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Japan from the inside out

Archive for May, 2012

Political kabuki in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 31, 2012

FOR reasons beyond understanding, Americans have glommed onto the word kabuki and applied it to political situations to describe debate/discussion/behavior/bloviation that is little more than a theatrical performance, in which the actors play to exaggerated stereotypes to disguise either a predetermined outcome or their real motives. The Brits use it much less frequently in that context, and when they do, they tend to add a word at the end by calling it political kabuki theater.

That sort of behavior has as much in common with kabuki as real kabuki has with vaudeville. The plays themselves have every bit the drama and meaning as most of Shakespeare, and the earliest ones are about the same age. To expect the average journo or commentator to understand that, however, would be to credit them with more erudition than the flybaits whose careers they follow.

The Japanese also have their own equivalent of what is referred to as political kabuki, of course. In fact, no one does it better. They just don’t call it kabuki. An excellent example is the stylized drama that’s been playing on the political stage for the past month over the issue of restarting the Oi nuclear power reactors in Fukui. It’s nearing resolution, and it now seems this kabuki will be more productive than those staged overseas. It centers on putting the arrangements in place for the eventual resumption of nuclear power production nationwide.

Recall that for other reasons beyond understanding, Japan’s political tachiyaku, Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru, chose to elbow his way to the front of the anti-nuclear power parade in Japan. It is beyond understanding because it is almost certainly an exercise in populism, even though his popularity is such that a populist appeal wasn’t necessary.

Hosono Goshi holds forth (Asahi Shimbun)

His position has infected even those of his senior advisors and political allies who have long track records of adult behavior. Your Party, the only serious reformers among the national political parties, became Hashimoto allies because they share the policies of regional devolution and bureaucratic reform. But they too have started running the anti-nuke voodoo down, and their new approach is even more confounding because their secretary-general, Eda Kenji, is a sensible man who was once a star bureaucrat in the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, the ministry responsible for the oversight of the nuclear power industry.

Another former METI hanagata is the bureaucratic reformer Koga Shigeaki, who is now a Hashimoto senior advisor. He recently appeared on television to charge that Kansai Electric might engage in deliberate “nuclear terrorism” by sabotaging their own thermal power plants as a weapon to get the nuclear plants back on line.

Mr. Koga must have developed a taste for plywood — he’s still chewing the scenery, though he has toned it down a bit. Asked by reporters to explain that statement, he said:

“I wanted to say that they were threatening to create a situation in which there would be a power shortfall, based on the premise of restarting the plants. When Kansai Electric and METI cry “blackouts, blackouts”, that is terrorism.”

And:

“I used the word terrorism because neither Kansai Electric nor METI formulated measures even though they knew last summer there would be a power shortage this summer.”

This approach by One Osaka and its allies might have found support at the national level were Kan Naoto — who “loves” wind power — still prime minister. Fortunately, the DPJ finally found an adult member of their party to serve in that position, and Noda Yoshihiko wants to get the nuclear plants back on line as soon as possible. Current METI chief Edano Yukio, Mr. Kan’s chief cabinet secretary during the nuclear accident, has the sugarplum dream of being prime minister himself, so he’s found himself some new chums in the METI bureaucracy.

The immediate problem is the anticipated 15% power shortfall this summer in the Kansai region — home to Panasonic, Sharp, and other major manufacturers — if the Oi plants are not restarted. It will take six weeks to get them back up to speed, and time is running out.

The government doesn’t need permission from anyone to permit nuclear power generation to resume, but that would leave them open to the charge of ignoring the concerns of the public and the local governments involved. Thus they have begun executing a program of eggshell-walking and convincing local government leaders and citizens’ groups that it is safe to press the nuclear button.

On 19 May, the prime minister dispatched Hosono Goshi, the Cabinet minister responsible for nuclear energy, to explain the new safety standards to the Union of Kansai Governments. That’s a group consisting of the governors of seven Kansai prefectures. (The governor of Nara chose not to join.) The union was formed in October 2010 to coordinate region-wide emergency medical services and disaster response, among other work. But more important, it is a vehicle to promote regional devolution, one of Mr. Hashimoto’s primary objectives. The seven prefectures have a combined population of almost 21 million people.

Hashimoto Toru helped create the union when he was the Osaka Prefecture governor.  He’s now the mayor of Osaka City, which is not an official member, but what are rules to a big enchilada?

In fact, he was responsible for the union’s rejection of the new nuclear safety standards presented by Mr. Hosono at the 19 May meeting. He dismissed them by saying they weren’t standards, but merely “anti-tsunami measures”.

The Second Meeting

It took but a fortnight for the government to come up with some revisions — golly, that was fast — and present them to another meeting of the Union of Kansai Governments yesterday. Mr. Hashimoto wasn’t present because he had to attend an Osaka city council session, but Union Chairman Ido Toshizo, the governor of Hyogo, stayed in contact with him by telephone to keep him informed of the discussions and to write down his instructions.

Here’s what happened: Mr. Hosono told the meeting that the government will soon present new safety measures to the Fukui governor (Oi is in Fukui). If they suit the governor’s fancy, Prime Minister Noda will “take the responsibility” for making the decision on restarting the reactors himself, early in June. One of the two METI vice-ministers and a ministerial aide will be stationed at Oi to make sure everything is tip-top. There will be stronger “provisional safety standards” for the “limited” restart of the reactors, and those standards will be reviewed for further improvement after the establishment of a new atomic energy regulatory agency, which the DPJ government finally got around to bringing up in the Diet. The chief municipal officer of Oi-cho, where the reactors are located, has already signaled that he will give his blessing to get those turbines moving again. In essence, the plan leaves everything up to the national government.

Now break out the popcorn and watch the political kabuki.

Mr. Hashimoto earlier hinted that he would be amenable to “limited operation”. When Gov. Ido conferred with him by phone during the meeting, the mayor said he would agree this time on the condition that the words “provisional” and “limited” were inserted in the statement.

Osaka Gov. Matsui Ichiro, the mayor’s primary political ally in the region, asked:

“Will the restart be approved using existing guidelines even though the government’s safety standards are not thorough and complete?”

Mr. Hashimoto asked:

“If the safety standards are provisional, then plant safety itself is provisional, isn’t it? Why will the reactors be restarted without waiting for the establishment of the nuclear regulatory agency?”

Some of the other governors were just critical, but here is their official statement released as soon as the meeting ended:

“We strongly seek an appropriate and limited decision (from the national government) on the premise that this decision will be provisional.”

In other words: Thanks for letting us save face while we go along with letting you restart the plants.

When asked what “limited” referred to, Mr. Ido said it included both the safety standards and the resumption of nuclear power generation.

The Facts of Life

What happened between 19 May and 30 May to change everyone’s mind? Nobody’s saying, but it likely involved what regional business leaders were telling the politicians in private, and which was just revealed in public earlier this week by the Nikkei Shimbun, the country’s primary business and financial daily.

The Osaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry took a quick survey from the 21st to the 25th of 73 large regional companies to determine the effects of a 15% power cutback this summer. 70% said it would cause serious problems, and 56% said their profits would suffer. Only 29% said that it would be possible to achieve a 15% reduction in power use. Most (32% of the respondents) said the best they could achieve was a 5%-10% cutback. That was roughly the level of savings Kansai Electric’s large consumers managed last summer. More than a few said they would have to reduce working hours altogether, increase the number of days they would close, or move shifts to later at night.

What everyone already knew was that many companies in Tokyo started relocating offices and plants in other parts of Japan (and the world) to ensure stable energy supplies for their business. They also knew that the oil imports required to offset the loss of nuclear power was deuced expensive.

So, as one wag on the Internet put it, the “Union of Kansai Yakuza Gangs” has now shifted its position from “there will be enough power even without the nuclear plants” to “there will be enough power if we save energy” to “there will be enough energy if we have rolling blackouts and receive power from other parts of the country” to “OK, but it’s only provisional”.

It’s also curious that Hashimoto Toru, the Twitter Machine Gun who fires off 20-30 tweets a day to spray his opinions on the public at large and kick his opponents in the groin, has been observing radio silence of late. Some have concluded that he has been quietly reassessing his position.

Does anyone doubt that once the Oi nuclear reactors go back on line, they will stay on line unless there’s a historically immense shift of tectonic plates in the immediate area? Does anyone doubt that when the Oi reactors go back on line, the other idled plants nationwide will eventually follow?

Thus, mere days after the overseas Split Wood Not Atoms sect rejoiced because Japan was now “nuclear free”, those smiles have been flipped into frowns.  Reuters quoted Greg McNevin, a spokesman for Greenpeace International as saying:

“We have consistently said that none of the safety or emergency measures that have been called for by experts in the community has been completed.  Our consistent position is that this is being rushed.”

Silly boy. One of the defining elements of kabuki theater is mie, in which the actor assumes an extravagant, stylized pose. Greenpeace seems to think their own mie have the mojo to work on the Japanese stage. But none the several Japanese-language articles I read quoted his (or any other foreigner’s) comments, and an audience that doesn’t exist can’t applaud. Text message to the Greenies: Becoming a real kabuki actor requires years of apprenticeship and study.

*****

All of this brings up several interesting questions. Does this represent the first defeat for Hashimoto Toru in his confrontation with the national establishment? Does this face-saving agreement mean that the establishment and Mr. Hashimoto are accommodating themselves to each other? Is the Osaka mayor cooperating with the DPJ government that he pledged to bring down? Will his objections actually result in more stringent standards for nuclear power operation?

Is Mr. Hashimoto in fact not anti-nuclear power at all, but using that provisionality as one string on his anti-establishment guitar, with the added benefit of greater safety?

We’ll find out eventually what went on backstage. We always do.

*****

With serendipitous synchronicity, a Japanese blog post floated up yesterday in which the author described a visit to observe the work underway at the Hamamatsu nuclear power plant. That was the first one to be shut down after the Fukushima accident. There were legitimate concerns about its safety, and work to improve plant resistance to natural disasters had already begun.

It never stopped, even though the reactors did. The blogger wrote:

Construction is proceeding on a wall that rises 18 meters above sea level and surrounds the entire facility. An emergency generator and a nuclear reactor cooling pump are being installed in a structure 20 meters above sea level in which seawater cannot penetrate. Technical developments in 30 categories are being incorporated in the work, which will result in the strongest anti-tsunami measures of any plant in the world. This is more comprehensive than I had imagined.

The wall is two meters thick, 1.6 kilometers long, and its foundation extends from 10 to 30 meters underground. The construction work will be completed in December.

It seems not to have occurred to some people in Japan that nuclear power plant operation might be forever suspended.

*****

It also never occurred to Your Party head Watanabe Yoshimi to stop being so tiresome. Here’s the statement he released after the agreement:

The safety standards are ridiculous, there is still no regulatory agency, there are no stress tests under the new safety standards, there is no crisis management system based on the premise of an accident, there are no plans for the disposition of the spent fuel, there is no private sector insurance for compensating accident victims, and it is not possible to cite a reason for approving the unsafe time-limited operation! Is this right?

Now that’s political kabuki. At least he didn’t insert multiple exclamation points at the end of every clause.

Absent from the discussion is that any destruction which might occur at Oi is premised on tsunami damage (not earthquake damage) and that estimates of fatalities in a tsunami large enough to damage the plant run as high as 10,000. Some have suggested that Mr. Hashimoto might have recognized the contradiction of demanding absolute safety for the plant without demanding measures to prevent tsunami damage.

*****

Paddy Regan, the director of the MSc course in radiation and environmental protection at the University of Surrey, Guildford, wrote an article that appeared in the Telegraph of Britain. It starts this way:

Three places: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima. And three more: Banqiao, Machhu II, Hiakud. Most people react with horror to the first trio, while the second three locations usually draw a blank look. In fact, the latter were the sites of three major hydroelectric dam failures: in China and India in 1975, 1979 and 1980, which were directly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands. In contrast, the death toll directly associated with radiation exposure from the three best-known civil nuclear accidents is estimated by the World Health Organisation to be conservatively about 50, all associated with Chernobyl.

He continued:

The Italian foreign ministry, for example, recommended that its citizens flew out of Tokyo to avoid potential radiation exposure in the first couple of weeks following the Fukushima leak. While the radiation levels in the Japanese capital rose significantly above normal, they remained lower than the typical average background radiation levels in Rome, leading to the bizarre situation of individuals being relocated to places with higher radiation levels than those they were leaving.

It also contains information that seems beyond the ability of the Hysterians to comprehend:

And a pervasive myth has taken hold that even tiny amounts of radiation are unsafe. In reality, this cannot be so, as humans have evolved in an invisible sea of naturally occurring radioactivity. Much of this arises from radioactive forms of potassium, uranium and thorium; remnants of the Earth’s formation more than 4 billion years ago. Human bodies are bubbling with radioactivity, with around 7,000 atoms decaying each second due to radioactivity from potassium-40 and carbon-14.

Afterwords:

* Some Americans do understand the stupidity in the use of the term political kabuki, as this article demonstrates.  It’s a good explanation of why the coinage is inapt and includes the pertinent observation:

“If a former theater critic such as Frank Rich can’t be trusted to use it properly, who can?”

Alas, the five reasons he asserts — not suggests — for the American creation of the phrase were pulled straight from his backside.

* Though kabuki is now high art and a living tradition, its origin is attributed to female drama troupes who became popular because their performances included erotic scenes and provocative dances. They were also often prostitutes, and fights frequently broke out among the spectators for reasons that require no explanation.

As Brother Dave Gardner used to say, Ain’t that weird?

The Tokugawa Shogunate, still in its early days, banned women from performing in the dramas, but their parts were taken by men who also sold their favors.

Maybe a case can be made for the legitimacy of the term “political kabuki” after all.

* Enough of the Ersatz brand, here’s some of the hard stuff. It’s a short, edited version of a performance of Kanjincho (List of Contributors). The story is based on an older Noh play, was originally performed as a kabuki drama in 1702, and assumed its current form in 1840. Reading the plot summary at that link will give you an idea how shocking it must have been in the context of Japan’s vertical society at the time.

No erotic scenes or provocative dances though. Sorry.

Posted in Arts, Business, finance and the economy, Politics, Science and technology, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Ichigen koji (107)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, May 30, 2012

一言居士

- A person who has something to say about everything

I want the government to quickly end these idiotic debates about what percentage they should set for the nation’s reliance on nuclear energy. There is no logical basis for either 35% or 0%. The objective is maximizing energy efficiency, with the social costs included.

- Ikeda Nobuo

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

Hauling ash

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 29, 2012

LAST SUNDAY we had a post that dealt, in part, with a mini-sit-in held at the entrance of a refuse incineration facility in Kitakyushu that was to conduct a trial burning of 80 tons of debris generated by the Tohoku disaster. The demonstrators held up the process until the police removed them from the premises.

The incineration went ahead as scheduled, the city measured the radioactivity in the fly ash collected in the smokestack filters, and the results were announced yesterday. The national government’s minimum standard for landfill is no more than 3,000 becquerels per kilogram. As I noted last week, the city is known for its rigorous environmental standards, and their target for the fly ash was a much lower 330 becquerels per kilogram.

One of the incineration sites measured 19 becquerels, and the other measured 30.

The city’s standard for the bottom ash (the ash that never left the incinerator) is no more than 100 becquerels per kilogram. They detected none at either location. The mayor will announce the city’s decision next month on whether to continue the incineration, and these results make it more likely that they will.

It is of critical importance that other regions help with the incineration.  The Tohoku earthquake disaster created 29 million cubic meters of debris. Most of it has yet to be disposed of, though it has been organized into piles. Preventing that disposal is a combination of hysteria, willful ignorance, and the Not In My Backyard phenomenon:

“We think the debris is contaminated with Caesium and we do not trust the government tests,” she said. “There has been a lot of misleading information from officials so it is difficult now to trust any directive from above.”

Mrs Aki, who conceded that the city was probably evenly split for and against the decision, suggested that the waste should remain in the tsunami zone, and perhaps be stored in the exclusion zone around the stricken nuclear plant, which will be a dead zone for decades.

In other words, out of sight, out of mind. One foreigner on Twitter recently asked an open question (in Japanese) of the protesters: Do you really think the government is making all this up? Is this man betraying the public trust?

“We have tested all of our rubbish and not found any radiation,” said Sato Yoshinori, a spokesman for Ishinomaki council. “The amounts we found were background levels. So it is a shame that people perceive there is danger in a place like Ishinomaki, that does not have any radiation. It is a shame they do not see that.”

Ishinomaki is the source of the debris incinerated at Kitakyushu.

As to be expected, the usual concerns remain, and some of them are on the legit. The Nishinippon Shimbun quoted someone identified as being in the “agricultural and maritime industry” as saying:

“No matter how often the government insists that it is scientifically safe, it is possible that the reputation of our products will be harmed if that is not fully understood by the consumers.”

Then there was this from Saito Toshiyuki:

“It is a fact that radioactive material was detected in the fly ash, and the city’s target figures themselves are unclear.”

Mr. Saito is an attorney and an anti-nuclear power activist, but you probably guessed that already. The patter and the pattern are universal. That includes the implication that it’s a terrible, terrible outrage if everything everywhere isn’t absolutely perfect and pure and socially just at all times, and there are no leaky faucets in anyone’s lives.

Meanwhile,  a citizens’ group in Tokyo called (roughly) “National Referendum on Nuclear Power: Let’s All Decide Together”,  asked the metro district government today to pass a law to allow a local referendum.  You’ve also probably guessed what their preferred outcome would be.

That cranky old fart xenophobic right-wing nationalist creep Ishihara Shintaro, the metro district governor, replied briefly and to the point:

“That is a judgment the national government should calmly make.”

He has the ear and political friendship of Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru, who has emerged as the national leader of the nuclear hysteria faction. Perhaps Mr. Ishihara would consider playing the role of wise old uncle and lay some wisdom on him.

It has not escaped the notice of some Japanese that one man is behaving like an adult and the other is behaving like a child.

N.B.: For reason #21,947 demonstrating why I bang on so often about the lackwits assigned by the overseas English-language media to write about Japan, look carefully at the linked Telegraph article. On this website, I use the Japanese (and Chinese and Korean) custom of writing family names first and given names second. Most English-language media outlets, however, reverse them into the Western order. The names of the two people provided to the Telegraph’s correspondent were in the traditional Japanese order. That would be obvious to anyone who has spent about a month in Japan and gotten accustomed to people’s names.

Not the journo at the Telegraph, however. He refers to the woman as “Mrs. Aki”. That’s the equivalent of calling someone “Mrs. Debbie”. A closer look at that page shows that he is identifed as a “foreign correspondent” and Tweeting from China. There is no mention of whether he packed his Burberry trenchcoat for his grand East Asian adventure.

Afterwords:

Let’s continue the theme from the previous post, titled Cultural Notes.

The situation in the Tohoku region is bad enough, but it’s much worse in Haiti, more than two years after its earthquake. The emphasis is mine.

But two years later, over half a million people remain homeless in hundreds of informal camps, a majority of the tons of debris from destroyed buildings still lays where it fell, and cholera, a preventable disease, was introduced into the country and is now an epidemic killing thousands and sickening hundreds of thousands more. Haiti today looks like the earthquake happened two months ago, not two years.

Haitians ask the same question as the US Congress, “Where is the money?”

The authors think they have identified the problem.

The effort so far has not been based a respectful partnership between Haitians and the international community.

But the New York Times thinks real progress is being made:

Haitians have seen real progress in the last two years. About half of the 10 million cubic feet of quake debris has been removed from Port-au-Prince and other areas. More people have access to clean water in the capital than before the quake. With investment from a Korean garment maker, an industrial park is being built in the northeast, with the promise of 20,000 jobs.

They have a suggestion for speeding up the process:

A United Nations analysis showed that while many nations have been generous, particularly the United States, Brazil, Canada, Spain and France, almost all the money has gone to nongovernmental organizations and private contractors. To build Haitian capacity, that will have to change, and the commission can help — by giving guidance to Haiti’s ministries and monitoring their efforts.

But oddly, in the next paragraph, we see the answer to the charge that there’s hasn’t been a respectful partnership, and the reason the money isn’t going to the government:

President Martelly is a more engaged leader than his predecessor. In the fall, he announced a plan to house 30,000 residents of six tent cities with rental subsidies and new construction. More than a half-million Haitians remain in camps and it is not clear if he will take on powerful landowners to free up the land needed for rebuilding. He needs to abandon his focus on building an army. What Haiti needs is a professional, accountable police force.

If this president is more engaged, even though his focus is on building an army instead of cleaning up the rubble, we can only imagine what his predecessor must have been like. (Perhaps the threat of invasion from the Dominican Republic is greater than we realized.) We also can imagine the behavior of the local police.

Ah, but the human spirit remains triumphant in the face of all disasters. Here’s a glowing report on the response of some Haitians:

The metal figures standing like sentinels in the middle of an exhibit of contemporary Haitian art are created from a mishmash of scrap metal and found objects: nails, marbles, old shoes, bed springs, tire treads, hub caps, pieces of fans and other discards.

…The figures created from found objects were sculpted by Guyodo, Andre Eugene and Jean Herard Celeur, three members of the group Atis Rezistans, an artists’ collective living and working in downtown Port-au-Prince. The group has showcased its artwork and creative process in a mash-up of high art-meets-the developing world called “Ghetto Biennale,” which opened a month before the earthquake and returned last month.

Their work in “Haiti Kingdom of This World” exemplifies the exhibit’s theme of celebrating Haitian artists’ creativity and resourcefulness while challenging viewers to look beyond Haiti’s reputation for disorder, poverty and failure.

If I were so challenged, I’d return the challenge and ask why they thought it was so important to stage an art exhibit created from earthquake debris instead of temporarily suspending their artists’ collective after the earthquake and organizing volunteer groups to drag and drop into piles the crap that remains where it fell, enabling the NGOs and private contractors to get at it while Monsieur Le President is reviewing the troops and the police are busy shaking people down.

It’s worth reading that piece, by the way, if only for entertainment purposes. It contains enough adjectives, adverbs, and artsy-fartsy platitudes to choke a museum curator.

The Haitians do have one advantage over the Japanese, however. I doubt any of them are complaining about the environmental hazards of the cleanup operation or holding sit-ins in front of incineration sites.

*****

The Huffpo culture critic missed her chance to really impress her readers when she used the term “found objects” instead of the official Art jargon of objets trouvés.

Speaking of finding things, I found this video on YouTube of a performance by the son of my favorite Haitian singer, Coupé Cloué. Everything seems to be spic and span in his neck of the woods. His father chose that stage name, by the way, because it combines two French words used in Haiti as slang for the sexual act.

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

Cultural notes

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 29, 2012

THE daily circuit through the Internet turned up two comments about different cultures that share a common perspective. See if you agree. Here’s the first:

Culture is everything. That is a politically incorrect thought that can get you in trouble as much as we suspect it is true.  In other words, government, economics, and social policy are critical, but themselves are driven by the minute-to-minute culture of everyday people. Germans pick up trash; in Athens, Greeks toss it. Germans do not honk; Italians do not not honk. In Libya or Egypt the pedestrian is a target; in Switzerland he is considered perhaps your father or grandmother. A bathroom in Germany is where someone else uses it after you; in Greece or Mexico, it is where you pass on the distaste of using the facility to the sucker who follows you.

I watch fender benders a lot. In northern Europe, addresses and information are exchanged; south of Milan, shouts and empty threats of mayhem follow. When I check out of a German hotel, I know the bill reflects what I bought or used; when out of a Greek hotel, I dread all the nonexistent charges to appear, and a “50/50 split the difference settlement to be offered. Germans like to talk in the abstract and theoretical; with Greeks it is always “egô” in the therapeutic mode. I rent a car in Athens and expect charges for “dents” to appear; in Germany only if there are actual dents. Add all that up — and millions more of such discrepancies repeated millions of times over each hour — and you have one country that creates vast wealth and another that cons to land vast wealth it did not create.

And here’s the second:

The results of employing best practice were brought into stark relief when I first arrived in Japan and noticed everything worked. This was after boarding from Heathrow Airport where escalators were broken, floors dirty, and workers surly. Narita airport positively sparkled in contrast and this impression is continued throughout the country. Japan still has social capital so even the “dodgy” areas are nice and safe.

The Japanese pride themselves on performing their tasks to the best of their abilities whether CEO of a zaibatsu or FamilyMart sales assistant. This gives the worker purpose and pride for themselves while the air of competence and effort spreads a virtuous cycle among others. Compare this to its polar opposite – a unionised UK public sector worker such as those found in immigration, council offices, or perhaps worst of all the sprawling civil service complex in Longbenton, Tyneside. Here you find slothful, incompetent, indifference, petty jobsworths who care only about getting through the day with the minimum energy output until time arrives when a pension can be claimed.

The second fellow goes so far as to include a photograph of a Japanese convenience store. I tend to take things like that for granted; there’s one just like it a five-minute walk from my house. It would seem that not everyone in the G-whatever countries is so lucky.

Here’s the conclusion from the first post:

This week I am walking in German cities along the Rhine that were nearly leveled in 1945. Not long ago I visited Detroit, which was booming in 1945. The latter now looks like its own homegrown B-24s bombed it yesterday, the former as if they had been untouched in the war that Germans started. Ponder those interchanged fates, and why and how these respective American and German cities got to where they were in 1945, and then again to where they are now.

Most of the major Japanese cities were leveled, too. They didn’t stay that way either.

In 2000, my wife and I visited my parents in the U.S., and we took a two-day break for a side trip to New York. When we got back to my hometown, people asked her (through me) what surprised her the most. Her answer surprised even me: We were taking a walk near the hotel, and at a small intersection everyone ignored the traffic light and crossed the street. On the other side of the intersection two police cruisers were parked at the curb. The four officers were standing in the street chatting. Of course they didn’t even notice the jaywalkers. Why didn’t the police do anything, she wondered.

When I interpreted her answer, the laughter of the listeners contained as much incredulity as it did mirth.

The observation in the first passage about the Swiss considering pedestrians to be perhaps their father or grandfather also reminded me of Japan. I live in a quiet neighborhood in a small town, but in some places old ladies still cross the street whenever and wherever they feel like it, regardless of the traffic, assuming that people will stop for them.

People always do.

Posted in Social trends, Traditions | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Okinawa from the air

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 28, 2012

PEOPLE have written millions of words about the issue of the American bases on Okinawa (in Japan, anyway), but it is difficult to understand the meat of the issue from words alone.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. If that’s true, the following aerial photograph of Okinawa alone might be worth several million more words.

Posted in International relations, Military affairs, World War II | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Ichigen koji (106)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 28, 2012

一言居士

- A person who has something to say about everything

In particular, Europeans need to recognize the immense cohesive power of a society which elevates harmony and mutual obligation as its principles, as against confrontation and unbridled individualism.

European political thinkers do not understand this at all. For them, the opposite of individual responsibility is dependency and collectivism. Their ideas are still shaped by Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx. They may come to violently different conclusions about the role of the state, but all share the same diagnostic alliance about the state versus the individual.

The notions of family loyalty and harmony of local association and a network of duties and obligations within the group hardly come into European political philosophers’ writings.

- David Howell on Japan.  Baron Howell of Guildford is the deputy leader of the House of Lords and a Minister of State in the Foreign Office. He previously served as Secretary of State for Energy and later for Transport.

Posted in Quotations, Traditions | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The wolf is at the door

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 27, 2012

IT was almost the Aesop’s Fable in reverse: Officials have for so long been so little forthcoming with real information about the Fukushima nuclear disaster, some people wouldn’t believe them even if they were to tell the truth that the shepherd boy is warning about a fictitious wolf.

Other people, for reasons that are not clear, seem determined to create a situation which will manifest that wolf and bring him to the doorstep.

Most of the 30 (or 40, or 50, depending on the account) people who showed up for a good, old-time sit-in on Tuesday in the city of Kitakyushu were expressing honest, albeit uninformed, concerns. They came to block six trucks hauling 80 tons of debris created by last year’s disaster from Ishinomaki, Miyagi, for a trial incineration at the Hiagari facility. The demonstrators plopped down in front of the gates to prevent the trucks from entering, which they successfully did for more than eight hours. One even crawled under a truck. The police finally dispersed them, arresting two in the process. That cleared the way for another 21 trucks to arrive later that evening.

Officials said the first burning of the debris over three days at two locations in the city went ahead as scheduled. It was packed in 140 plastic bags each measuring two meters in diameter. The announced radiation count was less than 100 becquerels of radioactive cesium per kilogram. The health ministry’s lowest acceptable limit for radioactive cesium is 200 becquerels per kilogram of drinking water and 500 for vegetables.

The debris was mixed in a one-to-nine ratio with ordinary municipal refuse and incinerated in a method the city claims will remove more than 99.9% of the toxic material, even that contaminated by radioactive cesium. The city will then measure the radioactivity of the trucks and the equipment after the work is completed, and decide by mid-June whether to allow full-scale incineration to continue. If they agree, they will be the first municipality in western Japan to do so.

The small number of demonstrators is significant for two reasons. First, Kitakyushu was once a heavily industrialized city with serious pollution problems, but has won international recognition for converting itself into an “environmental city”. As a result, most residents do indeed trust them in matters of this sort. One 34-year-old woman griped about the demonstrators: “These people have a narrow viewpoint and think only of their immediate surroundings.” The city admitted, however, that they were negligent in promptly explaining the procedure to citizens’ groups and focusing on agriculture and fishery groups instead.

The low number is also significant because the Japan Revolutionary Communist League, AKA Chukakuha, wasn’t able to round up any more than that for the demo. Chukakuha is a revolutionary/terrorist outfit that arose in the late 60s/early 70s, when that sort of thing was in vogue. More than a hundred of its members have been arrested for murder (sometimes of themselves), assault, and homemade bomb production. They’re still around, though less active and with less coverage than before. One member fired a mortar at the guest house for heads of state at the 1986 Tokyo summit, and others set fire to the homes of public sector employees in Chiba in 2002/3. Here’s the JRCL English-language website, which gives you an insight into their avocation. Japanese-language ability is required to read one member’s report boasting of how they held up the incineration, however.

It’s said to be an “open secret” that Chukakuha were behind last year’s Energy Shift Study Conference, attended by then-Prime Minister Kan Naoto. Mr. Kan is no dupe, by the way; he’s hung out with people of this sort since his own days as a student demonstrator, and has spoken more than once of his sympathy for Zenkyoto’s “cultural revolution”.  Another fellow traveler is one of Japan’s leading punitive leftists, the head of the Social Democratic Party of Japan, Fukushima Mizuho. She and her unofficial husband have given legal advice to Chukakuha members, spoken at conferences organized by their members, supported some of their activities, and were (jointly) named as one of the most 100 influential people of the world last year by Time magazine for their anti-nuclear energy crusade. What, you hadn’t heard?

The news readers in this clip don’t offer any more information than you already know, but it’s worth watching to see how things went down. Where else in the world do policemen dressed in freshly pressed white shirts and neckties drag off demonstrators to the pig box?

Whistling for the wolf

While a certain amount of public hysteria about a nuclear power plant accident is to be expected, professor/author/alphablogger Ikeda Nobuo charges that the mass media in general and the Asahi group in particular are deliberately provoking it and making it worse. The Asahi group operates both a newspaper and a television network, and their political/social views are roughly similar to those of the New York Times in the U.S. and The Guardian in Britain.

Prof. Ikeda is scathing in his criticism of the Asahi, not for their general philosophy, but for their readiness to reverse their positions to enflame public opinion and benefit in the form of higher circulation/ratings. Once a strong editorial supporter of nuclear energy in the 1970s, the newspaper has shifted its stance over time and became a nuclear-free advocate after the Fukushima accident. He asserts that the newspaper’s approach is typical of behavior stretching back decades, and is reminiscent of their editorials and articles written to whip up martial spirit during the war. He quotes from an Asahi editorial written on 14 August 1945.

“There is no question that the atomic bomb has considerable power. Nonetheless, while all new weapons have power in the beginning, historical fact bears out that their power suddenly wanes when measures are eventually established against them….the opportunity for revenge on the enemy’s atrocities will arrive when first, the belief of the people burning within their breasts becomes a ball of fire that quietly hardens and bursts at once into flame.”

Note that the editorial was published after the two atomic bombings and Japan had already agreed to surrender unconditionally, but the newspaper was still talking about “revenge on the enemy’s atrocities”.

After Japan’s surrender the following day, the Asahi wrote an editorial saying that the country must establish “a nation of peace”. Since then, they have trumpeted the necessity to “defend the Peace Constitution”.

Prof. Ikeda then presents for comparison an editorial written by the newspaper’s Ono Hirohito calling for a nuclear power-free society that reverses their pro-nuclear stance:

“Isn’t declaring that we should examine whether or not to give up nuclear energy the same as saying the accident of 11 March didn’t occur? We should first make up our minds whether or not we should give up nuclear energy, and then confront the subsequent challenge of whether or not we are able to give it up. The Fukushima accident compels us to change our thinking in that way.”

Says the professor:

“It is eerie how closely this resembles the editorial of 14 August 1945. What they have in common is the approach of proclaiming a hardline policy based on an ideal without considering whether or not it is possible. During the war, they pandered to Imperial Headquarters, and after the defeat they reversed themselves and pandered to the GHQ. During the period of rapid growth, they pandered to the power companies and supported nuclear energy, and after the accident they reversed themselves and support a nuclear-free Japan. For the Asahi Shimbun, the Fukushima accident was the second defeat in the war.”

He deals with the behavior of the television network in a separate blog post:

“It is a simple matter to cast off a sense of shame, pander to fools, and boost ratings, as Asahi TV has done. It is the same as the Asahi Shimbun boosting its circulation during the war by writing of the “explosion of the ball of fire that is the people” to enflame public opinion.

“This is the fateful dilemma of mass society. Democracy is based on the premise that the people are wise, but in fact the people are emotional and short-sighted. In a national referendum, they would likely vote to give up nuclear energy and reduce taxes to zero. The people who believe that is true democracy have the intellectual facilities of a junior high school student.

“A consensus can be created by emotion, but results cannot be changed by emotion. The losses incurred by stopping nuclear power generation have exceeded JPY six trillion, which is already more than the damage from the accident at Fukushima reactor #1. Any large power blackouts that occur will likely cause immense human damage far greater than that of Fukushima. When that happens, one wonders if Asahi TV will align itself with the victims and strike the anti-establishment pose.”

The Asahi isn’t the only Japanese newspaper responsible for spreading paranoia. The EXSKF site (which enjoys a bit of paranoia itself) demonstrates how the Yomiuri Shimbun’s mishandling of technical information — beyond the comprehension of the average journo — has created the false impression that the Fukushima nuclear contamination is four times worse than that at Chernobyl. It isn’t, and the poster at the site provides and explains the correct calculations:

Cesium-137 released from Fukushima: 400,000 terabecquerels

Cesium-137 released from Chernobyl: 3,400,000 terabecquerels

Kansai Electric’s Oi nuclear reactors

Media wolf whistling is bad enough, but downright despicable is the use of nuclear energy as an issue by politicians and their associates who already enjoy broad public support. It is difficult to see how they can benefit from pandering. Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru has galvanized attention as the symbol of serious, bottom-up government reform in Japan, and his rise has ignited a renaissance of dynamic criticism and debate, particularly among those under the age of 50. Yet he has chosen over the past few months to detour into a call for a nuclear-free Japan with emotional appeals characterized by the absence of proposals for replacing the lost energy source. In particular, he is speaking out against resuming operations at the Oi nuclear power plant in his neck of the woods. Here’s an example of his rhetoric:

“If you say you’re putting peoples’ lives first (the slogan of the ruling Democratic Party), putting the peoples’ lives in danger by restarting the nuclear plants would not be possible.”

Kansai Electric Power, facing the worst potential power shortfalls of the country’s utilities if the plants are not restarted, has warned that it will have to raise rates otherwise. Osaka Prefecture Gov. Matsui Ichiro, Mr. Hashimoto’s primary political ally, retorted by threatening wolf-like behavior to oppose a rate hike:

“Mayor Hashimoto Toru and I can only resort to holding a sit-in in front of their offices in opposition.”

Kansai Electric says their thermal power fuel costs (oil, coal) were JPY 500 billion higher than last year (to compensate for the shutdown of the nuclear plants), and will amount to another JPY 400 billion this year. Their total fuel costs are double those of 2010, and they are warning of insolvency.

The City of Osaka is the largest single stockholder of Kansai Electric. Thus, the man who represents that ownership stake is behaving as if he would bankrupt the company. Ah, but one of his advisors has a solution. That would be “energy scientist” Iida Tetsunari, a member of various institutes, recipient of various government appointments, founder of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, and a promoter of the idea that Japan can go 100% renewable energy by 2050:

“At this rate, Kansai Electric will go bankrupt next year. The government should offset the fuel expenditures. That way they won’t have to raise rates.”

Save the facepalm — It gets worse. Former Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry high-flyer Koga Shigeaki, a University of Tokyo graduate, former principal administrator for OECD, radical reformer of the bureaucracy, and another key Hashimoto advisor has started dancing with the wolves.

Not so long ago, he knew better. Last year, he said that the biggest problem with nuclear energy was how to dispose of the fuel. Now he too wants to shut all the reactors down.

He attended a recent meeting of the Municipal Energy Strategy Council in Osaka and started an argument with a representative of the national Agency for Natural Resources, who was there to advocate restarting the nuclear plants.

Koga: “Just what is the reason you are thinking of restarting the reactors?

NRA rep: “At the minimum, we have confirmed their safety is such the reactor core would not be damaged to the extent of that which occurred during the Fukushima accident.”

Koga: “Don’t you understand any situations other than Fukushima?

And:

Koga: “METI’s ties with the power company are too close, so they are lenient. Your whole argument is based on the assumption that they will be restarted.”

NRA rep: “It’s harassment when you talk about close ties.”

Then they got emotional.

Still not time for a facepalm — That’s not the half of it. Here’s what Mr. Koga told the viewers of the Morning Bird TV program on the Asahi network on 17 May:

“I can only think that (Kansai Electric) will create a state of “power outage terrorism”. They’ll intentionally cause an accident at the thermal power plant, or stop operating it if an accident does occur, to create a panic due to a large power shortage. They’ll say their only choice is to restart the nuclear power plants.”

Over-the-top rhetoric in Osaka must be contagious. Another Hashimoto aide, former Finance Ministry official Takahashi Yoichi, also plays with fire in this excerpt from a column in Gendai Business Online:

“It has gotten difficult for the DPJ government after Mayor Hashimoto’s declaration that he and One Osaka will bring them down. The best chance for cutting him down to size, regional devolution, is already beyond their capability. In the end, the concern would be, though it is difficult to imagine, Kansai Electric suicide terrorism by creating an insufficient power supply during the peak period of summer use. What crosses the mind is the response of the Social Insurance Agency during the Abe administration when the subject of their privatization was broached. The agency released a stream of information that was fatal to the Abe administration (loss of pension records that occurred a decade before). The falsehoods of the “suicide bombing” of the Social Insurance Agency circulated at the time.

“Kansai Electric is a private sector company, and the company would collapse if they really did something like that. I don’t think it’s possible, but it is a fact they can control the supply of power, and there is a touch of uncertainty that rolling blackouts are not out of the question. That subject already has arisen. If the situation continues in which they have no measures for dealing with peak load (they probably can’t), then it is perhaps possible they might consider a little shock therapy, though I really don’t want to think about it.”

What some people really don’t want to think about is that these people are creating a wolf from a figment of their imaginations. Try this from Bloomberg:

“The highest reading reported on the health ministry’s website so far has come from a sample of spinach collected on March 18 from Hitachi city, 97 kilometers (60 miles) south of the plant. The spinach, which didn’t enter the food chain, contained 27 times the safe limit of radiation for I-131, according to the health ministry.

“The spinach contained 54,100 Bq/kg of I-131 and 1,931 Bq/kg of cesium. That means consuming 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of fresh spinach would yield a radiation exposure of 1.2 millisieverts, or half the average annual natural exposure from soil and cosmic rays, based on Bloomberg calculations using a formula posted on the website of Japan’s Food Safety Commission.”

Some of the wolf whistlers would probably accuse them of hiding something. Maybe a UN scientific committee is hiding something too. From Nature magazine:

“Few people will develop cancer as a consequence of being exposed to the radioactive material that spewed from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant last year — and those who do will never know for sure what caused their disease. These conclusions are based on two comprehensive, independent assessments of the radiation doses received by Japanese citizens, as well as by the thousands of workers who battled to bring the shattered nuclear reactors under control.

“The first report, seen exclusively by Nature, was produced by a subcommittee of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) in Vienna, and covers a wide swathe of issues related to all aspects of the accident. The second, a draft of which has been seen by Nature, comes from the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, and estimates doses received by the general public in the first year after the accident. Both reports will be discussed at UNSCEAR’s annual meeting in Vienna this week.

“The UNSCEAR committee’s analyses show that 167 workers at the plant received radiation doses that slightly raise their risk of developing cancer. The general public was largely protected by being promptly evacuated, although the WHO report does find that some civilians’ exposure exceeded the government’s guidelines. “If there’s a health risk, it’s with the highly exposed workers,” says Wolfgang Weiss, the chair of UNSCEAR. Even for these workers, future cancers may never be directly tied to the accident, owing to the small number of people involved and the high background rates of cancer in developed countries such as Japan.”

Or even MIT:

“A new study from MIT scientists suggests that the guidelines governments use to determine when to evacuate people following a nuclear accident may be too conservative.

“The study, led by Bevin Engelward and Jacquelyn Yanch and published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found that when mice were exposed to radiation doses about 400 times greater than background levels for five weeks, no DNA damage could be detected.

““Clearly these studies had to be done in animals rather than people, but many studies show that mice and humans share similar responses to radiation. This work therefore provides a framework for additional research and careful evaluation of our current guidelines,” Engelward says.

“It is interesting that, despite the evacuation of roughly 100,000 residents, the Japanese government was criticized for not imposing evacuations for even more people. From our studies, we would predict that the population that was left behind would not show excess DNA damage — this is something we can test using technologies recently developed in our laboratory,” she adds.”

Apart from the temporary inconvenience and discomfort in Japan’s ultra-sultry midsummer heat, keeping the nuclear power plants idle would also lead to the creation of an economic wasteland resembling the remains of the Fukushima facility — all due to the popular delusion of crowds encouraged by the self-aggrandizing behavior of wolverine media outlets and politicians disguised in Granny’s clothes.

It will take six weeks to get the Oi nuclear power plants running again in the Kansai area, where the shortage will be the most critical. That means it’s very close to being too late. Rather than find a secret air-conditioned room to hole up in, the editorialists and the politicians will more likely put on a show of making a virtue out of hardship. They did that in 1945, too.

*****

Got to watch out for those wolves. They sure can be sneaky.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, History, Mass media, Politics, World War II | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Ichigen koji (105)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, May 26, 2012

一言居士

- A person who has something to say about everything

Politics until now has been a world in which policy has been neglected in favor of “I like that guy, so I’ll ally with him,” and “I can’t stand that guy, so I’ll drive him out.” Policies and beliefs are nonchalantly changed one after the other for the sake of political crises.  Unless we deliver ourselves from that sort of politics, Japan will never improve.

- Matsuda Koji, upper house member from Your Party

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Thanks for nothing, Mr. Keynes

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 25, 2012

THE Wall Street Journal has a brief editorial with that title (sort of), emphasizing once again that the experience of Japan should put to rest forever the idea that it is worthwhile for a government to apply the theories of John Maynard Keynes:

But since the 1980s bubble burst, Japan has been closest to a sustainable upturn only when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi pursued genuine structural reforms. With his successors backtracking from that agenda, Tokyo is back to its old spend-and-spend ways and all it has to show for it is another debt downgrade.

The world’s formerly second-largest economy stands as a rebuke to those who argue Keynesian sprees help unleash private-sector-led growth down the road. Japan is a long way down that newly built, and rebuilt and rebuilt-again road and, as the latest quarter shows again, the country is still waiting for the private growth to materialize.

Finally, a recognition in the English-language media of the Koizumi contribution, albeit a fleeting one. If the stars align in a once-in-a-millennium phenomenon similar to that which resulted in the eclipse earlier this week, the upcoming meeting of the rehabilitated Ozawa Ichiro with Prime Minister Noda might also be of some assistance. Rumor has it that Mr. Ozawa will agree to accept the Noda tax increase plans on the condition of sharp cutbacks in government spending. There is no word, however, as to what constitutes “sharp”, whether Mr. Noda would be amenable, whether he could convince the rest of the party to go along if he were, or whether any cuts would be vitiated by the famed Japanese bureaucratic rhetoric. That’s why a once in a millennium alignment is required.

The highest hurdle among the potential obstacles might be the prime minister. Noda Yoshihiko has self-identified as a Third Wayer, and has actually said there are times that “equality” (as in equality of economic outcomes) has to be given priority to liberty.

Such is the fascisto-progressive mindset, though Mr. Noda’s is just a slightly more concentrated mix than the diluted variety practiced by the LDP over the years. (The arrogance masquerading as fairness required to even make that claim, and to assume that one is a member of the elite who knows the unknowable and is capable of exercising the authority to decide when, how, and to what extent that equality should be compelled, is stupefying, but not atypical.)

Speaking of the fascisto-progressive mindset brings us back to Keynes. Jeffrey Tucker on the Mises Economics Blog quotes the man himself:

As he wrote in the 1936 foreword to the German edition of The General Theory: “Nevertheless the theory of output as a whole, which is what the following book purports to provide, is much more easily adapted to the conditions of a totalitarian state, than is the theory of production and distribution of a given output produced under conditions of free competition and a lance measure of laissez-faire.”

Mr. Tucker comments:

I can easily imagine his dispassionately narrating events in a Gulag, justifying every horror with a pseudo-scientific rationale made up on the spot.

Well of course.  Keynes was one of the directors of the British Eugenics Society from 1937 to 1944, a period that overlaps the rule of some other eugenicists on the European continent. He later said that eugenics was “the most important, significant and, I would add, genuine branch of sociology which exists.”

The politics, sociology, and economics behind this are all of a piece. Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek quotes David Malpass explaining the governing idea behind Friederich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom:

Contrary to much misunderstanding, Hayek never argued that the slightest deviation from laissez-faire capitalism launches a society on an unstoppable march toward tyranny.  Instead, he reasoned that tyranny is the inevitable result of government policies aimed at preventing market competition from ever threatening anyone’s economic prospects.  As long as voters demand that government protect them from all downsides of economic change, governments can oblige them only by shutting down, one after another, all avenues for economic change.  Competition; entrepreneurship; innovation; consumer sovereignty; workers’ freedom to change or to quit their jobs; even changes in demographics.  Government must obliterate these and all other sources of change if no one is to be exposed to the risk of losing a job or of having her wages or benefits cut.

There’s no excuse for prolonging the miserable charade any longer. A century, give or take a decade, is long enough. Japan is an example of the least worst that can happen.

N.B.: WSJ articles have a tendency to disappear quickly behind a paywall. Click quick!

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

The sky’s the limit

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 25, 2012

EARLIER this week, Japanese politicos filled their Twitter litter boxes with tweets of chirping delight about their VIP preview visit to the Tokyo Skytree, which opened to the public on Tuesday. Now the world’s largest tower, Skytree will be used for television and radio broadcasts. As with the tower it replaces — the Tokyo Tower — it is also expected to become a tourist destination and a symbol of the city.

The Christian Science Monitor and others, however, couple the news with the observation that building projects of this immensity might also be an indicator of impending economic decline. It’s based on a theory called the Skyscraper Index, and they explain it this way:

The skyscraper index works because developers tend to make ambitious gambles with huge new towers at the point of the business cycle when interest-rate and price signals can get distorted, wrote Mark Thornton, a senior fellow at the Mises Institute, in a 2005 research paper.

On the Mises Institute website, Mr. Thornton adds:

It is a broadcasting and observation tower and so it does not qualify as a skyscraper and therefore it does not signal a global economic crisis. However, with regional records being set in the Pacific Rim, China, India, and Europe, as well as a new world record skyscraper in development in Saudi Arabia, it reinforces the warning signals from the Skyscraper Index.

Here’s the Wikipedia explanation, which in this case is acceptable as something other than a collection of links. When Mr. Thornton refers to skyscraper development in China, he’s talking about the developments described in this article, which contains the following quote:

Investors should therefore pay particular attention to China – today’s biggest bubble builder with 53% of all the world’s skyscrapers under construction…

China will complete 53% of the 124 skyscrapers under construction over the next six years, expanding the number of skyscrapers in Chinese cities by a staggering 87%. China’s skyscrapers are not only increasing in number – it now has 75 completed skyscrapers above 240m in height – but the average height of the skyscrapers that it is building is also increasing as past liquidity fuels the construction boom.

For a more visually arresting and concentrated report on the Chinese high-rise boom, try this video report from Reuters. (I wanted to embed the video, but couldn’t figure out how to appease the cranky WordPress software.) This is not your average uptick in construction activity.

That would explain the data points on this chart of cement consumption from Goldman Sachs via ZeroHedge:

*****

George Gershwin composed the theme music for this manic erection of phallic cement and steel long ago — little more than a year into the Great Depression. His working title was Rhapsody in Rivets, suggesting his inspiration was the skyscrapers sprouting in the rocky soil of Manhattan during the Roaring 20s. The final title was the Second Rhapsody.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, China, Science and technology | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Ichigen koji (104)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 25, 2012

一言居士

- A person who has something to say about everything

No one in the mass media can read an academic paper. Not only are they too busy, they have no specialized knowledge.  Everything they know is what they’ve heard.  If you work in the news department for five years, you turn into an idiot (literally, アホ).

What I realized from working in television for 15 years is that television is a waste of time.  The best thing about quitting the network was that I don’t have to watch television anymore.

- Ikeda Nobuo, university professor, author, and blogger. He was employed at the quasi-public broadcaster NHK, spending part of that time as a program director. He says he resigned when it came time for promotion to a management position and he discovered it wouldn’t be possible to continue his involvement with program production.

Posted in Mass media, Quotations | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Just deserts

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 24, 2012

Upon a pillory – that al the world may see / A just desert for such impiety.

- Warning Faire Women (1599)

IF it were possible to bestow a person with a medal for services rendered to society, pin the medal to his chest, cover his eyes with a blindfold, stick a final cigarette in his mouth, and stand him against a wall to be executed by firing squad, Public Enemy/Hero #1 would be Julian “Wikileaks” Assange. While his behavior is undoubtedly execrable by any standard, we are also undoubtedly better off for knowing some of the information he was responsible for revealing. Much that information demonstrates the contempt the international political oligarchy has for the people they rule. Some of that information involves the Japan-U.S. security alliance.

Recall that in the summer of 2009, Hatoyama Yukio and the Democratic Party of Japan made the specific promise during their lower house election campaign to tear up the agreement with the Americans and move the Marine air base at Futenma in Okinawa outside of the prefecture “at a minimum”, and ideally outside the country altogether. Negotiations for dealing with the base began after Marines raped a schoolgirl near there in 1995.

To briefly recapitulate: The United States governed Okinawa from 1945 to 1972, even though the Allied occupation ended in 1952. It took 20 more years for the Americans to give Okinawa back.

Cross my heart and hope to die!

It would be entertaining to hear someone deny the argument that they still occupy it. The Ryukyus account for 0.6% of Japan’s land area, but host 75% of American military facilities in the country. Those bases occupy 18% of Okinawa’s land area. Roughly 70% of the people on the country’s four main islands support the military alliance with the United States, compared to only 10% of the Okinawans. (A higher percentage is willing to put up with it for the economic benefits.) More than 50% of Okinawans think the unwillingness of the rest of the country to either reduce their burden or accept American military facilities themselves is a form of discrimination. That makes it the ultimate manifestation in Japan of the Not In My Back Yard phenomenon.

The American military is stationed in the country for Japan’s “defense”, but Futenma is a Marine air base. Marines attack; they don’t defend.

When negotiations began with the Clinton Administration, there was an American promise to return Futenma to Japan (who built the first air base there during the war) in five to seven years. That somehow morphed into a project to build a new airbase in northern Okinawa.

There are four directly elected lower house seats in Okinawa Prefecture. Before the election, two seats were held by the then-ruling LDP, one by the Social Democrats, and one by the People’s New Party. Buoyed by the anti-LDP sentiment nationwide, the Aso government’s use of the Koizumian two-thirds lower house majority to push through the Guam Transfer Agreement, and the DPJ promise to move Futenma, the DPJ snatched those two LDP seats in the 2009 election. They didn’t run any candidates in the other two districts; the incumbents were members of parties that were part of their alliance and which joined the ruling coalition.

Several things became apparent within days after Mr. Hatoyama took office. Among them were that he had no idea what he was doing, neither he nor his party could be trusted to keep any of their campaign promises, and he had no business holding any executive position whatsoever, much less the prime minister of Japan at a turning point in the country’s political and governmental history.

To telescope a long story, two months after he opened the fall session of the Diet with a speech at the end of October 2009, he couldn’t keep his own story straight about his government’s plans for the Futenma base or their negotiations with the Americans. Statements made in the morning became inoperative before the end of the day. He would decide before the end of the year and then he put it off until May. He famously asked Barack Obama to trust him, and people wondered what it was he could be trusted to do. By early January, the Japanese media already assumed that his days as prime minister were numbered. His support numbers were in free fall after he had squandered both his honeymoon period and one of the most golden of opportunities ever available to a new government and its leader.

By May 2010, Mr. Hatoyama confirmed what had been obvious since the beginning of the year when he announced that Futenma would stay in Okinawa as originally planned. He traveled to Okinawa himself to apologize to the governor:

“I tried to do different things, but I came face to face with the difficulty of the actual problem of (moving) everything outside the prefecture.”

Mr. Hatoyama resigned at the end of the month after one of the shortest terms and with one of the lowest support ratings in postwar Japanese history.

The Beans are Spilled

One year ago this month, Wikileaks released American governmental cables sent from Japan to the U.S. about the Futenma discussions. They didn’t generate much comment, even in the English-language media, because the focus of Japan-related news was still the Tohoku disaster of two months before.

That information made Mr. Hatoyama and his government look even worse, as difficult as it is to imagine. Try this account from the Economist:

LESS than a month after a new government took office in Japan in September 2009, American officials talked their Japanese counterparts through a longstanding frustration: stalled plans to build a new airbase for American marines on the southern island of Okinawa. According to confidential minutes of the meeting sent to Washington, DC by the American embassy in Tokyo, leaked by WikiLeaks, Kurt Campbell, an assistant secretary of state, said a new airstrip was necessary because of China’s growing military strength. But that could not be discussed publicly, “for obvious reasons”.

A few months later Mr Campbell went further, according to another cable. Because of potential threats from North Korea, China and elsewhere, America and Japan faced “the most challenging security environment” in 50 years. However, he said the messages to the public often glossed over that reality. Presumably that too was to avoid offending China, even though it would have helped Okinawans to understand why the new facility is deemed so important.

And:

The WikiLeaks cables show that the number of marines and their dependents slated for removal to Guam has been inflated in order to soften opposition. (The 2009) agreement mentions the removal of about 8,000 marines and 9,000 dependents. But an American embassy cable in 2009 says that when the plan was formulated in 2006, “both the 8,000 and 9,000 numbers were deliberately maximised to optimise political value in Japan.” Okinawa officials suspect that the number of Guam-bound marines may be as few as 3,000—if they go at all.

When it came to power in 2009, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, which had opposed the relocation plan in opposition, came under intense pressure from Washington to push ahead with it. American officials urged the new government not to discuss alternatives in public, warning of a strong American reaction if it did, according to WikiLeaks.

The Eurasia Review Newsletter provided more details in an article by Rajaram Panda. ERN deserves a milder form of the treatment appropriate for Assange: They should be commended for presenting additional information and then kicked in their backsides for entrusting the article to Mr. Panda, who combines a tendency to exaggerate with an ignorance of Japanese politics remarkable even for non-Japanese who write about the country.

The article begins:

In a startling revelation, the US cables posted on the whistleblower website WikiLeaks said that, in 2009, the US had warned the then Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio about Japan’s wavering policies on bilateral ties.

It doesn’t take them long to screw it up:

When Hatoyama took office in September 2009, Japanese people believed that he was a sincere but helpless politician who was unable to fight the influence of the US.

Not one word after the comma in that sentence is true. No one knew how he would deal with American influence, and he gave every indication beforehand that he intended to create some distance in bilateral relations. While it is true that some view him as sincere, it is also true that they view as childishly naive the few policies he’s sincere about.

The revealed documents now show that Hatoyama and the DPJ had lied to the Japanese people during the 2009 election campaign. The DPJ and the Japanese government officials were never committed to relocating the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma outside of Okinawa Prefecture, as the revealed documents indicate.

That’s true, but only in an interpretative sense. The American arm twisting of the DPJ does not seem to have begun until after the election.

Between 2009 and early 2010, Hatoyama and his officials conveyed to their US counterparts that Japan would seek alternatives to the 2006 Agreement to relocate Futenma to the Henoko district of Nago in Okinawa Prefecture. However, in a secret pact, they said that Japan will honour the 2006 Agreement if the US rejected the proposed alternative.

The Obama administration knew early on that the Hatoyama administration would go along with the 2006 Agreement as long as the US continued to reject any alternative. Hatoyama had secretly said this to the US six months before he decided to break his promise to the people to relocate the base outside Okinawa.

Six months before he announced that he broke his promise was in December 2009, post-election and post-arm twisting.

The US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific affairs, Kurt Campbell, complained in October 2009 that Hatoyama told his Chinese and South Korean counterparts in Beijing that Japan depended on the US too much. Campbell told Japanese Parliamentary Defence Secretary Akihisa Nagashima that such remarks “would create a crisis in US-Japan relations… Imagine the Japanese response if the US government were to say publicly that it wished to devote more attention to China than Japan.”

We don’t have to imagine the Japanese response, because we know what it is — official sycophancy. The U.S. government has been devoting more attention to China than Japan without saying it publicly for the past two decades.

Now they don’t bother to hide it. This week the U.S. government allowed China the exclusive privilege of purchasing U.S. debt directly from the Treasury, without having to buy the bonds through Wall Street brokers and pay their commissions. The Chinese are now the leading American debt underwriters. Japan formerly starred in the role of Number One Sponge and still buys nearly the same amount as China, but they’ve never gotten the star treatment.

As Mark Steyn frequently points out, the Americans will be paying enough interest on the debt held by China to finance the annual outlays for the People’s Liberation Army by 2016. Meanwhile, Japan pays far and away the highest vigorish of any overseas country to support American troops stationed on its territory. This is justified in part by the need to defend Japan from China.

Finally, a contemporary use of the word “bizarre” that isn’t hyperbole.

But that’s unless the Chinese are actually unloading on the secondary market what they buy from the Treasury to satisfy their desire to get out of US debt and into gold while satisfying US demands to buy more of its debt. (There’s another interesting Wikileak in there, too.)

The Japanese people now feel that Hatoyama’s US policy was fraught with duplicity and backroom deals. Being the Land Minister, Maehara was dabbling with foreign affairs and was playing a crucial role in handling Japan’s US policy.

He’s speaking here of Maehara Seiji, who was involved with the discussions. Mr. Panda thinks that Mr. Maehara’s participation was due to his connections with the American government, and were improper because he was the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport. He is not aware that Maehara Seiji held another Cabinet portfolio at the time — Minister of State for Okinawa and the Northern Territories. It was his business to be involved.

In other words, Mr. Panda doesn’t know the A of the ABCs of Japanese politics/government.

The Obama administration was aware that there was a section of politicians in Japan who sought distance from Washington. Even many Japanese people started to view Japan’s policies as being dictated by the US and described their own country as “America’s baby”. In particular, right-wing nationalists vouched for reducing reliance on the US and argued that Japan must not be afraid to take a confrontational position in foreign policy.

“Started to view”? That view started among many Japanese people on 16 August 1945. And if there is a certified demonstration of lazy thinking/no thinking/no real experience among people writing about Japan, it is their wishful thinking about the effect on modern politics of “right-wing nationalists”, whatever either of those debased terms mean nowadays. The psychopundits either overlook or never saw that the same arguments attributed to those unenlightened and unintelligent dregs of society have been made even more stridently by the left-wing internationalists in Japan. The leading figures of the Democratic Party government are among the country’s most well-known left-wing internationalists.

The Obama administration is believed to be instrumental in Hatoyama’s ouster from office because of the latter’s inept handling of the Futenma base relocation issue.

Not in the US and Japan of Planet Earth. Last rites were already being prepared for Hatoyama Yukio a few months after he took office, for a galaxy of reasons. Futenma was the coup de grace. People are not without their suspicions about American string-pulling in the Japanese government, but the Democratic Party did not want to go into the July 2010 upper house elections led by a man whose support ratings were maxing out at 19% in the polls.

The inept handling of the Futenma base relocation issue? Mr. Hatoyama broke his pre-election promises — which of course the U.S. knew about — to do what the United States wanted to do. This doesn’t make much sense.

Besides, Campbell complained in October 2009 about Hatoyama’s policy towards China and South Korea. At the Nuclear Summit in April 2010 held at Washington, Obama snubbed Hatoyama and weeks later Hatoyama resigned and was replaced by the more US acceptable Kan Naoto. Kan immediately confirmed that the Futenma base issue would proceed according to the US desire. No wonder, when the leaks surfaced, he declined to comment and said that the announcement of information was “not legitimate”.

Kan Naoto is one of the leading left-wing internationalists of the DPJ, though he is also known as a trimmer most interested in power. Japanese arms were almost certainly twisted to cause the DPJ to cry uncle, but the crying had already happened before Mr. Kan’s turn arrived. As deputy prime minister, he had a ringside seat.

It is too soon to assess how the public will digest the dishonesty of the DPJ and how the Japanese government succumbed to the US pressure to follow its line of thinking. The opposition is likely to mount a campaign again calling for Kan’s resignation. Maehara was seen as an agent of the US and the Japanese people are unlikely to forgive him.

It will always be too soon for Mr. Panda to offer analysis about Japan. None of this happened. The opposition mounted a campaign calling for Kan’s resignation, but none of the many compelling reasons had anything to do with the United States. Mr. Maehara has been relegated to the sidelines, not because he was seen as an “agent of the US”, but because he’s viewed as an opportunistic lightweight with an unexplained affinity for North Korea.

Japan-US ties are too complex and its real value cannot be evaluated from this single incident.

Nor can they be evaluated by a drive-by observer lacking field-specific knowledge. The only solution for dealing with people such as Mr. Panda is to persecute them to the fullest extent of the Internet Law of the Jungle.

Finally, here’s how the Ryukyu Shimpo, an Okinawan newspaper, handled with the revelations:

According to U.S. official telegrams disclosed by WikiLeaks, while the DPJ administration was seeking the relocation outside of Okinawa Prefecture of the U.S. Marine Corps now based at Futenma, a staff member of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan suggested to United States government officials that they should not compromise on the Futenma relocation plan. The cable indicates that both governments inflated the numbers involved in U.S. Marine Forces Transfer Plan from Okinawa to Guam. The Roadmap for Realignment Implementation agreed to by both governments in the spring of 2006 states that 8000 Marine Corps personnel and 9000 dependents would move to Guam, but leaked telegrams indicate that these numbers were inflated to optimize their political value.

And:

The cables also include an example of a Japanese career bureaucrat recommending to United States officials that they stay on course with the Roadmap for Futenma relocation after the regime change to the Democratic Party of Japan. At an unofficial lunch meeting October 12, 2009, Director General of Bureau of Defense Policy Shigenobu Takamizawa is reported as warning the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt M. Campbell “against premature demonstration of flexibility in adjusting the realignment package.” The cables also reported that a counselor in charge of political affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan made the basically the same remark to his counterpart of the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. The cables therefore indicate that career bureaucrats moved to prevent the Hatoyama administration from seeking the relocation of the facilities at Futenma outside of Okinawa.

This is more evidence, by the way, that the Japanese bureaucracy considers itself to be the permanent ruling class of Japan. That exonerates neither Mr. Hatoyama nor the DPJ, however. Another of their campaign promises was to bring the bureaucracy under control, and they have the authority to do so if they choose to use it. But enjoying the perquisites of political status is more attractive than exercising that authority and touching off a de facto civil war that few of them have the ability to contest.

Diplomatic cables from this period show that despite the DPJ’s formal efforts to find a new candidate site for Futenma, the United States from an early stage thought the Hatoyama administration would go along with the 2006 agreement as long as the United States continued to reject any alternatives.

On Dec. 10, the U.S. Embassy inTokyo dispatched a cable that was classified “secret” and for American eyes only.

The cable said, “Five DPJ Cabinet members (Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa and Maehara) met on the evening of December 8 and agreed that they could not accept moving forward with the Futenma Relocation Facility (FRF) because of opposition from the DPJ’s coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party.”

According to the document, Maehara explained to Roos that Japan would seek a number of alternatives that might be acceptable to both the United States and the Okinawa people.

But the cable shows that Maehara also said, “If the U.S. does not agree to any alternative to the existing FRF plan, the DPJ would be prepared to go ahead with the current relocation plan and let the coalition break up if necessary after Golden Week (April 29 to May 5 in 2010).”

Thank you, Julian Assange.

But there’s more:

On Dec. 21, 2009, then Vice Foreign Minister Mitoji Yabunaka had a lunch meeting with (US Ambassador) Roos. Their discussion was included in a cable classified as “secret.”

Yabunaka referred to the Dec. 17 meeting in Copenhagen between Hatoyama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The cable has Yabunaka saying, “Prime Minister Hatoyama confirmed to the secretary in Copenhagen that if the (Japan) review of the FRF alternatives to Henoko did not yield viable proposals, (Japan) would return to the 2006 FRF agreement.”

Immediately after his meeting with Clinton, Hatoyama told reporters accompanying him: “It would be very dangerous to force through (the 2006 agreement). We have begun efforts to think about new alternatives.”

However, the cable has Yabunaka referring to those media reports as “inaccurate.”

And:

On Jan. 26, then Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yorihisa Matsuno met with embassy officials. A cable classified as “confidential” and titled, “Hatoyama confidante on Futenma, Nago election,” described Matsuno as “Hinting at current Kantei (Prime Minister’s Office) thinking.”

Matsuno is further quoted as saying, “Hatoyama and the Okinawa Working Group will have to consider ‘for form’s sake’ Futenma options outside of Okinawa, but the only realistic options are to move Futenma to Camp Schwab or another ‘existing facility.’”

The cable also has Matsuno saying, “The Camp Schwab landfill option was ‘dead.’”

Turning over a New Loop

A flood of media features timed for the 40th anniversary of the reversion of Okinawa to Japan and the related events washed over news media consumers last week. Hatoyama Yukio went back to Okinawa for the first time since he dined on crow with the Okinawa governor in May 2010, and delivered a speech at a Ginowan hotel.

Here’s how he started the speech:

“I love all Okinawans.”

You’re such a lovely audience!

He continued by whining:

“I wanted to let some air into the (base) issue. I wanted to make some progress during my time in office, somehow.”

Before he appalled the nation:

“I have not been able now to satisfy the emotion of “outside the prefecture, at a minimum”. I can clearly state that one who has not satisfied that emotion does not fully understand the emotions of everyone in Okinawa. I intend to have that belief always.”

Everyone in Japan knew what he meant despite the vacuum-packed circumlocution and euphemism. All the headlines in the print media trumpeted the Hatoyama claim that he still supported moving the base outside the prefecture.

There was remarkably little anger, incidentally. People long ago realized he’s an eternal adolescent (most closely resembling a junior high school girl) with too little sense and too much money who had no business becoming prime minister. They intend to have that belief always.

One of his excuses was that he wasn’t able to do devote all his attention to the issue because he was too busy putting together a budget, despite having thousands of subordinates at his disposal. Nobody believed that, either, coming as it did from a man who preferred to attend galas with his trophy wife, the royalty of showbiz, and the Imperial household rather than attend to the business of government.

There was also the usual externalization of the internal fog:

“My thinking got too far ahead of itself, and I wasn’t able to fully convince many people.

“When I think about it, I wonder if it was an unreasonable course. When I think about it now, that’s what I think.”

Nonaka Hiromu, the chief cabinet secretary under LDP Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo in 2000, attended the same event as Mr. Hatoyama. When it was his turn to speak, he looked directly at the former prime minister and said:

“Men are supposed to have a sense of shame. Did you come so casually to Okinawa to dishonor (literally, hurl mud at) the Okinawans?”

Later interviewed by the Ryukyu Shimpo, he added:

“A person who stands on the dais and dishonors the Okinawans makes my blood boil (literally, steams my guts).”

Mr. Hatoyama was his oblivious self when he too was interviewed by the Ryukyu Shimpo the next day:

“It was natural to raise the issue of moving the base outside the prefecture.”

By this time he had found a new excuse:

“The Defense and Foreign Ministry bureaucracy struggled to decide how to return the base to Henoko (in line with the pre-existing agreement). They introduced the logic through the Americans that it would be inappropriate to take the base outside the prefecture, and only Henoko was acceptable.”

He’s confirming the Wikileaks revelations about Messrs. Takamizawa and Yabunaka above, and indirectly contradicting Mr. Kan’s denial. All he had to do to end the malarkey was put his foot down, but there wasn’t enough time to put him through a series of testosterone injections.

*****

After His Majesty’s Firing Squad in the Kingdom of Just Deserts dispatches Assange, it will be the turn of Hatoyama Yukio to stand blindfolded against the wall for his high political crimes and misdemeanors. Pinned to his lapel will be a medal for the service he rendered his country by using his mother’s money to buy the party that ended single-party rule in Japan.

*****

Meanwhile:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that 51% of Likely U.S. Voters now believe the United States should remove all its troops from Western Europe and let the Europeans defend themselves. Only 29% disagree, but another 20% are undecided.

That number will probably continue to grow and extend to Asia, if it already doesn’t.

*****

Mr. Hatoyama isn’t the only one who wanted to go back to Okinawa. I’ll bet the other guys had more fun, though.

Posted in Government, History, International relations, Military affairs, Politics | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Last laugh

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 21, 2012

DURING the global financial crisis of 2008, then-Prime Minister Aso Taro was one of many leaders around the world who chose to further damage their economies by urging budget-busting stimulus expenditures.

Current Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko was a relatively unknown backbencher in those days. Straining to be clever, he referred to Mr. Aso on his website in December that year as Baramaki Obaka, in reference to the government’s contributions to the IMF. Roughly translated, baramaki is pork-barrel spending, and obaka is big dummy. The similiarity in the pronunciation to the name of Barack Obama, who had been elected president the month before, was intentional, though it was not a reference to Mr. Obama personally.

In the Diet today, Mr. Noda said, “That was not an appropriate expression. I must apologize.”

The prime minister was answering a question put by LDP Secretary-General Ishihara Nobuteru. Mr. Ishihara noted the substantial contributions the Noda administration has made to the EU bailout, and asked, “How are you any different from the Aso administration?”

Ordinarily, that would have been the last laugh, but the amount of money of the mind Japan has firehosed other countries with during both administrations isn’t a laughing matter — particularly for Japanese taxpayers.

The Noda administration wants to raise the consumption tax AND the income tax AND the inheritance tax AND the gasoline tax AND the capital gains tax AND eliminate business tax breaks, while being extraordinarily generous with foreign aid of various kinds, from forgiving Myanmar debt to bailing out European banks.

Fiduciary responsibility? It is to laugh.

Further, Mr. Ishihara is threatening to introduce a no-confidence motion in the lower house unless the government submits its consumption tax increase legislation. That seems strange, until one remembers that Mr. Noda is talking about delaying the bill so he can patch up the differences with Ozawa Ichiro and the anti-tax faction within his own party AND the loud rumors of discussions between the DPJ and the LDP to create a grand coalition for a tax increase. That would give them enough time to screw the public before they both get neutered in the upper and lower house elections that must be held by next summer, resulting in their electile dysfunction.

No one will be laughing at that pratfall.

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

Ichigen koji (103)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 20, 2012

一言居士

- A person who has something to say about everything

I still clearly remember the words of (then) Democratic Party President Ozawa Ichiro when he proposed a grand coaltion to the Fukuda Yasuo administration (in November 2007). I was LDP secretary-general at the time. “The Democratic Party,” he said, “lacks both the ability and the qualities to lead a government. You must allow them into the Cabinet to study.” The idea of a grand coalition foundered due to Democratic Party internal opposition, but looking at them now as the ruling party, it is just as Mr. Ozawa said.

- Ibuki Bunmei

Posted in Politics, Quotations | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Hashimoto Toru (7): Exasperation

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, May 19, 2012

OSAKA Mayor Hashimoto Toru might be Japan’s Most Exasperating Person, if such a title existed. As often as he says or does something that makes the advocates of small and sensible government feel like firing confetti from cannons, he just as often says or does something that gets people thinking about dressing him in tar and feathers. Here are two examples of each.

Culture

One of the many candidates for Exhibit A in the trial against public sector profligacy is the redistribution of other people’s money to buy art. Some people seem to believe cultural activity would cease to exist, or not exist at all, unless The State writes the checks.

When serving as Osaka Prefecture governor, Mr. Hashimoto ended the annual JPY 450 million handout to the Osaka Century Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra was established in 1989 and operated by a foundation with a 2005 budget of JPY 700 million. Solvency was a problem despite the largesse, and people began discussing the possibility of merging the four Osaka area orchestras to save money. The governor started paring in 2008 and eliminated the subsidy last year.

Despite the savings, the response from some quarters was that the philistine Hashimoto was hindering the promotion of culture.

Frédéric Bastiat had an answer for that — and many other things besides — in an 1850 pamphlet titled The Law. It has never been bettered:

“Every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.”

Some people make the excuse that the civilized Europeans, those pillars of fiscal sanity, have state-supported culture, and that we too will become just as civilized if we allow government to pay for it all.

Roger Kimball, the editor of the New Criterion, a magazine of culture/arts/politics criticism, had an answer for that — and many other things besides:

“Have you taken a look a Europe and its state-supported culture recently? Really, this objection is almost too embarrassing to answer. What makes you think that state involvement of culture leads to anything other than the growth of the state and its insinuation into areas of life they have no business being in? Take your time.”

Mr. Hashimoto was less elegant in his rebuttal, but no less accurate. During the debate conducted over orchestra funding in 2009 at a business planning meeting for the prefecture, one conscientious objector said that the government should recognize its responsibility. Rebutting logic of that sort doesn’t require elegance, so Mr. Hashimoto said:

“If you want to keep the orchestra, your employees should join a fan club.”

The orchestra survived, though there were no reports on whether a fan club was formed. It’s now called the Japan Century City Orchestra. The Kinki Sangyo Credit Union in Osaka announced they’ll pick up JPY 200 million of their tab.

Now Mr. Hashimoto has to do it again as Mayor of Osaka. The Osaka Philharmonic receives a JPY 110 million subsidy from the city government, and the city’s project team looking into government expenditures is recommending a 25% cut. They’re also thinking of eliminating entirely the subsidy to The Osaka Municipal Symphonic Band, which operates an outdoor concert venue near Osaka Castle. The municipal band, formed in 1923, is the oldest orchestra in Japan and the only one affiliated with a local government.

The welfare queens started moaning en chorale. The choirmaster is composer/songwriter Miyagawa Akira, who organized a concert to support the band with 40 other musicians. Said Mr. Miyagawa:

“It would be reckless if the city decides to simply end the subsidy with no concern for its image.”

But even he understands that carte blanche no longer applies. He allowed that the municipal band needed to change “partially” to get public support.

As Mr. Hashimoto tweeted after the philharmonic found a sponsor, ”Culture will also have to do its share.”

They’ve already started. The municipal band holds four Friday evening concerts every July, which attract 20,000 people during the month. They’re now soliciting money in exchange for naming rights.

Japan’s Communist Party charges that Mr. Hashimoto is opposed to cultural funding because it doesn’t turn a profit. But we should consider the source, which never considers the possibility that anything should exist outside of the public sector. They also never consider the possibility that profitability is an excellent indicator of popular support.

At the end of April, I attended a concert presented by the symphony orchestra of the local university, which was augmented by area amateurs. The program included Beethoven’s 7th and a piece by Saint-Saëns. The hall was 75-80% full on a fine Sunday afternoon, and we were treated to an excellent performance. Culture worthy of the name is strong enough to survive on its own. Confiscating the assets of private citizens in support of a dubious proposition leads to “the growth of the state and its insinuation into areas of life they have no business being in”.

Human rights

Mayor Hashimoto is not calling into question the public funding of the Osaka Human Rights Museum, AKA Liberty Osaka, but rather the nature of its activities. That is unfortunate; the name alone suggests that the museum’s objective is to violate the human rights of the majority by promoting privileges for selected minorities.

While still governor, he told the foundation that some changes would have to be made. He has a voice in the institution’s management because both Osaka Prefecture and the city subsidize the foundation.

Said the mayor:

“When I was governor, I instructed the museum to change some of its exhibits because they were terrible. I spent quite a lot of time discussing the concept of the changes with the museum authorities. I wanted an educational institution that thought about what had to be done to enable children to think about their own future and to make their dreams and wishes come true.”

Some museum visitors were unhappy about the changes the museum made and complained about it. He returned with Osaka Gov. Matsuo Ichiro for another look, and they weren’t happy about the changes either. Mr. Hashimoto described it as “the usual parade of discrimination and human rights” themes.

As the mayor described the “dreams of the future” section, there was something hanging on the museum wall…Do you want to be a carpenter? Apply to the want ads from building contractors. Do you want to become a baseball player? Be selected in the draft. Do you want to become a teacher? Pass the certification test for teachers and get appointed by the Board of Education. He tweeted:

“What part of this is an educational facility that thinks about the future? This is grotesque.”

A cybertrip to the museum’s Japanese language website (no English) reveals the grotesqueries right away. The museum says its mission is to raise consciousness about those people suffering from discrimination, such as the burakumin, Koreans resident in Japan, Uchinaanchu, the Ainu, the disabled, women, lepers, people with HIV/AIDS, sexual minorities, the homeless, and “others”.

To break that down:

Burakumin: It has been widely reported that Mr. Hashimoto’s father and his family were burakumin, a social (not ethnic) minority that has been subject to discrimination. He and his mother deny it, his uncle affirms it, and almost no one in Japan cares. Attendant to legitimate anti-discrimination activities, burakumin rights advocates run hustles of the sort people in the States have long been familiar with. (Books have been written about it.) A publicly funded museum in Osaka promoting burakumin rights is roughly equivalent to insisting that the U.S. needs to maintain affirmative action programs with Barack Obama sitting in the Oval Office.

Korean residents in Japan: There are about 610,000 Japan-born and –bred ethnic Koreans who voluntarily choose Korean citizenship, some of whom have never set foot on the Korean Peninsula. Some people think their choice of national loyalties should not prevent them from having voting rights in Japan, as championed in the fine print of the ruling Democrati Party’s manifesto. Those with South Korean citizenship can vote in South Korea. Those with North Korean citizenship are represented by Chongryun, whose chairman and five other officials are members of the Supreme People’s Assembly in Pyeongyang.

Chongryun also operates schools for ethnic Koreans, with pictures of Kim I, II, and (presumably) III on the walls, and implements a curriculum that promotes the juche philosophy. Some people think it is discriminatory that these schools do not receive the same Japanese government financial assistance as Japanese schools.

Uchinaanchu: That’s what some Okinawans call themselves in the Okinawan dialect/language. Everyone else in Japan calls them “Okinawans” when a distinction is necessary. The museum’s choice of that term suggests they might support a separatist movement. Most Okinawans don’t. In fact, the younger they are, the less likely they are to be separatists. The museum’s choice of the term also suggests an eagerness to be me-too multiculturalists. Can’t miss that progressive bus!

I watch Okinawan Japanese interacting with non-Okinawan Japanese all the time. I have never seen or heard non-Okinawan Japanese discriminating against Okinawan Japanese. Or even make jokes about them. Doesn’t happen.

The Ainu: Perhaps some of this ethnic minority are still discriminated against, if anyone could find any of them. There aren’t that many left, their numbers are dwindling, and the government is already paying people to be Ainu for a living.

Women: With his new Cabinet evenly split 50-50 between men and women, French President François Hollande has shown he thinks gender is a more important qualification for high-level personnel appointments than competence. Some Japanese think it is discrimination to not behave as M. Hollande. That opinion even extends to the personnel choices of  private sector companies, which are nobody’s business but the companies.

Then again, if the Cabinet ministers in France are anything like those in Japan, competence is not one of the criteria for their selection to begin with.

Sexual minorities: Some Japanese men have become fabulously well-to-do by queening it up on national television for decades. (I can think of six off the top of my head, and I almost never watch television.) This week, Tokyo Disney Resort — yes, Tokyo Disneyland — said two lesbians can have a wedding ceremony at a hotel on the site.

As the AFP news agency puts it:

“Homosexuality in Japan is widely accepted but not openly discussed.”

What’s to discuss? You either do it or you don’t. If you don’t believe the AFP, by the way, hit the link to the Beautiful Way of the Samurai on the right sidebar.

John McKeller, the leader of HOPE (Homosexuals Opposed to Pride Extremism, has an answer for that — and many other things besides:

“(E)ven as a young, radical college student, I had no time for the clubby, leftist lemmings who comprised the early gay activists. They were dull, they were depressing, they always looked and acted as if they were born to be offended and victimized, they could never discourse for more than 5 minutes without hitting some tiresome barrier of resentment or ideology…

…In 1967, Pierre Trudeau supposedly liberated us when he said “the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation”. Subsequently, matters of privacy and discrimination were laudably and necessarily dealt with in the early 1970′s. But today, the bedrooms of the nation are in everybody’s faces. Today, it’s all about benefits, privileges, social engineering, nihilism and redefining normalcy. Today, it’s all about blurring every distinction between personal and political issues and vigorously stifling any attempts at discussion or debate.”

Ignore the false front of idealism and look at the reality: the objective of the museum and the similar activities of NGOs and GOs the world over is not “equality”, but power. Fertilize it with public money and it will reward the behavior of such grifters as Harvard professor and U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren. Or even this guy.

The inspiration is not positive, but punitive. Among the fellow travelers on the same road are those whose taste in intellectual fashion favors the jackboot. Here’s an impressive display of semi-literacy and word manipulation from a woman in Britain, who concludes that it’s all very sweet. Read it all the way through and see if you don’t feel like throwing a satsuma at her.

Some elements of the ruling DPJ are at the forefront of the Japanese vanguard of rights hucksterism. They slipped into the election manifesto of 2009 the establishment of a “human rights committee” as a wing of the Justice Ministry. Prime Minister Noda (further to the left than is generally recognized) thought it was so important, he wanted to submit a bill creating that committee to the Diet this year. He didn’t explain why it was important, but explanations are not his forte. Justice Minister Ogawa Toshio also thinks “it is essential to establish a human rights committee that can respond appropriately to human rights violations.”

It was stymied not by the opposition parties, but by opposition within the ruling party. Enough people in the DPJ thought the whole business was a violation of free speech and Article 21 of the Constitution. Finally the bureaucrats stepped in and said “it was too early” because there has been no debate among the people. If a debate eventually does occur, it would be helpful to translate Mark Steyn into Japanese:

“I regard (human rights commissions) as an abomination. All the key protections of common law, the presumption of innocence, truth as a defence, the right to due process, the right to confront your accuser in open court, all these things go by the board under a human rights commission system, which is essentially a hierarchy of fashionable victim groups…essentially if someone feels offended by you, you are guilty…because we have elevated the human right not to be offended into a bedrock human right. I think particularly in multicultural societies that governments are very comfortable with this because they regard themselves as the sole legitimate arbiter of acceptable public discourse between different social groups.”

Alas, Mr. Hashimoto drops the ball in the end. He wants to have museums of modern history that present both sides of historical arguments. Just call the whole thing off. Historical arguments are as hardy as cultural activities, and have no trouble surviving on their own.

Money

Amamiya Masayoshi, the Bank of Japan’s Executive Director of Monetary Affairs and Financial Markets, was recently appointed the head of the bank’s Osaka branch. The Osaka office serves as the primary cash backup for the Tokyo office. (It took three hours to transfer stewardship of the funds when Mr. Amamiya assumed his duties.). The appointment caught even some inside the BOJ by surprise. Most speculation has it that the bank wanted someone in Osaka capable of explaining the economic facts of life to Mr. Hashimoto.

One of the Osaka mayor’s primary advisors is former Finance Ministry official Takahashi Yoichi, so it does seem odd that he would need additional tutoring. Then again, Mr. Hashimoto has some odd ideas that he got from somewhere. For example, he wants to amend the Bank of Japan law to permit the government to establish price targets.

Godfrey Daniel!

Prices are established by all of us acting alone together in our best legal interests. It’s called the Invisible Hand. The Visible Ham-Hand of the public sector is incapable of establishing prices that are legitimate. If it were, the Soviet bloc would still exist.

But that’s not all. The mayor also thinks the BOJ is too independent and the government should also set monetary policy targets.

Mother of Pearl!

If that happens, we should get the government to provide everyone with free yoga lessons. All the better to kiss our backsides goodbye. Society’s weak will need a Head Start on the physical training.

If anything is sure to screw things even further up than the financial bureaucracy has already screwed things up, it would be to allow the human airbag ventilating system in Nagata-cho/Washington/Brussels/Anywhere Else to determine prices and monetary policy.

Spit on a stick!

The man whispering these sour nothings into the Osaka mayor’s ear is likely the aforementioned Takahashi Yoichi, who also advises Your Party. One thing all these people have in common is an admirable understanding of the problems and an execrable understanding of the solutions. It is all the more puzzling because Mr. Takahashi was closely involved with the Japan Post privatization of Koizumi Jun’ichiro.

The first thing Mr. Amamiya of the BOJ should whisper in Mr. Hashimoto’s ear when they meet is that the government is no more capable of handling the market for money than it is for cars, cabbages, or medical care.

Most people thought Frederich Hayek was whacked when he called for the denationalization of money. But read what he wrote:

“Since the function of government in issuing money is no longer one of merely certifying the weight and fineness of a certain piece of metal, but involves a deliberate determination of the quantity of money to be issued, governments have become wholly inadequate for the task and, it can be said without qualifications, have incessantly and everywhere abused their trust to defraud the people.”

And:

“The government monopoly of the issue of money was bad enough so long as metallic money predominated. But it became an unrelieved calamity since paper money (or other token money), which can provide the best and the worst money, came under political control. A money deliberately controlled in supply by an agency whose self-interest forced it to satisfy the wishes of the users might be the best. A money regulated to satisfy the demands of group interests is bound to be the worst possible.”

Now those are ideas whose time has come. While few people expect a legitimate free market in money to emerge any time soon (underground markets are a different story), it should be now clear to most people that a government which regulates money or monetary policy will always do so to satisfy the demands of group interests. (That includes businesses too big to fail.) It should be especially clear to the people who operate human rights museums. They’re working the same street corner, after all.

Darkness

Mr. Hashimoto can be fairly charged with populism for his anti-nuclear power stance justified solely by emotional harangues, without offering an alternative of any sort. But that’s not the worst part. Here’s the mayor as quoted by the 14 May Yomiuri Shimbun on the question of restarting the Oi nuclear power plant in the Kansai area:

“There will never be a situation such as this again. The next generation must fully experience what it will be like to live under government decree to restrict energy usage.”

Jesus Menstruating Goldfishes! What tar pit of the soul did that bubble up from?

Emotional distortions projected in public have nothing to do with logic, but since this is a policy question, let’s apply it as logic — “The next generation must fully experience what it will be like to live under government decree to restrict bandage and antiseptic usage and apply buffalo dung poultices instead.”

Even in the event that he one day becomes prime minister, his own supporters wouldn’t let him get away with that. In fact, his closest political ally, Osaka Gov. Matsui Ichiro, already has objected:

“Last year’s rolling blackouts had a major impact on the economy. There’s no reason to so facilely accept restricted energy usage.”

And if you use too much energy? Mr. Hashimoto didn’t come up with a solution for that, but the Energy Strategy Conference of the city and prefecture of Osaka did. According to the 15 May Osaka edition of the Mainichi Shimbun, they suggest creating an Energy Conservation Notification Center to which citizens could report offices and shops that they think are too bright.

Sorry. All out of colorful oaths.

The standards these neighborhood informants would use to determine whether the illumination of the establishments was too bright were not specified. Human nature being what it is, however, one of the standards will surely become, “That guy/company/shop clerk is a creep.”

They also suggest shutting down government offices during the hotter hours of the day in summer, which is not a bad idea in theory. I’m self-employed and work at home, and I often take a siesta or read at those times. But I can work at night, on weekends, and whenever I feel like it, deadlines permitting. What would employees do with two or three hours of free time at a job site far from their home? (Stop that snickering!) Returning home is not possible for most people. Will they be made to stay late at night to catch up?

Rather than the idea of government restriction of energy usage, they should be focusing on deregulation that permits increased energy supply and distribution. A system will go into effect this July in which the existing utilities will be forced to pay roughly twice the cost of nuclear-generated power to enterprises generating energy from alternative sources. Of course the people really paying for it will be the consumers.

See what happens when the government sets price targets?

But since the government. or a government monopoly, is as incapable of dealing with the power market as it is with anything else, the plan should be to borrow the idea of that crazy guy Hayek and denationalize/deregulate supply as well as production (and prices), create smart grids, and throw the market open to everyone.

That brings us to the most puzzling and exasperating aspect of all. Those people who, like Hashimoto Toru, talk about privatizing the public sector and operating the government on businesslike principles, are usually the same people who immediately understand the problems with culture subsidies and human rights scams. They are seldom the people who think government control of prices and money is a good idea. They are almost never the people who talk about the need to experience life with government restrictions on power. (That’s what these people do.)

I would have thought it impossible for these ideas to coexist. Hashimoto The Exasperating has achieved the impossible.

Afterwords:

These are serious questions about the role of government in society, but the story in the English-language media about Hashimoto Toru this week was his prohibition of tattoos for Osaka city employees. Such is the media’s four-panel comic strip approach to the world. While they noted that most public establishments, including public baths, and several large private companies have the same prohibitions due to the association with yakuza, they missed one of the key parts of the story. More than half of the 110 or so city employees with tattoos are employed at the Environmental Division, which is a euphemism for garbage collectors. There are unlikely to be many gangsters on the garbage trucks. In Osaka, those trucks are much more likely to be manned by burakumin.

*****

In a demonstration of non-government funded cultural diversity, Kevin Kmetz plays a Bach prelude on the shamisen in Tokyo.

 

Posted in Arts, Government, Politics, Social trends | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

 
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