AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Archive for June, 2011

Ichigen koji (28)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 28, 2011

一言居士
- A person who has something to say about everything

“He is a sorcerer and a con artist with a genius for using language. Since it isn’t possible to be a politician without the ability to casually take back one’s words, I’m disqualified right from the start. I’d like to pattern myself after him.”

- Masuzoe Yoichi, head of the New Renaissance Party, on Prime Minister Kan Naoto. The Japanese are seldom so sarcastic, either in public or in private, but the prime minister tends to elicit negative reactions from most of the people he deals with.

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Letter bombs (18): Futenma and the dollar

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 28, 2011

“Soon we’ll find out who is the real revolutionary.”
- Bob Marley

THIS TIME two years ago, then Democratic Party President Hatoyama Yukio went campaign shouting through Okinawa promising that if elected, his party’s government would insist on the removal of the U.S. Marine airbase at Futenma to somewhere outside the prefecture at a minimum, or — better still — outside the country.

Mr. Hatoyama and the Democrats were so profligate with their promises during that campaign they tossed them out like so many candies at a child’s birthday party. The DPJ had still not earned the trust of the Japanese public, and many in the electorate lacked confidence in their ability to manage national affairs. The people were so disgusted with the LDP, however, they knew it was time for a change and so voted them out.

Demonstrating a combination of immaturity and contempt for the public striking even for the political class, the DPJ government began breaking its promises within days of taking office. Indeed, Ishii Hirohisa, their first Finance Minister, appeared on a Sunday TV political blabathon in October 2009 to blithely declare that broken promises were sweet and dandy and not a problem at all. The party would let the voters decided how much it mattered to them when the next election rolled around.

The following day, Mr. Hatoyama delivered his maiden speech to the Diet as prime minister.

Two months later, it was apparent that neither Mr. Hatoyama nor the DPJ were ready for prime time and never would be. His administration was one of the shortest in Japanese postwar history, and the largest of the shoals on which it foundered was the craven abandonment of the promise to move Futenma. Prime Minister Hatoyama was kicked out of office, and the governments of Japan and the United States kicked the Futenma can down the road.

The issue arose again this past week, sticking its head out of the policy rubble that is the Kan administration as if it were a rattus norvegicus confident in the knowledge that the current human inhabitants of the property were merely temporary squatters.

Senior officials in both the American and Japanese governments agreed to abide by the original agreement — painstakingly drafted by successive LDP administrations starting in 1996 — and move the airbase to another part of the prefecture. Prime Minister Kan Naoto, for whom shamelessness is a feature, not a bug, had this to say:

“I fully understand the desire of Okinawa to move the operations out of Okinawa and out of Japan,” Kan told reporters following the memorial ceremony. “We have reviewed it from every angle, however, and the current situation would not allow it.”

Considering the background of the issue, his excuses are illuminating:

Prime Minister Naoto Kan said Monday that considering moving the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station outside Okinawa Prefecture might further stall current negotiations over the base relocation, despite a renewed call by the Okinawa prefectural government to move it beyond the southwestern island prefecture.

“The people of Okinawa have been saying they want the base out of the prefecture or out of the country…

Wherever did they get the idea that it was possible?

“…but if we look at ways other than the current plan, (the relocation plan) could return to a state in which (the relocation site) will once again be undecided,” Kan told Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima.

In other words, we have to go with what we decided, because if we don’t, it will be undecided.

The Yomiuri Shimbun spelled it out for those who still haven’t gotten it:

The new Japan-U.S. agreement to abandon a 2014 deadline to relocate the functions of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Prefecture means there is a strong probability the facility will remain in its current location indefinitely, according to observers.

The accord confirmed the bilateral commitment to transfer the Futenma base in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, “at the earliest possible date after 2014.” However, this ambiguous wording would, in effect, allow the military installation to stay there for an indefinite period.

The latest accord is tantamount to scrapping an agreement reached between the two nations in 2006, when a coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito was in power, to relocate the Futenma functions by the end of 2014.

Note the “if” in the following:

A Japanese government source said, “If the Futenma Air Station’s transfer is carried out, it will be in the latter half of 2017 at the earliest.”

As with many of their other putative reforms, the Democratic Party has not returned to Square One. They’re at Square Zero Minus Five and still marching backwards. Until someone in Japanese politics grows a pair, Futenma is going to stay right where it is.

A link to an article sent in by reader Marellus provides a comprehensive explanation that factors in the use of the American dollar as the global reserve currency:

The dollar’s universal value is like an agreed-upon tax that the democratic world pays for the added security provided by the Americans.

Specifically:

“The prime minister of a given country might complain about the dollar in public, or criticize the United States as “arrogant.” In private, with his advisors, he is desperate to keep America’s military presence in his region. For the sake of local politics, he may call for the close of American military bases, or the return of American troops. Privately, however, he assures the Americans that the insulting language he uses in public is not to be taken seriously. There is a public discourse against America – a discourse of resentment made for gross public consumption; and there is the discourse of statesmen one to another. How else has the dollar survived in its leading position decade after decade?”

Don’t expect a change in the status quo until either the Americans retrench or the Japanese decide it’s finally time to whiteout the juvenile fatuity of Article 9 in the Constitution and establish themselves as an independent state in the community of nations. And don’t expect the latter to happen until the current generation of leaders retires, forsakes the suits and black hair dye, and retreats to their living rooms to quietly indulge their elegant pursuits or their taste for liquor in the daytime.

Afterwords:

Justin McCurry, the Guardian’s placeholder in Tokyo, contributes an article on the subject that is — Quel choc! — largely accurate and free of the usual snide asides. But the lad can’t help himself, as is obvious from the lede:

A major realignment of US military forces in east Asia is in disarray after Tokyo and Washington agreed to drop a 2014 deadline for the relocation of a marine corps airbase on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa.

The American Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines have dozens of installations throughout Japan alone — roughly one hundred if you count them all, including supply depots and other facilities. But in McCurry World, moving one Marine airbase in Okinawa constitutes “a major realignment of US military forces in east Asia”.

The only differences between the usual McCurry article in the Guardian and any article selected at random from the News of the World are the size of the type, the luridness of the photos, and the educational background (not necessarily intelligence) of the readers.

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Posted in International relations, Letter bombs, Military affairs | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Ichigen koji (27)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, June 23, 2011

一言居士
- A person who has something to say about everything

“First item of news I see, upon returning to my ‘work station,’ is the attack of the killer cucumbers in Europe. It was reported that organic cucumbers from Spanish greenhouses, exported to Germany then re-exported everywhere, were infected with something that causes kidney failure…

“Of course, pathogenic microorganisms can come from anywhere. They do not interest me, per se. Instead, I was struck by the metaphorical value of this news item. One often feels, in the conditions of post-modern life, that one is under attack from killer cucumbers.

“Meanwhile, I noticed that the Germans intend to close all their nuclear power plants over the next decade or so. All of them. Even though, at zero, or arguably one, the death toll from the “meltdown” of the Fukushima reactors in Japan remains substantially less than the death toll from killer cucumbers. The Germans, whose options are already hemmed by some of the toughest environmental regulations on the planet, have no idea by what means they will generate electricity, once those plants are closed…”

- David Warren, Ottawa Citizen columnist

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Posted in Quotations, Science and technology | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Ichigen koji (26)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 21, 2011

一言居士
- A person who has something to say about everything

“He said nothing worth commenting about. He confirmed the safety (of the nuclear plants) without verifying the cause of the (nuclear) accident.”

- Niigata Gov. Izumida Hirohiko, on the discussion conducted by METI Minister Kaieda Banri regarding his Declaration of Safety for the nuclear power plants

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What to do with the gods

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 21, 2011

THE SURVIVORS of the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami, as well as those residents near the Fukushima power plant forced to evacuate, must deal with the most basic of problems: securing food, clothing, and shelter. The immediate but temporary short-term solution to those problems is a matter of logistics. Resolving those problems will be difficult, but the difficulties lie in execution rather than conception.

The disaster has also created more subtle problems that do not admit of easy answers. The degree of logistical efficiency is irrelevant, and there are no satisfactory short-term solutions, either temporary or permanent. Those problems are not one of the physical survival of people, but rather the survival of the physical symbols of cultural identity.

Residents within a 30-kilometer radius of the Fukushima power plant have been evacuated from the area for an indefinite time. The people affiliated with and responsible for Shinto shrines in the evacuation zone are unsure whether they should take with them the physical objects representing the divinities in the shrines, known as shintai.

This isn’t a trivial issue for the people involved. They believe the spirit of the divinity at the shrine resides in the physical object, and they also think those divinities have protected the area for many years. In the Japanese perspective, “many years” usually means “several centuries” and often means more than a millennium.

The Association of Shinto Shrines, which represents more than 8,000 institutions, said:

“Shrines have been protected by the people of the community for many years. When the people who have been evacuated return, shrines, if they function, will become the spiritual center of life in the community through ceremonies and events.”

The association would prefer that the shintai not be moved. They understand that the evacuation could be for a long time, however, so say that preference must be given to local circumstances.

Another factor is Article 81 of the law governing religious corporations, which applies to the entities responsible for both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. That law states the corporations are subject to dissolution if their facilities have been destroyed and they are unable to replace them for more than two years, unless there are extenuating circumstances.

Common sense says that the extenuating circumstances are as plain as the nose on your face, but government bureaucracies are filled with people who develop visual impairments as a means to justify their existence. The Agency of Cultural Affairs, which has jurisdiction in the matter, says the extenuating circumstances clause could apply, but want to wait to make a final determination until after they conduct a survey. The local people say that’s unreasonable, and they want their institutions to be removed from consideration for dissolution now.

The ramifications of this law could have an effect not only on the shrines and temples in the evacuation zone near Fukushima, but also on those in Iwate and Miyagi unaffected by the radiation because they (and the priests) disappeared in the tsunami.

The problem at hand for the shrines near Fukushima involves the shintai, however. Some people think it would be best to have them stay and keep watch over the land while they’re away (they use the phrase rusuban in Japanese), but others think they should be evacuated with the population for use in festivals and other ceremonies. In some cases, the priests have taken custody of the physical objects themselves, but that’s not always possible. Some shintai are large, heavy rocks that can’t be moved without equipment.

There are 14 Shinto shrines within a 20-kilometer radius of the Fukushima plant and four more in the 20-30 kilometer belt. The situation is more difficult for those in the former group. Some priests left with just the clothes on their back, so they have no idea what shape the shrine itself is in, and some of them died or are still missing in the tsunami. Even those who were allowed to briefly return to their homes can’t go to the shrines because entry is restricted to residences.

Okada Masashi is the chief priest at the Naraha Hachiman shrine within the 20-kilometer radius. He said:

“All the officers among the parishioners at all the shrines will discuss whether to evacuate the objects before making a decision, but everyone is troubled by the options.”

The tutelary deity at the Naraha Hachiman shrine is the spirit of the Ojin Tenno, an emperor whose reign is said to have lasted from the late 3rd to the early 4th century. (He may or may not have existed, and it’s possible he has been confused with a different tenno now generally considered to have been a real person instead of a legend.) About 1,000 families are in the shrine’s district, but people from only 50 have stayed, all of whom are working at the plant. So has Mr. Okada:

“My role is to protect the tradition that has been handed down in this place. I will continue to wait until everyone returns.”

The shrine’s spring festival was held on April 19, but he was the only person to celebrate it. He said he prayed for everyone to return as quickly as possible.

Let’s hope his prayers are answered.

Naraha Hachiman Shrine

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Posted in Imperial family, Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »

Ichigen koji (25)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, June 20, 2011

一言居士
- A person who has something to say about everything

“They haven’t finished dealing with the nuclear accident, but they still aren’t banking the stem cells of the workers. At this rate, all the workers will leave. That isn’t an approach of, ‘I’ll take responsibility, so you guys on the front line do your best,’, it’s an approach of, ‘You guys in the kamikaze squadron go off and die, and I’ll be the prime minister.’”

- Masuzoe Yoichi, head of the New Renaissance Party

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The sporting life

Posted by ampontan on Monday, June 20, 2011

Our politicians, left and right, are, to belabor the metaphor, the wastrel son: they are free to spend, to chase fantasies, and to squander resources, for the resources are not theirs, and there is no penalty for their misuse or loss.
- David Mamet, The Secret Knowledge

DAVID Mamet’s analogy of the wastrel son for the generic politician’s spending patterns works better than that of the drunken sailor. After all, the sailor earned the money he‘s burning.

Consider the wastrel sons and daughters of Nagata-cho. The Koizumi/Abe administrations had the national budget on a path from deficit toward surplus, almost inconceivable after the collapse of the economic bubble and the Lost Decade of legend. In the four years since 2007, however, they’ve boosted the budget deficit by roughly 500% — yes, that’s the right number of digits — to almost double the total when Mr. Koizumi took office. Now consider that no one has any idea of the size of the bill for the cleanup and reconstruction of the Tohoku area after the earthquake/tsunami. Some estimate that it could run as much as JPY 40 trillion, which is almost the size of the current DPJ government deficits.

So, during the national crisis, what spending measure did the Diet deem essential to enact last Friday? Here’s the first sentence of a Kyodo report:

“A basic law outlining the promotion of sports and physical activity as a state responsibility was enacted Friday with bipartisan support, fully revising for the first time a 1961 law that has served as the main legal basis for sports-related measures.”

Doesn’t the idea that promoting sports and physical activity is a “state responsibility” have a tinge of Iron Fist statism? The Soviets established a Supreme Council of Fitness Culture in 1920, and this paper explains that state’s responsibility:

“(a) perfect the scientific system of bringing sports within the reach of the whole population, (b) build and operate sports facilities, (c) train coaches and instructors, (d) manufacture sports goods and equipment, (e) stage country-wide competitions, and (f) maintain international contacts and cooperate with other state agencies as well as the trade unions and Young Communist League organizations. The promotion and administration of sports is to be carried out by the party, government, trade unions, Young Communist League, and sports organizations.”

Other than (d), those are the same general objectives of the Japanese legislation:

“The 1961 sports promotion law was created with an eye to building facilities for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and improving school gymnasium curricula. The new law covers professional athletes and those with disabilities, while acknowledging the right of all people to enjoy sporting activities.

“The two main pillars of the basic law are improving the performance of top international athletes and supporting local sports clubs across the country, with the need for the state to take fiscal and tax-relief measures in pursuing such goals being noted.

“The lawmaker-sponsored legislation, which is the culmination of more than three years of efforts by a supraparty league of lawmakers, also makes it easier to get the government’s financial guarantee for a bid to host the Olympic Games and other international sports meets.”

Who says there’s government gridlock in Japan? Plenty of bipartisanship here.

Kyodo reports that the bill acknowledges the existence of something no one knew existed before: “the right of all people to enjoy sporting activities.” That idea is just as vapor-based as my “right” to enjoy a harem using government-owned facilities. By definition, a right requires a collective and individual obligation to allow everyone the opportunity to exercise it. Both sports and sex are voluntary recreational activities that are usually beneficial for health.

My wife wouldn’t allow me to work out exercise that right in the spare bedroom, but the state should be on my side. It would make a lot of people happy and we’d all get our calisthenics in, the opportunity for which is the state’s responsibility to provide. It’s the law!

Had I access to the voting records in the Diet, I would be curious to see who supported the legislation. It would be educational, but not surprising, if among the aye votes were those who tout themselves as small government types, such as Your Party and the Rising Tide wing of the LDP. One LDP marveloso wrote on the Web that he wanted to make Japan a Great Power in sports.

Politicians that they are, they pre-packaged the bill with justifications:

“The government intends to set a basic plan on sports based on the new law, aiming to establish a new sports culture to help revive regions and cut medical spending by capitalizing on the benefits offered by participating in sporting activities.”

A new sports culture was also one of the ideals of The Third Reichians, who increased the amount of phys. ed. time in schools from two hours a week to two hours a day. I’d bet cash money that none of the MPs supporting the legislation could offer a convincing explanation of how this will revive the regions, even if you cornered them with a knife in the alley. It’s understandable that the government wants to cut medical spending, since they’re already responsible for the bulk of it, but this excuse is just a running broad jump away from justifying the rationing of medical services. That’s one Western government budget-cutting innovation the Japanese have yet to adopt, though given the decline in the birth rate and the rise in longevity, it shouldn’t be long before someone argues for its importation.

Nevertheless, it is possible to catch glimmers of intelligent life among the politicos. The same day the Diet passed this bill, the municipal council of Koryo-cho in Nara Prefecture approved a resolution calling on the Diet to eliminate the tax-funded political party subsidies and allocate the funds to the relief of the Tohoku region.

Political parties with at least five members are eligible for the subsidies, which will total roughly JPY 32 billion this year. It’s the law! The funds are allocated based on the number of seats a party holds, so the DPJ will wind up with slightly more than half of the money. That provision means it’s also a life insurance policy for incumbents.

Here’s some of the language from the resolution:

“Continuing to receive political party subsidies while receiving corporate and group donations is tantamount to deceiving the public.”

And:

“Today, public funds account for the major portion of a party’s finances. That means the parties are disengaged from the people, and it engenders the disengagement of the people from politics.”

Plus:

“It is criminal that parties eat up tax funds when so many people are suffering from poverty. That idea grows stronger when we think of those who suffered in the disaster.”

While Koryo-cho has a population of only 34,000 and 16 council members (two of whom were absent for this vote), it is yet another data point for the argument that many people at the local level are more clear-headed about how a government is supposed to behave than their betters in Tokyo.

Subsidy supporters claim it is the cost of democracy. Others would suggest the real cost of democracy is having to suffer fools who’ve made a profession out of spending other people’s money. The subsidies were created to prevent politicians from being obvious about going on the take. They are a result of the national spasm of revulsion over money politics in the early 1990s, one example of which was the gold bullion Kanemaru Shin stashed for the LDP at home.

In other words, the real reason is this: “We are too corrupt, undisciplined, and immoral to govern our own affairs without taking dirty money, so to minimize that temptation, we’ve discussed it among ourselves and agreed to confiscate it from you.”

The best part of the story — and yet another reason I no longer read fiction — is that the legislation was introduced by a Communist, one of two party members on the Koryo-cho council. Eleven delegates voted in favor, including members of the DPJ and other “conservative” independents, as the report had it, while the New Komeito representatives were among the three opposed. What “conservative” means in this context is unclear, because the source of the report was Akahata (Red Flag), the house organ of the JCP. Japan’s Communists are the only party in the Diet that refuses to accept the funds.

What does it say about a nation’s political culture when the Reds are the only party with an occasional sense of fiduciary responsibility?

Afterwords:

The name of the Buddhist temple shown in the above photo of a Koryo street scene is Kudara-ji. Kudara is the Japanese reading of the characters for the Korean Baekche, one of the three ancient kingdoms of the Korean Peninsula. This blurb in the Britannica explains how the other two Xed it out by 660. It doesn’t explain that Japanese forces fought alongside those of Baekche, and that some of the Koreans fled south across the Korean Strait after their defeat. Many of them settled in Nara.

No one is sure when the temple was founded, except that it was A Long Time Ago.

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Ichigen Koji (24)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, June 19, 2011

一言居士
- A person who has something to say about everything

“Government bonds should be issued (to fund the reconstruction). It’s odd that the government’s Reconstruction Design Council and others are calling for a tax increase without knowing how much the reconstruction will cost. The expenditure required for the reconstruction is paltry compared to the structural fiscal deficit.”

- Yoshizaki Tatsuhiko, deputy director of the Sojitz Research Institute

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Irregular

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, June 19, 2011

“The statesman, who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.”
- Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, 1776

ONE criticism often leveled at Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party when it was in power, and at the Koizumi government in particular, was that its policies resulted in a rise in irregular employment. That criticism was one weapon in the arsenal of the Democratic Party when it was in the opposition. The labor unions that provide the party with their largest organizational support also provided the ammunition.

Here’s the English-language version of a post from Kan Naoto’s blog, dated 21 December 2005:

“Yesterday I listened to labor union executives talk about the problem of irregular employment, which they have been grappling with for many years. There has been a sharp increase in irregular employment, including part-time work, labor seconding, and temporary work. The number of irregular workers in the labor force has reached 15 million, or 30% of the total. This increase has been particularly steep among young people who have just left high school or college, the so-called freeters.

“Many of those with irregular employment work for low wages. Even those who work full-time are treated as if they are part-time employees. The income of single mothers is often below that of the poverty level. There are people who make billions of yen trading stocks on the Internet. But what are we to do about today’s situation, when many people have incomes less JPY 3 million, or less than even 2 million? This is an important issue that the Democratic Party must deal with.”

So how has the Democratic Party dealt with this important issue since it took power and it became time to walk instead of talk? The government helpfully publishes a labor force survey, and here are some of the statistics they offer on the percentage of irregular workers.

33.4%: The July – September quarter in 2006, the end of the Koizumi government
35.5%: The highest percentage on record, for FY 2007, when Abe and Fukuda were in office.
33.0%: The January – March quarter in 2009, during the Aso government
34.1%: The July – September quarter in 2009, the end of the Aso government
34.9%: The October – December quarter in 2010, the second quarter with the Kan government in charge
35.5%: The January – March quarter in 2011, matching the record high, with the prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima (the earthquake/tsunami region) excluded.

One can understand why Mr. Kan’s preferred policy option was to use the rhetoric of class warfare. That’s a lot less work than studying the nexus of human behavior, psychology, and money, commonly known as economics, and realizing there is next to nothing any government can do to move those statistics in a positive direction without a multitude of negative repercussions.

How much more psychologically comfy it is to ignore the other problems created by the ramifications of the preferred political solution (unemployment, higher prices, less business competition) than to admit the assumptions of a lifetime are just as screwy now as the day one became infatuated with them. Besides, what better way is there to work off grudges than to get even with the stand-ins for the source of them?

Working single mothers everywhere bring home a slice or two short of a rasher of bacon, but most of them are working single mothers because that was their choice. Almost all of the people who are both single and mothers are classified in that particular category for two reasons: Divorce — and the majority of divorces, by a large margin, are initiated by women — or childbirth without marriage.

The official explanation for people unable or unwilling to repair the leaky faucets of their lives is “bad luck”.

The soupçon of the population standing with a basket under the money tree in the Internet stock trading orchard after scarfing down a picnic of pâté de foie gras and grinding their designer heels into the noses of the workers are able to fire up their barbecues with rolled-up banknotes because that was their choice. Well, to an extent, anyway: profits of that type in financial markets are guaranteed to no one. But they still chose to intensively study stock market investment, to invest a substantial amount of their time during the day every day to follow the market and economic news, and to invest their own money in an enterprise with no guarantee of future success, even for those with past success.

The official explanation for people who decided to use their time in productive ways instead of flipping open their cell phones every 30 minutes with elaborately decorated fingernails is “privileged”.

At this point, it’s worth repeating the question first asked by Thomas Sowell: Is the person who has spent years in school goofing off, acting up, or fighting — squandering the tens of thousands of dollars that the taxpayers have spent on his education — supposed to end up with his income aligned with that of the person who spent those same years studying to acquire knowledge and skills that would later be valuable to himself and to society at large?

Books have been written about the changes that technology wrought to the industrial structure, the pointlessness of politicians thinking that meddling in the micro will improve the macro, as well as the futility of examining individual statistics out of context.

The least we can do here is recognize that the government’s current silence about these statistics demonstrates that the DPJ wasn’t talking about a change of government as a way to change the ratio, but was instead talking about a change in the ratio as a way to change the government.

Afterwords:

More on freeters from a few years ago.

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

Crony capitalism nouveau: green and Japanese

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, June 19, 2011

ONE OF Japan’s wealthiest men, entrepreneur Son Masayoshi made his mint by distributing software and taking on the NTT monopoly to provide broadband services. His idea to shift Japan from nuclear power to solar power, combined with Prime Minister Kan Naoto’s out-of-the-blue proposal at the recent summit for an impossibly sharp and rapid increase of solar power generation, has again turned him into a media darling while cogenerating suspicions of crony capitalism gone green.

University professor, author, and blogger Ikeda Nobuo wrote an article last week examining the Son scheme. Here’s part of it in English:

*****
Mr. Son has established the Natural Energy Council to work with local governments for building solar power generating plants, and they’ve already announced the cooperation of 34 of those governments. The governments will provide the land and Softbank (Son’s company) will provide the capital investment. They plan to build 10 solar energy plants nationwide generating 20,000 kW. Softbank has even modified their Articles of Incorporation to include “the power generation business” in the section dealing with their business content.

This enterprise has a serious problem, however. The unit cost of solar power generation is more than JPY 40/kWh, much higher than the unit costs for atomic or thermal power, which are less than JPY 10/kWh, so power companies won’t buy the power generated. Therefore, Mr. Son held a meeting with Prime Minister Kan Naoto on the day before he launched his initiative and extracted the promise that a system would be instituted in which all renewable energy would be purchased at a fixed cost.

This is a mandatory system in which the power companies must purchase the expensive solar power at a price the government determines. There is at present a scheme for purchasing the surplus power generated by homes and companies using solar cells at a price of JPY 42/kWh. The Cabinet approved a bill in March, however, that will require the purchase of all this power. Because that means the generated solar power will be purchased at JPY 42, anyone who can hold the costs below that amount will make a profit.

Meanwhile, the utilities charge about JPY 15 kWh for power consumption, so the new scheme creates a negative margin. But the power companies will pass that differential on to the consumer through a solar power surcharge. In short, those who bear the liability of the higher costs of Softbank’s solar power plants will be those who use electric power. This is tantamount to Softbank receiving subsidies from the government and taxing the user.

The more basic problem is what these solar power plants will resolve. Mr. Son seems to be inclining toward natural energy to shift from nuclear power, but solar power is useless for reducing nuclear power reliance. If all 10 mega-solar power plants are built, they will generate only 200,000 kW, or one-fifth the amount of one nuclear plant. Solar power generation requires 40 times the land area of nuclear power generation. The amount of land required to generate the one million kW of power produced by a nuclear plant would be equal to 1.5 times the land inside JR East’s Yamanote Line in Tokyo. Further, the solar power plants can’t be used on rainy days. It is not possible to rely on them to replace nuclear power.

If the objective is to reduce the reliance on nuclear power, a more effective way would be to increase thermal power. When the costs of waste material disposition and compensation for damages are factored in, the cost of generating nuclear power is not that much different from thermal power. Fuel costs will rise over the short term, but over the long term, cost savings will be achieved for the facilities and reprocessing.

Natural gas is a particularly important type of thermal power. There have been recent advances in the technology for extracting shale gas, and the costs are said to be cheaper than coal. The Middle East has been the major natural gas production region until now, so there was considerable political risk. But the United States is the largest producer of shale gas, and is estimated to have 160 years’ worth of reserves. It has become the view in the energy industry that natural gas will become the mainstay in 10 years’ time at the least.

Gas turbines are said to have poor energy efficiency, but using the combined cycle technology, the residual heat from using gas to operate the turbines can convert water to steam, achieving 1.5 times the conventional efficiency of thermal power. Cogeneration technology, in which the heat used in blast furnaces, for example, is created simultaneously with electric power, is also becoming more sophisticated. Greater innovation is likely to result if companies other than the power utilities become involved.

The power companies, however, control the transmission lines, making it difficult for other companies to get involved. It is the same situation that Mr. Son claimed was unfair competition when NTT monopolized the telecommunications infrastructure. Attempting to compete with them will require an investment of at least JPY 10 billion. None of the so-called independent PPS power companies could even seriously compete with Tokyo Electric and its zaibatsu affiliations and ties to gas companies.

(End translation)
*****
This is yet another demonstration that the fundamental things still apply as time goes by in the eternal intercontinental love match between Big Business and Big Government.

The calls for the separation of the power generation and transmission operations were so numerous and made so much sense that even Kan Naoto has come out in favor of them. Mr. Deregulation.

In an amusing piece of journalism, the Asahi-published weekly magazine Aera suggested that Mr. Kan’s support for this was the motivation behind the recent no confidence motion. They offered neither evidence nor quotes from suspicious anonymous sources (and actually allocated more space quoting named sources talking about the rambling wreck of Tokyo Tech). They said Tokyo Electric made substantial political contributions, which they surely do, but specified none of the people who received them. They also admitted the contributions were not close to the scale of the largesse distributed by construction companies.

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Ichigen Koji (23)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, June 18, 2011

一言居士
- A person who has something to say about everything

“A two-party system has been created with the single-seat election districts, but it is not possible for people of differing ideas, beliefs, and policies to create an organization. That impossibility is connected to the Democratic Party’s slapstick and its involvement with the no confidence motion in the Cabinet. Politics will deteriorate unless we change the electoral system.”

- Takagi Yosuke, Acting Secretary-General, New Komeito

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Koga Shigeaki interview

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, June 18, 2011

LAST OCTOBER, Your Party invited Koga Shigeaki of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry to testify in the upper house of the Diet. Mr. Koga has become known as a bureaucrat championing radical reform of Japan’s civil service system.

Koga Shigeaki testifying in the Diet

One of the primary pledges of the Democratic Party in Japan during its days in the opposition was the promise to enact bureaucratic reform of the sort Mr. Koga favors. It was one of the reasons the Japanese public voted for a change of government and put the DPJ in office. Once in government, however, the DPJ backtracked immediately on its pledges, as has often been explained here.

During his testimony, Mr. Koga said, “The government tried to debone the provisions against amakudari (post-retirement jobs for bureaucrats in semi-public bodies in the industries they once regulated).” The chief cabinet secretary at the time was Sengoku Yoshito, former Socialist Party member, attorney for gangsters, sokaiya, and Korean nationals born in Japan associated with Chongryun, the new backroom puppeteer in the DPJ, and the man at the forefront of the Dump Kan movement in his own party.

Some of his former clients’ habits seem to have rubbed off on him — when Mr. Koga pointed out the emperor was buck naked, Mr. Sengoku shouted out on the Diet floor that his testimony would “harm his future”. It was one of the several reasons Mr. Sengoku was later censured by the upper house, forcing Prime Minister Kan to replace him.

Koga Shigeaki released his first book last month, and he was interviewed recently by the Sankei Shimbun. Here it is in English

How did it come about that you were yelled at in the Diet?

When testifying about civil service reform, I said, “The government tried to debone the provisions against amakudari. Mr. Sengoku then stood up and shouted at the questioner, “That will harm his future.” I thought he was rather angry, and it was frightening. It still is frightening. That’s because, rather than Mr. Sengoku, I criticized the DPJ government.

Why do you think Mr. Sengoku shouted without debating you directly?

I was telling the truth, so he probably calculated that if he criticized me directly, he would be branded as a member of the old guard.

And that was frightening?

As long as Mr. Sengoku was in that position and the DPJ was in power, I would be abused and not given any real work to do.

What is your perception of Mr. Sengoku?

He’s a theoretician. He understood the need for reform. He has more guile than the number of his election victories (six) would suggest, and he has refined that guile since becoming a member of government. He has the ability to use deception to change the minds of those around him.

It’s also said that he leans toward the Finance Ministry view and favors a tax increase.

The Finance Ministry wasn’t able to easily force him out (of the sumo ring), and he tried to rally at the edge of the ring. But he was unable to do so, and moved to the tax hike path. How will a tax increase bring about growth in the Japanese economy? I have no idea.

What do you think of the political leadership (concept) espoused by the Democratic Party?

They made the mistake of trying to respond to the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami without the assistance of the bureaucracy. Mr. Sengoku is well aware that neither the party nor anyone in it has the ability for that sort of political leadership. That’s why he created a liaison council with people of the deputy minister class as an alternative after the disaster.

The Kan administration seems to have come to a dead end.

What happened is what was bound to happen. The initial response to the disaster by the prime minister and those around him was panic. There was a serious breach between them and government officials. The DPJ government does not have the capability to govern, and there is arrogance throughout their administration.

*****
On the 14th, Maruyama Kazuya of the LDP asked to call Mr. Koga to the Diet as a witness to question him about the latter’s proposed plan for Tokyo Electric’s payment of compensation for the Fukushima nuclear accident.

When the directors of the Diet committee in question discussed Mr. Maruyama’s idea to invite Mr. Koga, Okazaki Tomiko of the DPJ was adamantly opposed. She said:

“While he has been called to testify as a government expert in the past for the upper house Budget Committee, he did nothing but express his individual opinions.”

The representatives of all the other parties were in favor of having Mr. Koga appear, but it is the long-standing practice to call witnesses based on unanimous agreement. Therefore, he was not invited.

In fact, his name was not even placed on the list of those submitted to the directors of the committee for deliberation. The upper house secretariat apologized and said it was a simple error, but Mr. Maruyama charged there was “pressure from Mr. Sengoku and others to use every means to stifle debate”.

It’s curious, by the way, that Okazaki Tomiko would be the one to complain that Mr. Koga offered nothing but opinions. After all, she’s so full of them herself. Here’s a reprise of what I wrote about her in January this year.

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

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

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

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

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

She lasted just four and a half months in office.

*****
There must be the strain of a perverse sense of humor running through what passes for the minds of the Democratic Party. Why else would they appoint this woman to be the head of the National Public Safety Commission when they could have found some job for her in a more innocuous branch of the bureaucracy? They did it before when they appointed Tsujimoto Kiyomi to be the vice-minister of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport in the Hatoyama Cabinet. Several years ago, in an unguarded moment, she used a Japanese pun to tell a journalist it was her job as a Diet member to “destroy the nation”. Mr. Kan also appointed her to direct the volunteer efforts nationwide to help those who survived the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami. After the Hanshin earthquake in 1995, she volunteered her own assistance by going to the area and passing out anti-government leaflets.

This character disability is shared by people of the same political warp throughout the world. Some will remember that staffers in the Clinton administration in the U.S. thought it would be snicker city to hang sex toys as ornaments from the White House Christmas tree. Others had the last laugh. During his second term, Mr. Clinton was, so to speak, hoist by his own petard.

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Ichigen Koji (22)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 17, 2011

一言居士
- A person who has something to say about everything

“Noda, Maehara, and Haraguchi (of the Democratic Party) are all graduates of the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, but they learned nothing of Matsushita Konosuke’s thought. They were merely enrolled there, or else just passed through the MIGM tunnel. They certainly didn’t study Mr. Matsushita’s political philosophy. Theirs is nothing more than the earnest wish to advance in the big corporation that is the Democratic Party of Japan Co., Ltd. If it were possible, I’d like to ask them what they think Mr. Matsushita’s political philosophy was, or what his view of humanity was. Their answer would probably be, “…”. They have not made the Matsushita philosophy or political philosophy a part of their lives. That’s why I, who was involved for 15 years with the establishment of MIGM, do not want them to publicly state that they are graduates of that institution.”

- Eguchi Katsuhiko

Mr. Eguchi was a close associate of Matsushita Konosuke, the founder of Panasonic. He was elected last year to the upper house of the Diet as a member of Your Party.

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Education, Government, Politics, Quotations | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Hodgepodge

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, June 16, 2011

A READER sent in a comment passing along word that he and a friend have launched what they intend to be a group blog called Pacific Rim Shots, which you can find here. They now have two primary writers, one from Sweden living in Beijing, and another from San Diego, who has lived and worked in Taiwan, Shanghai, and several other places in the region. They also say they have new writers lined up in China and Hiroshima. Most of the content focuses on culture, music, and art, but there are a few political pieces too. There seems to be some time lag between individual posts, but presumably that will change. See what you think.

*****
Reader Marellus also sent in a comment pointing out a website post that he discovered. It’s worth reading, if only for seeing how people keep missing the point. Here’s how it starts:

“Japan’s attempt to restimulate the economy through consumer spending (something that has so far failed in the US and everywhere else courtesy of a third consecutive year of global household sector deleveraging) appears to be going horribly wrong. Exhibit A: ‘Japanese safe maker Eiko Co. says sales jumped more than 40 percent after the March earthquake and tsunami, a sign that consumers will hoard more cash at home and restrain an economic rebound…’.”

No, safe sales do not mean that “consumers will hoard more cash at home and restrain an economic rebound”. The temporary increase is one of many event-specific responses to the Tohoku earthquake that is an example of the way people everywhere respond emotionally to shocking occurrences. It won’t be much longer before safe sales return to normal levels, when the memory fades and they again get used to living without catastrophic natural disasters.

In fact, a passage quoted later in the piece explains that the Japanese have always been more likely to stash their cash at home than people elsewhere:

“In the devastated northeastern Tohoku region, safes recovered since the data have indicated the scale of tansu yokin. In Ishinomaki, a stricken city, about 700 are stored at a police station, officer Yoshiaki Fukushima said. Officials there have reports of another 750 missing, claimed to contain an average of about one million yen each.

“’I was stunned by the amount of cash I was seeing,’ said Fukushima, who found as much as 70 million yen ($870,000) in one of the boxes. In another case, he couldn’t get the bills out because they were swollen with water.

“At least 500 are at a police station in Kesennuma city, and one contained as much as 40 million yen in cash, said Hiroki Sato, a local police commissioner…”

Bloomberg explains that tansu yokin is “keeping mattress money”. The phrase literally means “savings in a chest of drawers”.

But the real problem is what other people say in that Bloomberg article:

“While output is bouncing back, weak demand may slow an economic recovery as officials struggle to boost consumer spending after decades of deflation.

“’It’s absolutely essential for Japan to get people to spend,’ said Robert Feldman, head of Japan economic research at Morgan Stanley in Tokyo. ‘Weakness in consumer spending is one of the reasons for the economy contracting — it’s crucial for the government and the Bank of Japan to work together properly to end deflation’.”

Ugh — as in ugly. What does it take for a “head of economic research” to do some research on the failures of the Keynesian philosophy of the government getting the people to spend? You know – the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, the man who disliked thrift and savings so much, he wrote:

“The love of money as a possession -as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life -will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.”

(One wonders how much of his philosophy is derived from a dislike of homo sapiens. He also wrote that eugenics was “the most important, significant, and, I would add, genuine branch of sociology which exists”. But I digress.)

The author of the post linked here, Tyler Durden, starts with the observation that attempts to stimulate consumer spending have failed everywhere. It will never occur to some people that instead of focusing on what is termed “nominal expenditures”, or the amount of money circulating in the economy, attention should be given to the production of goods and services useful to consumers.

Only one factor can be counted on to drive economic growth, and consumer spending ain’t it. Rather, it is private sector net capital investment. Here’s a discussion of consumer spending and the American economy, but it applies just as well to Japan:

“It must be a condition of employment that a journalist who writes about the current recession include in his article the statement, ‘consumption makes up more than two-thirds of the economy’ or ‘consumption spending accounts for 70 percent of GDP.’ This seemingly simple, factual statement, however, is nearly always intended to carry some explanatory weight, and on occasion the writer spells out this explanation by adding a statement such as, ‘unless consumers begin to open their wallets and spend more, recovery from the current recession will be impossible.”… One does not need a Ph.D. in economics, however, to discover that something must be wrong with this way of thinking about prosperity and recession…As every student of the business cycle learns early on, the most variable part of aggregate expenditure is private investment…The ups and downs of the business cycle are obviously driven not by consumption spending, but by investment spending….

“The vulgar Keynesian focus on consumption unfortunately tempts politicians to approve ‘stimulus’ measures aimed at pumping up this part of total spending…Such arguments, however, fail to grasp the true nature of the boom-bust cycle, especially the central role of investment spending in driving it—and, more important, in driving the long-run growth of real output that translates into a rising standard of living for the general public. Politicians, if they truly wish to promote genuine, sustainable recovery and long-run economic growth, need to focus on actions that will contribute to a revival of private investment, not on pumping up consumption.”

This will be ignored by the leadership of both the Democratic Party and the Liberal Democratic Party, who would rather promote genuine prosperity by raising taxes. Some of them favor greater governmental cash confiscation because the Finance Ministry’s bureaucratic lobbyists have blown so much smoke in their direction they’ve become convinced it’s the best way to solve Japan’s economic problems — despite one lost decade already — and others because they’re Big Government social democrats, regardless of party label. As we’ve seen before, they’re loathe to let a crisis go to waste, and view the recovery/reconstruction of the Tohoku region as an excellent opportunity to hike tax rates, even though, as we’ve also seen before, there are plenty of good suggestions to fund those efforts without a tax increase. But that would require prying money out of the government’s clenched fist.

*****
Meanwhile, the natives are still restless in China. It does not seem to be as if this will be the Chinese version of the Summer of Love, as this article suggests:

“Beijing remains terrified that the fast-rising tally of localised protests could be linked via mobile social networking and Twitter-style websites.

“Some Chinese academics believe that the true number of protests in the country last year was more than 180,000. After several big clashes in recent weeks the names of half a dozen big towns have been eradicated from the search engines of the country’s most popular microblogging sites.

“One of the ‘disappeared’ cities, Dongguan, is the fourth-largest producer of exports in the country and has a population only slightly smaller than London’s.

“The recent violence, however, has exposed the limits of the government’s ability to control the urban population using internet censorship, (which) party leaders refer to as ‘social management’.”

I’d like to know what term they use to refer to their one-child policy, a close relative of eugenics that would surely have met with Keynes’s approval. (A century ago the fascisto-progressives thought eugenics was an important element of “social control”. “Management” is a more appropriate euphemism for our bathetic age.) But then Keynes also thought that private sector capital investment and government deficits had the same effect.

*****
One more from John Maynard

From John Maynard Keynes’s introduction to the 1936 German edition of the General Theory:

“The theory of aggregate production, which is the point of the following book, nevertheless can be much easier adapted to the conditions of a totalitarian state (eines totalen Staates) than the theory of production and distribution of a given production put forth under conditions of free competition and a large degree of laissez-faire. This is one of the reasons that justifies the fact that I call my theory a general theory. Since it is based on fewer hypotheses than the orthodox theory, it can accommodate itself all the easier to a wider field of varying conditions.”

*****
A reminder to readers who want to send in links and story ideas — please keep sending them in, I read them all, but send them to the e-mail address as explained on the right sidebar.

*****
Apropos of nothing, this has got to be in the Global Top 10 of classic music videos. The song is called ส้ม อมรา, and it’s performed by Thai singer Play Girl with rapper Joey Boy. PG can come over to my house and play anytime she wants, or I’ll go over to hers. I’m flexible and I can bring the toys. The first game we could play is rub-a-dub-dub in the tub to see if that tattoo on her left shoulder washes off or is real. If it’s the latter, that won’t be what I’ll hold against her.

If you don’t care for what happens at any particular point in the video, wait two or three seconds. Something else will be happening by then.

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, China, Websites | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

Ichigen Koji (21)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, June 15, 2011

一言居士
- A person who has something to say about everything

“Unlike in North Africa, where political upheaval has been underway in ongoing succession, it is often said that in Japan the influence of the Internet is still far short of that of the mass media.”

- Prime Minister Kan Naoto, who doesn’t seem to have been reading what people are writing about him on blogs and Twitter. The English here is as it appeared in “Prime Minister Kan’s Blog E-mail Service” on 14 June.

“A person whose behavior is starting to resemble that of a dictator of some developing country…people who are suffering hardships that resemble the lives of people in some developing country…This situation must be reversed.”

- An aide to LDP MP Nakagawa Hidenao

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