AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Archive for April, 2011

Kicking back with Ichiro

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, April 30, 2011

IT’S SOMETHING of a surprise that it’s still possible to run across articles or website posts by people both in Japan and in the Anglosphere that would have the reader believe Ozawa Ichiro is just the man the country needs—a real reformer hounded by threatened bureaucrats and the entrenched interests.

It’s a surprise because of what it is possible to say with certainty about him. Rikuzankai, his organization for managing political funds, is the only group of its kind in Japan that owns real estate. (Let that sink in for a bit.) The organization’s real estate portfolio is worth several million dollars. He sued a weekly magazine when it reported the name on the deeds of those properties could be interpreted to mean that he, rather than the group, is the owner. He lost the suit and lost the appeal. A former aide, Okubo Takanori, admitted that Mr. Ozawa removed the equivalent of $US four million in cash from a safe in his home and gave it to him to purchase more property for the fund management group. (That amount of cash weighed roughly 90 pounds.) Another man told the monthly Bungei Shunju that he helped the same aide remove boxes of incriminating documents related to the receipt of payments from construction companies from Mr. Ozawa’s office hours before a team of prosecutors arrived with a search warrant, and parked them with the politician’s attorney. (That did not result in a lawsuit, as far as I know.)

So it should be no surprise that last Wednesday, Kawamura Hisashi, the former president of Mizutani Construction, testified in Tokyo District Court that he had handed over JPY 100 million in two installments—in a paper bag—to the same aide who had received the 90 pounds of cash directly from the Ozawa safe.

Said Mr. Kawamura:

“I was asked for the money by (the former aide) Okubo Takanori at Mr. Ozawa’s chambers in the office building for lower house Diet members, and I paid him later.”

He explained his reasons:

“His office is very powerful, and I heard it would be impossible to participate in the local dam project if they were opposed.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Ozawa protests that he is as pure as the driven snow. We could also mention his general attitude, which can be summed up as, “If you’re not my lackey, you’re my enemy,” and behavior that has led more than one politician to refer to him as a “fascist bastard”, but that’s another story.

Yet here’s an article that suggests Ozawa Ichiro is the victim of character assassination because he is a danger to the power structure. It also would have us believe the people are up in arms on his behalf:

“Members of the public have made their sentiments clear, with around 2,500 Japanese from all walks of life recently holding marches in Tokyo against the news media and the public prosecutor’s office. The march was organized through blogs and Twitter. Similar events against “Ozawa-bashing” were held in Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka and Niigata, but ignored by newspapers and television broadcasters.”

What this faux journalist ignores is that members of the public have indeed made their sentiments clear. Mr. Ozawa was so disliked by “Japanese from all walks of life” in early 2009 that his continued presence as Democratic Party president nearly scuttled the party’s chances of replacing the LDP as the ruling party. The only time Kan Naoto has ever received significant positive poll ratings as prime minister is when he replaced the less-than-zero Hatoyama Yukio and shut Mr. Ozawa and his allies out of important roles in his Cabinet. (Those ratings evaporated when Mr. Kan added up to less than zero himself.) Public opinion surveys show more than half the country thinks Ozawa Ichiro should resign his Diet seat and leave politics altogether, and his negatives range from 70-80%.

Some might be surprised, therefore, to discover that in another poll released last week, Ozawa Ichiro topped the list of politicians those surveyed would like to see as prime minister. A closer look at the survey is sufficient to lower any raised eyebrows, however. The list of potential candidates was remarkable for its absence of anyone of obvious prime ministerial caliber. Further, Mr. Ozawa was the choice of only 8%+ of the respondents. Finally, it shouldn’t be surprising that after watching the current group of chowderheads in the Kantei bungle the national business after the earthquake and tsunami, some people might conclude the situation requires a hard guy who can Get Things Done.

It would be an unlikely combination of circumstances that would see Ozawa Ichiro return to a position of leadership, either on stage or behind the curtain, but anything’s possible before the last act is performed.

Meanwhile, for a look at the most flounder you’ll see outside of a fish market, amuse yourself with these attempts to come to grips with the Ozawa phenomenon. The first is written by a Ph.D candidate, which is apparent from the nearly impenetrable prose and the assumption that his readers will know off the top of their heads what Aeschylus wrote about lions in the city. The second is called Why Ozawa is Wiser than His Critics—no, really—offered by a “senior research associate” who also thought Sengoku Yoshito was an “able shepherd”. Just a few months later, the able shepherd had lost his Cabinet position after becoming the object of universal loathing and the man who is wiser than his critics was suspended by his party for his problems with the law.

How does one get to be a senior research associate, anyway?

*****
Now that we’ve had the news, here’s the news analysis from Monalisa. Hey, that’s what it says!

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Now what

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 28, 2011

In the several elections held since the beginning of the 21st century, the (Japanese) people have continued to shout, “Affairs cannot be entrusted to the bureaucracy,” and “Grow out of bureaucracy-led politics”.
- Sakaiya Tai’ichi

In the past, they would change the era name to stop ongoing natural disasters, but isn’t a change of government what’s needed now?
- Kan Naoto, 23 October 2004, on his blog after visiting Ehime and Kochi to view typhoon damage

SUNDAY was election day for the second and final round of sub-national elections. Even Prime Minister Kan Naoto atypically admitted the results represented a defeat for his ruling Democratic Party. His assertion that none of it was his fault, however, was all too typical.

Part two consisted primarily of balloting for chief municipal executives and assemblies. Politicians at this level in Japan are less likely to have a formal party affiliation; 60% of the winners in the assembly elections do not belong to a party, and those who do tend to be associated with the smaller parties. Nationwide, the rank of municipal seats by party before the election started with New Komeito, followed by the Communists, the Liberal-Democratic Party, and the DPJ. That ranking is unchanged after this election, and the DPJ’s gain in their aggregate seat total was marginal at best.

At the top of the tickets, DPJ party candidates went head-to-head with opposition candidates in 10 elections for chief municipal executive and lost seven. One of their victories was the reelection of the incumbent mayor of Oita City. This was the fourth such sub-national election for the DPJ since their founding, and these results, combined with their dismal showing in Round One, demonstrate the ruling party of the national government is losing ground with the electorate rather than gaining.

The defining action by the party that demonstrates its current predicament was a non-action—they failed to contest a by-election for the lower house Diet seat a DPJ member vacated in a futile campaign for Nagoya mayor in February. That failure was the focus of post-election commentary in Japan. Said the Nishinippon Shimbun:

“Conspicuous from the first round of elections was the party’s losses due to uncontested elections, and their cooperation with the LDP and other parties to back candidates. While this exposes the weakness of their local organizations, which are incapable of developing candidates of their own, in many cases they also avoided running candidates in elections they thought they would lose. The DPJ has a heavy responsibility for failing to face the voters and offer policy and electoral choices, despite being the ruling power in national government.”

The poor DPJ showing was the signal for the resumption of moves to find some way—any way—to get rid of Prime Minister Kan. The key word is “resume”; were it not for the earthquake and tsunami, he would already have been disposed. The downside to this good news is that replacing Mr. Kan might be akin to a lothario ditching a girl who gave him the crabs and winding up dating a girl with chlamydia.

First the electoral truth, and then the consequences.

OSAKA

Momentum continued to gather for Osaka Ishin no Kai, the regional party led by Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru, as their candidate Inoue Tetsuya defeated the incumbent mayor of Suita, who was supported by the DPJ and two other parties. It was Mr. Inoue’s first election campaign.

DPJ Diet member Tarutoko Shinji resigned his position as chairman of the local party federation to take responsibility for the party’s poor showing in Osaka this month. Mr. Tarutoko’s strategy was to confront Gov. Hashimoto (a switch from 2009, when the party went out of their way to kiss his posterior), and that nothing turned out to be a real uncool hand. Some party members now want to rethink their support of Osaka Mayor Hiramatsu Kunio, a Hashimoto critic, in his re-election bid this fall.

In the 17 cities of Osaka Prefecture, New Komeito and Your Party elected all of their candidates. The DPJ elected 46 of 56, or 82%, (down from 95% four years ago), and the Communist Party 63 of 73, or 86% (down from 96% four years ago). Eight candidates from local reform parties were elected in three cities, including the Ryoma Project x Suita Shinsenkai.

AICHI

Former LDP lower house MP Niwa Hideki regained the seat he lost in 2009 in Aichi #6, defeating freelance reporter Kawamura Akiyo of Tax Reduction Japan by a margin so large city employees should be congratulated for taking the time to finish counting the votes. TRJ, led by Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi, was hoping their tsunami of a victory in February would carry them into the national legislature, but in this campaign they didn’t generate a ripple. Name recognition, a wish for post-disaster stability, and Ms. Kawamura’s inexperience may have been factors. (The two Kawamuras are unrelated—different kanji for the kawa.) The LDP focused its attention on this election, and party head Tanigaki Sadakazu came to campaign several times. Mr. Niwa also had the de facto support of New Komeito. This is the race the DPJ was too chicken to run in.

The results for the TRJ were so poor Mr. Kawamura confided to an old friend in the DPJ several days before the election that it would have better to give it a pass. Nevertheless, he made some progress on his agenda in Nagoya despite the election results. His party offered a bill to permanently halve the salaries of city council. The LDP and the DPJ countered with a bill providing for a temporary salary cut with a neutral third party determining the amount. None of them had the votes to get their bills passed, so they compromised by passing a bill for a temporary 50% reduction with no time period specified. Mr. Kawamura seems to have gotten the better end of the deal for now.

AKUNE

Events in Akune, Kagoshima, over the past year have received prominent coverage nationwide. Akune is a small city, and most of its revenue goes to public employee remuneration. Former Mayor Takehara Shin’ichi had strong public backing for his plan to pay city council members on a per diem basis instead of straight salaries. When the council refused to pass his legislation, however, he started governing by decree and the public turned against him. He was recalled in a close vote a few months ago, and lost the campaign to replace himself by another close vote. But when the new mayor reinstated the old salary system, Mr. Takehara’s supporters succeeded in having the entire city council recalled.

The new election for the 16 council members was held on Sunday, and both factions ran 11 candidates. The anti-Takehara group, mainly city council veterans, campaigned on a promise to end confusion in government and won 10 seats, while the pro-Takehara group of amateurs won six seats on a platform of reducing the number of assembly members, reinstating the per diem pay system, and cutting the fixed asset tax. The group of veterans also received about 1,000 more votes in the aggregate.

The winners will still have to mind their Ps and Qs, however. The candidate who received the most votes was Takehara Emi, the former mayor’s sister, who was part of the faction calling for downsized government.

TOKYO

The DPJ lost six of eight de facto head-to-head elections among mayors and ward heads in the Tokyo Metro District. The party also must have been discouraged by Murata Nobuyuki’s failure to gain a seat as a delegate to the Meguro Ward assembly. Mr. Murata, a freelance journalist, is the husband of DPJ national poster girl and reform minister Ren Ho. His candidacy developed no traction despite an early declaration. Neither Mrs. Murata’s speeches on his behalf nor her photograph on his campaign posters helped. There were 55 candidates for 36 seats. Mr. Murata finished in 42nd place with 893 votes, 457 votes shy of a seat.

Another Tokyo election of interest was that for the chief municipal officer of Setagaya Ward. The winner was Hosaka Nobuto of the Social Democratic Party (Japan’s loony left), who campaigned on an anti-nuclear power platform. The mass media thought his victory was Very Important News Indeed and treated it as such.

What they found less worthy of reporting was that the local LDP party organizations failed to agree on a single candidate, so two candidates split the LDP vote in the ward. The party organization for the Tokyo Metro District backed Hanawa Takafumi, while the organization for Setagaya supported Kawakami Kazuhiko. Mr. Hosaka received roughly 84,000 votes, Mr. Hanawa 78,000, and Mr. Kawakami 60,000. Had there been a single LDP candidate, the news from Setagaya on election night might have been Not Very Important At All.

Nagata-cho

Sakaiya Tai’ichi once held high positions in the predecessor of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. He is now a freelance writer, commentator, and harsh critic of the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy in general, the Finance Ministry in particular, and the Bank of Japan and the domestic banking industry to boot. It would be impossible to improve on his summary of the DPJ government since taking power:

“The DPJ boasted that by eliminating waste from the budget they could squeeze out JPY 7 trillion in fiscal resources. They offered such new policies as the child allowance, the elimination of expressway tolls, and subsidies to individual farm households. The people were doubtful, but they expected the party to do something new. That’s why they won 308 seats in the 2009 lower house election.

“But the people were betrayed. The new DPJ government immediately became captives of the bureaucracy, and amakudari flourished. The ministers merely read out by rote the texts the bureaucrats had written for them. The budget reviews were broadcast live, but because the Finance Ministry had drawn up the scenario, they cut out only JPY 700 billion. That’s about the same total the LDP came up with when they were in power.

“Their promise to reduce civil servant salaries by 20% was an utter lie. In addition, their ignorance and lack of information in foreign policy and defense matters was exposed with the Okinawa base issue, as well as with the Senkakus and the Northern Territories.

“That’s why the DPJ has continued to lose elections since 2010. They defended 54 seats in the July 2010 upper house election and lost 10. They lost a by-election for a Hokkaido lower house seat that October, and also lost the elections for governor of Wakayama and mayor of Fukuoka City and Kanazawa. This year they’ve been defeated in local elections in Aichi and Nagoya.”

Mr. Sakaiya left out one other complaint, but Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru finished it for him:

“The DPJ has to distance itself from public employee unions. I think popular sentiment when they took control of government was for a change in the public sector.”

The expression Uma no mimi ni nenbutsu—Buddhist sutras in a horse’s ear—would seem to be applicable.

The Kan administration’s post-earthquake behavior is just one of several reasons for the party’s electile dysfunction, but as the most recent demonstration of that dysfunction, it’s a convenient place for politicos to pitch a tent—even for those who are supposed to be their allies. Shimoji Mikio, secretary-general of the People’s New Party and technically part of the ruling coalition, gave the party some excellent advice:

“That the Kan administration’s response to the disaster is not understood by the people is reflected in the election results. Their continued election losses make even clearer the people’s lack of trust in the government. They should reevaluate their approach to policy and organization in light of these results.”

More sutras for the horse.

Sunrise Party Japan leader Hiranuma Takeo also found their approach to organization wanting:

“The government has created more than 20 councils to deal with earthquake relief and Fukushima, but their duties overlap. The people are scornful, so we must change the trend of politics.”

No one was more scornful than Keidanren Chairman Yonekura Hiroaki, who said on the 26th:

“The leadership’s erroneous instructions were the source of the confusion (after the earthquake).”

Referring to the Cabinet’s boast that it had declared a moratorium on their travel overseas to deal with the recovery efforts, Mr. Yonekura said:

“A Cabinet that does its job properly should stay at home and take charge of affairs, but if people incapable of properly performing their jobs do us the favor of leaving, I wouldn’t care.”

Exposed

It might well be a waste of energy to hold Mr. Kan and the rest of the DPJ leadership in contempt. They seem at times to be living on another plane of existence. A Fuji-Sankei poll last week asked those surveyed if the prime minister had demonstrated leadership in dealing with Fukushima. The answers:

Yes: 13.4%
No: 79.7%

The losers of an election in a democracy are supposed to accept defeat gracefully. They are expected to acknowledge that the people have spoken and accept their verdict. The standards for accepting responsibility in Japan are higher still—those in positions of authority are expected to resign. Indeed, the head of the Aichi federation of DPJ parties, lower house member Maki Yoshio, said after the elections: “I will resign the position because I don’t want the voters to think this is a party of people who don’t take responsibility.”

Contrast that with the behavior of the party’s national leaders. Election campaign committee chairman Ishii Hajime offered his resignation at first, saying:

“The DPJ was defeated in the election and it was beginning to seem as if no one would take responsibility.”

But party Secretary-General Okada Katsuya said that wouldn’t be necessary:

“The results are better than the last time. Resigning by itself is not a way to take responsibility.”

So Mr. Ishii withdrew his resignation.

For his part, Kan Naoto has exasperated many because he wouldn’t recognize the concepts of accepting responsibility and gracefully accepting the will of the people if they walked up and bit him:

“Different people have said that (the DPJ) lost because our response to the earthquake was bad, but that’s not right. Our response to the earthquake has been sound.”

In fact, he has his own view on what constitutes the responsible course of action. When asked if he would resign, he said:

“Abandoning my responsibility is not the path I should take.”

He can’t say “Après moi le déluge” because there’s already been one in the Tohoku region.

It gets worse:

“That I am in this position (at this time) is fate. The people have a quite favorable opinion of what we’ve done so far.”

People who would be national leaders must realize everything they’ve said or done will be exposed, but Mr. Kan hasn’t made it there yet. When confronted with his blog post quoted at the top of this article, this is the best he could do:

“I can’t say right away whether I wrote that or not.”

The prime minister isn’t the only DPJ leader to have failed to notice it is no longer possible to hide one’s public past in the information age. Reporters asked Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio about poll results showing the public was extremely unhappy with the government’s handling of Fukushima. Mr. Edano’s usual response to these questions is that there are ups and downs in individual polls, and that he won’t respond to each one; i.e., the ones that make his party look bad. He should have stuck with that line instead of what he actually said this time:

“It’s natural that criticism would be harsh (but) I don’t think public opinion polls accurately reflect public opinion.”

He might as well have written Kick Me on a piece of paper and taped it to his backside. Before the day was out, reporters had dug up other Edano comments about polls made on the record in the Diet:

“Looking at the public opinion polls, most people think Health Minister Yanagisawa Hakuo should resign.” (March 2007)

And:

“Looking at the public opinion polls, it is clear the people are opposed to the (Aso Cabinet’s) stimulus fund proposal.” (January 2009)

Enough already

It’s inevitable that political prey this weak will attract predators. But the only way to deal with people who act as if it is their fate and their mission to cling to office and make things worse is a Constitutional coup. The many plotters in this instance aren’t bothering to conceal their intentions. For starters, the Asahi Shimbun reported that destroyer-of-worlds Ozawa Ichiro met with People’s New Party head Kamei Shizuka, another veteran backstage manipulator, on Sunday evening “to exchange opinions about the political structure for disaster recovery”.

Ha ha ha!

On Monday, DPJ Diet members close to Mr. Ozawa launched a petition drive to convene a party meeting and hold an election to recall Mr. Kan as party president. Some suspect the real intent is to convince Mr. Kan to resign, as the petition would require the signatures of one-third of all DPJ Diet members. Said Kawauchi Hiroshi, the ringleader of this particular plot:

“Prime Minister Kan has no management ability. At a time such as this, the absence of a true leader will cause real trouble.”

Some politicians are accused of having lapdogs. Ozawa Ichiro has a lap pit bull, Yamaoka Kenji, one of the most obnoxious and nasty politicians ever to cast a shadow in a parliament building. Mr. Yamaoka convened a meeting this week of a group whose stated intention is knocking off Mr. Kan. The lineup was predictable: Boss Tweed’s daughter, former Foreign Minister Tanaka Makiko; politicians allied with former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio; and Haraguchi Kazuhiro, an Ozawa acolyte who served in the Hatoyama Cabinet.

About 50 or 60 people attended, an impressive showing of rebels for a party in power. In this case, however, it falls short of the 80 DPJ MPs needed to pass a no-confidence motion in the lower house, and it’s just about half the DPJ pols the media assumes are allied with Mr. Ozawa. Because everyone involved is aware of the numbers, they took the unusual step of calling on New Komeito to join them in forming a new coalition government. (That would give them a two-vote majority in the upper house, where the current government now falls short.)

Another reason, however, is that most members of the opposition LDP outside of the mudboat wing want nothing to do with an Ozawa Ichiro plot. They would prefer not to work with the Ozawa group if the latter were to submit a no-confidence motion. If the LDP were to submit their own no-confidence motion, however, an aye vote by a DPJ member would mean expulsion from the party. Therefore, the idea is to get inside the LDP’s collective head and threaten them with the loss of their former coalition partner.

Do they know something no one else does? New Komeito head Yamaguchi Natsuo has already said Mr. Ozawa should resign from the Diet altogether. Urushibara Yoshio, New Komeito’s Diet Affairs Chairman, told his LDP counterpart not to worry:

“They used the New Komeito name without asking us about it. We’re not in lockstep (with Ozawa).”

While the people want the Kan Cabinet gone, that isn’t the group they want to replace them. They lost what little confidence they had in Mr. Kan long ago, but they lost their confidence in the likes of Mr. Hatoyama, Mr. Ozawa, and the rest of the DPJ before that.

Here’s a comment from one person identified as a “long-time Nagata-cho observer”:

“The LDP and New Komeito dislike and reject Prime Minister Kan and Mr. Ozawa in equal measure. Many in the DPJ also dislike Ozawa. If a no-confidence motion were to pass, it might cause a political realignment that would shut out both Kan and Ozawa.”

Compatible with that observation is another scenario involving Nishioka Takeo, the president of the upper house. Serving in that role requires the resignation of their party membership, and Mr. Nishioka was an Ozawa ally in the DPJ. He’s been calling for the prime minister’s resignation for several weeks, and finally said he would have to make a decision of his own if Mr. Kan doesn’t quit. By that, people assume he will ask the opposition to submit a censure motion in the upper house, which would likely pass. Such a motion is not legally binding, but the Kan Cabinet would find it impossible to govern if the opposition decided to boycott the Diet until they resigned.

One writer speculated another ungainly platypus-like coalition might result: LDP head Tanigaki Sadakazu as prime minister and former DPJ Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito as deputy prime minister. Though Mr. Sengoku is from the same leftist turf where Kan Naoto grazes, he has a low opinion of the prime minister. After being brought back to the Cabinet as a deputy chief cabinet secretary to handle the recovery/reconstruction effort, he has openly criticized Mr. Kan’s conduct of post-earthquake affairs and the many organizations that he’s created.

Everyone would have to hold their noses, but that arrangement might work as a time-limited grand coalition with the LDP, New Komeito, and the anti-Ozawa faction in the DPJ to handle the recovery without having either Mr. Kan or Mr. Ozawa involved. The LDP has the experience, Mr. Sengoku is an intelligent and capable man, and no exchange of money between Mr. Ozawa and the construction companies would occur in addition to what already is being passed under the table.

How does Mr. Kan view these moves? There are now rumors that he wants to reshuffle the Cabinet and include some Ozawa and Hatoyama allies to forestall a DPJ revolt and prolong his political life.

History will judge Kan Naoto harshly as prime minister, to the extent that he is remembered at all. The longer he stays in office, the harsher that judgment will be.

*****
Mustt Mustt is the title of a qawwalli that translates as “lost in intoxication”. The Indian singer has something else in mind, but that’s as good an explanation as any for the pride the Kan Cabinet takes in being dazed and confused.

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Heaven sent

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 24, 2011

Amakudari refers to golden parachuting, i.e., the placement of civil servants in post-retirement jobs within entities their former government ministries supervise.
- Hatoyama Yukio, prime minister’s e-mail magazine, 2 April 2010

Hypocrisy is a sort of homage that vice pays to virtue.
- La Rochefoucauld

A CLEVER definition of the term regulatory capture is the capture of the regulators by the regulated. It’s endemic to every country, but it’s a particular problem in Japan because of the practice of amakudari, which former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio defined not as cleverly in the passage cited above. (The word itself means “descending from heaven” in English.)

The Tohoku earthquake has offered the political class the opportunity to again demonstrate their inability to control the practice. Oversight of the nuclear power industry is the responsibility of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, affiliated with the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry; and the Nuclear Safety Commission, affiliated with the Cabinet Office. Another government body affiliated with METI is the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, which also has authority over power companies, and which has promoted the use of nuclear power.

Tokyo Electric Power hired Ishida Toru, the former head of the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, as an advisor this January just four months after he left the agency. The third person to slide from a position at METI or its predecessor to a position at TEPCO, Mr. Ishida was to be named a director in June. The utility said it hired him because the Democratic Party-led government is interested in promoting emissions trading, and they wanted someone who had close ties to the ministry.

One reason the DPJ finally unseated the LDP after decades of nearly uninterrupted rule is that the LDP had turned its back on reform in the post-Koizumi/Abe period. As prime minister, Aso Taro ceded too much control to the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy. In their manifesto for the 2009 lower house election campaign, the DPJ promised to “eradicate amakudari”.

Eradication did not include objecting to Mr. Ishida’s employment with Tokyo Electric, however. Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio was asked about that at a news conference in February. He said it wasn’t a problem because it wasn’t illegal under current law. Mr. Edano added that TEPCO hired Mr. Ishida on their own initiative, rather than through the recommendation of a bureaucrat or agency. During his term in office, Mr. Hatoyama had banned only that amakudari which involved offering employment based on such recommendations.

Others were not so forgiving, even though Mr. Ishida was not directly responsible for dealing with the problems at the Fukushima power plant. One LDP member said that even they wouldn’t have allowed that appointment. While admitting that his party had a problem with accepting amakudari, he claimed they at least made people wait two years before taking a position of that sort.

It soon became apparent that the explanation wasn’t holding and that the government would have to do something to quiet the objections. Mr. Edano appeared at a news conference on the morning of the 18th to call for “self-restraint” in reemployment. He said the government would:

“…devise a mechanism for self-restraint for the time being for the reemployment at TEPCO of former METI executives, including those from NISA, NSC, and the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, so as not to create mistrust among the people…We plan to make other power companies aware of this mechanism and will ask them to cooperate.”

Thus, it would seem the DPJ’s promise to “eradicate amakudari” means asking the bureaucrats to lay low for the time being to prevent the natives from growing restless.

Ignoring the request will result in no penalties, and there is no indication how long “for the time being” will last. Further, the rationale of “not creating mistrust among the people” suggests the government thinks there’s nothing wrong with the practice. It just doesn’t look good.

Mr. Edano also said he hoped Ishida Toru would take it upon himself to resign, but repeated the assertion that there was nothing improper about him taking the position to begin with. He did allow that a sense of mistrust could arise among the people, so stronger measures were needed to deal with situations that weren’t strictly illegal. He added that the government would come up with some ideas in a couple of weeks. These would be added to the government’s proposed public employee reemployment reforms announced on 5 April. They plan to create a new organization for oversight based on the idea of prohibiting reemployment on the recommendation of bureaucrats.

METI played along by saying they would investigate the accident at Fukushima, and that until they reached their conclusions, they had devised the following mechanism for reemployment at power companies “so as not to create mistrust among the people”. (The wording was identical to Mr. Edano’s.) The mechanism has three parts:

1. They asked for self-restraint for the reemployment at power companies of administrative deputy ministers, METI deputy ministers, deputy ministers for policy coordination, and secretariat heads from the three organizations as officers.

2. They asked for self-restraint for the reemployment at power companies of people in other designated positions as officers for a maximum of three years.

3. They asked for self-restraint for the reemployment at power companies of people serving as department heads or in higher positions at the three organizations for a maximum of two years.

Restraining oneself from jumping into a golden parachute and floating down for a landing in the gravy train might be difficult under normal circumstances, but in this case the can got kicked down the road for just two or three years. Surely the mouth-breathers will have forgotten about it by then.

METI Minister Kaieda Banri also appeared at a news conference to announce that Mr. Ishida had resigned all by himself. He denied the government had anything to do with it. This is the same government, you’ll remember, that denied involvement with the decision not to prosecute the Chinese fishing boat captain who rammed two Japanese ships in the Senkakus last September. (A review panel in Okinawa last week concluded the decision to release the captain was inappropriate and that he should have been prosecuted, but we knew that last year.)

Mr. Kaieda was asked about the practice of amakudari for former METI employees at other power companies. He said the “circumstances are different” for utilities other than Tokyo Electric. Reporters also asked him if the new guidelines meant that other METI veterans employed at TEPCO don’t have to quit. His answer: “I didn’t say that.”

Though Edano Yukio said on the 18th that the government’s proposal to limit amakudari had to be beefed up, Nakano Kansei, the minister in charge of civil service reform, revealed at a news conference a day later there were no plans to add stronger measures to the reform bill they planned on presenting during this Diet session. According to the Jiji news agency, he said he had received instructions from Mr. Edano just that morning to continue work on the legislation “in accordance with the original overall conception”, and that he agreed with those instructions.

*****
What happened to the DPJ’s claim that they would “exterminate amakudari”? Following this sequence of events will aid in understanding.

October 2009

One month after the DPJ government took power, Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio—whose father began his career as a Finance Ministry bureaucrat—defined amakudari down by saying it referred to former bureaucrats hired by an organization receiving public funds, but who performed no real work.

The Hatoyama Cabinet submitted a definition to a Diet committee stating that if a former civil servant was rehired by a government agency without a specific recommendation it was not amakudari, but rather good employment practices.

The same month, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirano Hirofumi said that restrictions on amakudari would not apply to cabinet ministers, deputy ministers, administrative secretaries, or bureaucrats. He added that if former bureaucrats employed at independent administrative corporations (amakudari hotbeds) recommended junior members of their former ministry or agency for employment at those same corporations, it would not be considered amakudari.

27 October 2009

Kyodo obtained documents circulated the previous week instructing ministries and agencies to create answers for Messrs. Hatoyama and Hirano to use at Question Time in the fall session of the Diet, shortly after party Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro proposed banning bureaucrats from offering Diet testimony. Critics charged that the request contradicted the new government’s assertion it would disassociate from the bureaucracy and that politicians would lead the government.

The documents asked “for the same cooperation of the ministries and agencies as had been extended in the past,” i.e., the Aso administration. They also asked that “the wording have an elevated tone suitable for the prime minister” and the memos have “simple content in consideration of the content of the question”

28 October 2009

Mr. Hatoyama answered his first questions in the Diet and was seen reading directly from memos in his hand.

He insisted it was actually political leadership:

“It is a fact that I have received cooperation for data collection (from the bureaucracy). But I evaluated the information with my own eyes, and assumed a major role in writing the memos.”

One senior member of a ministry told a reporter:

“The content of our work has not changed since the days of the LDP administrations.”

November 2009

The General Insurance Association of Japan, which has 27 non-life insurers as members, appointed Makino Jiro, the former head of the National Tax Agency and an ex-Finance Ministry employee, as vice chairman. He replaced another Finance Ministry veteran who had been appointed vice president of Japan Post.

The association denied that this constituted amakudari. They had simply appointed the person most suitable for the job.

The majority of association vice-chairmen have been Finance Ministry veterans.

February 2010

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported the results of its survey that showed Japan Post—whose privatization was stalled by the DPJ government—had 157 affiliated corporations in the JP “family”, and that 63 of them had 654 amakudari appointments.

In 2007, the LDP government proposed consolidating or eliminating them as part of the privatization process. The organization with the most amakudari employees was the Kanyo Hoken Kanyusha Kyokai, an association for people with Japan Post insurance. It’s also involved in promoting NHK’s radio exercises. 45% of their employees are former bureaucrats.

Early 2010

During the second DPJ policy review, then-Reform Minister Edano Yukio recommended returning the National Printing Bureau to the control of the Finance Ministry. He explained his reasons in a speech:

“There are about four former Finance Ministry officials there receiving high salaries. It functioned well in the past as a bureau in the old Finance Ministry, so we think that’s the most economical (way).”

Jiji pointed out that the LDP wanted to privatize the bureau, and that the DPJ 2009 election manifesto called for the “sweeping review” of such bodies, including elimination.

Others pointed out that the 4,600 members of the bureau’s enterprise union would now become government employees. The DPJ’s largest organizational support comes from labor unions.

The opposition wondered if by exterminating amakudari, the DPJ really meant everyone would go to work for the government.

It had already been revealed after the first policy review that the Finance Ministry’s Budget Bureau had scripted the entire process.

—————–
At about the same time, Nakagawa Hidenao of the LDP reform wing challenged Prime Minister Hatoyama during Question Time in the Diet. He charged that the DJP had narrowed the definition of amakudari, and that they had essentially taken credit for exterminating it by eliminating only those practices that applied to their definition, though the practices for the most part remained the same.

Mr. Hatoyama responded:

“Of the organizational posts you are asking about, I think the state ministers in charge are appointing the most suitable personnel. I hope to appropriately respond so that the problem of veterans of those ministries who were public employees being appointed to such posts despite a lack of knowledge or ability doesn’t occur.”

19 March 2010

The weekly Shukan Post for this date reported that the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport intended to launch a nationwide taxicab service rating system that began in Tokyo at the end of February. Taxi service would be rated by customers according to three grades: AA, A, and none. The rating is to be placed on a sticker that must be displayed near the door.

Supervising the rating system in Tokyo is a foundation called the Tokyo Taxi Center, formerly known as the Tokyo Taxi Modernization Center. The managing director was once the head of the Administrative Division in the Kanto District Transport Bureau of the same ministry. The executive director is the former head of the National Police Agency’s Drivers License Division.

These amakudari positions for mid-tier bureaucrats pay JPY 10 million a year.

Each taxi company must fork over JPY 35,500 per cab to pay for the operation of the rating system, which would mean JPY 1.4 billion overall. The ministry says the objective is to enable passengers to choose good taxis and drivers.

Groups with amakudari employees in cities and prefectures around the country have begun registering drivers for the rating system. The Kanagawa Taxi Center—with three former employees of the Kanto District Transport Bureau—is getting JPY 22,200 for each cab.

Drivers don’t like the system, but have no outlet for their complaints. There are an estimated 360,000 cab drivers nationwide, and they work on a system of splitting their revenue 50/50 with the company. Male drivers averaged JPY 3.26 million in income in 2008, less than two-thirds that of the average laborer in industry. Half of the drivers in Tokyo averaged less than JPY three million, and 20% less than JPY two million.

The ministry relaxed the rules to allow more taxis on the street during the economic downturn as an employment measure. Under this system, however, more taxis mean more income for the quangos.

April 2010

Sengoku Yoshito, who had taken over as reform minister, testified in the Diet that the government intended to abolish the post of jimujikan (administrative secretary, or aide), and replace it with jimukakari fukudaijin, or administrative vice-ministers.

Critics claimed this was another instance of the DPJ government caving in to the bureaucracy. The jobs won’t disappear; rather, the people who fill them will receive a different title at a higher rank and salary. If the duties of these people were necessary, critics insisted, they could be assigned to the heads of the ministry secretariats. The objective was to expand the government.

*****
This is the practical definition of “exterminating amakudari” in the DPJ lexicon.

Writing about American political campaigns in 1940, H.L. Mencken knew exactly what was going on:

“They will all promise every man, woman and child in the country whatever he, she or it wants. They’ll all be roving the land looking for chances to make the rich poor, to remedy the irremediable, to succor the unsuccorable, to unscramble the unscrambleable, to dephlogisticate the undephlogisticable. They will all be curing warts by saying words over them, and paying off the national debt with money no one will have to earn. When one of them demonstrates that twice two is five, another will prove that it is six, six and a half, ten, twenty, n. In brief, they will divest themselves from their character as sensible, candid and truthful men, and simply become candidates for office, bent only on collaring votes.”

The second round of sub-national elections is being held throughout the country today. The results are expected to be as dismal for the DPJ as those of the other elections since they formed a government. The Japanese electorate has come to understand the party can’t be counted on to fulfill promises they never intended to keep. That explains why so many voters say they feel betrayed, rather than disappointed.

To be sure, it takes cojones for Japanese politicians to tackle Kasumigaseki. The bureaucrats had a hand in bringing down the Hashimoto and Abe administrations, and Your Party head Watanabe Yoshimi said they threatened him with a “coup d’etat” if he pursued his civil service reforms when he was still in the LDP.

That won’t absolve the DPJ, however. The nation is tired of waiting for their testicles to descend.

******
This week has been dandelion season for political rumors. If they’re true, Mr. Kan is about to be sent to the killing floor. They should have quit him a long time ago.

The Wolf wasn’t there, but his guitarist was.

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When the going gets weird…

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, April 20, 2011

WHICH HAS the potential to be more destructive in the long run for Japan—the effects of the earthquake and tsunami in the Tohoku region, or Kan Naoto’s continued service as prime minister?

One commentator said he thought Mr. Kan’s statements in the upper house on Monday were chilling. Here are some more of them. You might want to put on a sweater before you start reading.

*****
The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency issued a report to the Nuclear Safety Commission stating their view that the fuel rods had melted at reactors #1- #3 at Fukushima. NSC Chairman Madarame Haruki said:

“There’s a small hole at the bottom of the pressure vessel, and it’s possible that part of the melted fuel flowed into the containment vessel.”

Your Party head Watanabe Yoshimi raised the subject with Mr. Kan on Monday.

Watanabe: Hasn’t a meltdown occurred?

Kan: A meltdown hasn’t occurred. They’ve begun work to relieve the pressure. The level of the cooling water has now been restored, and it is being managed. It’s OK.

*****
Katayama Toranosuke of the Sunrise Japan Party also questioned the prime minister. He started by quoting a Japanese proverb, which advises that giving oneself up, i.e., giving up one’s self-interest, is sometimes the best way out of a dilemma. He continued:

Katayama: But you haven’t given up your self-interest.

Kan: Ultimately, the end of the term will come in two and a half years. (In other words, he intends to stay as prime minister for the rest of the current lower house term.) By then, if cooperation between the ruling party and opposition party can take shape from this gridlocked Diet, I will have fulfilled a historic mission. If it comes to that, I will be satisfied.

Katayama: You’ve said that you’ve made every effort for recovery, and created a path to rebuilding. Decisively handing over authority to a successor would be one choice. I think it would be an extremely good choice. What do you think?

Kan: I have no intention of running away from the responsibility that I must fulfill. In addition, there is the question of what should be done, and for how long, while fulfilling that responsibility. Well, maybe I’m being greedy, but I will create the path to rebuilding, recovery, and fiscal reconstruction. If I am able to achieve all of that, I will have achieved my long-standing goal as a politician. That’s what I think.

*****
Isn’t Mr. Kan just agreeing with Mr. Katayama in a roundabout way?

*****
If anyone thought I was exaggerating yesterday when I wrote that it seemed that Mr. Kan was suffering from delusions of competence and public approval, I beg you to reconsider. Now that the prime minister has spoken of his “historical mission”, perhaps we should add delusions of grandeur to the list.

If you can bear to read that a second time, he seems to be suggesting that he wants to stay in office even more than two and a half years. Creating the path to rebuilding, recovery, and what he presumes to be fiscal reconstruction (higher taxes) could take longer than that.

The man who is the greatest obstacle to cooperation in the Diet believes it is his historical mission to create intra-party harmony. Who needs to read fiction when all you have to do is read the news?

And if you thought I was exaggerating with the sentence at the top of this post, I beg you to reconsider that as well.

Meanwhile, the Isshinkai, a group of about 40 mid-tier lower house MPs affiliated with Ozawa Ichiro, met on the 19th. They agreed that “Neither the nation nor the people can be saved with the Kan Cabinet.”

Just this once, Ozawa Ichiro should do everyone a favor and live up to his reputation as The Destroyer. Here’s Article 69 of the Constitution:

“If the House of Representatives passes a non-confidence resolution, or rejects a confidence resolution, the Cabinet shall resign en masse, unless the House of Representatives is dissolved within ten (10) days.”

*****
The Oscar Wilde quote on the right sidebar describes Japan as a “pure invention” that doesn’t really exist. Wilde was exaggerating for effect, but he had a point that still holds today.

Take the case of Karel van Wolferen, now a professor emeritus at the University of Amsterdam. The media presents him as a man with acute insight into Japan. Perhaps he had some, once upon a time. Now he’s holding forth on a Japan that is nothing more than a pure invention: a figment of his imagination, inflated by wishful thinking. He wrote a special editorial for the Japan Times—the perfect match—on the response of the DPJ government to the disaster. If I were a student in his classroom, I’d be tempted to throw spitballs. Here’s how it starts:

“Amid the horrifying news from Japan, the establishment of new standards of political leadership there is easy to miss…Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan government is making an all-out effort, with unprecedented intensive involvement of his Cabinet and newly formed specialized task forces. The prime minister himself is regularly televised with relevant officials wearing the work fatigues common among Japanese engineers.”

Yes, it is important for professors to make judicious use of humor in their lectures. And yes, the DPJ’s new standards of political leadership are easy to miss. After all, 78% of the electorate think Prime Minister Kan’s don’t exist.

He continues:

“Other countries could learn much from the DPJ’s attempt to alter a status quo of political arrangements that has had half a century to form and consolidate.”

Dang, I need me one of them Internet eye-rolling icons. And maybe an audio laugh track while I’m at it:

“A half-century of reporting on internal LDP rivalries unrelated to actual policy has turned Japan’s reporters into the world’s greatest connoisseurs of political factionalism. It has also left them almost incapable of recognizing actual policy initiatives when they see them.”

Get your socks on for the finale:

“(I)n my half-century of close acquaintance with Japanese life, I have never thought of the Japanese as stoic. Rather, the Japanese behave as they do because they are decent people. Being considerate, they do not burden each other by building themselves up as heroes in their own personal tragedies. They certainly deserve the better government that the DPJ is trying to give them.”

To give credit where credit is due, that third sentence is on the mark. But then he ruined it by writing the next sentence.

His only complaint about Mr. Kan, by the way, is that he is not telegenic. At the very least, he should have added, “too often nursing a hangover”.

If you think his op-ed was bad, some Anglosphere websites are linking to it as if it bore a passing resemblance to reality.

Karel van Wolferen is based in Amsterdam. Do they still have those hashish cafés in The Netherlands?

*****
Here’s the proverb Mr. Katayama used: 身を捨ててこそ浮かぶ瀬もあれ

*****
I’m beginning to think they need a duppy conqueror at Nagata-cho. Maybe we can get him to stop by Amsterdam on his way.

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Breached

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The higher an ape mounts, the more he shows his breech.
- Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, Adagies and Proverbs, 1732

YESTERDAY’S POST presented several negative views of Prime Minister Kan Naoto, his Cabinet, and the Democratic Party overall. Common criticisms of their attitude and approach to governing include immaturity and the lack of a willingness to apologize or take responsibility. Criticisms of their post-earthquake/tsunami behavior include the tendency to form committees as a proxy for real action.

Mr. Kan validated every one of them in the Diet yesterday.

The prime minister appeared before the upper house budget committee. He was questioned by Waki Masashi of the LDP, the chairman of the party’s diet affairs committee for the upper house. Referencing a Mainichi Shimbun poll also released yesterday, which showed that 78% of the respondents thought Mr. Kan has not demonstrated leadership during the emergency, he asked:

“70% or 80% of the people think the prime minister has no leadership. Why is that?”

Mr. Kan’s answer:

“I would definitely like all the people to see the reality. We created two headquarters after the earthquake. I gave instructions to the SDF, and they went to the area immediately. The charge that we were slow off the mark does not stick. We have been able to fully respond to the situation.”

In regard to the nuclear accident at Fukushima, he said:

“The Cabinet has been able to firmly deal with it in accordance with the Law for Special Measures During a Nuclear Disaster. We are exerting every effort.”

Mr. Waki then asked a question about the comprehensive nuclear emergency exercise held in accordance with another law last October. The prime minister was the head of the headquarters overseeing the exercise.

“Do you remember what events were envisioned when the exercises were held?”

Kan: I’m sure that several different events were envisioned…(想定したはず)

Waki: One of the events envisioned was the emission of radioactive material caused by damage to emergency cooling equipment and several facilities. (In short, exactly what happened at Fukushima.) You really don’t remember?

Kan: If you’re asking whether I know all the details, the answer is no…but I have my own knowledge about the criticality accident at Tokai-mura and Chernobyl.

Waki: You’re just making excuses without sincere self-reflection. The people can see through it. You should bow your head (in apology) to them.

Mr. Waki then said he thought the prime minister should resign. Mr. Kan replied:

“It is my understanding that the people have given a certain degree of approval to the response of the government as a whole, though I won’t say it’s 100%.”

*****

In addition to covering all the bases mentioned above, Mr. Kan added a few of his own. He can’t remember what happened when he was in charge of the government’s legally mandated nuclear disaster drill five months before an actual emergency occurred.

Then there’s the old standby of the left that the people really don’t understand just how well the government’s doing. Finally, while it isn’t easy to understand the contradiction, he seems to be suffering from delusions of competence and public approval.

Is Mr. Waki just acting the airbag when he says the people can see through it? Is the prime minister correct that the people approve of the government’s response?

We can see for ourselves, because most of the major media outlets conducted their monthly polls over the weekend and released the results yesterday. The last full-scale polls were conducted in February, when it was thought the Kan Cabinet was in its terminal phase. The approval ratings then ranged from roughly 20-25%, with disapproval ratings higher than 50%.

Snap polls were taken in March, and they showed a jump in the approval ratings in the 10% range, though the disapproval ratings were still above 50%. Most people thought it was an example of the Rally Round The Flag effect during a national emergency, rather than a true sampling of opinion. Some in the media even predicted it.

Here are the latest percentages for the Cabinet approval rating. The numbers in parentheses are those for February.

Asahi Shimbun
Approve: 21 (20)
Disapprove: 60 (62)

Mainichi Shimbun
Approve: 22 (19)
Disapprove: 54 (60)

Nikkei Shimbun
Approve: 27 (22)
Disapprove: 67 (67)

NTV
Approve: 24.0 (22.1)
Disapprove: 61.6 (63.1)

Shinhodo
Approve: 26.6 (30.6)
Disapprove: 70.0 (61.8)

Disapproval figures for the Cabinet response to the entire emergency

Asahi: 60%
Mainichi: 46%
Nikkei: 56%
NTV: 51.3%.

Disapproval figures for the Cabinet response to the Fukushima problem

Asahi: 67%
Mainichi: 68%
Nikkei: 70%
NTV: 68%

There are some minor exceptions here and there, but it doesn’t seem as if that dead cat stayed in the air very long after it bounced, does it?

*****
Enough of these bummers. This is what my idea of karaoke should be like. Especially the dancers. And especially the dancer on the left.

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Wabbit season! Duck season! Kan season!

Posted by ampontan on Monday, April 18, 2011

The Kan DPJ has three principles when someone asks who will take responsibility for the election defeats: We will not apologize, we will not accept responsibility, and we will assume a defiant attitude. No one’s going to accept responsibility.
- A politician described as a “veteran Diet member”, speaking to a reporter off the record

IN ADDITION to determining the chief executives of local governments and the composition of prefectural and municipal assemblies, the first round of sub-national elections held throughout the country a week ago last Sunday ended the moratorium on political warfare that began with the Tohoku earthquake on 11 March. Hunting season on Prime Minister Kan Naoto and his Cabinet has resumed. Unlike the wascally wabbits and the ducks, however, the prey painted the targets on themselves.

The Democratic Party of Japan was desperate to bag some big game of its own in the balloting. The party has always had weak organizations at the local level, and they viewed the election as a means to strengthen their presence. The national party had hoped to win an outright majority in last summer’s upper house election, eliminating the need for coalition partners, but they lost seats instead. They’ve been smacked around in local elections since then, and were humiliated in the Nagoya/Aichi elections of February, an area where they traditionally do well. Had it not been for the political ceasefire called after the earthquake, Mr. Kan would already have been a dead duck rather than a lame one.

Prime Minister Kan in camouflage clothing at Ishinomaki

The prime minister tried to play his part. He demonstrated his familiarity with the concept of Western-style photo ops by paying a third visit to the distressed region on Election Day, and the news media cooperated by treating his trip as if it were an important story. Few of them reported that he spent all of 10 minutes at a shelter in Ishinomaki, Miyagi, and talked to two of the 15 people staying there. His inspiring message? Gambatte kudasai, please do your best. One resident later offered a rhetorical question to a reporter: Is that all he can say? Mr. Kan spent the rest of his time on the ground meeting with local pols, making a quick trip to survey the fishing port, and giving an impromptu radio broadcast. One wonders how many people bothered to tune in.

He might as well have sent a decoy instead. Japan has 47 prefectures, corresponding to states or provinces, and 41 held elections for their local assemblies. The DPJ failed to become the majority party in any of them. The Asahi Shimbun reported that the percentage of victory for party-backed candidates in the prefectural assembly elections was 60% for the DPJ and 90% for the opposition Liberal Democratic Party. LDP- and DPJ-backed candidates went head-to-head in three gubernatorial elections, and the DPJ lost all three.

In short, the people have given the DPJ government in general, and the Kan government in particular, a second vote of no confidence. The Mainichi Shimbun noted that the results were not only a reflection of Mr. Kan’s unpopularity. They were also, the newspaper said, a reflection of the party’s general weakness as a political group, their inadequacy at conducting the day-to-day business of retail politics, and their inability to coordinate candidates.

Here’s one example: The party wanted to find 21 candidates for the Nara prefectural assembly to run under the party banner (rather than the other options of “recommendation” or “support”). They canvassed several districts for interest, but got no takers. Said the local party chairman, “The confusion in the Diet has spread and created a sense of disappointment in the party itself.” Some of the people who agreed to run as official DPJ candidates later changed their minds and withdrew. The party wound up backing 15 candidates in all. It was the first try for public office for six of them, and five of them lost.

The Nishinippon Shimbun wrote that the election shows the voters are continuing to desert the established parties, particularly the DPJ, and shift to local parties. They called it another step towards devolution and the kind of tax reform that isn’t a euphemism for a tax increase. While they have a point, the local parties did not perform as well as they had hoped, as we shall see.

Tokyo

None of the gubernatorial candidates in the Tokyo Metro District election ran with the official backing of the DPJ or LDP at the national level, though the local LDP and New Komeito backed 78-year-old incumbent Ishihara Shintaro, and the local DPJ supported businessman Watanabe Miki.

That the ruling party of national government was unable to recruit a candidate for the most visible sub-national office in the country is evidence of their problems. They tried to convince Ren Ho to leave her upper house seat to run, but she demurred. The polls did not look good for her even before Mr. Ishihara changed his mind and decided to seek another term. Besides, having to take real executive responsibility instead of serving as one of more than 700 legislators and Cabinet window dressing would be too much like real work.

Mr. Ishihara was reelected to a fourth term with 43.40% of the vote in a multi-candidate field. Mr. Watanabe finished a poor third with 16.81%. In between was former Miyazaki governor and show business personality Higashikokubaru Hideo, who ran without party support, official or unofficial, and received 28.06% of the vote.

A more detailed look at the results reveals some fascinating information. Mr. Higashikokubaru finished first among voters in their 20s, with 42.2%. He was less popular among voters aged 40 and older, however. He also appealed to the independent bloc—they gave 34.8% of their votes to Mr. Ishihara, but 32.1% to Mr. Higashikokubaru. (That’s more bad news for the DPJ—independents account for roughly half of all voters, and the DPJ-backed candidate received an even lower percentage of the independent votes than he did overall.)

Most people attribute Mr. Ishihara’s victory to the support of local LDP voters and the perception that he would be the most capable person to take charge in the event of a Tohoku-like crisis.

Mie

A more painful result for the DPJ, and the one that might cost Secretary-General Okada Katsuya his job, was the gubernatorial election in Mie. It was the first time in 16 years this election had been directly contested by both the ruling and opposition parties in national government. In addition, the DPJ does well in Mie—the party holds four of the prefecture’s five seats in the lower house of the Diet, and two in the upper house. The officially endorsed or recommended DPJ candidate had won five straight prefecture-wide elections since 2000, including the last election for governor. Finally, it is also Mr. Okada’s home prefecture.

The two primary candidates were Suzuki Eikei, an ex-bureaucrat in the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, and Matsuda Naohisa, the former mayor of Tsu. Mr. Suzuki was recommended by the LDP and Your Party and supported by New Komeito. Mr. Matsuda was recommended by the DPJ.

The national opposition parties devoted particular attention to this election. Abe Shinzo and Aso Taro, two former LDP prime ministers, stumped for Mr. Suzuki, as did Your Party head Watanabe Yoshimi.

Mr. Suzuki won.

Osaka

If anyone in Japanese politics today can be said to roll their own, it would be Osaka Prefecture Gov. Hashimoto Toru. No one, including the governor himself, can anticipate what he’ll say or do next, but that doesn’t bother the people of Osaka. They still give him 70%+ support in polls in the last year of his first term.

Gov. Hashimoto and his party came this close

His eccentric orbit notwithstanding, he has always piloted his spacecraft in the galaxy of regionalism. His consistent position has been that local governments should have more authority and the national government less. Over the course of his first term, he developed what he calls the Osaka-to Concept. By that he means reorganizing the prefectural government into a structure administratively similar to that of Tokyo’s. The Tokyo Metro District government has the primary responsibility for the municipal administration of the core 23 wards of the “city” of Tokyo, but the city of Osaka and its 24 wards are now governed independently of Osaka Prefecture. The governor’s idea is to incorporate the governance of that city and the city of Sakai with that of the prefecture, and to give Osaka’s wards more authority than those of Tokyo’s 23 wards.

Mr. Hashimoto created the Osaka Ishin no Kai, a de facto political party, to achieve that goal. His group backed candidates in the elections for the Osaka Prefecture Assembly and the assemblies of the city of Osaka and Sakai. The latter is a substantial city in its own right, with a population of 840,000.

The results of the election were mixed. Mr. Hashimoto’s party won 57 of 109 seats in Osaka Prefecture—the first outright majority in that chamber by any political party since the end of the war. They also won 33 of 86 seats in the city of Osaka (having backed 44 candidates) and 13 of 52 seats in Sakai, to become the largest party in both chambers.

But because the party failed to win an outright majority in the two cities, Mr. Hashimoto declared the election to have been a failure. He said he would go back to the drawing board for his Osaka-to Concept, even though the day before the election he declared that a majority wouldn’t be necessary if he received cooperation from other delegates.

A few days later, he announced that he and his group will hold discussions with the other parties in the two cities to reach a consensus by September. If an agreement is impossible, he will resign in November, four months before his term is scheduled to end, and run in a double election in December when the city of Osaka selects its mayor. That is an imitation of the successful strategy employed by Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi in February. Speaking of Nagoya and Aichi…

Aichi

Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi and Aichi Governor Omura Hideaki continued the alliance that won them election in February on a program to cut local taxes by 10%. Their objective was to capture an outright majority for their political groups in the Aichi prefectural assembly.

They did pick up seats, but not as many as they wanted, and not a majority. Their total went from one to 18 members in a 103-seat chamber, and 45 if the candidates they recommended are included. The LDP lost its outright majority, but they are still the largest party with 49 seats.

Most observers think the earthquake/tsunami dimmed the appeal of their tax-cutting program. Mr. Kawamura attributed the defeat to “the mistaken theory that a tax increase was unavoidable”, but he stuck to his guns at a post-election news conference: “In difficult times, you have to stimulate the economy with a tax cut.”

Mr. Omura thought the general mood of self-restraint resulted in a subdued campaign. The turnout was disappointing after the interest generated by the triple elections two months ago. Just 42.01% of the voters went to the polls. 1.09 percentage points down from the previous election, and the lowest percentage ever.

Shizuoka

Located next door to Aichi, Shizuoka was another battleground for the fight between the Tax Reduction Japan of Kawamura Takashi in Nagoya and the established parties. The former mayor of Shizuoka City stepped down after 16 years in office, clearing the field for new candidates. The LDP recommended Tanabe Nobuhiro, while Unno Toru, who lost the same election four years ago by 1,303 votes, ran under the Tax Reduction Japan banner. Mr. Tanabe also received the endorsement of several influential local DPJ politicians.

Thus the two largest national parties created an ad hoc, de facto alliance of forces to take on the insurgents. Both Maehara Seiji, who recently resigned as defense minister in the DPJ government, and LDP Secretary-General Ishihara Nobuteru campaigned in Shizuoka for Mr. Tanabe. He cannily used the post-earthquake mood and the year-long political turmoil in Nagoya to good effect against an opponent with greater name recognition. His speeches always presented this choice: “The election during this crisis is (the choice of) selecting either a stable city government or a city government in turmoil.” He stressed unity and contrasted that with the combative attitude of his tax-cutting neighbors. He made a point to always appear on stage with politicians from both the LDP and DPJ, and declare in his speeches: “Now is the time for us to become one. Men, women, people in their 20s, people in their 80s, the DPJ, the LDP…I have plenty of colleagues”

In contrast, Mr. Unno’s campaign slogan was “true government reform begins with tax reduction.”

Mr. Tanabe won the election with 45% of the vote. Mr. Unno received 42%, and a third candidate received the rest.

Meanwhile, the DPJ suffered large losses in the prefectural assembly, and the LDP won an outright majority.

The earth quakes in Nagata-cho

The many people who would like to see Mr. Kan gone were dismayed immediately after the earthquake/tsunami because they thought the disaster might prolong his occupancy in the Kantei by up to a year. Wrote former journalist, author, and commentator Shioda Maruo:

“Though (the earthquake) was a bitter event that left many people saddened, one person gained from it—Prime Minister Kan Naoto. The Kan administration had lost all support and become a mudboat that seemed to be on the verge of sinking at any moment. The emergency left the opposition, which was about to corner the government, no choice but to call a cease fire. Prime Minister Kan himself must have thought he had been saved. When I look at him, behaving as if his mudboat has been made seaworthy again, it makes my blood boil.”

Caution: Kan at Work

A less-than-inspirational figure under normal circumstances, Mr. Kan staggered rather than rose to the occasion. He nearly broke down at a news conference and did not hold another for three weeks. He finally showed up on the day after a national newspaper called him the hikikomori prime minister. (Hikikomori is the word used to describe those young people who hole up in a bedroom of their parents’ homes rather than conduct normal lives.) His behavior left the impression that uppermost in his mind was converting the disaster to political capital, thereby extending his term.

In addition, his administration made the conscious decision to shut out the bureaucracy from decision-making to deal with the aftermath of the earthquake. While the political class does need to put the Kasumigaseki bureaucrats in their place, they could also utilize the machinery of government and the expertise of its operators in this situation. Mr. Kan chose instead to show everyone that the DPJ government could do it themselves. Less than competent under normal circumstances, they again staggered rather than rose to the occasion and showed everyone that they can’t.

Mr. Kan is often criticized for his tendency to do whatever pops into his head at the moment. That tendency became manifest again when he made an out-of-the-blue telephone call to LDP President Tanigaki Sadakazu with the demand that the latter immediately agree to join a coalition government. He hadn’t bothered to discuss the possibility with anyone in his party or government beforehand, and insisted that Mr. Tanigaki decide without talking it over with his own party. When the LDP chief asked him for time to take the proposal to his colleagues, the prime minister said he took that as a refusal and would describe it that way to the news media—which he did. (Are the reasons people dislike Mr. Kan becoming clearer?)

Another frequent criticism of Mr. Kan and his Cabinet is for their seeming preference to form new committees and hold meetings without actually doing anything. A recent Asahi TV program presented a large chart showing they had created 10 new organizations (that I could count) for dealing with the disaster. Who could blame the announcers for speculating on the amount of wasted and duplicated effort? And as if on cue, the prime minister’s semi-regular e-mail message arrived as I was writing this post. The title is, “Launch of the Reconstruction Design Council”. The council held its first meeting yesterday.

Apres-election

Once people realized that the one-two combination of earthquake and tsunami had staggered the country, but not put it on the mat, the DPJ shellacking in the local elections crystallized dissatisfaction with the prime minister, both among his own party and the opposition.

Tokyo Gov. Ishihara Shintaro said what a lot of people were thinking:

“The DPJ was thrashed in both gubernatorial and assembly elections. Will the policies of a government that has lost the trust of the people serve the people?”

About the election results, he said:

“What else could you expect? They’re a group of immature people to start with. It’s inconceivable that they never convened a meeting of the administrative vice-ministers. They talk about saving electricity, but why haven’t they issued a cabinet order?

Mr. Kan might find it easy to dismiss this as an opposition attack, but he will not find it so easy to dismiss the attacks from within his own party.

Here’s DPJ member Ishihara Yosaburo, who represents Fukushima District #1 in the lower house:

“Prime Minister Kan Naoto said he understood (Fukushima) would be a long-term issue and he would deal with it in that manner, but this threatens the lives of the people of Fukushima and Japan. If he thinks this is a long-term issue, I hope he resigns immediately and is replaced by a new regime that can resolve the situation more quickly.”

Haraguchi Kazuhiro, a member of the Hatoyama Cabinet, said the following on the government’s response to Fukushima at a news conference sponsored by the Free Press Association of Japan:

“What should be done to prevent the release of highly concentrated radiation into the sea? If they are incapable of making that decision, the entire Cabinet should resign.”

Tarutoko Shinji, who has run for the DPJ presidency, left no doubt about his intentions despite the circumlocutory language:

“I have an extremely strong feeling that (this government) will not benefit the people in these circumstances.”

The revolt is close to the boiling point. Speaking to party members about the elections, DPJ Secretary-General Okada Katsuya admitted that the leadership’s lack of ability was an acceptable subject for criticism and apologized. Someone shouted from the floor:

“How long are you going to sit there?” (i.e. stay in your current position)

Okada: “Who spoke just now? Raise your hand and say that.”

No one did just then, but that didn’t last long.

Mr. Kan refuses to step down from a job he’s coveted his entire adult life, which has finally led to bipartisan cooperation. Executives from the two major parties are discussing ways to yank him down. JNN reported that senior members of the DPJ and LDP met to devise a strategy for dumping him.

One meeting was attended by Mr. Kan’s predecessor Hatoyama Yukio, Mr. Hatoyama’s chief cabinet secretary Hirano Hirofumi, current LDP Secretary-General Ishihara Nobuteru, and former LDP Secretary-General Ibuki Bunmei. The LDP is planning to submit a no-confidence motion in the lower house and a censure motion in the upper house, and it is becoming increasingly likely that some in the DPJ will vote for them. The meeting was to determine the timing of the submissions. Mr. Hatoyama thinks it’s too early, but Mr. Hirano said the limits of cooperation have been reached.

Ozawa Ichiro ally Yamaoka Kenji, one of the DPJ party vice-presidents, met with New Komeito Secretary-General Inoue Yoshihisa to discuss avenues of cooperation for removing Mr. Kan and governing post-Kan. Others attending included Hatoyama associate Nakayama Yoshikatsu and former Foreign Minister Tanaka Makiko. Mr. Yamaoka said the situation demanded the creation of a new coalition. Ms. Tanaka, still as blunt as her father after all these years, simply said, “This administration is really bad.”

That brings up the destroyer-of-worlds Ozawa Ichiro, who ostensibly controls the largest single bloc in the party. Not only does he agree that something must be done, he now seems ready to do something about it himself.

Last September Mr. Kan defeated Mr. Ozawa in an election for the post of party president and tried to use that as a wedge to drive him from the party. Now the shoe is on the proverbial other foot. Speaking with uncharacteristic urgency on an Internet TV program, Mr. Ozawa criticized the government’s response to Fukushima:

“We have no idea who (within the government) is responsible, nor what it is they’re supposed to do. This makes less sense than when everything was left to the bureaucrats.”

Speaking to 20 younger Diet members at a party at his home, he said:

“I won’t be forming a (new) party. We are the real DPJ. They are the ones who changed, so shouldn’t they be the ones to leave?”

Depending on the report, Mr. Ozawa is either mulling the possibility of calling for a recall vote within the party or supporting a no-confidence motion in the lower house. The media thinks there are roughly 90 people in Ozawa’s group in the lower house, and 80 DPJ votes are needed to pass that motion. Some wonder if the threat of a no-confidence motion is one way to force Mr. Kan to step down. Mr. Ozawa himself noted that the motion’s passage would require a new lower house election, and there are no suitable places to vote in some parts of the Tohoku region after the destruction.

A further complication is that Sengoku Yoshito is reported to be working behind the scenes in the DPJ to unseat the prime minister and replace him with Okada Katsuya, just as party members are calling for Mr. Okada’s head to pay for the election results. Though Mr. Sengoku served as Kan Naoto’s chief cabinet secretary until an upper house censure forced him to resign, he seems to share everyone else’s low opinion of Mr. Kan’s competence. Indeed, some theorized the reason the prime minister kept his phone call to the LDP chief a secret is that he didn’t want Mr. Sengoku to know.

Popular will

After the DPJ became the largest party in the upper house in the 2007 elections, they tried to force the LDP government to dissolve the lower house and call for new elections. They had a logical reason: The results for the upper house were the most recent expression of popular will.

Once in government, however, that logic has slipped the collective DPJ mind. Though they lost seats in the upper house last year and have performed poorly in local elections since then, culminating in the balloting on the 10th, they aren’t interested in the most recent expression of popular will now. Said Okada Katsuya at a post-election news conference:

“They were local elections. If someone calls for resignations because of them, it would be a mistake.”

He tried to put lipstick on the pig at a meeting of party committee chairmen:

“Even though a defeat is a defeat, we should create standards for counting official recognition and recommendations.”

In other words, the results wouldn’t look so bad if the successful campaigns of non-DPJ pols the party recommended were added to their victory total. That excuse quickly evaporated; one commentator noted: “Changing the method of calculating victories doesn’t change the fact that this was a defeat.”

Asked at a news conference about the possibility that the election performance would cause the prime minister to step down, Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio answered:

“The prime minister was given his duties based on the rule of democracy. The true path is the have the Cabinet exert every effort to fulfill those duties.”

Doesn’t that first sentence make you wish dunking stools could be brought back as a means to discipline the political class?

The agenda

Since Kan Naoto’s continued presence is detrimental to his party and the DPJ government, and he is the primary obstacle to discussions about legislation and policy between the ruling and opposition parties, people wonder why he’s staying put.

Here’s one possibility: The leftist elements of the DPJ realize this will be their last chance in government for the foreseeable future and want to make hay before the downpour. Last Wednesday, the DPJ’s project team to examine the establishment of a human rights commission held its first meeting with former Education Minister (and labor union activist) Kawabata Tatsuo as chairman. The Canadian experience with commissions of this sort indicates they are vermin magnets more likely to infringe human rights than to uphold them, but the rest of the world gave up on trying to understand the logic of the left long ago.

Mr. Kawabata and the DPJ want to establish a similar commission affiliated with the Cabinet Office. His team intends to reach a consensus within the party by early May and submit legislation to the current session of the Diet. That will be difficult; some proposals circulating in the party have included giving the commission the authority to search premises and seize documents without a court order. Some in the DPJ don’t care for the whole idea to begin with, and they’re well aware of the potential abuses of the right to free speech.

Explained Mr. Kawabata:

“We can’t put this off for a moment. We achieved a change in government, so I want to take this major step.”

Last month, Sengoku Yoshito told a meeting:

“It is an obligation of the DPJ government to establish this.”

By obligation, he means the establishment of a commission was hidden in the small print of the 2009 party manifesto, though even the DPJ knows that or similar planks in the platform weren’t the reason the electorate voted for them. It’s unlikely that most of the electorate were even aware of them.

One would think the Kan Cabinet has more pressing matters at hand to deal with, but that’s not how the thought process works in his wing of the party.

Speaking of Mr. Kawabata, by the way, more than JPY one million in political funds from his office were once found to have been paid to cabaret clubs for undisclosed reasons. He said it was all legal and didn’t want to discuss it. He also didn’t want to discuss irregularities with his office expenses similar to those that caused problems for later-stage LDP Cabinet ministers.

How lucky for Japan to have a clean party in government for a change!

Up next

And speaking of luck, last week’s events suggest the Kan Cabinet will be lucky to make it through the current Diet session, much less the rest of the year. That will call into question the DPJ government’s continued existence absent a lower house election. But then, a lower house election would highlight what might be a terminal illness.

They’ve never been particularly coherent, but their behavior is increasingly erratic. Discussing the DPJ’s electile dysfunction at a news conference last week, Okada Katsuya seemed oddly detached:

“Because we’re the ruling party, I wanted us to be more aggressive.”

This is the man with direct responsibility for the party’s election campaigns speaking.

The DPJ has been having trouble finding people willing to run as party candidates in elections, and they were incapable of fielding an official candidate in the Tokyo Metro District governor’s election. Now they’ve decided not to run an official candidate for the lower house by-election in Aichi’s District #6 to replace Ishida Yoshihiro, who resigned to run for mayor of Nagoya. (He lost.) Candidacy declarations were made on the 12th for the election to be held on the 24th, coinciding with the second round of sub-national elections. Five people declared, including people from the LDP and Tax Reduction Japan. None were from the DPJ.

It is telling that party executives said they decided not to run a candidate because of persistent criticism of the government and their recent dismal electoral performance.

In other words, the ruling party of government is not defending a seat it holds in a prefecture that is traditionally one of their strongholds because they know people don’t like them.

Commented Ishihara Nobuteru:

“That’s extremely unusual. It’s a by-election to replace a DPJ MP who ran for mayor. I thought the DPJ would be the first to decide on a candidate to defend their seat.”

Japan’s Democratic Party was incapable of winning national elections until they allowed Ozawa Ichiro to join and teach them. He’s no longer willing to serve as tutor, however–earlier this year, the DPJ suspended Mr. Ozawa from party activities because of his legal difficulties. Their clumsy bungling once in office put them behind the electoral eight ball even with Mr. Ozawa on side, but now he’s outside the tent pissing in, to use former US President Lyndon Johnson’s phrase. Maybe there’s something to the karma idea after all.

The real question is not how long the Kan Cabinet survives, but how long the Democratic Party of Japan survives in its present form.

******
Which one of these characters reminds you of Kan Naoto?

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Two questions

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, April 16, 2011

THE Japanese government ordered Tokyo Electric Power to pay compensation to the families affected by the problems with the utility’s nuclear power plant at Fukushima after the earthquake and tsunami. The compensation is expected to be 1 million yen, roughly US$ 12,000 per family.

TEPCO’s payment of compensation is, of course, only natural.

That does bring up two questions, however.

1. What authority does the Japanese government (or any government) have to arbitrarily issue this order to a private sector company?

2. What authority does the Japanese government (or any government) have to determine the amount of compensation?

Properly, these matters should be determined by the utility itself and its insurers, should they not? If there is a problem–which is unlikely in the circumstances–those who suffered damages can take legal action.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government | Tagged: | 21 Comments »

Japan’s lost decades found

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, April 16, 2011

SOMETHING doesn’t add up: The idea that Japan economically lost a few decades hardened into conventional wisdom long ago, yet Japanese living standards continue to improve rather than decline. Indeed, the Japanese stock market plunged 82% from its high after the collapse of the economic bubble–almost as far as the 89% that the Dow Jones fell in the U.S. after its 1929 high–but there are no breadlines, soup kitchens, or people on the street asking for spare yen.

Kel Kelly, a Wall Street trader, corporate finance analyst, and research director, offers a convincing explanation in an article titled The Myth of Japan’s Lost Decades:

“It is widely thought that Japan is in the 21st year of a recession, or at least of a muddle-through sluggish economy. Part of this poor performance, economists and the financial press habitually state, is that Japan has experienced a terrible deflation. Nevertheless, I claim that Japan’s economic state for the past two decades, up until the recent disasters, has in fact been comparable to that of most developed nations.”

Earlier this week we saw that China’s GDP figures are masking what seems to be a real-word case of paying workers to dig holes and fill them again. Mr. Kelly holds that Japan’s GDP figures are not a measure of the real economic activity of the country:

“(T)he official data are flawed, because they are based on bad economic theory and statistics trying to aggregate factors that can’t easily be aggregated. The core of the discrepancy is that (official) economic growth is being measured in money, and money is not wealth.

“The misleading measurement of growth in question is GDP growth, because it is practically the sole indicator used by professionals to assess economic output. The problem is that GDP is in fact not a measure of real, physical production of goods and services, as it is intended to be. It is primarily a measure of inflation, which it is not intended to be.”

Key to his analysis is his assertion that the Bank of Japan’s generally conservative money policy has been a wise choice:

“While GDP can increase only with more money and spending, it is obvious that the only source of an increase of money and spending is an increase in the supply of money itself, which in turn can come only from the central bank. Businesses do not create money; they create goods and services. Only the central bank and the member banks have the ability to create money.

“When central banks pump a lot of money into the economy, they boost GDP growth (along with corporate revenues and especially profits). Conversely, when they don’t, GDP does not grow very much. Thus, Japan’s GDP growth has been slow because Japan’s central bank, The Bank of Japan (BOJ), has intentionally engaged in a conservative monetary policy for most of the last 20 years, as seen in figure 1…Consumer price inflation, in turn, as shown in figure 2, has remained near flat.

“That last sentence is worth repeating: consumer prices have been mostly flat — not falling. The “deflation” Japan is supposed to have experienced over the last 20 years — as commonly stated by financial journalists and professional economists — really consists of prices periodically falling 1, 2, and sometimes 3 or 4 percent over a year or two before returning to slight positive growth rates. All in all, consumer prices have seen a slight increase, not decrease over the last two decades.”

Incidentally, that’s why the proposal to have bonds floated by the government and bought by the Bank of Japan to finance the reconstruction of the Tohoku region is a dangerous one. Printing more money has the potential to create more problems than it would solve.

“Prices have stayed mostly flat in Japan because the quantity of money has increased at about the same pace as the quantity of goods…Despite conventional opinion, Japan’s economy has not been stagnant; it has in fact been growing in real terms — although not in monetary terms. The crucial point is that monetary changes do not necessarily reflect real changes. Japan’s GDP growth has been slow because money-supply growth has been slow; it is mainly money growth which drives GDP numbers.”

Mr. Kelly is also not concerned by the Nikkei’s somnambulism:

“It is precisely because the money supply has not been pumped back up and directed into the financial markets that the Japanese stock market has remained dead for the last two decades. And unless Japanese consumers decide to forego consumer goods — including their houses — and buy stocks, it will remain dead until more newly created money from the BOJ pushes it higher. But, crucially, the “dead” stock market harms neither Japanese consumers nor the Japanese economy.”

Rather than straight GDP, he examines GDP per capita at PPP:

“(I)n fact, Japan’s GDP per capita at PPP (purchasing power parity) has increased consistently, as figure 10 shows.

“Japan’s GDP per capita in 1987…was just about completely in line with Germany’s and France’s, the countries directly above and below Japan in this ordered ranking. Twenty years later in 2007…Japan still had GDP in line with the same two countries — just slightly below Germany’s and just slightly above France’s. The proportions are unchanged!…So, if Japan has been in a recession the last two decades, then so have Germany and France and other developed countries. In fact, Japan, after all its supposed lack of growth, still ranks above the OECD average.”

He thinks the yen’s appreciation is a good sign:

“The currency has risen precisely to adjust for relative prices, because Japan has had less price inflation due to having created less money and credit (in fact, the rise of the yen really reflects the fall of other currencies). The currency changes have kept the GDP measurement accurately adjusted.

“Had Japan printed no money at all over the last 20 years, it would have seen its currency rise even more. Additionally, domestic prices would have fallen. This would not have been deflation, which is falling prices due to a contraction of the money supply. It would have been falling prices due the fact that goods and services were being created faster than was money. Unlike deflation, falling prices help everyone.”

Finally, he includes an important qualifier in the footnotes:

“(N)one of this is to say that I put a lot of faith in the accuracy of the charts I’m using, as inflation indices, price deflators, GDP calculations, and the very concept, data collection, and methodology of GDP itself is more than questionable. But I’m using the best formal data I can find; I’m analyzing on the terms used and provided by mainstream economists.”

*****
Other people are also aware of the problems with the GDP metric, but not all of them are as intellectually rigorous as Mr. Kelly. Some favor the application of the Gross National Happiness concept devised in Bhutan in the early 1970s, or similar ideas. Lest you think that last sentence is too absurd to be taken seriously, know that French President Nicolas Sarkozy is among them.

Though it passed largely unnoticed at the time, the idea also appealed to Hatoyama Yukio’s first DPJ government. Early last year, the DPJ rogue’s gallery of Mr. Hatoyama, his successor Kan Naoto (then handing out business cards on which the title Finance Minister was printed), and Sengoku Yoshito agreed at a meeting to survey “the people’s happiness” and thereby determine a growth strategy by June 2010.

If that isn’t a non sequitur, I don’t know what is.

Said Mr. Sengoku after the meeting:

“We are considering how we can conduct a survey at the present time to get a real sense of what the people are feeling, and what they are thinking.”

He did not explain what standards would be used to quantify the extent of people’s happiness. How could he? Objective standards don’t exist; one doesn’t replace a yardstick with a joystick. Any criteria would be nothing more than the ingredients for a sky pie recipe.

Fortunately, as with most of the DPJ’s bright ideas, nothing came of it at the time because the Hatoyama government collapsed. As long as Mr. Kan and Mr. Sengoku remain in government, however, the potential for economic fatuity remains.

*****
One might well ask how happy the people of Bhutan are, or what they consider happiness to be. The Bhutan GDP per capita at PPP is $US 1,400, life expectancy is 54 years, one child in 10 dies before age five, and only 56% of males and half that number of females can read and write. Mr. Sengoku wanted to conduct a survey of the Japanese people to find out how happy they were. A similar survey in Bhutan found that many in the rural population were worried about their safety because of concerns of wood spirits and wild animals.

But in 2006, Business Week reported on another survey that showed Bhutan was the happiest country in Asia and the eighth-happiest in the world.

Prime Minister Jigme Y. Thinley was interviewed by the Inter Press Service when he visited Japan in 2009.

JYT: Economic growth is necessary to eliminate poverty. That said, we do not have a shortage of food in the world, but people are going hungry and there is poverty in one part of the world. We know there is so much waste and excessive consumption in another part of it. We also have medicine, but people are dying for lack of access to it.

IPS: How can we get it distributed?

JYT: Fiscal policies to tax the rich would ensure equal distribution. I think the rich will be willing to pay taxes to help others.

Jigme Y. Thinley is the DPJ’s economic guru? Who knew?

*****
The longer the DPJ stays in government, the more likely we’ll all turn a shade of blue.

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The truth is out where?

Posted by ampontan on Friday, April 15, 2011

EARLIER this week the Japanese government raised the level of the Fukushima disaster to seven, the maximum on the scale of international atomic crises. That is the same level as Chernobyl. Some in Japan are saying it could be even worse than the Russian accident.

Some outside of Japan, however, are saying it doesn’t add up.

Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia’s state nuclear agency Rosatom, is in Sanya, China, for the BRICS summit. He said:

“It is hard for me to assess why the Japanese colleagues have taken this decision…I suspect this is more of a financial issue than a nuclear one.”

By a financial issue, Mr. Kiriyenko might mean the Japanese government wanted to lessen the hit on insurance companies.

“I guess that maybe it could be linked to the definition of force majeure with regards to insurance? I would pay attention to that. It is a bit strange….Our estimates have shown that the level was between five and six. Today it doesn’t reach the sixth level.”

Lest one dismiss that as a manifestation of the often inimical attitude the Russians have toward Japan, the report points out that the French nuclear safety agency also said this week that Fukushima was not comparable to Chernobyl. Further, both the WHO and the IAEA said that the identical crisis rating did not mean the accidents were identical in severity.

I understand how force majeure would apply in this situation regardless of the level, but I don’t understand how raising the level defining the extent of the crisis would have an effect on insurance payments.

Another possibility the report doesn’t mention is that the anti-nuclear power wing of the ruling party might want to use the rating as the means to limit the use of nuclear power in Japan in the future. That’s just speculation on my part, however.

And those who enjoy funky rumors will love this one. A reporter/columnist with ties to the DPJ wrote last month that stories were circulating among the left wing of the DPJ and what he described as Tokyo Electric Power “lobbyists” that Prime Minister Kan Naoto’s highly publicized temper tantrum with TEPCO officials was really just a performance. He met with them for three hours behind closed doors after that outburst. According to this account, the prime minister cut a deal with the utility that his government would let them off lightly in exchange for some heavyweight political contributions. Tokyo Electric’s political funds now go to the Liberal Democratic Party. The younger left-wing DPJ pols seem to think that was quite a stroke by Mr. Kan. If the new level helps mitigate insurance payouts, does that mean the fix is on?

Meanwhile, politicians from all the opposition parties have already started to use the new seven rating as a weapon against the Kan Cabinet.

Is Level Seven the truth, or just a convenient fiction for a lot of different people for reasons of their own?

UPDATE: Reader 21st Century Schizoid Man sent in a comment that led to this article by Shimatsu Yoichi in Global Research. Here’s the lede:

Confused and often conflicting reports out of Fukushima 1 nuclear plant cannot be solely the result of tsunami-caused breakdowns, bungling or miscommunication. Inexplicable delays and half-baked explanations from Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) seem to be driven by some unspoken factor.

Breakdowns, bungling, and miscommunication seem like reasonable explanations to me. One could also add CYA to the list. But no!

The smoke and mirrors at Fukushima 1 seem to obscure a steady purpose, an iron will and a grim task unknown to outsiders. The most logical explanation: The nuclear industry and government agencies are scrambling to prevent the discovery of atomic-bomb research facilities hidden inside Japan’s civilian nuclear power plants.

A capital idea, if true. Unfortunately, Mr. Shimatsu offers no logicial explanation in his article. We do have references to Imperial Japan’s occupation of Manchuria, however, as well as Class A war criminals, a three-generation conspiracy among politicians, government, and big business, and the always-sinister Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.

Here’s my favorite passage:

The head of the Liberal Democrats, which sponsored nuclear power under its nearly 54-year tenure, has just held confidential talks with U.S. Ambassador John Roos, while President Barack Obama was making statements in support of new nuclear plants across the U.S.

The substance of undisclosed talks between Tokyo and Washington can be surmised from disruptions to my recent phone calls to a Japanese journalist colleague. While inside the radioactive hot zone, his roaming number was disconnected, along with the mobiles of nuclear workers at Fukushima 1 who are denied phone access to the outside world. The service suspension is not due to design flaws. When helping to prepare the Tohoku crisis response plan in 1996, my effort was directed at ensuring that mobile base stations have back-up power with fast recharge.

A subsequent phone call when my colleague returned to Tokyo went dead when I mentioned “GE.” That incident occurred on the day that GE’s CEO Jeff Immelt landed in Tokyo with a pledge to rebuild the Fukushima 1 nuclear plant. Such apparent eavesdropping is only possible if national phone carrier NTT is cooperating with the signals-intercepts program of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA).

Some people offer links for educational purposes. I offer this one for entertainment purposes.

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Is disaster relief and reconstruction a public good?

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 14, 2011

THE JAPANESE government is now formulating what it’s calling a “Reconstruction Vision” outlining its intentions for rebuilding the areas in the three northeastern prefectures damaged by the earthquake and the tsunami.

Not everyone thinks the public sector should play the leading role in disaster protection and relief however, and that has nothing to do with the DPJ government’s demonstrated incompetence even in normal circumstances. William F. Shughart II, a University of Mississippi professor, examined the American government’s response to Hurricane Katrina and concluded that disaster prevention and relief is a “bad” public good.

Prof. Shughart wrote a paper (.pdf) for the Independent Review outlining his ideas. Here’s how it starts:

“At first blush, disaster relief belongs to a class of problems ill suited for private-market solution. It seems obvious that coordinated emergency responses on a scale and scope far beyond the capacities of individual actors, charitable organizations, and even local and state governments are indispensable when Mother Nature strikes with the wrath of a Hurricane Camille, Andrew, or Katrina, when levee breeches cause massive flooding of towns and farmland along the upper Mississippi Valley, or when tornadoes and earthquakes shatter lives and wreck property in the blink of an eye. Disaster relief arguably is, in short, something of a public good that would be undersupplied if responsibility for providing it were left in the hands of the private sector. If this line of reasoning is sound, the activity of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or something like it is a proper function of the national government.

“But I don’t think that it is. A pure public good is both nonrival in consumption (that is, one person can consume the good without reducing the amount available for others to consume) and nonexcludable (that is, access to the good cannot be denied to anyone, including individuals who have not contributed to financing its provision). Weather forecasts (Ewing, Kruse, and Sutter 2007, 319), national defense, and some types of intellectual property qualify by that definition; other examples are difficult to come by….

“In this article, I argue that even if disaster relief is thought of as a public good—a form of “social insurance” against fire, flood, earthquake, and other natural catastrophes—it does not follow that government provision is the only or necessarily the best option. Indeed, I show that both economic theory and the historical record point to the conclusion that the public sector predictably fails to supply disaster relief in socially optimal quantities. Moreover, because it facilitates corruption, creates incentives for populating disaster-prone areas, and crowds out self-help and other local means of coping with disaster, government provision of assistance to disaster’s victims actually threatens to make matters worse.”

He cites several reasons to support his arguments. Here’s one:

“No matter how well meant, the measures taken to provide “relief”—generous injections of public money and in-kind assistance to succor a disaster’s victims; commitments to spend billions of tax dollars to rebuild the areas laid waste by Mother Nature; promises of grants, tax breaks, and low-interest loans for property owners, including those who failed to obtain private or federally subsidized hazard insurance; and lawsuits against private insurers aimed at forcing them to pay for losses not explicitly covered by the policies they sold—reduce the cost of living in disaster-prone regions and hence create incentives for individuals and businesses to put themselves in harm’s way. Publicly financed disaster relief, in short, creates moral hazard (Pauly 1968), ensuring that the next natural catastrophe will produce more fatalities and more property damage than the previous one did.”

Another of his reasons presents a most interesting contrast:

“(D)isaster relief breeds public corruption. Drawing an analogy to the so-called natural-resource curse or the Dutch disease, Peter Boettke and associates (2007) as well as Peter Leeson and Russell Sobel (2008) argue that the “windfall” of money and other resources that pours into a disaster’s impact area, the chaotic atmosphere in which relief is distributed, and the public-relations imperative to be seen “doing something” quickly to alleviate the suffering creates circumstances ripe for corruption and waste. In fact, the evidence suggests that because responses to emergencies typically are conducted with little attention to oversight or personal accountability, other things being equal, public officials are more likely to be indicted and convicted of corruption in disaster-prone states.2”

Meanwhile, writing for Bloomberg/Business Week, William Pesek warns that the public works projects to be conducted in the Tohoku region “ensures the return of large-scale graft”. He luxuriates in summarizing the downside of Japan’s postwar history of public works, though his own prose and inflated claims could stand some pork-trimming as well: “(T)he LDP turned concrete economics into an art form.”

Will there be graft involved in awarding public works projects in the Tohoku region? I expect there will, especially in Ozawa Ichiro’s home prefecture of Iwate, but that phenomenon occurs everywhere, including Mr. Pesek’s own back yard.

He should know better, but he also writes:

“Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan pledged to break Japan’s construction-industrial complex. It’s reviewing dam and other huge public works it deems wasteful. The quake reconstruction process will test that commitment.”

Perhaps Mr. Pesek hasn’t been keeping up with the news. In September 2009, then-Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport Maehara Seiji launched a publicity extravaganza to coincide with the DPJ’s assumption of control by suspending several large construction projects that had been criticized by outside commentators and media gadflies. One of the most prominent was a dam supplying water in the Kanto region. After local objections and reviews by engineers and other adults, some of those projects–including the dam–were quietly resumed by his successor, Mabuchi Sumio.

The DPJ did succeed in eliminating one large nationwide construction project already underway, however—the earthquake proofing of public buildings.

That was one of few cuts to result from the ballyhooed policy reviews of Edano Yukio and Ren Ho. Mr. Edano is now the chief cabinet secretary and is heavily involved with the government’s response to the disaster. Ren Ho received an additional Cabinet portfolio to serve as the public face of the energy conservation effort with the Fukushima reactors now no longer functioning.

But let’s return to Prof. Shughart’s article. Be sure to read the section in which he argues that Wal-Mart conducted disaster and relief operations for Katrina more efficiently and with greater effect than FEMA.

Though it’s too late to be of benefit in the Tohoku area, more people in Japan should read his paper. Too few people here–or anywhere–make the same argument.

Afterwords:

Hans-Hermann Hoppe allows himself to be described as “an Austrian School economist and anarchocapitalist philosopher, and professor emeritus of economics at the University of Nevada Las Vegas”. His ideas are very strong stuff indeed, and it is not my intention here to either support or attack them. (Reading them, however, is always worthwhile for the thought it provokes.)

In another context, Prof. Hoppe provides another reason to those cited by Prof. Shughart above. The italics are his: “(A) monopolist of taxation will invariably strive to maximize his expenditures on (something) and at the same time minimize the actual production of (that thing). The more money the state can spend and the less it must work for this money, the better off it is.”

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

Level headed

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 12, 2011

FOREIGNERS in Tokyo enjoy complaining about right-wingers blaring out propaganda and martial music in sound trucks. They should have been in my neighborhood last week before Sunday’s election. The Communist Party candidate for prefectural governor thought my street was an excellent place to park and harangue everyone within earshot about the dangers of nuclear energy. (He didn’t like the TPP free trade agreement, either.) He seems to have been barking up the wrong tree, however, and he barked up mine twice in one week.

The Yomiuri Shimbun conducted a telephone poll from 1 to 3 April on public sentiment about nuclear energy in the future after the post-tsunami problems with the Fukushima plant. They published the results in their morning edition on 4 April:

46%: The present situation should be maintained
29%: The reliance on nuclear energy should be reduced
12%: All the nuclear plants should be eliminated

In short, the percentage of people who think the disaster shouldn’t change Japan’s nuclear energy policy exceeds that of the other two categories combined. There’s very little outright anti-nuke sentiment.

JNN, affiliated with the TBS television network, published on the same day the results of a poll they took on the same subject. I’m having trouble finding the precise numbers, but they report the highest single positive response was for the statement, “Safety measures should be strengthened while continuing to operate the plants as before.” The statements that “Operations should be stopped for now while a response is studied,” and “Nuclear energy should be eliminated and different methods of power generation adopted” received roughly 15% support each.

It would be interesting to know the reason they didn’t provide a specific figure for the support of nuclear power. Did they want to hide a relatively low number, or a relatively high number that might be similar to the Yomiuri results?

That’s what I get for futzing around instead of looking further into this story!

Incidentally, more than 60% of those surveyed in the JNN poll disliked the government’s response to Fukushima, more than 70% disliked that of Tokyo Electric Power, and more than 60% dislike the Kan Cabinet. I’m surprised by only one of those figures–I thought the anti-TEPCO sentiment would be higher.

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Posted in Science and technology | Tagged: | 16 Comments »

Distortions, economic and otherwise

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 12, 2011

LAST YEAR, China’s GDP surpassed that of Japan to become the second-highest in the world. Last month, it was reported that China also surpassed the United States last year to become the world’s largest manufacturing country by output.

The two news videos at this site, however, are a reminder of the wisdom of Benjamin Disraeli’s observation that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.

One of the videos is from the Dateline program in Australia, and the other is from Al-Jazeera. They cite reports that despite the construction of 10 new cities in China every year, the existence of 64 million vacant housing units has created a classic bubble in housing—this one all the more dangerous, because it is China-sized.

The Australian program visits Zhengzhou and the South China Mall, now notorious for being the world’s largest shopping facility and being largely empty of business proprietors or customers. Al-Jazeera visits Ordos in Inner Mongolia, a city built 30 miles away from an already existing Ordos as a replacement.

Both programs make the point that China still has a command economy, and the national government sets targets for GDP growth. To reach those targets, local governments turn to construction projects that jack up the numbers. The apartments and condominiums are bought by people as an investment, inflating their price well beyond the range of affordability for the average family.

Economic bubbles always collapse, whether they are inflated by real estate or Dutch tulips. The pop of this bubble, however, is likely to cause a lot of trouble for everyone, not just the Chinese. What happens to the American economy—and by extension, the global economy—if the Chinese stop buying U.S. treasuries, for example? The Australian report raises the specter of a potential revolution. What happens to regional and global security if the national government decides that overseas adventurism in the name of Chinese manifest destiny would divert and provide an outlet for public dissatisfaction, and would be preferable to another Tiananmen massacre?

*****
When China’s GDP officially exceeded that of Japan last year, it generated a journalistic bubble of stories about the Setting of the Rising Sun and a former economic power shuffling off the stage. These two reports reveal that line of journalism to have been as substantial as froth on the head of cheap beer. As one person in the Australian report states, it isn’t the quantity of GDP, it’s the quality. In a command economy, there’s plenty of the former, but a lot less of the latter.

*****
Speaking of journalism, that from the broadcast media is much more dangerous than that offered by the print media if only because of the imperative of the medium–be entertaining or bored consumers will change the channel. The people who put a program together carefully select what is to be shown, but what are necessarily only the briefest of glimpses are presented as representing the whole.

I spend very little time watching television of any sort, so I was surprised to see that the Al-Jazeera report was superior to the Australian program as straight journalism. The enhancements for entertainment purposes to the former were kept to a minimum, but the latter was filled with them. Discovery used background music to dramatize their narrative. Both showed shots of empty streets, but the Australians interviewed an analyst in front of an overgrown lot with unoccupied condominium towers in the background. The interviewer put words in his mouth instead of letting him speak by asking, “Will there be anger, disgruntlement (following a collapse of the housing bubble)? Though the analyst seems to know what he’s talking about, Discovery never told us what he analyzes, nor for whom.

They also inserted an episode with a working married couple that makes one wonder how long the producers spent looking for the perfect subjects. The couple lives in a squalid one-room apartment off a courtyard with a common sink and toilet. They’ve entrusted the upbringing of their daughter to grandparents and see her only once a year because their dwelling is inadequate for child rearing. Their occupations provide the opportunity to insert another dimension of entertainment—both are beauticians. In a medium where time is money and every second is expensive, Discovery made sure to include a shot of one of them painting the toenails of a woman of the leisure class in a garish color. They follow that up with a wider view of the shop, which includes a snotty young thing idly examining her fingernails.

In addition, they managed to stage a scene of the wife massaging her husband’s shoulders while her husband asserts that home ownership is a “basic human right”. At least the Chinese educational and political system gives him an excuse for spouting malarkey that should have been exposed by events in the United States three years ago. What’s Discovery’s excuse?

And that’s one reason why I spend so little time watching television.

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Posted in China, Mass media | 2 Comments »

Good for what ales you?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 10, 2011

Píme pivo s bobkem, jezme bedrník! Nebudeme stonat, nebudeme mřít!
Let’s drink beer with bay laurel, let’s eat pimpernel! We won’t get ill, nor will we die!
- A Czech expression about beer

THE EVENTS in Japan over the past month have been enough to drive a man, or a woman, to drink. The findings of a scientific paper published in August 2005, however, suggest that might not be such a bad idea in the circumstances.

One of the authors of the report, Monobe Manami, was a graduate student at the time at Chiba University. She was participating in the research conducted jointly by the National Institute of Radiological Sciences and the Tokyo University of Science. Now affiliated with the National Institute of Vegetable and Tea Science, Ms. Monobe explains what happened:

“I drank some beer one night at a gathering, and the following day, after they took some blood for the experiment, the results made us sit up and take notice. That’s how it started.”

The experiment involved exposing blood samples to radiation and studying the reaction. Usually, Ms. Monobe didn’t drink on the day before her blood was taken, but this time she had a glass or two just to be sociable. “It wasn’t a lot, and six or seven hours passed before they took the sample, so I thought it wouldn’t be a problem. What happened was that there were fewer abnormalities in the blood chromosomes than normal.”

Surprised at the results, they repeated the experiment—as if they needed more incentive—and the results were the same. The abnormalities had been reduced by as much as two thirds. The group began to think they were on to something.

They set up another experiment with lab mice, and divided them into four groups. Each group was given a different liquid refreshment: beer, a saline solution, ethanol (alcohol), and non-alcohol beer. (They finally found a use for that last one.) The mice on the real beer diet lived the longest.

Ms. Monobe cautions that the noble brew will not prevent radiation poisoning. “The effect differs depending on the type and the dose of radiation. Randomly drinking beer in these circumstances isn’t going to protect anyone.”

Their curiosity piqued, Japanese journalists began to conduct their own research—in libraries, of course—and discovered corroborating evidence. Akizuki Tatsuichiro, a doctor who treated hibakusha after the Nagasaki atomic bombings, found that alcohol limited the harmful effects. The same phenomenon was observed among those exposed to the radiation of Chernobyl.

A poll conducted last week found that roughly 80% of the respondents thought people shouldn’t get carried away with the traditional Japanese practice of self-restraint; i.e., refraining from holding or participating in celebratory activities after unpleasant events.

Maybe all the business and finance mavens urging people to go about their lives normally should use this paper to buttress their argument!

*****
Here’s a previous post about Japanese scientists using all sorts of hooch for research purposes. Thanks to 2CSM for the link to this Japanese story.

*****
This song, written for an Orion beer commercial in Okinawa, was the Rinken Band’s first big hit. The tune’s a lot better than the beer. (Sorry, Okinawans…)

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

High and dry

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 10, 2011

HERE ARE two stories about the tsunami that appeared in the Iwate Nippo, a local newspaper in the Tohoku region. Their local perspective brings the events of that day into clearer focus.

*****
The waves of the tsunami climbed to just a few meters below the house of 101-year-old Ito Ayano in Hirota-cho, Rikuzentakata, but the entire 24-household community was spared.

Her grandson Takuya, however, who worked in the city’s agricultural and forestry division, drowned in the tsunami when he was leading people to a designated evacuation center at the local gym.

Takuya’s father Kazuo (72), her oldest son, said, “My son died, fulfilling his duty as a city employee to the end. That’s the way it goes…but how much it must have bothered him to leave behind his three children…”

There was another large tsunami in March 1933, when Ayano was 23. She clutched her two-year-old daughter as they were swallowed up in the waves, and they survived only because they were washed up on high ground. Meanwhile, her house near the coast was crushed and five family members died, including her husband and another son.

Fifteen people from the community died, so the survivors decided to move up the hill. That saved them in 1960 when the tsunami from the Chile earthquake struck. It washed away part of the town, but nothing compared to what happened this time.

Said Kazuo, “Takata-cho (a different neighborhood) was not as vigilant as it could have been. It hasn’t been easy living up there and climbing that hill after coming back from a day of fishing, but we all survived. It shows that living in a high place is the only way to protect ourselves from tsunami.”

The city must rebuild after being turned into a mountain of rubble. Tetsuko (70), the dead man’s mother said, “No matter how well we build a breakwater, it’ll be breached sometime. I hope this time, the people who survived build the town in a high place where the waves can’t reach. It might also help relieve the sorrow I feel about my son.”

*****
The quick wit of the teachers at Kesen Primary School in Rikuzentakata after the earthquake allowed all 92 of their students to escape the tsunami.

When the violent shaking struck their classroom on the afternoon of 11 March, the children followed their training and took cover under their desks. Then, still wearing their indoor shoes, they formed lines out in the schoolyard. The school is about two kilometers from the coast and is one of the designated shelters in the area. People from the neighborhood also arrived, and the evacuation seemed to have ended safely.

The teachers were calling the roll when they heard something from a radio for disaster use. It usually can’t be heard unless the surroundings are quiet. It was a warning that the tsunami had breached the breakwater. The school was just 500 meters away.

Realizing the urgency of the situation, the teachers immediately led the students to a hill behind the school. There is a dense bamboo grove on the hillside, so they had the high school students with stronger bodies go first and create a trail for the younger children to follow.

The children didn’t realize what was happening, but the teachers followed them, continually shouting, “Don’t turn around,” and “Keep climbing”. Said one fifth-grader, “It was frightening, but the teacher said, ‘It’s all right,’ and pushed my back. He made me feel safe.”

About one minute after they reached the higher ground about 12 meters away from the school, there was a loud roar, and what one teacher described as “a wall of brown water” appeared. The three-story school was swallowed up.

The teachers spent several days in the shelters looking after the children, without returning to their own destroyed homes. Said 6th grade teacher Sugano Kazutaka, “Well, we just acted without thinking. It was really a good thing that the children were saved.”

Principal Sugano Shoichiro retired at the end of the school year (about two weeks later). He said, “If we hadn’t gotten word in time, we’d have been done for. Both the teachers and the students worked well.”

*****
Reader Jeffrey sends in this link to a slideshow on an Al-Jazeera blog. It puts some pictures to the words of the first story. I hope the mayor’s comment at the end is premature.

A quick glance at the comments might also be educational. There aren’t many.

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Hammers and sickles

Posted by ampontan on Friday, April 8, 2011

THERE’S AN acid test guaranteed to separate the bogus from the bona fide for those who pass themselves off as Japan hands. It’s easy to apply, too: Anyone who uses the alleged proverb, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered in” to proclaim that the Japanese repress originality is a fraud. That’s a reliable signal to turn the page, change the channel, or click on the next website.

The most important of the several reasons why that test is infallible is that they’ve botched the proverb. The handful of people who cite it and actually know some Japanese assume it is Deru kugi ha (wa) utareru, but that’s a mistake. Instead of kugi, or nail, the word is kui (杭), a post or a stake. And—because a little knowledge is a dangerous thing—they’ve also botched the meaning.

The Japanese employ the concentrated insights of proverbs in speech and writing more often than people in the Anglosphere, and their long political, cultural, and literary history means they have a large supply from which to draw. That also means there are plenty of inexpensive proverb dictionaries available in bookstores, with more examples than anyone will ever be able to use in a lifetime. I have one published by Goto Shoin in 1979 that runs more than 500 pages and has definitions for roughly 10 proverbs a page. The author sources the oldest Japanese proverb as coming from the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), which was completed in the eighth century.

Here’s how the author defines this proverb:

“A post that protrudes too far will be driven in further. In the same way, people who assert their pre-eminence over the general public will be envied and meet with difficulties as a result. There’s nothing wrong with excelling or becoming a prominent figure, but human emotion resists that logic. Indeed, people who push themselves forward despite a lack of talent generally receive no forbearance from others.”

He cites one variation on the proverb as, “The post that sticks out is pounded by the waves.” He finally mentions the variation with the nail at the end of the entry, but dismisses it as a mistake. (In fact, he uses the word “bad” to describe its use.)

Therefore, the adage has nothing to do with enforcing conformity to a rigid social order. Rather, it combines a warning that one shouldn’t get too big for one’s britches with the observation that jealousy can have unpleasant consequences. And we all know that the latter is a universal human phenomenon rather than a Japan-only attribute. After all, the belief of some that the redistribution of wealth by a government through confiscatory taxation is a “progressive” concept didn’t originate here.

It doesn’t take much thought to see what happened. Either a foreigner misheard kui as kugi and jumped to the wrong conclusion, or he was steered in the wrong direction by a Japanese fuzzy on the details himself. That the proverb with the nail mistake circulates in some English-speaking circles shows it is being parroted by foreigners with a parrot’s understanding of what they’re saying. The same thing occurred when people used to believe the myth that Eskimos have an unusually large number of words for snow.

Feffered

The subject comes up because reader Get a Job Son sent in a link to an article by John Feffer in the Huffington Post titled Gambling in Japan. Feffer is described as having lived in Japan in the 90s, though the extent of his stay isn’t mentioned. Considering what little he knows, it couldn’t have been that long. Try this:

“On the outside, Japan appears to be a clean, well-ordered place. The Japanese are, stereotypically, risk-averse. According to the Japanese adage, deru kugi wa utareru: the nail that sticks out will be hammered down. This apparent preference for order and conformity helps explain the patience with which the Japanese have responded to the triple disaster – earthquake, tsunami, and the partial meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear facility – that has afflicted the country.”

Feffer doesn’t explain why a preference for conformity explains the Japanese response to the disaster, or why conformity would be a factor at all. The preference for order is certainly not unique to the Japanese, as few people anywhere are interested in the alternative. And to use one small example, neither order nor conformity explains why Hitachi’s Ibaragi plant, which manufactures generators and gas and steam turbines, resumed post-earthquake operations on 30 March and reached 90% of their productive capacity by 4 April.

Feffer’s point does not rest on a simple, shallow argument, however. It’s not possible to be a convincing public intellectual unless one uses a more complicated shallow argument. That’s why he digs up an irrelevant old anecdote of a 19th century kabuki performer who died because he couldn’t discipline his taste for the potentially poisonous blowfish, and uses it as a metaphor for the country’s mindset:

“Beneath this façade of conformity, however, lies a more interesting reality. Like Mitsugoro Bando VIII, the Japanese have become almost inured to calamity. They’ve accepted – and in some cases courted – extraordinarily risky behavior.

“Consider Japan’s dependence on nuclear energy.”

His discussion of nuclear power plants in Japan, which overlooks the placement of large hydroelectric dams on fault lines in India and China, suggests his agenda is something other than explicating the nature of Japanese behavior. Sure enough:

“Embracing nuclear power isn’t Japan’s only risky behavior. For years, the Japanese government has boasted of a “peace constitution” that restricts the country to a defense-only posture. But this constitution hasn’t prevented Japan from amassing one of the world’s most powerful militaries, confronting China and Korea over disputed islands, cooperating with the United States on a missile defense system that destabilizes the region, and playing host to dozens of U.S. military bases that endanger human lives and the surrounding environment.

“Is there somehow a contradiction between the stereotypical conformity of the average Japanese and this tendency to court disaster in the economic, military, energy, and humanitarian sectors?”

What do you know! A walking, talking strawman!

Hey, why stop at one caricature when you can use several?

“When I lived in Japan in the late 1990s, it wasn’t uncommon late at night to come upon office workers passed out on the street, vomiting in alleyways, or being carried home by their equally inebriated colleagues. Excessive drinking after work was part of the salaryman culture. Indeed, it could be awkward for a businessman to demur from such rituals. When such behavior becomes the norm, then engaging in risky activities becomes just another way of conforming. Of course, it’s only a sector of Japanese society that drinks to excess.”

Feffer doesn’t know anything about salaryman culture, of course, because he wasn’t part of it. (He would have been sure to tell us otherwise). Nor would he know about who does or doesn’t demur from such “rituals”, what is or what isn’t the norm with drinking habits, what is or what isn’t a ritual, who does or who doesn’t conform, and who does or who doesn’t drink to excess.

Many Japanese men drink prodigious amounts of alcohol, regardless of whether they are salarymen, carpenters, or even politicians, including Prime Minister Kan Naoto and the late Nakagawa Shoichi. It has nothing to do with “salaryman culture”, which in any event had already begun to wane in the late 90s when Feffer blew through town. Had he kept his wits about him when writing this piece, it might have occurred to him to blame all the boozing on the stress of conformist behavior to avoid getting pounded in like the nail that sticks out, rather than conforming to “salaryman culture”.

In fact, had he taken the time to do some reading, he would have discovered the many stories of sake-loving divinities in Shinto mythology, created millenia before salarymen existed. The Japanese have always had a taste for the rice. People were singing out of tune and carrying each other home long before the first joint-stock corporation was formed.

But none of that is his real point anyway. He edges up to it here:

“An oligarchy of gamblers holds sway over the majority of cautious Japanese.”

An “oligarchy” controlling a race of conformist, red-nosed lushes too wimpy to express themselves, eh?

The choice of the inappropriate word “oligarchy”, the statement about a mighty Japanese military confronting China and some entity called “Korea”, the claim that a missile defense system is destabilizing, the use of the ruse of environmental concerns (about an endangered species of dugong) to object to American military installations, and the unexplained assertion that Japan is courting disaster in the “humanitarian sector” all point in the direction of a certain worldview.

Once again, Google is our friend. The Huffpo identifies Feffer only as the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus. The FPIF website announces that they are a “project” of the Institute for Policy Studies. That institute openly identifies itself as a “left-wing think tank”, as even Sidney Blumenthal, the American political version of Sid Vicious, notes with approval. Noam Chomsky is an associate.

A group that so quickly cops to being leftist is sure to have some rather large rocks on their turf to provide cover for some rather slimy worms and ugly slugs. This particular left-wing think tank cooperated with the KGB in planting disinformation in Europe about NATO. A brief scan is enough to discover the usual cast of Bolshies, Reds, Pinks, Crimsons, communitarians, Gramsciites, and the other undifferentiated hairballs who use eco-lunacy, pacifism, and similar counterfeit issues to conceal their real motivations and the sweat-stained Che Guevara t-shirts under their more socially acceptable haberdashery.

Japan is not Feffer’s chosen field of study; North Korean apologistics is. Still floating around unflushed on the web is his justification of Pyeongyang’s 2009 missile launch:

“North Korea is clearly interested in still reaching out, working with, engaging with the international community.”

The Foreign Policy in Focus website informs us that a detailed statement of their positions is contained in the paper, Just Security. Feffer edited the paper, which is found on the IPS website. Here’s one of the planks of their program:

“Start a managed resource transfer from rich to poor countries through climate-friendly global justice, trade, and aid policies. This would involve a border fee on “dirty trade” that would help developing countries shift to clean energy.”

Feffer is not the first to pretend that a brief stay in Japan qualifies him to discuss the nation as if he knew something about it, nor is he the first to unload hearsay misinformation as a way to present himself as a big league thinker. This might be the first time, however, that someone has used the overseas manga edition of the country to promote an agenda that has nothing to do with Japan.

Cococala-mura

It’s curious that some would swallow the idea that the Japanese advocate pounding in posts, nails, or people as a part of everyday life. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that Koizumi Jun’ichiro, no one’s idea of a conformist, spent five successful years as prime minister. The cautious Japanese electorate would love to have that reckless gambling oligarch back tomorrow if they could. They’d be so overjoyed, in fact, they might force each other to get falling down drunk and pass out in the streets. Then again, people of a certain political orientation are loath to portray a man of Mr. Koizumi’s beliefs in a positive light. Calling attention to the Koizumi record of accomplishment would only accentuate the failures of their own heroes.

The people who come to Japan and pay attention to their surroundings soon realize it is almost impossible to get through a day without discovering unpounded posts sticking out all over the place. Just yesterday, for example, I read a newspaper article about private sector efforts to hire people from the Tohoku area who have been put out of work by the disaster. At the end of the piece, the author briefly mentioned that Cococala-mura of Awaji Island would make it a policy to give preference to hiring young people from that region. Accompanying the article was the photo shown here of people working in the Cococala fields.

It was easy to turn up their Japanese language website, which reveals it to be an enterprise that would be in imminent danger of a raid by mallet-bearing thought police were the myth a reality. The project is operated by Pasona, a company specializing in temporary staffing, recruiting, and human resource consulting. Pasona hires as employees young musicians, actors, dancers, and others in the arts to work at local farms or regional businesses while they take courses in business, arts management, and agriculture. The idea seems to be to have them to do something tangibly productive with their time as they learn to become self-supporting professionals.

A company in Japan has come up with a capital idea for nurturing self-reliance and providing the means for success to people in a field in which it is difficult to make a decent living. It’s better in every imaginable way than using public funds for national arts subsidies. Is it a coincidence that Takenaka Heizo, Mr. Koizumi’s privatization guru, is the company’s chairman?

Meanwhile, a political extremist without the slightest interest in Japan is so unwilling to let a crisis go to waste that he parades the Trojan horse of his ignorance as knowledge to disguise the parasitic bacteria inside.

Something would benefit from being pounded in, but Japanese fence posts ain’t it.

*****
My use of the word “pound”, incidentally, is as figurative as that of the Beatles.

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Posted in Agriculture, Foreigners in Japan, Language, Politics, Popular culture, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 10 Comments »

 
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