AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Archive for December, 2011

Vale of tears

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 19, 2011

I saw a lot of those people over there…they were thin, and riding on bicycles instead of driving in cars, but I didn’t see any brutality.
– Ted Turner

WHETHER or not you believe that life where you live it is a vale of tears, an expression that originated in the Catholic hymn Salve Regina, that’s exactly what it is in North Korea.

The actress who reads the scripted news for North Korean television choked back her tears as she informed the nation at noon today that the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, had died on Saturday. Reports from foreigners in Pyeongyang say the staff of the Hotel Koryo was weeping. According to this story, people are not allowed to go outside — the entire nation under preventive detention? — and the sounds of lamentation can be heard on the street. The Chinese government extended its deep condolences to the nation.

Some people were brought to their knees.

Why?

In 2005, Shin successfully escaped the prison camp where he was born, raised and repeatedly tortured…Children were beaten to death in front of others for stealing five grains of wheat out of hunger. Girls were raped and protesting mothers disappeared. He witnessed his own mother offering sex to guards. Teenagers were buried under cement while being forced to build power plants. Shin’s middle-finger knuckle was cut off as punishment for dropping a sewing machine. And he watched the public executions of his mother and brother after their failed escape.

But for Shin, that was the way it was. “I didn’t think the world I lived in was wrong. I was born to it,” he said.

Meanwhile, at #117, the North Korean GDP is lower than that of Lebanon or Burma, and the countries below it on the table are mostly small island nations. (Exceptions are Cuba and the Dominican Republic, which rank higher.) In contrast, South Korea ranks 12th. That contrast is even more pronounced when one knows that the Japanese concentrated heavy industry in the north and agriculture in the south during the early part of the 20th century, giving the North an economic advantage it maintained for quite some time after the Korean War.

In fact:

North Korea’s per capita income is less than 5% of the South’s. Each year the dollar value of South Korea’s GDP expansion equals the entire North Korean economy.

This probably doesn’t incorporate the earnings from their nuclear weapons technology and trade with Pakistan and Iran, however.

The man most responsible for turning his country into a vale of tears has left it. Let’s hope that turns out to be a Christmas miracle.

*****
Some people seem to have been allowed outside. The young man in what might be a school uniform at the 17-second mark says aboji, which means father.

That’s some serious cult-like behavior. Or else

The source said people were afraid in case they did not show enough zealotry in their mourning, recalling punishments meted out to some after Kim Il-Sung’s death 17 years ago.

A cult of oligarchy, at any rate.

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Ichigen koji (81)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 18, 2011

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

If Japan (the government) makes a political decision and shows even more good faith, (this issue) could be resolved at any time…If it is not resolved, Japan will forever bear the burden of its inability to resolve unsettled bilateral issues.

- Lee Myung-bak, President of South Korea, referring to the comfort woman issue while speaking to a group of zainichi in Osaka during his visit to Japan for a summit with Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko

In contrast, most Japanese consider the issue to have been resolved long ago. In 1965, the Japanese government paid South Korea $800 million in grants and low-interest loans as war reparations. One of the terms of the agreement, reached with South Korean President Bak Jeong-hui, was that South Koreans would relinquish the right to make individual claims against the Japanese government.

Indeed, many Japanese insist that it should never have been an issue at all.

As I’ve written before:

“No one should be under any illusion that the issue of Imperial Japan’s behavior in the war is anything other than a convenient stick for the leadership in China and both Koreas to wield in their relations with contemporary Japan, or to cynically stir up domestic anger at the Japanese, deflecting attention from domestic problems.”

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Posted in Quotations, South Korea, World War II | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Colorization

Posted by ampontan on Friday, December 16, 2011

Politicians these days are the kind of people that make me want to bang my forehead against the desk.
– Roger L. Simon, novelist, screenwriter, and blogger

HERE’S a quick sketch penciled on a leaf from a notepad:

Last week, the upper house of the Diet, effectively controlled by the opposition parties, censured two members of the Noda Cabinet: Defense Minister Ichikawa Yasuo and Consumers Affairs Minister Yamaoka Kenji. Mr. Ichikawa took the hit because a deputy compared Japanese and American policies regarding the Marine air base at Futenma on Okinawa to rape. The defense minister also admitted that he didn’t know the details of a 1995 incident in which three U.S. soldiers raped an Okinawan schoolgirl. He voluntarily reduced his salary in atonement.

Mr. Yamaoka was rebuked because he accepted donations from a health food company accused of running a pyramid scheme. He later returned the donations.

While upper house censures are non-binding, the opposition is unlikely to attend any sessions if the two men remain in office. New Komeito head Yamaguchi Natsuo has already said as much.

The response of the English-language media is typified by this sentence in Bloomberg:

The censures, which came on the Diet’s last session of the year, threaten to undercut Noda’s efforts to focus on reviving an economy damaged by the March earthquake and nuclear disaster and burdened by the world’s largest debt.

Sengoku Yoshito, the first chief cabinet secretary in the Kan government, was livid. He said:

Employing this same strategy every year is tantamount to claiming there has been an infringement on supreme authority, and besmirches party politics.

He added:

A system that allows the upper house, which can’t be dissolved, to inflict heavy blows on the Cabinet, is extremely peculiar. Politics will come to a standstill if it becomes normal for the opposition to declare that they won’t attend Diet deliberations (after a censure).

A reasonable person who reads this account with only this information might well assume that the LDP and the other opposition scum were playing politics and blocking the essential work of a nation facing the crisis of a disaster recovery while hobbled by an extreme overhang of debt.

Now here’s a painting with oils on a large canvas to provide a more accurate depiction:

* In 1995, two Marines and a Navy enlisted man rented a van and kidnapped a 12-year-old Japanese girl. They beat her, duct-taped her eyes and mouth shut, tied her hands, and took turns raping in her in the back of the van. The swabbie says he only pretended to do the deed because he was afraid of one of the grunts.

The existing Status-of-Forces-Agreement allowed the Americans to refuse to turn over the three men until they were indicted by a Japanese court. The Japanese, and particularly the Okinawans, were enraged, and with good reason: rapacious American servicemen are not uncommon in the Ryukyus, and the U.S. always protected their own by dragging out the legal process.

The land area of the Okinawan islands totals 877 square miles, on which is based 70% of the American military presence in Japan. American military installations occupy slightly more than 10% of all Okinawan territory. They include one Air Force base, one Navy aviation facility, and two Marine aviation facilities. In comparison, Rhode Island–the smallest of the 50 American states–has nearly twice the land area of Okinawa at 1,545 square miles.

The Americans again took their time before handing over the three men, which resulted in the largest anti-American demonstrations since the security treaty was signed in 1960. The incident was the impetus for the Hashimoto administration and subsequent Japanese governments to negotiate for more than a decade the move of the Futenma base to a different part of the island, with the Japanese picking up most of the tab. Hatoyama Yukio’s hollow unkept promise to move the base either outside the country or outside the prefecture was the final FUBAR that brought down one of the most short-lived Cabinets in Japanese history.

Then-Rear Admiral Richard C. Macke was appalled at the stupidity of the three men, who finally did serve Japanese jail time. For the same price as the van rental, he observed, they could have bought a prostitute instead. That earned him a forced discharge from the service and the removal of two of his four stars, which lightened his monthly retirement check by $US 1,500.

After his release from prison, one of the three rapists complained that he was forced to perform “slave labor” assembling electronics products. That sort of rent-seeking by that sort of person isn’t a winning strategy in this part of the world, and so he was ignored by all except the usual Adullamites with an anti-Nipponism outlook.

Ichikawa Yasuo started his career as an agriculture ministry bureaucrat. He resigned and later won two elections as a delegate in the Ishikawa prefectural assembly. One year after the Okinawa rape, he was elected to the Diet for the first time.

If he is not aware of the details of the case, he’s not qualified to run a pachinko parlor, much less sit in the Diet. That Noda Yoshihiko thought he was qualified to be the defense minister tells you all you need to know about Mr. Noda’s political acumen and qualifications to serve as prime minister.

* During the Fukuda Yasuo administration, when the Democratic Party was in opposition but held the most seats in the upper house, they devoted their energies to obstructing legislation and appointments to bring the government down. Illustrative of the party’s tactics, and indeed, the party itself, was their response to Mr. Fukuda’s appointment of Watanabe Hiroshi as deputy governor of the Bank of Japan. Hatoyama Yukio was DPJ secretary-general at the time, and he thought Mr. Watanabe was an excellent appointment. His view was echoed by Maehara Seiji, former party president and later defense minister, and the aforementioned Sengoku Yoshito.

Yamaoka Kenji

But Party President Ozawa Ichiro, the destroyer of worlds, saw this as another excellent opportunity to create a crisis. His political torpedo, Yamaoka Kenji, left a message on Mr. Watanabe’s answering machine telling him that “the party” was opposed to his appointment, with the unstated suggestion to take a hike. He never spoke to Mr. Watanabe directly.

The party’s initial acceptance of the Watanabe appointment notwithstanding, Mr. Ozawa imposed his will, the party then imposed its will in the upper house, and Mr. Watanabe did not get the job. In other words, he was subjected to a Japanese-style Borking.

Mr. Yamaoka has never served as a Cabinet minister, but after all these years of loyal service to Mr. Ozawa, he decided his CV needed some ornamentation. The extra salary and the perks were also probably an attraction. He was pacified with the consumer affairs portfolio, which is a Cabinet-level ministry only because of an ill-advised Aso Taro attempt to sell himself as a man of the people. He also is the minister for North Korean abduction issues, which shows how seriously the DPJ government views that problem. Now that Mr. Yamaoka was at last in an exposed position, the opposition saw their chance to use some of the dirt they’ve collected on the Ozawa crew. He was really censured for playing the role of a Democratic Party slimeball and for his Ozawa connection, thus reinforcing the linkage of Ozawa and dirty money politics in the popular imagination.

* Sengoku Yoshito’s comparison of the censures to “an infringement on supreme authority” loses quite a bit in translation. The Japanese phrase he used was 統帥権干犯, the identical expression critics in the Imperial Army used when Japan signed the 1930 naval arms limitation treaty. The treaty balanced the capital ship ratio for Britain, the U.S. and Japan at 5:5:3, while many in Japan wanted it set at 10:10:7. The essence of Japanese phrase is that the treaty was an infringement on the Emperor’s (then) supreme authority over the military, rather than the Cabinet.

In other words, by comparing the upper house opposition to pre-war military imperialists, Mr. Sengoku shows that Godwin’s Law is also applicable in Japan.

Then again, Sengoku Yoshito knows quite a bit about political standstills resulting from upper house censures. On 11 June 2008, the upper house, let by the DPJ and its allies, filed and passed a censure motion against Prime Minister Fukuda. It was the first censure of a prime minister under the current postwar constitution. It was passed just before the G8 summit with the intention of (a) humiliating him, and (b) forcing him to dissolve the lower house of the Diet. (He resigned instead and was succeeded by Aso Taro).

The ostensible reason for the censure was Mr. Fukuda’s handling of domestic issues, but that was just a convenient excuse. Seven months before, Ozawa Ichiro had hammered out a deal with Mr. Fukuda for a grand coalition government, a plan that was shot down by the non-Ozawa leadership in the DPJ. That led to a three-day minidrama in which Mr. Ozawa stalked off in a huff and returned in tears.

The same forces came together to censure Prime Minister Aso Taro in July 2009 and began to boycott Diet proceedings. The DPJ had filed a no-confidence motion against the Cabinet in the lower house, but it was voted down by the LDP majority. The point of this chabangeki was not that Mr. Aso had done something inexcusable; rather, it was to force the LDP to rally to his support instead of switching to a different prime minister for the lower house election that was due before the end of the summer anyway.

Indeed, it has only been a year since the upper house censured Mr. Sengoku himself, but unlike the excuses offered by the DPJ when they were in opposition, the LDP, New Komeito, and Your Party had plenty of good reasons: He takes pride in his obnoxious and belligerent behavior to the opposition; before taking office he bragged about how he would deliberately use lawyerly obfuscation to deflect questions on the Diet floor. There was also his responsibility for the Kan Cabinet’s mishandling of the Senkakus incident with the Chinese, in which the government tried slough off responsibility on the Naha prosecutors and refused to release videos to the public showing the behavior of the Chinese “fishing boat” skipper.

So, now that the precedent they created for frivolous hack attacks and besmirching party politics has come back to bite them for their own incompetence and venality, the Democratic Party has finally located the high road of statesmanship on their map. In fact, Mr. Sengoku even wonders if there’s any real reason to have an upper house to begin with.

To be sure, there is one important political element behind the censures. The Democratic Party is an inherently dysfunctional organization consisting of socialists/social democrats in one wing and the modern equivalent of the LDP’s Tanaka Kakuei (i.e., Boss Tweed) faction on the other, leavened by some Third Way types from Hosokawa Morihiro’s old New Party (Noda Yoshihiko, Maehara Seiji). Both Mr. Ichikawa and Mr. Yamaoka are Ozawa allies, which is the only reason Mr. Noda recruited them to begin with. The semi-constant threats of Drama Queen Ichiro and his minions to split the party if they don’t get their way create an inherent instability. The censure forces the socialist/social democrat wing of the party to back them, even though they can’t stand Ozawa and whatever it is he pretends to stand for these days, or finally get off the pot and dump them.

In addition to plain old incompetence, that instability is one of the primary reasons the DPJ government’s handling of the Tohoku recovery has been so catastrophic, surpassing even their failures to deal with the economy, Futenma, and Chinese hegemonism. The upper house censures have no bearing on the ability of the government to proceed with recovery and reconstruction — they showed months ago they lack even the most rudimentary of administrative abilities. A censure is a slap on the wrist compared to what they deserve. The sooner the Democratic Party ceases to exist in its present form, the better off everyone will be.

If Mr. Simon is anxious to deliver himself from the temptation of serious forehead banging, he should postpone any plans he might have to visit to Japan. After observing the local political fauna, he’d return home with welts from temple to temple.

****
Time to chase the crazy baldheads out of town.

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Thousand islands

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 15, 2011

THEY’RE not foolin’ when they call it the Japanese archipelago — the textbook boilerplate is that the country consists of four main islands, though it’s becoming more politically correct these days to include the main island of Okinawa as the fifth. But few people, even among the Japanese, are aware the other roughly 1.000 islands, both inhabited and uninhabited, give the country an Exclusive Economic Zone of about 4.46 million square kilometers. That’s the sixth-largest EEZ in the world.

Of the inhabited islands, the westernmost is Yonaguni and the southernmost is Hateruma, way down south near Taiwan, both part of the Yaeyama Islands (English-language website on right sidebar). Of those on which only seagulls reside, Okinotorishima represents the extreme southern edge of Japan, and Minamitorishima the farthest point east.

Some of the better known among the rest are Tsushima in the Korean Strait, which some excitable Koreans like to pretend is theirs; Tanegashima in Kagoshima, the site of the first recorded contact between Europeans and Japanese in 1547 and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Tanegashima Space Center; and Sado in Niigata, the sixth-largest island in the country and the authorities’ choice from roughly 700 to 1700 as just the place to send the dissidents and disgraced into exile. In fact, Charles Jenkins, the U.S. Army deserter and husband of North Korean abductee Soga Hitomi, could be considered a voluntary exile there now, though it is his wife’s home town.

That’s not to mention the Senkakus, on which the Chinese and Taiwanese have designs; Takeshima, which the South Koreans occupy; and the four islands off Hokkaido referred to as the Northern Territories, which the Soviets seized after Japan surrendered in 1945.

Awareness of these outlying islands is growing in Japan, particularly the semi-tropical warm ones, as pleasant places to visit. The inhabitants also are developing an awareness of their own. For example, the fourth annual national tournament for junior high school baseball teams from the outlying islands was held this year, and a team from Kamijima, part of Ehime, took home the trophy. (Most of the inhabited islands have junior high schools, but not as many are large enough to have high schools.)

Japan Hands will not be surprised to learn there is a National Institute for Japanese Islands devoted to promoting interest in and the interests of the one thousand. Earlier this month, they published a map that squeezes every last one of them on one side of an 80 x 110-centimeter sheet. That required a scale of 5 million to one to accomplish. The other side features larger maps of regional island groups on a scale of 750,000 to one. The map also includes a list of their names and all the air routes to make it handy for visits. At JPY 525 plus about JPY 180 for domestic postage, that’s cheap even at twice the price for a fanatic such as me.

Said the institute:

We hope that people look at the map and get a real sense of Japan as a country made up of many islands.

If you live in Japan and are interested getting a real sense of the island nation Japan, here’s the institute’s Japanese-language website where you can order one for yourself. Scout around on the site and you’ll also find a page that sells food and liquor from the islands, too.

And if you don’t have the time or the money for a trip, here’s the next best thing — a YouTube tour of Yonaguni with a local folk song as accompaniment.

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Hospitality

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 13, 2011

FEW outside the country may be aware of it, but archaeological research is a thriving enterprise in Japan. The artifacts from two millennia of human activity lie beneath everyone’s feet throughout the archipelago, and it is likely that most people here have seen an excavation site at least once in their lives. Yoshinogari, one of the most important historical sites (see right sidebar), was discovered when construction work began on a shopping center on the outskirts of town.

Dazaifu dig

The accompanying photo shows just how close the past is to the mundane present. That’s the site of a former Nishitetsu railway switching yard in Dazaifu, Fukuoka. More than a millennium before that, however, from the early 8th to the early 9th century, it was the site of a reception and lodging house for official missions from the Korean Peninsula and the Asian continent. Scholars and officials have been shoveling away since 2005, and last week they confirmed the discovery at the site of Silla-type (i.e., early Korean) ceramics and high quality, metal alloy dinnerware. The spoons are identical to those in the Shosoin repository of ancient cultural treasures in Nara.

There’s another contemporaneous facility for receiving foreign guests in Fukuoka Prefecture closer to Hakata Bay, known as the Korokan. Historians now suspect the Korokan was used primarily for trade negotiations, and the Dazaifu facility was used for more informal interaction, i.e., parties and ceremonies. In other words, they talked turkey at Korokan and ate it at Dazaifu.

The visits of important delegations from overseas are a matter of historical record. The Silla Kingdom on the peninsula sent a delegation to Korokan in 688, 25 years after they and forces from T’ang Dynasty China combined to defeat the army of the Baekche Kingdom, backed by the Japanese. Many Baekche refugees wound up in Kyushu, including those from the royal house. In addition, the Silla prince and a group of 700 people visited in 752, and imperial emissaries from China came the following year. Considering that this Dazaifu site was for eating and drinking, and another site from the same period in the same place coughed up enough dice to gamble away a weekend in Vegas, the ancient Koreans and Chinese probably looked forward to the trip.

Dazaifu continues to offer distinctively Japanese hospitality today, albeit of a more modern variety. Starbucks Japan announced they will open a shop on the sando, or approach path, to the Dazaifu Tenman-gu Shinto shrine on the 16th. It will be the first Starbucks shop at a shrine or Buddhist temple.

Dazaifu Starbucks

The Tenman-gu shrine is a large facility with gardens containing 6,000 plum trees in addition to the buildings. A Shinto shrine was first built there in 905, and the current building, registered as an important cultural property, dates from 1591. It was built on the grave of Tenjin, the deification name of Sugawara no Michizane, renowned for his erudition and learning. They’re opening the Starbucks at just the right time, too, as tens of thousands of people will visit the shrine for New Year’s. The visits will continue into January as students make the pilgrimage to ask the deity for a blessing to pass their high school or university entrance examination. (I could have used some of that juice myself.) Another attraction, the Kyushu National Museum (right sidebar), is within walking distance nearby.

The location demands that this shop not resemble the typical shopping mall Starbucks. It was designed by University of Tokyo architect Kuma Kengo, known for his work on the Suntory Museum of Art and the Nezu Museum (got them on the right sidebar too). That design combines the traditional and the modern with natural materials, primary among which is 2,000 pieces of Japanese cedar obtained by thinning out forests. It will also have two gardens, one in front facing the sando and one inside with more plum trees. There will be 46 seats in the interior and 10 on the terrace.

The coffee and food, however, will be the same as that of other Starbucks outlets.

Said the company’s PR release:

From the entrance to the interior, the distinctive design employs a traditional wood pattern, which has been incorporated both in the interior and exterior. It offers the warmth of wood and the opportunity to spend some time in a luxurious setting while surrounded by the aroma of the highest quality coffee.

There’s more to modern Japanese hospitality than trendy coffee shops, too. Here’s some news that might wake you up faster than a cup of Starbucks espresso: Three Tokyo restaurants were awarded a third star last month in the Michelin guide to restaurants. Japan now has 32 restaurants with a three-star rating, the guide’s highest.

There are 25 in France.

More worthy of note for me is this dambuster-sized preconception destroyer: One of the new two-star eateries in Japan is a Korean restaurant.

*****
Want to take a quick visit to the Tenman-gu shrine without buying a plane ticket? Try this YouTube video. It starts at the Nishitetsu Dazaifu station and walks you right to the shrine. Along the way you’ll see the reason that a Starbucks won’t be out of place in the neighborhood.

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Posted in Archaeology, Food, History, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Ichigen koji (80)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 13, 2011

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

The most recent FNN/Sankei poll showed disapproval of the Noda Cabinet at 51.6%, a 14.5 percentage-point jump in a month, and an approval rating of 35.6%, a 6.8-point decline. This is the first of the major media RDD polls to show a thumbs-down majority.

Said Watanabe Yoshimi, Your Party president:

The Noda Cabinet has bought into the abnormal beliefs of the Finance Ministry and is running hell bent for leather on the tax increase track. Hasn’t their shallowness been exposed?

Said Motegi Toshimitsu, the LDP Policy Research Council chairman:

We still have a “learner’s permit” Cabinet. The prime minister’s leadership or message to the people are nowhere to be seen.

And LDP head Tanigaki Sadakazu:

I suspect the feeling of most people is that (the Cabinet) lacks the ability to appropriately deal with important problems.

The numbers for party preference in the same poll:

Liberal Democratic Party: 19.7% (down 1.2 points)
Democratic Party: 18.0% (down 1.4 points)
Your Party: 8.8% (up 3.0 points)
New Komeito: 3.3% (down 0.1 point)
Social Democrats, led by one of the top 100 global thinkers for 2011: 0.6% (down 0.6 points)

Said Kishida Fumio, the LDP Diet Affairs Committee chairman:

It is natural that we cooperated in the three-party conference (with the DPJ and New Komeito) and the recovery effort…but we must graduate from the three-party conference to draw a distinction between ourselves and the DPJ. The time for that will come next year…There are many issues on which we cannot cooperate with the DPJ, even if we wanted to, such as the Constitution, education, and foreign affairs and security. Some legislative proposals absolutely must not pass, such allowing foreigners to vote, and permitting collective bargaining agreements for public employees.

Meanwhile, the Asahi poll was also released. The disapproval numbers exceeded those for approval for the first time in that poll, but did not exceed 50%.

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Who’d a thunk it?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 11, 2011

The press is so powerful in its image-making role that it can make a criminal look like he’s the victim and make the victim look like he’s the criminal.
– Eldridge Cleaver

THE late Black Panther and codpiece trouser purveyor was speaking the truth, but he was also speaking before the Internet, personal computers, and social networking changed the topography forever. As Glenn Reynolds, a law professor and proprietor of the Instapundit website, put it 10 years ago:

We’ve got computers…21st Century warfare turns out to be marked, as much as anything, by the inability of people to spread outrageous lies undetected. This is a major loss of comparative advantage for the Fisks of the world.

By Fisks, he’s referring to the British journalist Robert Fisk, whose name has become a verb denoting the dismantling of a piece of journalism or op-ed of greater-than-usual stupidity, nonsense, or prevarication from the industrial mass media. Fisk himself was the original target of Fisking, and that target was as easy to hit as the proverbial broad side of a barn. Nowadays, however, people have bigger Fisks to fry and have moved on. Fire has more recently been focused on economist Paul Krugman, who shut down the comment function of his New York Times blog after so many people so easily and so frequently made sport of him. One can understand the Krugmanian dilemma — rare is the Nobel Prize laureate who will sit still for being exposed as a third-rate hypocrite.

After all these years — well, about 15 or so, starting with the launch of Windows 95 — even the lesser lights among them should have gotten a glimmer. They’re still groping in the dark, however, in part because they still manage the odd success, as those who paid attention to their treatment of candidates from both parties in the 2008 American presidential election will remember. Further, one aim of most of those working in the smokestack industry of the 21st century, young and old alike, is to push a narrative and specific political objectives. (As one of them explained to me, that is “to fight for social justice”.) The True Believers never give up, no matter how often they get their noses rubbed in their own fun, like puppies that have ruined a carpet.

They’re still marching resolutely into the 20th century at the Foreign Policy website operated by the Washington Post, one of the most porculent of the remaining Pterodactylus Americani. The parent company should have known the jig was up after the meltdown of Newsweek, the weekly newsmagazine they once owned. It was sold last year for the princely sum of one US dollar. The price was right, considering how many people still read it.

In this case, the gang at Foreign Policy offers a feature profiling the 100 Top Global Thinkers 2011. This exercise in mid-20th century journalistic self-importance has nothing to recommend it apart from the brief and unintentional comedy that results from wondering what FP thinks is thought after seeing their selections for the Hot One Hundred. One of the funniest choices is their token Japan representative: Fukushima Mizuho, head of the Social Democratic Party, and her “partner”, Kaido Yuichi. They were deemed global thinkers because they are anti-nuclear activists.

The Japanese are understandably thrilled when one of their countrymen wins international recognition. Nobel Prizes, Olympic medals, Academy Awards, and astronauts are usually front page news, but not this time — one could almost sense the puzzled looks on the faces and unspoken WTFs in the minds of the reporters who were assigned to write up the story for the print media. Ms. Fukushima’s honor rated two short paragraphs at the bottom of page two in my local newspaper. It was as if they were embarrassed to even bring it up. I read three accounts (from that newspaper, the Asahi, and the Sankei), and none of them had much to say about it, other than a brief recitation of the facts. That even the Asahi, which shares the WaPo/NYT political philosophy, couldn’t get excited, tells the casual observer all he needs to know.

This isn’t a case of the prophet without honor in her own country, either. The only reason anyone knows about Fukushima Mizuho is that she has a Diet seat. The only reason she has a Diet seat is the proportional representation system, as she is incapable of winning a popular vote in an election district. (In fact, only one of the party’s handful of Diet members sits there because of an outright election victory.)

As for her “partner” (i.e., common-law husband) Kaido Yuichi, I’d bet cash money that I could stop 100 people at random on the street and no one will have heard of him…unless, perhaps, we were standing across the street from the Social Democratic Party headquarters.

What Foreign Policy didn’t tell their readers about Japan’s Foremost Global Thinker says a lot about Foreign Policy:

* The party she heads, the Social Democrats, was just the plain old Socialists until the fall of the Berlin Wall forced them into rebranding. Their charter included kind words for Karl Marx. They developed close ties with North Korea, and sponsored an annual “Peace Cruise” to Pyeongyang. (They disliked South Korea because it was a dictatorship rather than a People’s Republic.) As an attorney, Ms. Fukushima has been associated with the defense of radical terrorists of the left.

* She believes that Japan should adopt Costa Rica’s stance of unarmed neutrality. (Even the famously neutral Swiss are armed to the teeth with private weapons.) This is for a country whose immediate neighbors include China, Russia, and North Korea. Perhaps that position is not as suicidal as it seems: After all, the Social Democrats do share a philosophy with China, the old Soviet Union, and North Korea.

* When Japan sent troops to the Middle East in a UN peacekeeping operation, she objected because they were to be given sidearms for self-protection.

* She opposes Japan’s use of the anti-ballistic missile system. One of her arguments against the system in the Diet was that the successful interception of a missile over Japanese territory could create debris that might injure people on the ground. This caused audible laughter in the chamber.

* Not only is she opposed to nuclear power, she is opposed to all but the greenest power. If she has ever come forward with a credible plan for economic growth (she’s a party leader, remember), it’s escaped everyone’s notice.

* She managed to hoodwink the Wall Street Journal’s reporters last year into believing that her opposition to American military bases was limited to the Futenma installation in Okinawa. To be sure, there is some truth to that. The Japanese left has admitted that the American presence allows them to have their cake and eat it too. They get to bash the Americans in public while tacitly accepting their presence. They know the Japanese public would demand a robust domestic defense establishment if the Americans weren’t there to pretend to do it for them.

Stand up for the defense of one’s own country? Perish the thought!

There’s more, but you get the idea. Connect the dots and you get the same sort of blame-yourself-first leftist common in the West. The two paragraphs the Foreign Affairs website allots to her global-level thought are so thin, they’re almost not worth fisking. Here’s a sample:

Fukushima, the lawmaker who leads Japan’s Social Democratic Party, and her partner, Kaido, a public-interest lawyer, have spent three decades resisting Japan’s nuclear rise in their respective arenas: parliament and court. But the cozy nuclear plant operators and government officials who make up Japan’s so-called “nuclear village” largely ignored their efforts — that is, until this year.

The so-called “nuclear village” residents, as well as the rest of the country, are still ignoring their efforts, and will continue to do so. (Note, by the way, that “cozy” works in this sentence only if it modifies an invisible noun.)

The Fukushima Daiichi disaster has now forced the island country to re-examine the safety of its nuclear facilities.

Duh!

And isn’t it interesting that Foreign Affairs thinks it needs to remind its presumably adult readers that Japan is an “island country”?

Naoto Kan, Japan’s prime minister until he resigned in August, called in July for Japan to wind down its nuclear program, and his successor, Yoshihiko Noda, agrees.

As soon as Mr. Kan called for the nuclear program to wind down, his chief cabinet secretary, Edano Yukio, explained that the prime minister really meant “one of these days in the future”. Mr. Noda has offered lip service of his own, but he’s unlikely to offer more than that.

Kan also requested the closure and upgrade of a power plant in the earthquake-prone coastal city of Hamaoka, a facility whose safety Kaido had called into question nearly a decade earlier.

Since no one at Foreign Affairs seems capable of reading a Japanese newspaper, here’s what actually happened: Work on upgrading the safety measures at Hamaoka had already begun before the problem with the Fukushima plant. Kaieda Banri, then Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry, which is responsible for the oversight of nuclear power in Japan, had quietly negotiated with the plant operators and reached agreement with them for a voluntary suspension of operations. When Mr. Kaieda was about to make the announcement, Kan Naoto instructed him to stand down and went before the public with a demand for the shutdown himself.

And people wonder why Japanese prime ministers don’t last long in office.

Today, Fukushima and Kaido see a changed political horizon. As Fukushima told the New York Times in August, “Although I won’t be able to change the past, I think I can change the future.”

The national political horizon is still as occluded as ever, and she can’t change the future, no matter how much her fellow travelers in the West would wish it to be so. She doesn’t have what it takes to make a difference, either in the Diet or the greater marketplace of public ideas. Indeed, just this week the lower house of the Diet authorized the export of Japanese nuclear power technology to Vietnam, Jordan, Russia, and South Korea.

But to fully understand the pointlessness of this Foreign Affairs space filler, we can put aside Fukushima Mizuho and look at the other people cited as Global Thinkers. One of them was His Adolescency himself, the recipient of an equally irrelevant trinket — the Nobel Peace Prize — that renowned public intellectual and thinker of deep thoughts, Barack Obama.

Stiffen your stomach muscles — they actually praise him for his foreign policy vision of “leading from behind”. (This qualifies as comic relief too.) The FP also shows some diversity in their choice of “intellectual heavyweights”, as they put it. On the one hand, they hail the pacifist Fukushima, and on the other give Obama credit for greasing Osama bin Laden. Meanwhile, Ben Bernanke and Dick Cheney also make the list.

To conclude, here’s some credit where credit is due. The illustration of Fukushima Mizuho on the Foreign Affairs website, crude though it is, does capture her personality well. Still, it is curious they didn’t use a photo of her, yet managed to come up with one for the other 99, including an obscure Egyptian novelist.

*****
Bonus bogus journalism postscript from Forbes!

Here’s the headline:

Japan to adopt Bhutan’s principles of Gross National Happiness

This will come as news to the Japanese. With the DPJ government, adopting a fairy tale as public policy is a real possibility, but no one’s agreed to adopt anything yet.

Here’s the facepalm lede:

After a visit from the young King of Bhutan and his beautiful new pride (sic), Japan got “Gross National Happiness” fever, it seems…

Either Lisa Napoli needs to use a different thermometer, or should use the one she has on herself.

A minimally competent journalist aware of events in Japan would have known that then-Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio was scheming with Kan Naoto and Sengoku Yoshito in January 2010 to hold meetings on GNH that summer. The fever caused by the pride of Bhutan had nothing to do with it. Since Mr. Hatoyama didn’t make it to the summer himself, I thought this idea had been relegated to the back of the closet, but it seems not. Leave it to the DPJ to ignore the real for the mochi in the picture.

It’s hard to tell what’s going on from the Forbes article, because the link they provide is a kissing cousin of gibberish. The article concludes:

Lots of other governments are investigating these principles, like France, Great Britain, Brazil, the state of Maryland and the city of Seattle….as it becomes apparent that numbers only aren’t enough.

Yes, lots and lots of other governments, and numbers aren’t nearly enough. Other “principles” need to be factored in, such as this one from the Bhutanese GNH pioneers:

Concerns about safety were high in Bhutan’s rural areas, for example, not because of crime, but because of fears of wood spirits and wild animals.

While it’s true that GDP is an inaccurate metric, as China’s potempkin cities demonstrate, there’s nothing to be gained from moving from the inaccurate to the invisible. Well, other than excuses for creating new, air-based and public money-funded social programs. How like the left to ignore the activities that provide the most people with the most well-being, security, and health in favor of taking the national temperature and worrying about passing clouds of emotional ephemera. How unlike Forbes to fall for it.

*****
The last word on honors should go to the late Richard Feynman, a man who won the Nobel Prize for doing something real.

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More on the choreography

Posted by ampontan on Friday, December 9, 2011

BUILDING on yesterday’s expose of the Finance Ministry-choreographed policy reviews of social welfare schemes, the Nishinippon Shimbun reported today that an office created by the (mostly) Finance Ministry bureaucrats in the Government Revitalization Unit held preliminary “study meetings” at which information was distributed and certain decisions and declarations encouraged. It was also revealed that Ren Ho, one of the policy review MCs, attended, along with private sector panelists, ministry bureaucrats, and Diet members.

During the meetings, the bureaucrats coached the private sector panelists by saying, “We would like you to make this statement in this form,” and “We’re thinking of something along these lines for the conclusions to be drawn from the debate”.

One participant who wished to remain anonymous said:

“The material distributed was clearly a script. While there may have been no coercion involved for specific statements, they did create the flow of debate.”

Another added:

“I suspected that it was all choreographed and stitched together to look like a debate.”

A senior member of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare explained the reason:

“The unification of the pension systems and taxes are the most important issue for the Noda Cabinet. It would be very difficult to have the ruling party openly discuss ways to increase the burden on the citizens (i.e., raise taxes)…People are likely to be opposed to these policies, so they can’t be raised by politicians who face elections. We thought an alternative would be to have the recommendations made during policy reviews.”

Politicians take responsibility? Perish the thought. Then again, the politicians in this (as in most) instances are just willing tools.

The newspaper reported that Chief Cabinet Secretary Fujimura Osamu denied that any of this took place. Ren Ho promised to explain later today.

*****
This must have been the inspiration: choreography, cash, and Pig Latin.

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Funny money

Posted by ampontan on Friday, December 9, 2011

HERE’s an anecdote about Hatoyama Yukio that I ran across yesterday. It typifies the pettiness of the political class everywhere.

In 1999, Mr. Hatoyama was involved with a group that included Sakaiya Taichi, then head of the now-defunct Economic Planning Agency. One of the members came up with the idea of issuing a JPY 2000 bank note to coincide with the new millenium, and Mr. Hatoyama thought it was a capital idea. He had the Democratic Party, then in the opposition, conduct a study about issuing the bill and its potential economic effect.

In the meantime, the same light bulb went off in the head of someone in government. He brought the idea to then-Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo, and the bill was issued. Mr. Hatoyama was upset that the LDP beat him to the punch and wondered how word of his plan leaked out. He told the press during an October 1999 news conference that he should have publicized the DPJ study sooner.

It didn’t turn out to be such a good idea after all. No vending machines or ATMs had the capability to handle the new note, and it soon became became the subject of media mockery. Sensing which way the wind was blowing, Mr. Hatoyama told the monthly Bungei Shunju in 2000 in a discussion of the Obuchi government:

They’re going to have a lot of weird ideas, like this one about issuing a JPY 2000 note.

With the world’s governments in the hands of kidults, it’s no wonder we’re all up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

*****
Another of the Obuchi government’s ideas was to issue the bill in conjunction with the G-whatever summit in Okinawa that year. The obverse of the note has an engraving of Shureimon, one of the gates at the Shurei Castle in Okinawa. It is the only Japanese banknote without a person’s face on the front. (Then again, there are only three other notes.)

Shureimon

The problem with ATMs has been resolved to an extent, though most of the banks operating those ATMs are in Okinawa. Some banks in foreign countries won’t handle the bills when changing money. I can’t remember the last time I saw one of them, and there are now fewer of them in circulation than there were of the old 500-yen note, which they eliminated in 1985. There’s a good reason for that — they stopped printing 2000-yen notes in 2003, though the Bank of Japan has a lot of unissued bills in storage.

Nishiyama Yutaka, a mathematics professor at the Osaka University of Economics and an expert in boomerang research, wrote this short paper in Japanese suggesting one of the reasons the 2,000 yen note didn’t catch on is that Japanese are more likely to prefer odd numbers and people in the English-speaking world even numbers. He of course mentions the meaning of the word “odd” in English.

Prof. Nishiyama went to the trouble to count the number-related words in Japanese and English dictionaries. He found a much higher incidence of vocabulary items related to one and three in Japanese, while there was a much higher incidence for two in English.

Before you dismiss this as so much silliness, consider one more point. The professor correctly notes that the Japanese equivalent of the proverb “two heads are better than one” involves three people.

Oh yeah, here’s one more: In 1995, the same Bungei Shunju profiled a list of “Leaders for the 21st Century”. Number one on the list was Hatoyama Yukio. Some Japanese now argue that Mr. Hatoyama was Japan’s worst prime minister ever.

But then that’s the pitfall for publishing lists of that sort, isn’t it?

*****
Once upon a time, a two-dollar bill bought some big fun.

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Ichigen koji (79)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 8, 2011

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

A major reformation seems likely to occur in Osaka. The national government is incapable of many of these reforms — that’s how interesting the work will be. I hope that Mr. Matsui (the new Osaka governor) and Mr. Hashimoto (the new Osaka mayor) will do their utmost to achieve those reforms. There are people in Tokyo and throughout the country who feel the same way. I think it would be wonderful if young people with vision from throughout Japan came to Osaka.

- Koga Shigeaki, government reformer and former official with the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. Both he and Hara Eiji, another reformer and former METI official, are likely to serve as advisors in a new body created by Gov. Matsui and Mayor Hashimoto to eliminate redundant services in the two governments and hammer out a uniform policy to establish a new prefectural-level government in the region.

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There goes the last fig leaf

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 8, 2011

NOW this is getting interesting: The lead story on the front page of the Nishinippon Shimbun this morning is an expose of the Democratic Party government’s policy reviews, in which panels of politicians and private sector experts grill bureaucrats, ostensibly to eliminate wasteful programs and save taxpayer money. The first was conducted to popular acclaim in late 2009 by former cheesecake model/TV personality-turned-Cabinet Minister Ren Ho and Edano Yukio. Mr. Edano later went on to preside over the party’s poor showing in the 2010 upper house election as DPJ secretary-general and the government cover-up of the Fukushima disaster as Kan Naoto’s second chief cabinet secretary. He’s now the Minister of Economy, Trade, and Ministry.

While the public was thrilled by the first such review — Japanese taxpayers know there’s enough pork being distributed to feed every nation in Christendom during Easter — those who paid close attention soon discovered the process was a dog and pony show orchestrated and scripted by the Finance Ministry, both to assert its dominance over the rest of the bureaucracy as well as the DPJ government. Your Party Secretary General Eda Kenji revealed on his website that he was given a copy of the first script. The panels’ only authority was to recommend cuts, most of the cuts the panels recommended never materialized, and subsequent panels were largely ignored by the public.

Now, for the first time, this story has hit the fan of the industrial mass media, or one blade of it at least. The government conducted another policy review last month on the subject of social welfare programs. The Nishinippon Shimbun managed to obtain copies of what they call a “crib sheet” citing examples of issues to be discussed, and another document with suggestions for how to summarize the proceedings at the end. The documents were created by the Cabinet Office with input from the Finance Ministry. The newspaper reports that most of the panel’s conclusions were in line with the ministry’s initial proposals. The crib sheet suggestions on reevaluating social welfare systems were identical to documents distributed at the session presenting Finance Ministry positions.

Here’s what Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko had to say about the recommendations of the policy review on Monday:

All the declarations presented to the people at these reviews are important for the future of our country…The Cabinet takes these declarations very seriously, and we must link them to concrete results.

Mr. Noda, by the way, reportedly gets very upset at the charge that he is a Finance Ministry puppet. He’ll also get upset at this passage from the newspaper’s editorial:

When the Liberal Democratic Party was in power, the Finance Ministry would cut budget requests from each of the ministries when the following year’s budget was formulated at yearend, and each of the Cabinet ministers would negotiate directly with the Finance Minister to restore them. It was a set performance to give the public the impression that the politicians were in charge. The opposition Democratic Party lambasted this as an event staged by the politicians and the bureaucracy. Now, their criticism could boomerang on them.

The paper prominently featured this comment by political scientist and political devolution advocate Shindo Muneyuki, a former Chiba University professor and current director of the Research Center for Decentralized Policies and Systems:

It is clear that the Finance Ministry and the Cabinet Office tried to manipulate public opinion to gain support for themselves by creating a script and employing a group of prominent private sector individuals who favor cutting some expenditures…the government is no longer qualified to criticize Kyushu Electric Power for its fake e-mail campaign (to restart the Genkai nuclear plant).

They also ran some comments from former METI official and bureaucratic reform advocate Koga Shigeaki. Remember that Mr. Koga was on the receiving end of a veiled threat on the floor of the Diet during his testimony last year by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito. Here’s what he wrote:

The Finance Ministry was viewed from the start has having set the boundaries for the policy reviews, but this is blatant. They might have been fearful of getting caught at first, but over time, they lost their sense of caution and no longer bothered to create the impression that the reviews weren’t choreographed. The DPJ and the Finance Ministry just began to accept this as a matter of course. Most of the members of the Government Revitalization Unit in the Cabinet Office are from the Finance Ministry…and the topics they choose to discuss are arbitrary. For example, proposals that would upset the Finance Ministry, such as the one calling for a 20% reduction in civil servant salaries, will never be discussed.

The ministry creates a sense of gratitude in the Democratic Party, which wants to raise taxes, and it benefits by being allowed to eliminate parts of the budget over which it has no discretion. The DPJ benefits from the PR…In any event, there is no meaning in debating serious issues such as these in just a few hours, and it’s only advertising for the government. (The panel) presents conclusions in a tangible form, and all it does is give Ren Ho a stage on which to perform.

Also of interest is that it is not easy to find reports on the panel’s recommendations for social welfare programs, though there were reports on a different investigation last month into nuclear power policy. Thus, it is difficult to know whose ox is being gored by the revelations. And speaking of government PR, here’s a report of Mr. Noda addressing the opening meeting of the panel on a government website (Ren Ho is to his right in the photo). He says:

The ‘proposal-based policy review,’ which was decided in the previous Unit meeting, will start on November 20. I would like to position it as a tool for building a new, stronger Japan moving forward…In order for Japan to regain robust growth potential and bring more prosperity to people’s lives, we need to overhaul outdated regulations as well as regulations and other systems that only serve to protect the vested interests.

Fighting the vested interests, eh? How droll.

Finally, it is most interesting that the national dailies have yet to report this story as I write. A Google news search in Japanese turns up only articles from the Nishinippon Shimbun, though Chief Cabinet Secretary Fujimura Osamu was asked about it at his morning news conference. Caught flat-footed, Mr. Fujimura said he needed some time to make up an excuse would look into it. It would be fascinating to know who leaked the information to the newspaper, surely with the intent of injecting it into the public consciousness indirectly.

The newspaper tries to present some balance by offering the opinions of two professors defending the ministry’s input. The ministry is also known, however, to cultivate a stable of university professors and other members of the commentariat to promote its positions and defend it, and this pair likely are part of the group of steeds.

In two short years, the Democratic Party government’s credibility has been shredded in both foreign and domestic policy. These policy reviews have been their only putative success, and their credibility and legitimacy have been hanging by the slenderest of threads. That thread has now been cut.

****
They’ve got all the answers and lovely dancers too.

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Letter bombs (23): Big surprise in every tranche

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 7, 2011

IT’S not a good sign when the Japanese government lifts a PR strategy from Cracker Jack.

Reader Marellus sent in a link to this story of the Finance Ministry’s big idea for boosting sales of reconstruction bonds:

Japanese Finance Minister Jun Azumi will be rewarding investors who buy more than 10 million yen ($129,000) in reconstruction bonds with gold in the government’s latest attempt to bolster demand for the debt.

Individual investors who hold the bonds for three years will be eligible for a gold commemorative coin valued at 10,000 yen, the Finance Ministry said in Tokyo today. At 15.6 grams, (0.55 ounces), it would be worth about $948 based on prices for the precious metal.

I’m not joking with the Cracker Jack crack, either. Here’s what Frito-Lay, the owners of the brand, did in 1998:

Cracker Jack announced today its first-ever holiday prize give-away of limited edition collector jewelry designed exclusively by Neiman Marcus. Cracker Jack will replace the customary toy surprises in 16 packages of the caramel-coated popcorn and peanuts with special certificates for the jewelry. The holiday certificates will be sealed in the traditional Cracker Jack surprise envelopes and randomly distributed inside the new 4-ounce bags and 7-ounce box of Cracker Jack sold at retail stores nationwide…

Cracker Jack’s seasonal surprises include eight 18-karat gold rings with a ruby, emerald or sapphire stone and valued at $950 each.

Even accounting for the increase in gold prices over the last 14 years, some Cracker Jack purchasers got a bigger surprise than buyers of Japanese government bonds. (Note: For readers outside the United States, Cracker Jack is perhaps the world’s first commercially produced junk food. It is molasses-flavored, candy-coated popcorn and peanuts, created in the late 19th century. Everybody in America knows about them if only because they’re mentioned in the song, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”. For that reason, every boy in America buys them once to see what they’re like. I don’t know anyone who bought them twice. The only thing surprising about the big surprise in every box was how cheap and pointless they were.)

But back to Azumi the Lad. He bought JPY one million worth (roughly $US 12,860) on his own, perhaps deducted from the salary he gets as finance minister on top of the one he gets as a Diet member.

All investors receive a thank-you note from the minister, who showed his to reporters in Tokyo today as proof of his purchase.

In other words, he showed reporters a note he wrote to himself. Why yes, he did get his start in television. How did you guess?

So there we have the DPJ government in miniature: Big kids in short pants playing grownup without realizing how childish they look.

Reader Yebisu comments:

The fact that Japan is having to bribe people with gold shows that they are starting to realize that it is going to get very difficult to find buyers of J bonds. The game is coming to an end.

I agree that’s possible. But off the top of my head, here’s another possibility: Most Japanese debt is bought by institutional investors, i.e., the private sector side of what they used to call Japan Inc. If I’m not mistaken, the government (or rather the Finance Ministry) is offering these bonds to individual investors, and has added this Big Surprise as a bonus to encourage prospective punters to pitch in financially and promote national solidarity while doing their part for the recovery effort. The U.S. government sold War Bonds for the same reason, albeit without a trinket to accompany the coupons.

In any event, the Cracker Jack aspect of the promotion is demonstrated by the return. Purchasers recieve a JPY 10,000 gold coin for a JPY 10 million investment that pays 0.05% for the first three years. Assuming that same rate over the full term of the bond, that’s only a 2% increase in total yield. What is there to say about a finance ministry that would trade on public fears of a financial panic, the belief that gold is a safe investment in troubled times, and the nagging suspicion that the gold might be worth more than the face value of the bonds when they mature?

One thing we could say is that it’s offensive, because neither the promotion nor the bonds themselves might be needed at all. Many observers insist the Japanese government has the resources, both in cash reserves and property, to fund the recovery without issuing bonds at all. Indeed, they could use the proceeds from privatizing Japan Post, a step 70% of the public favored during the Koizumi administration, and which the DPJ halted. But that would upset their junior coalition partner, the People’s New Party, a splinter group formed to thwart the popular will block the privatization. The exercise of power and the use of the funds in the postal savings and life insurance system is more important than effective and efficient governance, after all.

And one final word:

Azumi, whose hometown was devastated by the March 11 disaster, said today he bought 1 million yen of the debt to support rebuilding efforts from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

A report emerged a week or two after the disaster that Azumi pulled strings to divert gasoline deliveries to stations in his Diet district before full-scale recovery efforts got underway, even though there was a serious gasoline shortage throughout the entire Tohoku region and supplies were limited. The story was lost in the deluge of other events at the time.

UPDATE: From Japanese reports, the bonds are 10-year instruments with three different yields ranging from 0.18% to 0.72%. That means the premium received from the gold coin is worth even less than I thought. They’re going to be sold through banks, and one of the bankers interviewed said they were going to make a special effort to sell them to people who normally don’t buy JGBs.

*****
This Cracker Jack commercial won an award at Cannes in the 70s. Perhaps they should show it to the Finance Ministry. Some in the DPJ might enjoy it too. The actor, Jack Gilford, was fingered as a Red in the 1950s.

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Ichigen koji (78)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 7, 2011

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

If they raise the consumption tax rate, the party will split in two…the government has made several pronouncements, including those on the issues of the consumption tax and the pension. If they ignore and belittle the people, they’ll surely pay a terrible price (literally, a large iron hammer will be brought down upon them). I do not want to become the commanding officer who sees the soldiers off on a special attack mission.

- Ozawa Ichiro, former secretary-general and president of the Democratic Party of Japan (who has served in those same roles in several other parties as well). The word he used for special attack was the same one used for the kamikaze squadrons during the war.

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Matsuri da! (123): Keep on trucking

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A PROMINENT feature of many Japanese festivals is a procession with elaborate floats or mikoshi. They are often larger than a single-family dwelling, centuries old, and crafted with exquisite workmanship and materials. These relics are literally priceless.

But that’s not true of all festivals.

One example is the Uodon Matsuri held by the Hakosaki Hachiman shrine last month in Yusui-cho, Kagoshima. The festival, which is at least 500 years old, is an annual event to purge the local district once known as Yoshimatsu-cho of sin and impurities. This is accomplished by tying carved wooden masks of a male and female divinity to the end of stakes and then parading them around the district while the shrine priest chants, “Uo, uo” to announce their presence. After the divinities have passed through every neighborhood, the masks are attached to bamboo stakes six meters high. These are placed on either side of National Highway #268 at the border with Miyazaki Prefecture and connected with a shimenawa, or sacred rope. There’s no better way to ensure that all the outsiders coming into the district will be purified too.

No sticklers for needless tradition, the priests at the shrine have availed themselves of technological advances over the centuries to make their job easier. Originally, the masks of the divinities were carried on horseback. The priests later switched from horses to bicycles. But why get sweaty and out of breath with all that pedaling when you can make it even easier on yourself? Nowadays, they lash the stakes to the bed of a small pickup truck and chauffer the deities around, as you can see from the photo.

Let’s not forget another advantage to the trucks: I don’t think the highway patrol will pull that driver over, do you?

Incidentally “Uo” seems to be Kagoshimanian for the names of the divinities, and is written 大王. That’s usually pronounced daio and means great king. I couldn’t find an explanation for the name, or indeed any information beyond the content of the post. I suspect the “don” is also from the regional dialect. If I’m not mistaken, it’s derived from 共 (tomo), and is used to create plurals, such as in kodomo for children. Here’s an explanation in Japanese, but feel free to correct me if I’ve misinterpreted it.

And here’s a curiosity: Despite the funkiness with the truck, the shrine also has a short promotional video that presents a rather different image:

*****
After six days on the road, anyone would need purifying, not just the truckers.

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More on the bureaucracy and the increasingly restless natives

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 6, 2011

COURTESY of someone with sharp eyes at Seetell, here’s an article in the Mainichi Shimbun about the political influence of the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy. They’re already getting down and dirty by the second paragraph:

In the eyes of the general public, the stereotypical Finance Ministry bureaucrat is one of the nation’s most intelligent and elite, and a graduate of the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Law. If this actually describes the majority of Finance Ministry officials, why is it that Japan has a national debt of 1,000 trillion yen?

They try to walk the tightrope of journalistic balance and present the Finance Ministry’s views:

However, to the public, the Noda administration’s tax-raising line looks like it’s been initiated by the Finance Ministry.

It’s unavoidable that people see the administration as being pushed around by the Finance Ministry, since the Finance Ministry is the only public organ that wants to raise taxes. Sure, it’ll be very difficult to raise the consumption tax at a time when the gap between the haves and have-nots has widened this much. But there’s no alternative to raising consumption tax if we want the burden to be as thinly and widely spread out as possible.

“The nation’s finances require a tax hike, but there are far too few politicians who are willing to take that challenge on. It’s very unfortunate,” the official said.

Also very unfortunate is the absence of a mention of the first and best alternative: Don’t spend money you don’t have, and redline expenditures that aren’t needed. Entire ministries could be either eliminated or downgraded in size and scope, and entire books have been published explaining how it can be done.

The reason the public’s attention is focused on the Finance Ministry is because news media outlets and non-fiction authors who do not depend on close ties to either politicians or government ministries to survive regularly air out the dirty laundry in public, often using information provided from ex-Finance Ministry (or other) bureaucrats. In addition to the stories (much more critical than the Mainichi article) that appear in nearly every issue of weekly or monthly magazines, enough books to fill a few shelves are published on this subject every year. One, for example, described how those ballyhooed DPJ policy reviews were scripted and orchestrated by the Finance Ministry’s Budget Bureau rather than the DPJ, and some of the panel’s recommended cuts were quietly reinserted into the budgets of different ministries a few months later.

What the literature on the subject also reveals is the reason the Mainichi has to be so even-handed: newspapers that displease ministry officials will be cut out of the information loop.

Inserted into the middle of some heavyweight heartstring tugging about the bureaucrats crying when visiting the scene of the Tohoku disaster (I’m sure they did) and worrying about their children (I’m sure they do), is this brief passage:

“Those who object to a tax hike, saying, ‘But the very bureaucrats who are championing tax hikes have stable jobs,’ are right,” the same bureaucrat said. “I’m aware that people are a lot more critical of us than they have been in the past.

Not only do they have stable jobs, those jobs pay 40% more than equivalent private sector jobs, and yes, books have been written about that, too. As well as the fact that public sector unions are the largest organized support group for the ruling Democratic Party of Japan.

Finally, neither this article nor the Seenow post delves into the fabulous moneywasters of the so-called Third Sector enterprises that were so popular among local governments in the 1990s. (These are joint public-private enterprises that a sane government would leave entirely to the private sector.) The last statistics I read stated that more than 70% of these enterprises nationwide were losing money, most of them a deeper shade of crimson than merely being in the red. In fact, there’s a magnificent white elephant in the old shopping district of the city where I live. To counteract the shift of retail outlets to shopping malls and other suburban locations with parking lots — Why? — the city government teamed with private sector interests to redevelop the old district and put up a new 10+ story complex with shops and condominiums. It went bankrupt almost immediately, and survives as an enormous drain on the municipal treasury.

The Japanese have already begun to fight back through the ballot box, and we can expect that fight to continue in the future. It is unlikely to take form in a vehicle such as the Tea Party or the Occupy movement, but take form it surely will. It has already started.

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This might be good advice, were governments not so anxious to take these off our backs, too.

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