Japan from the inside out

Archive for April, 2009

Matsuri da! (105): The festival for manly men

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 30, 2009

DESPITE THE INTENSE COMPETION that is often part of Shinto festivals, which can range from events resembling ad hoc sporting events to those that look like shrine-authorized street rumbles, few of the matsuri have a martial air. One exception is the yabusame festivals, during which archers mounted on galloping horses fire arrows at targets as they race by.

A manly man and his manly men

A manly man and his manly men

Another exception is the Lord Shingen Festival, one of the largest in Kofu, Yamanashi. That annual event is held in early April near the anniversary of that manly man’s death on the 12th. The event honors the life and times of the local daimyo, Shingen Takeda, who was quite the 16th century warlord and the city’s founder. He strutted his ruthless stuff during the bloody Warring States period in Japanese history, which means he didn’t fight by Marquis of Queensbury rules. He reached the top by knocking off his predecessor—his father—and then spent the rest of his 52 years war-gaming for real through various military campaigns.

We don’t know whether it was the genes or the Yamanashi water, but Shingen’s eldest son was a chip off the old block who plotted to accelerate his own succession. Dad, having traveled down that road himself, sensed what was afoot and had the lad confined to quarters. Number one son died under mysterious circumstances two years later. Perhaps he should have considered himself lucky. When Shingen discovered a similar plot by his cousin, he ordered the man to cut his belly open on the spot.

Shingen is sometimes referred to as The Tiger of Kai for his mastery of the battlefield, Kai being the name of his ‘hood in those days. But the daimyo had a sensitive side as well, and during his youth he was known for writing excellent poetry.

Kofu spares no effort to recreate his history in its 450-year time slip to those glorious days of yesteryear, when the warriors were brave, courageous, and bold manly men. Replicas of furinkazan, Lord Shingen’s personal flag, are hung throughout the town during the event. The festival is a two-day affair that kicks off with a parade featuring a brass band, musical performances, and a fireworks exhibition. There are also special readings for parents and children of folk tales in which Shingen plays a prominent role, and a lecture titled Takeda Shingen and His Times. The organizers offer a walking tour of local sites associated with the lord that passes through the remnants of the Takeda shrine. Visitors tuckered out after all that walking can relax free of charge at a local hot spring facility. And because the event takes place in early April, they can appreciate the beauty of the cherry blossoms at the former Shingen residence. Perhaps some of them are moved to write poetry of their own.

But the real fun begins on the second and final day. Around 11:00 a.m., twenty-four mounted horsemen wearing the battle dress of Takeda’s generals are joined at Takeda shrine by 1,600 local men dressed as samurai infantry in period costumes, as well as performers of the Shingen dance. They march through the center of Kofu bearing torches and hauling cannon on what is now called Heiwa-dori (Peace Street), just as the proudly non-pacific Shingen and his army did before pushing off for the Battle of Kawanakajima. Along the way, they meet up with a procession of wheeled floats. During the course of the parade, the mounted samurai gallop from Kofu City Hall to the train station. The entire procession stops by the old Takeda Shinto shrine to pray for victory. The festival’s climax occurs in a riverbed at Isawa Kawanakajima during a recreation of the 1561 battle in which Shingen defeated Uesugi Kenshin. The latter was known as the Dragon of Echigo, which suggests that he was a manly man as well, despite his defeat.


Stout-hearted lads they all must have been, but Lord Shingen was no shrinking violet it came to expressing his tender side. The historical archives of the University of Tokyo contain a written love pact signed by Shingen and Kosaka Masanobu, a boy of 16. As part of the love pledge—a samurai pre-nup?—the 22-year-old Shingen swears that he hasn’t and will not dally with another, specifically-named retainer. He also promises that he won’t harm the boy since his intent is a sexual relationship. (This information is derived from Gary Leupp’s Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan.)

Relationships of this sort were common among the manly samurai for several centuries, which presents an interesting parallel with ancient Greece. Some men even encouraged the practice, in part for the benefits that accrued to the younger partners, as they were supposedly given instruction in virtue and the appreciation of beauty. (Another possibility was that it was a workable justification for the seduction of a comely youth.) Thus, as in ancient Greece, the relationship combined the way of the warrior with cultural development. In contrast, some manly men claimed that the love for women caused men to become more feminine. (You could have fooled me, but then again a teenaged boy wouldn’t start bugging his patron to lift up the toilet seat and take out the trash.)

The famous Hagakure, the how-to book for samurai written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo in the early 18th century, even provides some advice for samurai man-boy love:

“A young man should test an older man for at least five years, and if he is assured of that person’s intentions, then he too should request the relationship… If the younger man can devote himself and get into the situation for five or six years then it will not be unsuitable.”

The Japanese term for this practice is wakashudo, sometimes shortened to shudo. Waka is the word for young, shu can sometimes mean companions, and do means way or path. The younger men in the relationship were called wakashu, while the older men were known as nenja. That word is composed of nen, which combines the senses of solicitude, desire, and attention, and one of the words for person.

Those familiar with things Japanese will have already picked up that this practice was thought to be a do, in the same way that budo is the way of the warrior. The same kanji also crops up in kendo, kyudo, judo, aikido, and even Shinto.

Kendo literally means the way of the sword. Perhaps wakashudo represented a different form of swordsmanship!

Afterwords: Some of the information on waksashudo came from this website. The creator asks that this form of citation be used: Andrew Calimach, World History of Male Love, “Homosexual Traditions”, The Beautiful Way of the Samurai, 2000. There you go. The site is well done and has links that are worth following, so I’ve added it to the right sidebar. The link to the Hagakure is already there.

The author of the first website suggests that the influence of Western Christian ideas conveyed through missionaries and after the Meiji Restoration, “a direct result of the opening of Japan carried out under the threat of American guns in 1854”, spelled the end of wakashudo. I’m not sure I agree. Some say that prostitution was outlawed for (ultimately) the same reasons, but men today interested in purchasing those services won’t have any trouble finding them. The same cannot be said of wakashudo, though men of any country today with means, power, and those sexual preferences are probably able to indulge themselves just as easily as Lord Shingen.

Update: My passing reference to yabusame drew some interest, and reader Tomojiro sent along this Youtube clip of a BBC report on the art/discipline. Give credit where credit is due: there’s a lot of worthwhile information and video, and it’s light on the snark. Thanks Tomojiro!

Posted in Festivals, History, Military affairs, Sex | Tagged: , | 7 Comments »

Personality disorder or genetic disposition?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The media are less a window on reality than a stage on which officials and journalists perform self-scripted, self-serving fictions.
– Paul Weaver

LET’S HAVE a thought experiment: Imagine you are a journalist and you are to interview Japanese figure skater Asada Mao at a meeting of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.

The 18-year-old Ms. Asada, who was just graduated from high school, is the third-ranked figure skater in the world. She has won the Japanese national championships three years running and was world champion last year. Ms. Asada is the only woman to have successfully performed two triple axel jumps in the same program at an official competition.

But as part of this thought experiment, you will be interviewing Ms. Asada when she was still only 16 years old.

A normal person might ask how she got involved in figure skating, to what she attributes her success, what daily training routine enables her to perform at that elite level, what she does for fun when she’s not figure skating, and how much longer she plans to complete.

But Gebhard Hielscher, the former Tokyo correspondent for the Süddeutsche Zeitung and a member of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan—in fact, the former head of the organization—chose to ask a different question when he interviewed the 16-year-old girl in April 2007:

For instance, when you are in the U.S., are you asked, you know, about your being a Japanese, or your country has done some very bad things, and your Prime Minister is not honest or something?

A normal person can guess what she said even before they hear the answer:

I’m training in Los Angeles right now, but everyone is very friendly and they talk to me a lot.

The reason a normal person could predict her answer is that most people behave the same way when they want to get acquainted with people or make new friends, whether they live in Los Angeles or Lagos, Kuala Lumpur or Kingston, or even, I daresay, in Berlin.

That’s because normal people everywhere want to enjoy themselves and the companionship of other people. They already understand that people in every country have “done some very bad things”, and that politicians everywhere tend not to be honest. That’s why there’s an expression about people who live in glass houses and stone throwing.

It wouldn’t occur to normal people to make an innocent 16-year-old girl uncomfortable in front of a room full of foreigners old enough to be her parents.

But Mr. Hielscher did.

Let’s try another thought experiment. Why on earth would he?

What other reason could there be than to demonstrate his own moral superiority that he presumes was granted by through his adoption of a specific political agenda? Even though it’s apparent the man lacks social skills and common sense, he surely must know how normal people interact. He surely must realize that normal people have their own lives to lead and their own futures to look forward to, and therefore don’t care about events that ended and were resolved more than 60 years ago—nor is there any reason they should. That’s particularly true for a 16-year-old whose parents weren’t alive at the time of those events, and whose grandparents, if alive, were probably younger than she is now.

The reason he asked the question wasn’t to reveal contemporary American attitudes toward the war, nor to uncover how Japanese visitors to that country are treated. It wasn’t about raising awareness of events of the rapidly receding past, nor to seek truth and justice.

The Japanese who frequently read this website might not believe this, but it really doesn’t have anything to do with Japan, either. Repeatedly dredging up selected parts of Japan’s history is just one of many means to the same end.

Instead, it has everything to do with using the event as a pretext to steal the spotlight. It has everything to do using that spotlight to indulge a vain and condescending elitism derived from his sociopolitical views, and to bask in the approval of an audience of foreign journalists that he assumes—probably correctly—shares those views. It has everything to do with humiliating anyone who might have other ideas, even a teenager too young, too far removed from what for her is the distant past, and too involved with living today to care. It has everything to do with mounting the stairway to what he assumes is a higher moral plane than the unthinking, uncaring rabble.

It’s all about showing us how wonderful he is because he is one of the self-anointed politically elect.

The key here is the unspoken assumption that Japanese behavior was–and remains–so detestable that it would be perfectly understandable if people in another country were to confront children about it during casual social encounters. Happens every day!

Perhaps the most pathetic aspect of the incident is that he doesn’t realize how transparent his behavior is.

It is a recognizable phenomenon that people of this type often gravitate toward the news media as a profession. That line of work enables them to advance their views through the conduct of advocacy journalism, which prevents normal people from making up their own minds by telling them only part of the story—either true or made up from whole cloth. It allows them to lead the sheep to the pen and to the conclusion they want them to reach.

Is this a form of personality disorder that might be called the Little Jack Horner Syndrome? (He stuck in his thumb, pulled out a plum, and said “What a good boy am I!”) Or, because it seems to be present in every country and can be traced back for at least a couple of centuries, is it a genetic predisposition?

That this man was selected to be chairman of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan and thought it perfectly natural to ask this question of a teenager in front of his peers has much to say about the membership of that organization and the nature of the profession itself.

Once again: If your knowledge of Japan is derived from the news media, everything you know about Japan is wrong. And now you know one of the reasons why.

Here’s another thought experiment: guess which part of the political spectrum Mr. Hielscher identifies with.

Normal people won’t have to be told that, either.

He is (or was) head of the Tokyo office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. The namesake of the organization was a former President of Germany and a member of the Social Democratic Party who bequeathed money in his will to create the foundation. The party’s yearbook from 1926 explains its objectives:

“The Friedrich Ebert Foundation pursues the goal of giving young, empowered proletarians government aid to fund an education at state-accredited institutions. As a basic principle, only those people who have a recommendation from the party organization will receive funding.”

In other words, you have to spout the party line to get the money.

The foundation also has a museum and study center housed in the Karl Marx House in Trier. The center was established, in part, to study the life and works of Karl Marx and the history of socialism.

That does not mean everyone in that part of the political spectrum behaves the same way—they can’t all be that pushy and vulgar—but rather that most of the people who behave this way are found in that part of the spectrum. If you want to see a duck, look in a marsh instead of a downtown office building.

And if you want to see the incident, here’s the Youtube video. It lasts 53 seconds.

Mr. Hielscher asked another question first:

Do you have a boyfriend? If you don’t have a boyfriend, who would you like to be your boyfriend?

Ms. Asada answered that she didn’t have a boyfriend, but ducked the second part. The girl missed her chance. She should have told him that her social life isn’t his business. But that would offend his sense of entitlement as a journalist, based on the mistaken presumption that he has the inalienable right to ask anyone any question at any time.

It’s pointless to engage these specimens in logical argument, present facts for their attention, or attempt honest debate. They are not interested in inconvenient facts, and will try to deny or denigrate any facts presented that prove them wrong. As the man said, they can’t handle the truth. They are not interested in honest debate, either. They are only interested in congratulating themselves on their superior humanity, asserting the inferiority of those who think otherwise, and ultimately exterminating any views other than their own.

How normal people should deal with them might well be the subject of another thought experiment.

Thanks to Aceface for the tip.

Posted in Foreigners in Japan, International relations, Mass media, Sports | Tagged: | 6 Comments »

Kageura to hang up his spikes

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 26, 2009

IT’S OFFICIAL: Kageura Yasutake (62) will retire from the Japanese major leagues at the end of the current season, bringing to an end the longest baseball career in Japanese history at 37 years. Mr. Kageura will have played all 37 of those seasons with the Hawks’ franchise, first for the Nankai Hawks in the Osaka area, and now for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in Fukuoka City.

L-R: Kageura, Mizushima

L-R: Kageura, Mizushima

Kageura was signed as an undrafted free agent in 1972 and his career began as a pinch-hitter nonpareil. He is known for using an extra long bat dubbed the monohoshizao (clothesline pole), as well as his love of Japanese sake. He is so pickled from his nightly drinking expeditions, the story goes, that he sends up a spray of sake whenever he hits the ball.

He became one of the starting nine after the franchise moved to Fukuoka City and emerged as the team’s premier slugger, winning the Triple Crown three years in a row. He enjoys the rare distinction of playing with his son, a pitcher, on the same team this year. His uniform number, 90, is expected to be unofficially retired.

The player’s taste for the grape—or in this case, rice—began during his high school days. Appearing in a regional high school championship game, he used garlic to hide the smell of liquor on his breath, and despite a mammoth hangover, hit a mammoth, 508 ft. walk-off home run. While circling the bases after his winning hit, however, he vomited on the field. The smell of sake was so overpowering the umpires (this being high school) disqualified him and removed the runs from the scoreboard.

Mr. Kageura announced his decision to retire while having a drink at the bar run by his father-in-law. It was made public in the 860th installment of the comic Abusan in the 5 April edition of Big Comic Original published by Shogakkan. (The publication is known as a comic book for adults. That does not mean they run X-rated content; rather, it means that the book publishes comic stories for adults rather than children.)

Abusan is Kageura’s nickname and is derived from the Japanese pronunciation for absinthe. (Some people mistakenly write it as Abu-san, which works in Japanese as Mr. Horsefly.) The comic was created and is still written and drawn by Mizushima Shinji. Familiar even to contemporary college students, the series is known for incorporating actual events in Japanese baseball into the story and the appearance of current players, managers, and team owners. It is so widely known that a new manager of the Fukuoka Hawks joked that his first comment after looking over his roster of players was, “What happened to Kageura?”

Some say one reason for the comic’s popularity is that Japanese salarymen identified with his character, particularly in the 1970s. He played for a team in the less popular Pacific League during the age of supremacy of the Central League’s Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, his role as a pinch hitter rather than as a star endowed him with an Everyman quality, and he was a serious drinker.

Abusan and his batting title award

Abusan and his batting title award

Ordinarily, I might not have brought this story up, except that there’s a real-life connection—I’m casually acquainted with the former pro ballplayer who is the model for Abusan. That’s Nagabuchi Yozo, an outfielder, DH, and briefly a relief pitcher for the Kintetsu Buffaloes and Nippon Ham Fighters. Mr. Nagabuchi won the batting title in 1969, his first full year in the major leagues, with a .333 average.

Here are his career statistics for those of you who read Japanese. He usually batted third and played right field, and wound up with a lifetime batting average of .278. Mr. Nagabuchi was very much the contact hitter: he seldom struck out or walked, and even better, rarely hit into double plays.

The real Abusan once described his motivation for playing major league baseball:

“When I played for Toshiba (as a Toshiba employee in the company leagues), my monthly salary was 30,000 yen, but I had an outstanding bar bill of 200,000 yen. There was no way I could pay that off, so I thought the only thing to do was to sign a pro contract. I figured it would be enough if I played for just a year or two, so I signed for a low (annual salary of) 3.3 million yen.”

Most of that is probably true, except that Kintetsu drafted him in the second round that year, and he had already flunked one pro tryout two years before that.

Mr. Nagabuchi is still a legend in Japanese baseball for his drinking exploits. He usually went drinking after every game and often played the next day with a hangover. There is even a story that he, like Abusan, threw up on the field during a game, although he was playing in the outfield at the time.

After his career ended, he returned to Saga and opened a yakitori shop that he and his wife still operate. It’s about a 10-minute walk from my house, and I was last there for a party in January. I came to Japan as an English teacher, and his daughter Kaori was in the first class I taught on my first day on the job. Kaori later married one of the other students in that class, and I attended their wedding reception.

The real Abusan is a relaxed, personable fellow who is very easy to strike up a conversation with. It’s no surprise that he’s very sharp about baseball, even the way the game is played in the United States. Before Nomo Hideo blazed the trail for modern Japanese players in the American major leagues, many Japanese fans had the mistaken impression that the American game was not really a team sport but played mano-a-mano between pitcher and hitter. I’ve heard Mr. Nagabuchi gently correct his customers on that score on more than one occasion.

Here’s something else that will come as no surprise: The name of his yakitori is Abusan. And most nights after he closes up about 11:00 p.m., he and his wife take a five-minute stroll down the street and around the corner to a koryori-ya (a traditional Japanese eating and drinking place), where he sits at the bar and drinks sake straight out of a glass.


All the Japanese sources have his name pronounced as Nagabuchi, but I could have sworn that the family pronounces it as Nagafuchi (I was his daughter’s teacher, after all.) Then again, most people refer to him as Abusan, so I haven’t heard anyone use his family name in a while.

This discrepancy would not be unusual for Kyushu. It’s a little difficult to explain to people not familiar with the Japanese language, but there is a tendency, at least here in Saga, for people to dispense with the dakuon in their family names. For example, I know a man who insists that the proper pronunciation of his family name is Takaki. Everyone else in Japan says Takagi, so he lets it go without comment. I also know a man who pronounces his family name as Shinotsuka, rather than using the more common Shinozuka.

I’ve always been a bit disappointed that the Americans adopted the expression “walk-off home run” for a round-tripper that ends the game either in the bottom of the ninth or in extra innings. It’s actually a relatively new expression there. (I never heard it during my youth, and I watched and played a lot of baseball.)

I would have loved it had they adopted the Japanese term, which is “sayonara home run”. It’s something that everyone in the U.S. would immediately understand, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they understood it in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries that play baseball, too.

Too bad!

Posted in Popular culture, Sports | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Aso, the Asahi, and Chinese chutzpah

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, April 25, 2009

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN, Japan’s premier newspaper of the left, has a reputation similar to that of the New York Times of perversely creating problems for its own country where none need exist. The Times, for example, has revealed information-gathering techniques employed against terrorists, rendering them useless.

The Asahi’s behavior more often takes the form of embarrassing the Japanese government with its Northeast Asian neighbors. The incident most often cited is a front-page article on 11 January 1992 that claimed to reveal evidence the Japanese Army was involved in the operation of comfort women stations. The late Miyazawa Kiichi, then prime minister, was scheduled to visit South Korea five days later, and was forced to offer an apology without having a chance to fully confirm the information. The Asahi later admitted that the article was in error, but refused to apologize.

Have they tried to pull the same trick again?

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Aso Taro made an offering of a masakaki, a decorated sakaki bush in a planter, to the Yasukuni Shinto shrine on the occasion of its spring festival. (The sakaki is frequently used in Shinto rituals.) The offering cost 50,000 yen (about US$ 510.00), which he paid for out of his own pocket. What upset the anti-Yasukuni element, however, is that he signed the card accompanying the offering as “Prime Minister Aso Taro”.

This wasn’t the first time a Japanese prime minister has made such an offering. Both Nakasone Yasuhiro and Abe Shinzo did the same thing during their terms of office, and Mr. Aso sent another offering last October during the shrine’s fall festival. The gifts went largely unremarked when they were made.

Not so this time. But before we get to that, here’s my translation of a news conference on Tuesday in which Prime Minister Aso discussed the offering with a reporter. The questions are in italics.

You made an offering of a masakaki as the prime minister to the Yasukuni Shine. What was the basis for your thinking?

It’s my recollection that I presented a masakaki last October, too. Didn’t I get this same kind of question last October?


Yes, I recall that I presented one last October. Basically, my thinking is that it expresses my thanks and respect as a citizen to the people who sacrificed their precious lives for their country.

Prime Minister, are you thinking of paying a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine?

I think every time I’m asked that question too, I give the same answer—that I’ll make the appropriate judgment.

You’ve visited several times in the past, but this time, for the spring festival, you’ve (presented) a masakaki rather than visit.

(Aide): Your name. Your name.

You’re supposed to give your name first before you ask questions.

I’m Ito of the Asahi Shimbun.

Asahi Shimbun? I don’t recognize you. Is this the first time I’ve seen you?

No, no, several times…


I think you’ve visited several times, but I’d like to ask you again your reason for making an offering of a masakaki for the spring festival.

Well, I don’t feel the need to explain to the Asahi Shimbun my reasons for offering a masakaki, or going myself at those times, so I can’t give you an answer.

There are people who hope to see the prime minister visit Yasukuni, and others who are opposed. Is your judgment made in consideration of those circumstances?

I make judgments in consideration of various circumstances. I think that’s only natural.

This is a related question, but about the offering of the masakaki this time…

Don’t say “this time”. It was the same thing the last time. It was that way last year, last October. If you say “this time”, I’m at a bit of a loss on how to answer. It’s not as if I did it only this time. I think I could answer if you said “this time, in continuation from last October”.

Well, about the offering this time in continuation from last year, there’s going to be a Japan-Sino summit meeting at the end of this month, so do you have any concerns that this could have an unfavorable impact on Japanese-Sino relations?

About China, I’ve said several times about China before now, that I’ll take a forward-looking attitude. I’ve also said that I’ll directly consider history, and (my answer is) as it’s always been up to now.

We all know that the Chinese are liable to become obnoxious and overbearing with the Japanese at the drop of a chopstick over issues related to the Second World War in general, and for anything related to Yasukuni in particular. They’ve admitted this approach is part of their policy for dealing with Japan. Yet they’ve ignored (at least on the surface) masakaki offerings to Yasukuni by Japanese prime ministers on three occasions–two of them after former Prime Minister Koizumi’s controversial visits, and one by the current prime minister just last October.

For some reason, they’re not ignoring this one. Here’s an AFP article that describes the Chinese response:

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.
“(We) reiterated that the question of history is highly sensitive, that any mistaken action by the Japanese side will bring a serious and negative influence to bilateral relations.”

Is it a coincidence that this chawan charade has erupted just before Prime Minister Aso pays a two-day visit to China next week? Is it also a coincidence that the Chinese feathers started to ruffle after Mr. Aso snubbed the Asahi correspondent at a press conference? Did the Asahi go out of its way to make this trivial event an issue by making sure that the Chinese knew about it?

Keep in mind that Mr. Aso didn’t actually visit the shrine itself, which is the usual objection—he just sent over a plant in his name for the spring festival, the same way he sent one over for the fall festival. Now, however, it’s suddently become a “mistaken action”.

Of course no one knows what the real story is, and I’ll be the first to admit this is just speculation, but the circumstances are a bit suspicious.

It’s about time that the Chinese government kept its promise to adopt a forward-looking approach to bilateral ties, made during Premier Wen Jiabao’s address to the Japanese Diet two years ago this month, rather than continually employ trivialities—an offering of shrubbery?—to gain a diplomatic edge, no matter how fleeting or pointless. Surely they realize it’s not going to work with Mr. Aso, who is much more sure-footed in foreign affairs than he is when dealing with domestic politics.

It’s also about time that the Chinese started minding their own business for a change, time for the rest of the world to realize that a shrine offering does not mean a resurgence of State Shinto or the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, and time for the media outlets of the left to start conducting themselves with a greater sense of responsibility.

But I don’t think we should hold our breaths waiting for any of that to happen soon.

Posted in China, International relations, Mass media, Shrines and Temples, World War II | Tagged: , , | 8 Comments »

Polishing the heart

Posted by ampontan on Friday, April 24, 2009

THE JAPANESE have long considered the washing of physical objects to be another aspect of cleansing the spirit, so it’s no surprise to see some of the ways they apply that concept in daily life. One example is the scrubdown of public toilets, as we saw here a couple of years ago when junior high school students cleaned 14 of the rest rooms in their school.


You might be surprised, however, at some of the other people who are willing to get down and get dirty for their spiritual edification. For example, a group of 19 police officers in Yonezawa, Yamagata, brightened up the public toilets at the Matsugasaki Park and on the banks of the Matsu River on the 19th. They began the practice last year to inculcate a sense of public service and to “clean their spirit” (literally, polish their hearts). Cleaning these particular toilets was a priority because they’re expected to get heavy use by tourists during the upcoming holidays. (These are the so-called Golden Week holidays, which this year will include one day during the last week of April and five straight days during the first week of May.)

The volunteer latrine orderlies used screwdrivers to scrape off the accumulated gunk from the fixtures and brushes to scrub the floors. The crew estimated that it took them about an hour to finish the job. They also used the opportunity to connect the task with their regular gig. After cleaning the walls, they hung Wanted Man posters for members of Aleph, AKA Aum Shinrikyo, the cult responsible for the sarin poisonings in the Tokyo subway a few years back.

The leader of the group admitted that he was bothered at first by the dirt and the smell, but he said the experience taught him the importance of approaching any task with a sense of humility.

Many foreigners are quick to complain about the things they think Japan lacks, or what they think the Japanese don’t do and should. Here’s one foreigner who thinks that people in other parts of the world would benefit if they learned from Japan and had school children and public employees clean public lavatories.

In fact, I think it would an excellent idea for legislators at every level of government to clean the latrines as a way to start the first day their deliberative body is in session. Any job that teaches them the importance of approaching tasks with a sense of humility is bound to result in an improvement over their usual behavior.

Besides, with all the crap they force the rest of us deal with, it’s only fair that they should find out themselves what it’s like!

Posted in Popular culture, Traditions | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Photos from North Korea

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 23, 2009

DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHER Tomas Van Houtryve posed as a businessman interested in opening a chocolate factory in North Korea to tour the country and take clandestine photos. Foreign Policy magazine publishes nine of them here.

The photographer said that he saw no one smile during his entire visit. One picture is of a major street in Pyeongyang on which he saw no traffic at all for a 10-minute stretch one midweek day.

Read the text that accompanies the spooky photos, and then ask yourself again why this country needs ballistic missiles, why it would need (or pretend to need) a space program, and why some countries and political parties in Japan feel compelled to deflect criticism from them.

Posted in North Korea | 4 Comments »

Ears to the ground

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 21, 2009

SOMEONE CAME UP WITH A GREAT IDEA for the latest Shinhodo 2001 public opinion survey.

Shinhodo 2001 (New Reports 2001) is a Sunday political blabathon broadcast from 7:30 to 8:55 a.m. on the Fuji Television Network. They regularly conduct political polls, and the results of their great idea are incorporated in their survey for 16 April.

One of the questions asked in the poll is: “What (kind of) Administration are you looking for after the next general election?” The pollsters’ inspiration was to add a new choice to the list of possible answers. The new possibility immediately caught the attention of those surveyed, who liked it so much it vaulted to the top of the list. Here’s how the respondents answered the question:

  • An administration centered on a person with experience as the chief executive officer in local government, such as a prefectural governor, and who understands local conditions in Japan: 27.6%
  • A grand coalition consisting of the Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Japan: 25.4%
  • An administration led by the Democratic Party of Japan: 19.2%
  • An administration led by the Liberal Democratic Party: 15.0%
  • An administration led by a new third force other than the LDP or DPJ: 7.8%
  • Don’t know: 5.0%

Japan’s Constitution requires the prime minister to be a member of the Diet, which means he or she must be a sitting member of the legislature. Many of the MPs (but by no means all) have had no executive experience in government. That might be one reason the late Tanaka Kakuei, the former cock of the walk in the LDP roost, decreed his politicos had to serve as the head of important party organizations and Cabinet ministries to be considered for the post of prime minister.

This new survey result suggests that the voters are now anxious to see people with the experience of solving problems in an executive capacity, and who will focus on the problems facing the country, rather than gamesmanship to gain a political edge in partisan battles in Nagata-cho after strategy sessions in the back rooms of exclusive Tokyo ryotei. And it is most interesting that the total seeking executive experience in local government, combined with the figures for those seeking a third force, outnumber the combined total of those who prefer either the LDP or DPJ singly–not to mention the number of those who hope to see a grand coalition.

It would also suggest that many of the 39.8% of the electorate undecided about which party they support (according to this poll) want to see regional devolution, and by implication a reform of the civil service system that vitiates the abnormal control of the Kasumigaseki bureaucrats in the central government.

But neither of the two major parties as presently led is likely to give the voters what they want. Therefore, they’ll have to turn to people who have had executive experience before serving in the Diet, or people serving as chief executive officers now and who may run for the Diet in the future.

Hashi and Higashi

Hashi and Higashi

Who might they be? Well, two of the most prominent prefectural governors who have chosen not to affiliate with a party and who champion the devolution of authority to local governments are frequently mentioned on this site: Miyazaki Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo and Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru. It is surely no coincidence that both have approval ratings among their constituents northward of 80%.

Through a serendipitous coincidence (for this article), Gov. Hashimoto paid a well-publicized visit to Kyushu to have dinner with Gov. Higashikokubaru on the 12th and have private discussions with him on the 13th, as you can see from the photo. He also made a point of mentioning that he paid for the visit by cutting his own belly (in other words, out of his own pocket.)

The two men did not offer a lot of details about their discussions, but Gov. Higashikokubaru made this comment:

“He came to talk about his problems. We discussed what was going to happen to this country. I gave him my ideas.”

They also discussed the Osaka Prefectural Assembly’s recent rebuff of Gov. Hashimoto when they voted down a plan to move the prefectural government’s offices to the local World Trade Center. Mr. Higashikokubaru said he gave his Kansai counterpart some advice on dealing with the assembly. Mr. Hashimoto gushed about his host to the Asahi Shimbun:

“Higashi-san really is terrific! I learned a lot”

Unfortunately, the Asahi has been conducting a vendetta against Gov. Hashimoto (to no avail, evidently), so they neglected to mention that other topics were discussed. That was left to the Sankei Shimbun.

Said Mr. Hashimoto:

“Gov. Higashikokubaru talked about how he deals with organizations. Both the public employees and the citizens in Miyazaki are working very hard. Everyone says that the governor has made Miyazaki a more dynamic place.”

They also talked about a subject of great interest to them both, as well as to many people with an interest in the nuts and bolts of Japanese government:

“We discussed the ideal method of financial subsidies and the fundamentals of tax revenue resources once our financial liability for enterprises operated directly by the national government is ended. We want to be able to handle the work of local regions locally.”

Not only did the Asahi leave out that information while running a quote that made Mr. Hashimoto sound like a gushing schoolgirl, they headlined their article this way:

橋下知事、東国原知事と会談 「悩み相談ですよ」
Talks between Gov. Hashimoto and Gov. Higashikokubaru: “I gave him advice for his problems”

Make that a gushing schoolgirl who needs a shoulder to cry on.

And mainstream journalists wonder why people don’t take them seriously anymore.


There are few earthquakes where I live in Saga, but there were a series of moderately intense temblors two or three years ago that occurred in conjunction with larger earthquakes in next-door Fukuoka. It was fascinating to discover that the approach of those earthquakes was clearly audible a few seconds before the motion of the earth began.

Are the results of this Shinhodo 2001 poll the political equivalent of the audible signs of an earthquake’s approach? The next few years in Japanese politics promise to be very interesting indeed.


For the psephology folk, here are some other results from the same public opinion poll:

  • Support the Cabinet: 30.0%, down 0.2 points
  • Don’t support the Cabinet: 61.4%, down 3.8 points
  • Don’t know: 8.6%, up 3.6 points

Which party’s candidates do you plan to vote for in the next general election?

  • LDP: 24.4%, down 3.8 points
  • DPJ: 27.6%, up 4.4 points
  • Komeito: 3.2%, down 1.6 points
  • Communists: 1.8%, down 0.4 points
  • Social Democrats: 1.0%, up one point
  • People’s New Party: 0.2%, down 0.2 points…
  • Undecided 39.8%, up 1.8 points.

Which of the following two people do you think would make the best prime minister?

  • Aso Taro: 40.0%
  • Ozawa Ichiro: 25.8%
  • Others/Don’t know: 34.2%

Who would be suitable as the next prime minister?

  1. Koizumi Jun’ichiro: 10.0%
  2. Aso Taro: 8.2%
  3. Ishihara Shintaro: 6.8%
  4. Masuzoe Yoichi: 6.8%
  5. Yosano Kaoru: 6.6%
  6. Ozawa Ichiro: 6.0%
  7. Higashikokubaru Hideo: 4.8%
  8. Okada Katsuya: 4.6%
  9. Ishihara Nobuteru: 4.4%
  10. Ishiba Shigeru: 3.8%
  11. Hashimoto Toru: 3.4%
  12. Koike Yuriko: 3.2%
  13. Watanabe Yoshimi: 3.0%
  14. Kan Naoto: 3.0%
  15. Maehara Seiji: 2.2%
  16. Hatoyama Yukio: 2.0%
  17. Hatoyama Kunio: 1.6%
  18. Nakagawa Hidenao: 0.6%
  19. Noda Seiko: 0.4%
  20. Other ruling coalition MPs: 1.6%
  21. Other opposition MPs: 3.8%
  22. Don’t know: 12.6%

This might be a fruitful line of inquiry for politicians: Combine the large percentages of undecided respondents, the immense local popularity of reformers (that isn’t reflected here), the miserable support for Messrs. Aso and Ozawa, Mr. Ozawa’s inability to convert his party’s poll advantage to his personal advantage (14 points down head-to-head against Mr. Aso), an extreme state of flux implied by a rate of undecideds near 40%, and the fact that former Prime Minister Koizumi still sits atop the table about 30 months after his departure, to devise a winning electoral strategy.

The aggregate figures only for those committed to reform (which does not include those who have sold their soul to Ozawa Ichiro in the hope of taking power) total 38.4% by my calculations. (It would be higher if the DPJ eunuchs were included.) There’s no telling how far a serious reformer could go if he or she were to use that base as bedrock support and then put the pedal to the metal in a real campaign offensive.

The big problem? None of the current parties is a trustworthy vehicle.

Update: Note that the Shinhodo poll has the Communist Party losing 0.4 percentage points of support, and that only 1.8% of those surveyed said they planned on voting for them.

Now take a look at this article by (sigh) Eric Talmadge of the AP who thinks the Reds are surging in Japan. The article is very short on actual numbers, but the author backs up his assertion by interviewing a single 22-year-old college student (I know, I know) and offering blanket statements without any corroboration. The student later admits that the type of Communism he prefers isn’t the scary type, which makes one wonder whether the undergrad knows as little about Japanese politics as Mr. Talmadge, but that gets tacked on at the end of the article for the 5% of the readers who stuck it out that far. Do BMOC and ET even know that the JCP just sided with China by refusing to censure the recent North Korean missile launch? And Mr. Talmadge also thinks Shii Kazuo is “something of a media star”, which would be hilarious if it weren’t so willfully stupid.

The Communist Party in Japan has always been a receptacle for voter dissatisfaction, and voter dissatisfaction everywhere is high now. (It also started before the economic crisis.) People read Akahata because reporters feed them stories they’re unable to run themselves under Japan’s press club system. Shii Kazuo gets invited on the occasional TV show to speak bluntly because he knows that with a 1.8% support rate, he has nothing to lose.

Mr. Talmadge does not seem to follow actual Japanese politics very closely. He apparently is unaware of the existence of any of the numbers above, much less their meaning.

The Communist Party is not “surging” in Japan. As this poll shows, it’s below 2% and going backwards. A more recent Asahi poll has them at 2.0% on the nose and trending downward. Capitalism is not going to fall from any country’s tree like a ripe persimmon. Shii Kazuo is not “something of a media star”, any more than Eric Talmadge is “something of a knowledgeable journalist on Japanese issues”.

Indeed, one might think that either Mr. Talmadge has a political agenda of his own, or that he’s simply looking to write a Japanese-man-bites-Japanese-dog story. In either case, he’s wasting our time.

If all you know about Japan is what you read in the Western media, then everything you know is wrong.

Posted in Government, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Rocket science

Posted by ampontan on Monday, April 20, 2009

THERE’S AN OLD AXIOM that events reveal character rather than shape it. The wisdom of that adage was demonstrated yet again with the recent North Korean launch of a missile over Japan into the Pacific Ocean.

Pyeongyang claimed they launched a satellite into earth orbit, and if anyone doubted their word, they could tune in to 470 MHz and listen to the music it was broadcasting from outer space.

The response of various individuals, political parties, nations, and global institutions to the event will do nothing to change North Korean behavior, but did everything to reveal their identity.

For example, the Japanese government wanted a unanimous Diet resolution condemning the launch of the North Korean missile–except they didn’t call it a missile at first. That’s because the multi-stage transportation device sitting on the launch pad had a bulb-shaped nose of the type used to launch satellites, rather than the conical-shaped nose of the type used to deliver warheads.

The United States avoided the nomenclature problem by choosing not to call it anything at all. They just referred to the incident as the North Korean “launch”.

The Japanese initially called it a hishotai (飛翔体) or “flying object”. All the newspapers helpfully included the pronunciation of the unfamiliar word for its readers. Presumably an aide did the same for Prime Minister Aso.

So rather than call a spade a spade and report that the North Koreans were gassing up a missile, the United States and Japan chose to be politically correct with the least PC regime on the planet and regard the potential weapon as an IFO: Identified Flying Object.

Regardless of whether the North Koreans were launching a satellite or conducting an experiment to determine the effect of zero gravity on kimchi, Japan, the United States, Britain, and France objected because the missile could just as easily have been used to deliver a nuclear device. With Iranians observed hanging out at the launch site, it was unlikely that the point of the exercise was to create the Joseon version of the Sirius radio network.

But the Japanese government failed to get the united front it sought from the Diet. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan was willing to cooperate (for a change), as was an allied splinter group known as the People’s New Party. The objections came from other quarters instead.

The Communist Party of Japan

Japan’s Communist Party voted against the resolution for two reasons:

  • First, they said, there should be no determination that the North Koreans launched a missile. They bought the IFO cover story and stuck with it.
  • Their second reason was the premise that if the North Koreans had actually launched a missile, it should not be considered in violation of a United Nations Security Council resolution.

Here’s part of the text of UN Security Council Resolution 1718:

The Security Council…demands that the DPRK not conduct any further nuclear test or launch of a ballistic missile.

Maybe the JCP meant some other Security Council resolution.

The opposition of the JCP didn’t come as any surprise—this isn’t rocket science, after all. Unlike their Red brethren elsewhere, they still choose to call themselves communists almost 20 years after the Berlin Wall was dismantled brick by brick. They’ll stick up for their comrades in the few remaining shards of the international movement and pretend that the North Koreans have (or need) a space program–even if it means putting the lives of their fellow citizens at risk.

Social Democratic Party

Unlike the JCP, the Social Democratic Party of Japan actually did change their name. They traveled as the Socialist Party until 1996. But despite the rebranding, their policies are still a mix-and-match of the Red-Green combinations often seen throughout Europe on the left.

The SDP abstained from the resolution, which shouldn’t have come as a surprise either. The party retained favorable references to Karl Marx in their platform right up until they changed their name. They maintained close ties with the North Korean government and denied for decades that the North Koreans were abducting Japanese nationals until Kim Jong-il made them look like fools by publicly admitting it. One of their representatives in the lower house of the Diet, Tsujimoto Kiyomi, started a program of Peace Boat cruises to Pyeongyang in her youth, and there is circumstantial evidence that she made financial contributions to the Japanese Red Army terrorist group.

When the Diet passed a resolution asking the North Koreans to show restraint before they launched its IFO, the SDP Diet Policy Committee convened a meeting with all members present and—with a straight face–formulated the following questions:

  1. Will it be possible to determine whether it is a flying object, a missile, or a satellite?
  2. Is it a clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions?
  3. Will strengthening sanctions have an effect on the six-party talks?

In the third question, the SDP was referring to the six-party talks that the North Koreans walked out of and aren’t participating in. Therefore, it wasn’t clear what the SDP meant by “effect”.

Democratic Party of Japan

The SDP abstention caused some to head for the liquor cabinet earlier than usual at the headquarters of the primary opposition group, the Democratic Party of Japan. That’s because they expect the SDP to be a junior partner in a DPJ-led coalition government if they can cobble one together after the next lower house election.

But the problem is obvious—the Japanese people will not be happy about the participation in government of a party incapable of fulfilling the primary mandate of national defense. Even the Ozawa Ichiro-led DPJ, which never lets principle get in the way of taking power, found this too much to stomach.

One of the more moderate DPJ members told the vernacular edition of the Yomiuri Shimbun:

“This has created doubts once again whether it would be a good idea to have them join a coalition. We should quickly sever our ties with them.”

While a former socialist MP in the DPJ told them:

“I thought it would be a good idea to merge with them eventually, but now I’ll have to rethink that.”

Let’s hope he does. Why did it take the North Korean launch of an IFO to reveal that elements in the DPJ were considering nuptials with a vanity party whose platform is an expression of the inability to come to terms with the real world? Why would they consider a merger with the SDP to begin with? How Japan could conduct a coherent foreign policy ruled by a party that includes (a) people who would amend Article 9 of the Constitution to enable Japan more leeway in military action and (b) former Socialists who wet their pants when they find out that Japanese soldiers might be allowed to carry arms for protection on peacekeeping missions, is something the DPJ doesn’t seem to have thought through.

And why should it require much thought? It isn’t exactly rocket science.

But it seems that some politicians can’t stoop too low to pick up an additional seven out of 480 lower house seats and five out of 242 upper house seats.

Of course both parties said they were opposed to the launch of whatever object it was that was flying over Japanese territory, and expressed their regrets. The JCP added that Japan’s sanctions on North Korea were a hindrance to a diplomatic resolution, even though the recognition of sanctions is also part of the same UN Security Council resolution they’re confused about.

The Aso administration

Someone in the LDP and the Aso administration finally spent a little time studying rocket science. Chief Cabinet Minister Kawamura Takeo stopped playing pretend and began calling the IFO a missile on the 10th. He had been referring to it as “a flying object related to a missile”.

Mr. Kawamura gave the following reasons for the change (other than embarrassment at using such a silly expression):

  1. Because there was no satellite and it was the launch of a missile in contravention of the resolution.
  2. The time of launch was different than announced. The North Koreans said the launch was at 11:20 a.m., but both the U.S. and Japan said it was ten minutes later.
  3. There were no musical broadcasts from a satellite at 470 MHz, as claimed by North Korea.
  4. The technology for rockets and missiles is the same.

They could have saved themselves and everyone else a lot of hot air by sticking to number four in that list before the launch–nothing would have changed. Except maybe North Korea will know better next time than to play footloose and fancy free with a ten-minute gap in missile launch announcements.

Despite its euphemism problems, the Japanese government understands that national defense is a priority and that the IFO could just as easily have dropped a dirty bomb on downtown Tokyo instead of a big stink in the middle of the Pacific. While the government was deciding how to deal with the situation, the North Korean Central News Agency quoted an unidentified North Korean general who said that Japan would be struck with a “thunderbolt of fire” if it attempted to intercept the rocket.

Chinese President Hu Jintao suggested that Japan handle the situation calmly, though President Hu and the rest of the Chinese leadership surely wouldn’t have been so calm had the North Korean IFO sailed west instead of east. And you know what they would think if they were threatened with a thunderbolt of fire by the likes of the Kim Family Regime.

Mr. Hu needn’t have worried; after all, Japan is the least bellicose of all the countries in Northeast Asia. They took what passes for the responsible course in today’s world by asking the UN Security Council to condemn the launch.

The United Nations

If there is a better description of the UN than institutionalized smoke and mirrors, I can’t think of one. Japan wanted the UN to cite North Koreans for violating Security Council Resolution 1718 of 2006. That 2006 resolution condemned the North’s multiple ballistic missile launches eastward into the Pacific and reaffirmed its own resolutions 825 of 11 May 1993 and 1540 of 28 April 2004.

That’s one heck of a lot of resolutions already, but evidently not enough. Japan was joined by the United States, Britain, and France in calling for yet another Security Council resolution condemning the launch. This time for sure!

The U.S. submitted a draft that also gave the North Koreans the benefit of the doubt by not specifying whether the launch was of a satellite or missile. They didn’t bother with the flying object business—they just called it a launch and left the rest to everyone’s imagination.

They also wanted the Security Council to designate entities and goods that should be subject to sanctions, though the U.N. has not enforced sanctions against North Korea since Resolution 1718 was passed in October 2006.

See what I mean about smoke and mirrors?

U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said the draft was a:

“…strong message to the DPRK that their violation of international law will not be treated with impunity”.

Ms. Rice is new at the job, and so can be forgiven for not realizing that this is exactly the sort of situation that China and Russia treat with impunity. Far from even “condemning” the launch, neither country could bring themselves to approve a draft resolution that viewed the launch with “concern”.

Just a failed launch of a radio satellite, right? What’s to worry about?

Well, what no one has the moxie to say out loud, particularly those deluded enough to think the United Nations has a serious geopolitical role to play: Both of those countries want North Korea to launch those missiles. It creates international havoc and reveals the resolve, or lack of it, of the government currently in power in the United States. They approve because it allows North Korea to project destabilizing power in the region, which works to their advantage.

Modern China has never taken a positive step to benefit the international geopolitical order in its existence, and Russia hasn’t since the Soviet Union was among the first countries to recognize the state of Israel more than 60 years ago. (Some suspect the Soviets acted quickly to drive a wedge between America and Britain, but that’s another story.)

Rather than serve as a positive force in the world, China and Russia choose to act as malefactors who employ their privileged status in the U.N. to promote their own hegemonic interests, and everyone knows it.

It’s not difficult to understand. This isn’t rocket science, after all.

The United States

During last year’s American presidential election campaign, vice-presidential candidate Joseph Biden was banished to the political broom closet after admitting that a victory by his ticket would result in an international crisis in the first six months of office fomented by nations trying to test American mettle. Mr. Biden is best known as a chucklehead incapable of original thought and only a passing acquaintance with historical accuracy, but as they say, even a broken alarm clock is right twice a day.

So, how did the new President respond to the IFO launch that was obviously designed to see how he would respond?

His first step was to issue a statement with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak that agreed on “a stern, united response from the international community if North Korea launches a long-range rocket.”

Then North Korea launched the rocket, and his stern response turned out to be issuing another statement. That one said:

“The launch today of a Taepo-dong 2 missile was a clear violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718, which expressly prohibits North Korea from conducting ballistic missile-related activities of any kind…I urge North Korea to abide fully by the resolutions of the U.N. Security Council.”

In other words, Mr. Obama said that the North Koreans violated a UN resolution adopted in part because the North Korean violated two previous resolutions, so he “urges” them not to violate any more resolutions.

That surely eased the concerns of the Japanese defense establishment.

His statement also said:

“We will immediately consult with…members of the U.N. Security Council to bring this matter before the Council.”

In response, the Chinese and Russians told the other members that demanding North Korea behave responsibly was going to get their butts vetoed and to cut out this stern response crap immediately–which of course they did.

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama thought this presented an excellent opportunity for the world to reduce nuclear weapons, so he offered to kickstart the effort by cutting the U.S. stockpile. His reasoning is that going first will encourage other countries to support American efforts to denuclearize North Korea and Iran.

Is it just me, or has there been a sharp increase in unintentional humor coming out of the U.S. government lately?

The U.S., Japan, and South Korea insisted that North Korea was really testing ballistic missile technology. Even the Japanese finally called the missile a missile. But Ambassador Rice said:

“The U.S. view is that what likely was on top of that missile with ballistic missile technology was a failed satellite. I think most members of the council have come to the same conclusion.”

After she had initially said:

“We think that what was launched is not the issue; the fact that there was a launch using ballistic missile technology is itself a clear violation.”

How wonderful that someone in American government is studying rocket science! Now they can pursue a more nuanced foreign policy after eight years of that godawful cowboy diplomacy. What an improvement over the previous goofball, who actually said that North Korea was part of an Axis of Evil. With Iran. With whom it is sharing missile and nuclear weapons technology. Who sent technicians to North Korea to witness the launch of the IFO. And who in turn is talking about sharing all the technology with Sudan.

Japan and the United Nations, Part Two

To its credit, the Japanese government stuck to its guns and achieved a victory of sorts when it convinced the Chinese to back a Statement by the President of the Security Council condemning the launch. The U.N. still couldn’t bring itself to actually mention what was launched, however.

Most of the U.N. membership thinks a Security Council resolution is legally binding, despite the fact that they aren’t binding enough to stop North Korea from missile launches. So to alleviate the Chinese lack of concern, the solution was to issue a presidential statement, which most think isn’t legally binding. (Russia is an interesting exception.)

The President of the Security Council, incidentally, is that renowned international statesman Claude Heller of Mexico. Well, he is for April, anyway. If the IFO launch had come a month earlier, the President-for-a-Month would have been Abdurrahman Mohamed Shalgham, the Permanent Representative of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya to the United Nations.

So in other words, the Presidential Statement was issued by an empty chair that time-servers take turns sitting in on a monthly basis to read documents written by other people and ignored by the people to whom they’re addressed.

This particular statement is particularly butch—it says that North Korea is in contravention of a Security Council resolution, which will come as a shock to the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party of Japan. It also demands that North Korea forego additional launches and calls on all Member States to comply fully with their obligations under the resolution.

That last part is unlikely to happen, because the Member States are already are ignoring the current call for sanctions from the previous Security Council resolution. You know—the legally binding one.

The new statement says the council agrees to expand the sanctions of the 2006 resolution. The old one ordered a financial freeze on the assets of companies and groups related to North Korean programs for nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and other weapons of mass destruction. It also banned the sale of certain goods for those programs.

Unfortunately, no one got around to putting any North Korean companies or organizations on the list of groups subject to sanctions. But the U.S. and Japan say they’re making one now. And checking it twice.

Prime Minister Aso Taro took credit for his government talking the Chinese into backing the statement, assisted by the South Korean government. Russia, however, said the credit should go to China and the United States. That must make Japan the Rodney Dangerfield of governments—it can’t get any respect even when it does accomplish something. Then again, the Russians would sooner bite off their tongues than give credit to the Japanese for anything.

North Korea

Everyone is trying to pretend that some mythical “international community” has now sent a message slapping down the North Koreans by calling for the early resumption of the six-party talks, while the council hopes “for a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the situation” and “the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

Instead, North Korea said it won’t participate any more in the six-party talks it already isn’t participating in and would start reassembling the nuclear facilities it had been dismantling.

Not that this response should have surprised anyone. This isn’t rocket science, after all.

Meanwhile, North Korea got to test its missile technology, even though the “international community” warned them before not to. Several times. It would seem they should consider themselves warned again. Until their next IFO launch.

Ozawa Ichiro

In the end, however, the one exposed as the flimsiest of paper tigers was Ozawa Ichiro, the head of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. We’ve already seen that he thinks it’s a capital idea to welcome into a coalition government the SDP, whose domestic policy is fatuous Euro-leftism and whose foreign policy borders on the traitorous.

But there’s another aspect that his supporters and sycophants abroad avoid mentioning: Though Mr. Ozawa’s policies have changed as frequently throughout the years as the footwear of a female undergraduate trying on new shoes, he has consistently maintained one position. That is the condition that any Japanese contribution to military action overseas be subject to UN Security Council approval.

In other words, Mr. Ozawa would outsource one of the most critical and sensitive parts of Japanese foreign policy to China and Russia. It’s bad enough that a nation would give a foreign policy voice to another country to begin with, but it’s downright irrational when that voice—and veto power—is freely bestowed on two countries whose primary objective is to sabotage Japan’s interests.

This shouldn’t be hard to understand. It’s not rocket science, after all.

In fact, during a press conference last week, the Japanese mass media told Mr. Ozawa that he had some explaining to do. Here’s their question and Mr. Ozawa’s answer.


There was a declaration by the President of the Security Council in regard to the North Korean missile problem. Japan’s claims were included in the text, but the form was a Presidential Declaration and not a resolution. You’ve said (in the past) that we should not pointlessly take a hard line approach, but hold serious talks with China and Russia instead. What do you think of this Presidential Declaration?


Well, I think the content of the Presidential Declaration alone has some tough content, and as a result, I think that as a result, it will have its own effect. But it’s not binding, and for this North Korean problem, when the Security Council was convened to deal with it, the opinions of China and Russia just could not be reconciled, so it wound up being a Presidential Declaration. So, as you know from this process, both China and Russia, as you would expect, have an enormous amount of influence, particularly China, but I suspect that probably the Chinese thinking is the basic stance of maintaining the status quo on the Korean peninsula. Therefore, as a current issue, changing (the status quo) itself would be extremely difficult. But, I think they do not feel like cutting North Korea adrift, so I think it’s absolutely necessary to gain the cooperation and understanding of China and Russia, and China in particular, so that they don’t play the nuclear and missile card, the dangerous “playing with fire” card. Therefore, in that sense, Japan…well, the U.S. and China have the most influence on North Korea, and on China (sic), but Japan, in different ways, has a longer and more diverse relationship with the thinking of the people of China and the Korean Peninsula, more so than the U.S. In that sense, I have the feeling that perhaps Japan must play an even greater role.

That’s the explanation of a man who has been a member of the national legislature for 40 years, desperate to become prime minster before he heads to the big Nagato-cho in the sky, and defending the only policy he has consistently maintained throughout his political career.

Maybe he should take a tip from Mr. Obama and bring a Teleprompter to his news conferences.

For sticking with a domestic coalition strategy and a foreign policy that everyone knows is doomed to failure, the man must be considered the Japanese political version of Lucky Pierre. He’s getting it coming and going.

One Internet commentator thought the North Korean IFO launch wasn’t such a big deal after all because nothing bad happened.

Nothing bad? The launch revealed the treachery of the JCP and the SDP, the DPJ’s willingness to sleep with the picayune SDP on the off-chance it could help them gain power, Ozawa Ichiro’s incomprehensible faith in the Security Council, and the pie-in-the-sky silliness and irrelevance of the current American government. It provided another opportunity for the Chinese and Russian governments to demonstrate what they stand for. And it also exposed the pointlessness of relying on the United Nations for anything other than getting a free parking space in downtown Manhattan.

Events do reveal character rather than shape it, do they not?

Posted in China, International relations, North Korea, Politics, Russia | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

An interview with Watanabe Yoshimi

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 16, 2009

AS THE MINISTER in charge of governmental reform during the Abe and Fukuda administrations, Watanabe Yoshimi almost single-handedly pushed through a bill outlawing amakudari. That’s a practice in which former senior employees of the national governmental bureaucracy are hired by public or private sector corporations either connected with or under the supervision of their former ministries. That in turn enables their new employers to receive favorable treatment from the ministries that are supposed to oversee them. It is perhaps the most pernicious of the many misdeeds committed by Japan’s public sector, and one of the ways the bureaucracy, known as Kasumigaseki, maintains its control over governmental policy.

Watanabe Yoshimi

Watanabe Yoshimi

The Aso administration found a way to skirt the law through a Cabinet order, which enraged those in Japan pushing for reform. Mr. Watanabe was so upset he bolted the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to pursue reform through other channels, thereby becoming a national sensation. His departure was widely covered by the Japanese news media, who are as anxious as anyone to see real change instead of the farce presented by the tired hacks who run the LDP and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

I wanted to do a profile of Mr. Watanabe at the time, but I had other pressing matters to attend to and events moved on. Luckily, however, the weekly magazine Shukan Gendai published a lengthy interview with the man in their 31 January issue, and here you have it straight from the horse’s mouth. It’s well worth reading, so I’ve rendered it in English.

When did you finally decide to leave the Liberal-Democratic Party?

I decided at the end of last year. With that resolve, I supported the proposal of the (opposition) Democratic Party of Japan to dissolve the lower house on 24 December. I was prepared for the party to expel me, but they chose to issue only a warning instead. Then my departure got put off until now (laughs).

How did your supporters respond to your decision to be the only one to leave the LDP?

The response was completely different from the chilly reaction at Nagata-cho. There was a flood of telephone calls to my office on the day of the press conference (announcing the decision). I was told that other politicians got calls from their constituents telling them not to take down under any circumstances the campaign posters on which our photographs appeared together.

This is the voice of the people. Some Diet members were concerned about the party’s reaction and canceled speeches they asked me to give (on their behalf), but I have to wonder how the voters will respond in the election that will eventually come. (laughs)

In fact, I’ve gotten several encouraging e-mails from people inside the LDP, but I’m not going to mention any names.

Some people say that he (Watanabe) was able to bolt the party because he’s a big vote-getter, but it’s not that simple. When you leave the party, they’ll send “assassins” (to run against you in elections), you no longer get campaign funds from the party, and you can’t put up party posters or distribute party flyers. Fighting an election without a party affiliation is a hard road.

When you appeared on television news programs right after leaving the party, many of the newscasters seemed to be somewhat malicious by suggesting that you’ll be crushed because you took this step by yourself.

That’s because those people are the so-called political “pros”. They’ve evaluated a politician’s behavior using such scales as the dynamics of party factions or how many other Diet members are lined up in support. The people who view events from the perspective of Nagata-cho, including politicians, are incapable of understanding my actions. As far as I’m concerned, they can go ahead and criticize me all they like.

A People’s Movement

You’ve said that in the future, you’d like to rally other people with the same ambitions, including the chief executives of local government, people in business and financial circles, and academics, to create a people’s movement. Specifically, what sort of activities will you conduct?

The image I have in mind is close to that of Sentaku, the group formed by former Mie Governor Kitakawa Masayasu from the perspective of eradicating the influence of the bureaucracy and Kasumigaseki. Unfortunately, while the Sentaku concept is superb, the group seems to have temporarily suspended its activities. That’s because they added too many Diet members. More than 100 members from all parties joined their association for Diet members. Their joint representative is the current Chief Cabinet Secretary, Kawamura Takeo, and more than half the members are MPs from the ruling party. It’s not possible for them to escape the clutches of the current administration. It turned out to be anticlimactic.

That’s why I intend to limit the membership to the most capable people I can find. There’s no merit at all in an assembly consisting only of Diet members.

What are the main slogans for your activities?

We will work under the banner of the slogan, “Smash the System of Bureaucracy-Led Cabinets”. Prime Minister Aso has said the bureaucracy is not the enemy, but he has completely relinquished public policy to the bureaucrats, and as a quid pro quo, he has restored amakudari, which had been prohibited. The bureaucracy has the Aso administration wrapped around its little finger. My mission is to move forward by creating a great change and smashing the current system, replacing it with one in which the cabinets are led by the prime minister.

Other Supporters

Your belief in eliminating bureaucratic domination and promoting regional autonomy is very close to that of Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru, or at least to the ideas of his principal political advisor, Sakaiya Taichi, former Director-General of the Economic Planning Agency. There are also rumors of your association with Miyazaki Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo. Will they also become members of your people’s movement?

I can’t give you any names yet. It’s not only a question of my decision—it’s also the decision of the core members who will work with me.

The names of MPs Mizuno Ken’ichi (LDP, no faction) and Shibayama Masahiko (LDP, Machimura faction) also have been linked to you.

I can’t say anything about the members yet.

Who will the core members be?

Eda Kenji (Independent) is one, and in the future, the number of kindred spirits will grow and expand beyond the confines of Nagata-cho.

There’s a story that Gov. Hashimoto met with you for four hours but turned down an offer to join you.

It wasn’t a question of turning me down, but of him saying ‘Let me think about it’. I think he was concerned about his dealings with the Diet. He’s very anxious to move the Osaka Prefecture offices to the Osaka World Trade Center, which is losing a lot of money. That will require the cooperation of Diet members in both the LDP and New Komeito. If he were to join my movement, his relationship with both of those parties would deteriorate. I think that’s the judgment he made.

A Non-Political Movement

Will the ‘People’s Movement’ try to bring down the Aso administration?

This will not be a movement that becomes involved with politics. It will be a pure citizen’s movement.

Will the ‘People’s Movement’ put forth any candidates in the next general election?

That’s different from any movement. People might say that if you’re going to put up candidates, you should form a party. Even if we gathered the five MPs required for creating a new party, the movement wouldn’t spread to the people. A party would be centered on the Diet members.

It’s important to destroy bureaucracy-led politics, but the economy is an urgent priority today.

Mr. Aso has said that his individual stimulus payments will boost consumption, but at 12,000 yen (about US$ 120.43) per person, that’s one digit short. It would be better if the government were to issue bank notes instead of the Bank of Japan, and distribute 20 trillion yen, 10 times Mr. Aso’s two trillion yen, to the people. If this is supposed to be a “once in a hundred years” crisis, you have to show that sort of resolve.

If it’s not possible to implement that sort of bold policy, we should discuss a forward-looking compromise on the two trillion yen stimulus measure with the opposition and allocate it to the regional areas plagued by unemployment. Mr. Aso can’t even do that.

What sort of conversations have you had with former LDP Secretary-General Takebe Tsutomu?

I wouldn’t call them consultations, but detailed reports. Mr. Takebe himself often says that he wants to work with me, but that his priority is the New Wind policy group that consists primarily of the Koizumi Children, the Diet members elected to their first term when he was secretary-general. He has to look out for them, so it’s not possible for him to work with a smaller group now.

My father (former Finance Minister Watanabe Michio) was asked by Ozawa Ichiro, then head of the Renewal Party, to take over as prime minister in 1994 when Hosokawa Morihiro stepped down. His condition was that my father leave the LDP. My father ultimately could not leave the party because he was a faction head. The reason is the same (as in Mr. Takebe’s case). I’m not part of a faction, so I was free.

Did you visit your father’s grave to tell him about your decision?

Yes, I did on 12 January, before the executives of my local support group gave their approval. When he was alive, my father often said, “The party comes before faction, and the country and the people come before party.” If you return to that starting point, I think my father also worked in politics for the country and the people, not party interests. That’s why I said at the press conference after I left the party that I probably had my father’s DNA.

His Political Future

An FNN poll about people who would make suitable prime ministers shows you coming in third behind Koizumi Jun’ichiro and Ozawa Ichiro. Are you interested in becoming prime minister?

It was the same situation with my father–it’s not possible to become prime minister through actual ability alone. Luck is a big factor.

Ozawa Ichiro of the DPJ said when you left the LDP that your political stance and way of thinking are the same as his. What ties do you have with the DPJ?

The DPJ says they’re interested in “alternating governments”. I’m interested in reorganizing government. There’s a big difference between the two. We agree on an early Diet dissolution and getting the bureaucrats out of government, but there are people in the LDP who believe the same thing. That’s why I think reorganizing government is the proper course.

Will you take any steps for governmental reorganization before the election?

It’s important to be established before the election. Then we can have a political realignment after the election based on the people’s judgment. I think that’s how affairs are trending.

Anyway, people are calling me a Don Quixote. I decided to jump out in front and sacrifice myself for governmental reorganization. I might be killed once politically because of it, but if so, I will most certainly come back to life.

The Osaka prefectural assembly rejected the initiative to move the prefecture offices to the World Trade Center. That may make it possible for Mr. Hashimoto to work more openly with Mr. Watanabe.

There are actually two parts to the Sentaku group, and Mr. Watanabe is referring to the liaison group with the national Diet. The original group was formed with the chief executives of local governments.

Now that his chief aide has been arrested in a political contribution scandal, Mr. Ozawa is no longer likely to be at the top of any lists of potential prime ministers. A Mainichi Shimbun poll in the past week shows that 39% of the respondents think he should step down as party boss immediately, and 33% say he should quit before the next election. In other words, almost three-quarters of the people think it’s time for him to take a hike.

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

Japan’s anti-reform reformers

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 14, 2009

THE ONLY REFORM OF GOVERNMENT worthy of the name is that which puts power in the hands of the people. While that phrase has a bit of a leftist tinge, the left’s actual interest in reform that puts power in the hands of the people is usually an impolite fiction. For them, reform involves control by latter-day Orwellian pigs prancing on their hind legs and decisions made by a self-appointed intellectual elite that is alternatively dismissive of and patronizing to the people. Their governing principles are based on a discredited philosophy that flies in the face of empirical evidence and life its own self.

Haraguchi Kazuhiro

Haraguchi Kazuhiro

The only reform of government in Japan that has attempted to take real power out of the hands of politicians and bureaucrats and put it in the hands of the people was either created or inspired by former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro and his acolytes. One of the most important of the Koizumian reforms is due to take effect on 21 May—the start of the lay judge system in court trials.

One is unlikely to find a reform measure in any of today’s free-market democracies with the potential of the lay judge system to reshape society through the devolution of power. Today, decisions in court cases, including murder trials, are decided by panels consisting of three judges. Next month, those judges will be joined by six lay judges—in other words, private citizens. They will have to rely on common sense and life experience instead of a legal background as they serve on a case-by-case basis to hear trials and render verdicts. The head judge will then determine the sentence for those defendants found guilty.

For those who believe that governments and their administrative apparatus should be as small and as close to the people as possible, this measure is both breathtaking and heartening in an age when even those who claim to champion these principles provide them with little more than lip service.

It should also be no surprise that many are dead set on neutering this reform as well as the other Koizumian innovations, including the privatization of an entire Cabinet ministry.

Those with their knives out include the mudboat wing of Mr. Koizumi’s own Liberal-Democratic Party. They were aghast at his policies to begin with, and only went along with him because they enjoyed the electoral ride on his coattails. Others are the members of the legal profession, who, as is the case with guilds everywhere, will attack anything they perceive as a threat to their exclusivity and professional privileges.

A third group anxious to halt the lay judge system is the primary opposition group, the Democratic Party of Japan. They claim to be reformers, but other than perfunctory proposals to pass a few laws preventing bureaucrats from working for government after retirement, they support measures that are profoundly reactionary in the truest sense of the term. For example, they have promised to halt the privatization of Japan Post, whose savings accounts and life insurance system provided the funding for pork barrel construction projects allocated by the bureaucracy. Party head Ozawa Ichiro has even called for the reinstatement of the lifetime employment system at Japanese corporations. Perhaps next they’ll come out in favor of arranged marriages and teeth blackening for women.

The following is an interview with Haraguchi Kazuhiro, a lower house proportional representative from Saga who is spearheading the party’s effort to limit the transfer of power to the people in the legal system. A member of the Hata Tsutomu group/faction, Mr. Haraguchi has the Internal Affairs and Communications portfolio in the party’s shadow Cabinet. The English is my quick and dirty translation from the Japanese.

You’ve formed the “Diet Members’ League to Reexamine the Lay Judge System” with members of several parties. What is your objective?

I agree with the concept that civil law should be brought closer to the people, but the gap with the way the system was designed is too large. Five years ago, when the law was passed, the government said during questioning in the Diet that it would gain the understanding of the people to smoothly implement the system. Today, however, most of the people remain confused. It is necessary for us as a legislature to clean up the problem areas.

What are the problem areas?

One is that it is difficult for people to withdraw from consideration as lay judges if they do not want to serve based on their beliefs. People will have to serve as judges for serious crimes that could result in the death penalty, but it is a substantial psychological burden for some to be shown gruesome photographs of a crime scene. It is also possible that they will reach hasty conclusions. I’d suggest (using the system) for lesser crimes, cases involving governmental administration and the conduct of democracy, and cases involving financial affairs. The obligation to secrecy is also a problem. It is strange that people will not be able to say, “That judge is strange”. The experience should be one that can be shared by everyone.

21 May, the date of implementation, is approaching. What are you doing now?

Even some members of the ruling party are having regrets, saying they passed the bill in a kind of fever. Our objective is to freeze the implementation of the system after convening several study groups with experts and other informed people. At the same time, I also want to reexamine our pre-modern civil law system in which investigations are regularly carried out in secret, in light of the manipulation of public opinion through prosecutorial leaks that were so prominent in the Nishimatsu Construction case.

(Note: Under the new system, divulging the content of discussions and the voting results of the panel of judges is punishable by up to six months in prison and a fine of up to 500,000 yen (about US$5,000. The objective is to protect privacy and to prevent retaliation.)

Most of Mr. Haraguchi’s objections, if not all of them, are really excuses masquerading as reasons. For example, he speaks as if looking at bloody photographs is the equivalent of a conscientious objector refusing military service in wartime.

While there is some opposition among the Japanese public to serving as lay judges, that opposition has little to do with peeping between one’s fingers at pictures of stab wounds and more to do with the inconvenience of having to interrupt their lives for public service. I’m not slagging the Japanese here; many people in the West would rather not serve on juries for the same reason. That’s why it is unlikely a jury system could be created there now from scratch if it didn’t already exist.

That’s also why it is often difficult in practice to give power to the people, despite it being the right thing to do. How many are anxious to assume the responsibilities required for the rights provided?

Note also that Mr. Haraguchi brings up the Nishimatsu Construction case: he’s referring to the political contribution scandal that threatens to bring down party leader Ozawa. It already has taken the wind out of the DPJ’s electoral sails.

Interjecting complaints of this type in public issues are a hallmark of the party—they are incapable of discussing governmental policies without blatantly trying to politicize them for their own benefit. The most prominent example was the DPJ’s reprehensible attempt to use Japan’s contribution to the UN-approved NATO effort in Afghanistan (refueling ships) as the means to shake the LDP loose from power.

Once upon a time, politics ended at the water’s edge. For the DPJ, however, there is no water’s edge. Everything is grist for the perpetual campaign.

How odd that the politicians most interested in giving real power to the people are those described as “conservative”.

Posted in Legal system, Politics | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

The tenno’s own cherry tree

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, April 11, 2009

WHO WOULD HAVE GUESSED that cherry trees are the stuff of legend both in North America and Japan? Every American, for example, is familiar with the fable of a young George Washington, who chopped down a cherry tree during his misspent youth while looking for some action with a new hatchet. Washington is said to have copped to the deed when his father asked him about it point blank. Little Georgie’s honesty won him parental praise instead of the expected punishment for vandalizing the property. Today they’d probably stuff him with Ritalin.


It turns out this story depicting the father of his country as a moral exemplar was concocted by Parson Mason Weems to boost sales of his biography of Washington, the first one written. Perhaps juicing the tale with a little fiction helped—the book ran to 82 editions, the last of which was published in 1927, and it was translated into French. I’m not sure why they wanted to read it—the French certainly have no problems when it comes to creating myths about Gallic public figures.

The Japanese have their own cock-and-bull story about a cherry tree, which is not surprising considering the number of cherry trees in this country and the quantity of cock-and-bull artists to be found in the drinking establishments of any country. But this one concerns the planting of a tree, rather than the destruction of one.

The photo shows a cherry tree of the shidarezakura variety–literally “drooping branch cherry”–on the grounds of the Kumano-Nachi Shinto shrine in Nachikatsu’ura-cho, Wakayama. The shidarezakura, native to Japan, is known to botanists as the prunus pendula, but normal people in the English-speaking world call it the weeping cherry.

This one is deemed worthy of a newspaper photograph because legend has it that it was planted by the Go-Shirakawa Tenno (emperor), who sat on the Chrysanthemum Throne from 1155 to 1158. Now that can’t be right—the life span of the more common Yoshino cherry is 40-50 years, and drooping isn’t going to extend a cherry tree’s life by nearly a millennium.

The shrine insists on its polite fiction, however, and keeps it out of public view most of the year. They make an exception when it blooms, and this year the blossoms came out a week earlier than usual on 23 March.

It might not be a millennium old, but the Emperor’s Cherry, as it is sometimes called, is old enough to have grown to seven meters in height with a trunk 1.4 meters in circumference. Some of those drooping branches are eight meters long.

As often happens when doing research on what seems to be an innocuous story in Japan, other interesting details come to light. For example, this tree is said to be depicted in the Kumano-Nachi Sankei Mandala, or Mandala of a Visit to Kumano-Nachi. The mandala dates from the early Edo period, which would make it the 17th century, so they do like their tall cherry tree tales in Wakayama. Here’s a website showing the mandala, and you can click on it to view sections in greater detail. I couldn’t positively identify the Emperor’s Cherry, but it’s probably in there somewhere. It’s such a well-known work of art locally that high school students made their own, as you can see here. It took them 50 days to paste together 234,000 pieces of paper, which is a better way for teenagers to spend their spare time instead of running around with a hatchet in a cherry orchard.

Go-Shirakawa Tenno, incidentally, was the 77th emperor, and though his reign lasted but three years, he survived long enough to pull strings behind the scenes for another 34. That means he might have outlasted the original cherry tree he planted, despite the stories to the contrary!

Not all is elegance and sweet myth at the Kumano-Nachi shrine, either. Revisit if you will this previous post on the shrine’s fire festival. Those are some serious torches the guys are carrying. And just to make sure that the whole place is pure before the festival, the priests hang a shimenawa, or a sacred rope, at the top of a nearby waterfall. Purity of spirit is not for the faint of heart in Japan!

Since this is cherry blossom season, don’t miss the updated predictions on the cherry blooming front from the Japanese Meteorological Agency here, or on the right sidebar.

Posted in History, Imperial family, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Ave Atque Vale: Murakami Ayame, Japan’s first female bus tour guide (1910-2009)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 2, 2009

MY RELATIVES in the United States were puzzled by my wife’s enthusiasm for taking guided bus tours whenever she visited a new city in that country. Even my parents, who doted on her and believed everything she did was marvelous, seemed to think it wasn’t a very hip thing to do. They never said anything to her about it, of course. They just looked at me with a “what’s this all about?” expression.


Before getting married, my attitude would probably have been the same, but my wife converted me: Japanese bus tours are a worthwhile way to spend one’s time. They’re inexpensive, convenient (they depart from and return to the main JR train station), and manage to hit all of a city’s high spots in one day without making the tourists feel rushed. A reasonable lunch is usually part of the bargain.

Another unanticipated benefit was the tour guides. They are all female, dressed in sharp uniforms, knowledgeable about the city (they probably passed a written test and an actual trial before going to work), and make a real effort to interact pleasantly with the passengers. Every Japanese bus tour I’ve ever been on has also included the tour guide singing her rendition of a local folk song. All the passengers—by no means a motley group of old fogies—quite enjoy it.

In a manner of speaking, female bus tour guides are a Japanese tradition. If it weren’t a tradition known to every one in the country, the Nishinippon Shimbun wouldn’t have recently run the obituary of the first female bus tour guide in Japan, Murakami Ayame (photo). She died in a Beppu, Oita, hospital on 30 March from old age (98). Ms. Murakami was so well liked that an association of her friends plan to hold a special farewell party for her at a Beppu hotel on 26 April.

After being graduated from an Oita high school in 1928, Ms. Murakami was hired as a “young female bus conductor” for a local company. That job evolved into the bus tour guide position. She worked for six years on buses that toured the Beppu hot springs and spa areas, which are famous throughout the country.

She was renowned for approaching the job with a distinctive style and a voice so attractive it was recorded in 1933. She is said to have retained that voice into her 90s.

If you are Japanese-capable and find yourself in a new city here, I encourage you to overcome any reservations you may have about the potential dorkiness and consider taking one of these tours. The one in Osaka is particularly nice—it includes a boat ride on the river, a visit to the Osaka Castle (an imposing structure indeed), a trip to the top of the Hitachi Tower for a bird’s eye view of the city, another ride on a single-car urban train/streetcar along the back streets of an older residential district, and winds up at a famous Shinto shrine.

And while you’re enjoying yourself, say a little thank-you to Murakami Ayame for being a different kind of pioneer.

Afterwords: The name Ayame in Japanese is the word for the flower called the iris in English.

And yes, every bus tour I’ve been on in Japan has been better than the ones my wife and I took in the U.S. (though the latter weren’t bad).

Of course, in Japan I can relax because I don’t have to interpret every word the tour guide is saying!

Posted in Popular culture, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The new breed of Japanese politician

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 2, 2009

“I think the people of Japan and the prefecture seek a method of politics different from that based on political parties. We must change politics at the local level to win the approval of the people of Japan and the prefecture.”
– Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru

THOSE WHO RELY ON the overseas press to keep abreast of Japanese politics would get the impression that the country’s politicians are a faceless, duplicitous lot of hacks with bad suits and bad teeth barely able to conceal a belief that Imperial Japan is destined to rise again. In that version, the one exception was Koizumi Jun’ichro, the “maverick” who represented a “refreshing change”.

But that distorted view is a false impression. That’s what comes from looking through the wrong end of an obsolete telescope.

While it might have contained a measure of truth at one time, the characterization was never wholly accurate to begin with. And now, failing to play attention to current trends means observers are missing one of the most important aspects of contemporary Japan, as well as one of its most compelling political stories.

Mr. Koizumi was not an outlier: rather, he was the first of a new breed of politicians whose dynamism could further transform the face of an already transformed society.

Hashimoto Toru

Hashimoto Toru

As with all social trends, it is not possible to separate the chicken from the egg. It was inevitable that the dramatic changes that have occurred in Japanese society since the 1980s would produce a dramatically different type of Japanese citizen. What few people outside Japan have realized is that they also produced a dramatically different type of politician that is earning the enthusiastic support of those citizens.

Regardless of what one thinks about their policies, politics, and personalities, the old labels no longer apply to people such as lower house members Watanabe Yoshimi or Eda Kenji, briefly profiled in a post down the page. Nor do they apply to Miyazaki Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo, the subject of many posts here and the one immediately below this.

After two years in office, Mr. Higashikokubaru has an approval rating of 88% as measured by his local newspaper. Politicians do not achieve that level of support by accident, no matter how long they spent in show business first, so it would behoove the rest of the political class and those who write about it to examine the reasons for his success.

In an interview in the April issue of Ushio, the first reason the governor cites for his popularity is a conscious effort to act naturally and not behave in the manner of government officials in the past. He also cites a willingness to listen to everyone without making an immediate judgment on their opinions or demands.

These traits have prompted one Japanese Internet news source to dub him “the cooperative type” of new, local politician. While that has worked for the Miyazaki governor, others are using different techniques.

Hashimoto Toru

One of those other types is a youthful firebrand who has made the devolution of authority to local government his calling card–the former attorney and television celebrity Hashimoto Toru, governor of Osaka Prefecture.

As the quote at the top of this post makes clear, the 39-year-old Mr. Hashimoto shares with Mr. Higashikokubaru the belief that the days of party-centered politics in Japan has to end. The Miyazaki governor, an independent, often says that the only party a local politician needs is the citizens.

This is an indirect corroboration of the changes in Japanese society, which traditionally was centered on group activity rather than individual behavior. One political consequence of this social structure was that all the political parties demanded Soviet-style obedience within the party once a consensus was reached, regardless of the individual views of the members.

But the younger generations no longer feel constrained to sacrifice their views on the altar of consensus, and their independent behavior is increasingly influencing that of their elders.

While Gov. Higashikokubaru is considered “the cooperative type”, Mr. Hashimoto, who has been in office only one year, is unabashedly the confrontational type. He seems to have taken a page out of the book of economist John Maynard Keynes, who once remarked that when all else failed “ruthless truth-telling” is the only answer.

This ruthless truth-telling has become such a phenomenon among the public that two newspapers, the Asahi and the Sankei, file daily features on his continuing adventures. The Sankei, being non-leftist and a supporter of devolution, is generally sympathetic to the governor. Just today they quoted him as calling the national bureaucracy “tyrannical” for their plans to erect a new building in Osaka for one of their local branches. A Japanese politician will never go far wrong with his constituents by attacking the bureaucracy in the harshest manner possible.

The Sankei also approvingly noted the stir he caused when he declared that “The regions are the slaves of the nation(al government).” The governor was specifically addressing the financial liability borne by local governments to support enterprises or institutions directly operated by the national government.

This certainly got Tokyo’s attention. Mr. Hashimoto has been invited to debate the issues with the Cabinet Office’s Committee for Promoting Regional Devolution and Reform. (You might keep this in mind if you ever read in English the tired old proverb that the nail that sticks out in Japan gets hammered down. Whoever dares repeat that these days is looking through the rearview mirror.)

Indeed, Mr. Hashimoto seems determined to be the first to do the hammering. He has been so outspoken on occasion that he has been charged, sometimes not unfairly, with intemperance, as this previous post describes.

North Korean schools

This week still more of the governor’s ruthless truth-telling stirred up a minor controversy in some quarters. This report came from the Asahi, which as a newspaper of the left has a vested interest in the character assassination of non-leftist politicians with significant popular appeal.

One of the governor’s primary initiatives has been to move the prefecture offices from the present building, which is more than 80 years old, to the Osaka City-run World Trade Center. The move was backed by local business leaders long before Mr. Hashimoto took office. Most are aligned with the Liberal Democratic Party, the dominant party of the national ruling coalition, but some from the opposition Democratic Party of Japan also supported the move. (Business leaders claimed it would spark greater regional development, and it would also solve the problem of the red ink the facility has been bleeding since it was built in the 90s.) Meanwhile, New Komeito, the Japanese Communist Party, and a significant amount of the population were opposed.

The Osaka Prefectural Assembly this week rejected the proposal to move the government offices, which required a two-thirds majority to pass. When asked about his defeat, Gov. Hashimoto said:

“Japan isn’t North Korea, after all. If I got my way in everything all the time, I’d become a dictator.”

More temperate public officials, hesitant to say something that could cause offense, might have considered blandness to be the better part of valor. They might have said that the people had spoken through their elected legislative representatives and the defeat demonstrates the health and soundness of the democratic process. In other words, the same boring old crap that goes in one ear and out the other.

But the Japanese public is fed up with mush-mouthed politicians, and Mr. Hashimoto was not elected because of an ability to sponge on the soft soap. He is in office because he calls a spade a spade.

The Asahi found (or was approached by) an association of the mothers in the prefecture who send their children to North Korean schools. The newspaper ran an article that reported the association’s demands that the governor withdraw the statement, apologize, and take measures to ensure the safety of the children at the schools.

Their demand says that his statement referring to North Korea in regard to a purely local issue while “North Korea bashing” is occurring due to that country’s upcoming launch of a missile is inappropriate. “We are concerned that the statement could encourage unjustified harassment of the children at the schools,” the mothers said.

The insolence of the North Koreans and their local lackeys is by no means a new phenomenon, but the moral repugnance of this particular complaint is breathtaking. Those of North Korean ancestry in Japan who are allowed to operate schools for the primary purpose of indoctrinating students in the propaganda of an enemy state should be grateful that they have the opportunity to exist at all, much less complain about democratically elected leaders in public. That opportunity certainly wouldn’t be available to them in Pyeongyang, and they know it.

Meanwhile, the North Koreans, who have threatened to turn Japan into a sea of flame, fired missiles in its direction several times, and regularly sent operatives into the country to kidnap private citizens—an infringement of national sovereignty that could also be argued to be a casus belli, is now preparing to launch a three-stage ballistic missile over Japan in violation of a United Nations ban (I know, I know) as soon as this weekend.

The schools themselves are operated by Chongryon, the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, whose chairman and five other senior officials are members of the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly. If anyone by chance did harass the North Korean students—who are made to wear uniforms based on traditional Korean designs—it would be the blame of their schoolmasters, their parents, and the country to which they owe allegiance.

One might make the case that the Asahi is performing a service for the large ethnic Korean population in the Kansai district by reporting the news. But that would not be a credible excuse for a newspaper that has had its knives out for Mr. Hashimoto for most of his term trying to discredit him.

The Asahi seems to think that Mr. Hashimoto is irresponsible and intemperate. Some would agree, but many in Japan are thrilled to see a politician unafraid to say what he thinks and ruthlessly tells the truth as he sees it. I do not use the word “many” lightly. In January the support rate among his constituents was 82%.

Morita Kensaku

It is also worth mentioning in this context Morita Kensaku, who handily won the gubernatorial election in Chiba Prefecture in a race closely watched to see if the Ozawa fund-raising scandals would have an impact on the local DPJ candidate. (Apparently they did, to an extent.)

Morita Kensaku

Morita Kensaku

As a former actor, Mr. Morita already had the advantage of name recognition. But other Japanese observers suggest that one reason for his victory is that he presented himself as the face of the prefectural citizens and a man who transcended party. Despite endorsements by about half of the LDP members of the prefectural assembly, he avoided using those endorsements in the campaign.

His primary opponent, Yoshida Taira, was backed by the opposition DPJ. While that seems to have been a handicap this time around, the same observers note that Mr. Yoshida tried to nationalize the election by campaigning on a platform of throwing the bums of the LDP out of office and replacing them with the DPJ. In short, they say, Mr. Morita’s success may have been due to an approach identical to that of the Miyazaki and Osaka governors. All three have pledged their loyalty to the voters’ interests rather than to those of a political party.

It’s worth noting that Japan is a parliamentary democracy, and that prime ministers must be members of the Diet. That means they are legislators, a group notorious for a lack of executive skills. (That’s likely one reason the LDP usually has its prime ministerial candidates serve in several executive positions in the Cabinet and in party posts first.)

Mr. Higashikokubaru already seems intent on moving from the governor’s office to the Diet, and perhaps he thinks he looks upon the visage of a future prime minister when he faces the mirror in the morning. It remains to be seen if people such as Mr. Hashimoto and Mr. Morita follow his example, or turn to individual initiatives such as Sentaku, the group organized by former Mie Governor Kitagawa Masayasu.

Whatever happens in the future, it must be emphasized that the presence of such men in Japanese politics is a lagging indicator rather than a leading indicator. That they exist is a corroboration of changes that already have occurred in Japanese society, not of changes that might happen in the future. Besides, there is now so much dynamism in political circles in Japan, particularly at the regional level, that further drastic change must be taken as a given.

But don’t expect to see much discussion of this in English anywhere, much less the media. They still think the LDP and DPJ mudboats of Aso Taro and Ozawa Ichiro are the norm.

They still think Japanese politicians are faceless.

Afterwords: Nothing about politics, but here’s an observation of a different sort. Mr. Morita is giving the banzai salute in celebration of his victory in the photo above. Notice that everyone’s hands are facing toward the front.

That wasn’t always the case. Older people with a prewar education invariably raise their hands with their palms facing each other, resembling an NFL official in American football signaling a touchdown. A few sticklers even talk about it.

Time brings about all sorts of changes, does it not?

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