded mandates and the financial liabilities forced on them by the national government that Mr. Nagatsuma’s idea will be enough to cause serious problems with chief executives and assembly delegates in prefectural capitals around the nation.

And requiring companies to pay? That socialism isn’t creeping—it’s galloping. Then again, some Japanese are already suggesting the DPJ is just a socialist party in everything but name.

Mr. Nagatsuma also wanted to save money by freezing the provisions of the Aso Administration’s supplemental budget that would provide financial support to children aged 3-5.

It didn’t take long for the Cabinet to round the wagons into a circle and start firing on themselves instead of the Indians.

Who’s in charge here? (3)

Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Haraguchi Kazuhiro was opposed to ditching the Aso plan because the money was already in the pipeline and local governments had made the preparations to spend it.

“This government must not have desktop (i.e., impractical) debates that ignore conditions on the ground.”

But Mr. Nagatsuma ended the measure anyway. They need the money for their other programs.

The Internal Affairs Minister was even blunter when addressing the funding for the family subsidies:

“If we’re going to change the political platform, which says the national government will pay for everything, then we should call another election and ask the people what they think.”

That comment would be praiseworthy under any circumstances, but it’s a doubleplusgood display of spine coming from Mr. Haraguchi, who is viewed by some as having the principles of a weathervane that ends up pointing in whatever direction the Ozawa breeze is blowing.

Exhibit D

Policy for Ozawa is just like candy (for the people).
- Kamei Shizuka

Some are trying to paper over the growing concerns about the coalition government pulling in several directions at once by reassuring everyone that things will change once the DPJ wins an outright majority in the upper house and no longer needs the excess baggage of the SDPJ and the PNP.

But party Secretary-General and Shadow Shogun Ozawa Ichiro has just punched a hole in their paper. Speaking about the next upper house election at a press conference, he said, “Of course the goal of every party is a majority.”

And added:

“The SDPJ and the PNP worked with us during the lower house election and it turned out well, so I want to maintain that cooperative relationship in the future.”

At a meeting before the press conference, he said:

“The DPJ does not have a majority in the upper house. That does not mean we will reject a coalition with the SDPJ and the PNP. They are our compatriots with whom we worked together, so we will continue to work together in the future.”

It looks like we might be stuck with the marginal Mr. Kamei and Ms. Fukushima in government for longer than we hoped.

It’s also time for an encore from the start of this post:

“The Japanese political class is incapable of punching above its weight in international—or domestic—affairs, because its members are ignorant of the realities of the world outside Nagata-cho and the world outside Japan, are self-satisfied in that ignorance, and are loathe to learn or do anything to jeopardize their status.”

That’s not going to change anytime soon. Mr. Ozawa has given instructions to the party’s first-term MPs that their primary job is to get reelected instead of worrying their heads about the workings of government.

I’ve said it before: this has the potential to get really ugly.

We’re starting to get there.

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

Translating Obama into Japanese

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 14, 2009

SOME LINGUISTS claim that Japanese rivals English and German in its amenability for incorporating outside influences. Indeed, the Japanese might well surpass native speakers of the other two languages in their ability to borrow words and chop and channel them for their own purposes.

And now comes word that the first faint signs are beginning to appear of Japanese young people importing another word into the language—this one based on the name of the President of the United States.

A contributor to a mailing list for Japanese-English translation that I read reports that the verb obamu is gaining currency on the Kyoto University campus. He writes, “It means something along the lines of, ‘to ignore anything which appears to make you likely to fail or (be) wrong, and blindly surge ahead (preferably chanting, “yes we can, yes we can”)’.” He adds that he heard a friend jokingly try to cheer someone up by saying, “obandoke, omae.” (オバんどけ、お前.)

If I had to translate that on the fly, it would come out something like, “Lighten up and think positive, guy!”

A quick look at the Japanese-language turf on the Internet turns up few examples, but one in particular is meaningful. I found it as an entry dated 22 September in a collection of slang and modern usage put together by the Japanese Teachers’ Network in Kitakyushu. Here’s what they write:

obamu: (v.) To ignore inexpedient and inconvenient facts or realities, think “Yes we can, Yes we can,” and proceed with optimism using those facts as an inspiration (literally, as fuel). It is used to elicit success in a personal endeavor. One explanation holds that it is the opposite of kobamu. (拒む, which means to refuse, reject, or oppose).

They give the following example:

ほら、何落ち込んでいるんだよ。オバめよ、オバめ。

Or, “Hey, why are you so down in the dumps? Cheer up, cheer up!”

That people cite its use in cities as far apart as Kyoto and Kitakyushu suggests some fire might be under those wisps of smoke.

One more Japanese-language citation is from a Twitter tweet, which defines it simply as believing you can accomplish something.

Those familiar with the language will understand immediately that such a coinage would sound very natural, and that it is typical of Japanese creativity and their sense of humor.

I asked my wife, the television-watcher in the family, if she had heard anything about it, but it was news to her.

It remains to be seen whether this word is capable of hitoriaruki (literally, walking alone, or becoming independently viable), and whether the tweety Pollyanna definition or the more pointed Kitakyushu definition become the standard.

But considering the nature of the Internet and the Japanese love of wordplay and new coinages, it shouldn’t be long before we find out.

Posted in Language, Popular culture | Tagged: | 20 Comments »

Hatoyama Yukio, AKA Klaatu

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 12, 2009

I think of my husband as a man from outer space.
- Hatoyama Miyuki, the wife of Japan’s prime minister

GOING BY the shorthand version in the English-language media, Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio was given his nickname “The Man from Outer Space” because Japanese think the shape of his eyes make him look like an alien.

Those looking for a more satisfactory explanation than the ones found in the English-language media might refer to the recently published Hatoyama Yukio no Uchujin Goroku (Roughly, The Collected Sayings of Hatoyama Yukio the Spaceman) for more background.

Yukio-chan

Yukio-chan

The book explains that the moniker started to gain traction back in 2001 when Mr. Hatoyama’s party, the Democratic Party of Japan, was desperate to create an identity for itself among the electorate after Koizumi Jun’ichiro of the Liberal Democratic Party became prime minister. Mr. Koizumi’s support in the polls transcended the stratospheric and touched the lower levels of outer space itself. The LDP tried to capitalize on the phenomenon by selling key chains, cell phone straps, and other merchandise that featured likenesses of the PM, whose unique hair style made him a natural for caricature.

Meanwhile, support for the DPJ was teetering at the bottom end of the seesaw. The party wanted to raise the visibility of Mr. Hatoyama, who was then serving as party head and came off a poor second in comparison to his LDP counterpart.

Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, the party decided to create a cartoon character of Mr. Hatoyama that they called Yukio-chan. The caricature exaggerated the shape of his eyes and placed them somewhere below cheekbone level. It does make Mr. Hatoyama look non-human and otherworldly, and it’s easy to see how people made the spaceman connection. In fact, the shape of the eyes and the jawline somewhat resemble those of the alien drawn for the cover of the 1985 Whitley Strieber book Communion, whose subject is alien abductions. (Whoa, now…I’m not going there!)

The DPJ was so pleased with its creation that they put it up on the home page of their website, used it to sell their own character goods, and hung a life-size poster of the caricature at party headquarters in Tokyo.

One wonders what the office ladies thought the first time they saw it.

As often happens, the law of unintended consequences came into effect. Instead of raising the profile of either the party or Mr. Hatoyama—neither of which happened for several years—the caricature cemented in the public mind the image of the DPJ boss as a bug-eyed visitor from another galaxy.

To be sure, this was all done with Mr. Hatoyama’s approval. In fact, he seems to rather like the spaceman idea. He’s on record as having said:

“I want to transcend (being) an earthling.”

Isn’t that as good an explanation as any for the basis of his political philosophy and policies?

Streiber's alien

Streiber's alien

The caricature was a natural target for the LDP. One of the first to spot the potential was then-Foreign Minister Tanaka Makiko, who always led with her dokuzetsu, or poison tongue. The book quotes a political journalist who says that she and Mr. Hatoyama often became embroiled in what he referred to as “strange disputes” in those days. Whenever a reporter would bring up the subject of Hatoyama Yukio, she’d dismiss it with the reply, “Ah, that spaceman!”

(Ms. Tanaka had quite the knack for nicknames, by the way. The late Hashimoto Ryutaro, who served as prime minister in the 90s, had a full head of slicked-down hair that he combed straight back. She referred to him as Uncle Pomade, or Pomado Oji-san.)

For an interesting twist, and example 35,472 of how politics makes strange bedfellows, Ms. Tanaka and her husband are now officially Space Cadets as members of the Hatoyama-led DPJ.

So, if the Japanese public thinks Mr. Hatoyama looks like a spaceman, perhaps that’s because they were encouraged to do so by both the man and his party.

And if you think the DPJ has unusual ideas for the visual promotion of its candidates, wait’ll you see how Deputy Prime Minister Kan Naoto sold himself once upon a time.

Posted in Books, Politics, Popular culture | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Squaring the circle in sumo

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, October 11, 2009

IN BOXING, the prizefighters square off against each other in a small square arena known as a ring, despite its shape. In sumo, the rikishi square off against each other in a real ring, though the name of their battleground—the dohyo—contains no connotations of its shape.

Some sumo theorists hold that the ring is a symbolic representation of Japan or the universe. Others say the sport came to Japan from China through the Korean Peninsula, and the spirituality underlying the Japanese version is a blend of Shinto and Taoism. In the latter theory, the dohyo represents the yang element, or the sun. Either would seem to be a reasonable explanation for the circular shape of the dohyo.

‘Twas not ever thus, however.

For example, the rikishi in the sumo competition held earlier this week at the Sho’okita Primary School in Sho’o-cho, Okayama, fought in what is believed to be the only remaining square dohyo in the country.

All 213 of the school’s pupils participated–including the girls–with each of the students representing either the red or the white team. That’s the classic Japanese color scheme for two squads in a competitive event. The first graders performed the initial ring-entering ceremony, and all the students made up their own shikona, the distinctive names by which the rikishi are known.

The dohyo itself dates back about 500 years when the local feudal lord moved the Hiyoshi Shinto shrine. The daimyo thought sumo improved the fighting spirit, so he built the dohyo to toughen up the members of his clan. Sumo has close connections to Shinto, and tournaments were held at the same shrine during festivals as an offering to the divinities. That practice ended during the Second World War, but it was revived again as a school event in 1967.

Nambu sumo in Morioka

Nambu sumo in Morioka

The phrase “only remaining square dohyo” is the key that unlocks a door to another corridor that is largely forgotten today. As any other sport, sumo has evolved over the years, and other variations flourished before the current form became the standard. There was once a style known as Nambu sumo, named after the ruling clan in what is now Iwate. The square dohyo was used in Nambu sumo, but only for the frequent barnstorming tournaments held in different towns to provide popular entertainment. Records indicate that round dohyo were used in Nambu sumo when the matches were held at Shinto shrines.

It also seems to have been widely known outside of Iwate. An account survives of a tournament held in Kyoto in 1732 between the rikishi of the Nambu style and those of the Kyushu style.

Regular performances of Nambu sumo ended about 100 years ago, but the folks in Iwate never forgot about it. Three years ago, local groups held a Nambu sumo tournament with a square dohyo in Morioka that the organizers say required six months of study and preparation. There isn’t much information about that tournament on the web, either in Japanese or English, but one Japanese blogger who made a special trip to see it found the differences fascinating.

He wrote that a great deal of time and effort was spent to recreate the rituals before the match, which he thought emphasized the religious aspects more than the contemporary version. He also said the rikishi began the match standing upright rather than from the crouching position used for modern tournaments. The match commenced on a signal from a third person. The victors were those rikishi who threw their opponents to the ground, or caused them to fall to the ground, rather than throwing them outside the ring. The observer said it reminded him of judo or Western-style wrestling. Here’s a brief second-hand account in English from a sumo fan who ordered DVDs of the tournament from Iwate and got information from people who were there. According to his description, one of the participants said the emphasis on throwing the opponent to the ground gives it a resemblance to traditional Mongolian wrestling.

The square rather than round shape of the dohyo doesn’t necessarily negate the theory that the ring represents the sun, by the way. The old Chinese character for sun is 日, and even those who can’t read it can still recognize the shape!

Afterwords: The name of the Shinto shrine in Okayama might be the Hie-jinja. Both readings are possible, and I couldn’t find enough information on this shrine to know for certain.

Posted in Sports, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Shimojo Masao (2): Another East Asian entity

Posted by ampontan on Friday, October 9, 2009

HERE’S THE SECOND in a series by Prof. Shimojo Masao.

*****
China and its Vassal State on the Korean Peninsula: Another East Asian Entity

Chinese influence was brought directly to bear on the Korean Peninsula in the 7th century when Silla accepted military assistance from the T’ang Dynasty during its attempt to conquer Baekje and Goguryeo. Silla thus became a T’ang vassal state, and their relationship became one of sovereign and subject.

This relationship was maintained through the Sung, Yuan, Ming, and Ch’ing dynasties and evolved into a tributary system. Every time a new state was established in China after a change of dynasties, it followed the pattern of sending expeditionary forces into the surrounding states (i.e., military invasions). Whenever this occurred on the Korean Peninsula, the Chinese demanded the receipt of homage from the Koreans as a vassal. This was the Chinese version of an East Asian entity. Vietnam was among the vassal states, but Japan was never incorporated into the framework of the system.

Vietnam and Joseon broke away from this system at the end of the 19th century. After suffering defeats in wars with the French in 1885 and with the Japanese in 1895, China recognized Joseon as an independent country.

The tradition of this tributary system continues today, however. The People’s Liberation Army invaded East Turkmenistan (now the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region) in 1949 and Tibet (now the Tibet Autonomous Region) in 1950. Both were placed under Chinese rule. The reason Taiwan, which was ceded to Japan in 1895, has caused the Chinese so much difficulty is because of the hegemonic tradition that arose from the history of this tributary system.

How will the East Asian entity as conceived by Prime Minister Hatoyama overcome this historical reality?

- Shimojo Masao

Posted in China, History, International relations, South Korea | Tagged: , , | 52 Comments »

But how long can she hold her breath?

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, October 8, 2009

JK pearl divers
ANOTHER SMALL STEP for Japanese-Korean amity was taken last week during a forum in Toba, Mie, convened by female divers to discuss their efforts to register their way of life as a UNESCO intangible cultural property. For centuries, women in both countries have dived without mechanical aids to catch abalone and other shellfish for a living. Japan and South Korea are the only countries in the world where it is a tradition for women to engage in this income-generating activity, and the working women of both countries have been forging closer ties in recent years. The Koreans initially approached the Japanese, as described in detail in this previous post. That they should work together is only natural—both groups of divers have a long tradition of working in each other’s country. And Toba was a natural place to meet, as half of the Japanese female divers live there.

While most of the ama attending were from Japan—63 came from nine prefectures—one of the Jeju Island haenyo participated, as well as a Korean researcher. The women shared their experiences in addition to discussing strategies for receiving UNESCO recognition. One participant said she had been born and reared in Tokyo, but was so eager to do the work she moved to Chiba. The Korean woman sang the traditional haenyo song.

Another diver who showed up and spoke at the forum was 19-year-old Omukai Chisaki, who is perhaps the first female abalone diver contracted for work because she catches the masculine eye as well as she catches shellfish. Ms. Omukai, hired specifically to serve as a tourist attraction, dives for abalone and poses for snapshots during the summer months in Kuji, Iwate. Perhaps she offered her fellow divers tips on cosmetics that retain their luster after long hours toiling underwater and the most fetching angle to place the goggles on the head when being photographed.

Omukai Chisaki

Omukai Chisaki

Speaking of photos, the accompanying screenshot shows why she was a hot topic this summer among Japanese weekly magazines and TV programs, despite the caption that says she is shivering. The shared culture meant that she also generated considerable buzz across the Korean Strait. A South Korean news report on Ms. Omukai’s summer job ranked fourth in total hits as a search topic in library computer systems on the day it appeared.

The elites won’t like to hear it, but it’s no surprise that cuteness provides more juice to bilateral relations than a boatload of summit meetings and academic conferences. Perhaps sending UNESCO officials to see Ms. Omukai in action would seal the deal for the organization’s approval. Seeing is believing, after all.

Posted in International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Nihonjin no Senso

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, October 6, 2009

ON SUNDAY, I served as one of the judges for the Saga Prefecture English speech contest for high school students. It was held at Imari, a country town that was once famous as the port for shipping Arita ware overseas. The views of the forests and mountains are beautiful, and I thought it would be an excellent place to spend one’s high school days.

The students might have a different view, however, especially as they get closer to graduation and either university or the workaday world beckons.

The room reserved for the judges was the school library, and when I had some free time I looked at their book selection. A student could learn quite a bit by exploring the books in that room.

Prominently displayed on a table next to the librarian’s desk was a book called Nihonjin no Senso (The War of the Japanese), edited by Donald Keene. He described the book in a recent interview in the Japan Times:

You recently published a book titled “Nihonjin no Senso” (“The War of the Japanese”). What is its theme?

It’s about what the Japanese people did during the five years from 1941, when World War II broke out, to 1945, when the Allied occupation of Japan began. That was an extremely interesting subject, because during the war my principal duty was translating handwritten Japanese documents, and though other people had great trouble reading them, I taught myself to do so. I read many diaries that were written by ordinary soldiers or sailors, not literary people. But for the book I decided to examine the diaries of literary people who could express their feelings adequately and who had kept their diaries faithfully during the war years. Their attitude was totally different and proved what I’d always believed — that the Japanese were not fanatics eager to die on a battlefield. There were such people, certainly. But there were a lot of people who were terribly unhappy about the war going on and had very strong thoughts about it. The importance of the book, I hope, will be to show the diversity among Japanese people even during the war, when everyone was expected to conform to everything the government said.

I’ll emphasize again that this book was not stuck on some shelf in a back corner, but placed on a table in the open where everyone would see it.

Some people–in East Asia, the West, and even in Japan–would have you believe the Japanese consider topics such as that off limits in schools.

Now you know how much credibility they have.

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

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 118 other followers