AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Archive for March, 2010

Population control in China

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 31, 2010

HERE’S ONE WAY the Chinese keep their population under control:

The bodies of 21 babies, some with hospital identification tags around their tiny ankles, washed ashore on a river in eastern China and two mortuary workers were detained for allegedly dumping them.

News footage Tuesday showed the babies — at least one of whom was stuffed in a yellow plastic bag marked “medical waste” — strewn along a dirt riverbank near a highway overpass. A few wore diapers. All were caked in mud.

As if that weren’t bad enough:

Another (resident) expressed concern because the river is a source of drinking water for villagers living nearby.

Read more about it here.

Posted in China | 1 Comment »

Shimojo Masao (10): Whaling and the Japanese

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 30, 2010

IN APRIL 675, the Temmu Tenno (emperor) issued an imperial edict banning the consumption of cows, horses, dogs, monkeys and chickens as food in Japan, a fervently Buddhist country. The custom of meat-eating was not widespread in Japan until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when the acceptance of Western culture and institutions began. Animal proteins were obtained instead by catching fish in the surrounding seas. The hunting of whales and dolphins, which environmental protection groups in Western countries have made an issue in recent years, was one of the traditional fishing methods. Eating such foods as sushi and sashimi arose in a Japanese food culture based on fishing, and those foods are now recognized as healthful throughout the world.

In contrast, however, the dietary custom of eating fish raw did not arise on the Korean Peninsula and China, though they bordered the same seas. In those countries, the distribution channels for the sustainable consumption of fresh fish were not established, significant fishing industries did not arise, and markets in the consumption regions did not form. The successive dynasties of China built their capitals inland, and the development of distribution systems lagged. A meat-eating culture arose on the Korean Peninsula, where products were bartered in markets that opened once every five days. Sashimi began to be eaten on the Korean Peninsula after the modern period when the region was under Japanese rule. It was also only recently that the general public in China began to eat raw fish in the form of sashimi and sushi.

Thus, the seafood products previously eaten on the Korean Peninsula and in China were dried and/or cured, and sold without regard to their freshness. Such ingredients as shark fin, a popular dish in Chinese cuisine, as well as abalone, sea slugs, and kombu, a processed seaweed, were delicacies brought from far-off Japan. That manner of trade began during the Edo period (1603-1868) and continued thereafter. Shark fin and kombu are products from northeastern Japan and points north. During the Edo period, they were taken by sailing ships known as kitamaebune to Nagasaki by way of the Sea of Japan, and from there exported to China.

This peaceful East Asian world was disrupted by the arrival of foreign ships from Russia, Great Britain, the United States, and other countries. Their objective was two-fold: to seek trade with Japan, and supplies of firewood, water, and food for their whaling vessels. The post-Industrial Revolution countries in the West used whale oil in the lamps illuminating factories, so whaling in the seas near Japan was vital for them.

The uninhabited island known as Matsushima in Japan throughout the Edo period became known as the Liancourt Rocks on Western maps when the French whaling vessel Liancourt discovered it in 1849. Whaling, which had been conducted as a way to secure food in Japan, was conducted among the Western powers as a way to secure whale oil. Eventually, the demands of the Western powers that sought trade with Japan and supplies of firewood, water, and food for their whaling vessels led to the forced opening of the country, backed up by their military might. This was the principal cause of the disruption of the stable East Asian order.

Speaking of whaling, some peculiar logic has arisen in recent years–the thinking that whales and dolphins are special animals for people, and that this is tied in with the concept of environmental protection. That’s a serious contradiction with the culture of whaling in the West in the 19th century. The Academy Award-winning American film The Cove, which secretly filmed the dolphin hunt in Taiji, Wakayama, and condemned that hunt; Sea Shepherd’s violent obstruction of whaling; and other activities closely resemble the one-sided behavior of the Western Powers in the 19th century.

- Shimojo M.

UPDATE: Those reading this post for the first time who would like to read additional information about Korean whaling might find this worthwhile.

Posted in Environmentalism, Food, History, International relations, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , | 17 Comments »

Matsuri da! (111): Día de los Muertos

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 30, 2010

IN THE INTRODUCTION to the collection of his pieces written for The New Yorker magazine, Joseph Mitchell wrote that, directly or indirectly, most of his subjects had a strong element of what he called graveyard humor. He attributed that to his turn of mind, and to illustrate said that one of favorite artists was the Mexican illustrator and engraver José Guadalupe Posada:

The majority of the engravings were of animated skeletons mimicking living human beings engaged in many kinds of human activities, mimicking them and mocking them: a skeleton man on bended knee singing a love song to a skeleton woman, a skeleton man stepping into a confession box, skeletons at a wedding, skeletons at a funeral, skeletons making speeches, skeleton gentlemen in top hats, skeleton ladies in fashionable bonnets. I was astonished by these pictures, and what I found most astonishing about them was that all of them were humorous, even the most morbid of them.

Mitchell’s description of Posada immediately came to mind when I read about the Jaranpon Festival in Chichibu, Saitama, which was held this year on the night of 14 March. Jaranpon is the representation of the sounds of the music played at the festival on bells and drums. It’s also called the Soshiki Matsuri, or Funeral Festival.

That doesn’t sound like anyone’s idea of a good time, but by all accounts it’s more goofy than gloomy. Every year a mock funeral service is conducted for one of the local men, who is dressed in white funeral clothing and placed inside a coffin. Since few people are going to enjoy even a mock entombment before their time, they make things easier for the subject by giving him a bottle of sake.

This is a Japanese festival, and that means everyone is half in the bag already before he gets in the box. How are mourners supposed to have fun if they’re sober? They start drinking around six o’clock, and put him in the coffin about eight. The parishioners from the 75 households in the district turn this funereal festival into a party as a prelude for the local Suwa Shinto shrine’s spring festival. Preliminary events are often conducted the night before a major festival to invite the spirit of the divinity.

The scene is played to the hilt. There’s a funeral tablet on which is written the deceased’s name in the afterlife. One man plays the part of a Buddhist priest conducting the service. He recites a sutra that sounds real, but turns out to be nonsense on close listening. Musical accompaniment is provided by six assistants who ring the bells and beat the drums. Their priestly vestments are actually furoshiki arranged to look like robes. (Furoshiki are wrapping cloths that were originally used to hold one’s belongings when taking a bath, but are now used to transport all sorts of items. They can carry lunches and double as the tablecloth.)

When did the Jaranpon begin? No one knows for certain, though it’s generally attributed to the Edo period (1603-1868). They do think they know how it began, however. The area was suffering from plagues and no one knew what to do to stop them. Desperate, they tried human sacrifice. That worked.

The success presented the town with a conundrum. They had discovered the key to preventing plagues and disasters, but the reality of actually going through with it every year was too gruesome to contemplate. A happy compromise was reached by going through the motions of a human sacrifice with the only actual sacrifice being the townfolk’s sobriety. The choice of hair-legged old men as the victims rather than comely young virgins, as in other cultures, demonstrates the sagacity of the Japanese in these matters.

Marx supposedly said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Everyone should be glad he was right about something for a change—particularly the folks in Chichibu!

Afterwords:

This isn’t Japan-related, but:

* It’s a matter of taste, of course, but many people consider Joseph Mitchell to have been the preeminent American writer of non-fiction. His collection of works from The New Yorker is called Up in the Old Hotel.

* For a sample of the work of José Guadalupe Posada, try here. His illustrations were the inspiration for the cover of the Ry Cooder album, Chicken Skin Music. If the folks in Chichibu know about him, they might well look upon him as a kindred spirit.

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

The lid on the jar

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, March 28, 2010

If you need somebody you can trust, trust yourself.
- Bob Dylan, “Trust Yourself”

IT’S NOT EASY to pin down his precise wording, but former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once said that allowing the Japanese to participate in peacekeeping organizations (or to rearm), was like giving liqueur-flavored chocolates to an alcoholic.

That might sound witty and insightful at first, but roll that around in your mind a bit and it starts coming off as too clever by half, as well as incongruent with the man’s exceptional intelligence.

Mr. Lee elaborated on the statement in an interview with Fareed Zakaria in the March/April 1994 issue of Foreign Affairs:

FZ: You’ve said recently that allowing Japan to send its forces abroad is like giving liquor to an alcoholic.

LKY: The Japanese have always had this cultural trait, that whatever they do they carry it to the nth degree. I think they know this. I have Japanese friends who have told me this. They admit that this is a problem with them.

Here’s an unexpected source to confirm his observation about Japanese intensity. On 9 September 1945, just 25 days after the end of war, the Showa Tenno (Hirohito) wrote to his son (the current Tenno, Akihito), then 14, who had been evacuated to Nikko:

Our countrymen believed too strongly in Imperial Japan, and underestimated the Americans and British. Our military forces overemphasized the spirit, and forgot about science.

There is an enduring strain in Japanese postwar thought whose primary element is a lack of self-trust. More than a few Japanese prefer to outsource their national defense to the United States because they think their countrymen are incapable of recognizing the proper limits of the use of military force. Some refer to this as the “lid for the jar” theory behind the continued support of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. Among the believers are even those on the Japanese left who dislike the United States and its presence here.

The theory holds that the security treaty and the presence of American military forces will keep the Japanese from falling off the wagon once they sample the liqueur-flavored chocolate of responsibility for their own self-defense and head off on another militaristic bender. The arrangement ensures that the demon of Japanese militarism is stuffed into a jar with the Americans as the lid.

Komori Yoshihisa, the Sankei Shimbun’s Washington correspondent, recalls on his Japanese-language blog that a former commander of the U.S. Marines based in Okinawa once made a similar observation and was promptly reassigned.

Mr. Komori reports that he recently attended a seminar in Washington D.C. on security guarantees in Asia and the role of Okinawa in the Japanese-American alliance. One of the speakers was Sato Manabu, a professor at Okinawa International University. The professor has been calling for the withdrawal of the Marines from Futenma for several years.

Prof. Sato thinks the Futenma airbase is unnecessary. During the seminar, he said that neither the Chinese military buildup nor North Korean nuclear weapons were much of a threat to Japan, and that negated the reason for the American military presence.

Mr. Komori asked him if he were opposed to the security treaty and the alliance. The professor answered:

No, I support them. That’s because I don’t trust the Japanese people.

The reporter concluded his blog post by saying the Okinawan scholar’s view of the Japanese people caused him to realize once again how difficult it would be to resolve the Futenma base issue.

The Japanese lack of trust and faith in themselves was inevitable once upon a time, but that attitude should now be obsolete.

Mr. Lee is correct that the Japanese do have a penchant for carrying things to the nth degree. (It’s one of the things I like about them, perhaps because I have the same tendency myself.) But he lived under Japanese occupation in Singapore as a young adult—indeed, he worked for them—and his quip is now at least 20 years old. The Japanese friends to whom he refers must have been people who were children or young adults during the war years. That would mean their attitudes were inevitably colored by their experiences of a bygone era that was more anomaly than representative.

One of their mistakes is the assumption that the Japanese capacity for single-mindedness in that era was devoted exclusively to militarism. That focus did become the dominant feature in national life starting from about 1930, according to domestic historians. Before that, however, the focus of the one-pointedness starting with the Meiji Restoration in 1868 was on nation-building. Some historians hold that the people who assumed the responsibilities for that duty were reared in the samurai tradition, which inevitably informed their attitudes and behavior.

In Northeast Asia in the latter part of the 18th century, national defense was an indispensable element of nation-building because it was a question of national survival. The European powers had already colonized most of Asia. Japan was next on the list, and the Japanese knew it.

The inebriation got out of hand when the militarists hijacked the state and decided to substitute European colonialism in Asia for their own. One can imagine how people with a tendency to do things to the nth degree would conduct warfare.

That the Japanese, and the rest of the world, thought the postwar solution required an American lid would be understandable—in 1950. That children and young adults who were alive in the early part of the 20th century continued to believe in that solution as they grew older is also understandable. But those days are as gone as the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The world is a different place.

If there’s a serious market for militarism in Japan in 2010, in must be a black market deeply underground. The ethos of the samurai warrior class does not pervade the thinking of the politicians of any party. There’s just no evidence for it, and to suggest that the Japanese today are a beer and a Kalashnikov away from marching into The Philippines is unsupportable outside of a comic book.

Consider, just for the sake of discussion, what the Japanese would do if their supposedly militarist DNA were to once again assert control over the organism. Try to colonize the Korean Peninsula, Manchuria, and Taiwan? Send troops to mainland China? The Russian Far East? Indonesia? Malaysia?

Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore?

Just mentioning those possibilities demonstrates their implausibility. Indeed, if the taste for overseas military adventures were a critical strand of the Japanese DNA, it was sublimated very well during the roughly 250 years of the Edo period from the beginning of the 17th century to the middle of the 19th.

Now consider this: If the Americans left Northeast Asia tomorrow, which of the following countries would be the most likely, and which the least likely, to unsheathe their sabers: China, Russia, North Korea…or Japan? South Korea is unlikely to provoke a conflict in the region, but it would be unreasonable to claim that Japan is more of a potential threat than a country where military service is not only required of all males, it is also considered to be one of the Four Constitutional Duties, along with taxes, education, and labor. The Stockholm Peace Institute’s ranking of countries based on military spending as a percentage of GDP places South Korea 57th. Japan is ranked 149th, trailing even the neutral Swiss. Even if the American military were to bid Japan sayonara, would it rise higher than China, ranked 95th on the list? I don’t think so. (We also don’t know whether the Stockholm Peace Institute’s calculations include the substantial financial support Japan provides to the U.S. for the latter’s military presence.)

That someone can still stand up in front of an audience and say he seriously believes Americans must remain in Japan because the latter can’t be trusted is both a distortion of reality and an obstacle to Japan’s maturity as a nation-state. Is this yet another manifestation of the “blame yourself first” approach that is more attitude than end result of a logical thought process? Regardless, the self-abnegation no longer serves a purpose.

Posted in Government, History, International relations, Military affairs, World War II | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

What a maroon!

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, March 27, 2010

What a maroon!
- Bugs Bunny

HERE’S A STORY that speaks for itself.

Nick Levasseur, a delegate in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, posted this on his Facebook account:

Anime is a prime example of why two nukes just wasn’t enough.

It made the news on local television.

This from a citizen of the country that gave the world chewing gum, Dr. Pepper, and the movies of Oliver Stone and Michael Moore.

But really, everything on that clip is pathetic. The two newscasters said that the comment:

“could be deemed as insensitive towards the Japanese heritage”

Is it too much to ask of you people to pull the carrots out of your backsides and speak real English? “Could be deemed”? “Is” is shorter, sweeter, and unambiguous. “The Japanese heritage”? How about any erect vertebrate with a functioning nervous system? “Insensitive”? “Pig-ignorant” has the advantages of being more to the point without any wussiness.

Just call a spade a spade. Surely you can think of a euphemism for “dickhead ” that your producers will find acceptable to use on a broadcast.

Speaking of dickheads, this one apologized:

It has no place in private or public discourse.

That’s not the bleedin’ point, is it? The place where it lodges is between your ears, but short of using a pair of foreceps and an electric drill, no one will be able to remove it, will they?

Here’s the worst part: I can’t say for sure, because I haven’t visited his Facebook account to see the comment–you have to register for Facebook to do that–but he probably thought he was being funny.

As far as I know, he hasn’t offered to resign. That’s not surprising. He’s a Democrat.

The idea of resigning to take responsibility for one’s crimes, malfeasance, or stupidity is a concept that seldom occurs to anyone on the left, as the Japanese will have observed from the behavior of the DPJ. Standards of conduct are for other people.

Posted in I couldn't make this up if I tried | Tagged: , | 8 Comments »

China by the numbers

Posted by ampontan on Friday, March 26, 2010

ENTERPRISING REPORTERS keen to cover today’s China should find the following list of 18 topics an excellent starting point.

1. Yuan revaluation
2. Bureaucratic corruption
3. Expensive health care
4. Food safety
5. The Uyghurs
6. Tibet
7. The gap between rich and poor
8. Reform of the family registry system
9. The soaring price of cooking oil
10. Forecasts of personnel moves of senior party leaders
11. Expanding the autonomy of universities
12. The difficulty of university students in finding employment
13. School destruction in the Szechuan earthquake and the delays in rebuilding
14. The use of defective vaccines in Shanxi province
15. The beating death of a steel plant president in Jilin province
16. Police-gangster collusion in Chongqing Province
17. Rising real estate prices and the housing shortage
18. Real estate developers spurring land price increases

Why those 18? Those topics are now forbidden to the Chinese news media, according to this report in the English-language Asahi. Liu Yunshan, the chairman of the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of China, sent a notification by fax to all the media companies informing them of the new rules of journalism. (The Asahi, unable to tell the difference, called it the “Publicity Department”).

Some Chinese reporters are wondering what they can write about, especially because these topics were of the most interest to their readers. Not to worry.

Amid complaints of cheaper Chinese exports flooding overseas markets, Washington has increasingly pressed Beijing to revaluate its currency. Liu banned reports on criticism against China, especially from U.S. lawmakers, and told the Chinese media to use stories from the state-run Xinhua News Agency. But commentaries that “criticize U.S. actions” were welcomed, even ordered, by Liu.

In fact, the official China Daily website is editorializing for a new press law.

Press law is imperative now, not only for protecting reporters’ rights, but also to restrict press power.

The part about protecting reporters’ rights comes from the problem of “unemployed youths” posing as reporters to blackmail unscrupulous mine operators in Shanxi. It seems as if the Chinese are living in interesting times, doesn’t it? Then again, considering what passes for English-language journalism about Japan, telling an employed journalist and a shiftless youth apart might not be such a snap after all. Maybe a press law for…nah!

As for the part about restricting press power, well, this is the Chinese Communist Party after all. Take a look at the Propaganda Department’s website in Chinese. There are enough hammer and sickle emblems to outfit an official motorcade for a May Day parade.

But the China Daily does have another list showing there are indeed subjects suitable for examination. This one is six items long. The article is called Six Advantages of China’s Political System, and it’s about an op-ed written for Singapore’s zaobao.com (the coolest domain name on the planet) by Song Luzhen. Here are the six:

1. “Under the one-party system, China could formulate a long-term plan for national development and ensure stabilization of its policies without being affected by the alternation of parties with different positions and ideologies.”

No wonder Ozawa Ichiro likes China so much!

2. “High efficiency and promptly effective reaction to emerging challenges and opportunities, especially in response to sudden and catastrophic accidents.”

That high efficiency and promptly effective reaction must be why they don’t want reporters to write about #13 on the list of the forbidden. It isn’t a problem, it’s an advantage! Covering those stories would be a waste of everyone’s time.

3. “Its effective containment of corruption in the social transition period.”

Ditto #2 on the first list.

4. “A more responsible government”

(I)n democratic societies, many officials are elected with fixed terms, and they then will not fall out of power before the expiration unless they break the law or make wrong decisions or take no action.

In democratic societies, many people would be thrilled if their elected officials took no action.

5. “(I)ts personnel training and selecting system and avoiding the waste of talented people.”

6. “One party (Chinese Communist Party) can truly represent the whole people.”

Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein—whoops! Sorry! Wrong branch of the left wing!

Seriously though, there’s plenty to write about. Take Google, for example, That’s a really hot topic in China now. The China Daily even has an op-ed by Philip J. Cunningham, a visiting scholar from Cornell University, called Goodbye Google and GM Information. Scholar that he is, he finds a way to compare Google to genetically modified food.

Google’s departure from the Chinese mainland appears to have been a business retreat dressed up as an ideological offensive, in which a specious argument about free speech was used as a fig leaf to cover the company’s failure to penetrate and dominate a market of its choosing. But it also reflects outdated, Cold War style thinking.

The guy really got on a roll. I’m not going to get in his way.

Like a shark that doesn’t know how to stop swimming, it is a nonstop eating machine, buying up competitors and kindred companies, all for what purpose? Free speech? Democratic expression? Personal freedom? That’s what CEO Eric Schmidt recently told the Google Personal Democracy Forum, but speaking to advertisers, he probably came closer to the truth, saying: “We love advertising!”

That prose is like a bowl of alphabet soup without the broth. But if he talks the way he writes, that shouldn’t be a problem. There’ll so much spit flying around he won’t need any broth.

In the place of the bipolar world of Cold War certainties, we live in a more nuanced, multivalent world. But the rise of the Internet, while touted by never-say-die Cold Warriors as a tool to combat state propaganda, has inadvertently begun to serve up decentralized propaganda of its own; full of mindless mash-ups, advertising jingles, corporate slogans, recycled canned entertainment and de-contextualized information for disunited people.

I’m sure the editors dug the Mao riff:

But is it not better to let one hundred wild flowers blossom, than allow agribusiness to weed out competitors until there is only one kind of crop?

If the China Daily is a sample of the new Chinese journalism, I can see its advantages. With the Chinese political system, having only one party means the people don’t have to bother with all those messy competing ideologies. With the China Daily, readers get a combination of the New York Times and Mad Magazine all in the same publication.

UPDATE: Slim writes in to say that the PRC did “in Orwellian fashion” rename its Propaganda Department the Publicity Department a few years ago. Thanks for catching that.

Posted in China, Mass media | 2 Comments »

Seoul food

Posted by ampontan on Friday, March 26, 2010

THE SOUTH KOREANS are eager to promote the spread of Korean cuisine throughout the world. The Korea Agro-Fisheries Trade Corporation, which is behind the new program to teach Korean cooking, said in a press release:

(E)fforts will be made to open courses on Korean food in world-famous cooking institutions like the Culinary Institute of America and France’s Le Cordon Bleu.

So, what country did they choose to kick off their program and get it off to a good start?

Japan.

They’re going to offer 25 courses to the 1,300 students at the Hattori Nutrition College in Tokyo from April to December. They picked a well-known place, too–the students at that school served as assistants to the contestants on the Japanese version of the Iron Chef program, and the headmaster acted as the commentator.

Did somebody give you the impression Koreans and Japanese can’t get along?

Don’t believe it.

Posted in Food, International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

The undemocratic party of Japan

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, March 25, 2010

As a representative of the new generation, I want to bring a new wind to the Diet, which has become aged and is suffering from hardening of the arteries. I want to become a respected politician worthy of comparison to my father Saeki, and fulfill the expectations of my supporters. The 70s in Japan is the age of our “youth power”. That alone gives me a keen sense of the weight of my responsibility. I want to forge ahead in the future, with my youth and rectitude that admits of no political chicanery as my calling card.

- Ozawa Ichiro, on his first election to the Diet, 27 December 1969

EVERYONE WHO FOLLOWS Japanese politics assumed that Ozawa Ichiro would remain the man with the muscle in the Democratic Party of Japan when he and Hatoyama Yukio traded jobs last spring as their solution for taking responsibility for the former’s fund-raising scandals.

After all, he called the shots in the Hosokawa Morihiro administration of the early 90s, the first non-LDP government in nearly 40 years, and the Kaifu Toshiki administration, an LDP government when Mr. Ozawa was the party’s secretary-general.

That’s why no one was surprised when a reporter asked who wore the pants in the DPJ family at Hatoyama Yukio’s 14 May 2009 news conference to announce his candidacy for the party presidency. Mr. Hatoyama answered:

I do not intend in the slightest to be referred to as the Ozawa puppet administration. Rather, I want to create the type of government in which I fulfill a major role, and in which the “Hatoyama color” figures prominently.

Here’s a rule about as hard and fast as they come: When a politician has to tell people he’s in charge, he isn’t. Rather than bearing out Mr. Hatoyama’s confidence, subsequent events have only confirmed the doubts of his questioners.

Everyone also assumed that Mr. Ozawa would get into trouble soon rather than late with his my-way-or-the-highway philosophy of conducting business. Current Finance Minister Kan Naoto went so far two years ago as to urge party members to put aside their dislike of “a certain person” for the sake of party unity and to take control of government. When so many people in a position to know describe someone as a dictator for so many years, it’s a safe bet that he’s not a hands-off administrator.

Those assumptions turned out to be right. Since the DPJ government took charge in September, Ozawa Ichiro has forbidden DPJ Diet members to participate in multiparty diet groups, forbidden members of the bureaucracy to appear at press conferences, and centralized local government requests of the national government to come through one office—his own as party secretary-general. He’s an equal opportunity irritant—he managed to anger both cultural conservatives and the Japan Communist Party over an issue involving the Tenno (emperor). Anyone who’s strolled by any newsstand in a Japanese bookstore over the past six months will have seen on any given day at least one, and usually more, articles by people comparing him to Hitler, Stalin, or Kim Jong-il—and that’s before you get to the ones written by the hardline polemicists.

Tempers flared again this month when he decided to sack a subordinate—whom he appointed—for criticizing him in public. The situation grew so intense that analysts at Japanese investment houses have now started to factor into their decisions what one referred to as “political risk”—the possibility that the Democratic Party will disintegrate while still in power.

Here’s what dictatorship looks like in a modern democracy.

Ozawa Ichiro is frightening

The weekly Shukan Gendai published a roundtable discussion with four anonymous DPJ Diet members in their 23 January issue. The headline read: Help! Mr. Ozawa is Frightening!

The magazine assembled 10 members who agreed to participate on the condition of anonymity, but six backed out at the last minute. They weren’t willing to take even that risk. One told the magazine, “If we make a slip, we could be liquidated by the Ozawa Corps.” Here’s some of what they said in English. Note the second comment by Mr. A.

Q: Is the climate in the DPJ that bad now?

A: To be frank, the DPJ has become stifling for everyone other than Ozawa associates.
B: (The Ozawa group visit to China last December) had a dictatorial structure like the Communist Party. There is a dread that if you publicly criticize Ozawa, you might no longer be able to remain in the party.
A: Some are even saying it would be best if we lost more seats in the upper house election this July.

Q: Who in the world is saying that?

A: I can’t mention any names. But I can say that subject came up at the end of the year between the “seven bugyo”. “If we win big in the upper house, no one will be able to stop him.”
C: Those people exist. Particularly members who formerly had senior positions but were shut out after we won the lower house election.

Sidebar: The seven bugyo, or magistrates, is a term used to describe a group put together by Watanabe Kozo, a former party senior advisor and Ozawa associate. The idea was to develop the next generation of leaders. While they do not share the same political philosophy, all are considered to be anti-Ozawa to some degree. They are Okada Katsuya, Foreign Minister; Maehara Seiji, Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport; Sengoku Yoshito, National Strategy Minister; Noda Yoshihiko, Deputy Finance Minister; Edano Yukio, Governmental Reform Minister; Genba Koichiro; and Tarutoku Shinji.

Q: We hear that new members are on a tight leash and under a lot of stress.

D: At the end of last year, a set of 50 handbills was suddenly delivered to the new members. Their title was Ozawaism, and he wrote them for publicity. It came with this notation: special price, JPY 20,000 (about $US 220). There was no overt pressure to buy them, but everyone was worried they’d be ostracized if they didn’t, and that their loyalty would be tested by how many they bought. Most wound up buying them.
A. Members can’t even select their own aides. One MP wanted to hire a former LDP staffer as a policy aide, but Yamaoka Kenji (the Ozawa enforcer) put a stop to it because he might have been an “LDP spy”.
B: There’s even a system of informers. Talk to the media, and someone will inform Yamaoka that so-and-so talked to a certain media company. Even if a relative is a reporter, you can’t meet them in the Diet members’ office building.

Q: So that’s why the number of participants (in this discussion) declined so suddenly.

D: Talking to a weekly magazine is out of the question. If it were known that I was here now, I’d be put on an anti-Ozawa blacklist immediately. That’s especially true for the proportional representatives. If they thought you were a rebellious member, they’d put you on the bottom of the list at the next election, guaranteeing your loss.

(Talking about a New Year’s Party at the Ozawa home)
D: One member summoned the brute courage to ask Ozawa, “Do you feel like becoming prime minister?” He answered, “I have no reason to reject that. But I have other things to do first.”
A: Yamaoka said, “Be careful of the mass media. They supported the DPJ before the election, but now they’re bashing Hatoyama. I’ve even been compared to the Gestapo. You can’t depend on the news reports at all.” But the Gestapo part wasn’t meant as a joke, and nobody laughed.

Q: Why hasn’t an anti-Ozawa movement arisen?

A: Ah…that’s not possible.
C: Not possible…I think. There aren’t any MPs who like him. He just uses people and then disposes of them. (Explanation of bestowing favor on lower-ranking party officials). He lifts them up, and if they acquire any more power than is necessary, he crushes them.
A: Even the ministers can’t say anything.
C: They understand very well that were it not for Mr. Ozawa, they wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything at all.
A: They know they can’t count on Prime Minister Hatoyama or the other senior leaders. Even if they hate Mr. Ozawa, they know they wouldn’t have a government without him, and they couldn’t win an election without him.
C: At any rate, that’s the reality. Regardless of whether he becomes prime minister, if we win the upper house election, there is no question the country will turn into the Ozawa Japanese Empire. Would we be able to stay in the DPJ if that happened? We’d be driven out by Mr. Ozawa, and the only place left for us to go would be Watanabe Yoshimi’s Your Party.

Obedience school

There has been extensive internal debate within the party about the possibility of submitting a bill to allow non-citizens with permanent residence visas to participate in local elections. Such a measure would be inherently controversial anywhere, and one publication estimated that about 50 of the DPJ MPs were opposed, even before their ranks swelled with last year’s election. That’s why the pledge to introduce such legislation was not included in the party’s election platform.

Mr. Ozawa and some others are anxious for it to happen, but opposition internally and from junior coalition partner Kamei Shizuka and the People’s New Party has so far prevented the introduction of a bill as a government proposal. The DPJ Secretary-General is frustrated with party members who won’t fall into line. He told them in a speech:

“Isn’t it the usual thing to agree to proposals that your own government has submitted?”

Dictating terms to the prime minister

When the Hatoyama Cabinet was putting together a budget last year, Mr. Ozawa became angered at some of their decisions, as well as their inability to make other decisions. He made his views known to the prime minister. Some of those views, such as the retention of the gasoline surtax in a different form, violated the party’s election platform. Mr. Hatoyama gave in to all the Ozawa demands save for the one about imposing income limits for the eligibility to receive the child support allowance.

When Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirano Hirofumi was asked why the prime minister caved to Mr. Ozawa, he answered,

Rather than party requests, these were the peoples’ requests.

That should answer any question about the hue of the Hatoyama Color.

Having his cake and eating it too

Despite dictating policy to the government, Mr. Ozawa is less interested in taking responsibility for those policies or the perceptions about his control.

Asked at a news conference that same month about the falling support in polls for the Hatoyama administration, he said:

Ask the Cabinet about their support rate or whatever. It’s not my place to give an answer.

General Secretary Ozawa

Observed Nakagawa Hidenao of the LDP, who has also served as secretary-general of that party:

The DPJ has no process for forming a democratic consensus to change campaign promises. The LDP has a mechanism for input from the Diet members. Discussion moves from the Policy Research Council to the General Council to determine policy. Mr. Ozawa abolished the Policy Research Council, and they have no General Council. Decisions are made by the Secretary-General’s office (i.e., him). This resembles the Politburo of the old Soviet bloc.

To be fair, some claim the Policy Research Council was hijacked by the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy to influence policy decisions. Then again, the LDP hasn’t had a dictator since Ozawa Ichiro left the party.

Obedience school, part two

Last December Mr. Ozawa led a large delegation of DPJ MPs and others on one of his periodic trips to China. It is well known that he is a Sinophile, and during this visit he met with President Hu Jintao. Yamaoka Kenji declared that he and the Chinese leader “confirmed” the new government’s intention to create an “equilateral triangle” in diplomatic relations by giving equal weight to China and the United States.

The Hatoyama administration wanted the Tenno to meet visiting Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping one week after the Ozawa group returned. It was immediately assumed that was the Japanese end of a quid pro quo. A past government established a rule requiring one month’s advance notice for such meetings, but Mr. Hatoyama pressed for an exception.

Haketa Shingo, the Grand Steward of the Imperial Household Agency, told a news conference that the prime minister pushed the palace to arrange the meeting. The agency turned them down, but finally gave in after the government turned up the pressure.

Said Mr. Haketa:

I really felt awkward. I hope I never have to see this sort of thing repeated again.

He added there was no reason to make an exception to the rule. Mr. Xi is not the Chinese head of state, and the whole affair smacked of turning the Tenno into a pawn for DPJ political ends.

The emperor’s role is different from the diplomacy of a country. If you are asking the emperor to play a role to deal with a pending issue between countries, that’s not the emperor’s expected role under the current constitution.

This was an explosive issue for two reasons. First, denials that the DPJ wanted to arrange the meeting for political purposes are implausible. Everyone assumes they wanted to trot out the man to please the Chinese. It’s also likely they wanted to demonstrate their own power—they’ve developed a taste for that sort of display.

Second, political leaders used the Tenno as political pawns for their own ends after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. That road led to the Second World War, and no one in Japan wants to go down that road a second time.

The U.S.-ghostwritten Constitution severely limits the Tenno’s role to prevent any political ramifications of his presence at all. He is a figurehead who seldom speaks in public, and whatever he does say in public is innocuous. The Imperial Household Agency sets his schedule and the Cabinet approves all his overseas trips.

Some people like to think of the old LDP as a nest of diehard Shinto Tenno-worshippers, but even they bent over backwards to avoid any controversy during their rule. Said one former LDP executive:

The ceremony opening the current prime minister’s residence was held in the spring of 2002. Some thought it would be a good idea to invite the Tenno, but that didn’t get very far because it was thought he shouldn’t be invited to the seat of political authority. That’s how much we carefully avoided the political use of the Tenno. The current controversy reveals the amateurishness of the DPJ as the ruling party.

Finally, the Tenno is a cancer survivor and turned 76 a fortnight after the meeting. Prime Minister Hatoyama tried to justify himself:

China is the world’s most populous country and is a neighboring country. Relations with such a nation are very important. This was not a decision for political use. Naturally, the health of the emperor is most important, but this request was made under the condition he was able to do so.

Of course that’s a weak excuse, especially considering the amount of pressure that was applied, but no one thought for a second either the idea of a meeting itself, or the insistence that it be held, originated with Mr. Hatoyama. For his part, Ozawa Ichiro denied that he had anything to do with it.

For someone who claims not to have been involved with the request, he sure spit the dummy over Mr. Haketa’s objections. He was more upset than the prime mnister.

It’s not the business of one bureaucrat to hold a press conference and talk about a Cabinet decision. If he’s going to say something, he should say it after he quits.

And:

If he’s that opposed, he should submit his resignation and then talk about it. That’s just natural. He’s a government official.

And, to up the ante after Mr. Haketa wouldn’t back down or resign:

That’s the guy you have to wonder about. He’s just using the Tenno’s prestige for a cover.

“The guy” in this case was aitsu in Japanese, a rough word that is insulting in this context.

He angrily asserted that the Cabinet had a right to insist on a meeting because it was a matter of state business, the Cabinet had supreme authority to make these decisions, and that opponents should read the Japanese Constitution carefully.

Responded Shii Kazuo, the head of the Japanese Communist Party:

Mr. Ozawa said, “read the Japanese Constitution carefully”, but when you read it, you see that affairs of state are defined rather strictly. Meeting foreign dignitaries is not included. It is a public act apart from an affair of state. The Japanese Constitution states that those acts must not have a political nature. Mr. Ozawa is the one who should read the Japanese Constitution carefully.

Lost in the controversy, by the way, is that Mr. Haketa is something of a liberal in matters related to Japan’s Imperial house. He was appointed by Koizumi Jun’ichiro, and shares the former prime minister’s belief that women should be allowed to ascend the throne.

Lenin, Trotsky, or Stalin?

The overseas media tried to depict it as a Hatoyama decision, but that’s not how the Japanese media saw it. The incident prompted the monthly Bungei Shunju to publish a criticism of Ozawa Ichiro’s behavior in their February 2010 issue. It was written by Kyoto University Prof. Nakanishi Terumasa, and here’s an excerpt in English:

“The democracy that modern Japan has learned and that has taken root here does not resemble the “democracy” and “spirit of the Japanese constitution” that Mr. Ozawa talks about. I do not think that just winning an election provides a party with complete power…His view of democracy is similar to Jean Jacques Rousseau’s “general will”, or the French Revolution that ended in the maelstrom of liquidation by guillotine. Or, in the 20th century, the totalitarian democracy or the democratic centralism of the postwar left whose pedigree is Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin.

“His stated reason is that the people can choose the party they support, but once they’ve chosen them in an election, they have to give all authority to the party in power. In the end, the party official chosen by the Central Committee as a representative exercises dictatorial authority.

“When the DPJ won the election on 30 August, one of the MPs called it a “bloodless revolution”. I thought that was an exaggeration, but perhaps he was right. A party has taken power with a completely different understanding of the Japanese Constitution and democracy. That’s why it would be better to say it was the birth of a revolutionary government, rather than a change of government.

“Here’s how Mr. Ozawa views democracy: “We won the election, so all authority has been provided to the Cabinet created by the DPJ. Therefore I, who have the most power in the party, have been provided with all authority by the people. Therefore, my voice is the people’s voice.”

“That view of democracy colors not only diplomacy or policy about security, but every corner of politics conducted by the DPJ government.”

(end translation)

The “people’s voice”? Recall Hirano Hirofumi saying that Ozawa Ichiro’s demands of the Hatoyama administration were not the party’s requests, but the people’s requests.

Above criticism

One of the DPJ vice secretaries-general, Ubukata Yukio, gave an interview to the Sankei Shimbun on 17 March.

Mr. Ubukata was appointed to that position by Ozawa Ichiro. One reason for his selection was that he served in the same position in the now defunct Liberal Party when Ozawa Ichiro was party head and Fujii Hirohisa was secretary-general.

Unperson Ubukata Yukio

Sidebar 2: One source says that Ubukata had formerly acted as a liaison between Ozawa Ichiro and DPJ faction leader Yokomichi Takahiro. Mr. Yokomichi is a former member of the Socialist Party. When he was governor of Hokkaido, he refused to attend a funeral service for the Showa Tenno because he said it contributed to the systemic glorification of the emperor. He later attended the funeral of North Korea’s Kim Il-sung, despite not having received an invitation.

Here’s some of what Mr. Ubukata told the Sankei:

We criticized the LDP for its centralization of power…The party said it was going to carry out devolution of authority to local governments, but the DPJ’s operation is based on the centralization of power. One certain person in the DPJ today controls the power and the money.

And:

The first thing that should happen is that Mr. Ozawa should properly explain (the funding scandals) at the proper place (i.e., the Diet). If this does not meet with the approval of the people, his only choice is to take it upon himself to think of resigning.

He also criticized the decision to eliminate the Policy Research Council. But for some people in the party, this was even worse:

(DPJ Diet members) mustn’t receive so much money from the Japan Teachers’ Union.

At least he wasn’t hauled before the firing squad and given a last cigarette before publicly criticizing the DPJ’s Dear Leader. He was instead summoned to the office of Takashima Yoshimitsu, the DPJ senior vice secretary-general, who told him to resign. Rather than quit, Mr. Ubukata asked whether Mr. Ozawa would take responsibility for the arrest of three of his aides for the political fund scandals.

Ozawa Ichiro then decided his subordinate should be fired, supposedly after listening to recommendations from others. The Nishinippon Shimbun reported that a mid-level DPJ Diet member said the MPs calling the loudest for his head were those affiliated with the Japan Teachers’ Union. Breaching party discipline is a serious matter on the left.

The DPJ itself is a coalition of convenience, but all of a sudden everything began to look very inconvenient. Hunting season officially opened.

Said Edano Yukio, one of the seven bugyo:

I am not aware of anything that Mr. Ubukata said recently that should be a problem.

And:

Where is the part that means (Ozawa) has to resign right now? I don’t understand how that’s connected with the idea of replacing the vice secretary-general. This does not at all have a positive effect on the support rate for the party or the government.

Also:

What will happen to a DPJ led by a prime minister who can say nothing to Mr. Ozawa, whom many of the people think should step down?

Said Noda Yoshihiko, another one of the seven:

Forcing a person to resign who has said something painful to hear is extremely bad.

From Watanabe Kozo, the guru of the seven:

I’ve been a Diet member for 41 years, but I’ve never heard of anyone getting fired for criticizing a senior member. If there is an atmosphere in which people cannot speak freely, that will make for a gloomy party and cause problems.

Prime Minister Hatoyama managed his usual oatmeal explanation for firing Mr. Ubukata for…well, for telling the truth:

It’s too bad about Mr. Ubukata. There were many different opinions in the party, but that’s an excellent thing, because this is a democratic country. But he did not follow party rules by remaining silent within the party and saying various things outside the party. When you’re the vice secretary general, you should conduct those debates inside the party.

He continued to ramble:

I think the question of whether this squelches debate or not is a different level of discussion. I think it’s fine there are various, for example, criticisms of the party executives. But that’s something that should be done within the party. If you don’t say those things in the party at all, but tell them to the media, I wonder if that is ultimately a righteous discussion. I think Takashima made that sort of judgment in the course of that discussion…I think, at times like these, the important thing now is to act with unity as a party. And then, to meet the expectations of the people. It’s the most critical to have an approach of working hard together to achieve the policies, that’s what I think.

Kan Naoto, Vice Prime Minister and Finance Minister, weighed in:

I think a free and lively debate is necessary, but at the same time, it’s also necessary that the party be firmly united.

He might have been more alarmed than he let on. At a meeting of his Kan group/faction, an “unidentified senior official” said:

The party must allow a free and lively exchange of opinion. The magma (of party dissatisfaction) is about to erupt.

The words used for “free and lively” in both cases were identical.

The DPJ’s coalition partners thought it was odd, too:

Kamei Shizuka of the PNP:

Don’t the people in my party criticize me all the time? If you’re going to fire someone every time that happens, you’ll run out of people to fire.

Fukushima Mizuho of the SDPJ:

In the SDPJ, we can express our opinions fairly freely. (The DPJ) should also guarantee free speech within the party.

As for the opposition LDP, former Defense Minister Koike Yuriko tweeted:

I thought I’d put these together:

Mainichi headline: North Korean official responsible for the failure of the redenomination of the won executed?

Mainichi headline: Secretary-General Ozawa: Vice Secretary General Ubukata Forced Out; denies demanding his resignation for criticism of senior party members

Said the prime minister’s brother, Hatoyama Kunio:

The DPJ has adopted the socialist party method of democratic centralism. It is a manifestation of their dictatorial nature that heads will roll when you criticize leadership. A dictatorship under Ozawa is frightening.

Finally, Eda Kenji of Your Party, the man who seems to make the most sense in Japanese political circles today, wrote on his blog:

Why has the Ozawa leadership behaved so clumsily? Even with the notification of the allocation of public works projects, the LDP did it all behind the scenes so people wouldn’t notice. They (the DPJ) did it brazenly in broad daylight.
Is this a result of being completely out of touch? They’re going out of their way to trumpet to the public just how bad the DPJ has become, that the iron-fisted rule of Ozawa has reached this point, that the subordinates who fear Ozawa don’t care how bad it looks?
This isn’t a problem for me to worry about. But as one person who had hopes for a new politics with the change of government, I can only lament the terrible change in the DPJ.

Political risk

The judgment of financial markets in general, and the bond market in particular, is enough to bring even the most arrogant politico to heel, however, and that might have happened in the Ubukata affair.

Reuters Japan filed a story on 19 March that reviewed current market conditions and concerns that the Japanese stock market couldn’t sustain its highs. One reason for the pessimism of some analysts was the risk of yen depreciation against non-dollar currencies due to events in Greece. Another was the political risk that emerged with the aftereffects of the Ubukata firing.

They quoted Kawata Tsuyoshi, a senior strategist for Nikko Cordial Securities. Mr. Tsuyoshi is frequently cited in both the Japanese- and English-language press.

If this high-handed approach (by the DPJ) continues, it might wind up splitting the party. If they can’t win an outright majority in the July upper house election, and with the LDP looking internally shaky too, it’s possible the breakup of the DPJ will cause a political reorganization.

The party’s conduct of government and its policies have not been viewed favorably by the markets, and financial markets want to see stability in government. They expect the ruling party to come up with an economic stimulus measure before the election, but they will focus again on the government’s fiscal restraint…The Japanese financial markets will collapse starting with the bond market.

Facing the prospect of a civil war, plummeting poll numbers, and financial markets starting to place bets on their disintegration, even Ozawa Ichiro had to back down. He changed his mind, met Mr. Ubukata, and asked him to stay on. The latter agreed, later telling reporters, “There was no reason to turn him down.”

The Mainichi Shimbun reported that Hatoyama Yukio ordered him to change his mind, but more than a few people must have wondered if “order” was the most appropriate verb.

Thus, Mr. Ubukata’s job status has returned to the status quo ante. That wasn’t the only reversion, however. He made the round of television shows on Wednesday to say that Ozawa Ichiro should be called to testify before the Diet. He added that his tormenter, Takashima Yoshimitsu, should apologize to the people.

Meanwhile, Ozawa Ichiro hasn’t been chastened in the slightest. The group of those openly critical of his decision to pretend as if nothing had happened in the financial scandals has expanded to include a few Cabinet ministers. He had a few choice words for them today:

State ministers should do me the favor of concentrating on state business. If we exert ourselves to the utmost in both the Diet and in party affairs, we’ll be unified as a party, and that will yield excellent results.

There are more undertones in this statement than are apparent at a glance. The phrase that Mr. Ozawa used here for party unity was one he and his supporters often applied during the weeklong party presidential campaign to replace him last spring. Several commentators at the time thought it was an implied threat that he would bolt the party if he didn’t get his way.

With the DPJ, some things will never change.

LDP Secretary-General Oshima Tadamori spoke to the press on the 23rd in Saga, and summed up the situation perfectly:

There’s nothing I can say about such a farce…The DPJ’s support rate was falling, so I think they made the decision to reverse the decline.

Hiding the decline was probably the reason they made that decision, but it’s unlikely to have the effect they’re hoping for. The damage has already been done. Toothpaste doesn’t go back in tubes, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men won’t put what passes for DPJ unity together again. How that will affect politics for the rest of the year remains to be seen, but as a member of the People’s New Party noted:

There has never been an instance when a slumping support rate has not become a fatal wound for a Cabinet.

Many in politics and the mass media refer to Ozawa Ichiro as “The Destroyer”.

It’s beginning to look like we’re going to find out why one more time.

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

Spiked

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, March 25, 2010

HERE WE GO AGAIN: If what you know about Japan you learned from the English-language media, then everything you know is wrong.

Long-time friends have seen that demonstrated dozens of times on this site, followed by the occasional drive-by from the FCCJ spitball artists.

The last time there was a drive-by, a sympathetic soul who linked to my post also tried to be fair. He wrote that he thought the person responsible for that particular item of yellow journalism wasn’t being malicious on purpose.

Well, he can stop trying to be fair. This time, the lid’s been raised off the sewer. Only this time, someone else did the heavy lifting.

There’s a website named Spike Japan that doesn’t have many posts (and the ones it does have are long). Several of the posts deal with what passes for English-language journalism about this country.

The author of the website, a foreigner, says he is interested in the decline of rural Japan. He was shown an English-language article in the Daily Yomiuri about a town (machi) in Gunma named Kanna that is suffering from a population loss.

He thought a lot of it was clearly wrong, and spoke directly to the author of the piece. She insisted that her facts and figures had come from interviews with the mayor and other residents during a visit.

He decided to look into it himself, so he visited Kanna and talked to the same people. Here’s what he found.

Your headline numbers, the big ones, are precisely, up-to-the-minute correct—the overall over-65 percentage is indeed 22%, and the overall under-15 percentage is indeed 13%. Your other numbers are without exception wrong.

I’m beginning to see a pattern here, wouldn’t you agree? The numbers you think you can easily inflate without anyone noticing, you do, the ones that you think someone might notice, you don’t.

Most of the rest of the information in the Yomiuri article seems to have been pulled out of thin air. For example, the author claimed that children were sent out of town to go to high school–despite the existence of a high school a few hundred yards from one of the places she visited. Spike Japan has a photo.

The author of the Yomiuri article was Catherine Makino. She was the President of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan from July 2008 to June 2009.

You can read the Spike Japan article here to see how he handled it.

One caveat: Spike Japan gets a little nitpicky with the English translation of the word shuraku, or settlement. He says places like that should be considered hamlets instead of villages. It can get complicated, but in Japanese, shuraku and mura (village) are close to being synonymous. One of the definitions of mura in the Reikai Shinkokugo Jiten, a J-J dictionary, is shuraku. There are also examples given of shuraku on the Web, and all of them are defined as a type of mura. Then there is the specialized use of the words in cultural anthropology to consider.

But I’m getting a little nitpicky myself!

Be that as it may, there’s no longer any reason whatsoever to assume that any piece of journalism about Japan in English is credible, either in whole or in part. It’s all suspect from the start. The burden of proof is now on them. And if the author of this Spike Japan piece is giving it to us straight, they’ll lie about that, too.

Posted in Mass media | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

More bad polling news for the DPJ

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 24, 2010

IF THERE WERE a Japanese version of the Intrade market in the United States for betting on political outcomes, punters would be selling the Hatoyama administration short. Most of the nation’s media has already written them off, and it would verge on the miraculous—not to mention the politically stupid—if the prime minister were to allowed lead his party into the summer upper house election.

The results of a recent poll taken by FNN and the Sankei Shimbun and released on Sunday must have been bitter news for the DPJ. The poll also included several other questions of interest, and it was enlightening to see the answers to some of those questions for a change. Here it is in English.

Q: Do you support the Hatoyama Cabinet?

Yes: 30.5% (down from 42.8% on 6 and 7 February)
No: 53.9% (46.1%)
Don’t know: 15.6% (11.1%)

This collapse in support for this administration has come despite the absence of little in the way of bad news since the last poll, and the imminent passage of the party’s centerpiece legislative proposals at polling time. That support is unlikely to rebound for Mr. Hatoyama’s Cabinet, and the figures will probably continue to slide to the 20% level in the next round of polling. The numbers for the Fukuda and Aso administrations were lower at the six-month point, but both of their approval ratings started out nearly 25 percentage points less than Mr. Hatoyama’s to begin with. Incompetence, broken promises, and political funding scandals is no way to run a government.

Q: Which party do you support?

None: 37.1% (32.3%)
Democratic Party: 25.4% (32.9%)
Liberal Democratic Party: 18.8% (18.2%)
Your Party: 6.9% (3.9%)
New Komeito: 3.6% (4.6%)
Communist Party: 2.7% (2.3%)
Social Democratic Party: 2.0% (1.7%)
People’s New Party (AKA Kamei Family Party): 0.5% (0.9%)

That percentage of independents leaves the field wide open for serious reformers who can state their case. The DPJ isn’t going to get a second chance to make a first impression, and they blew their first chance very badly. They can’t even reach 30% with their two coalition performers combined. They barely make that level with New Komeito added (a possibility people are beginning to talk about), but that still doesn’t bring them close to the none-of-the-above group. Watanabe Yoshimi’s Your Party seems to have established itself in third place.

Q: What do you view as positives for the Hatoyama administration?

Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio’s personality:

Yes: 46.0% (51.9%)
No: 46.3% (40.5%)
Don’t know: 7.7% (7.6%)

Doesn’t that demonstrate the innate charity of the Japanese? Mr. Hatoyama’s personal ratings are under 50%, but still fairly high for the most unconvincing liar I’ve ever seen in politics, who begged the voters to forgive him for his financial scandals because he was a poor little rich boy reared in a privileged environment, and who comes off as more androgynous than extraterrestrial. It’s not often one sees a man with a quarter of a century in politics who gives speeches that sound like those of a teenaged boy and read like those of a teenaged girl.

The prime minister’s leadership ability:

Yes: 8.9% (12.1%)
No: 84.7% (79.4%)
Don’t know: 6.4% (8.5%)

Well, it’s better than a cat, as the Japanese say.

Results of the government after six months:

Good: 25.5%(-)
Bad: 57.5%(-)
Don’t know: 17.0%(-)

Again, this was with the passage of some of their primary legislation imminent, including the family allowance and free high school tuition.

The response to the issue of the international ban on tuna trade:

Good: 61.3(-)
Bad: 21.9(-)
Don’t know: 16.8(-)

It’s good to see the public supports this stance. That element of the international left which thinks it has the right to tell people what to eat will never give up.

The response to the activities of groups opposed to whaling (i.e., the SS):

Good: 33.6(-)
Bad: 48.1(-)
Don’t know: 18.3(-)

In light of the responses to the previous question, I would like to see a follow-up question for those with a negative view. Was their opinion informed by their opinion of whale eating, or their opinion of Japan taking decisive action that resulted in destroying a boat, in contrast to just maneuvering for votes at an international conference?

The response to the issue involving the American military air base at Futenma:

Good: 10.8% (15.8%)
Bad: 73.2% (69.2%)
Don’t know: 16.0% (15.0%)

Voters hate indecisiveness, particularly when it’s a result of trying to please everyone at once.

Response to the issue of secret treaties with the United States:

Good: 35.3%(-)
Bad: 43.3%(-)
Don’t know: 21.4%(-)

That’s a bit of a surprise to me, though I’m sure it was more of a surprise to the DPJ and points left.

The family allowance bill:

Good: 40.7%
Bad: 52.1%
Don’t know: 7.2%

Some people think the Japanese are social democrats by nature. Guess again.

The bill to eliminate tuition for high schools:

Good: 48.9%(-)
Bad: 42.2%(-)
Don’t know: 8.9%(-)

See what I mean? That’s closer than I would have thought.

Response to the problem of money politics:

Good: 7.5%(-)
Bad: 85.3%(-)
Don’t know: 7.2%(-)

It would be interesting to see who those 7.5% are.

The firing of DPJ Deputy Secretary-General Ubukata Yukio for his criticism of Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro:

Good: 15.0(-)
Bad: 72.3(-)
Don’t know: 12.7(-)

Which of the following conditions do you think improved over the six months of the Hatoyama government?

The Japanese economy:

Yes: 13.1%
No: 48.6
Don’t know: 38.3%

The method of conducting politics:

Yes: 27.7%
No: 48.6%
Don’t know: 38.3%

This is what the DPJ was elected to do. If they have a mandate, this is what it’s for. If they can get only a quarter of the people to answer yes, they’re in trouble.

Japanese-American relations:

Yes: 16.1%
No: 43.8%
Don’t know: 40.1%

The relationship of trust between the people and government:

Yes: 22.1%
No: 56.8%
Don’t know: 21.1%

Q: Which of the following do you think the DPJ Diet members should do next about money politics?

They should call in the prime minister’s mother and other people involved for an explanation and questioning in the Diet:

Yes: 57.6%(-)
No: 36.9%(-)
Don’t know: 5.5%(-)

That’s a lot of people ready to put a woman in her 80s to serious questioning about her political contributions. From what I’ve seen, Mr. Hatoyama’s mother isn’t badly treated by the press. Folks must really be angry about money politics.

Mr. Hatoyama should resign as prime minister:

Yes: 30.1% (26.0%)
No: 60.7% (66.6%)
Don’t know: 9.2% (7.4%)

What difference does it make with the DPJ?

Mr. Ozawa should explain and answer questions in the Diet:

Yes: 89.5% (88.5%)
No: 8.0% (9.8%)
Don’t know: 2.5% (1.7%)

Mr. Ozawa should resign as secretary-general of the DPJ:

Yes: 74.3% (70.3%)
No: 20.1% (23.9%)
Don’t know: 5.6% (5.8%)

Should Diet member Ishikawa Tomohiro, indicted for his role in the political funds scandal involving Ozawa Ichiro, resign from the Diet?

Yes: 64.5% (9.4%)
No: 25.9% (24.1%)
Don’t know: 9.6% (6.5%)

Should Diet member Kobayashi Chiyoko, whose political workers were arrested in a scandal over improper contributions from the Hokkaido Teachers’ Union, resign from the Diet?

Yes: 74.0%(-)
No: 14.4%(-)
Don’t know: 11.6%(-)

This is an odd result in light of the responses to the previous question. Mr. Ishikawa was directly implicated in a magazine article with destroying evidence. In contrast, many people think Ms. Kobayashi didn’t really know what was going on.

That’s not to her credit, but still…Is it because the guilty parties were connected to the teachers’ union?

This series of problems will have an effect on the summer upper house election:

Yes: 92.6%(-)
No: 4.7%(-)
Don’t know: 2.7%(-)

Well, duh!

The North Korean schools should be excluded from the legislation to make high schools tuition free:

Yes: 49.9%
No: 36.3%
Don’t know: 13.8%

Considering the anti-Japanese nature of the education conducted at those schools, those numbers could be much higher.

What best describes your thinking about the move of the Futenma air base?

It should be outside of Japan: 37.5%
It should be off the coast of Camp Schwab in Okinawa in accordance with the original agreement: 21.0%
It’s not necessary to move the base at all: 12.6%
It should be in Japan outside of Okinawa: 12.3%
It should be in Okinawa at a different location: 8.9%
Don’t know: 7.7%

These are interesting numbers all around. The idea of hosting foreign military bases is going to have significant opposition in any country, but the relatively high rating for those who want to keep the original agreement is a bit surprising. Then again, a deal is a deal. Also, almost 56% of the respondents think the base should stay in Japan somewhere. Further, the last I read, Mr. Hatoyama was leaning toward a different location in Okinawa. That’s the least favored option.

If an agreement on the site of the move is not reached by the end of May, in accordance with the prime minister’s promise, should he resign?

Yes: 49.1%
No: 44.8%
Don’t know: 6.1%

That’s a closer margin than I would have thought. Considering that such a large percentage of those surveyed gave the prime minister low ratings for his handling of the situation, this would seem to suggest the issue might not be such a big deal for many people outside Okinawa.

Then again, with the DPJ, what difference does it make?

Who is most suited to be Japan’s prime minister?

No one: 23.1% (23.3%)
Masuzoe Yoichi: 19.0% (14.5%)
Okada Katsuya: 9.9% (6.7%)
Kan Naoto: 8.4% (9.0%)
Hatoyama Yukio: 5.8% (10.1%)
Maehara Seiji: 5.1% (9.8%)
Ishiba Shigeru: 4.9% (5.0%)
Watanabe Yoshimi: 4.3% (3.3%)
Yosano Kaoru: 2.8%(-)
Haraguchi Kazuhiro: 2.3% (4.0%)
Ozawa Ichiro: 1.9% (2.4%)
Ishigaki Sadakazu: 1.5% (1.8%)
Hatoyama Kunio: 0.3% (-)

When the head of the LDP can’t even beat Ozawa Ichiro, and Mr. Masuzoe of the same party tops the list of real people, maybe it’s time to think about a change. But that’s the mudboat party. You’ve heard the song lyrics, Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow? With them, it’s Don’t Stop Thinking about Yesterday.

What would you like to see as the next step by the ruling and opposition parties before the summer upper house election?

A reshuffling of the Hatoyama Cabinet:

Yes: 49.2%
No: 45.2%
Don’t know: 5.6%

What difference does it make?

A new policy review focusing on public corporations:

Yes: 68.5%
No: 24.2%
Don’t know: 7.3%

A continuation of the coalition government with the DPJ, SDPJ, and the PNP:

Yes: 27.5%
No: 62.1%
Don’t know: 10.4%

Message to Ms. Fukushima and Mr. Kamei: They’re just not that into you. And you know what they say about people who aren’t part of the solution.

Strengthening ties between the DPJ and New Komeito:

Yes: 22.2%
No: 68.6%
Don’t know: 9.2%

Why would the voters like a new coalition of expediency when they already dislike the one they have now?

The DPJ winning an absolute majority in the upper house:

Yes: 32.3%
No: 58.5%
Don’t know: 9.2%

The voters don’t like the current coalition, they don’t like the idea of New Komeito in a coalition, and they don’t like the idea of single-party DPJ rule.

I wouldn’t want to have to pay their laundry bill after DPJ headquarters saw these results. Luckily, Hatoyama Yukio can afford it.

The creation of a new party:

Yes: 30.1%
No: 60.6%
Don’t know: 9.3%

This is a curious result. I also would like to see additional questions offering possible reasons for the No answer. Would the highest response be: What difference does it make? Is it that the Japanese have never seen what a well-run, ideologically consistent political party with serious ideas looks like? (New Komeito doesn’t count.)

Replacing the leadership of the LDP:

Yes: 44.5%
No: 45.7%
Don’t know: 9.8%

What difference does it make?

The coming activities of Hatoyama Kunio after leaving the LDP:

Yes: 16.8%
No: 75.7%
Don’t know: 7.5%

The positive response one can get from name recognition alone is fascinating.

Which party do you want to vote for in the proportional representation phase of the summer upper house election?

DPJ: 29.4% (37.0%)
LDP: 24.0% (23.2%)
Don’t know:12.6% (14.2%)
Your Party: 10.0% (4.6%)
Don’t intend to vote: 6.6% (6.7%)
Communist Party: 3.9% (2.8%)
New Komeito: 3.7% (4.9%)
Social Democratic Party: 2.7% (1.8%)
People’s New Party:1.3% (1.0%)

The LDP might as well have an avocado as party president as Mr. Tanigaki, and they didn’t do much of anything in between the time the polls were taken, yet their gap with the DPJ was reduced by nearly two-thirds. They’re just like Paul Newman in the movie: Sometimes nothing is a real cool hand!

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

Tenori-onanism

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The ways of poetry and music are not changed anywhere without change in the most important laws of the city.
- Plato, The Republic (4.424c)

DURING THE INITIAL ASSAULT of the rock revolution of the 1960s, founder/leader Roger McGuinn of The Byrds told the author of the liner notes for the group’s first album that the sound of music was as critical as its style or lyrical content. That sound, he said, was an expression of the technology of the time. The brass-and-reeds of the Big Band era were the sound of music in an age of propeller-driven aircraft. The long-haired 60s was the age of both space travel and widespread commercial travel on jet aircraft, and that was manifested in the musical thunder of the beat groups.

The process in which the sound of music changes in tandem with the technological environment is a never-ending evolution. Since McGuinn’s day in the sun the sound of music has changed with the development and use of synthesizers, samplers, and personal computers. Music in 1985, twenty years after McGuinn brought forth electric folk rock in 1965, was as different from the sound of The Byrds as theirs differed from the sounds of Count Basie. That year was roughly the high point for popular music created using the early synthesizers and the Fairlight, the first commercial digital sampling instrument that digitized sounds from an external source instead of mathematical wave data. The Fairlight made it possible to record a dog barking, for example, and use that sound to create a melody. Among the musicial pioneers of that era were the Japanese group YMO and its individual members, as well as such fellow travelers as Tachibana Hajime and Suzuki Saeko.

But the Fairlight was very expensive, and it had six keyboards. Using one required both access to a studio that could afford it as well as traditional keyboard skills. One constant of technology, however, is its relentless thrust to make tools smaller, cheaper, more efficient, and more powerful, and musical instruments are no exception. Creations called “music workstations” arrived in the late 80s with the Korg M1 and its subsequent improvements that made the Fairlight obsolete. Nevertheless, these were still keyboard instruments geared toward studio musicians and composers. An offshoot of the music workstations was the groovebox, which is portable and produced for the musician performing live, usually for dancers. Some of these don’t have keyboards at all, and create sounds in way unlike any traditional musical instruments.

Not until recently had there been a musical instrument for the digital age that is relatively affordable, easy for non-musicians to use, portable, and equally capable of handling everything from Mary Had a Little Lamb and Neko Funjatta to Bach and futuristic electronica.

Then, in 2005, twenty years after the age of the synthesizer and Fairlight, Iwai Toshi invented the Tenori-on with the assistance of Nishibori Yu of the Yamaha Center for Advanced Sound Technology. Tenori is not a commonly used word in Japanese, but it is easily understood. It most frequently appears in the name of a type of Javanese sparrow that will perch on the hand of its master. On means sound, and is the root of the word for music. The tenori-on neither looks nor functions like anything remotely resembling what most of us would conceive as a musical instrument, but that’s exactly what it is.

And here’s the part that takes the instrument into a new dimension entirely: It also creates moving light patterns simultaneously in synch with the music.

Iwai is the designer of Electroplankton, an interactive music game for the Nintendo DS, and that influence is apparent in his creation. The tenori-on itself is a hand-held magnesium screen containing a 16 x 16 grid of LED switches. Performers activate these in several ways to create a combination of music and light. It has two sides that look identical. One is played by the performer, while the other provides the light show.

There are two built-in speakers on the top of frame, and five control buttons on the left and right that control such functions as changing octaves, adjusting the playback pitch in semitone increments, switching among the instrument’s “layers”, and modifying the beats per second. There are also two more buttons at the bottom and one at the top. The instrument has a MIDI connector, headphones, and memory card. It can be connected to play in concert with other tenori-on, or to send and receive music between them.

As the Yamaha manual describes it:

The TENORI-ON 16 x 16 LED button matrix is simultaneously a performance input controller and display. By operating and interacting with the LED buttons and the light they produce you gain access to the TENORI-ON’s numerous performance capabilities.

It doesn’t generate its own sound, which makes it something of a combination of a synthesizer and sequencer. It comes with 256 built-in sounds, but those can be augmented with a memory card. That means it can also sound like a harpsichord–or a barking dog, if that’s to your taste.

Iwai took the original on the road for demonstrations in front of an audience. One of these was at Futuresonic in Manchester, England, and the positive response helped convince the company to sell it commercially. He explains his objective:

In days gone by, a musical instrument had to have a beauty of shape as well as of sound, and had to fit the player almost organically…Modern electronic instruments don’t have this inevitable relationship between the shape, the sound, and the player. What I have done is to try to bring back these…elements and build them in to a true musical instrument for the digital age.

The best way to understand is to watch and hear one in performance, so here’s a YouTube video of an original composition, Dreaming, by Gianni Proietti. What you’ll see is an instrument that is nothing less than the equivalent of a hand-held orchestra or band.

The tenori-on has six performing modes that can be used together in any combination.

One is the Score Mode, with score in this sense being like a musical score. Players input notes by pressing one of the hot spots. Pressing for a longer time creates sustain, and pressing a playing note turns it off.

The tenori-on grid is perceived as a matrix. The horizontal axis is for time, and the vertical axis is for pitch. Intervals or chords are created by inputting notes simultaneously on the same vertical line. The time axis moves from left to right, and when the right edge is reached, it loops back to the left. This is similar to the sequencer function of musical workstations.

Another is the Random Mode, which is the combination of Score Mode and an arpeggiator. Instead of scrolling the sequence from left to right, the player activates notes at different points on the grid. A light travels between the dots to create sound.

There’s also the Bounce Mode. Players input notes that are repeated at different intervals depending on how high on a vertical scale a note is placed. That creates the effect of a visual bouncing ball, and the note plays when the ball hits the bottom.

Performers don’t even have to press the surface in the Draw Mode—they can just pass their hands over the instrument in a pattern to draw lines or curves, and the tenori-on will play them. It will also repeat the sounds, so compositions can be created in real-time by building up the number of passes and patterns to interact with each other. That sounds as if the player could easily create counterpoint. Speaking of which, here’s a Bach composition performed on a table top in broad daylight.

The instrument has an Interior Mode that enables it to be used as a musical alarm clock. It can be programmed as a clock—with the numerals shown on the screen—that can play a specified piece of music at a specified time. Now how many other instruments are capable of functioning as an ornament in the home and a timepiece when not being otherwise used?

Here’s another feature that wouldn’t have occurred to Bach but did to a man accustomed to video games: The Advance Mode. That allows players to customize the modes. Holding two of the function keys unlocks this mode and different, previously unexplained features in the Layer menu are presented. There are also rumors of other hidden features.

The instrument’s 16 layers, by the way, are another aspect of the instrument that Yamaha describes as “performance parts” or “recording tracks.” Performers can input different musical sequences to each layer using all of the six modes, and the layers can be played together.

It sounds complicated, but people who have tried the tenori-on say that it’s easy to pick up and do simple things with right away, even for people who know nothing about music.

Says Yamaha spokesman Peter Peck:

I can create sequences that I’d never be able to with software. I don’t need to know anything about music, I’m just pressing lights and buttons. Anyone can walk up to it and make something happen, and be inspired. With a guitar you don’t get that instant reward. But after that initial bit of inspiration, there’s also a huge curve of musical development to learn on the tenori-on if you really want to get the most out of it.

For a demonstration of that aspect, here’s a YouTube clip from the Paul O’Grady television show in Britain in 2008. Three young women calling themselves the Tenorions (or three young and attractive models that Yamaha hired for PR and trained) perform a dance number and then proceed to teach the host and the guests how to play Hello Dolly.

If you’re interested in learning more, here’s the introductory manual at the Yamaha website (pdf). And here’s a YouTube video with the inventor Mr. Iwai giving a demonstration in English (though the mike doesn’t work well for the first minute).

Yamaha decided to debut the instrument in England, and did so on 4 September 2007. They didn’t give a reason for choosing that country, but perhaps it’s because the British pop music market seems to be more open than those in the U.S. or Japan to self-contained groups of one or two people performing their own compositions with electronically generated music. It sold for £599, which was $US 1,200 at that time, or a skoche more than JPY 81,000. That price might not be suitable for a gift to children on their birthday, but it’s reasonable enough to make it affordable for even the interested teenager.

Whether or not the tenori-on itself will become popular isn’t so much the point. Rather, it’s a new approach to the idea of what a musical instrument is. It aggregates technological developments into a complete and portable package that could well change how people think about creating and performing music—and visual art, for that matter. Surely Yamaha and others are working on improvements to enhance and expand its musical and visual potential.

How long will it be before some talented people start composing music to create specific visual designs for presentation in an integrated performance art event, for example? It’s not possible to even conceive of the “advanced modes” the tenori-on could unlock for art in the future.

I bet Bach would have loved it!

Thanks to PB for most of the links and the title idea.

Posted in Arts, Music, New products | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Matsuri da! (110): Here, catch!

Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 22, 2010

SOME SHINTO FESTIVALS in Japan can have a surprisingly competitive aspect that makes it seem as if the participants are squaring off in a rough-and-tumble sporting event, either between individuals or between teams. The winners are thought to have been blessed with the spirit of the divinity, but in this case winning requires more pugnaciousness than prayer.

Some festivals can also have a strong sexual aspect, which involves phallic or yonic symbols and simulated sex.

Maku zo!

But the Osaijin-sai held at the Hirashio Kumano shrine in Sagae, Yamagata, on 28 February is the only one I know of that combines both of those elements in one observance, and has a third for good measure–Shinto priests tossing out goodies for the crowd, as happens at the Setsubun festivals of 2 February.

There’s no mystery about what the deal is right from the start. Parishioners from the neighborhood and representatives from the shrine get together to carve phallic representations out of pine. The objects are from 20 to 40 centimeters long (about eight to 16 inches), and they make 18 of them. These are called dankon-sama, with dankon literally meaning “male root”.

The priests conduct a Shinto rite at the shrine, during which the dankon-sama become infused with the divine spirit and are transformed into saijin-sama. Dressed in white robes, the priests and some parishioners take the objects at night to a mound about 500 meters to the east, known as Osaijin. They conduct a ritual of offering at the site, which represents the female.

Then one of the priests stands on top of the mound in front of the crowd and shouts, Maku zo! Maku means to sow or scatter seeds by hand, and yes, the idea of sowing wild oats occurred to me, too. He then tosses each of the objects into the crowd one by one. This is supposed to bring benefits to the people who come away with them, such as healthy children. (That’s not surprising considering what’s gone before.) What sets this ceremony apart is that no one just stands around letting other people catch one—a struggle ensues to gain possession of every one. Ask and ye shall receive isn’t part of the script here. Men have been known to fight over women before, but this is the first time I’ve seen them tussle over a phallic symbol.

The Hirashio Kumano shrine has been around for a quite a while now, as it was established in 721. This page is in Japanese, but it has five photographs of the site that are worth a look. The festival itself is a bit more modern, however–it dates back only about 700 years. If anyone knows how it started, they haven’t posted anything about it on the net.

Seeing is believing, they say, and you can see all the goings-on for yourself in this video that covers the high points in just over a minute. There’s some Japanese script, but if you’ve read this far, you already know what it says!

Posted in Festivals | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

A yen for science

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, March 20, 2010

THE ISSUE of government funding of science is one that often finds those in the big government – small government debate on unaccustomed sides of the fence. When the new left-leaning Japanese government conducted its ballyhooed policy review last fall, it chopped science and technology programs to fund social welfare programs instead. In contrast, some of those who lean libertarian are willing to allow government to fund that research because it can be too expensive for the private sector and require too much time before financial benefits accrue.

Mathematician, author, and Ochanomizu Professor Emeritus Fujiwara Masahiko watched the policy review and objected to the premise of a question asked by one of the government’s representatives. He wrote about it in his column in the 17 December issue of the weekly Shukan Shincho. Here’s part of it in English.

*****
The political show known as the policy review is now concluded. It seems to have been well-received by the public. Perhaps it was diverting to watch the bureaucrats sit in a row and be chopped down to size while parts of the budget were being cut out and discarded.

I was surprised that, during the proceedings, one of the Democratic Party of Japan Diet members questioned—or rather grilled—one of the bureaucrats about the supercomputer program: “Why do we have to aim for number one? Is being number two all that bad?”

Fujiwara Masahiko

Someone with that attitude isn’t qualified to talk about scientific research. There are no scientists in the world who do not strive to be the world’s first in what they do. The very definition of “discovery” means “the first time in the world…” If a scientist is a day late in making the same discovery, his scientific paper will be tossed in the wastebasket as “number two”.

I myself was dumbstruck when I was finally able to prove a theorem after a year’s work, only to find out it had already been proven. It was the same as if I had spent that year doing nothing. Coming in second is the same as coming in last.

It’s the same with technology. Everyone strives to be the world’s first, and then finally achieves the upper rank. If you start with the idea that you’re aiming to be number two, you’re unlikely to make it to 10th. It’s difficult to restore large development projects, such as the rocket that was eliminated entirely, once they’ve been stopped, and doing so requires a considerable amount of time. Japan was prohibited from having an aviation industry for a while after the war, and our aircraft still haven’t caught up to those at the highest level in the world. A rocket has more than just scientific value; we shouldn’t forget that it is also important from the standpoint of security.

The representatives of the various ministries had never been subjected to such vulgarity as that fusillade of aggressive questioning, likely conducted with an eye to the television cameras. It’s a shame they had to ensure such one-sided pressure. What’s more, this review was conducted by people whose focus was limited to cost effectiveness and amakudari (post-retirement government jobs for bureaucrats), so the results were a foregone conclusion.

Considering cost effectiveness in the conduct of scientific research is pointless. There won’t be any cost effectiveness into research into subatomic particles and astrophysics, for example, for the next hundred years…
(end translation)

*****
On the other hand, as we learned last year from the Climategate scandal, scientists are just as ready to prostitute themselves for government largesse as any other segment of society. It’s as important to ferret out and eliminate pointless science projects as it would be for any other government expenditure.

Here’s a brief comment from an unidentified bureaucrat in the Finance Ministry during a roundtable discussion conducted by journalist Yokota Yumiko for the January issue of Will magazine. (Ms. Yokota has developed connections with the Japanese bureaucracy and is often called upon to conduct discussions of this type for weekly and monthly magazines.)

The Chief Cabinet Secretary in the previous administration was Kawamura Takeo. He was influential within the government, and he was also a “rocket zoku”, which meant those programs were nearly untouchable. During the policy review, the GX Rocket project was cancelled….

The zoku is short for zokugi-in, a Diet legislator who has ties with specific ministries and speaks for their interests in government. They might be thought of as legislator-lobbyists for the bureaucracy, rather than for private sector industries.

Mr. Kawamura also served as the Minister of Education, but that picture comes into clearer focus when the department’s full name is cited: The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

*****
Two additional factors further complicate matters. The first is that the unidentified bureaucrat is from the Finance Ministry, which is notorious for its meddling in Japanese politics. The policy review was supposed to be an exercise in politicians taking control of policy making and funding from the bureaucrats, but it was widely criticized for being controlled by the Finance Ministry itself. Was his observation legitimate, or was it just another volley in a turf war?

The second is that the person who asked the question about settling for number two at the policy review was Ren Ho. Her political experience is limited to less than a single term in the upper house, and she is not particularly known for any expertise about science.

She was chosen to help conduct the policy review because she was a television host before becoming a politician, and a model before that.

How to make a decision when policy issues of this type are ripe for hijacking by the scientists, the bureaucracy, and the politicians? Not during a televised 30-minute Q&A in a Tokyo gym, that’s for sure.

Afterwords:

Prof. Fujiwara is the author of The Dignity of a State, which was a best-seller in 2006 and is still given a prominent place in bookstore displays today. His major academic work is on Diophantine equations.

Here’s some additional information on the GX Rocket project.

Posted in Government, Science and technology | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Indigestion

Posted by ampontan on Friday, March 19, 2010

The problem with socialism is always not enough socialism. More control by elites will fix everything!
- Glenn Reynolds

ONE ENGLISH-LANGUAGE publication in Japan is offering journalism in a new form. Instead of the classic inverted pyramid, it is presenting a sandwich in the hope that readers will focus on the supersized bread and not the microscopic slice of meat.

The first slice of bread

Waseda Professor Noguchi Yukio is concerned about the poor state of Japan’s fiscal health:

There is little hope…Japan’s fiscal conditions are so bad, it can no longer be fixed without causing inflation. I’m very pessimistic.

He brings up the possibility of hyperinflation, similar to that which occurred in the immediate postwar period.

I can’t tell exactly what will happen (this time), but what actually happened after the war was that the price level surged 60 times in just over four years. If the same thing happens again, a ¥10 million bank account will have the same net value of just ¥100,000 today. It’s actually possible.

Prof. Noguchi is described as one of the few in Japan who foresaw the collapse of the economic bubble in the late 1980s.

The sandwich content

The publication then presents excerpts from an 8 February editorial in the Financial Times titled, Japan’s Debt Woes Are Overstated.

Talk of a massive JGB bubble — let alone default — is far-fetched… Ninety-five percent of Japan’s debt is domestically owned. Fickle foreigners have almost no sway. Indeed, Japan’s problem is still an excess of savings…For some time yet, the government will not find it hard to secure buyers for JGBs. Japan’s debt problem will be worked out in the family.

The inclusion of this brief excerpt is what’s known in the journalism biz as “balanced reporting”.

The condiments

But “not to worry” isn’t the point of this exercise, so some condiments will have to be added lest the reader be reassured.

“Most experts”, it is said, claim that Japan’s midterm outlook is “shaky”. One cited is the International Money Fund.

A closer examination shows, however, that the IMF report says that if present trends continue, the country will have to start looking outside its borders for bond purchasers. In 10 years.

The results indicate that domestic financing will likely become more difficult toward 2020, while other sources of fundings are available, including from overseas.

The second slice of bread

Now that they’ve got their readers alarmed, they serve the part they really want them to swallow. The publication quotes another professor, this time Sakuragawa Mayasa of Keio University. He conducted a “simulation” on the nation’s debt.

He thinks Japan will be insolvent in about 10 years unless it raises the consumption tax to 15%. And what does he think will happen then?

The possibility is high that panic like a run on banks would break out. People would try to withdraw their money, but banks would go insolvent because they wouldn’t have enough assets anymore.

Fortunately, however, there’s some cause for hope:

So the scenario that I hope will happen is that Japan will face a minor crisis first, and the people will finally realize that a government bankruptcy will have a catastrophic impact on them…Basically, Japanese people are good (at grasping situations). So they will eventually be willing to accept a rise in the tax.

Yes, the Japanese people are so intelligent they will come to realize that tripling the rate of confiscatory taxation will be both tasty and economically nutritious.

The professor even thinks his simulation is “not realistic” because it assumes “the social security budget won’t drastically expand, interest rates will remain low, and the economy will keep growing at an annual pace of 1.5 percent.”

What are some of the linguistic spices sprinkled on this dish? Take a look, and try not to gag:

* “GOVERNMENT DEBT CRISIS”

* “Bubble prophet fears new disaster”

* “soaring public debt may bankrupt Japan, bring back hyperinflation”

* “the doomsday prophet is making another terrifying prediction”

* “Japan is likely to be devastated by a snowballing public debt that will bankrupt its government and trigger catastrophic hyperinflation.”

There is another way out for people who find this sandwich unappetizing, however. Send it back to the kitchen, leave the restaurant, and never return.

Of course there’s a solution that doesn’t involve raising taxes–It’s not spending money you don’t have to begin with.

Is there any mention in this piece anywhere of downsizing government? Not launching expensive redistributionist programs like the child allowance? Eliminating not just programs, but entire agencies and cabinet ministries? Not renationalizing Japan Post? Slashing the corporate tax? Revising the bankruptcy laws?

Putting any of these possibilities into the professor’s “simulation” and seeing what effect that would have?

Hah!

Is there any mention at all that the DPJ-led government has grabbed the steering wheel and turned the car into the direction of the brick wall?

Of course not. The only criticism of anyone in government is that directed at Koizumi Jun’ichiro for not raising the consumption tax sooner–despite leading the only government that even tried to get a handle on public expenditures.

The publication even tries to pretend that Finance Minister Kan Naoto knows what he’s talking about.

What is the only greasy-spoon, English-language publication in Japan that would try to feed you this slop and call it a meal?

Three guesses and the first two don’t count.

Those with a more discriminating palate might consider trying some of the cuisine from Chef Hayek–for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Mass media | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

The three noes

Posted by ampontan on Friday, March 19, 2010

WHEN THE Democratic Party of Japan was in the opposition, their critics often charged they couldn’t be entrusted with the reins of power because their members were irresponsible kvetchers capable only of fomenting political crises. Observing their behavior when they became the largest party in the upper house following the 2007 election, Ibuki Bunmei of the Liberal Democratic Party famously commented that they behaved like a bunch of grade-school boys with a loaded pistol.

After the DPJ formed a government, they devoted considerable energy to search for any secret agreements with the United States that permitted American military forces to pass through Japanese territory carrying nuclear weapons without prior consultation. That would have violated Japan’s so-called three nonnuclear principles of not producing, not possessing, and not allowing nuclear weapons on its territory.

Japanese governments successively denied the existence of any such agreements, most recently under the last LDP government of Aso Taro. The DPJ kept looking, however, because they—and everyone else—assumed the governments were lying. It’s somewhat analogous to the case of Israel and nuclear weapons. That country wisely chooses to neither confirm nor deny that it has them, but most people take it for granted that they do.

The DPJ is now pleased as punch they discovered a secret agreement did exist from 1960 to 1991, when the U.S. Navy stopped deploying nuclear weapons on its ships.

One of their senior members, Japan Teachers’ Union veteran Koshi’ishi Azuma, has been especially generous in his self-congratulation. He crowed that the discovery was “one of the successes of the change of government.” There is some irony to his pride; Mr. Koshi’ishi was opposed last year to inspecting North Korean vessels suspected of transporting missile parts or nuclear materials. He said the Aso government should be inspected instead.

In other words, it’s terrible when Washington does it, particularly to protect Tokyo, but it’s no big deal if Pyeongyang does it to help obliterate Tel Aviv.

Leave it to Eda Kenji of Your Party to put the DPJ attitude in perspective:

The exposure of the secret treaty between Japan and the United States is not insignificant. History will bear this out as a positive achievement.

But I do wish people would wipe off those smug expressions as if they were conquering heroes for opening the lid to Pandora’s Box, even though they are incapable of basic diplomacy, or a forward-looking diplomacy with a broader strategy, while piling blunder on top of blunder with the Futenma Base issue. Courage is certainly needed, but if one has courage, opening the lid is an easy matter.

There have been similar instances in the past, such as the exposure of the files in which was hidden information about the AIDS cases caused by contaminated blood products, or the den of corruption involving the secret entertainment expenses of the bureaucracy. That in itself is needed, but politicians such as these are incapable of the more complicated and difficult task of “creating”.

But soft! What flicker of intelligence through yonder window breaks? It is Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya, offering his opinion this week at a session of the lower house Foreign Affairs Committee.

During the session, Mr. Okada reaffirmed that the Hatoyama administration was committed to the three non-nuclear principles, but said:

In those instances in which a situation arises that Japan’s safety cannot be defended unless we temporarily allow ships with nuclear weapons into our ports, the government at that time should resolve to risk its own fate, and explain to the people (how best to protect the country).

In other words, a Japanese government could allow a temporary exception in case of emergency.

He added that the government is not thinking of writing the non-nuclear principles into law as demanded by—natch—the Social Democratic Party of Japan, one of their junior coalition partners.

One problem is how to guarantee that Russian and Chinese ships carrying nuclear weapons do not cross Japanese territorial waters. Unless problems such as these are clearly settled, it will not be possible to make that legally binding.

Bully for Mr. Okada. There is sentient life in this government after all.

But that seems to have been too much for some people. Apparently the DPJ has a three-no policy of its own: Do not say, do, or allow anyone else to say or do anything sensible or of practical utility.

At a news briefing that afternoon, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirano Hirofumi was none too pleased with the foreign minister:

The government is not in a position to allow that. Prime Minister Hatoyama has said we will maintain the three non-nuclear principles…I don’t think (Mr. Okada was saying) that we would allow that…but I don’t know what sort of emergency he’s talking about. The government must refrain from making references about hypothetical cases.

The function of the Chief Cabinet Secretary in Japan is to serve as a coordinator among the members of the Cabinet and the ruling party or parties.

It would be understandable if one of the junior coalition members had said something out of line, particularly as the two in the tow of the DPJ seem to relish making life difficult for the government. But Mr. Okada and Mr. Hirano are senior members of the same party, and they should have reached a consensus on an issue this critical long before they came to power. It doesn’t seem as if Mr. Hirano is doing much in the way of coordinating.

It’s been six months since the DPJ formed a government. Considering that its approval ratings have fallen from 72% then to 32% now, it would seem the electorate no longer expects the DPJ to act like one.

Posted in Government, International relations, Military affairs, Politics | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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