AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Archive for January, 2011

Absurd

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 31, 2011

“There is no time to wait for the wobbly and unsteady Democratic Party to acquire the ability to be responsible for government through on-the-job training and for a two-party system to mature…At this rate, there will never be any reason whatsoever for entrusting the government to the Democratic Party.”
– Yosano Kaoru
, Minshuto ga Nihon Keizai wo Hakai Suru (The Democratic Party Will Destroy the Japanese Economy), published in 2010

The treasury says the national debt
Is climbing to the sky
And government expenditures
Have never been so high
It makes a fellow get a
Gleam of pride within his eye
To see how our economy expands
The country’s in the very best of hands
– Johnny Mercer, “The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands”

THE WORD politicians themselves are using to describe the government of Prime Minister Kan Naoto is “absurd”. Nishioka Takeo, the president of the Diet’s upper house, called on Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito to resign earlier this month. After taking one look at the lineup of the new Cabinet in which Mr. Sengoku was replaced, Mr. Nishioka called it “absurd”.

The presidents of both houses of the Diet traditionally resign their party memberships before assuming office. Mr. Nishioka was a member of the Democratic Party of Japan—Mr. Kan’s ruling party.

Another reshuffled Cabinet card was Kaieda Banri, who moved from the Ministry of Economic and Fiscal Policy to the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. His former slot in the deck is now occupied by Yosano Kaoru, who resigned from the opposition Sunrise Party to take the position. Quitting parties is getting to be a habit for Mr. Yosano. Before last year’s upper house election, he resigned from the Liberal-Democratic Party to form the Sunrise Party. Mr. Yosano owes his Diet seat to the LDP because they placed him on their proportional representation list. He lost his bid for reelection to the seat in Tokyo’s District #1 in 2009. The winner was Kaieda Banri.

That’s the same Yosano Kaoru quoted at the top of this post.

When reporters asked Mr. Kaieda about this thoughts on the new Cabinet lineup, he answered, “Life is absurd.”

There was little enthusiasm for the changes even in the ruling party. Said a DPJ member of the Saitama prefectural assembly after the new ministers were announced: “Even today I was asked at the train station, ‘Just what is the DPJ doing?’”

Kamei Shizuka of the People’s New Party—yes, they’re still in the ruling coalition—addressed a DPJ party conference on the day before the Cabinet changes were announced, and put it in their faces:

“The DPJ is now a disgrace. I am sincerely anxious for you to rouse yourselves.”

One of Mr. Kan’s three themes for his administration is “ending the absurdities”, which tells you all you need to know about his political tin ear. He’s given no sign of either stepping down or calling an election any time soon, however.

*****
Mr. Kan’s Cabinet reshuffle may be absurd, but it was that or vacate the premises. One of the several reasons the upper house censured Mr. Sengoku was his attitude and intemperate language during Question Time in the Diet. (That’s why Mr. Nishioka wanted to see him gone.) Watanabe Yoshimi of Your Party described it as “impertinence, intimidation, and evasion,” to which he later added “bluster and prevarication”.

How can the nation be in the very best of hands when they've got them on their hips? (Sankei Shimbun photo)

The upper house also censured the generally well-liked Land, Infrastructure, and Transport Minister Mabuchi Sumio because his ministry is responsible for the Coast Guard, and he had to take the fall for the YouTube release of the Coast Guard video of the Chinese banditry in the Senkaku islets. While the censures are not legally binding, the opposition refused to discuss legislation with the ruling party with those two men still in the Cabinet, and the opposition has more seats in the upper house.

Another reason for the realignment was that the prime minister is desperate to juice his flagging popularity among the electorate. (He is said to be particularly unpopular among women.) An indication of his standing with the public was the ratings for his live appearance on the television program Hodo Station (News Station) on 5 January. The program usually pulls in an audience of 13% to 14%, and averaged 14.7% for the four weeks prior to his appearance. Those ratings often rise slightly when a sitting prime minister shows up. Then-Prime Minister Abe Shinzo picked up a 16.7% share.

Mr. Kan could manage only 6.9%.

But it’s not his fault! Said the PM at the DPJ party conference earlier this month:

“What we have done so far was not wrong. We have carrried out our job with resolution, but the problem is that we’ve failed to fully convey what we’ve done.”

If you think that sounds as if he’s channeling Barack Obama, here’s more: To remedy the situation, he’s considering a televised address to the nation, after the style of American presidents.

It had better be a good speech. The latest Shinhodo 2001 poll has his rate of support at 28.8%, with 67.0%–a cool two-thirds—opposed. Just a skoche under half of the respondents want a lower house election now, at 49.6%, while 41.8% were content to let it ride.

Here’s why the DPJ falls into the second camp. The 16 January edition of the weekly Sunday Mainichi features a simulation by two university professors of a lower house election. The magazine admits it’s a speculative endeavor because candidates for several constituencies have yet to be decided by some parties. That caveat notwithstanding, they project the DPJ to lose 124 seats from their current total of 306 to fall to 182. They think some of the DPJ party stalwarts could be at risk, including Hatoyama Yukio and Sengoku Yoshito, and that most of the Ozawa-backed candidates who won for the first time in 2009 should think about other employment. The LDP would regain its position as the party with the most seats at 212, a pickup of 96, but that’s still short of the 241 needed for a majority. The magazine suggests they would have to create a coalition with both New Komeito and Your Party (+25) to form a government.

Former Yokohama Mayor Nakada Hiroshi observed that Cabinet reshuffles to boost electile dysfunction are a perverse part of Japanese political culture. He’s also concerned that the use of the censure weapon in an upper house controlled by an opposition party could get out of hand and turn the Diet into a political battleground. Mr. Nakata has a point, but in this case the DPJ were hoist by their own petard. They were the ones who created the weapon after their 2007 upper house election victory.

Now the DPJ wants to introduce Diet rules that would prevent upper house censure motions from causing Cabinet members to lose their position. Fancy that.

The new lineup

A common observation is that the DPJ, which proclaimed itself the standard bearer for new politics, has become a throwback to the bad old days of the LDP with a leftward tilt. Five of the 17 Cabinet ministers are affiliated with Rengo, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation.

One criticism of the old LDP was its faction politics. During its heyday, five major factions functioned as parties within the party. The DPJ criticized that approach, but in 2008, Keio Professor Kusano Atsushi argued in Seiken Kotai no Hosoku (The Law of the Change of Government) that the formation of factions was inevitable in the DPJ.

The new Cabinet suggests he was prescient. Six “groups” in the DPJ have two members each. Former Prime Minister Hatoyama’s group has only one. No one affiliated with former party President and Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro was appointed. All the members have won at least five terms in the lower house, similar to an older informal rule of thumb used by the LDP.

The absence of Ozawa allies suggests there might be something to the rumors that Mr. Kan and Mr. Sengoku are ready to purge him. The Asahi Shimbun gossips that they’ll dump him if a citizen review panel forces his indictment. UPDATE: Mr. Ozawa was indicted. (The appointment of only one Hatoyama affiliate—the man who launched and bankrolled the party, and its first prime minister—might also be a sign they’re ready to have Mr. Hatoyama leave along with him.)

The game

They say you can’t tell the players without a scorecard, but in this case, a scorecard won’t make much sense without knowing the game they’re playing.

People often cite the system of 1955, when two conservative parties merged to create the LDP and dominated politics for the rest of the century, as Japan’s primary political problem. Others, however, such as Watanabe Yoshimi of Your Party and Nakagawa Hidenao of the LDP, point to the statist system implemented in 1940 as explicated by Prof. Noguchi Yukio. That system instituted a total mobilization for the war effort and concentrated power in the central government under bureaucratic control. In that system, it makes no difference who the prime minister is. (Prof. Noguchi also thinks that the consumption tax would have to be raised to at least 20%–European VAT levels—to pay for social welfare programs.)

The Kan worldview

On 25 December last year, Kan Naoto met at the Kantei for three hours with a group of long-time friends who included Shinohara Hajime, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, and Kataoka Masaru of the old Shakai Shimin Rengo (Socialist Citizens Federation). It is thought they gave the prime minister a pep talk, urging him to stay the course to achieve a citizen revolution. They might have suggested Mr. Kan remember his lifelong political motto of “Deal with one problem and then move forward on all fronts.”

We already know the prime minister is a devotee of the ideas of Matsushita Keiichi, who looks forward to the dissolution of the nation-state and its replacement by supranational institutions above and local institutions below. Another aspect of the Kan philosophy is found in Prof. Shinohara’s book Shimin no Seijigaku (The Citizens’ Political Science), which holds that modern legislative democracy is unresponsive. Instead, Prof. Shinohara thinks policy should be determined by a random and compulsory (yes, compulsory) sampling of public opinion, followed by a time-limited debate in so-called “planning cells”. This would include even central government policies for science and technology.

That vision was shared to a certain extent by Hatoyama Yukio, who in his first Diet speech in October 2009 called for the creation of new values in a society that would enable greater participation by regional NPOs and citizens in issues involving public services. The DPJ favors greater support of NPOs with public funds.

Americans are familiar with the potential abuses of taxpayer-funded support of NPOs, as exemplified by the activities of the nefarious ACORN in the United States, which was forced to disband. Other Japanese point out that the Shinohara model resembles the Russian system of soviets (soviet being the word for “council”), originally worker and soldier councils thought to be a grassroots effort to promote direct democracy.

During the DPJ Party Conference held earlier this month, the delegates expressed the opinion that they had to return to their roots and differentiate themselves from “neo-liberals”.

Player transactions

Sengoku Yoshito traded for Edano Yukio

The widespread assumption that Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito was the real power in the government prompted Kan Naoto to grumble to associates that he, and not Mr. Sengoku, was the prime minister. It was also widely assumed Mr. Sengoku took on so much responsibility for the operation of government because Mr. Kan was a constant threat to walk smack into the proverbial lamppost on the street.

As we’ve seen, however, the problem with this arrangement was that Mr. Sengoku’s behavior in office was so repellent people were fed up with him in just a few weeks.

He was traded straight up for Edano Yukio, the party’s acting secretary general, another former labor lawyer with ties to radicals. Mr. Sengoku will take Mr. Edano’s old job, and will also serve as the head of a party committee dealing with pension reform and whatever euphemism they’re using for raising taxes.

People thought Sengoku Yoshito was Kan Naoto’s puppeteer, and they think he operates the strings for Mr. Edano too. As far as it is possible to speculate about such matters, the most common view is that Mr. Sengoku is trying to take control of the party. He seems to be waiting for his chance to cut Ozawa Ichiro adrift, and the latest rumors have him trying to elbow aside the real party secretary-general, Okada Katsuya.

Here’s one DPJ MP on the selection of Mr. Edano as chief cabinet secretary:

“He was the secretary-general when we lost the upper house election last year. Should we forget his responsibility for that in just six months? I don’t understand it…none of the people have any expectations for this Cabinet.”

That was former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio, speaking of his own party while on a visit to India.

Okazaki Tomiko released outright

Okazaki Tomiko is another rodent who fled the sinking ship of the Socialist Party and scampered up the gangway to the Democratic Party vessel. She is opposed to Japan’s national flag and anthem. In July 2001, her political group illegally received funds from foreigners, including the director of the North Korean-affiliated schools in the country—a North Korean citizen–and a South Korean citizen who operates a pachinko parlor. The most controversial aspect of her career, however, was this:

That’s Ms. Okazaki participating in one of the weekly Wednesday comfort women demos at the Japanese embassy in Seoul in March 2005. She called for a Japanese embassy car to take her there.

They didn’t find some token make-work position for her in the Cabinet, either. She was named the chair of the National Public Safety Commission, which administers the National Police Agency. In other words, she was the head of the government agency in charge of maintaining public safety.

Politicians have the same right to free speech as anyone else, but they’re expected to exercise it with common sense and an awareness of their position. When a member of the Japanese Diet participates in a demonstration with Xs over the Japanese flag, it suggests an absence of common sense and self-awareness. Consider also what it suggests about Kan Naoto, who appointed her knowing about her background.

Ms. Okazaki’s immediate problem was that despite the ease with which she showed up for an anti-Japanese demonstration in Seoul, she couldn’t manage to drag herself to her office in Tokyo after North Korea shelled the South in November. Also, documents related to international terror investigations put together by the NPA somehow wound up on the Internet, and she made no effort to find a way to prevent the problem from recurring in the future.

She lasted just four and a half months in office.

Signed Yosano Kaoru to a free agent contract

Yosano Kaoru is the bad penny of Japanese Cabinet members. He’s now been a part of every Cabinet since Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s last one, with the exception of Hatoyama Yukio’s brief spell. He so often shows up when a Cabinet is on its deathbed that he became known as “the gravedigger” in the LDP.

He holds three portfolios in the Kan Cabinet: Minister for Economic and Fiscal Policy, Social Affairs and Gender Equality (which includes responsibility for the population decline), and Comprehensive Reform of Social Security and Taxes.

“Comprehensive reform of taxes” means promoting the Ministry of Finance position of raising taxes instead of cutting spending to fix the country’s budgetary problems. He’s long been known as the MOF bat boy. Your Party Secretary-General Eda Kenji was an aide to former Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro when Mr. Yosano was the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary. Mr. Eda says he pushed the Finance Ministry line within the government more than even some ministry employees. Hashimoto wanted to reform the ministry by dividing up their responsibility for fiscal and financial service oversight, but the ministry was opposed. Mr. Yosano argued their case most strenuously. (A new agency for overseeing the banking, securities exchange, and insurance industries was created in 2000 after Hashimoto left office.)

Says Mr. Eda: “His entry into the Cabinet is the decisive factor in making this a Finance Ministry government.” That means, he explains, a tax increase government directed behind the scenes by the Finance Ministry.

He wasn’t alone in that opinion. Fukushima Mizuho, head of the Social Democrats, said much the same thing using many of the same words.

Takahashi Yoichi, a former official in both the Koizumi and Abe administrations, provides additional evidence in Gendai Business Online. When Takenaka Heizo shifted positions from Mr. Koizumi’s Financial Services Minister to Internal Affairs Minister to push the privatization of Japan Post, Mr. Yosano took his place. He argued within the Cabinet for rolling back government policy investment reforms, another Finance Ministry position.

Mr. Takahashi says he often debated with Mr. Yosano when the latter backed ministry efforts to debone reforms:

“Yosano is said to be an expert on policy, but he offered no policy-based arguments against my explanations. He only mentioned the names of people responsible for specific policies in the Finance Ministry and said we should do as they say. His statements were rather unlike that of a minister in charge of financial services.”

Mr. Yosano has also claimed there is no hidden surplus of funds in the Finance Ministry, but that nothing has manifested into something every year at yearend since 2006, and that something now totals JPY 40 trillion in the aggregate.

Here’s the delicious part: This politician who advocates a sharp rise in taxes to pay for social welfare spending, has no plans to cut spending or modify social welfare programs to make them more inexpensive, and fights governmental reform is referred to as a “fiscal hawk” in the Western media.

Absurdity squared

Mr. Kan’s selection of Mr. Yosano in the Cabinet is just the sort of move a dullwit would think is clever. The prime minister may even have thought the selection of a former enemy would been seen as a coup. The Asahi said Mr. Kan believed it would be the key to breaking the political deadlock. Three strikes and you’re out.

The prime minister had remarkably kind words for his former foe:

“I recognize that he is a politician with whom we have a great deal in common when it comes to the issues of the soundness of national finances and social welfare.”

But when Yosano Kaoru left the Liberal Democratic Party to form the Sunrise Party with Hiranuma Takeo, a high school classmate more than half a century ago, he told Reuters:

“We are fighting against the DPJ outside of the LDP. We intend to act as a brake. None of us is thinking about becoming the ruling party.”

In an April 2010 interview with the Asahi Shimbun, he said:

“This slovenly DPJ government must not be allowed to continue.”

And:

“I have doubts about the DPJ policies overall, their political methods, and their use of the bureaucracy. It is unusual among the world’s democracies for a party to lack such clarity in the decision making process as the DPJ.”

During the same interview, he defined political leadership:

“Chart a general course and take responsibility for it. Take responsibility for your statements. That’s political leadership.”

Speaking to the Nikkei Shimbun about government pensions in 2005, he said:

“The DPJ follows the Swedish model. They’re trying to pull us toward a society in which the people are liable for 75%. It is clear they will rely on taxes, which will result in a large tax increase.”

In 2009, he called the DPJ party manifesto “almost fancy,” said it resembled “works of illusionist paintings”, and was “something like artificial bait for the election.” He also said the DPJ’s pet policy of child allowance payments “would not be fully achieved unless the consumption tax rate was raised to 25 percent or higher.”

He maintained that attitude through the 14th of this month, when he said at a press conference:

“The certainty of the effect of the (child allowance) policy was not fully explained when it was introduced…my spirit of criticism remains.”

He changed his mind in the intervening five days. On the 19th in an interview with Fuji TV, he said:

“I have little sense that it is unnatural”

Fujii Hirohisa named bench coach

The Hatoyama Cabinet’s first Finance Minister, Fujii Hirohisa (78) was brought back as the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary. He is the former head of the Finance Ministry’s Budget Bureau, and his appointment is an unmistakable signal to both the ministry and those hoping to reform Japanese government by curbing its influence.

He left the Hatoyama administration after little more than three months for “health reasons.” Those weren’t specified, but it might have been a sore back from being pushed out the door by former friend and ally Ozawa Ichiro. There were also rumors he had to carry a stash of liquor in his official vehicle to help him make it through the day. Perhaps Mr. Kan finds him a kindred spirit.

Other transactions

Sengoku Yoshito assumed the Justice Ministry portfolio when the former minister Chiba Keiko finally resigned after losing her upper house Diet seat last July. He was replaced by Eda Satsuki, who years ago started out in the same party as Kan Naoto: the Socialist Democratic Federation. He is known to be an opponent of the death penalty in a country whose electorate consistently polls from 60% to 70% in favor of capital punishment.

It was rumored that party poster girl Ren Ho was thinking of jumping the Kan Cabinet mudboat and running for governor of the Tokyo Metro District, but she chose to stay on board. Her puny 8.8% support rating among Tokyoites from among a hypothetical slate of candidates in a Shinhodo 2001 poll might have been one of the reasons.

Also staying put is Agriculture Minister Kano Michihiko. This is Mr. Kano’s second time in that post (the first was in 1989 during the GATT Uruguay round discussions). He is viewed as an ally of the Agriculture Ministry bureaucracy. As such, he is opposed to the prime minister’s proposal to join the TPP. Many thought he would be replaced for that reason, but now he most surely will join with ministry bureaucrats and the national agricultural co-ops to try to block entry into the TPP.

If you’ve gotten the idea by now that Kan Naoto has no idea what he’s doing, I’m not going to try to convince you otherwise.

Absurdity cubed

Political commentator Yayama Taro was a long-time LDP supporter who backed the DPJ in the 2009 election because he saw them as the only way at the time to push forward with reform of the bureaucracy and government. His views have changed again:

“Prime Minister Abe of the LDP was the one who began to attack this disease, and Watanabe Yoshimi took up the baton as Reform Minister. They were unable to separate the adhesion between the politicians and the bureaucrats that has lasted 60 years. The DPJ won a massive victory in the 2009 election using the slogan, “Disassociation from the bureaucracy”.

“The resolution of this problem required the establishment of a National Strategy Bureau, a governmental reform council, and putting fiscal policy under the direction of the politicians. While implementing reform, they would establish a cabinet personnel bureau to evaluate civil service personnel.

“It should have been the work of the Hatoyama administration to pass the required legislation, but Finance Minister Fujii Hirohisa said a National Strategy Bureau wasn’t necessary and an office would do. Deputy Prime Minister Kan headed the office. He later became Finance Minister and was completely brainwashed by the ministry. He has not been interested in disassociating from the bureaucracy since becoming prime minister.

“Yosano is the politician the Finance Ministry bureaucrats have relied on the most. Based on his ideas and what he’s said, some have even referred to him as a Finance Ministry plant. Now he’s the Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister and Fujii is the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary. There are no laws securing the political disassociation from the bureaucracy. These personnel choices are simply to enable tax and social welfare policies in accordance with Finance Ministry specifications. The specifications for both policies were proposed by Yosano during the Aso administration. If the DPJ thought those policies were acceptable, they should have been adopted a long time ago.”

One economic news website quoted a politician whom the identified only as a former member of an LDP government:

“I have no idea what that person (Kan) wants to do. Even when he talks about the Heisei Opening of Japan, it has no backbone, and I can only view it as playing with words. The Cabinet reshuffle was just a switch from Mr. Sengoku to the Sengoku henchman Mr. Edano. The entry of the “lost bird” Mr. Yosano in the Cabinet has brought criticism rather than acclaim. A key will be how they change their methods of conducting the Diet. During the extraordinary session last fall, they adopted the fewest amount of bills as a percentage of proposed legislation in history.”

Coalition partner Kamei Shizuka was asked at a news conference on the 19th what he thought about the Cabinet and the prime minster’s policies about taxes, social welfare, and TPP. He answered:

“To present policies that you cannot achieve is not politics.”

As we’ve seen, one of those policies he might not achieve is participation in TPP. A total of 110 DPJ MPs affiliated with Ozawa Ichiro has formed a group to oppose Japanese participation, even though Mr. Ozawa has said he supports a free trade agreement.

Does even Mr. Kan know what he’s going to do? He just got back from giving a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he said that Japan will make a decision on its participation in TPP by June.

Before they worry about opposition either from inside or outside the party, the Cabinet still has to get on the same page. Kan Naoto says the issues of pension reform and the consumption tax are separate, but Yosano Kaoru says they must be considered together. Mr. Yosano’s stance on social insurance differs from the tax-based approach of the DPJ manifesto. The DPJ still does not have a common policy for a system for health care for the late stage elderly, despite their opposition to the system that came into effect during the Fukuda administration.

At a news conference on the 24th, Fujii Hirohisa was asked about Mr. Yosano’s statement that the age of eligibility for pension payments should be raised to 70:

“That’s his personal opinion. That question hasn’t been raised in a formal discussion.”

Absurdity in the fourth dimension

Mr. Kan is a recent convert to tax increases, at least in public. Speaking as the Finance Minister in the Diet on 21 January 2010, he said:

“First, there is the debate over the consumption tax, but as both the prime minister (Hatoyama) and I have said repeatedly, the current coalition government will not raise the consumption tax for four years….I think the primary reason the tax hasn’t been raised is the lack of trust by the people. They believe if they allow a government spending so wastefully is allowed to increase taxes, they will use the money wastefully.”

He also gave an opinion on when the discussion of a tax increase should begin:

“When we have so completely eliminated government waste that we could stand on our heads and not get a nosebleed…If we were to raise taxes at the present stage, when waste has not been sufficiently eliminated, we’d just repeat the same mistakes.”

Since he made that statement, there has been no sale of government assets, no effort to uncover the special accounts and hidden reserves in the bureaucracy, no effort to reduce personnel expenditures (they’ve put it off until 2013 at the earliest), only the most half-hearted of efforts to reduce government programs, a record-high budget with a record-high deficit, and a new proposal for an even higher budget.

The scorecard

The Cabinet reshuffle had no effect on market trading. Said Segawa Tsuyoshi, an equity strategist at Mizuho Securities:

“That it has absolutely no impact on stock prices demonstrates the relationship between politics and the market.”

In other words, the markets expect nothing from this bunch.

Kamei Shizuka visited the office of the Chief Cabinet Secretary as the official representative of the DPJ’s coalition partner to ask for an explanation of the prime minister’s Diet speech. He was angered when he discovered that Mr. Edano was not there, and the deputy secretary Fukuyama Tetsuro agreed that he should have been. Said Mr. Kamei:

“Don’t hold it against us if we leave the coalition.”

Mr. Edano belatedly showed up to provide an explanation, but Mr. Kamei was not mollified:

“They are incapable of consideration for other parties in their coalition. Politically, they have no idea what to do.”

One Western commentator observed that the DPJ is finding out that governing is different than campaigning. The real problem, however, is that they still haven’t found out, and the people in charge likely never will.

They’re certainly unlikely to find out in time for the 1,402 sub-national elections scheduled for April. DPJ-backed candidates have had their clock cleaned in several local elections after the government’s mishandling of the Senkakus incident with China, and their prospects are growing dimmer.

Yet at a party conference earlier this month, here’s what the prime minister had to say about DPJ support for those elections.:

“I’ve been in political parties that had no money for a long time, but this is the first time I’ve been in a party that can use all these funds for its activities. Shouldn’t I generously use the money that’s required (to compete)?

“All these funds” refers in part to the subsidies each political party receives out of public funds. The amounts vary based on their Diet representation. Those are the views of the man the foreign media hailed as a “fiscal hawk” when he assumed office last June on his fiduciary responsibility for taxpayer funds.

******
If Mr. Kan thought he would be showered in glory for the brilliant maneuver of including an opponent in his Cabinet, he was mistaken. An Asahi poll found 50% of voters opposed to Mr. Yosano’s selection.

On the 19th Oshima Tadamori of the LDP, the new minister’s party two parties ago, said Mr. Yosano had signed a pledge during the previous election in which he promised to resign from the Diet if he acted against the LDP. He’s now part of the DPJ caucus, but still in the Diet.

Said his old high school running buddy and co-president of the Sunrise Party, Hiranuma Takeo:

“It’s too bad that he’s leaving…When we formed the party, Mr. Yosano said that if we entrusted the government to the DPJ, Japan would be finished, so we had to bring it down. I wonder what’s going to happen with that.”

When Mr. Yosano gave his first speech as a member of the Cabinet in the Diet last week, he was heckled by members from both the LDP in the opposition and the DPJ in government. Would you dislike someone more if he was an enemy, or if he was a traitor?

After the speech, LDP MP Koizumi Shinjiro said:

“This is like a marriage proposal without a wedding ring. They won’t make any headway without sincerity and trust.”

And DPJ MP (and former Foreign Minister) Tanaka Makiko said:

“I do not sense any enthusiasm.”

Left unprotected

Sengoku Yoshito saw as one of his primary duties the prevention or amelioration of the inevitable Kan Naoto blunders. His departure from the Cabinet thus presented the country with the unlovely prospect of Mr. Kan fending for himself. The prime minister’s only political skill is the bullying of opponents—a skill no doubt honed by all those years of arguing politics in drinking establishments. His sense of the appropriate is also different from that of most people. (That is not photoshopped, by the way.)

It’s only been two weeks, and already we’re going to have to shift to a second hand to get enough fingers to keep up with the blunder tally.

His temper has earned him the nickname Ira-Kan, which translates nicely to the Irascible Kan. At a recent news conference he was asked whether he would call an election to have the people revalidate the party’s promise to cut waste before boosting the consumption tax. He glared, turned away from the questioner, and gave no answer at all.

He was also asked what he thought about the general perception the new Cabinet is a group put together to raise taxes. He answered:

“It’s unfair to be judgmental and change the subject of discussion.”

When the opposition suggested it would not participate in DPJ-led discussions about social welfare reform, he got judgmental himself.

“If the opposition parties do not actively participate in discussions about social welfare reform, it is no exaggeration to say that will be an act of treason against history.”

See what I mean about his only political skill?

That’s when he lost New Komeito. The DPJ has been hoping to tempt the opposition party into the coalition and thereby solve its problems in the Diet, but his statement seems to have ended any chance of that. Said party head Yamaguchi Natsuo:

“That’s a rather presumptious choice of words, isn’t it? The prime minister has a responsibility. What does he think he’s doing, challenging the opposition like that?”

The prime minister most recently stepped in it when he was asked about rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgrade of Japanese government bonds, partly because they thought the DPJ didn’t have a coherent strategy for dealing with national debt. Mr. Kan, a former Finance Minister, replied using the word utoi, a word seldom used by prime ministers. The word has several meanings depending on the context. One is that he hadn’t heard the news, and another is that he doesn’t really understand the subject very well because it doesn’t have much to do with him.

He was immediately called on his word choice by the opposition, the media, and his wife (during an event in Kyoto). Mr. Kan explained that he meant he hadn’t been given any information about the news at the time, which is a) probably untrue, but if true means b) his Cabinet is inept at gathering and managing information. The news had already been out for an hour.

Everyone else suspected the other nuance, in part because of the financial illiteracy he demonstrated when Finance Minister. He made a statement in the Diet that revealed he had no idea what the multiplier effect was. He also admitted to giving up on Paul Samuelson’s standard textbook Economics after the first 10 pages.

Mr. Kan was forced to explain at a news conference that his latest blunder didn’t mean he didn’t know government bond ratings from hot pastrami. Yosano Kaoru defended him, however:

“That is not a problem about which the prime minister should make a statement. It was proper for him to use the word utoi.”

In other words, interpretation #2. One wonders whom Mr. Yosano thinks should deal with the problem—the Finance Ministry bureaucrats in Kasumigaseki?

But that was not Mr. Kan’s position in May 2002 when the rating of Japanese government bonds was downgraded during the Koizumi administration. He publicly slammed the prime minister and finance minister and sarcastically asked whether they knew of the ramifications of the change. The Japanese media quickly dug up this old quote and dubbed it the “boomerang effect”.

No excuses for this absurdity

And how have the members of the English-language news media who cover Japan reported the Cabinet reorganization story? They played mimeograph machine for the government’s (or the Finance Ministry’s) briefings by filing articles under their own bylines that almost unanimously described Yosano Kaoru as a “fiscal hawk” and claimed the new Kan Cabinet was committed to “tax and pension reform”. And they think the Japanese media practices convoy journalism?

Rick Wallace in The Australian even went so far as to say this about Mr. Yosano:

“Perhaps the closest thing to a deficit hawk in a country where governments routinely live beyond their means…”

If Wallace is interested in seeing what a Japanese deficit hawk looks like, he might try some of the books by Nakagawa Hidenao, Eda Kenji, or Watanabe Yoshimi. If reading written Japanese is not his forté, he can always try this. I’d also suggest he look at the deficit totals in the annual budgets for the past 10 years to see who’s supported living beyond the country’s means and who hasn’t, but all that research might give him vertigo.

Lisa Twaronite, meanwhile, seems committed to getting it wrong, despite reading this post, which she commented on. She had this to say:

“Yosano, known as a fiscal conservative, has called for raising Japan’s 5% consumption tax to help chip away at Japan’s mountain of public debt.”

…thus bringing an entirely new dimension to the term, “conservative”. At least she briefly mentioned the reason Sengoku Yoshito was censured, which was more than Rick Wallace could do.

In an admirable display of corporate loyalty, the BBC took its correspondent’s word for what was happening:

“Our correspondent says the changes also bring to the fore ministers who support reform to tackle Japan’s massive public debt and the trade liberalisation sought by business leaders.

“The appointment of a veteran fiscal hawk, Kaoru Yosano, as economic and fiscal policy minister is being taken as a signal that Mr Kan is serious about reining in the costs of Japan’s rapidly ageing society.”

In contrast, the People’s Daily of China wrote last 24 December:

“The Cabinet of Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan on Friday approved a draft budget which hit a record 92.40 trillion yen (1.11 trillion U.S. dollars) for fiscal year 2011.The figure is marginally higher than the initial budget for 2010, which stood at 92.30 trillion yen, as the government seeks to raise spending on key policies amid rising social welfare costs.The budget will include more than 44 trillion yen (530.11 billion U.S. dollars) from issuing new government bonds, a second straight year when bonds have exceeded tax revenue as a source of income. The swelling budget is believed to be contradictory to Kan’s pledge to cut spending to restore the nation’s fiscal health.”

When the People’s Daily reports on Japan are more accurate than those of the BBC, it’s time for some people to reevaluate their assumptions about contemporary journalism.

Assuming any of these people are not European-style social democrats and actually are interested in a functional definition of fiscal conservatism, they might consider this by columnist Robert Samuelson:

“If we ended deficits with tax increases, we would simply exchange one problem (high deficits) for another (high taxes). Either would weaken the economy, and sharply higher taxes would represent an undesirable transfer to retirees from younger taxpayers.”

They might also look into how other countries have accomplished spending reductions, as Dan Mitchell explains here.

What can you expect?

After reading those reports, it will come as no surprise that the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan is “facing difficulties”:

Georges Baumgartner, current president of the FCCJ and a veteran reporter for Swiss Radio and Television, expressed his frustration with the lack of news in Japan that would interest people elsewhere. “It’s quiet, like a little country like Switzerland,” said Baumgartner, who has been reporting from Japan since 1982. Japan is “blocked and paralyzed by the politicians and bureaucrats who don’t have the political will and courage to restructure the country to give a chance to young people. There is no new energy. . . . There are days that you can’t sell any story to your editors back home.”

Any journalist who thinks Japan is a quiet country with no news of interest is unqualified for his position on the face of it. True, they do have to please their editors back home, the ones responsible for turning their business into the smokestack industry of the information age. Then again, Baumgartner thinks the FCCJ is “a little island of freedom in Japan”, a presumptuous and arrogant bit of horsetootie that might explain why his organization has become irrelevant. (Let’s play journalistic poker. For every story someone can cite that the Japanese press has ignored, I can call and raise that bet with stories the New York Times et al. have ignored.)

If the FCCJ were populated by people nimble enough to hop off their bar stools and conduct serious research, they might have taken the approach on this story adopted by Takahashi Yoichi in Gendai Business Online:

“It is a restructure of a government facing its final days.”

And:

“(Yosano) is called a fiscal hawk because he parrots the Finance Ministry line. The objective is a fiscal balance, and the means is a tax increase.”

And:

“The new cabinet is a lineup of people whose arguments support continued deflation and tax increases. Prime Minister Kan says the economy will improve with a tax increase. Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano says the economy will improve with a rise in interest rates. Fujii Hirohisa favors a higher yen and “fiscal restructuring”. If these people put their ideas in practice, the DPJ really will destroy the Japanese economy, as the title of Mr. Yosano’s book had it.”

Afterwords:

* Mr. Yosano now says he thinks the consumption tax should be “more than 10%” by 2015. Watch for closer to 20%, assuming the same or similar people are still in charge.

* Another avenue the journos choose not to explore is Standard & Poor’s record of credit ratings. For example:

“Investors snapped up the $340.7 million CDO, a collection of securities backed by bonds, mortgages and other loans, within days of the Dec. 12, 2000, offering. The CDO buyers had assurances of its quality from the three leading credit rating companies –Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Group Inc. Each had blessed most of the CDO with the highest rating, AAA or Aaa. Investment-grade ratings on 95 percent of the securities in the CDO gave no hint of what was in the debt package — or that it might collapse. It was loaded with risky debt, from junk bonds to subprime home loans. During the next six years, the CDO plummeted as defaults mounted in its underlying securities. By the end of 2006, losses totaled about $125 million.”

S&P downgraded Japanese government bonds, but they’re maintaining their top AAA rating on U.S. debt despite the huge American deficit and phalanx of foreign creditors.

******
The country’s in the very best of hands.

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Posted in Agriculture, Business, finance and the economy, Government, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Transparency

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, January 29, 2011

HERE’s an interesting website that I discovered by accident: Transparency International, which defines itself as a global coalition against corruption. They have compiled what they call a Corruption Perceptions Index, and offer these details:

Transparency International (TI) defines corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. This definition encompasses corrupt practices in both the public and private sectors. The Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) ranks countries according to the perception of corruption in the public sector. The CPI is an aggregate indicator that combines different sources of information about corruption, making it possible to compare countries.

The 2010 CPI draws on different assessments and business opinion surveys carried out by independent and reputable institutions. It captures information about the administrative and political aspects of corruption. Broadly speaking, the surveys and assessments used to compile the index include questions relating to bribery of public officials, kickbacks in public procurement, embezzlement of public funds, and questions that probe the strength and effectiveness of public sector anti-corruption efforts.

Japan is ranked 17th worldwide, with a score of 7.8. That’s just behind Germany’s 7.9 and just ahead of the UK’s 7.6. It is higher than the U.S. in 22nd place with a score of 7.1 and France in 23rd with 6.8.

The only entities in Asia to score higher are Hong Kong and Singapore. With the exception of Germany, all the higher-ranked countries have a significantly smaller population. Also, all the Scandinavian countries, Germany, and Austria are ranked higher.

Meanwhile, South Korea is at #39 and China is at #78. They are given a different color than Japan on the color-coded chart of rankings. Russia, which is also in the same neighborhood–#154.

Corruption, or an aversion to it, is one aspect of a willingness to conduct interpersonal relations with honesty.

Yet, when people outside Northeast Asia observe disputes that arise within Northeast Asia–the content of which they know little or nothing–their views are often tinged with a suspicion toward Japan and a lack of interest in examining the credibility of the other parties’ claims. They seem willing to assume that an unpleasant historical chapter of perhaps 30 to 35 years’ duration that ended more than 65 years ago is the metric by which the country should be judged in its international relations.

A curious phenomenon.

Posted in International relations, Legal system | Tagged: | 7 Comments »

Yet more true facts

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, January 27, 2011

THE PREVIOUS POST about misconceptions elsewhere of Japan-South Korea relations reminded me of similar misconceptions overseas about a supposed waning of the spirit of Japanese enterprise. That’s illustrated by the recent rash of ADD-impaired stories presenting Japan shuffling off the world’s stage like some forgotten old duffer with hair growing out of his ears.

Oh, really?

Here’s a sample of stories featuring developments that occurred over the past two months in Kyushu alone. Decide for yourself who’s shuffling and who’s strutting.

* Kitakyushu Hydrogen Town Project

Trials of the Hydrogen Town project in Kitakyushu got underway on 15 January and will run until the end of March. The trials involve using underground piping to send hydrogen to individual residences and commercial facilities, where it will be used in fuel cells to generate electric power and heat water. The hydrogen used is created as byproduct at local steel mills. The project organizers hope to resolve any issues regarding consistent hydrogen supply and its safe use. These will be the first large-scale trials in the world for the use of hydrogen in urban areas.

* Nanosatellite Testing Center Opens at KIT

The Kyushu Institute of Technology opened the Center for Nanosatellite Testing, a facility for conducting trials with artificial satellites no larger than 50 centimeters in diameter and weighing less than 50 kilograms. It is the world’s first facility with the capacity to conduct all the required performance tests for nanosatellites, including the ability to withstand temperature changes and vibrations. These satellites, used primarily for taking photos of Earth, have become increasingly popular in recent years because they are somewhat inexpensive.

* New Development in Cancer Stem Cell Treatment

Dr. Nakayama Keiichi and a team of researchers at Kyushu University’s Medical Institute of Bioregulation discovered that a certain protein will change the state of cancer stem cells, which are impervious to chemotherapy and radiation, into a state that allows them to be attacked. Even when other cancerous cells are removed, the remaining cancer stem cells have the potential to create a recurrence of the disease. Converting the protein into a usable medicine might bring a cure within reach.

* Honda to Conduct Electric Vehicle Trials in Kumamoto

Honda announced it will begin trials of new model electric motorbikes, electric cars, and plug-in hybrids next year at its Kumamoto Prefecture plant. The recharging station used in the trials will employ solar power to generate the electricity. The motorbike trials are slated to begin next spring, while those for automobiles will begin in the latter half of the year.

* Desalinization Certification Plant Built in Kitakyushu

Water Plaza Kitakyushu, Japan’s first desalinization certification plant capable of certifying both the conversion of seawater to fresh water and the purity of reclaimed sewage water, will begin operation in April. The plant was built by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO). The operators hope to disseminate the technology and operational expertise gained from the plant both in Japan and overseas.

* NEECO to Make Energy from Chicken Dung in India

Fukuoka City-based Nishi-Nippon Environmental Energy Co. plans to launch a biomass power generating business in India by the spring of 2012 using chicken dung as fuel. If the enterprise is successful, the company hopes to expand the business throughout India and the rest of Asia. The company is using the expertise gained from operating a similar enterprise in Miyazaki Prefecture, which produces 25% of Japan’s chickens.

* Ecogenomics Sells DNA Chip Technology to China

Bio-venture company Ecogenomics is now selling to Chinese government agencies its DNA chips, which are devices for genetic testing. The adhesion and reaction of bacteria and chemical substances on the DNA chips makes them effective as medicine for pathological conditions. They are also said to be effective for preventing cancer and infectious diseases. The company has its own technology for the comprehensive processes from design to manufacture to create products that meet the individual testing needs of its customers.

While putting this post together, I discovered another example from outside Kyushu, as described today in the Asahi:

Researchers at RIKEN, Yokohama City University and The University of Tokyo have uncovered how gut bifidobacteria protect the body against lethal infection by enhancing the defenses of colonic epithelium. Published in this week’s issue of Nature, the finding provides first-ever clues on the mechanisms underlying the beneficial effects of gut microbiota, promising more effective probiotic therapies for a variety of disorders and diseases.

*****
To find this information, however, one has to read Japanese newspapers.

*****
Chemistry is another popular field in Japan.

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Posted in China, Education, Environmentalism, New products, Science and technology | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Still more true facts

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, January 27, 2011

SCROLLING THROUGH the comment section of an American website recently, I read a note in which the author blithely asserted, as if it were common knowledge, that Japanese and Koreans despised each other. There were dozens of other comments on that post, but nobody objected to his. The other readers probably thought it was common knowledge too.

The author of the note knew this, he said, because he lived in Japan for a couple of years. Ah, that explains it. A man of the world.

Meanwhile, here’s some uncommon knowledge about what’s actually been happening in this part of the world, where the Japanese and South Koreans are just a hop, skip, and a 30-minute flight from each other.

So far this month.

* Saga Prefecture and Jeollanam-do Friendship Pact

Saga is a small, largely rural prefecture with a population of about 800,000 between Fukuoka and Nagasaki and next to the Sea of Japan. The prefectural government this month signed a friendship agreement with Jeollanam-do of South Korea. Saga Gov. Furukawa Yasushi called it the first step in the prefecture’s plan to develop greater ties with regional governments throughout Asia. At the signing ceremony, Jeollanam-do Gov. Bak Joon-yung said he believed the agreement will help promote ties between the two countries, not just the two regions. It is Saga’s first friendship agreement with a local government from a foreign country.

* Starflyer Plans Busan Route

Kitakyushu-based budget airline Starflyer announced plans to begin roundtrip flights to Busan in July 2012. There are already many flights between Busan and Incheon in Korea and Fukuoka and Kitakyushu in Kyushu, as well as several high-speed ferries operating between the Port of Hakata and the Port of Busan. Starflyer intends to establish a niche in the highly competitive market with early morning and late night flights.

* Ferry Service Begins between Gwangyang and Shimonoseki/Kitakyushu

Gwangyang Ferry of South Korea will begin ferry service between the city of Gwangyang in South Korea and the cities of Shimonoseki and Kitakyushu in Japan. (Shimonoseki is in Yamaguchi Prefecture, just across a narrow strait from Kyushu.) The ferry will have a capacity of 740 passengers and make two round trips a week to Shimonoseki. It will also sail once a week to Kitakyushu on a trial basis. The operators see the potential for demand from travelers (and freight shippers) from the western and southern parts of the Korean Peninsula to Kyushu. Gwangyang is South Korea’s second largest container port after Busan. Currently, people traveling between the two cities by sea have to go through both Busan and Fukuoka City.

* Fukuoka City Sponsors Educational Homestays with Busan, South Korea

Fukuoka City sponsored 10 first-year junior high school students from Busan, South Korea, for a local homestay for six days through the 17th to provide them with an understanding of junior high school life in Japan. The students attended English and other classes at three junior high schools, and teachers from both countries took the opportunity to get better acquainted. Fukuoka City said its objective is to help foster children with an international perspective.

* South Korea’s Jin Air to Operate Budget Charters to Saga Airport

Low-cost carrier Jin Air of South Korea began to fly regularly scheduled charter flights from Incheon Airport in Seoul to Saga Airport for tourists, which will continue until 1 March. They plan to operate a total of 19 round trips in all. They are the first flights by any low cost carrier into Saga Airport.

* South Korean Baseball Team Shifts Camp from Miyazaki to Beppu

Last year’s foot-and-mouth epidemic among livestock in Miyazaki Prefecture (and the new outbreak of avian flu there last week) could have kept the Dusan Bears of South Korean professional baseball from their annual training camp in Miyazaki, but they came anyway for a shorter session. They’ll move to Beppu in Oita on the 26th.

OK, I’ll cheat. Here’s one from last month

* Record High for Air Busan’s Occupancy Rate

Air Busan, which launched daily roundtrip flight service between Busan, South Korea, and Fukuoka City last March, revealed they had a flight occupancy rate of 83% for the month of November, the highest monthly rate ever on the route. The rate from May to September ranged from the 60th to the 70th percentiles, but the higher yen and lower won began to have an impact in October. The increase came mostly from Japanese passengers.

OK, I’ll cheat again. This one includes China

* Regional Economic Partnership Agreement in Works

Ten cities in Japan, South Korea, and China, the members of a group promoting economic exchange in East Asia, held their fourth meeting in China and signed a memorandum agreeing to create an economic partnership agreement for the Yellow Sea rim region. The group includes four Japanese cities, including Kitakyushu, Fukuoka City, and Shimonoseki; four Chinese cities, including Dalian; and three South Korean cities, including Busan and Incheon. The idea is to create a free trade agreement of their own in the region without waiting for their respective national governments.

We’re going to be reading the inevitable Closed to the Outside World stories about Japan written by the bien pensants in the upcoming months as the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks get serious. Let’s see how many of these stories will be mentioned, particularly the last one.

******
American journalist P.J. O’Rourke has spent much of his career traveling overseas as part of his work. He once wrote that the best way to improve international relations was to sleep with someone from overseas.

In that spirit…

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, China, Education, Foreigners in Japan, International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, Social trends, South Korea, Travel | Tagged: , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Pop quiz

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 25, 2011

THERE’S a digression worth noting in a long article about the consumption tax written by Takahashi Yoichi for Gendai Business Online.

Mr. Takahashi writes:

“The following problem appeared on the 2008 Center Test.”

(The Center Test is the preliminary university entrance examination administered every January by the Japanese government for national and public universities. The results are also increasingly being used by private universities. It is similar to the SATs in the United States.)

“Question: Select one from among the following as the most suitable measure it is thought a central bank can take.

1. Reduce the money supply during a deflationary period.
2. Reduce the required ratio of cash reserves to deposits during an inflationary period.
3. Purchase government bonds from commercial banks during an economic downturn.
4. Reduce the interest rate on funds lent to commercial banks during an economic upturn.

“Of course the correct answer is #3. Since 2000, however, the Bank of Japan has actually done #1. This question can be answered by the ordinary high school student, but it seems to be too difficult for the Governor of the Bank of Japan, the academics carrying water for the Bank of Japan, and the mass media.”

*****
Reat that again and let it sink in: This is information a Japanese high school senior who wants to attend university is expected to know. Not the elite universities—any university.

How many American high school seniors would know the answer to that question? Wait, scratch that—how many American college seniors would know the answer to that question? Wait, scratch that one too—how many American (or Western) adults with a university degree would know the answer to that question?

And some people think there’s a crisis because the youth of Japan is shunning American universities?

I think not.

*****
Here’s what American students know about school and U.S. bonds.

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Education | Tagged: | 6 Comments »

The same old song

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 25, 2011

TO CONTINUE with the theme of yesterday’s post, here’s another illustration of how the Japanese mass media is every bit as lamestream as their Anglosphere cousins. The following is an excerpt from a Yomiuri Shimbun editorial on 22 January.

*****
Prime Minister Kan has undertaken a radical change of course from his party’s position of excluding the bureaucracy under the name of “political leadership”. His approach to policy reconciliation among the various ministries and agencies is to allow the participation (in discussions) of undersecretaries and bureau chiefs from the bureaucracy in addition to Cabinet ministers, deputy ministers, and parliamentary secretaries. With his reexamination of the party’s platform for the 2009 lower house election, this represents an unavoidable course correction for the call of “political leadership” (N.B.: as opposed to bureaucratic leadership) that was the watchword for the change in government.

Smiling from start to finish, Prime Minister Kan spoke to the ministry undersecretaries in the Kantei conference room on the morning of the 21st. He told them: “I’m working with all of you to build a good country, so I want you to express your opinions without reserve to the ministers, deputy ministers, and me.”

When it was in the opposition, the Democratic Party harshly criticized the practice of bureaucratic leadership for the formulation and reconciliation of policy proposals. Their 2009 party platform clearly specified that the proposal, reconciliation and determination of policy was to be conducted through political leadership exercised by the Cabinet ministers, deputy ministers, and parliamentary secretaries. The Hatoyama administration pursued a policy of excluding the bureaucracy through such measures as the abolition of the council for undersecretaries and the establishment of a council for the Cabinet ministers, deputy ministers, and parliamentary secretaries (or seimu sanyaku in the Japanese shorthand).

The abolition of the council for undersecretaries, which had the role of reconciling the content of important policies for which more than one ministry was responsible, caused turmoil in the administration of government, however. Some officials in the Cabinet objected to such Hatoyama administration proposals as the revision of the National Civil Service Law and the bill to reform Japan Post just before their adoption, resulting in a delay of their adoption. The bureaucracy was not informed of some of the decisions taken by the Seimu Sanyaku Council, and the adverse effects of this repeatedly affected all the ministries.

In his instructions on the 21st, Prime Minister Kan said, “I want to create a positive, cooperative relationship between undersecretaries and politicians. There are several problems in our conduct of politics today, including self-reflection, taking things to extremes, and insufficiency. Politicians also understand that affairs will not proceed (toward resolution) if they think they alone can handle everything.” He thus recognized the flaws of conventional “political leadership”.

(end excerpt)

*****
Mr. Kan’s speech to the undersecretaries might sound familiar to those who follow Japanese politics. It is in effect nearly identical to the speech given by Aso Taro of the LDP to the same meeting of undersecretaries when he became prime minister in 2008, little more than two years ago. Said Mr. Aso: “In my Cabinet, the bureaucracy will not be the enemy. It is important to employ the bureaucracy skillfully.”

As Your Party head Watanabe Yoshimi remarked, “That signaled his intention to leave all the decision-making to the bureaucracy.” In the same way, Mr. Kan’s ingratiating address signals his intention to throw in the spoon (which the Japanese throw instead of the towel) on civil service reform.

Real change in the way the government operates was the reason the DPJ unseated the LDP in the 2009 lower house election. (It was the reason Koizumi Jun’ichiro was, and still is, so popular.) Instead of a real change, however, the DPJ morphed into a pre-Hashimoto Ryutaro version of the LDP, albeit with a leftist orientation. As another commentator noted, the Kan pep talk is indicative of the degree of DPJ guts.

Who needs a teleprompter when they gave me this cribsheet? (Sankei Shimbun photo)

Mr. Kan’s remarks also represent a denial of his lifelong political philosophy. He has long advocated encouraging greater citizen input into policy decisions, which he specifically contrasted to policy formulated by the bureaucracy and rubber-stamped by the politicians. But most observers knew that Mr. Kan had thrown in the spoon before this. It was apparent from watching his first speech to the Diet as prime minister last summer. He reverted to the old LDP practice of reading aloud from what the bureaucracy calls tanzaku, or strips of paper. Each ministry produces a piece of paper on which is written a few sentences for the prime minister to say, and they’re stapled together to create the text of the speech. Recent prime ministers had stopped using the tanzaku, but Mr. Kan chose parrothood.

This issue might be difficult to understand outside of Japan, but it is without question the most critical one in the country’s governing process today. Here it is again: the bureaucracy in this country considers itself to be the permanent ruling class. As I’ve mentioned before, one bureaucrat-turned-reformer politician said that on his first day at the Agriculture Ministry, he was told his job was “to make the monkeys dance”.

The bureaucrats do not see their role as offering policy options at the request of the politicians. They actively formulate their own policy proposals and hawk them to MPs every day in the Diet office building like a squad of colporteurs. Among those who most strongly advocate bureaucratic reform are the journalists who have served on governmental blue ribbon panels and witnessed their behavior at first hand.

If you think I’m exaggerating, perhaps you should read this article by Martin Fackler in the New York Times. It was published on 24 March 2010, when Hatoyama Yukio was still prime minister. Long-time friends might wonder why I offer a link to the Times—I usually limit links to reliable sources—but there are two reasons:

1. It is an accurate description of the problem.
2. It is the most surreal example of journalistic incompetence I’ve ever read.

Here’s Mr. Fackler’s explanation:

Since ending the Liberal Democrats’ nearly unbroken 54-year grip on power in last summer’s election, Mr. Hatoyama’s Democratic Party has proclaimed its top mission to be changing the way the country is governed by a process that is commonly called “escaping the bureaucracy.” The aim is to make Japan’s political system more responsive by ending more than a century of de facto rule by elite career bureaucrats at Tokyo’s central ministries, and empowering democratically elected politicians instead…(T)he ministries…long ran Japan with backroom decision-making.

He quotes then-Internal Affairs Minister Haraguchi Kazuhiro:

“The bureaucrats created a very centralized system that has become out of date, and unable to react to the world’s changes…We need a system that serves the people, not the bureaucracy and entrenched interest groups.”

One of Kasumigaseki’s favorite weapons is leaking information to the media. Mr. Fackler further quotes Mr. Haraguchi’s explanation of how the bureaucrats whispered potentially damaging stories about the DPJ to the press after he reassigned some civil servants against ministry wishes. That’s the same MO they used for scuttling the Abe administration’s attempt to privatize the Social Insurance Agency in 2007, responsible for national pensions. The final nail in Mr. Abe’s coffin was hammered in when the agency let it be known that the records for the pensions of millions of people were lost during the conversion from a handwritten system to a computerized system a decade before Mr. Abe took office. His government bore the brunt of citizen anger.

The reason this ranks as journalistic incompetence, however, is that Mr. Fackler’s paean to the DPJ was nonsense on the day he wrote it. The Japanese closely watching DPJ efforts to reform the bureaucracy knew that Mr. Hatoyama had thrown in the spoon as early as December 2009, three months before that article was published and only three months after he took office. That’s when stories in the weekly and monthly print media began to appear about the DPJ betrayal of their promises for government led by the politicians. That month, even then-DPJ Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro criticized the government of his own party for allowing the Finance Ministry too much input in formulating the budget. The policy review touted in the article was orchestrated and scripted by the Finance Ministry’s Budget Bureau–information that was available to the Japanese public shortly after the first one was televised.

It wasn’t that many people were surprised. Mr. Hatoyama’s father, himself the son of a former prime minister, started his career in the Finance Ministry before turning to politics. One element of the Democrats’ plan to place policy formulation in political hands was the creation of a National Strategy Bureau to be led by elected officials. Then-Finance Minister Fujii Hirohisa—the former director of the ministry’s Budget Bureau—convinced the government to downgrade it to an “office”. None other than Kan Naoto was put in charge, and he soon complained that he didn’t have enough work to do there. (It was later revealed he spent a lot of time playing go on his computer when he did show up at the office.) Mr. Fujii is now back in the Cabinet again.

One of the most delicious parts of the Fackler article is this quote from Karel van Wolferen—yes, Mr. Oldie-But-Goodie himself:

“A half year of Hatoyama has produced more change than an entire year of Obama.”

Let’s reframe that: It is as if a commentator had praised President Obama in July 2009 for having kept his promise to withdraw American military forces from Afghanistan and shut down the detention facility at Guantanamo for good.

University of Tokyo Professor Yamauchi Masayuki is given the last word:

“(T)he changes they are making will not be easily undone.”

Now take another look at that excerpt of the Yomiuri editorial above.

What likely happened is that the Hatoyama administration, already doomed when the Times article appeared, was hunting for some positive press overseas to counteract the bad publicity they were getting at home for changing their tune on civil service reform. Members of the Japanese media are among the few that still take the New York Times seriously, and the DPJ probably hoped the story would filter back to Japan through the back door. The party could have easily fed the reporter the information in bite-sized chunks, made Mr. Haraguchi available for an interview, and even suggested tame professors for additional quotes.

If Martin Fackler’s still interested in this issue, by the way, I’d be happy to recommend a few books in Japanese to get him up to speed on what’s really happening. He should be able to find someone to read them and provide him with an English summary.

Of more pressing concern to the Japanese electorate, however, is the need for a reliable information source. The Yomiuri—the newspaper with the largest national circulation—obviously doesn’t meet those qualifications. Instead of selling journalism, they’re recording secretaries making their customers pay for mimeographs of ruling class PR handouts.

Meanwhile, what will Kan Naoto do now that he’s sold all the way out? Here’s a hint from the prime minister’s e-mail message distributed yesterday:

“The priority for me now is working to counteract the new social risk of isolation…Looking at the causes of suicide, very few people commit suicide because of poverty alone. They are poor and also don’t have any friends. They don’t have any family to turn to. The combination of isolation and poverty drives people to suicide.”

Leave it to a self-castrated political eunuch to make his priority a problem that politics will never solve.

Afterwords:

A long-time reader of the site is employed by a major Japanese mass media outlet. A few years ago, he wrote in to say that Karel van Wolferen adamantly refused to interact with anyone in Japanese when he was interviewed for a Japanese television program. Make of that what you will.

*****
Still the same old song, isn’t it?

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All for one, or six of one?

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 24, 2011

THE FOLLOWING is an excerpt from an op-ed written by Miyasaka Kazuo that appeared in a national daily on 4 January.
*****

On New Year’s 2011, I read the editorials of newspapers throughout the country, primarily those of the national dailies….What was surprising was that when the issues addressed by the Yomiuri, the Asahi, the Mainichi, the Nikkei, and others were identical, there was little difference in the content of their arguments. That included strengthening the Japan-American alliance, increasing the consumption tax, and signing on to the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPP). Are these national newspapers, each of which has a daily circulation in the millions, fulfilling their role as an independent organ of free speech?

“A strong Japan-U.S. alliance is indispensable.” “If Japan is late to join TPP negotiations, it will be squeezed out of the free trade market.” “There is already no other way to obtain fiscal revenues than raising the consumption tax rate.”

“The fate of Japan hangs on whether it can pursue two agendas: the integrated reform of the tax code and the social welfare system, and participation in TPP, which would promote free trade.”

“Of particular urgency is the liberalization of trade, with a focus on participation in TPP.”

There is so little difference in these editorial excerpts that no one who read them would know which newspaper published them. The first was from the Yomiuri, the second was from the Asahi, and the third was from the Nikkei, but for the most part they are interchangeable. The Mainichi also editorialized that “to make Japan healthy”, the “Japan-U.S. alliance should be unshakable”, and “the consumption tax should be increased.”

That national newspapers have the same editorial positions is in itself unusual, but what is important is that the editorial content repeats the claims of the current government. They support the pawns of the financial interests and those who promote American demands.

The positions of the national newspapers are almost identical to the content of Prime Minister Kan Naoto’s New Year’s address. He proclaimed the “Heisei Opening” (of the country), strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance, and a “drastic reform” of the tax code, including the consumption tax. The New Year’s Message from the chairman of Keidanren, which called for “a rising sun nation created by political leadership”, and that from the Chairman of the Association of Corporate Executives, which proclaimed that this would be a year of decision, are like two peas from the pod of the financial interests’ demands.

In the past, there were differences of editorial opinion in the national dailies, with the Asahi and the Mainichi on one side (the left) and the Yomiuri, Nikkei, and the Sankei on the other (the right). But these identical opinions support the claims of the government and financial interests, which means that the national dailies no longer fulfill journalism’s most important role as a monitor of authority.

These editorials do not present opposing alternatives to resolving the issues, and thus exacerbate the sense of crisis. We must point out the sharp deterioration in the power of imagination and conception indispensable for an organ of free speech. As demonstrated by the Yomiuri, which suggests “a political ceasefire and the construction of a temporary coalition government to resolve the outstanding issues”, this is the height of political toadyism.

Before the war, the members of Japan’s mass media vied for leadership in inflaming sentiment for a war of aggression. Their history of misleading the people is one of which they should be ashamed. This year is the 80th anniversary of the Manchurian Incident, which became the impetus for Japan’s mass media headlong rush into glorifying that war of aggression. Can we say that the Japanese mass media, and the national dailies in particular, will not repeat the mistake of 80 years ago?

(end excerpts)

*******
As you’ve probably worked out by now, Mr. Miyasaka was writing for Akahata, the daily paper published by Japan’s Communist Party.

Those who have been reading the site for a while know that veteran journalist Hasegawa Yukihiro and others point out that Japan’s Finance Ministry twists arms in editorial boardrooms to mold public opinion in accordance with the ministry’s policy preferences. Indeed, success in planting stories in the media is said to be one factor in internal personnel evaluations.

(Japan has two de facto governments, one political and one bureaucratic, which compete with each other for dominance. That the bureaucratic government, which considers itself to be the permanent ruling class, usually wins, is seldom, if ever, discussed outside the country.)

That’s why we have a good idea about the reason the newspapers are singing from the same choir book on consumption tax increases.

One can only wonder at the type of pressure applied by the American government to a Japanese government formed by a political party that pledged to follow a more independent course to cause such an abrupt volte-face. It must be painful; Mr. Kan has been part of the fashionable anti-American left all of his adult life. Also, much of the domestic opposition to the TPP is based on concerns that Japanese participation will be on American terms.

The JCP’s opposition to the consumption tax does not mean they’re fighting against a strong central government, of course. They’d rather see a “progressive” soak-the-rich tax scheme than the “regressive” consumption tax.

Nevertheless, when it takes Communists to point out that a nation’s mass media more closely resembles a state-run press than a free press, you know the problems are serious. As it is with the print media in the Anglosphere, the national newspapers are part of the problem, and so will not be part of the solution.

******
It probably took more effort to choreograph the performers in this video than it did the editorials of the national dailies.

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Self-defense

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 23, 2011

FINANCE MINISTER Noda Yoshihiko announced at a press conference that Japan intended to use its foreign exchange reserves later this month to buy “more than 20%” of the bonds issued by the Euro zone to pay for the second Irish bailout. The Chinese will be chipping in too.

One wonders why they would spend so lavishly to invest in money of the mind issued by a political entity made of the same material. The reality, however, is that it is not a bailout of Ireland. It is a bailout of Euro banksters and bond holders paid for by the Irish taxpayers as the result of their membership in an unworkable monetary regime:

This isn’t about rescuing Ireland; it’s about rescuing the euro. On any objective interpretation, Ireland has been ruined by the single currency. The ECB’s policy of ultra-low interest rates forced Ireland to pursue a catastrophically pro-cyclical monetary policy, with real interest rates of minus one per cent between 1998 and 2007. The subsequent crash was utterly predictable – and widely predicted.

The EU then forced Dublin into a bail-out which, while calamitous for Ireland, was thought to be necessary to save the European banking system…(I)t was the EU’s insistence that a bail-out was necessary which hiked Ireland’s rate to borrow ten-year money from 6 to 9 per cent. To make sure that Dublin caved in, the ECB then threatened to withdraw liquidity from Irish banks. Ireland has now been forced to accept the package on ruinous terms. Its repayment obligations, combined with the inability to devalue, will condemn its people to a generation of deflation, debt and emigration.

Indeed, it has taken an Irish member of the Socialist Party, Joe Higgins, to call out the MEPs to their face. (There’s a short and worthwhile YouTube video here.)

Why is Japan getting involved in this charade? Pater Tenebrarum of the site Acting Man thinks he knows the reason–self-defense. First:

(A) collapse of the euro, or even just a crisis that threatens to spiral out of control and thus weakens the euro significantly, would clearly be bad for the business of these major exporters to the euro-area.

But also:

(W)e are surprised that nobody thought about something that strikes us as rather obvious. Two words: distraction – and contagion.

Let us say, hypothetically, that the euro-area’s sovereign debt problems do lead to a panicky, out-of-control crisis at some point…What would the markets in such a situation be likely to soon focus on next? Could it be the country whose fiscal debt is the by far highest relative to economic output in the industrialized world?…That country has a name, and it is – Japan. By helping to arrest what increasingly looked like a death spiral lately, Japan can achieves inter alia a degree of distraction from its own budding debt problems.

Why might this have become a sudden concern?…In today’s strongly interconnected and highly interdependent financial markets, contagion has a habit to show up in the unlikeliest places.

We have previously noted how CDS spreads on Japanese JGBs have suddenly vaulted higher into what may be described as ‘mild concern’ territory. In essence, they have begun to move in sympathy with CDS spreads on PIIGS and other European sovereign debt. This is unlikely to be a coincidence – far more likely is that the buyers of these CDS have adopted a very similar chain of reasoning as the one we just mentioned…So by offering to buy EFSF bonds, Japan kills several birds with one stone, or at least renders them momentarily dazed.

The mention of stones brings to mind the Japanese proverb, Yakeishi ni mizu, or “Water on a hot stone”. In other words, Japan’s foreign exchange expenditures could wind up evaporating as quickly as the water tossed on the rocks in a sauna.

In contrast, there is a different theory regarding the Chinese purchase of the debt: While they’re propping up the Euro with one hand, they’re simultaneously converting some of their foreign exchange holdings of the Euro to American dollars and making money on the deal.

There’s no word whether Japan is doing the same, though they are surely aware of the rumors. If they were also working that angle, it would cover more bases than throwing good money after bad in Europe to buy goodwill and prevent the contagion from spreading. Feathering one’s nest to safeguard against hard times is an excellent means of self-defense.

Then again, one wonders how Japan and China will defend themselves if or when banks in the United States implode? Or if the men and women wearing the chalk-striped suits are forced to switch to a work uniform with a broader pattern.

Here’s an observation that is not mine, though I concur. What we’ve been seeing since 2008 is not the failure of free market capitalism. It is rather Phase Two of the failure of socialism. Phase One started with the collapse of the extreme variant of socialism as symbolized by the removal of the Berlin Wall. Phase Two is the collapse of the diluted variant of social democracy.

*****
At least cash on the barrelhead still remains a viable option. For now, anyway.

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Nerds

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, January 22, 2011

WHILE LOOKING for something else, I rediscovered the clippings of a two-part article Rick Kennedy wrote for his Tokyo Toe column in the Japan Times circa 1991/2. (Tokyo Toe is a pun on Tokyo-to, the Japanese name for the sub-national government entity known as the Tokyo Metro District.)

He wrote the articles during the golden age of yellow journalism about Japan. People in the United States had worked themselves into such a paranoiac crescendo American periodicals were filled with rants written by people frothing at the mind about what they saw as the emerging Nipponese economic superiority.

Many of the “Japan is down and out” stories of today are the contemporary obverse of that coin. It is a form of gloating.

Nonetheless, the attitudes Mr. Kennedy addressed still inform much of what passes for commentary about Japan. He could have been writing yesterday.

The articles predate the widespread use of the Web and so are not on line. Note that the word otaku in its present sense had not yet entered the general awareness. The italics are those of the author.

*****

Nerd Gap (I)

American undergraduates call people they deem not with it nerds. Nerd is a term of high derision. It is understood that nerds and non-nerds can never communicate in a meaningful way.

Some examples may help to define the term more precisely.

Nerds wait for the light to change and never jaywalk. Nerds have protective mothers, who buy them encyclopedias. Nerds are shy, awkward with the opposite sex, and eschew confrontation. They wear white shirts and often white socks, too, and are given to keeping their neckties from flapping with a clip. They may very well wear a company pin in their lapel. In winter, they wear long underwear.

Nerds carry a pocket diary in the back of which they inscribe the local bus schedule. There is an atlas of the country in the glove compartment of their automobile.

Nerds tend to have esoteric hobbies like butterfly collecting, star gazing, or building model locomotives out of toothpicks. If not, they have an obscure passion, like beating computer games, which they are very good at.

Nerds have a giggly sense of humor. They do not seem to sense the world’s sharp edges. Nerds are dedicated to their work and put in long hours without complaint. Nerds are very polite to their bosses and plan their vacations far ahead. They are not naturally spontaneous and are very precise when called on to fill out a form. They respond earnestly to requests for directions from passersby and pride themselves on their ability to draw accurate maps. Nerds listen each morning to the weather report for advice on whether or not to carry an umbrella.

No one in Japan makes fun of what Americans call a nerd. It is nerds who, lying on their backs on their roofs of a summer evening, discover new stars. Teams of nerds design machines of unparalleled complexity. Nerds are not embarrassed to work 15 hours a day and admit they don’t mind at all. Nerds, comfortable with detail and discipline, are the engine of Japan.

It would appear that Americans must learn to communicate with nerds.

Nerd Gap (II)

I suggested last time that Americans have a problem communicating with Japanese because in American eyes a large percentage of Japanese males appear to be “nerds”. In the American frame of reference, anyone who is proficient at mathematics, makes a habit of securing his tie with a clip, and is diffident about making friends outside his circle falls into the social category of nerd, a species beyond the social pale. (The British equivalent is swot.).

Americans are captives of this Mad Magazine-inspired, subtly anti-intellectual image, and it inhibits their ability to sympathize with people who do not feel comfortable with the American social style of rowdy openness, in which there is a heady component of Mexican banditry.

Americans should not be surprised if Japanese, confronted with their style of social intercourse, draw a blank. In Japan there is no word for nerd. The closest we can come is a combination of doji, someone who performs an action awkwardly (compare bumbler and klutz); majime ningen, someone who takes life too seriously; and dasai, a bumpkin indifferent to the prevailing fashion.

Here we have a clear-cut conflict of styles. While Japanese tend to see themselves as Clark Kent, Americans like to think that given the right circumstances, they would come off as Superman. In the United States, the heroic assumes many forms, but it does not include a facility with calculus.

Stylish cynicism does not come easily to very many Japanese. In the American universe, a slavish attention to detail is not encouraged. There is in Japan a certain fascination with swashbuckling, but swashbuckling is recognized as the stuff of late-night samurai movies, and is in the end a behavior model only for bosozoku, young motorcycle edge-riders who have opted out.

It is clear, is it not, that a very large percentage of the male population of Japan falls into the category the Americans have labeled “nerd”. In Japan, to be a nerd is entirely acceptable—in fact, it is a behavioral model. In the U.S., nerds are despised as being without cool, as being too serious, as having no (acceptable) individual style.

We should not be surprised that Americans and Japanese have trouble communicating.

(end article)
****
A related aspect of the Japanese personality that Mr. Kennedy did not discuss is described with the untranslatable word sunao. Some dictionary definitions include gentle, mild, meek, and “in a teachable spirit”, but it also includes the nuances of honest, frank, and guileless. It is a sort of straightforward innocence without naïveté when dealing with the affairs of daily life. It is the utter absence of ‘tude.

When I started teaching two classes a week during the spring semester for second-year students at the local university four years ago, I was happy to discover that young people here are still sunao, despite the many changes in society that have occurred over the past quarter-century. The parents of those students would disagree and object that their children are not as sunao as their own generation. They are surely correct. Yet the attitudes of the Western counterparts of those Japanese students lie in a direction 180º from the true north of sunao.

Mr. Kennedy gave us a hint: “Stylish cynicism does not come easily to very many Japanese.” People with an interest in spending time in Japan should be aware that hip irony will usually be met with blank, uncomprehending stares. Those Japanese who do catch on are unlikely to be impressed.

One of the reasons I enjoy living in Japan is that the people are sunao.

****
Mr. Kennedy also gave us a hint about one of the reasons for the popularity of Weird Japan stories in the Western media, their authors’ almost perverse aversion to a sense of proportion, and the anti-Nipponistic websites of the self-righteous kvetchers. The authors and their audience clutch at their perception of the nerdiness of the Japanese as if it were an emotional life raft. They have at last found someone they can belittle to relieve years of frustration at being belittled as nerds themselves.

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Akune revisited

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 18, 2011

PEOPLE interested in Japanese politics wonder when—or if–something resembling a Tea Party movement will coalesce in this country. The politicos of Nagata-cho and the bureaucrats of Kasumigaseki have behaved so badly for so long that in an earlier time in a different place, they might have found themselves tarred, feathered, and run out of town.

Those asking the question, however, could be overlooking a spontaneous and locally based ad hoc citizen pushback against what is known as kanson minpi (the treatment of people as inferior to the government), which predates the contemporary American Tea Partiers. It is not organized, nor does it have a name—yet—but the Japanese electorate is always ready to embrace those reformers who would cut government down to size. Former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro, after all, left office following a term of five years and five months with an approval rating of 70%.

This pushback has intensified since the Democratic Party government shed their sheep’s clothing of populist rhetoric shortly after their 2009 lower house election victory and morphed into part of the problem rather than the solution.

Illustrations of the phenomenon abound throughout the archipelago, but the situation that perhaps distills both the positive and the negative aspects of the small government movement is that of Akune, Kagoshima, a city of 23,000 whose economy depends on agriculture and fishing. Here’s a previous post on affairs in Akune, written when the cement was still wet. Matters finally came to a head with an election last Sunday.

A quick review

Takehara Shin’ichi began his political career as a member of the Akune City Council with broad citizen backing; one supporter recalls that during his first election campaign for a council seat he was the only candidate to visit people door-to-door. He ran for mayor in a four-way race in 2008 and won with 36.67% of the vote.

Takehara Shin'ichi on Sunday night (Photo: Sankei Shimbun)

The theme of Mr. Takehara’s campaign and governance was “ameliorating the gap between the government and the people”. Kitami Masao wrote a book examining public sector remuneration in Japan, and he claims that government employees here can expect to receive salaries 40% higher than those in the private sector. (Sound familiar?) The new mayor revealed in 2009 that the aggregate salaries and bonuses of Akune’s 268 municipal employees were JPY 1.73 billion a year. It doesn’t leave much for municipal affairs after that amount is subtracted from the city’s annual tax revenues of JPY two billion.

He wanted to reduce the number of City Council seats from the current 16 and pay the delegates on a per diem basis instead of an annual salary of JPY four million. He also advocated large cuts in the bonuses for all municipal employees and reducing the fixed asset tax.

Of course the City Council members and Akune’s public sector employees were not amused. Twelve of the 16 council members became Takehara enemies, and they passed a no-confidence motion in the mayor in 2009, the year after his election. In the subsequent ballot Mr. Takehara ran against a single candidate and was reelected with 51.72% of the vote, for which 82.59% of the electorate turned out. That’s a narrow margin, but the people had spoken.

Even after two election victories, the mayor was still unable to pass his reforms through City Council, and that’s when events took a turn both dramatic and weird. Mr. Takehara refused to convene the council into session and began governing by decree. Those decrees included the switch to a per diem pay system for council members, which resulted in a 90% pay cut and the elimination of bonuses, the halving of bonuses to all other municipal employees (including those seconded from the prefecture), and a reduction in the fixed asset tax.

The worm turns

Despite his success at the polls, the mayor developed what can only be described as a bunker mentality, and that led to his downfall. He picked a fight with the mass media as well as City Hall, cutting back sharply on news conferences and media appearances and communicating with the public through a blog. He hung posters of municipal salaries at city offices and arbitrarily fired an employee who ripped them down. The mayor refused to rehire the employee after he won a lawsuit for reinstatement, and the court seized some of the city’s assets.

Mr. Takehara’s biggest mistake was to alienate the very people who had supported him. Last summer, he privatized the city’s nursery school and presented the act as a fait accompli. That upset parents because he took the step without prior notice and without consulting the community. The people seem not to have been upset over the privatization itself; the Japanese public more often than not supports efforts to shift public sector services to the private sector. They just want to be consulted and included in the process.

For example, two years ago this month, Hiwatashi Keisuke was reelected as the mayor of Takeo, Saga, a city of about 50,000, in a special election held to resolve a debate over privatizing the municipal hospital, which had aggregate debts of JPY 630 million. The local doctors’ association—a powerful interest group in Japanese politics—and some city council members opposed Mayor Hiwatashi’s plan to sell the hospital to private interests in Kitakyushu and launched a recall campaign. To save time and municipal turmoil, Mr. Hiwatashi resigned before the campaign had collected the required number of signatures and ran again specifically on that issue in the special election to determine his replacement. He received 54% of the vote.

A recall petition began circulating at the end of last summer in Akune, and the backers finally gathered the signatures of the required one-third of registered voters. That referendum was held on 5 December, and the recall motion passed by a mere 398 votes in an election with a 75.63% turnout.

Is the third time the charm?

The mayor chose to run again, and he was opposed by Nishihira Yoshimasa, a 37-year-old chicken rancher with no political experience who decided to become a candidate while participating in the petition drive. His initial motivation was anger after reading a mayoral blog entry in December 2009 in which the mayor seemed to favor culling the disabled from society. Mr. Nishihira’s eldest son has a disability.

The Nishihira campaign demonstrated that the mayor had restaked the yardsticks of popular perception, however. The challenger admitted that reform was required and promised to reduce municipal salaries by 15% (in the next four years, thus showing that he is a quick study when it comes to political promises). He also pledged to consider eliminating the number of City Council seats and suggested a range of from two to six. Rather than ruling by decree, however, Mr. Nishihira said he would “conduct reform legally” and govern through dialogue rather than through confrontation. He accused the mayor of self-righteousness.

Akune’s third mayoralty election in two years was held last Sunday, and Mr. Nishihira won, picking up 8,509 votes to the mayor’s 7,645. The winner received 51.4% of the votes, just a whisker under the percentage won by Mr. Takehara in 2009. The turnout was 82.39%, also slightly less than the 82.59% for the previous election.

Events in Akune became national news, overshadowing discussion of Prime Minister Kan’s Cabinet reshuffle. (The new Cabinet was announced on Friday, but the lead story on Monday morning in both the national print and broadcast media was this municipal election in a small town in the Deep South.)

Here’s the critical information: Despite attacks by national and sub-national politicians–Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Katayama Yoshihiro said that rule by decree was illegal and invalid, though there was no legal way to overturn them—harsh coverage from the media, and behavior that veered uncomfortably close to that of Lieutenant Commander Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, Mr. Takehara still commands the loyalty of nearly half of the electorate. The margin of victory for his opponent was razor-thin considering all that had transpired over the past two years.

It’s not that the Japanese are pining for a strong man on a horse—far from it. That a man so clearly over the top came so close to winning yet again indicates that many in Akune still support his small government position and just wanted the controversy to end. Their backing of a flawed advocate is yet more evidence that voters throughout the country are desperate for politicians who understand that the state is the servant of the people, and not the other way around.

No one realizes that more keenly than the Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s newspaper of the left. I read two of the articles on the election they published on their Japanese-language website Sunday night, one of which ran to two screens. They were exultant that Mr. Takehara had been turned out of office and proclaimed it a victory for democracy. That it was, but the Asahi neglected to include in either of the articles information essential for reporting the results of any election—the number of votes the candidates received.

That cannot have been an oversight. Regardless of how often the Big Four national newspapers may criticize the government, they know that a large segment of the public considers them to be part of the same Ruling Class as the government and Kasumigaseki bureaucracy and just as much to blame. The Asahi did not want its readers to know the level of support Mr. Takehara received.

The next chapter

The story in Akune does not end here. On his first day in office, Mayor Nishihira said he would revisit the municipal salary cuts and the per diem salary structure because they were implemented illegally. He also removed the deputy mayor appointed by his predecessor. With so many people in his city demanding a downsizing of municipal government, Mr. Nishihira will have to find some real solutions or find himself on the business end of a popular revolt four years down the road.

Apart from the question of the legality of the decrees, surely another factor informing the new mayor’s position was the realization that he’ll have to work with the same City Council members, at least for the time being. How long that will last is an open question, however. Former Mayor Takehara and his backers had already set in motion a campaign to dissolve City Council through a recall, turnabout being fair play. That referendum will be held on 20 February.

We can expect to see a lot more of this behavior throughout the country in the future, regardless of what people call it. Indeed, it’s already happening in the Osaka Metro District and Nagoya, the country’s second- and third-largest cities. The weekly Sunday Mainichi suggested earlier this month that Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru and Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi could be the spearhead of a Japanese Tea Party operating from the regional level rather than the national legislative level. Mr. Kawamura wants to cut taxes and City Council salaries by half. (Sound familiar?)

As long as the mountebanks of the political class continue to be the venal, incompetent, and unresponsive time-servers that they are—and one need look no further than the current prime minister—this movement won’t be evaporating. Imagine what might happen if it can find an advocate without the liabilities of Takehara Shin’ichi.

*****
It’s not a good idea to fight the law of the people. The law wins.

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Whither Japan

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 18, 2011

STEPHEN HARNER provides professional investment advice services in Japan and China. Mr. Harner was based in Japan for 12 years during the 80s and 90s, but then went to live and work in China. He recently returned, and as a sideline started a blog called Whither Japan, which you can read here. Give it a click and see what you think.

If nothing else, you should find his opinion of Fujiwara Masahiko’s book, Kokka no Hinkaku (The Dignity of the State), intriguing.

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Letter bombs (14): Into the unknown

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 17, 2011

NOBEL LAUREATE Friedrich Hayek once wrote, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

The first American to win the Nobel Prize in economics, Paul Samuelson, wrote during an economic crisis in the 1980s:

“What we know about the global financial crisis is that we don’t know very much…It would be reassuring and dramatic to declare that (officials in charge of economic matters) had succeeded. But the duller truth is that we don’t know — and neither do they.”

Finally, testifying before a congressional committee in the U.S. last year, George Mason University economist Russell Roberts said about the stimulus:

“There is no reliable way of knowing whether the stimulus package has averted a worse situation — or whether it’s part of the problem. There is no consensus in the economics profession on this question, and no empirical evidence that can settle the dispute.”

That should set the table for two articles that reader Marellus sent in, the conclusions of which couldn’t be more different.

The first is by Mike “Mish” Shedlock, who has a website called Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis. Mish riffs off of former Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito’s statement earlier this month that the Japanese economy was “approaching the edge of a cliff”.

Mish added:

“The…statement “Japan is approaching the edge of a cliff” is a sure sign Japan has already fallen off a cliff. Politicians do not admit problems until it is too late to fix them. Thus, we have official admission that Japan’s demographic time bomb has just gone off. The only question now is how quickly the problem escalates.”

His argument is compelling, though he misses a golden opportunity here:

“Raising taxes in the midst of deflation hardly seems right, but the alternative is default or further escalation of government debt.”

There’s no mention anywhere of the alternative of either cutting government spending or not exacerbating the existing debt, which neither Democratic Party government in Japan has chosen to do. Indeed, the Hatoyama budget was the highest in Japanese history, and the initial proposals for the Kan budget for FY 2011 are slightly higher. They have added the enormous burden of child allowance payments, to cite one example, and failed to keep the fanciful promises they made for funding them when in opposition. Of course they knew the promises were counterfeit when they made them, but the idea of standing on the edge of the economic cliff didn’t bother them then.

Mr. Shedlock is properly scornful of the “government buffoons” and their Keynesian schemes, but overlooks that the current government, in its domestic policies, is just as far to the left as the Obama administration during its first two years in office, and for the same reasons. He also seems to be unaware that in Japan, fingers also point to the Finance Ministry and its enormous power to control policy. (To be fair, few people outside of Japan talk about it.) Higher taxes and a growing government are just dandy with them; it funnels even more power and control in their direction, as we’ve often pointed out here.

Curiously, John Butler writing for The Amphora Report looks at several of the same phenomena but sees something else entirely. He writes:

(T)his brings us to the most important point of all, which is to compare the entire Japanese economy, public and private, to those of the West. As a legacy of decades of large trade and current-account surpluses with the rest of the world, Japan has a cumulative net foreign credit position of some 57% of GDP, whereas the US and UK have net foreign debt positions of around 19% and 22%, respectively, with the euro-area roughly in balance. This is reflected in part in Japan’s large official foreign exchange reserves of just over $1tn, the bulk of which are held in the form of US Treasury securities. (The US and UK have essentially no foreign exchange reserves. The euro-area has some $200bn.) Now, why are these figures so important? Think about it: If you are approaching retirement, do you want to owe other people money, or do you want them to owe you? Japan may be an ageing society but it is an ageing society with a private sector that has saved prudently for retirement! Japan may have a huge government debt but it can service that debt for an extended period by gradually winding down its massive net foreign credit position.

He adds:

One objection that might be raised at this point is that perhaps, notwithstanding a large net foreign credit position, Japan’s private sector has nevertheless not saved enough to fully fund its demographic-driven future liabilities. Fair enough, in fact we would agree that it hasn’t. But please answer this: Who has?

And:

We’d much rather be in line to receive a fully-funded Japanese pension–despite the demographics–than a ponzi-style pay-as-you-go and hope-the-stock-market-always-rises western-style one!

Alas, the Kan government is now talking about pension reform, and one possible “reform” they’re considering is implementing that same Western Ponzi scheme pension plan. Perhaps that’s what they mean by “putting people first”.

He also makes the point that Japan would benefit more than other countries by raising the retirement age, first, because the normal retirement age is 60, and second, Japanese tend to live longer and healtheir lives than people in the West.

He concludes:

“We do sympathise with the (fictional) Mr Mizuno of our narrative above. He is perfectly justified in having some serious concerns about the future of his country. But it is the now-retiring baby boomers of the West who, in our minds, have reason to be outright terrified.”

Both Mr. Shedlock and Mr. Gibson focus on Japan’s infrastructure investments, but neither mentions that one of the DPJ’s campaign slogans in 2009 was to call for a shift “from concrete to people”. That, combined with the DPJ’s unwillingness to privatize anything–they’re backed by public sector unions, after all–would tend to postpone any benefits Mr. Gibson sees by selling off some of the public infrastructure.

And, as is usual among Western observers, neither man mentions that the Koizumi and Abe administrations managed to whittle the annual budget deficits from JPY 20 trillion + when Mr. Koizumi took office to JPY seven trillion when Mr. Abe left office. It is almost double that first figure in the current fiscal year under Mr. Hatoyama’s budget.

Those looking for any improvement with the current government should keep in mind that Mr. Hatoyama had two Finance Ministers: The first was Fujii Hirohisa, the former head of the Finance Ministry’s Budget Bureau (i.e., the paymaster for Big Government), and Kan Naoto himself. Mr. Kan is now the prime minister and Mr. Fujii has just been brought back into the Cabinet as the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary.

If the Japanese economy is on the edge of the cliff, it is because the LDP successors to Messrs. Koizumi and Abe reversed course, and the DPJ government decided it would be just tickety-boo to walk right up to the edge and see how far they could lean over.

Who has a better grasp of the real situation, Mr. Shedlock or Mr. Gibson?

The professors Samuelson, Hayek, and Roberts had the first word in this post, and it’s just as fitting to give them the last.

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Letter bombs | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

A scientific application for C2H5OH

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 17, 2011

MUSICIANS AND ARTISTS have long looked to the grape to inspire their muse, and esoteric religious philosopher/entertainer Alan Watts maintained that having a few belts before meditation could advance one’s spiritual progress by six months. In fact, Watts would drink so much before his lectures that he sometimes zoned out at the podium. His adoring but unsuspecting listeners patiently waited for him to return to Earth because they thought the Zen cosmonaut was exploring the farthest reaches of inner space.

Liquor, however, has not been thought to be conducive to the rigorous exactitude demanded of scientific experiments–until now:

Yoshihiko Takano and other researchers at the National Institute for Materials Science in Japan were in the process of creating a certain kind of superconductor by putting a compound in hot water and soaking it for hours. They also soaked the compound in a mixture of water and ethanol. It appears the process was going well, because the scientists decided to have a little party. The party included sake, whisky, various wines, shochu, and beer. At a certain point, the researchers decided to try soaking the compound in the many, many liquors they had on hand and seeing how they compared to the more conventional soaking liquids.

Sounds as if they would have been right at home at my college fraternity. After some of our parties, I was convinced that I too had become a certain kind of superconductor. (Ethanol, by the way, is the name of the type of alcohol used as a recreational drug.)

No, I am not making this up. In fact, here’s the summary of their paper:

We found that hot commercial alcohol drinks are much effective to induce superconductivity in FeTe0.8S0.2 compared to water, ethanol and water-ethanol mixture. Both the highest zero resistivity temperature of 7.8 K and superconducting volume fraction of 62.4% are observed for the FeTe0.8S0.2 sample heated in red wine. Any elements in alcohol drinks, other than water and pure alcohol, would play an important role to induce superconductivity.

Red wine far outperformed ethanol and water, which could achieve a superconducting volume fraction of just 15%. Even shochu kicked the numbers up to 23%.

The more one thinks about it, the more potential applications of this variant of the scientific method arise. Wouldn’t a great place to start be the Chicken Littles of the anthropogenic global warming movement? After all, they were converted into an esoteric religious cult long ago!

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Posted in I couldn't make this up if I tried, Science and technology | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Nengajo 2011

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 16, 2011

CENTURIES OF TRADITION inform the festivities during the New Year holiday in Japan, making it an analogue for the Christmas holidays in countries with a Christian orientation. That includes customs, activities, and events, both semi-sacred and secular, specific to the season. For example, just as others send Christmas cards, the Japanese send New Year’s cards to family, friends, and business associates called nengajo. If they’re mailed by a certain date, the post office will deliver them smack dab on 1 January, but, as with Christmas cards, their late arrival is acceptable.

Here’s the Ampontan nengajo for 2011 with my apologies for its delayed delivery, which pushes the limits for acceptable late arrivals. As we get ready for our Great Leap Forward in the year of the rabbit, let’s take a quick look back at what happened in Japan during yearend 2010.

It started with a thorough housecleaning, as December is the month for spring cleaning in these parts. That includes Shinto shrines, which are de rigeur as a destination on New Year’s Eve or the first three days of the New Year for those who follow the tradition. Instead of climbing on tall ladders in those clothes for susubarai, or cleaning the dust from the eaves, the shrine priests and the miko (the Shinto equivalent of altar boys) make it easy on themselves by attaching bamboo grass leaves to poles so they can swipe from the ground. Here, eight priests and miko at the Gokoku jinja in Oita City, Oita are wielding four-meter-long poles in their devotion to ensure that cleanliness is next to godliness.

They also hung a 10-meter-long shimenawa, a rope made of rice straw denoting a sacred space. This one weighed about 200 kilos, and was made with the help of senior citizens clubs and veterans groups. The straw came from rice grown in a special field called a shinsenden (offering/paddy).

Everything—everything—gets cleaned at yearend, and that includes the 24 loggerhead and green turtles at the sea turtle museum in Tokushima City. Here’s Hamataro getting sponged to remove the moss and crud, after the big guy reached the turtle equivalent of kanreki (age 60) this year. They also changed the water in the pool to give their charges something clean to gurk around in. The museum likes to encourage visitors this time of year because turtles are traditionally thought to bring good luck, and it’s hard to keep a turtle in one’s pocket instead of a rabbit’s foot.

Shinto shrines aren’t the only ones who settle the heavenly accounts at yearend—Buddhist temples get involved too. The priests at the Naritasan Shinsho-ji, a temple in Narita, Chiba, near Tokyo’s international airport, burned all the ofuda amulets from the year in their annual ceremony to give thanks for blessings to Fudo Myo’o, who is one nasty-looking dude to judge from the photo at the link. He’s a divinity reputed to convert anger into salvation and who also brings financial blessings.

It took 15 priests to create a fire from a 1.5 meter high pile of cryptomeria branches to burn all 50,000 of the tapped-out amulets while parishioners prayed. The temple says the ofuda are the body of Fudo Myo’o, (an East Asian echo of the Eucharist?) and returning them to flames gives thanks for health and safety.

The temple expected as many as three million visitors during the three-day New Year period.

Shrines need extra help to deal with all the people who turn up on their doorstep, so in addition to serving as the equivalent of altar boys, the miko play the role of Santa’s helpers. They hire young women specifically for this role to handle the public during the yearend holidays to augment the miko already on their staff. The recruits undergo a day of training, during which they’re taught how to properly conduct themselves on the premises, receive guests, and how to wear the unfamiliar clothing—the white hakui and red hibakama. The new miko above were among the 80 local university and junior college students hired by the Suwa-jinja in Nagasaki.

If there’s anything better than a photo of miko trying on clothes, it’s two photos of miko trying on clothes, especially when they’re having so much fun. Here are some ladies learning the ropes—or perhaps the knots—from the full-timers at the Dazaifu Tenman-gu in Dazaifu, Fukuoka. Dazaifu is a large shrine, and they also hired 80 part-timers to work until the 7th. They expected two million people to visit during the first three days of the new year, the largest turnout in Kyushu.

Once they’ve finished decorating their bodies, it’s time to decorate the premises. There are almost as many types of New Year’s decorations as there are Christmas decorations, and one of them is this shimekazari being hung by Tokushima City Mayor Hara Hideki on the front gate at the Chuo Park in the city. He had to stand on a four-meter high ladder to put up the one-meter-long shimekazari, which weighed three kilograms.

It’s actually being hung to greet spring—Shinshun—which is a synonym for New Year’s, and was up until just yesterday. The gate naturally had to be cleaned before His Honor ascended the ladder, and that chore was handled by two city officials. As yet another demonstration of how that old time religion is still good enough for many, this is an older custom that had fallen out of practice but was restored in 1989. A matching decoration was hung on the entrance to the gardens of the old Tokushima castle located next door.

Another New Year’s decoration is the kadomatsu, which is placed in front of homes as an abode for the divinities. This 3.5-meter-high number was set up in front of the Ohmi-jingu, a shrine in Otsu, Shiga, on 13 December. It took two hours to make using mahonia berries and flowers as well as the traditional pine, bamboo, and plum. The Otsuans used to cut down the pine trees for their kadomatsu until six years ago, when they decided to get ecological and dig up a pine tree on the shrine grounds instead. They replanted it on the 15th.

Some shrines don’t use a kadomatsu, however. The Ikuta-jinja in Kobe creates a tree-like facsimile using 2,000 cryptomeria branches, a talisman the shrine has long used for good luck in the New Year. It too stood until the 15th.

The folks at the Ikuta shrine chose cryptomeria instead of pine because centuries ago a pine tree fell over during a flood and smashed the main shrine building. These are priests, after all, and they know how to pay attention to omens when they see one.

A group of about 30 priests and miko wrapped a 5-meter-high pole in straw and then arranged the branches.

Now for the souvenirs. Here’s a group of miko at the Asakunitsuko-jinja, in Koriyama, Fukushima, making hamaya, the arrows sold as amulets that drive away evil spirits, and which some also think provide safety to the home and prosperity to business. Dang, I need me one of those!

The four miko attached small trinkets to the hamaya that symbolize wishes for children or a bountiful harvest, and others that represent the rabbit. They made 5,000, and since they’ve been at this for centuries, they probably have a good idea of demand before they start. The proper way to dispose of these arrows, by the way, is to burn them in a ceremony at the end of the year, as with the ofuda amulets above. And no, they don’t shoot any flaming arrows!

The hamaya arrows are made and sold throughout the country, but some shrines think locally and produce unique items. For example, the Urahoro-jinja in Urahoro-cho Hokkaido, makes and sells oppai mori, or literally, breast protectors. The shrine has a reputation nationwide as a Mecca (to mix religious metaphors) for those wishing to have children, give safe birth, or give milk during nursing. That means their oppai mori is a popular product.

The custom derives from the tutelary deity for the shrine, which was a breast-shaped bump on a nearby large nara tree (called the common oak in English). Some women who had difficulty giving milk and went to the shrine to pray for help in early 20th century had their wish granted. The tree eventually collapsed, but the priests took their eyes off the sparrow and switched them to the important part to salvage it. That section of the tree was moved to a new shrine in 1982 at the request of the Urahoroans.

Sold for JPY 1,000 since 2006, the oppai mori are made from the wood of the nara tree and given a decoration based on a painting by a local artist. A nearby studio produces them individually in the shape of the human breast. Some have straps so they can be used for cell phones, and I’ll bet that’s a conversation starter.

Jack Seward, the unofficial patron saint of students of the Japanese language and country, died last year at the age of 86. Any native English speaker with any interest at all in fluency beyond a standard textbook has read his memoir/manual, Japanese in Action. Here’s one passage discussing local drinking habits:

The large family of gods (in Shinto mythology) who founded Japan were heavy sake drinkers. They were often drunk, and the mythology nowhere implies censure for this drunkenness. If it was good enough for the gods, why not for us? the Japanese ask. Think of what our attitude toward drinking might be if the Bible told us that Christ and his disciples met every afternoon at a Jerusalem cocktail lounge and got glassy-eyed.

So now you won’t be surprised that the Sanzo Inari-jinja in Fukuyama, Hiroshima, sells divine sake made by a brewer at nearby Minoshima-cho for New Year’s visitors. They even had a special packaging ceremony during which the head priest filled the first large bottle. He was followed by the three Misses Sanzo Inari, who filled 100-milliliter bottles and attached labels.

In the good old days, the parishioners could have a swig on site when they made their New Year’s visits, but the shrine changed its policy in 2007 and now only gives out bottles of the heavenly brew. They say it’s to prevent DWI, but it might also prevent some guys from getting any ideas about volunteering for oppai mori duty after eyeballing the young miko. Noshima Naomi, one of the misses, said:

We did this with the wish that people would feel good (kimochi yoku) as they greeted the new year.

I’ll bet!

Mochi rice cakes are a popular traditional snack and soup ingredient in Japan, and during the New Year, they’re also used to decorate the home. These are called kagami mochi, and some families still pound them out in the yard for the holidays.

The ingredient is a particularly glutinous form of rice, and Takanezawa-machi in Tochigi is a big rice production center. That’s how the local Yasuzumi-jinja got the big idea to decorate their shrine with jumbo mochi. The priests and miko don’t have to make it themselves, as the locals donate it as thanks for a good year and supplication for a good harvest next year. The mochi cakes they use have gotten jumboer over the years, and now weigh 500 kilograms. As you can see from the video above, they need some equipment to help haul it. The lower level is 110 centimeters in diameter, while the second is 80. The miko tote only the top level.

Though many people pay the traditional first visit to a shrine on the first, any time through the third is fine. The photo above is of the Taga-jinja in Taga-cho, Shiga, the shrine with the largest turnout in the region. About 160,000 people showed up on the first day of the year to pray and buy amulets. That was about 10,000 fewer than last year, but equilibrium was achieved when 150,000 people showed up on the 2nd, 10,000 more than last year.

The holiday shrine pilgrimage is an ecumenical affair, as even Buddhist priests come too. The priests at Kofuku-ji in Nara joined the Shinto priests on the 2nd in a prayer for peace in while paying their respects at the local Kasuga Taisha (a World Heritage site) and its affiliated Wakamiya-jinja. The Buddhist priests used to read sutras at the shrine every day during the Edo period, but that practice ended when the government legally forced the separation of the institutions during the Meiji period. They still hold joint ceremonies once a year, and this year the procession included nine priests of both varieties and two miko. They offered sake and rice during the Nikkuhajime-shiki ceremony and the priests took their chance to read some sutras. They they trooped over to Wakamiya and the Buddhists read the heart sutra just to make sure.

To top it off

Once upon a time before video games, children had special amusements on New Year’s—kite-flying, hanetsuki (a type of badminton) and top spinning. There are 450 years of tradition behind the Hakata koma, or tops, in Fukuoka. Upholding that tradition is the current Shuraku Chikushi, a woman, who describes how she maintains that tradition, performs, and makes the tops she uses during her performances in this fascinating English-language interview. The interview tells you as much about Japan and the Japanese as I could—including her intention to pass the art down to her taiko-playing, jazz-listening son. There are no videos on the Net, alas, but that photo of her balancing a spinning top on the edge of a folding fan is still impressive.

Akemashite o-medeto gozaimasu!

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Posted in Holidays, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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