AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

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.

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2 Responses to “Political kabuki in Japan”

  1. YY said

    ちゃばん or 茶番劇(ちゃばんげき) would be the real Japanese for the foreign usage of “kabuki”, definition being bad theater.

  2. toadold said

    Given that my knowledge of things Japanese is pretty limited, I still agree that calling what we do in Washington “Kabuki” is pretty insulting to Kabuki. I’ve read of Japanese high school students who had to go on field trips to Kabuki theaters complaining that they couldn’t understand what was going on at the same time I read of anime, manga, and other works that were “extracted” from Kabuki. After reading about the Morgan Stanley derivative hedge debacle and the likely causes arising from both corruption on both the regulatory and company levels I’ve been put in mind more of a Japanese movie…mainly “Outrage: The way of the Yakuza”, the theme of which was despite oaths of loyalty and brotherhood they sold each other out for money and power…However in the movie they didn’t lie about what they were, hence much more honest than the DC politicians.
    ——
    T: As a non-native speaker, I can’t say for sure, but I’d guess it’s a bit harder for a Japanese high school student to understand than Shakespeare is for an American high school student (we did a play a year from grades 9-12), but not nearly as close to being as difficult as it would be to understand Chaucer in the original.
    -A.

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