AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Archive for June, 2012

Headlines and the reality

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, June 30, 2012

“I was bred and born in the briar patch, Brer Fox,” he called. “Born and bred in the briar patch.”
And Brer Rabbit skipped away as merry as a cricket while Brer Fox ground his teeth in rage and went home.
-Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby

THE English-language media are on the verge of swallowing their tongues in excitement. Here’s the lede from an AFP article that everyone’s running with:

Tens of thousands of people rallied outside the Japanese prime minister’s residence in Tokyo Friday in one of the largest demonstrations held against the restart of nuclear reactors.

Organizers claimed 100,000 participated, but adults in the area said it was more like 20,000. That is a substantial number of people for a Japanese demonstration, but then we do live in a semi-hysterical age.

Now for the reality. The Yomiuri Shimbun conducted a poll of the six prefectures in the Kinki region (served by the Oi nuclear power plants) two weeks ago asking whether people approved or disapproved of the resumption of nuclear power generation.

Here are the results:

49%: Approve
41%: Disapprove

The difference was even greater in Osaka Prefecture: 52% in favor vs. 39% against. Shiga was the only thumbs-down prefecture, and the Kyoto results were a rough 50%-50% split.

More significant than these numbers is the trendline. At one point, the percentage of those who disapproved was around 70%. Opinion on this issue is dynamic, and it isn’t moving in the direction the demonstrators and some in the media would prefer.

A few days ago I ran across a site (in English) in which the author of one post was excited by the anti-nuclear power sentiment in Japan and Prime Minister Noda’s statement that he would consider going nuclear-free — even though he was aware that it was the same Noda Yoshihiko who authorized the resumption of the Oi plant operations.

He thought it was encouraging that some politicians suggested holding a national debate on nuclear power in Japan this summer. Now there’s a man who hasn’t spent much (if any) time in this country in July and August.

Japanese utilities are calling on people to cut back on 10% of their power consumption this summer. (That’s the number in Kyushu, at least.) Kyushu Electric Power has already drawn up plans for two-hour rolling blackouts in 60 districts once a day in the event their surplus disappears.

Americans think the weather on the East Coast this time of year is almost unbearable. My wife and I took our first trip to the US East Coast together one August. It was so hot and muggy during our sightseeing visit to Washington DC that people were moaning, groaning, and staggering over to benches in the shade to limply fan themselves.

“What’s the matter with them?”

I told my wife the heat was getting to them.

“Heat?” She almost snorted. “This isn’t hot. In Japan this is nothing.”

And then she went back to poring over the guidemap to decide where she’d like to go next.

That’s why the politicians want the debate conducted in the summer — when everyone’s dripping with sweat and taking three showers a day and washing the mold off their leather belts and keeping the air conditioner off due to the power cutbacks, and their children (of the generation accustomed to sleeping in cool comfort) are constantly cranky and home all day during school vacation.

A discussion about nuclear power this summer will be like Br’er Rabbit getting the fox to throw him into the briar patch.

And that’s during a normal year. Just think of what might happen during a heat wave.

UPDATE: Here’s some of what Ikeda Nobuo had to say about the demonstration:

“I had thought that classic mass movements of this sort were over in Japan, but perhaps they were revitalized by social media in the manner of Occupy Wall Street in the United States. That in itself isn’t bad, but the objective of stopping the resumption of generation at the Oi plants is nonsense.

“The authorization has been issued and work has begun, so it can’t be stopped without a special order under the law for technical improvements. The demonstration won’t stop it. If the demonstration was to keep other nuclear plants off-line, the economic hit from their idling would continue to grow from the JPY 5 trillion already lost. In other words, the demonstration was held to make Japan poorer…

“The most serious crisis facing Japan now is the threat of becoming poorer tomorrow than we are today. The working population declines by 1% every year, while government debt grows by JPY 50 trillion. Nominal GDP last year was the same as it was 20 years ago, and may turn negative. Thus, the lifetime disposable income of a child born today will be more than JPY 100 million less than that of an aged person who retires today.

“The manufacturing industry is rushing to move overseas to prepare for power outages this summer. Consumer electronics manufacturers and semiconductor makers are already gushing red ink…Talk to businessmen working in the manufacturing industry and the conversation turns to how long they will be able to stay in Japan. A demonstration seeking to halt energy supply during such a time will likely be remembered as the final episode of stupidity in a once-prosperous Japan.”

Posted in Mass media, Science and technology | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »

Letter bombs (23): Ingenuity

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, June 30, 2012

READERS e-mailed links to two articles, both of which are Japan-related and are based on the theme of inspiration and ingenuity.

The first comes from Dan Bloom in Taiwan:

A pair of twins has invented a timesaving device for housewives in rain-prone areas as well as people on the road — a portable electric “fan hanger” that can dry wet clothes efficiently, rain or shine.

Drawing inspiration from a fictional device in the Japanese manga series Doraemon — the title character’s bamboo propeller — Tsai Kai-yu (蔡凱宇) and Tsai Kai-fan (蔡凱帆), both students in creative product design at Far East University in Greater Tainan, came up with the innovation by integrating fan blades with a clothes hanger.

For those not hip to Japanese manga, Doraemon is a robotic cat sent by a boy in the 22nd century to help his great-grandfather, still a boy in the present, prevent future disasters that befall the family. It began as a print comic in 1969 and became a series that eventually reached 45 books by 1996. Two television versions have been created; the first for a single season, and the second for a program that ran for 1,787 episodes from 1979 to 2005. It is as well-known in Japan as Peanuts is in the United States, and it is almost as popular throughout East Asia.

Doraemon has a fourth-dimensional pocket that contains all sorts of gadgets and tools from the future that he uses to solve Nobi Nobita’s contemporary problems. One of the most well-known is a bamboo copter with twin rotors that the cat puts on his head for convenient transport. And now the copter is a portable clothes dryer in Taiwan:

Tsai Kai-fan said the senior students often expressed grievances about how they had to wash and air-dry their clothes in hotel rooms because of event requirements, but still had half damp outfits by checkout time the next morning.

“Then we reached an epiphany after seeing Doraemon’s bamboo propeller, and started to experiment with the device, which can speed up the drying time of wet clothes and is powered either by batteries or electricity,” the pair said.

Experimentation showed that their brainchild could save about two-thirds of the time needed to air-dry clothes, compared with the natural drying method, and is effective regardless of weather conditions, they said.

Don’t laugh:

The pair’s invention has been flown to the US for the 2012 Invention and New Product Exposition, the US’ largest invention show, on behalf of the their university.

Chen Yu-kang (陳玉崗), a professor in the school’s department of innovative design and entrepreneurship management, said that if the electric fan hanger could be mass-produced, its production costs could be greatly reduced.

“Then, with a price tag of about NT$299, the product would stand a big chance of becoming a hit in the market, as well as creating substantial business opportunities,” Chen said.

That’s not as expensive as it sounds — In American dollars it’s the equivalent of a sawbuck.

On the other end of the design sophistication scale is the subject of an article sent by PB in Bradford, England, about the new 4 World Trade Center building in New York designed by Maki and Associates of Tokyo. Traditional Japanese art is known for its understatement, and now that concept has been extended to what will be the sixth-tallest building in the city of skyscrapers when it’s finished next year:

From some angles, at certain times of day, 4 World Trade Center almost disappears from the downtown skyline…To achieve this effect, the Maki firm designed an especially sheer curtain wall over the steel framework. Glass facades often look cheap because developers will pay only for windows so thin that they bow slightly, creating a quilted effect. The thicker the glass, the flatter the plane of the facade. “It’s not absolutely perfect,” Mr. Sassa said candidly about the curtain wall at 4 World Trade Center, “but I think we’ve achieved something of high quality.”

The article content reminds me of one of the reasons I became interested in Japan many years ago:

“We like the idea of the building dematerializing,” said Osamu Sassa, the project architect for the Maki firm. It is headed by Fumihiko Maki, 83, who won the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1993, but has been little known in this country until recently. “A lot of inherently good qualities of design take time to appreciate,” Mr. Sassa said. “Subtlety extends one’s appreciation.”

And another:

The Japanese architects insisted on a level of detail and near-perfection that frequently perplexed and frustrated their American counterparts.

And a third:

(N)ot all of their many subtle touches were purely in the interest of aesthetic clarity.

For example, deep notches were created in the two broad angles of the tower’s parallelogram shape to help define the edges of the facade. “The added benefit,” Mr. Sassa said with a smile, “was that it increased the number of corner offices.”

*****
If you like the bamboo copter idea but don’t need a portable clothes dryer, you can always get the toy.

Posted in Letter bombs, New products, Popular culture, Science and technology, Taiwan | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Ichigen koji (114)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 29, 2012

一言居士

- A person who has something to say about everything

* Mr. Noda is a running dog of the bureaucracy. He has completely tossed out all (his party’s) campaign promises, and doing things they didn’t promise.

* I’m impressed that he can walk around in public. I couldn’t do it.

* Of such little ability…reads straight from a script…everything he does is what the Finance Ministry bureaucrats say to do…

* He has lies, he has betrayal, he has everything.

* He is not well-versed in the basics of politics.

* He’s going to hell in the next election.

- Katayama Yoshihiro, former Tottori governor and Minister of Internal Affairs and Communication in the Kan administration, commenting about Prime Minister Noda, as quoted in both the weekly Shukan Gendai and Shukan Asahi

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

Fed up

Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 29, 2012

JAPAN’S lower house passed the consumption tax increase by a margin large enough to override a defeat in the upper house, and now the commentary has started rolling in. With the exception of the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy, most of the National Political Establishment (NPE), the national dailies rewriting Finance Ministry briefings and handouts, the IMF, Keidanren, and The Economist (the inflight magazine for Davos Man), everyone is fed up.

One of them is the blogger known as Ryoko 174. She focused on the gap between the young and the old. Here’s much of what she said.

*****
In the future, the structure of preferential treatment for the elderly and the exploitation of the young will grow stronger, rather than be eliminated. Politics is a type of business, so it provides services that target its preferential customers. That’s because it’s not possible to satisfy all of the customers.

According to the general theory of marketing, customers are classified into several segments, and the main target becomes the preferential customers in large numbers who have the propensity to pay for the services. Let’s look at the customer volume for Japan’s political business by age:

(The chart shows the voting population in 2008. The numbers at the right represent age groups.)

As you can see, a party could theoretically win two-thirds of the seats by capturing the votes of those aged 50 and older. (The group aged 50 and older, by the way, has more than 70% of Japan’s individual financial assets.) That’s because of the large numbers of elderly in Japan’s aged population, and the fact that the older the age group, the more likely they are to vote. Also, under the current system, an individual vote in an area with a higher aged population has a greater weight than an individual vote in the cities, so the presence of the elderly in politics is greater than the graph indicates.

In other words, the elderly are the blue-chip customers for Japan’s politicians, and those aged 40 and younger are a niche market. In a worst-case scenario, they can even be cut adrift. That’s why when some shout about the unfairness to the young, the politicians dismiss it as noise from the hecklers who aren’t part of their target customers.

The confiscation from today’s working generation in Japan is like eating the seed rice, and this structure is being strengthened…The aging of society will accelerate in the future, and this structure will become even stronger. There is unlikely to be any improvement.

Unfortunately, I think we have already passed the point of no return for ameliorating the age differential in Japan. Therefore, we should have no expectations for politics, which relies on other people, and should instead endeavor to protect ourselves.

*****
It’s no surprise that the people at the Seetell website are just as fed up, and they mince no words either:

This tax hike was billed as a necessary measure to “help make social security sustainable” (Noda) and to show the world that Japan was serious about fixing its debt problems. Japan Finance Minister Azumi declared, “We took a major step forward toward our goal. Unlike in Europe, politicians in Japan are putting words into action.”

Someone has to dunk that boy’s head in a bucket of ice water. Right now. Several times.

And yet, the tax hike does nothing to solve social security or retire Japan’s debt or even stop the annual increase in debt. If anything, given politicians predilection to spend, it merely gives the government more money to waste. And people are already lining up for that money.

They quote the Nikkei:

While demand will likely surge before the tax is raised from the current 5%, consumers could hold off on big-ticket items as the levy is upped to 8% and then to 10%.

Some companies are pushing the government to take steps to tackle reduced spending.Takeo Higuchi, chairman of the Japan Federation of Housing Organizations, calls for measures to help homebuyers.

And observe:

So, some of this money will go to prop up the construction and real estate industry, traditional political favorites. There are also concerns that low income Japanese will be unfairly hurt by the hike, so the proposal is to send cash payments directly to that certain segment of the economy.

Instead of employing the sensible solution of the Brits and making food, children’s clothing, and books tax exempt.

As indicated earlier, it is probable that consumer spending will tank after the tax hike hits. In many ways, it is no different than the government’s corporate welfare programs such as Eco-points, subsidies for “green” appliances, flat panel TVS, and autos….So, we will get a GDP surge of JPY 7.7 trillion followed by a total decline of JPY 10.3 trillion, a loss of JPY 2.6 trillion.

They see the same problems that Ryoko 174 sees:

And, of course, politicians will be loathe to cut welfare benefits to voters, especially retirees who vote in larger numbers than the younger generation. In fact, part of the deal between Noda’s DPJ and the LDP to pass the bill stopped any reform efforts that would decrease benefits to seniors, a particularly large voting base for the LDP. This is critical because passing this bill will probably cost the DPJ their majority status in the next general election, either this summer or next, opening the door for a return of the LDP.

This isn’t entirely true: The LDP wanted the DPJ to renounce the clause in their manifesto calling for the repeal of the LDP-implemented system that has the late stage elderly (75 or older) with sufficient financial resources to pay more for their healthcare. (The DPJ just shelved it.) It came into effect during the Fukuda administration, and the senior welfare kings and queens immediately started whining to the media that the government wanted them to “hurry up and die”. You’d have thought the LDP had instituted an Obama-style Death Panel or something like NICE in Britain, though that wasn’t the case.

But wait for it:

There is no rosy future for the Japanese people because of this downward spiral of more debt, higher costs, and higher taxes. A telling passage in a Nikkei article explains the logic behind this fatally flawed policy.

“The current generation of workers are reining in spending due to fears about the nation’s financial health and the sustainability of the social welfare system,” explains Ryutaro Kono, chief economist at BNP Paribas Securities (Japan) Ltd.

By this logic, consumption could grow if households’ anxiety about the future can be put to rest by the tax hike.

In plain language, the logic states that consumers will be more confident in their future and, thus, will spend more money if the government takes increasingly larger amounts of their wealth by artificially raising prices on both necessities and luxuries. Consumers will have less money to spend but will be willing to spend more of it. This is the basis for Japan’s economic revival through tax increases.

You’d be surprised at how many otherwise intelligent people are peddling the “consumers will have less money to spend but will be willing to spend more of it” lameness. (One is Ikeda Nobuo, whose views I frequently present here.)

They conclude:

Without massive cuts in spending, a total rethinking of the welfare system, and major reform of the bureaucracy, these tax hikes will only add to Japan’s woes and continue its inevitable decline.

It is most interesting that some Europeans are equally fed up for many of the same reasons, without knowing much of what is happening in Japan. Try this by George Handlery at The Brussels Journal site:

An era of pleasing self-deception is ending.

An economic collapse, to be followed by a political one, is threatening Europe. The global economy and your share of it might not remain immune. The problem is self-generated. Thereby, the entire, economically industrialized and politically democratic, world’s economic fundamentals are endangered….Its rot…is due to the interrelationships created by the “political class” and regardless of denials, a process that affects all. The crisis managers and the means of those in charge of repairs are (of) dubious quality.

Replace “Europe” with “Japan” in that sentence and the meaning isn’t altered a whit.

The Greeks created a coalition government. The purpose is not to rectify but to please the EU. The movers are unqualified to overcome the vicissitudes that they were elected to lay to rest. That is because earlier, they have subscribed to the approach that had caused the crisis. Governing continues to be associated with making presents. The error is not new: those elected to cure ailments are the ones that have created the mess that demands attention.

Another alteration of proper nouns wouldn’t change the meaning of that passage either:

The Japanese National Political Establishment created a de facto coalition government. The purpose is not to rectify but to please the Finance Ministry. The movers are unqualified to overcome the vicissitudes that they were elected to lay to rest. That is because earlier, they have subscribed to the approach that had caused the crisis. Governing continues to be associated with making presents. The error is not new: those elected to cure ailments are the ones that have created the mess that demands attention.

That last sentence should be printed on a placard and hung around the necks of every DPJ member of the Diet.

Mr. Handlery predicts “government by riot” in Europe. I do not think that happens in Japan. Before that, I think we’ll see a government by the regional rebels and their allies.

*****
Earlier we had some silly juvenile gasconade from Azumi Jun, the Seamoon Finance Minister, about Japan’s courage compared to their European cousins for dealing with the financial problems they’ve all created and just made worse. If you think that referring to him as the Boy Finance Minister is just Wild West Internet pot shooting, try this Seetell translation of a Nikkei blurb:

Government bean counters do not usually need to be told not to drink on the job. But on Tuesday, when Finance Minister Jun Azumi issued that unusual directive, the lower house passed a bill to raise the consumption tax. “You could almost hear the sigh of relief” at the ministry, says one source.

Azumi’s “prohibition” did not stop with alcohol. He also asked everyone to refrain from smiling. At a news conference, he gave a sober assessment of the bill’s advance: “If this were mountain climbing, we’d be exactly halfway.” The message to staffers seemed to be “don’t get carried away.”

After more than 120 hours of debate in the lower house, Azumi must have felt some swelling of emotion. He would doubtless be smiling himself — if the tax issue had not torn his ruling Democratic Party of Japan asunder.

What the translation does not include is that the ban request for self-restraint on smiling specifies “showing the teeth”.

What are Finance Ministry personnel doing that they need to be told by the likes of The Seamoon not to drink on the job? To what sort of person would it occur to even think of banning smiling? Does the ban also include him?

And to think some people are in hysterics because Hashimoto Toru banned tattoos for Osaka municipal employees.

I’ve got cash money that says the English language mass media will not even mention this, and if they do, the amount of stories will be fractionally fewer than those on the tattooed few suffering under the lash of Hashism.

Of course people are fed up. We’ve reached the reductio ad absurdum of social democracy and rule by Big Government/Big Bureaucracy/Big Business. The time has come to forget our expectations of politicians and defend ourselves.

*****
Alizee is fed up too, or as she puts it, J’en Ai Marre, but then she’s be a lot more fun to watch than the average flybait pol, inside the bubble bath or out. What would she say if she heard about Azumi Jun’s smile ban? I feel like throwing up under the covers too.

Be sure to look for the little patch she has on her outfit that isn’t displayed until near the end (near her end). The French don’t miss a trick.

But getting there won’t be tricky at all.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government, I couldn't make this up if I tried, Politics | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Conspiracy of quietness

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, June 28, 2012

The champions of democracy in the eighteenth century argued that only monarchs and their ministers are morally depraved, injudicious, and evil. The people, however, are altogether good, pure, and noble, and have, besides, the intellectual gifts needed in order always to know and to do what is right. This is, of course, all nonsense, no less so than the flattery of the courtiers who ascribed all good and noble qualities to their princes. The people are the sum of all individual citizens; and if some individuals are not intelligent and noble, then neither are all together.
-Ludwig von Mises

SOME people insist that proper governance demands certain absolutes. As shown by the hullaballoo that arose with the Arab Sprung, some of those same people would insist democracy is one of those absolutes. Mises knew better, and the results of the recent Egyptian election won by Mohamed Morsi demonstrate why:

Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood told supporters last month…

“The Koran is our constitution, the Prophet is our leader, jihad is our path and death in the name of Allah is our goal,” Morsi said in his election speech before Cairo University students on Saturday night.

And:

“Today we can establish Sharia law because our nation will acquire well-being only with Islam and Sharia. The Muslim Brothers and the Freedom and Justice Party will be the conductors of these goals,” he said.

The same people secure in their certainty that democracy is an absolute value would certainly be absolutely enuretic if forced to live under a legal system that chopped off hands for theft, stoned women to death for adultery (women are guilty until proven innocent and need four male witnesses to confirm they’ve been raped rather than been adulterous) and flogged and/or executed homosexuals. The same legal system treats unbelievers as second-class citizens. One aspect of that treatment is that believers are given the benefit of the doubt if there is a conflict in court testimony.

Transparency of government is also considered to be an absolute by some, but that is no more an absolute than is democracy. It is desirable in many instances, but less so in others. Legislation passed by the Diet last week contains examples of both.

Nukes

Japan amended its Basic Law on Atomic Energy on the 20th, the first major change in in the law in 34 years. The primary objective was to rework the regulatory regime for nuclear power, but that wasn’t the only one. The law also now states that it has:

“The objective of protecting the lives, health, and assets of the people, and contributing to environmental preservation and national security.”

The “national security” part is new. It is so new, in fact, that it wasn’t included in the original bill approved by the Noda Cabinet. The clause was inserted because the opposition Liberal Democratic Party requested it; both the LDP and their New Komeito partners had already submitted their own bill with similar language. Mr. Noda and the DPJ went along, and there are no reports of serious objections.

None of the three main parties of the National Political Establishment (NPE) thought this required much debate in the Diet, more than a superficial explanation, or the obligation to tell the public about it at all. The Diet has a website on which pending legislation is posted, but the contents of this bill didn’t go up until the 15th, less than a week before it became law.

The bill passed after little debate in the lower house and only three days of debate in the upper house. It was not reported by any of the five primary national newspapers. The story was broken instead on Thursday by the Tokyo Shimbun, later reported in the Chunichi Shimbun (of Nagoya), and briefly mentioned in the Mainichi Shimbun. The nation’s two largest newspapers, the Yomiuri and the Asahi, covered the passage of the bill itself, but neither (as far as I could determine) specifically mentioned this change.

The Tokyo Shimbun quoted the explanation of LDP lower house member Shiozaki Yasuhisa, chief cabinet secretary in the Abe cabinet. I thought the second and third sentences were instructive:

“The possession of nuclear technology is significant from the perspective of security…There also must be an understanding of the technology of atomic energy from the perspective of security to defend Japan….(Objections) are the arguments of people who don’t see what they don’t want to see.”

He added that no objections were raised about the proposed amendment during the discussion among the three parties.

Yoshino Masayoshi, a lower house MP from the LDP said:

“Its significance is as a security measure to protect against the use of nuclear material for terrorism or other uses. There was no thought of converting it to military use.”

No, I don’t believe it either, but the whole point is to keep people guessing, isn’t it?

Japanese bureaucrats and politicians are known for their skills at parsing language in legislation to do exactly what they want to do, regardless of the legislation’s intent. Books have been written about it, including one called Bureaucrat Rhetoric. For example, changing the text of legislation from “Ministry XXX is required to YYY” to “Ministry XXX must make every effort to YYY” ensures that YYY will never be done. How nuclear technology can be used for “national security” requires no explanation or rhetorical tricks.

While there has been little or no media comment about the bill, the people who want to stay informed knew soon after the Tokyo Shimbun article was published. It doesn’t take long for links to circulate on Twitter, and they started circulating the same day.

Whatever shortfall there’s been in Japanese media commentary has been offset by the thrills offered by the South Korean media. The Joseon drama queens enjoy this sort of Japanese fable in the way some people enjoy monster movies. Not only do both scripts provide the same horrific excitement, both stories are clearly based on science fiction with no connection to life as we know it. Screaming as loud as they can in the theater just adds to the fun.

Reader rab sent in an English link from the Joongang Ilbo. Here’s one passage:

“The revision Wednesday is raising speculation that the move would act as a threat to regional security in Northeast Asia, including Korea, and could lead Japan to build nuclear weapons.”

See what I mean about science fiction? No, lovies, even if Japan were to wise up and build nuclear weapons, the threats to regional security in Northeast Asia are the nuclear powers of China, North Korea, and Russia. The speculation being raised is that the Japanese NPE is at last taking steps to uphold its primary responsibility and defend the nation against serious threats from the Chinese hegemons asquat what they consider to be the center of the universe, and the military clique running North Korea in nominal service to the Emperors Kim. (The Japanese understand the latter arrangement. They did it themselves as far back as the 8th century.)

Chinese behavior from North Korea through the Senkakus to the South China Sea leaves no doubt about their intentions. Conditions in the United States leave substantial doubt about that country’s capacity and willingness to defend Japan in accordance with its treaty obligations, particularly in smaller incidents that advance Chinese interests incrementally.

If Japan were to build nuclear weapons, it wouldn’t be a threat to regional security. It would strengthen regional security.

The Joongang quoted one Japanese politician:

“Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, however, denied the suspicion. He told reporters yesterday that the bill “emphasized the peaceful use of nuclear power plants.””

Their source was the Tokyo Shimbun article, which contained other politicians’ comments that they couldn’t find the space to print. For example, this one from Eda Yasuyuki, a New Komeito member of the lower house.

“There are provisions in the nuclear reactor regulation law for safeguarding nuclear material during transport. The technology for nuclear fuel can also be diverted to military use, and there are safeguards (inspections) in IAEA regulations. These are related to Japanese national security, so this was specified in the law as the ultimate objective.”

Mr. Eda is in favor of giving the right to vote to foreigners who are permanent residents (read: zainichi with Korean citizenship) and opposed to amending Article 9 of the Constitution, the peace clause. While it is fair to wonder what the change in language really means, such speculation must also account for the unlikelihood that someone with Eda Yasuyuki’s beliefs would sit still for nuclear weapons.

It is also curious that Japan’s Communists and Social Democratics, the parties most likely to object to weaponization, have kept their lips zipped about the news. The former publishes a daily newspaper called Akahata that puts about a dozen articles on line every day, but they haven’t mentioned it at all. Neither has the SDPJ, which supports a position of unarmed neutrality similar to that of Costa Rica (the Swiss are armed to the teeth). They also objected to providing sidearms for self-defense to Self-Defense Forces sent overseas. A trip to their website shows a photograph of people resembling minor characters in a Kubrick film complaining about nuclear power, but nothing about a potential diversion to nuclear weaponry. Are they part of the conspiracy too?

Some people who could be expected to complain did complain. From the Joongang:

“The Diet’s latest move has stirred criticism from civic groups and scholars in Japan.”

They didn’t specify the complainers, but their source article in Japan identified them as The Committee of Seven for World Peace:

“The possibility that this opens the way for real military use cannot be denied….”

Yes, I agree, “civic groups and scholars” does sound more serious than the reality, doesn’t it?

Here’s another gem from the Joongang article:

“We are closely monitoring Japan’s move,” said an official from Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. “It’s too early to make a hasty conclusion that Japan has started to arm itself with nuclear weapons.”

Foreign ministry bureaucrats aren’t so thick as to raise that subject on their own after the modification of a few words in a bill, but journos everywhere are thick enough to ask that question.

The Chosun Ilbo also carried an article with similar delectations. They were worried this could elicit a “domino reaction” for nuclear weapons in Northeast Asia. Whether this meant they thought China, Russia, and North Korea would manufacture more than they already have, or that the only other country in Northeast Asia without the bomb — South Korea — would feel compelled to protect themselves from the nuclear barrage that Tokyo is sure to unleash on Seoul any minute now, they didn’t say.

Perhaps that explains why it was revealed less than a week after this news broke that the South Korean government has decided to sign a military agreement with the Japanese very soon:

“The pact — named the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) — calls for the two countries to exchange intelligence about North Korea and its nuclear and missile programmes, Yonhap news agency said. It cited a government source for its information. A foreign ministry spokesman declined to comment.”

In passing, note that the final sentence of the linked AFP article is incompetent, irrelevant, immaterial, and inacurrate, but that’s what happens when the pixel-stained wretches get a great notion to write about Japan and Korea in the same piece.

Speaking of points, we should also note that the Chosun article (which I read in its Japanese version) did present one point of interest. They combined the news on nuclear power law amendment with the observation that the Diet amended another law with military ramifications. Here’s additional information:

“The Upper House of Japan’s Diet June 20 passed legislation that shifts control of the nation’s space policy and budget, and opens the door to military space development programs with an emphasis on space-based missile early warning.

“The raft of legislation, based on the Bill to Amend the Law of Establishment of the Cabinet Office that was sent to the Diet on Feb. 14, enables the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office to take control of the planning and budgeting of Japan’s government space program. It also removes an article in a prior law governing the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the nation’s equivalent to NASA, which had restricted JAXA’s ability to pursue military space programs.

“Prior to the legislation, JAXA had been de facto controlled by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), and was overseen by a MEXT committee called the Space Activities Commission (SAC), leading to criticisms of regulatory capture.

“At the same time, JAXA’s space development has been restricted to an extremely narrow “peaceful purposes only” policy, which meant the agency was unable to develop specifically military space programs…”

And:

“The passing of the law ends a process that began nearly a decade ago by politicians looking for ways to leverage Japan’s space development programs and technologies for security purposes, to bolster the nation’s defenses in the face of increased tensions in East Asia.

“On top of an increasingly confident China, Japan faces a potentially belligerent and unstable North Korea just across the Sea of Japan. Since 1998, North Korea has consistently flouted and broken promises, norms and international laws in developing and testing nuclear weapons and missiles.

“JAXA will now be permitted to develop space programs in line with international norms, which are governed by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. The treaty allows military space development, but not the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in orbit…

“METI…is interested in promoting dual-use Earth observation and reconnaissance satellites and an air-launch space access system, according to the ministry.

“Suzuki said there also is strong bipartisan political support for Japan to develop and launch its own missile early-warning system to support the nation’s small fleet of Aegis destroyers for upper-tier defense, and its PAC-3 systems for lower-tier defense.”

So it would seem reasonable to conclude that the generation which was spoon-fed pacifism is giving way to people who have too much common sense to swallow that swilliness in the Occupation Constitution about entrusting national defense to the “peace loving peoples of the world”, in league with those of the older generation who were too smart to swallow it to begin with. Here’s one quick example of the latter: When Fukuda Yasuo was serving as chief cabinet secretary a decade ago before becoming prime minister, he alluded to Japan’s potential to develop nuclear weapons at a news conference, but had to walk it back the next day. Fortunately that was walked back only in public.

There’s a reason they call weapons “The Great Equalizer”. If the slow shift continues toward eliminating the peace clause of the Constitution, independently developing legit self-defense capabilities, recognizing the world’s realities, and rejecting the (primarily overseas) ideal vision of Japan as a ship-in-a-bottle model for world pacifism, it won’t be long before Japan is once again a “normal country”.

National defense is one of the few legitimate reasons for a strong central government to exist, and the primarily responsibility of all who serve in it. The means used for that defense — as long as they are limited to defense — need not be endlessly gummed over by the media and public. The people who need to know and want to know, both in Japan and the nearby countries, now know.

On the other hand

Some conspiracies of quietness are detrimental to the conduct of national affairs. While the news media couldn’t keep its collective hands out of its pants with the controversy over the consumption tax increase and the ramifications that will have for national politicians, the NPE slipped a few other bills through with few people noticing.

On the 21st, the Diet passed a law with multi-party support to “revitalize” theaters and concert halls, on the justification that doing so is the responsibility of national and local governments. Public sector funds already are used to support museums of art and natural history, and some claimed that the other facilities have not performed the role “originally expected of them”.

No, I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean, either.

This law encourages both governments to provide financial subsidies to create the “required environment” because these facilities foster the performing arts and artists. The Agency for Cultural Affairs will later develop a policy for the “assignment of specialists in the theater arts and conducting theater management”.

Not only is this indefensible in isolation, it was passed at the same time as legislation requiring citizens to pay more for the upkeep of government through the normal purchasing activities they conduct to live. Little did they know what they’re really paying for. Meanwhile, over in Osaka, Mayor Hashimoto Toru and his One Osaka organization/party are making the case to eliminate or reduce subsidies to the arts, an objective they have successfully accomplished in several cases. Not coincidentally, national polls show that One Osaka maintains a rate of support that is roughly half again the aggregate rate of support for the ruling Democratic Party and the opposition Liberal Democrats and New Komeito.

In addition to the bill’s philosophical indefensibility (for anyone but statolatrists), it is clearly in opposition to the will of the people. Then again, if the popular will were a consideration, the NPE would never have passed the consumption tax increase, or would have held a referendum/lower house election first.

Among all that dealmaking, yet another decision was taken with no public debate on matters that directly concern the public. The DPJ withdrew its plan to combine public nursery schools and kindergartens (to save money) in favor of a of New Komeito plan to enhance the current system. There seems to have been no public input on this decision whatsoever.

The point here is not whether the DPJ or the New Komeito plan is better; either would probably work well. Rather, it was that a decision was made with little public awareness that an issue which concerns the education of their children was being discussed. Do you wonder why I think the news media is lazy?

A few months ago, LDP lower house pol Aisawa Ichiro tweeted that he was a major force in the adoption of a bill by the Diet to provide government support for athletics to turn Japan into a Great Power in Sports. Mr. Aisawa thought this was wonderful.

That’s another one no one knew anything about.

(I sent a reply to his Tweet asking why additional expenditures in this area were necessary in light of the government’s fiscal deficits. He didn’t answer, but either he or his staff added me to the list of people he follows.)

A hint for the likely explanation for the passage of the three of bills in the form they took and the manner in which they were passed is found in the official title of the government ministry with responsibility for all of them: The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

The bills for concert hall funding and sports superpower promotion in particular will provide easy money for things people do anyway to give useless bureaucrats in useless jobs in useless agencies a way to spend their daily cubicle time instead of finding gainful employment. That is less clear for the nursery school/kindergarten bill, but one does detect the flopsweat odor from bureaucrats terrified at the idea of getting cut out of the action.

Factoid

The Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group now has a Japanese government bond portfolio worth JPY 49 trillion and a private sector loan portfolio of JPY 46 trillion. It is the first time the former amount has exceeded the latter for that entity.

Has it occurred to the NPE that the government gavage requiring financial institutions to gorge on all that money of the mind prevents them from lending their available funds to the private sector, which could then create more jobs that are better paying, more stable, and more productive, thus providing Leviathan with more tax revenue and eliminating the need to increase taxes?

Of course not.

*****
Well, dip me in chocolate and feed me to the high school girls’ archery club. Maybe government interference in the arts is a blessing after all. Aren’t they darling?

Posted in Arts, Business, finance and the economy, Education, Government, Mass media, Military affairs, Politics, Science and technology, South Korea, Sports | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

Ichigen koji (113)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, June 28, 2012

一言居士

- A person who has something to say about everything

My daily life (after the Fukushima nuclear accident) also changed in a strange way. For my food, I only used ingredients from places far from Tohoku, such as Western Japan, Hokkaido, or overseas. I stockpiled large quantities of rice that was harvested before the nuclear accident…Every day, I gathered inaccurate information and disseminated it myself.

My main method of information gathering was the internet. I mainly used Twitter, blogs, or Ustream. The information sources were all people who were becoming well-known by spreading dark and tragic information. There were a lot of different people, from anonymous sources to university professors and researchers. Looking back on it, I think I believed a lot of strange people, but at the time, I thought they were right. As for people labeled as “government scholars” who were disseminating accurate information, I was certain they were wrong, and I ignored them. Also, since I didn’t have much knowledge at all regarding nuclear power or radiation before the accident, I couldn’t really confirm whether any information was true or not.

I also joined a gathering of people who had all fallen into “radiation panic.” They were all people who thought like me, and who believed biased information. Now, I’m a pretty outgoing person, but a lot of them seemed to be the kind of person that always used the internet and weren’t very good at communicating in real life. Though, in the corner of my mind, I did think that these people had fallen into a panic, I didn’t make the mental leap to realize that I had also become the same as them.

- Shirai Yuka, describing her bout with “radiation panic”. She has since recovered.

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

Apotropaics for political revenants

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, June 27, 2012

FACED with the existential challenge of Small Government/Big Liberty politicians who are both successful and popular, the default strategy of the left-of-centrists is to make up stuff. One of the first fables off the shelf is that their crypto-fascist policies have made everyone except the uber-rich poorer. The script is then airtubed over to their co-conspirators in the mass media for dissemination as The Truth offered in the form of infotainment. This long-observed universal phenomenon also exists in Japan.

Former Finance Ministry bureaucrat Takahashi Yoichi, who served in the Koizumi and Abe administrations and is now an advisor to Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru and Your Party, fired off a series of fact-Tweets recently to counter still-circulating myths. They will be of interest to people with open minds.

*****
Some people still believe that the income gap grew during the Koizumi administration. That’s just Democratic Party propaganda the mass media picked up.

Some people adhere to the belief that national income declined during the Koizumi and Abe years, when I served in the Kantei, but that lie has been exposed. It grew by about JPY 15 trillion. The national income in trillions of yen from 2001 to 2010 was as follows:

2001: 366.7
2002: 363.9
2003: 368.1
2004: 370.1
2005: 374.1
2006: 378.1
2007: 381.1
2008: 354.1
2009: 342.5
2010: 349.3

According to the government’s official statistics from its 2008 report on income redistribution, the Gini Coefficient for income redistribution was as follows:

1996: 0.3606
1999: 0.3814
2002: (First full Koizumi year) 0.3812
2005: 0.3873
2008: 0.3758

There are no figures showing an expansion of the income gap during the Koizumi years.

The phrase “income gap” was still used during the first days of the new Democratic Party government. Starting with the Kan Administration, however, the phrase disappeared from policy speeches and statements. Anyone who talks now about growing income gaps during the Koizumi years would be laughed at.

*****
Using facts in discussions of this sort is somewhat like holding up a cross to a vampire. It won’t convert them, but it will send them screaming from the room.

One popular strategy when the facts don’t work is novel interpretations. I ran across one a few days ago written by Okamoto Hiroaki, who describes himself as a company president in Vancouver. (He writes in Japanese.) Mr. Okamoto wrote a blog post presenting his ideas on the current political crisis in Japan, which was picked up by the Agora website. Here is his conclusion:

“I think this is a good opportunity to confirm once again what a real leader should be — not someone like former Prime Minister Koizumi, who had supporters like a show business personality’s fan club and who was popular among housewives because he was single and articulate.”

Extend the logic of this statement and it will inevitably terminate at the presumption that communication skills are not important for a national leader, and the political opinions and ideas of middle-aged housewives are not as important as…company presidents who blog, among other wallahs.

When a prime minister stakes his political career on legislation by holding a lower house election before it gets passed — in effect, a national referendum — wins the second-largest majority in postwar history, and leaves office a year later with a 70% approval rating, he’s more than just beefcake for bored, middle-aged housewives.

Might it have had something to do with his efforts to get the government out of the post office business, and get the post office out of the banking and life insurance business? And that these efforts had the added benefit of forcing the government to deal with their deficits in some way other than using the money in those accounts to purchase government bonds? Or that he cut the nation’s budget deficit in half during his term, reduced public works construction projects, rescued a banking system swamped by post-bubble non-performing debt, and started privatizing other quasi-public companies?

In other words, he did things that drove the National Government-Political Complex crazy. Of course they had to neuter all of them.

People often say that a country “could do worse than” choosing a specific person as its leader. Looking at the national governments since Mr. Koizumi’s departure, it is apparent that the country has already done a lot worse. Looking at the potential leadership candidates at the national level today, it is apparent that they will keep doing worse for the foreseeable future.

******
But some people would rather go blind than see.

Posted in Government, Mass media, Politics | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »

Quick hits on yesterday’s lower house vote

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, June 27, 2012

JAPAN’S lower house voted yesterday to pass the consumption tax increase and social welfare-related legislation. The implications of that move are as I described in a post last weekend. The basic facts are available everywhere, but other aspects are worth noting.

*57 members of the ruling Democratic Party voted against their government’s bill, and 16 abstained. That’s serious business; 54 is the margin at which the DPJ loses its lower house majority. The Sankei said the total jolted Prime Minister Noda, because he had been working to limit the defections and thought there would be only about 30. The possibilities of a no-confidence vote and a DPJ split are real.

Prime Minister Noda and Deputy Prime Minister Okada are jubilant at the passage of their hallmark legislation

* Despite days of speculation that he would form a new party, rebel chieftain Ozawa Ichiro says he is staying put for now. He asked his allies to leave the handling of the situation up to him. Those with a taste for watching power struggles will appreciate his cleverness. First, he insists that his vote represents the original will of the party as expressed in the 2009 election manifesto. Second, by standing pat, he forces Mr. Noda into taking the destructive step. The prime minister said he would be “strict” with those who didn’t follow the party line, which could include suspension of party privileges or even expulsion. But that’s too many people to expel and survive. The internal opposition lives.

Complicating matters is that Liberal Democratic Party head Tanigaki Sadakazu is demanding that Mr. Noda do something with Ozawa and the rebels. In fact, he said the LDP’s condition for cooperation to pass the bill in the upper house is that he “deal firmly” with those who failed to vote the party line. Yes, he is making the internal affairs of another party his business. Was part of the three-party deal to pass the tax bill an unspoken agreement to strike down Mr. Ozawa?

In short, Mr. Noda is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. He has one potential weapon, however: Even though Mr. Ozawa was found not guilty of violating the political funds law earlier this year, that was a function of the legal process. It was not necessarily in accord with the actual facts of the matter. The LDP has demanded that he be questioned in the Diet about the circumstances of all that money. The prime minister might now allow that to happen.

* After the vote, DPJ Secretary-General Koshi’ishi Azuma said, “The DPJ will absolutely not fall apart.” The man’s wishin’ and hopin’. Maintaining the DPJ as a semi-functional unit has been his priority throughout the whole sequence of events. He represents the nether left of the party, and a viable DPJ is their only means to so much as sniff a position of power or influence in government. That disappears with a DPJ breakup, and many of the rank file would then have a hard time getting reelected, much less listened to.

* Former Prime Minister and DPJ Supreme Advisor Hatoyama Yukio voted against the bill and resigned his position of Supreme Advisor. Still among the party’s Supreme Advisor ranks is Watanabe Kozo. Recall that Mr. Watanabe cordially asked both Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Hatoyama to vote against the bill and leave the party for good.

Yesterday the Sankei Shimbun published one of those “all you have to do is look” photographs. It showed a smiling Ozawa Ichiro walking back to his seat in the chamber after casting his vote. He was enjoying a pleasant chat with another smiling Diet member. The other man was Watanabe Kozo.

That tells you all you need to know about the National Political Establishment (NPE).

* Prof. Ikeda Nobuo recalled an interview he conducted with Ozawa Ichiro about the heavy financial burden placed on the younger generations of those actively working to financially support the growing population of the retired elderly. He quoted the Ozawa answer:

“National pensions are for (the people) to help each other, so that’s part of the system.”

Prof. Ikeda concluded that Mr. Ozawa was not so interested in the votes of the younger demographic.

* Meanwhile, during his 6:00 p.m. news conference, Mr. Noda stressed the importance of the bill for maintaining the social security system. He does not seem to have considered the idea of overhauling the system to add serious reforms to keep it both viable and affordable, nor has he given much thought to serious reforms of government to reduce expenditures. In other words, he is ignoring the global collapse of the social welfare system as we know it.

* The Sankei was struck by the contrast between a subdued Prime Minister Noda and a jaunty Tanigaki Sadakazu. Mr. Noda got what he wanted, but was unhappy. Meanwhile, the Sankei thought Mr. Tanigaki was behaving as if he were the head of government who had just pushed a bill through the Diet. Said the LDP boss:

“The (three-party) agreement that reflected the LPD position in its entirety, and the passage of the bill in the lower house, represent a major advance that has achieved “the politics of decisiveness”.

This is also a classic case of wanting to have your cake and eat it too. Consider:

“It is clear that (the DPJ) has lost the ability to lead a government, from the perspective of both policy and the basis of government. The necessity for taking their case to the people (i.e., a general election) grows stronger.”

Give him credit: That combines self-congratulation for getting the DPJ to swallow the LDP requests, congratulating the DPJ for passing the bill, criticizing the DPJ for having problems passing the bill, and calling for the prime minister to dissolve the lower house and call for a general election. Not everyone can concentrate the universe of power politics brutality into a few short sentences.

And despite their deal with the DPJ, the LDP could still introduce a no-confidence motion.

* Ozawa Ichiro said yesterday that he thought it wouldn’t be long now before a lower house election was held. Commentator Takahashi Yoichi suspects that the two major parties will replace both Mr. Noda and Mr. Tanigaki as their leaders for an election in the early fall.

* Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru was pertinent, as usual:

“Before the change of government, the Democratic Party clearly said it would not raise taxes for four years. If this tax increase is allowed to stand, we will no longer need pre-election policy debate or manifestoes. That sort of situation would allow politics in which anything goes.”

Finally, as Shakespeare said, “The daintiest last, to make the end most sweet,” so here’s the observation of lower house LDP MP Koizumi Shinjiro, who inherited both his father’s Diet seat and his verbal skills:

“Isn’t the political muscle causing the revolt of 57 people (of his own party) that of Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko? That’s because the Democratic Party did what it said it wouldn’t do. These numbers aren’t the result of Ozawa Ichiro’s influence. Aren’t they due to the strength of Prime Minister Noda?”

And hasn’t all that led to this?

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

Matsuri da! (127) The Japanese mind-spirit

Posted by ampontan on Monday, June 25, 2012

MATSURI, or traditional festivals, are the mind-spirit of the Japanese, they say. If that is true — and I think it is — what does the Kinefuri Festival held every April by the Abirumi Shinto shrine in Nakatsugawa, Gifu, say about the Japanese mind-spirit?

As is standard with most festivals, the Kinefuri has two parts: one consists of Shinto ceremonies, prayers, and the invocation of the deities, and the other features the performance/entertainment. Last year only the ceremonies were held because the Nakatsugawans refrained from the glorious goofiness out of consideration for the people who suffered in the Tohoku disaster. They resumed the goofiness this year. The event as a whole is an intangible cultural treasure of the prefecture.

That performance consists of a procession with three different elements. The first is a procession of four mikoshi, or portable Shinto shrines for transporting the deity. Children carry one, women carry the second (an innovation that started about six years ago), young men carry the third, and men of a traditionally critical age (yakudoshi) carry the fourth and most important one.

As the mikoshi are promenaded through neighborhoods on the two-kilometer course to the shrine (Japanese-language, with good photos), the people who live along the route douse them with water. An out-of-town Japanese visitor describing the festival on his blog asked the locals if there was a particular reason for throwing the water (such as purification). The answer was no, they just did it because it was hot. April in Gifu isn’t hot at all, but then the visitor discovered the third element of the procession — the divine horse and the flower horse — was originally held in July.

Everyone is drenched by the time they reach the shrine.

The second element is the kinefuri dance, performed this year by 50 young men, none of whom are older than 24. A kine is a pestle, and kinefuri means waving the pestle. That’s just what they do with their black and red pestles as they dance down the street, yelling “So-I”, wearing red, yellow, and blue head coverings that represent mortars. The dance is in supplication for a good harvest.

Festival or not, you can’t have a bunch of guys waltzing on public thoroughfares in funky chapeaux randomly swinging big sticks. Their way has to be cleared first, and for that the festival employs red demons wielding whackers of their own. Demons were chosen because they make darn sure everybody gets out of their way. In other words, they’re something like proactive bouncers. Tradition has it that being struck by their stick will prevent illness for a year.

In addition to the demons and the dance troupe, there are traditional comic figures to cheer up the kids freaked out by the demons, a female flute band, and a shishi, or lion figure, performing the shishi mai, or lion dance. That got started in ancient China when the gods told a monk in a dream that a lion would protect them from evil. The ancient Japanese liked the idea so much they started doing it themselves all over the country, with many regional variations.

The third element is the divine horse and the flower horse, the latter of which is covered with garlands of floral decorations. This is the last part of the procession, and the climax occurs when a group of energetic young bucks lead the broncs up the steep stairway to the shrine at a gallop. Along the way, the floral decorations fall off — or are snatched off — and those who find them in their possession will find they have good fortune in the upcoming year.

Possessing an object representing good fortune at a Japanese festival is not for pink tea mollycoddles, by the way. A year’s worth of action is at stake, so anyone casually bending down to pick up one of the decorations might well get elbowed in the ribs by a little old lady more interested in putting some flower power in her life rather than yours.

As you can see from the video clips, no one marches or dances in a straight line, so they take their good old time to get to the shrine. There’s one heck of a lot of stick waving, not only by the dancers and the demons, but also by other figures leading the mikoshi and the shishi mai. When the dancers return to the small square at the foot of the stairway leading to the shrine, they smash each other’s mortars with their pestles.

No one knows exactly how or when this festival got started. The people in Nakatsugawa don’t know for sure when the Abirumi shrine was founded.

If matsuri are the mind-spirit of the Japanese, what does the Kinefuri Festival say about that mind-spirit?

You’ll have to tell me.

******
Miscellany

Here’s an unrelated bit of news that’s too good to pass up and too brief to present on its own:

A 5mm diameter piece of glass jewellery believed to have been made by Roman craftsmen was found in an ancient tomb at Nagaokakyo near Kyoto, in western Japan. The glass beads, one of the oldest multilayered glass products, were believed to be made in the Roman Empire and sent to Japan, a researcher said…

Tests have revealed three glass beads discovered in the Fifth Century “Utsukushi” burial mound in Nagaoka, near Kyoto, were probably made some time between the first and the fourth century, the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties said.

Now to figure out how they got there.

Posted in Festivals, History | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Teamwork

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, June 24, 2012

CREATING a consensus for sustaining and expanding the administrative state requires teamwork among the major national political parties in Japan as their leaders heave-ho together on the rope of a consumption tax increase. Despite their protestations to the contrary and the intramural sabotage, however, one question has been settled: Regardless of the name stamped on their party ID card, they’re all on the same team wearing the uniform of the National Political Establishment, and the squad they’re playing against is The Public.

The NPE side creates its own capricious rules, acts as the referees, and has the discretion to let the match drag on for a year or to end it tomorrow by dissolving the lower house and calling an election.

But while people have kept their eye on the play-by-play over the past month, they’ve missed the greater import: The outcome could be among the most significant of all the political games of the past quarter-century. The opposition Liberal Democratic Party’s embrace of the ruling Democratic Party looks from one angle as if they are helping extend their rivals’ government, and from another angle as if it were a chokehold manipulated to love them to death. They both would consider it a boon if their pas de deus ex machina would settle the accounts for two decades’ worth of political intrigues by body slamming Ozawa Ichiro out of national politics. Further, it is a tossup whether the LDP hammerlock or the one the DPJ has on itself will prove to be the fatal hold for the ruling party. Other questions to be answered are whether they have cut a deal with Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru, AKA The National Sparkler, co-opted him, or have been played for suckers by him.

The Jiji news agency, whose political polls are thought to be the most accurate of the media surveys, recently released the results of their June 8-11 canvassing regarding the public’s opinions of the national parties.

The rate of support for the Noda Cabinet was 24.3% and those in opposition were at 54.8%. These are gallows numbers for a Japanese Cabinet. The support rate actually rose by one percentage point over the last poll, and it is the second nominal month-on-month increase, but in real terms they’re flatlining.

Generic support for the DPJ is at 8.1%, the lowest since the party took office. That is little solace for the LDP, whose numbers stand at 13.1%. Most important, the independent/unaffiliated voters are at 69%, which is also probably a record high. In other words, the favorite of seven out of ten Japanese is “None of the above”.

In addition, the Japan Association for Public Opinion Research conducted a poll that found 73% of those surveyed disapproved of the DPJ’s conduct of foreign affairs.

Viewed from that perspective, it is entirely possible the NPE understands their fate will be that of the team of mice in the photograph and are delaying it as long as they can. In the meantime, they will arrange to make their afterlife as comfortable as they can before The Public forces them to forfeit.

Profile in Courage

Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko has staked his political life (not his Diet seat, just the premiership) on passing legislation to increase the consumption tax in two steps from 5% to 10%. This is nominally to pay for the rising social welfare expenses, though the bulk of the increased revenue is to be allocated at first to public works projects rather than welfare benefits.

The additional revenue will do little to improve the nation’s fiscal problems — only serious government downsizing will do that — and the tax itself will likely depress economic activity to the extent that other tax revenues will fall. That’s what happened the last time it was raised.

Mr. Noda thinks he is exhibiting Churchillian courage:

“The entire national debate has split into two camps. Indeed, those in the opposition (to his Cabinet’s policies) are larger…When they truly think of the nation, the citizens, and the next generation, most people know what we must do. The politics I want to achieve is to decide what should be taken as a matter of course as if it were a matter of course.”

What he means by “matter of course” is hypertrophied social democratic Big Government limping under the banner of The Third Way. Any other course is off-the-wall eccentricity.

As for what “most people know what we must do”, we have data:

“Only 17 percent of voters want the Diet to pass tax hike legislation during the current session, a goal on which Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has staked his political life, an Asahi Shimbun survey showed.”

And that’s from a newspaper predisposed to support the DPJ government. A 4 June op-ed from the same newspaper offers all the reasons we’ll ever need to understand the strange growths in the Dismal Swamp:

“The essence of the Democratic Party of Japan is that of a mutual assistance organization which passes around the party name to help individuals win elections. The party is very loosely bound. After the DPJ became Japan’s leading party, the ties between the beliefs of each individual MP and the party have become frayed, and there has been gridlock between the lower and upper houses. Japanese politics is still in an extreme period of lethargy.”

Left unsaid (because everyone knows) was this: the DPJ contains within its ranks its own opposition party. A political divorce means the DPJ loses the house, or more specifically, its lower house majority.
The party was formed with the intent of bringing serious two-party rule to Japan and ending the LDP’s government monopoly. By extension, that meant dismantling the Iron Triangle of politicians, the bureaucracy, and big business, and the money politics that kept it welded together.

Their objective was achieved on the day the DPJ took office in 2009, which was also the day their usefulness ended. (The similarities with the Obama administration are uncanny.) Rather than dismantling the Iron Triangle, they were delighted to become accepted into the fraternity. Any political group that hangs together despite unimaginable internal contradictions is in it for the power and the perks.

Their membership ranges from people who claim Margaret Thatcher as their primary influence (Matsubara Jin) to ex-Socialists who joined the party when their charter contained favorable references to Karl Marx. They’re fleshed out by the usual caravan of status whores, time-servers, and the milquetoast social democrats who delight in playing Little Jack Horner but lack the inclination or the intellect to understand what happens to the pie after all the plums are pulled out.

Their singular achievement has been to reorient the political consciousness of the public, and now all that awaits them is the massacre of the next election. The public might get fooled again, but the DPJ won’t be the ones doing the fooling.

The internal opposition

Emblematic of their internal contradiction is that ascension to the party of government was made possible by their merger with Ozawa Ichiro and his allies, who have become the internal opposition party that will tear them apart. The merger was engineered when Kan Naoto was the DPJ president, and he and Mr. Ozawa appeared together after the merger to discuss it on a television program hosted by veteran journalist Tahara Soichiro. Mr. Tahara said it was one of his most difficult interviews because the two men refused to speak directly to each other.

Ozawa Ichiro, the man who would be kingbreaker

Opinions about Mr. Ozawa over the past 20 years have ranged from Savior to Destroyer, but now the bulk of the hourglass sand has fallen to the lower bulb. Most Japanese would be hard pressed to describe what, if any, political convictions he holds. The electorate holds him in less regard than it does his party. He came to prominence in the LDP in 1986 for his ability to persuade the opposition to pass the original consumption tax. (It took two years because the media was against it. Now their positions have reversed.)

After losing a power struggle with Hashimoto Ryutaro, he bolted the LDP and eventually became the backroom manipulator of the eight-party coalition government that ended the LDP monopoly. During that Hosokawa administration in 1984, he pushed the idea of a 7% “welfare tax” to replace the consumption tax, an idea that was later withdrawn.

Since then, he has formed and folded several new parties, entered and left a coalition with the LDP government, merged the same party with the DPJ, started several power struggles with other leaders (winning a few and losing the most recent string) and supported an opposition-led no confidence motion against Kan Naoto that was foiled at the last minute. (That’s apart from creating a substantial real estate portfolio for his political funds committee.)

If reports this week are to be believed, he is now preparing to leave the DPJ and form a new party with 50 or 60 MPs. (A Kyodo news agency survey counted up to 60 heads, but the Sankei Shimbun isn’t sure how much past 45 it will go.) The Asahi Shimbun reports that about 50 Ozawa-affiliated members have already submitted their resignations to the DPJ. If more than 54 head south, the DPJ’s lower house majority goes with them. It is estimated to take about JPY three billion yen to start a new party, and there is speculation that Mr. Ozawa will fund it by selling the real estate his political finance committee owns.

The nominal reason is that Ozawa the Opportunist is now opposed to an increase in the consumption tax he once supported because it breaks a promise made in the party manifesto to maintain the tax rate for four years. He is also using the excuse that regional devolution should come first, and that will take time. He showed little interest in that issue until Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru and his One Osaka group started leading all the national polls.

He’s announced that he will vote against the bill when it comes before the Diet on Tuesday, so all that remains to be seen is how many people go along with him. In Japan’s Westminster system, MPs who flout the party line are subject to penalties and sometimes thrown out of the party. Sources within the Ozawa camp say they will split even if the DPJ leadership chooses to administer the lightest of taps on the wrist. On the evening of the 21st, he held a meeting of like-minded DPJ MPs, and 50 showed up, counting him. It’s worth noting that 30 of those attending are in their first term, which means they were elected in 2009 through his assistance.

This is the same man who was celebrated in the West almost 20 years ago for his book, Blueprint for a New Japan, which argued that Japan should become a normal nation. Considering current conditions in the United States and Europe, he may have succeeded.

Not only is Mr. Noda ready for this to happen, he is encouraging it to happen. According to one reporter, he has told people that the legislation hiking the tax should pass even if it splits the party. Late last month, Mr. Noda and Mr. Ozawa met twice. The prime minister tried unsuccessfully to get Mr. Ozawa to back the tax hike, and it was at that point the bridges were burned. His negotiations with the opposition LDP and New Komeito went more smoothly; they’ll vote to pass the bill. Then again, the prime minister was more amenable to compromising with them.

Ozawa Ichiro will not be able to stop the tax increase because most of the DPJ MPs want to put off a general election until the last possible moment. But if the Ozawa group leaves in strength, the survival of the Noda Cabinet depends on the goodwill of the LDP and New Komeito. That would also leave enough votes for a no-confidence motion, which, if it passes, means a new election or a new Cabinet. The second of those two choices is the more likely, and that would mean a new caretaker prime minister until next summer, when a new election must be held for both houses. One psephologist working on the assumption of a 70-member Ozawa Party thinks only five from that group would be guaranteed to hold their seats, with another 18 favored. In short, the outlook is as bleak for the rest of that group as it is for the NPE as a whole.

Recall that last summer, Mr. Ozawa and former DPJ Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio were ready to form a new party with the Hatoyama family money after supporting an opposition no-confidence motion against Kan Naoto. That was averted only because the DPJ leadership came up with a transparent fiction that fooled Mr. Hatoyama the night before the vote.

Speaking of Little Boy Lost, Mr. Hatoyama understands the possibility that the party his mother’s money bought and paid for will disintegrate. In Hokkaido, he said:

“If the prime minister pushes this (tax bill) through, there is an extremely high danger that the party will split.”

But perhaps he isn’t so worried about it. On 6 June he said:

“As one of the people who created the DPJ, I would normally do whatever it took to avoid talking about breaking up the party. But now we are at a point at which we must think about what we should do from the perspective that the peoples’ lives are more important than the DPJ.”

For the nonce, he is said to be thinking of abstaining from the vote next Tuesday, or not showing up at all on principle, because it is the opposite of what he campaigned for.

Meanwhile, DPJ Supreme Advisor Watanabe Kozo (yes, that’s his title) publicly asked Ozawa Ichiro and Hatoyama Yukio (another Supreme Advisor) to please oppose the legislation so they could leave the party once and for all.

Not every DPJ solon thinks an election should be put off, however. Policy Research Committee Chairman and former party head Maehara Seiji suspects the party will have its back broken in a double election held next year. (He’s right about that.) He thinks it would be better for the party to take its lumps now and regroup for the upper house election next year.

And just to make things really crazy, some charge that the national media are trying to cast the disagreement as Ozawa against the party on purpose, when in fact many younger DPJ Diet members unaffiliated with Mr. Ozawa have been complaining about the tax increase to party leaders. One member estimated that 90% of the party’s Diet members do not want to pass the bill if it means splitting the party, and that not all of the senior members are interested in the de facto coalition with the opposition that passage of the bill means.

The Land of 1000 Coincidences

No country on earth has as many astonishing political coincidences as Japan. Another one occurred last week, just when political speculation was gusting, with the publication of the 21 June edition of the weekly Shukan Bunshu. It contained the text of what the magazine said was a letter from Ozawa Ichiro’s wife Kazuko to his supporters in his home district of Iwate explaining why she had decided to divorce him. It wasn’t because of the two mistresses or the child born to another woman; that’s why they’ve been separated. No, the reason was something else:

“A large and unprecedented natural disaster such as this (the Tohoku disaster) demands that a politician take action immediately. In fact, however, Ozawa and his aide were afraid of radiation and ran away. Looking at Ozawa, who cast aside during their hour of need the people of Iwate, who had supported him for many years, I understood that this was not a person who would serve for the benefit of Iwate and Japan, and so divorced him.”

By running away, she means that he flipped out after the Fukushima accident, told his aide to buy a large supply of salt, locked the doors to his house in Tokyo, and refused to leave. (She says the aide fled to the Kansai area, but he says it was on previously scheduled business.) He used water purchased commercially for food and washing and didn’t visit his home district in Iwate, one of the three prefectures most seriously damaged by the disaster, from 28 March to 1 December. That would also explain why it took him more than two weeks after the 11 March incident to get himself to Iwate begin with.

The website J-cast interviewed a member of his support group in Iwate after the news broke:

“We would have been thrilled if he had visited to raise our spirits and said, leave it to me, or do your best, but it’s too bad he didn’t do that. That’s what everyone around here is saying. That’s also what I thought when I read the Bunshun article. The first generation (Ozawa’s father, also a Diet member) really worked hard, but the second generation is just the second generation, I guess.”

In other words, whenever Mr. Ozawa appears in public in the future, the electorate will visualize in their minds’ eye the phrase National Wuss on his forehead.

Ozawa Kazuko, by the way, should not be perceived merely as the stay-at-home wife. She was the daughter of one of the executives of former Prime Minister Tanaka Kakei’s Iwate support group, and Tanaka is said to have encouraged the match. Mr. Ozawa won his first election to the Diet four years later with considerable assistance from his wife and father-in-law. Thus, she was always more the political wife in a semi-arranged marriage than just a homemaker.

The external opposition

Knowing that he would have trouble passing the tax increase through both houses against the wishes of his internal opposition, Mr. Noda has made arrangements to pass the bill with the help of the external opposition. After his meetings with Ozawa Ichiro, he replaced two Cabinet members that the opposition-controlled upper house censured. One of them was Defense Minister Tanaka Naoki, the son-in-law of Mr. Ozawa’s political mentor Tanaka Kakuei. His wife, Tanaka Makiko, and Mr. Ozawa remain close allies.

The prime minister first insisted that he would ignore the censures and keep them in the Cabinet — the Churchill imitation again — but he threw them overboard as a gift to bring to the opposition for discussions. Observed Takenaka Heizo, the mainstay of the Koizumi cabinets:

“I look forward to the participation of Mr. Moriyama, the private sector minister (of defense). Be that as it may, of the five new members, one was from the private sector, two were former LDP Japan Post rebels, and two were from the upper house. There are no pure DPJ lower house members. Are they having that much trouble finding qualified personnel?”

He had to ask?

LDP Secretary-General Ishihara Nobuteru looked that gift horse in the mouth:

“It’s been more than 40 days since the upper house passed the censure motions against the two ministers. It’s too late.”

LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki was thrilled with the present of a pony, however, and said that was a good sign for starting discussions.

Well, at least they didn’t have to discuss raising the consumption tax; they had already agreed to that. The subject at hand was what the DPJ would agree to in exchange for the votes of the LDP and New Komeito to create what some have called the Tax Increase Coalition.

The terms included the DPJ renunciation of a guaranteed minimum pension, and their opposition to the system that came into effect during the Fukuda administration in which the late stage elderly (age 75 and over) who are financially better off pay more for their health care. Both of those policies are in the DPJ 2009 election manifesto.

Some in the DPJ objected to reneging on their manifesto, but everyone else horse-laughed. These discussions are being held in the context of raising the consumption tax, which the DPJ manifesto promised not to do.

Okada Katsuya can’t bear to look

Maehara Seiji called for withdrawing some of the platform planks, including that for the guaranteed minimum pension. Former LDP Secretary-General Ibuki Bunmei said the LDP demand wasn’t necessary because the issues in question weren’t actually law. Other long-in-the-tooth types in the party agreed, including former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and former Secretary General Makoto Koga. Rather than disavowing the two policies, the DPJ offered to shelve them without introducing them as legislation in the Diet, and the LDP thought that was sufficient to strike a bargain.

Some LDP members objected because the DPJ couldn’t be trusted: They reneged on their manifesto, after all. Others in the LDP crowed that they succeeded in getting the ruling party to withdraw their manifesto pledges. That upset many in the DPJ, who remember that the LDP opposed a cigarette tax increase behind the claim that it would be bad for the economy (to hide the reality that it would be bad for the tobacco growers who back the LDP), and eventually backtracked on their own decision to privatize Japan Post.

The DPJ finally had to eat a beggar’s banquet of crow. Deputy Prime Minister Okada Katsuya started the first course by bringing up his party’s approach to pension system reform when it was in the opposition:

“Sincerely speaking, we have no excuse. There is no question that we went too far.”

He’s referring to a bill they submitted when in opposition to reform the pension system that was nearly identical to the LDP/New Komeito bill unifying private and public sector pensions. They opposed the government’s bill because it didn’t include the national pensions. Said Mr. Okada:

“It takes time to achieve sweeping reform, so we should have adopted the realistic method of starting by doing that which we could do…If we assume that most people thought we wouldn’t have to make a decision about it during this term, I am extremely sorry.”

The party nearly gagged on his discussion of their manifesto the following day:

“Rather than our manifesto, we won (the election) due to the large trend among the people looking for a change of government…If you ask whether the JPY 26,000 yen monthly children’s allowance was excessive, I think it was excessive…Most people voted with the idea that there should be a change of government.”

That had to be hard for Mr. Okada to digest: His reputation is that of a man who believes the party should always uphold the manifesto, and indeed, as one of the most prominent among those calling for manifesto-based elections to begin with. In January 2004, he said:

“Irresponsible Diet members who take actions other than those in the manifesto are not in this party.”

They are now, and he’s one of their leaders.

Takenaka Heizo understands the core problem with all of this behavior:

“The DPJ, LDP, and New Komeito are holding discussions about social security and tax reform. We have absolutely no understanding of what sort of negotiations went on, what the results of the negotiations were, and the process involved. Questioning the ministers in the Diet yields only in the superficial response that talks are underway. Some Diet members themselves say they don’t understand it. Blatant backroom politics such as this is unprecedented.”

Not unprecedented, perhaps, but not healthy for the body politic.

One of the last of the Koizumians in the LDP, former Secretary-General Nakagawa Hidenao, put it in context:

“The DPJ says it has not withdrawn its pork barrel manifesto. Regardless of how often the LDP says that the DPJ withdrew the manifesto, the DPJ says they haven’t, so it hasn’t been withdrawn. The LDP withdrew its request to withdraw the manifesto…

“Finally, we’ve got something like an answer. Today, some of the people promoting the sales tax increase began to make reference to either a tax increase grand coalition, or a tax increase political reorganization after the legislation passes, in which members of both the ruling and opposition parties who support the tax increase will join forces.”

And Your Party leader Watanabe Yoshimi explains what that means:

“The political party-cabinet structure collapsed in the 1930s during quasi-wartime conditions, and the bureaucracy-cabinet system began, in which no one had to undergo the trial of elections. An atmosphere formed in which it became difficult to object. Later the Imperial Rule Assistance Association was created (and political parties dissolved), and the legislature became a rubber stamp institution. Now, with the great collusion of the DPJ, the LDP and New Komeito, the Diet has devolved into a mere tax increase rubber stamp institution.”

This is what politicians do to keep from admitting that they spend too much of other people’s money rather than complain that they have too little of it.

Speaking of Mr. Nakagawa, it is also possible that he and the Koizumians will vote against the tax bill, though everyone is being vague. He formed a group of about 20 people that has been meeting to discuss the issue since May. They face some problems of their own: Vote on principle and they associate themselves with Ozawa or Hatoyama, which they don’t want to do. Vote the party line and they open themselves to attack from the real opposition in the next election.

The Real Opposition

While entropy has its way with the politicians at the national level, the rebel/reformers at the local level continue to consolidate their energy and their position. When Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru relented and approved the restart of the Oi nuclear power plants, reversing his initially intense opposition, some wondered if that would harm him among his supporters. The results of a JNN poll taken of Osaka voters after his switch answered that question:

Q: Do you support Mayor Hashimoto?
Yes: 54%
No: 38%

Q: Do you support the resumption of nuclear power generation at the Oi plant?
Yes: 49%
No: 31%

During the first week of June, the Mainichi Shimbun conducted a poll of voters asking for which party they would cast proportional representation ballots:

One Osaka (Hashimoto): 37%
DPJ: 7%
LDP: 10%

If you can’t beat ‘em, co-opt ‘em, is a classic political strategy. The DPJ seemed to have adopted that strategy when they came up with a new legislative proposal out of the ether that addressed the issue on which Mr. Hashimoto campaigned for mayor: Merging the city and prefecture of Osaka to create an administrative district similar to that of Tokyo. All of a sudden it was announced that a DPJ working team had put together legislation that would allow the Osaka Metro District to be created, and the government would submit it to the Diet during the current term. That was superb timing for a party that had paid little attention to the issue before and whose reputation as the head of government is an inability to present coherent legislation in a timely manner.

Hashimoto Toru explains

The bill would allow areas of specially designated cities and local municipalities with an aggregate population of more than 2 million people to merge, eliminate the surrounding municipalities, and create special internal districts. It would require the municipalities to submit a report on their plan to the Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications, who would study the plan (well, the bureaucrats would) and render an opinion. It would also retain some national government involvement at the local level, including that for the distribution of tax resources and some authority, which is not what the local movements are seeking.

The original bill required consultation with the national government for approval of the full plan, but the Asahi Shimbun said the DPJ scaled back the involvement of the national government as a kiss blown in Mr. Hashimoto’s direction. The government will now discuss their bill with other parties, who have introduced similar bills of their own.

Mr. Hashimoto was pleased as punch:

“If the future form of the nation is given priority to the consumption tax issue, the metro district concept bill will be of exceptional historical significance. The consumption tax should be considered after indicating the direction in which the form of the nation will be changed.”

In fact, Mr. Hashimoto said that if the bill passed during the current Diet session, his One Osaka group might not run candidates in the next lower house election, after vowing to take the government down.

Eyebrows raised immediately throughout the archipelago. People first suspected the NPE might be trying to co-opt his primary issue. After he acquiesced to the restart of the Oi nuclear reactors, some thought he had used the nuclear power issue as a weapon to prod the national government in the direction he wanted. (Mr. Hashimoto does not pussyfoot.) Others wondered what would happen to the political juku he is sponsoring to cultivate candidates to run in the next lower house election.

But most people — especially those in the media — missed what he said after that:

“I did not consult with One Osaka (before saying) there is no need for One Osaka to go into national politics absent a great cause…I will not run in a national election. I am not suited to be a member of the national Diet. My position is one in which I have been directly selected by the voters, such as mayor or governor, and I am doing that job now. While it’s not impossible, I am not the type of person who can work under the British system of a cabinet of legislators.

That wasn’t the whole story, either. Here’s Osaka Governor and One Osaka Secretary-General Matsui Ichiro:

“If the Diet members do not fulfill their promise to reform government finances, we must go into national politics.”

He does not mean that a consumption tax increase is a reform of government finances, by the way. He added:

“Even if an Osaka Metro District is created, Osaka would not float by itself if japan sinks. We hope all the Diet members move forward based on a clear consensus in this Diet session that the ship of Japan does not sink.”

And:

“We (he and Mr. Hashimoto) are in complete agreement on our goal, and the speed at which we are heading there. There is just some difference in our wording. That’s about it.”

One Osaka policy chief Asada Hitoshi gave a speech to Tokyo reporters on the 12th and was asked about the Hashimoto statement:

“The bill (creating an Osaka Metro District) hasn’t passed yet, and our primary goal of getting involved with national politics has not ended….After the completion of the metro district concept, the second stage is to ask the residents and the chief municipal officers in the surrounding area whether they will become special districts within the metro district or merge with other cities to create core cities.“

The political juku is still operating (and the students were addressed by Tokyo Gov. Ishihara Shintaro today). The student body was reduced from 2,000 to 915. Mr. Matsui said that preference in the cull was given to members of the national reform party Your Party currently serving as delegates in subnational government legislatures.

That dovetails with stories that One Osaka would support Your Party head Watanabe Yoshimi for prime minister if they and their allies gained control of the Diet. Mr. Hashimoto would have a major voice in national affairs in such an arrangement, even if he stayed in Osaka. He’s also young enough that he could eventually benefit from a constitutional change permitting the direct election of prime ministers, which One Osaka favors. There are also stories that One Osaka is sounding out Diet members about switching parties, particularly those in the DPJ.

Some in the English-language media are calling this a flip-flop, but they’re forgetting Hashimoto Toru’s declaration in 2008 that it was “2000% impossible” he would run for governor of Osaka that year. He ran for governor of Osaka that year and his margin of victory demonstrated that the voters didn’t care what he said first.

If the DPJ thought they would co-opt him, Mr. Hashimoto’s Twitter barrage yesterday on current events in Tokyo should disabuse them of that notion:

“If this behavior (of the DPJ government) is allowed to stand, the next general election will have nothing to do with manifestoes or policies. That’s because politicians will be capable of doing exactly the opposite of what they said they wouldn’t do…As regards manifestoes, Japanese politics is immature. To what extent can the political promises with the people be modified? The media (in supporting the tax increase) are absolutely mistaken. If they say the last part of the process is for the voters to render a decision in an election, then that is just a complete rubber-stamping of the process. If what politicians say before an election can be repudiated and that is deemed acceptable if ratified through a national election, pre-election policy debate is meaningless.

“If this process for raising the consumption tax is permitted, no one will trust politics. Everyone understands the reason for raising the consumption tax. Everyone knows the government doesn’t have enough money…The DPJ would find the revenue source equal to the tax increase if they withdrew all of the policies they adopted that require greater expenditures. But they do what is not written in the manifesto just for taxes without withdrawing their policies. This process is not acceptable. ..It is the mission and the obligation of the politicians to ask for ratification through an election. If they proceed with Nagata-cho and Kasumigaseki logic without doing that, the people will not follow.”

Who’d have guessed that The Dictator insists on proper democratic procedures for determining and implementing policy? Not the people who enjoy the Hashimoto as Hitler narrative, because that would force them to take facts into account. Griping about Hashism for as long as he stays a national figure is a cheap way to demonstrate how marvelous and progressive and well-behaved they are.

Phoning it in

Prime Minister Noda is said to be threatening potential DPJ rebels and supporters of what is being termed an Ozawa political coup d’etat with a dissolution of the lower house and a general election, though he also supposedly promised other party elders he wouldn’t do that. Mr. Ozawa is warning against that course of action, for excellent reasons. We’ve seen all of them in the poll results at the beginning of this piece.

Meanwhile, after Mr. Noda announced his decision to restart the nuclear reactors at Oi, one western media outlet observed that he risked a voter backlash at the polls.

You mean something other than the voter backlash that the party’s been flogged with since January 2010? The decision of Hashimoto Toru to go along with the resumption of generation hasn’t hurt him in the polls.

This isn’t simply a matter of the eternal journo ignorance and their laziness to conduct ABC research. These people have space to fill, and they think they can fill it by presenting something superficially plausible to satisfy their equally ignorant editors and unsuspecting readers.

When the reformers ride into Tokyo to dispose of the corpses from the team of dead NPE mice — and that day is drawing closer — they’ll still be in the dark. But they’ll make up something or other and find a few college professors to say it for them. They always do.

UPDATE: Hatoyama Yukio has changed his mind again and now wants to delay a vote on the tax bill to prevent a party split. (He didn’t see this coming?) He also wants a confirmation that the lower house will not be dissolved. As for a new Ozawa party, however, he would only say that he would not be interested “immediately”.

It’s hard to stay relevant when you’re so irrelevant.

Handicappers seem to think as many as 70 DPJ members will vote against the bill, abstain from voting, or not show up to vote. That’s roughly 25% of the party membership in the lower house. Not all of them are expected to leave the party, however.

*****
Speaking of public opinion surveys, Yomiuri conducted one last year asking people to name their favorite song of the Showa era (25 December 1925 – 7 January 1989). The public selected Misora Hibari’s version of Kawa no Nagare no Yo ni (Like the Flow of a River), which is cutting the timing close: It was released on an album in December 1988, but not released as a single until 11 January 1989, four days into the Heisei era. Misora Hibari died in June that year. Here she is performing it in January…during the Heisei era.

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

Artistic expression

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 19, 2012

CAN’T pass this story up, though it’s not Japan-related.

From the Bangkok Post:

The Culture Ministry will call a meeting with organisers of Thailand’s Got Talent after the popular programme aired a female contestant painting on a canvas with her bare breasts on national television on Sunday.

“There must be limits on artistic expression. I was shocked when I saw the clip,” Ms Sukumol said. “The ministry will meet the organisers of Thailand’s Got Talent to get an explanation.”

There were three judges on the program. Two passed the contestant and one flunked her. Two of the judges were men and one of them was a woman. The judges who passed the contestant said it was another type of artistic expression.

No, you don’t have to ask. You already know.

There’s a six-minute video at that link, by the way. The program was recorded before broadcast, so one small section of the screen was electronically altered.

There’s no accounting for taste, I know, but I would have preferred to see the female judge (actress Pornchita Na Songkhla) render that painting rather than the actual painter. Her nickname is Benz.

Oh, brothers and sisters, ask and ye shall receive! Benz (who thought the performance was inappropriate for Thai culture) has some experience with this sort of thing herself. As the blogger Kaewmala reports at this website, she starred in a photo layout for Image magazine in 2010. In a couple of those photos, she’s topless and covered with chocolate. In another, she bares half her chest (vertically, from the middle out) with two rather dark-complexioned gentlemen pulling on her blouse.

As the site notes, that raises the question of whether some breasts are more artistically equal than others.

Now that’s an issue that deserves thorough debate!

Kaewmala also reports that Judge Benz really digs it when boys do it:

In fact, the gender split is reversed in this vote on the same program. The comparison of this video with the one in the link above is one of the most educational experiences I’ve ever had on the Internet.

*****
There’s a big black hairy guy in this one, too. One commenter says the pianist’s name is Elton.

Posted in Arts, I couldn't make this up if I tried, Music, Thailand | Leave a Comment »

Ichigen koji (112)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, June 18, 2012

一言居士

- A person who has something to say about everything

The first thing those people demonstrating in front of the Kantei in opposition to nuclear power should do is put together a summary of their argument that there will be enough power without nuclear energy. If there’s enough, then they have to show us where this power is hidden. If there isn’t, they should admit that they failed to give sufficient thought to the people who will be unemployed or die as a result of their policies. People who only insist on their rights without taking responsibility have no right to question the responsibility of others.

- The blogger known as Ryoko 174

Posted in Quotations, Science and technology | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

Females, food, and fertility rites: Is there a finer combination?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, June 17, 2012

SCANNING the back pages and far corners of local Japanese newspapers, either in print or online, has been a delight for the past month. It’s rice-planting time in Japan, and that means hundreds, if not thousands, of ceremonies are held throughout the nation honoring the tradition of wet paddy cultivation, each one a spectacular in miniature.

The priests of the proto-religions in some cultures sacrificed their young virgins to appease the volcano gods and other sullen spirits. Man, that’s just screwy, and I’ll bet it didn’t make the gods any happier than it made the young men of the tribe. In Japan, they keep those precious young virgins alive for more productive endeavors. One of those activities is to serve as miko (Shinto shrine maidens), who dress in colorful costumes, sing, dance, get barefoot, and snork rice seedlings into the mud by hand. They’re sometimes accompanied by the Shinto priests, who get down and get dirty right alongside them.

If you want to know what it looks like without getting out of your chair, you’ve come to the right place.

The local branch of the national agricultural cooperative pitched in to help plant a sacred paddy at the Dewa Sanzan Shrine in Tsuruoka, Yamagata, shown in the first picture. (That shrine link is in English, by the way.) The ceremony is held in supplication for a good harvest, which in this case will be turned over to the shrine itself. It started with a procession of 70 people to the site and continued with a Shinto ceremony conducted by the priests. That was followed by a dance performed by the miko and the planting itself in a 17-are paddy. (An are = 100 square meters or 0.0247 acres, and 100 ares = a hectare)

The home in the background is that of the Wada family in Ogi-machi, Shirakawa-mura, Gifu, and has been designated an important cultural property of the nation. It’s one of a settlement of homes that constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site: The Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama.  The name for the architectural style translates as “prayer hands”, which is particularly effective for dealing with the area’s heavy snows. The houses were home to extended families on several floors, who usually worked in the sericulture industry.

Reports say that the 20 girls at the Wada family paddy were singing while they worked, which makes me wonder if I should have been a farmer instead.

Yeah, they grow rice in Tokyo too — technically in Chofu, a municipality within the Tokyo Metro District. This ceremony was conducted at Jindai-ji, a Buddhist temple, which is not surprising considering the mix-and-match approach of the Japanese to religion. There’s been a temple on this site since at least 733. The ceremony was conducted jointly with their sister city in Kijimadaira-mura, Nagano.

In addition to planting the seedlings in this paddy, the seven farmerettes passed out some to the spectators to grow at home. One later said, “It was a lot of fun to be able to experience something I don’t normally do.” If you think she was just being polite, look at that sweet smile in the photo above. Girls who are ready for a new experience, even if it means manual labor while sloshing around in the mud, will always find shelter from the storms of life at my place.

This short video of the temple grounds is well done, by the way.

One intriguing aspect of a country with nearly two millennia of traditions is the frequency with which some of those traditions disappear and then reappear. For example, the folks associated with the Izumo Daijingu Shinto shrine in Kameoka, Kyoto, haven’t conducted this ceremony in 84 years. It was last held to coincide with the ceremony marking the formal installment of the Showa Tenno. Last spring, the shrine recovered some land it had leased out, so they decided to use it this year to put in some sacred rice. Sixty people in all participated, including the high school girls who served as the miko in the 500-square-meter plot. There was also a gagaku dance performance, which goes together with these events as well as peaches and cream. Gagaku is the music associated with the Imperial household, as are shrines with the –jingu suffix.

This shrine knows a lot about tradition, too. It dates from 709. They think.

The rice planting festival conducted by the Mikami Shinto shrine website in Yasu, Shiga, was also held every year to coincide with the Showa Tenno ceremony in 1928, but they skipped it last year due to a shortage of participants. The Shigans decided not to let that happen again, so a woman who’s been involved in the event for more than 20 years organized a group of 50 to take care of business this time. There was singing and dancing and planting in time to the beat of the taiko drums. When it was done, the woman said her hips hurt, but it was worth it. Try this website for more photos, including some black and white shots from a more pastoral age.

They didn’t have any problem finding enough women to carry the mikoshi in May 2010 at that same shrine’s Hyozu festival, however. The festival features a parade of at least 35 mikoshi (portable shrines transporting the shrine deity), two of which are carried by women only. This one’s called the Ayame, or iris. How can anybody not love sweaty shouting girls with cool clothes and hair?

Another intriguing aspect of a country with nearly two millennia of traditions is how relaxed people can be about those traditions. Look at those costumes: Centuries worth of convention from their hairstyles to their ankles. Below that, they’ve wisely updated to sports shoes.

The Takase shrine in Nanto, Toyama, goes out of its way to plant koshihikari seedlings, reputed to be the best variety of rice in the country. Five girls from ages 14 to 20 got 500 of the seedlings started on a 25-meter-square paddy. After the rice is harvested in mid-September, some will be given to the Takase shrine, and some to the Ise-jingu, also associated with the Imperial household.

The Tozawa shrine in Shinjo, Yamagata, doesn’t have the tradition of other institutions — it’s been around only since 1893. They talked 13 girls into planting the rice here, and they certainly seem to be enjoying themselves. The same ceremony is conducted in turn by 11 branches of the shrine in the region that are members of the Association of Shinto Shrines, and you really ought to click on this link to see their headquarters building in Tokyo.  The reports didn’t say what they’d do with the rice harvested in late September or early October, but somebody somewhere is going to eat it.

For a rural extravaganza, try the Mibu no Hanadaue in Kitahiroshima-cho, Hiroshima, which is both an important intangible cultural property of the nation and registered as a UNESCO intangible cultural property.  Two groups of 74 musicians jam while the miko sing and plant rice on an 87-are plot, assisted by 14 bulls.

Did you think I was exaggerating when I said extravaganza?

What the heck, one more update. This ceremony was held on the grounds of the Sumiyoshi Shinto shrine in Fukuoka City’s Hakata Ward, which means it’s one of those downtown paddies. They only had room for 280 seedlings in the nine-meter-square paddy, planted by 10 miko and shrine parishioners after a procession that consisted of 20 people. They expect three kilograms of rice later on this fall. Said 18-year-old Tachibana Yui, who became a miko in April, “I was nervous because it was a religious ceremony, but I’m looking forward to the fall harvest.”

Washing all that rice down requires some sort of beverage, and the finest beverage for that is green tea, which is now in picking instead of planting season.

This tea was planted on a 10-are plot during an event conducted by the Kumano shrine in Tanabe, Wakayama, with prayers for better quality product and the prosperity of the industry.

Wouldn’t you know it? This shrine is also a UNESCO world heritage site.

Last month, two miko and five members of the shrine’s women’s association harvested the first batch of otonashi tea, which was sent to the area from Kyoto about a thousand years ago during the Heian period.  The district has 40 households growing tea on seven hectares, and they produce about 18 tons a year.

The first batch went to the Imperial household, and the second will be picked at the end of this month.

*****

I eat rice nearly every day, and 95% of it is brown.

Posted in Festivals, History, Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Ichigen koji (111)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, June 17, 2012

一言居士

- A person who has something to say about everything

The Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party have agreed through discussions to raise the consumption tax. As expected (LDP head) Tanigaki’s demand for a Diet dissolution and a general election are gone with the wind. The results of these discussions show that the LDP has joined Noda’s DPJ on the road toward a tax increase, and so they are helping him extend the life of his government. The LDP is now no longer an opposition party, but a wretched group that is devoted to becoming part of the ruling party.

The LDP went into the opposition after its 2009 defeat, but it seems to be over for them now.

Meanwhile, the Noda DPJ has completely abandoned its manifesto and has clearly become the #2 LDP. This development is extremely easy to understand.

At any rate, there will be a general election by next summer. It will give the electorate a clear choice: either the Noda + Tanigaki “DPJ-LDP”, or other groups.

Both the LDP and the DPJ are on the same page with their aversion to dissolving the Diet. Tanigaki, who insisted on a dissolution, has become a clown. Their fear of a dissolution is proof that they think they’ll lose. But the hands of the clock have moved, and they can’t be turned back.

So at this rate, the consumption tax will rise, electric bills will rise, companies will move overseas, and the economy will grow worse. Overseas interests will buy up the few remaining blue chip companies, they will be managed by foreigners, the number of regular employees will decline, and they will be staffed entirely by temporary employees. New university graduates will have just as much difficulty finding a job as their European counterparts.

The next election will be the last chance to put a stop to this.

The strength of SMBEs is their extraordinary ability to develop new products. That should allow them to survive, but foreign capital will become aware of them and buy them up. People will suddenly notice that the company president is Chinese, and there are many Chinese everywhere you look. That will become the new normal.

A lot of people say they hate political crises, but this is really about the lives of the salarymen. To say “enough of the political crises”, as if it were someone else’s affair, is a symptom of the terminal stage of the “boiled frog syndrome”. You suddenly become aware that you’ve been boiled.

I cordially request those people who say they don’t know anything about the “boiled frog syndrome” to boil until they turn a bright red.

- Newspaperman and author Hasegawa Yukihiro

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, China, Foreigners in Japan, Government | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

It stands

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, June 16, 2012

THE easily flabbergasted who are always surprised that a powerful politician would risk everything by trying to pull a woman half or one-third his age make me wonder about the planet of their origins. The lessons of evolutionary biology suggest that the reason men get into politics in the first place (or seek any kind of power) is the excellent opportunities it presents to engage younger women at close quarters. The flabbergasted have it backwards. An idealistic desire to serve the public? Well sure — Youth must be served, right?

Biological imperatives override age and presumed wisdom, and the process of riding often results in peculiar behavior. Take the recent example of Sengoku Yoshito.

The only position Mr. Sengoku now holds in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan is the acting chairman of the Policy Research Committee. Officially, he is subordinate to Chairman Maehara Seiji, who is also co-leader of the party faction to which the former belongs. Most political observers assume, however, that he is one of the most influential and powerful men in the party (or at least his wing of it), and shapes policy and events from behind the scenes.

He began his professional career as an attorney specializing in human rights cases. Before he turned to politics, he turned to defending people with yakuza connections. Among its other attractions, money sometimes compensates quite nicely for a shortage of masculine appeal.

When Kan Naoto became prime minister, he appointed Mr. Sengoku to be his chief cabinet secretary. The duties of that position change with each prime minister, but in most cases he is the second most important person in the Cabinet.

The combination of his unpleasant behavior when dealing with the political opposition and the Kan Cabinet’s conversion of the Senkakus Incident into a colossal cockup led to his censure by the upper house. That led to his replacement in January 2011, just seven months into the job.

The Casanova of the East

One month before that, a reception was held at the Kantei  (Japan’s White House or 10 Downing St.) for reporters covering the prime minister. As the story was later told, Mr. Sengoku stood next to a female reporter for the Nikkei Shimbun during the reception, and gave her a rub from her neck to the small of her back and a running account of his reactions: “I’m old, but I think (it) will still stand. Oh, it stands, it stands. I’m still fine.”

The verb to stand (tatsu) in Japanese is a common euphemism for an erection.

It didn’t take long for the story to circulate, and it was published in the 13 January 2011 editions of the Shukan Bunshun and the Shukan Shincho, both weeklies. A week or so before that, one of those magazines had already brushed aside the threat of a Sengoku lawsuit by publishing a story about his business connections with people associated with the yakuza, some of whom were zainichi Koreans.

He apparently thought the second charge was the more detrimental to his reputation than the first, so he sued them both for defamation of character and sought JPY 10 million yen in damages from each. He went so far as to say their stories represented a “crisis for journalism”, but then again, he is a lawyer. The print media talked to the woman in question before the case went to court, and she confirmed the story.

At first, Mr. Sengoku denied everything in the magazine articles and said he brought suit because the main points of the stories were incorrect. But his description of events took on greater nuance as the trial progressed. He finally allowed as how it was partially true, but that he wasn’t speaking to the female reporter exclusively. He was talking to all the people within earshot.

“There were a lot of female reporters there. I wasn’t addressing one specific reporter.”

He also claimed:

“I remember saying ‘(It) won’t stand’, but I did not say ‘(It) will stand’…I regularly use the expression ‘(It) will not stand’ on a daily basis.

One reporter present said there was laughter in the courtroom after this remark.

That was enough for Judge Miyasaka Masatoshi. He asked:

“If you did say that much, why didn’t you put it in your brief?“

Judge Miyasaka found that Mr. Sengoku did rub the woman’s back and used an expression clearly related to his “male function”. His Honor held that the magazines got some of the details wrong, but in the main, Mr. Sengoku’s “words and actions” were such that they could be perceived as sexual harassment. He added that even though the plaintiff thought he was offering banter with sparkle and wit from a male perspective, many women would not agree.

He dismissed the lawsuit.

And that brings us to the interesting stuff.

* While this story is all over the Internet (starting with some print media outlets), it doesn’t seem to have been reported at all on the television shows that would be expected to fast track a sexual harassment incident with a politician into the lead story. Many of those programs are broadcast on weekdays during the day, so their primary audience is female. In other words, the network execs turned up their nose at a ratings geyser.

Some suspect Mr. Sengoku’s political affiliation is the reason. If he were an LDP pol, they say, the television networks would have been all over him like a politician on a pretty reporter at a reception.

Others suspect a different reason. There are rumors that Mr. Sengoku is himself from a family of a naturalized zainichi Koreans (some say Korean of Chinese descent), and that television avoids stories such as these for the same reason that news outlets in the West can’t bring themselves to mention the ethnic and religious origins of rioting Muslims in Europe.

* In contrast with her Western sisters in similar positions, the woman subjected to Mr. Sengoku’s attention didn’t make an issue of it. She didn’t care for the attention, but limited herself to confirming the stories for reporters when word got out. Her identity has still, as far as I know, not been reported, and she was identified in reports only as “M”. No righteously indignant preening before the cameras, no urge to turn it into a teachable moment, and no use of it as a boost to climb the career ladder.

* Here’s another contrast: J. Strom Thurmond, the late American senator who lived more than a century and served in the Senate into his 90s, was a highly accomplished swordsman of legend. In South Carolina, the story goes, he accompanied a woman to her execution, and while in the back seat of the car, gave her something to remember on her journey to the other side.  (To be sure, he had been involved in the case as a judge/law enforcement officer and was already having an affair with her.) After helping judge a Miss South Carolina contest at the age of 45, he employed the winner as a clerk in his office and married her within the year. After her death, he married again at age 66, this time choosing a 22-year-old aide, with whom he had four children. During his retirement speech from the Senate at age 99, he told the other senators, “I love all of you, especially your wives.”

But Thurmond exercised an hour a day every day, seldom drank, and had strict dietary habits (no beef or pork). He did pushups on the floor of his Senate office for reporters in his 90s to demonstrate that he was up to the physical demands of the job. He also is said to have had the charm and the manners of a Southern gentleman.

Mr. Sengoku, however, is a cancer survivor who no longer has a stomach, still drinks, looks a decade older than his 66 years even after the liberal application of hair dye, and has never been known for his winning personality.

* Sengoku Yoshito is by all accounts an extremely intelligent man, yet he actually thought he couldn’t lose with the stuff he used? Was he reverting to second childhood…using that approach because he doesn’t know any better…or have I been too respectful of Japanese women all these years?

* Speaking of intelligence, Mr. Sengoku was widely rumored to be the real power in the Kan government. Some reports said that he told associates he had no choice because Kan Naoto was so incompetent as to be hopeless.

Well, maybe that’s not a demonstration of Sengoku smarts. It didn’t take long for everyone else to figure that out, either.

*****

Sengoku Yoshito, Esq.

Posted in Mass media, Politics, Popular culture | Tagged: , , | 8 Comments »

 
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