AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Archive for August, 2011

Ichigen koji (53)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 30, 2011

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

Enriching the lives of the people by reducing taxes cultivates national strength. The predetermined tax system must be maintained even if the state is involved in many affairs and it struggles from a lack of funding sources. The people below must not suffer even if the people above incur losses.

Observe history well. When what is just and right is not clear, and there are difficulties due to a lack of funding sources, it is inevitable that government officials with a low level of cunning and crafty thought will be employed. Those who temporize with stopgap measures will be recognized as admirable officials with an excellent understanding of fiscal matters. These officials will use any means, by hook or by crook, to squeeze taxes out of the people. People will then become unable to withstand hardships, and to avoid them they will naturally engage in falsehoods and fabrications. The people above and the people below will cheat each other, and government officials and the people will turn against each other. In the end, won’t that country rupture and fall apart?

- Matsushita Konosuke, the founder of Panasonic and the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management. Japan’s new prime minister, Noda Yoshihiko, was a member of the first class and is the first prime minister to have been graduated from that institution. A core element of his fiscal policy is to increase taxes.

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government, History, Quotations | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Caution: Spewed rice alert

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 30, 2011

ONE of the most colorful words in the Japanese language is funpan, written 噴飯. Used as a noun, it means absurd or preposterous. Used as a verb, it means to burst into laughter. The best part of the word is the combination of kanji; together they literally mean “spew rice” (or food).

Funpan is the word that usually comes to mind whenever I stumble across political analysis from the boys and girls playing newspaper at the Japan Times. JT staff writers Jun Hongo and Hiroko Nakata were in analytical mode today regarding the election of Noda Yoshihiko as DPJ president and imminent prime minister. Their piece should come with the Surgeon-General’s recommendation to read it at least 30 minutes after a meal. Failure to heed that advice could result in so much funpan the knowledgeable reader would be compelled to spend the better part of his day cleaning spewed rice off his computer screen, keyboard, and the wall behind them.

Here’s how it starts:

Market watchers and political experts welcomed the victory of Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda…

No, they didn’t mention the “political experts” by name, their qualifications as political experts, or why the experts welcomed Mr. Noda. That’s Japan Times policy.

….an advocate of a tax hike and a fiscal hawk, in the Democratic Party of Japan’s presidential race Monday

All the computers used at news outlets to write the English-language reports on new prime ministers and finance-related Cabinet ministers from the Democratic Party, both here and overseas, have specially programmed hotkeys. For example, type #%$ and the phrase “fiscal hawk” appears. Since “fiscal hawk” used in this context always means “supporter of a tax increase to reduce the budget deficit”, the editor (assuming the paper has any) missed the Hongo/Nakata pleonasm.

When a Japanese politician is approvingly called a fiscal hawk it never — never — means that the politician cited is serious about cutting government spending.

On the currency market, a Noda administration is likely to have more success in stemming the yen’s sharp appreciation against the dollar, as it will be easier for the Bank of Japan to cooperate with the person who served as finance minister than other candidates, many of whom looked too aggressive in putting pressure on the BOJ in dealing with deflation and the yen’s rise, Dai-ichi’s Kumano said.

Even the Japan Times’s identified experts require a funpan alert. Kan Naoto served as finance minister just before he was named prime minister, and his administration didn’t have any success stemming the yen’s sharp appreciation against the dollar, despite the presence of the Dynamic Fiscal Hawk Duo. The junior journos assured us last year that Mr. Kan was a fiscal hawk too. You could look it up, starting with the search engine on the left sidebar.

There is almost nothing the BOJ can do to stop the yen’s appreciation against the dollar when the Americans are beavering away at the devaluation of their own currency under prevailing economic conditions. The American journo/politico class dares not speak the name of those conditions, but other people do: Depression.

Tax data released earlier this month showed that American incomes in real terms fell 15.2% from 2007 to 2009, and that the number of taxpayers who reported any income from a job fell about 4.2 million during that time. Some people suspect the real unemployment rate is closer to a Rooseveltian 15% than the official 9%+. The official statistics also claim there’s been seven straight quarters of GDP growth. Why, sure there has, Mary Sunshine! But back to Japan.

Fukashi Horie, professor emeritus of politics at Tokyo’s Keio University, was pessimistic. “If Noda is able to seek fiscal balance while also pursuing the political pledges in the DPJ manifesto, then he will make great achievements,” Horie said.

They don’t make professors emeriti like they used to.

The DPJ manifesto contained promises for sharp spending increases for the child allowance and farm household subsidies, as well as the loss of income by eliminating expressway tolls. Noda the Fiscal Hawk voted for all of that. The DPJ manifesto also promised no tax increases for four years. Noda the Fiscal Hawk was down with that, too. He was the shadow finance minister, after all. Finally, the manifesto promised there would be cuts in wasteful government spending to offset the new expenditures.

Well, it’s not so easy for a government to keep all of its promises.

If he can “seek” fiscal balance while pursuing the political pledges of the manifesto, he won’t just “make great achievements”. He’ll be walking on water.

“But I fear that properly managing all the factors that come into play, such as handling of (sic) the resilient bureaucrats, won’t be so easy.”

It is to funpan. Mr. Noda was known in the media — and even in the Democratic Party itself — as the Finance Ministry candidate.

Noda, 54, is replacing Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who leaves a government ¥900 trillion in debt.

Passing the fiscal hawk baton to a younger generation.

Fiscal reform efforts took a back seat during Kan’s tenure due to the March 11 disasters.

Dealing with those disasters also took a back seat during Kan’s tenure. Everything took a back seat during Kan’s tenure to any activity designed to extend Kan’s tenure.

The native of Chiba Prefecture was the sole candidate among those running in the DPJ race considered as being oriented toward fiscal reform measures.

“Fiscal reform” is another one of those phrases people use in Japan when they dare not speak the name of tax increase in the context of bringing down the budget deficit.

Although he has toned down his stance lately, he has been an avid promoter of a tax hike to pay for Tohoku’s restoration. “It is an issue that can’t be shelved in any administration,” Noda said of a tax hike during policy debate over the weekend. “After slashing expenditures, we need a tax hike on a temporary basis.”

The Japanese response to the slashing expenditures part and the temporary part was funpan. The Finance Ministry wants the tax hike to pay for Tohoku’s restoration. The New Fiscal Hawk has never offered a convincing explanation why government funds on hand or (very) long-term bonds can’t be used to pay for Tohoku’s restoration.

He also advocates easing the burden on the private sector, saying the corporate tax should be slashed by 5 percentage points in order to support business competitiveness.

Now you see why Keidanren likes him.

He was also a central figure in writing up a $100 billion program designed to extend loans to domestic firms to spur overseas investment.

Hey, why not? The American stimulus programs have “made a great achievement”, haven’t they?

Hold on…it’s going to take a few seconds to fit $100 billion government loan programs to the private sector into the Fiscal Hawkery concept…OK.

Overall, Noda is known for his expertise in fiscal and economic policies, having served as senior vice finance minister from September 2009 in Yukio Hatoyama’s Cabinet and then being promoted to finance minister when Kan left that post to become prime minister in June 2010.

Mr. Noda applied that expertise to his assignment as vice finance minister to secure the funding to realize the manifesto pledges. His expertise was such that Mr. Hatoyama produced the highest budget with the highest budget deficit and highest deficit bond float in Japanese history (until the following year’s budget, which was produced by Kan The Fiscal Hawk Naoto).

He appears to have a head start on collaborating with the Liberal Democratic Party, whose president, Sadakazu Tanigaki, praised Noda by saying earlier this month that he “is not a person who acts without thinking much.”

Saying he isn’t a person who acts without thinking isn’t what most Japanese normally consider to be praise for politicians. Here’s the translation: He’s not Kan Naoto. The LDP long ago signaled they’d be willing to work with just about anybody not named Kan Naoto.

The first glimpse of how Noda will handle tough economic and fiscal issues will be demonstrated once he reveals his Cabinet lineup. “The key will be for him to appoint a finance minister who shares his beliefs and will not back down against the bureaucrats, in order to materialize DPJ’s policies,” Keio University’s Horie said.

You know, I can’t remember if I’ve ever read a four-dimensional non sequitur before. I think this might be the first one.

But enough of this — There’s a quicker way to get a read on Mr. Noda than by reading the JT analysis, and it too involves interesting Japanese vocabulary.

Recall that the fiscal hawk/financial and economic expert Noda Yoshihiko was vice finance minister during the Hatoyama administration. That government raised taxes on cigarettes by 33% a pack. The DPJ also discussed increasing the liquor tax earlier this year to help fund Tohoku reconstruction.

Mr. Noda demonstrated a nuanced approach to fiscal policy by taking a strong public stand against higher taxes on both tobacco and liquor. In fact, he called it “Oyaji-gari through the tax system.”

Oyaji is how Japanese men sometimes refer to their fathers in the way that Americans use the expression, “the old man”. It can also be used generically to refer to men middle-aged or older. The suffix “-gari” means “hunting”, in the sense of scalp-hunting or head-hunting.

Here’s the punchline: Mr. Noda is a man known to hugely enjoy cigarettes and booze.

Funpan!

Afterwords:

Mr. Noda was a member of the first class of students accepted in the Matsushita Institute founded by electronics magnate Matsushita Konosuke. Matsushita’s expressed ideal was the “taxless state”, and he founded the institute to foster leaders with compatible ideals. He also said that one should not hesitate to die for one’s ideals and resolutions.

Were not Japanese usually cremated, it would be appropriate to say that Matsushita is rolling over in his grave tonight.

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

Ichigen koji (52)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 30, 2011

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

The discussion in the style of “modern thought” that has emerged after the nuclear power plant accident is of great interest because it reveals the degeneration of the arena for critical debate in Japan. There’s the agitation of Karatani Kojin, who wants to exterminate capitalism and nuclear power simultaneously; Uchida Tatsuru, who calls for the immediate suspension of all nuclear power generation and the decommissioning of the reactors; Nakazawa Shin’ichi, who wants to end both nuclear and thermal power generation and live by photosynthesis, and Osawa Masachi, who characterizes the issue of nuclear power as a choice between “our children or our air conditioners”. They’re all very amusing as comic monologues.

I read a new book on this subject by Yamamoto Yoshitaka, the author of The Cultural Revolution of the 16th Century. I was interested in how he viewed nuclear power from the perspective of technography. Unfortunately, however, I put it on my list of Books That Must Not Be Read. The measured tone of an academic treatise is absent. It denounces the “self-justifications of the Nuclear Power Village” (the term some apply to the lobby in Japan consisting of the industries that use nuclear power, power companies, the companies that build the plants, the governmental oversight agencies, university researchers supporting nuclear power, the mass media, and trade journals). He also hurls invective at the explanations of the power companies, asking if they were of sound mind when they wrote them. It puts one in mind of the Zenkyoto (The All-Campus Joint Struggle) student movement of the 1960s.

- Ikeda Nobuo, university professor, author, and blogger

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Getting off on the good foot

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 29, 2011

FINANCE Minister Noda Yoshihiko won the election held on the 29th for the presidency of the Democratic Party of Japan on the second ballot. That means he will shortly become the next prime minister.

The five candidates running in the election delivered 10-minute campaign speeches to their fellow DPJ Diet members before the voting. During his speech, Mr. Noda said:

If I become prime minister, the Cabinet support ratings will not rise right away. Therefore, I will not dissolve the Diet (and hold an election).

During a news conference held after the party voted, he was asked specifically about the possibility of dissolving the lower house. He answered:

Basically, (the term of the lower house) is for four years…but any number of things could happen before that, so a dissolution is possible.

Off to a good start, isn’t he?

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Tattoos, copyrights, and human rights

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 29, 2011

THE illogical logic sometimes used to interpret the law, particularly in civil suits, has long been a cliché in the West. For several reasons, one of which was a cultural tendency to avoid litigation altogether, logic of that sort had fewer opportunities to sprout in Japan. The non-native invasive species seems to have finally established itself, however, as a Tokyo District Court ruling last month suggests.

The case involved the cover of an autobiography written by a man who described his efforts to pass the test to become an administrative scrivener (or “certified administrative procedure specialist”) in the Japanese legal system. The man had the image of a Buddhist statue tattooed on his left thigh in 2001. When the autobiography was published in 2007, a photograph of the tattoo was used for the cover, though the photo was printed in sepia and used reverse shading. (The book is still in print, and the cover is shown next to the paragraph below.)

The tattoo artist sued for infringement of copyright, while the author countered that the tattoo was nothing more than a copy of a photo of the statue. Here come the judge: His honor ruled in favor of the plaintiff, saying that a tattoo could be covered by copyright if the artist’s conception was expressed in an original way. He also ruled that placing the tattoo on the book cover without citing the artist’s name was “an infringement of the human rights of the copyright holder”, and awarded the artist JPY 480,000 as compensation. That’s a skoche less than $US 6,300.

Explained the judge, “The tattoo differs in expression from the photo (of the statue), and presents the conception and emotions of the artist.” The human rights infringed were the right to decide whether or not the name of the copyright holder should be cited, and the right to prevent the display of an altered form of the copyrighted object without permission.

From the official records:

“It is recognized that creative devices were employed for the composition of the tattoo design and for the expression of the statue. Different tools and techniques were used for the outline and the other lines, as well the gradation of tone. The originality of expression of the plaintiff’s conception and emotions can be recognized. Therefore, it can be affirmed that the tattoo in question has copyrightability.”

The ruling also held that the techniques used to display the photo on the book cover were an infringement of the right to retain integrity.

Prof. Yamada Hajime of the Toyo University School of Economics objected on his website that the verdict was nearsighted and overly legalistic. Prof. Yamada notes that the city of Kobe is conducting a campaign to encourage the use of a local seashore area. Part of their campaign is based on a municipal ordinance that prohibits smoking, littering, and the exposure of tattoos outside designated areas. The ordinance forbids the “ostentatious display” of tattoos, as well as coarse and rough behavior, because it could cause other users of the seashore to become uneasy or frightened.

Japanese concerns about the public display of tattoos stem from the well-known yakuza taste for using them to decorate their bodies. But the gangsters usually show some discretion (or retain the means to smoothly conduct their daily affairs) by limiting even the most elaborate of tattoos on the upper body to the area that a t-shirt would cover.

Prof. Yamada pointed out that sports facilities have similar rules (though he didn’t mention public baths, many of which have a sign in front of the establishment notifying customers that people with tattoos will be denied entry). He takes issue with the decision by carrying its logic to the extreme. For example, anyone who had second thoughts about a tattoo and removed part of it due to social disapproval could theoretically be held to have infringed the right to retain integrity. He also mentions the suggestion of an acquaintance that merely getting fat could also infringe that right.

Finally, he cites one provision of Japanese copyright law that states: “The objective of protecting the rights of the copyright holder is to contribute to the development of culture.”

How, Prof. Yamada asks, does this contribute to the development of culture? It doesn’t, of course, but it’s worthy of note that some in Japan are still asking the question. Ask that question in the United States and you’re likely to be branded a philistine.

*****
The issue of copyrighting tattoos has also arisen in the West. It’s a complicated issue there, too (but unfortunately the problem with the WordPress software that keeps me from adding hotlinks for some reason continues from yesterday). The question in the United States, however, usually involves tattoo artists copying the work of another artist, rather than the point at issue in the Japanese case.

I tried to conduct some discovery but was unable to determine whether the Japanese tattoo artist had legally copyrighted the tattoo before bringing the suit.

*****
Why not take this opportunity to wander over to the right sidebar to examine the link to the Japanese Tattoo Institute, with examples of the ultimate in the art? They sell calendars too. There’s also a link to the excellent Hanzi Smatter site, devoted to the presentation and explanation of the unusual kanji that Westerners tattoo on their bodies. You’ll never laugh at the strange English on t-shirts and signs in Northeast Asia again. At least they’re easily disposable.

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Ichigen koji (51)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 29, 2011

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

The Democratic Party presidential election doesn’t need policy. It doesn’t need a policy debate, either. What it needs is proper, commonsense behavior as an adult organization. That is the only thing the Democratic Party of Japan needs right now.

- Ohata Seki, economist and Keio University professor

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Scoopin’ up the gold

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 29, 2011

GOLDFISH swallowing was a fad that surfaced in the 1920s and reemerged in the 1930s in the US, popularized by that omnipresent and amorphous pool of college boys who have a hyperactive imagination, a disinclination for schoolwork, and are always game for doing something new and goofy.

The Japanese have enjoyed pastimes using live goldfish since at least the 19th century, but here they scoop instead of swallow them. The rules are simple: Grab the most in a certain amount of time and you win.

In fact, Yamatokoriyama, Nara, has held a National Goldfish Scooping Championship every year for the past 17 years. No one will be surprised to learn that the city is one the largest goldfish production regions in the country, or that they think the championship is a marvelous way to promote the industry. More than a few people will be surprised, however, to discover that there were 1,801 competitors at this year’s event last weekend — and that new event records were set in both the Adults and Kids divisions.

The new champion in the adult division is a 19-year-old bucko — the perfect age! — from Kashihara in the same prefecture. He scarfed up 87 fish in three minutes. Interviewed by the media after his victory, he said, “I was lucky. I’ll shoot for a hundred next time.” He’s got the professional athlete’s postgame attitude down pat, doesn’t he?

The winner in the Kids division was an eight-year-old boy from Osaka who managed to scoop 73. Now this is a boy who’s got the right stuff. He told reporters, “I’m happy, because this is the first time in my life I’ve become number one in Japan at anything.” It sounds as if he thinks becoming number one in Japan at several other things later on in life is a foregone conclusion.

This a serious competition with official rules, by the way. You don’t just bring a dipper, buy a ticket, and go fish. The contestants face off in 26 separate pools, which are filled with about 1,000 fish each. In addition to a three-minute time limit, there’s a rule that contestants have to use the official goldfish scooper, which is called a poi. It is made with a round wood frame and washi, or traditional Japanese paper, to cover the business end. Scooping circuit veterans advise beginners to start from the fish head and avoid the tail, whose flopping could tear the paper. In fact, the Yamatokoriyama website has an English-language page with helpful hints on goldfish scooping, which I’d link to, but the WordPress software isn’t accepting hotlinks at the moment for some reason.

It’s a tradition to have the participants in these competitions take all or some of the fish they scoop home with them. That might present a problem for the winners of the event. Just what do you do after you’ve become responsible for 87 new goldfish all of a sudden?

Swallow them?

*****
Goldfish swallowing is harder to do in the U.S. these days, but then it seems harder to have any kind of fun there these days. Some Christian churches used it as a way to help children overcome the Fear Factor. PETA didn’t like it:

“We all agree that children must come to terms with their fears,” said PETA director Debbie Leahy, “but causing tiny goldfish terror and pain as they are eaten alive is no way to teach kids a lesson.”

Leahy’s group claims “fish are intelligent, sensitive animals who have developed cognitive abilities and who experience pain and fear, just as all animals do.”

PETA had no comment on the terror and pain of tiny goldfish as they are eaten alive by birds or animals in outdoor pools, or fed to the predatory species some aquarium hobbyists keep, or even roughly jerked out of their home environment by the hundreds as amusement in Japan.

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No, no one is happy

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 28, 2011

WHEN the two major parties in the United States run insipid, incompetent, and indistinguishable candidates for office, the public and the media sometimes dismiss them as Tweedledum and Tweedledee. That appellation would be insufficient for the five candidates in tomorrow’s Democratic Party presidential election, which will determine Japan’s next prime minister. There is no similar expression for a group of five noodniks. Perhaps Wynken, Blynken, and Nod could be added to the aforementioned Ts.

Some might suggest Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Gummo, and Zeppo as a possibility, but that wouldn’t be a good fit. The five Marx Brothers were legitimately funny. The five DPJ candidates are a joke that no one in Japan is laughing at.

Your Party Secretary General Eda Kenji offers his thoughts on the candidacy of Economy, Trade, and Industry Minister Kaieda Banri, who is backed by former party President Ozawa Ichiro and former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio. Mr. Kaieda is best known for being left to twist in the wind by Kan Naoto over the issue of restarting idled nuclear reactors, and breaking down in tears in the Diet last month when an opposition pol said “Boo!”

*****
“It is likely this man has neither beliefs nor policies. I wasn’t interested in the progress of the DPJ election, but I just can’t help hearing about it when watching the news. When I heard the details, I couldn’t keep from writing about it.

“Ordinarily, the possibility of this man becoming prime minister would be zero, but he was selected as the figurehead through Mr. Ozawa’s Ultimate Process of Elimination (willingness to listen to instructions + better than the other possibilities). Once he snapped at the post of prime minister that was dangled in front of his eyes, necessity compelled them in the direction of this midget.

“This is not a politician who will ask what should be done after becoming prime minister. He is simply a politician whose ultimate objective itself is to become prime minister. A person of that caliber who has become prime minister through this process does not understand how wretched a prime minister he will be.

“Is it possible for a human being to be this servile? He’s accepted the Ozawa group’s objectives and will reevaluate the Ozawa suspension from party activities, revisit the (recent) three-party agreement, and will not form a coalition government — in other words, he will reject the course of the current party leadership. He once favored participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but now will “carefully consider” it out of clear deference to the farm bloc within the party. He followed the METI bureaucracy line of rejecting out of hand the abandonment of nuclear energy, but he withdrew that rejection after being told to do so by Mr. Hatoyama. He’s just switched from following METI bureaucracy instructions to following Ozawa/Hatoyama instructions.

“A Kaieda administration will be a rewind to the Ozawa power and patronage politics of 20 years ago…the ultimate choice is between Kaieda the Lowest and Maehara the Worst. I can only say that this is a tragedy for today’s Japan.”

*****
The balloting will be held tomorrow, and at this point Mr. Kaieda has the most guaranteed votes based on the number of signatures gathered to support his candidacy. There is speculation in other quarters that he will probably not be able to win an outright majority on the first ballot. The same source also speculates that Maehara Seiji, last week’s flavor of the day, might come in third behind Agriculture Minister Kano Michihiko. If that happens, he thinks, candidates #2 – #5 might form an anti-Ozawa alliance behind Mr. Kano. No one seems to be talking about Noda Yoshihiko any more.

Equally as distasteful as a Kaieda puppet candidacy is the rejection of the three-party agreement that enabled the passage of the second supplementary budget and other bills that greased the skids for Kan Naoto’s departure. Here are two reasons:

1. Japanese politicians of different parties have finally figured out how to negotiate among themselves to get legislation through the upper house when no party/group has an outright majority. In other words, the political process has matured, even though the maturity resulted from the search for a way to neuter Kan Naoto. The rejection of the three-party agreement will put gridlock right back on the agenda.

2. The Ozawan-Hatoyamanians insist on upholding the party’s 2009 political platform. The three-party agreement rolled back some of the legislation that platform produced. Keeping political promises is ordinarily a fine thing to do. When keeping those promises, however, means the outlay of money that doesn’t exist to buy votes legally through the child allowance, free highway tolls, and individual farm household subsidies despite the enormous expenditures required for a national emergency and two straight budgets with deficits that are double tax revenues, it is a criminally insane thing to do.

*****
American Democrats have the amusing habit of playing “Happy Days Are Here Again” at their party conventions every four years (but not, I suspect, in 2012).

Everything about this clip, however, reeks of Japan’s Democrats, including the coalition of two incompatible groups of pirates.

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Ichigen koji (50)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 27, 2011

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

(Maehara Seiji) has been presenting himself as a conservative, but is that really true? He opposed the bill establishing the national flag and the anthem and supports giving foreigners the right to vote.

He also says he’s made the recovery of the (four Russian-held islands in the) Kuriles his life’s work, but why hasn’t he shown the same passion for Takeshima? His stance toward China and Russia is strong, but is weak toward South Korea and North Korea.

Mr. Maehara is manju starting to spoil, wrapped in an attractive package. The people must not be fooled by the superficial.

- Eguchi Katsuhiko, upper house member of Your Party

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Sweet dreams

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 27, 2011

ABIRU RUI, who covers the Kantei for the Sankei Shimbun, attended Prime Minister Kan Naoto’s news conference announcing his resignation. Here’s an excerpt from the impressions he offered on his website.

*****
When I was taking notes at Prime Minister Kan’s news conference and thinking “Good Grief!” as he went through the usual self-congratulatory “I did what I should have done in the difficult circumstances I was confronted with,” and “I feel a certain sense of accomplishment,” I suddenly noticed that Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito was clearly napping.

This is the man who slept in front of the Emperor at the traditional poetry reading held at the start of the year. He probably had no intention to start with of listening to some worthless speech from Prime Minister Kan, from whom he had just parted ways.

If you were to ask Mr. Sengoku, I think he’d deny it, but all the people who saw it would say there was no question of it.

Nevertheless, at this juncture, with the deputy chief cabinet secretary asleep during the prime minister’s news conference to announce his resignation, I really wonder just what kind of administration this was. That’s always how they’ve been — a gathering of people who are distinguished from the rest only in their sense of self worth. In that sense, this was a fitting conclusion for the Kan Cabinet.

*****

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Timing is everything

Posted by ampontan on Friday, August 26, 2011

NOW that was good timing: Around 6:15 a.m. on 24 August, the Japanese Coast Guard confirmed that Chinese fishery patrol boats 31001 and 201 were sailing in the “contiguous zone” adjacent to the Senkaku islets. Both ships later entered Japanese territorial waters and were warned to back off.

The Chinese radioed back that the islands were Chinese territory, and that they were properly conducting official duties in Chinese territory in accordance with The Law. The Japanese Coast Guard told them to get lost, which they did 30 minutes later. Patrol boat 201 returned and stayed seven minutes before leaving for good. Later that day, the Chinese government restated their claim on the Senkakus.

The Chinese have entered the contiguous zone 12 times since one of their fishing boats rammed two Japanese Coast Guard vessels last September. The Coast Guard took the Chinese captain into custody, igniting a diplomatic crisis and causing revulsion among the Japanese public at the Kan Cabinet’s conduct of national defense. Since then, however, Chinese ships had refrained from entering Japanese territorial waters until this week’s gamesmanship.

Such a sense of synchronicity, those Chinese. U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden happened to be in Tokyo at the time to meet outgoing Japanese Prime Minister Kan Naoto on his way home from Beijing. The day before, opposition LDP members of the lower house Committee for Audit and Oversight of Administration announced their desire to take an observation tour of the islets in September, and listened to the government explain the defensive measures taken in the area. The MPs also discussed the potential use of the islets by its private owners (four are leased to the Japanese government).

Official government policy is for no one to go there, however, so the ruling party and the Chinese will endeavor to discourage any legislator junkets to the tropical isles, each in their own distinctive way.

But perhaps the critical event in the chronology was that former Foreign Minister Maehara Seiji announced his candidacy this week for the DPJ party presidency, becoming the favorite to succeed Mr. Kan. The Sankei Shimbun quoted someone it identified only as a person familiar with Japanese-Sino affairs:

It was a reminder to the Japanese that bilateral relations worsened (after the Senkakus incident), when Mr. Maehara was first the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport, which has jurisdiction over the Coast Guard, and then Foreign Minister.

As an example of how little the Chinese care for Mr. Maehara’s attitude, here’s a reminder of what a deputy foreign minister said last October:

He attacks China on an almost daily basis, and says extreme things that shouldn’t be said.

Well, he got the “extreme” part right. The Japanese foreign minister had said that China’s response to the Japanese detention of the Chinese ship captain was “extremely hysterical”.

The same month, Chinese leadership rejected a proposed summit meeting because Japan had “destroyed the climate required for discussions”, the proper climate being a more suitable display of deference by the vassals bearing gifts as tribute to the suzerain state.

One newspaper under the thumb of the Chinese Communist Party called the foreign minister a “troublemaker”. Said another media outlet: “A rapprochement will be difficult unless Japan replaces its foreign minister.” Indeed, the Chinese response was notable in that it usually ignored the prime minister to attack the foreign minister. Then again, the Japanese tended to ignore the prime minister, too.

One can understand the Chinese concern. After successfully excluding Mr. Maehara from bilateral discussions, making Mr. Kan fly all the way to Brussels to tug on the sleeve of Wen Jiabao in a hotel hallway to get him to listen to a rote reading of a prepared statement while perched on adjoining couches, and forcing the capitulation of the Japanese government, it looks like the troublemaker could wind up in the Kantei.

Then again, their timing had to be impeccable. After all, what self-respecting hegemon can afford to pass up the opportunity to interfere with a neighboring country’s selection of a prime minister, especially a neighbor with territory you want to snatch and grab — and when the Number Two man from the neighbor’s military protector is in town?

*****
Speaking of Good Timing, Jimmy Jones had a hit in the West with that title, and Sakamoto Kyu had a hit with the Japanese remake. Sakamoto, of course, was the singer of Ue wo Muite Aruko, which was sold under the name Sukiyaki in English.

Yeah, I know, it is hard to believe they used to do stuff like that.

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Honorifics

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 25, 2011

The most tragic thing in the world is a man of genius who is not a man of honor.
– George Bernard Shaw

JAPANESE comedian/television personality Shimada Shinsuke held a news conference this week to announce his retirement from show business after it was revealed that he had close personal ties with a high-level gangland boss. (Some reports finger Hashimoto Hirofumi of the Yamaguchi-gumi.) This is what he said at the press conference:

I didn’t think that I did anything illegal, but a violation of the rules is a violation of the rules. I feel a sense of moral responsibility, so I am retiring from show business. I want to continue to pursue my own sense of aesthetics.

After seeing that, Eguchi Katsuhiko, an upper house member from Your Party, tweeted the following:

Politicians won’t resign from the Diet even when they do something illegal. That is irresolute and ugly. Shouldn’t they learn a lesson from Shimada Shinsuke?

Here’s a shot of Mr. Shimada in action:

In other news, former Ozawa Ichiro antagonist Maehara Seiji called on Mr. Ozawa yesterday to kiss his ring ask for his support in the upcoming Democratic Party presidential election. Mr. Maehara, the favorite to win that election and therefore the prime minister apparent, has admitted accepting illegal campaign contributions from foreigners and has been reported as accepting similar contributions from people associated with the yakuza.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ozawa’s DPJ membership is currently suspended because he was indicted for violations of the political funding law. That hasn’t stopped several DPJ presidential candidates from paying court to him, including his enemies. He’s been involved in so many shady operations, he might as well have a pair of sunglasses welded to his head.

To mention one of the most recent, he pulled out the equivalent of several million dollars in cash from a safe at home to give to an aide to purchase real estate for his political funding committee. His is the only political funding committee in Japan with a real estate investment portfolio. Buying real estate with cash isn’t against the law, of course, but neither is having dinner and drinks with the yakuza.

It’s curious. Mr. Shimada’s retirement is causing television networks to sweat — they’ve got to find a way to replace six programs immediately.

But if Mr. Maehara and Mr. Ozawa were to learn a lesson from Mr. Shimada, as Mr. Eguchi suggests, it likely wouldn’t cause the DPJ much grief at all. If the party were to go so far as to toss them out altogether, it might even help them retrieve the popular support they casually tossed in the gutter in the fall of 2009.

Ah, but that won’t happen. That would be doing the right thing.

Afterwords:

Shimada Shinsuke has always been a feisty sort with his own sense of honor. In fact, reports suggest that his agency, the Yoshimoto group, expected a contrite public apology and a hiatus of a few months before he returned to work. He surprised them with his decision to quit altogether.

Then again, he should have known better to begin with.

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A look at how sausage is made

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 25, 2011

THE following is an excerpt from a roundtable discussion with members from different government ministries that appeared in the 5 August issue of the weekly Shukan Post.

If you’ve ever thought I’ve been exaggerating about how socio-political sausage is made in Japan, this excerpt should demonstrate that, if anything, I’ve been understating the issue.

The participants were identified only by a letter of the alphabet. METI is the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. MOF is the Ministry of Finance. A is an older man, and D is a younger man.

*****
Q: Was the confusion over the issue of eliminating nuclear power due to the politicians and the national newspapers getting caught up in the tug-of-war between METI and the Finance Ministry over the expenses for cleaning up the nuclear reactor accident?

METI A: Senior ministry officials were enraged at the change in the Asahi Shimbun’s attitude, and they began to pay closer attention to the Finance Ministry’s movements. The strength of electric power industry advertising (revenue) had caused them to promote nuclear power, so the change in the tone of Asahi’s argument itself could have been nothing more than the use of the nuclear accident as an opportunity to revert to a leftist opposition to nuclear energy. The argument that an increase in the amount of green energy could be a substitute for nuclear energy is of such a low level as to be risible.

MOF B: Wasn’t it METI who leveraged the media’s paucity of scientific knowledge, though? After their editorial calling for a nuclear power-free society appeared, even the Asahi reported that the suspension of operations at the Genkai-cho plant would cause difficulties for auto production. Just one part of the media made a big issue of eliminating nuclear energy. The poison had circulated throughout the kisha (journalists’) club.

METI A: Poison, eh? The favors the power companies provided to the reporters were quite extensive, seen from outside. The trip to China that Tokyo Electric Chairman Katsumata Tsunehisa took with executives from the major newspapers on the day of the earthquake became an issue, but every power company has done the same thing for quite a while. They hire buses to take young reporters on observation tours of nuclear power plants, and then have a banquet at a nearby hot springs resort. They’re each promised a companion. But the ones who did that were the power companies.

MOF B: Please stop avoiding the issue. METI prepared the information when the reporters among whom the poison had circulated wrote articles promoting the use of nuclear power. That provided the reporters with the excuse that the power companies didn’t make them write the articles. You had Mr. D. prepare the information, didn’t you? And after he put the information together, his superior probably praised him for his work and took him to a ryotei (expensive traditional Japanese restaurant). The power companies took care of those expenses, too.

Q: If we trace those expenses back to the source, the money would come from the electric bills paid by the public. What do you think, Mr. D?

METI A: (Silencing D with a motion of his hand): That’s a tradition among our ministry, so there’s no reason to blame Mr. D. personally.

Cabinet Office E: We have a publicity budget we also spread around to newspapers and television, so we can’t behave so self-importantly either. But METI had the power companies handle the publicity expenses, so neither the bureaucracy nor the reporters receiving favors had a guilty conscience. Wasn’t that the reason no one could put a stop to it?

METI A: Those are the circumstances, so I’ll humbly accept the criticism. But (looking at MOF C) the MOF generated public opinion for a reconstruction tax without spending a single yen. They kept the primary mass media outlets quiet by bombarding them with tax audits. Surely it wasn’t a coincidence that the Yomiuri accepted Tango Yasutake, the former deputy finance minister, as an outside auditor? When it comes to media operations, you’re the ones with the deadly poison.

Q: Listening to this conversation, I have to believe that both METI and the MOF thought only of their own benefit while manipulating the mass media to cause confusion in the nuclear power debate — METI to preserve nuclear power, and the MOF to prevent tax funds from being used for nuclear power.

MOF B: This country faces the immediate problems of rebuilding from the earthquake and cleaning up after the nuclear power disaster. The very act of putting those problems aside and giving precedence to the long-term issue of phasing out nuclear power demonstrates the impotence of politics and the media. We are presenting a solid argument based on what we should do about the funding sources for reconstruction and cleaning up the nuclear accident. It is regrettable that this is being disposed of by talking about what benefits the ministry.

METI A: I agree. Our ministry is responsible for the stable supply of electric power. Someone has to sound the alarm at the shallow debate conducted due to the ignorance of the media and politicians.

Q: Is that how you’re going to patch things up, at least superficially? The issues of nuclear energy and funding sources are related to the approach of the state. The most important thing should be the will of the people.

METI A: But this will of the people is to be regarded with suspicion, because the people uncritically believe whatever is casually written in newspapers or broadcast on television. This is not something we should say, but if you want to proceed with any major enterprise in this country, the most important thing is to give favors to the media to get them to listen to you. That’s not just the power companies or government agencies; most private sector industries have done the same thing.

Q: So when the reporters you’ve denigrated write stories that are contrary to your wishes, won’t (your) nuclear power (policy) and tax increases fail to move ahead as you would like? That’s why Kasumigaseki is losing confidence.

MOF B: (After a pause) It’s true that in this government, different gears have started to slowly shift out of alignment.

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Ichigen koji (49)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 25, 2011

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

(The Democratic Party of Japan) is an aggregation of people whose ideas about policy are fundamentally different. Isn’t it inevitable that they’ll split up sooner or later?

- Tanigaki Sadakazu, president of the Liberal Democratic Party

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“Coming, Mother”

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 24, 2011

If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or your arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that you were our countrymen.
– Samuel Adams

THE first paragraph of a story in today’s Nishinippon Shimbun is a portrait of what failure looks like.

The headline is Leadership by the Bureaucracy Intensifies. This is what follows:

“The Finance Ministry notified all Cabinet ministries and agencies on the 23rd of the work procedures that will be the de facto standards for 2012 budget requests. The structure that will be the framework for the new prime minister, in which the scale of expenditures follows that from the previous year, and uniform cuts in discretionary spending to offset increased social welfare outlays are limited to JPY 500-600 million, is a far cry from the policy of politicians formulating the entire budget, as (was once) championed by the Democratic Party of Japan. With the administration of government unsteady as the successor to Prime Minister Kan is determined, the formulation of the budget will proceed along rails laid by the Finance Ministry. There is not the slightest trace of political leadership.”

Such is the abject failure of the Democratic Party of Japan a mere two years after forming their first government. Forget the frivolous debate about their manifesto content — their mandate from the voters was to end this very state of affairs.

Their failure is obvious now to even the casual observer. That will result in yet another enormous budget deficit. No wonder Moody’s downgraded Japanese government debt today.

To be sure, taking on the Japanese Finance Ministry requires staking one’s political life. Your Party Secretary-General Eda Kenji suspects they engineered events that led to the downfall of the Hashimoto administration, of which he was a part. The ministry was displeased that Hashimoto wanted to shift oversight of the financial services industry from them to a new Cabinet ministry or agency.

Former Saga City Mayor and Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries official Kinoshita Toshiyuki once said in an interview:

When the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries hired me 25 years ago, I was told, “Cabinet ministers are performing monkeys. Your job is to skillfully beat the drum and make them dance.” That is the presumption of the civil service. There has been no change to the general rule that the politicians do not become involved in policy formation, a role taken over by the bureaucrats.

What Japan could use right now is a homegrown Samuel Adams. They’ve produced many people of that caliber before. What it seems they’re about to get, however, is a homegrown Henry Aldrich as their new prime minister.

Compare this…

…with this.

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