Japan from the inside out

Archive for June, 2009

Japan’s political kaleidoscope (2): Aso edition

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 30, 2009

THE YEASTY FERMENT brewing in the world of Japanese politics is a heady blend with ingredients ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Anyone who thinks politics in this country is moribund either isn’t paying attention or their beverage of choice is Kool-Aid. Today’s draft is drawn primarily from the Aso Taro keg.

Politicians say the darndest things

Logorrhea is an occupational hazard for politicians, and all sorts of things come out of their mouths when they’ve switched on cruise control. This is from a recent speech by Prime Minister Aso Taro:

“(The current Japanese national soccer team) doesn’t have a superstar like Nakata Hidetoshi. Eleven people working together—that’s Japanese soccer. If Japan had a superstar, it would be His Majesty the Emperor.”

Do you ever wonder how Mrs. Aso would answer if someone asked her whether her husband talks like this when they’re relaxing together at home?

Then again, if the idea of Jesus Christ Superstar can sell millions of albums, launch productions on Broadway and the West End of London, generate two films with a third planned, and still be performed on stage 35 years later, it should be harmless for some Japanese to consider the tenno to be the local superstar.

Why people dislike journalists #4,937

Journalists defend themselves from the charge of pointlessly repeating the same question by saying it’s their job. Well, yes, for some people, working for a living does involve creating make-work projects designed to convince the boss you’ve got the situation well in hand. All they usually accomplish, however, is to waste the time of people with more productive things to do. Try this dialogue from a recent Aso Taro press conference:

Reporter: First, about the personnel for senior party positions and the Cabinet…

(Mr. Aso leans back and smiles)

Reporter: Last Saturday you had a discussion with Mr. Kuroda (LDP secretary general), and at that time you took a negative approach to making major personnel changes. You said, “I’ve never talked about it; it’s just outsiders making things up.” Could you tell us again what your thoughts are about the personnel issue?

PM: I haven’t thought about personnel.

Reporter: Does that mean you won’t think about personnel until the Diet is dissolved and there’s a general election?

PM: It means I’m not thinking about it now.

Reporter: Now.

PM: Now look, you’re jumping on everything I say as soon as I say it, and you also did it not long ago. This sort of thing…saying these needless things will just lead to a pointless conversation, so let’s drop the subject…well, that was a close call (laughs).

Reporter: I see.

PM: (Clear voice) I haven’t thought about it.

Reporter: OK. Next…

PM: Do you understand?

Reporter: You’re not thinking about it all?

PM: (Laughs, doesn’t answer)

Update: Well, it looks like this reporter knew more than I gave him credit for. The very next day, Mr. Aso said that he had been thinking for a while about “the most suitable people at the most suitable time”. Nevertheless, it should have been obvious he didn’t want to answer the question when he was asked. That’s no reason to bug the man.

Why would Mr. Aso double back on his word so quickly? Some television journalists speculated that former PM Abe Shinzo, a long-time Aso friend, had been urging him to reshuffle his Cabinet and had nearly convinced him. But then party bigwig Mori Yoshiro told Mr. Aso not to waste his time.

How typical: Mr. Aso’s lack of decisiveness and willingness to listen to either of those men for political advice are two of the reasons his popular support is negligible to begin with.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the latest teacup tempest in an administration known for them is that one of the TV journalists casually commented that “he lied” the first time before moving on to comment about subsequent developments.

That does not speak well of contemporary Japanese politics at the highest level, does it?

Grated Aso

A lower house election must be held within the next few months, and it looks very much like the LDP is going to be trounced, allowing the opposition Democratic Party of Japan to form a government for the first time. The ruling party no longer offers a coherent political philosophy, and their post-Koizumi prime ministers have been the politically clumsy manipulated by the terminal klutzes behind the scenes.

It’s no wonder then that some senior party members want to move up the September election for LDP party president (who would become prime minister) to find an alternative to going down with Mr. Aso and the rest of the mudboat crew before the lower house election.

LDP faction leader Yamasaki Hiraku (AKA Taku) has submitted a petition to LDP MPs and other party members specifically calling for an early election. He also set up a special area on his website for citizens to provide their input.

Said Mr. Yamasaki:

“It’s not (designed) to bring down the Aso Cabinet”.

It is to laugh. No one believes that, particularly because the special area materialized on his website the day after the LDP candidate was defeated in the election for Chiba City mayor. A former Cabinet minister also admitted off the record that the idea is to create a popular consensus to replace Mr. Aso.

Indeed, Mr. Yamasaki later quit beating around the bush. A week ago, he claimed he had 108 signatures from lower house LDP members, though he wasn’t showing them to anyone. That’s about halfway to his goal of signing up an outright majority of LDP MPs in the lower house. He says that would prevent Mr. Aso from calling a snap election out of petulant frustration.

Then came the release of the following poll:

  • People intending to vote for the LDP: 16.4%
  • People intending to vote for the DPJ: 40.4%

A 24-point differential causes alarm bells to ring so loudly even those with earplugs can hear them. It also tends to shake up senior party leaders with heretofore safe seats because an electoral tsunami that large could just as easily wipe them out as it would the small fry in marginal districts.

The secretaries-general

Said Kato Koichi at a press conference:

In my 37 years as a diet member, I have never seen the reputation of the LDP sink as low as it has now. It’s the lowest it’s ever been. Calling an election now would be an act of suicide…Some MPs say we can take only 165 seats, but I think that outlook is too optimistic.

Said Takebe Tsutomu to reporters at party headquarters:

“We (Diet members) will work hard until the end of the term on 10 September, (but) we should have a showdown in the election with new policies promoted by a new leader.”

Ibuki Bunmei was slightly more optimistic, if optimistic is the word to describe a prediction of the loss of the party’s lower house majority:

“The cabinet support rate has fallen. We could have taken 241 seats with New Komeito, but now that will only be 220 to 230.”

All four of these gentlemen have served as LDP secretary-general, the top position in the party apparatus, so they know when electoral defeat is staring them in the face. Another former SG, Nakagawa Hidenao, has been saying the same thing every day for months now.

The names that arise most frequently as possible replacements are the Acting Secretary-General (i.e., representative) Ishihara Nobuteru, the son of Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro; Health, Labor, and Welfare Minister Masuzoe Yoichi, a former University of Tokyo professor who won public favor as a TV commentator slamming bureaucrats for their handling of public pensions; and former Defense Minister Koike Yuriko, a favorite of the Koizumian wing of the party, but disliked by some for a perceived shallowness of loyalty to the LDP. The problem with all three is that none of them are strong enough on their own to serve in that role without substantial help from the old boys in the backroom, most of whom have been out of touch for a generation.

Not everyone has jumped on the dump Aso bandwagon, however. Those who think they can swim–or cling to the flotsam and jetsam–when the ship sinks include former postal rebel Noda Yumiko and former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. Mr. Abe may be a man of principle and party loyalty, but he is sorely deficient in the third P of political acumen.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Kawamura Takeo is also opposed to a change:

“Party unity is of the utmost importance before the lower house election. Turmoil in the party will cause its own downfall. Would the people really understand if we only changed the leader? How would we answer the criticism that holding a party leadership election before the general election was done only with the general election in mind?”

Yes, the people would understand if you removed a leader they don’t support who lacks a firm political touch. They’d probably sympathize with you, in fact. To answer the carpers, you could always point out that the parties sitting in the opposition rows don’t get to make policy.

New Komeito, the LDP’s coalition partners, also want to stick with the loser. Said a senior official:

“It will have a negative impact on the election for governor in Shizuoka and the Tokyo Metropolitan District council. It’s also possible the voters would not support (the coalition) in the lower house election.”

You mean the same voters who already favor the opposition over the coalition by a 24-point margin? Those voters?

The official dropped hints the party would withhold support from LDP Diet members who tried to oust Mr. Aso.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to them that candidates running behind a party leader promoting regional devolution, delinking from the mandarins of the civil service, putting the nation’s finances in order before raising taxes, continued privatization, and a resolute foreign policy probably wouldn’t need New Komeito support to win.

Naturalists speak of the cornered prey summoning all its energy for a desperate counterattack. Some hunters, however, know that cornered prey tracked for a long time often become too tired and dispirited to continue, and willingly surrender. What else could be the explanation for those people who are ready to fight an election campaign led by Mr. Aso—a man who has demonstrated no leadership ability, is not amenable to the reforms the public knows are needed, and who thinks that promising a large tax increase will earn the party public favor?

Mr. Aso might even be among those willing to surrender to the hunter. He’s dropping hints that he’ll hold the lower house election in August. Was this done to forestall a putsch? Was it his idea, or did someone put him up to it?

Why is it that the dimmest bulbs invariably think they’re the brightest?

Taro and the pirates

But let’s be fair: Mr. Aso does have his moments. The Diet recently passed a bill that allows Japanese self-defense forces (i.e., the military) to be sent overseas with the authority to fire on pirate vessels overseas if they do not respond to an order to cease and desist their attacks—even on non-Japanese ships—and allows Japan to participate in joint international anti-piracy operations. It also criminalizes piracy, which permits the offenders to be apprehended and punished in Japan.

Yet the DPJ chose to potentially sacrifice Japanese lives and ships by refusing to pass the bill in the upper house. They and the other opposition parties delayed the measure for two months and forced the LDP to use its supermajority in the lower house to get it through.

Said the prime minister:

“Naturally you’d protect yourself if you were attacked by thieves. I don’t understand (their opposition to the use of weapons). What are they thinking about when it comes to the safety of the Self-Defense Forces and the Coast Guard?”

There have been about 150 pirate attacks on shipping off Somalia this year, already exceeding the 111 attacks in 2008. What was the opposition “thinking”? For starters, the DPJ and the Social Democrats were concerned that the bill allows the Cabinet to send the SDF overseas without Diet approval.

Well, their two-month foot-dragging and gamesmanship while piracy continues unabated demonstrates why waiting for the approval of more than 700 people in both houses of the legislature, many of whom are all too willing to create artificial political crises to delay bills on any pretext, is unwise and possibly fatal when real world circumstances demand prompt action.

Meanwhile, the SDP and the Communists think the Coast Guard should be the only military forces involved against the pirates, and called into action only in Japanese territorial waters. They were also opposed to the relaxed rules on the use of weapons. What do they think works against Third World pirates looking for a multi-million dollar payday? Moral suasion? Do they expect the Somalians to start raiding along the Seto Inland Sea?

Let’s be clear: Many in the DPJ supported this bill as it was. That meant it could have sailed through the upper house with little or no problem, but the party leadership felt compelled to object. That’s partly because they lack the political sophistication to understand that for critical areas of national interest, it really is OK to agree with the government and not to oppose something merely because they’re the opposition. It’s also because they chose again to ignore the national interest by playing a numbers game for their own political ends and ally with the SPD solely to bring down the government.

What this demonstrates:

  1. The SPD hold their countrymen in such contempt that they believe Japanese are still too irresponsible to be trusted with lethal weapons overseas in matters of self-defense. (It’s also possible that the wool in their heads has grown so thick they’re no longer capable of coherent thought.) That, combined with their other positions, past associations with North Korea, their socialist/Marxist background (which includes circumstantial evidence linking a leading party figure to the Japanese Red Army terrorist group of yesteryear) reveals serious character flaws.
  2. That the DPJ would put to risk Japanese lives, commercial interests critical for an island nation with limited natural resources, and nascent efforts to show that the country is a responsible international partner willing to help enforce the basic concepts of right and wrong, solely to feed the fantasies of miniscule fringe parties for the sake of gaining power, is another sign that they are too immature to successfully lead a government.
  3. Communists always behave like Communists.

Want more? DPJ President Hatoyama Yukio was asked if he would roll back the decision if they gained a lower house majority and formed a government later this year. You know, if you’re opposed, you’re opposed, right? His answer:

“We will not make a hasty decision to do an immediate about-face.”

Bless their pointed little heads, but aren’t they dependable? The DPJ can always be counted on to choose expediency over principle.

Some claim the DPJ maintains its alliance with the SPD because it “needs them” in the upper house.

“Needs them” for what? It’s not as if the SPD is going to start voting with the LDP if the DPJ tells them to bugger off.

The Democratic Party of Japan—still shameless after all these years.

Getting real

During the same discussion, Mr. Aso continued:

“It’s the same with North Korea. At a minimum, we must fight when we should fight. If we aren’t prepared to do that, we won’t be able to defend the nation’s safety.”

Added current LDP Secretary-General Hosoda Haruyuki in a Yurakucho speech:

“Who knows what North Korea, which has nonchalantly abducted hundreds of people, will do if they develop nuclear weapons? We must apply more pressure to North Korea. Our ultimate objective is to bring about a collapse of the current regime and have the country be reborn as a peaceful state. The DPJ’s response to (this issue) is extremely soft.”

And why not? Who better than the Japanese to understand that a malevolent regime can become a peaceful state?

Messrs. Aso and Hosoda aren’t the only ones tired of the international pussyfooting. The aforementioned Koike Yuriko resigned last week from the chairmanship of a special LDP committee studying the question of enemy military bases. A party council submitted a statement to Prime Minister Aso on whether Japan should maintain the capability of conducting an attack on enemy military installations. The council adopted a policy of ruling out preemptive defensive attacks, which caused Ms. Koike to walk.

Instrumental in adopting that policy was Yamasaki Hiraku (also mentioned above), who said:

“We must not cause misunderstandings overseas”.

Retorted Ms. Koike:

“A policy exclusively oriented to defense is too restrictive, and a defensive preemptive attack policy is even more restrictive. All we talk about is limiting what we can do. Is it such a good idea to continue to limit Japan’s policies for defense? People say it’s done out of consideration for neighboring countries, but they don’t show any consideration for us at all.”

Bingo. And give that last sentence bonus points.


The people overseas who might misunderstand could be divided into two groups. The first consists of those in the region who would choose to purposely misunderstand. That would allow them to use Japanese policy as both a diplomatic weapon in bilateral relations, and as a domestic weapon to stir up anti-Japanese sentiment at home. Their feigned ignorance would enable them to continue painting the country as a false enemy, thereby strengthening their base of support.

North Korea threatens Japan with military action every day and has the hardware to make those threats very real. The Chinese are not going to stop until they have made themselves the East Asian hegemon (at least). Russia seized Japan’s Northern Territories after Japan surrendered in 1945 and refuses to return them. South Korea used military force to seize Takeshima in 1954, still illegally occupies the islets, and still refuses international mediation (which Japan says it would accept).

The second group of people who would misunderstand is in the West and principally consists of politicians, academics, and journalists, most of whom can’t be bothered to do the research to get it right to begin with. Perhaps that’s because a real understanding would conflict with their preconceptions.

Japanese diplomatic and military behavior has been the gold standard in Northeast Asia since 1945. Ms. Koike, Mr. Aso, and Mr. Hosoda are right: Japan should choose to defend its legitimate interests as a sovereign nation. The decision-makers in neighboring countries will understand perfectly, regardless of what they say in public for the gullible or the Barnumesque suckers who want to be deceived. As for the people on the other side of the Pacific, there’s a Japanese expression that covers them: Baka ni tsukeru kusuri wa nai. There’s no medicine to cure a fool.

Some people in this country pretended they didn’t understand what Abe Shinzo meant when he said he wanted Japan to move beyond the postwar regime. Well, here you are.

But of course they always knew exactly what he was driving at—they just didn’t want to face the implications. It’s not always easy for adolescents to embrace responsibility and take charge of their lives.

Posted in International relations, Military affairs, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Matsuri da! (107): The mikoshi marathon

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, June 27, 2009

A KEY ELEMENT of most Shinto festivals are the portable shrines known as mikoshi. Rites in other religions usually require the performance of strictly defined acts from which there is little or no deviation. One distinguishing feature of Shinto matsuri, however, is that there is very little from which to deviate to begin with. It’s hard to get stuffy about tradition when the founding principle seems to have been “Hey, that’s a great idea! Let’s try it and see what happens!”

yamagata hakko festival

The standard operating procedure during a festival is for the carriers to vigorously raise and lower the mikoshi while calling out shouts of self-encouragement during the procession. Meanwhile, the onlookers provide encouragement of their own from alongside the parade route, often drenching the carriers with buckets of water to cool them off—summer or winter, it makes no difference. When you’re hot and sweaty from all that work, you need to get cool!

But there are also festivals in which the mikoshi are hauled up the side of a steep mountain, run down the side of a mountain on narrow stone stairs at top speed in the middle of the night, carried under a waterfall, jumped over a blazing fire, used as a weapon in a street fight with another mikoshi-carrying group, or just smashed to pieces as a sign of devotion.

Though there are plenty of stories of how the mikoshi are used, few of those stories specifically mention how long those processions last. One exception is the story I came across for a festival last month at the Yudanosan Shinto shrine in Yamagata.

The event starts with the hakkosai ceremony, in which part of the spirit is taken from the tutelary deity at the shrine and placed in the mikoshi. Then about 150 young parishioners from a group known as the Miyuki-kai (神幸会) carry it around a six-kilometer course in Yamagata City chanting “Soiya sah!” The group does more than just go through the motions and then go home. It takes them seven hours to conduct this part of the festival. That must be one of the reasons for having 150 members in the Miyuki-kai–they have to take turns doing the heavy lifting.

That object at the top in gold leaf, by the way, is the ho’o, a type of phoenix whose myths originated in China. A mythical Chinese creature on top of a palanquin for a Shinto divinity–now how’s that for another example of Japanese syncretism? The ho’o seems to have been created from spare parts–the front was shaped like a giraffe, the rear like a deer, the head like a snake, the tail like a fish, and the back like a turtle. It’s enough to make you wonder how much hemp was cultivated in China in the old days.

The Yudonosan shrine has a history even more interesting than the festival it conducts. It’s located 1,500 meters (about 4,920 feet) above sea level, and the hike required to get there is not for the faint or weak of heart. The photo here shows the large red torii, but the shrine itself is far enough down the path and up the side of the mountain that a special bus leaving from the building at left takes visitors the rest of the way for 200 yen. It’s not possible to post a photo of the shrine itself, because photography at the site is forbidden.


Once visitors arrive, they have to remove their shoes to enter, and that, like the photo prohibition, is not a common practice at most institutions. Then again, the shrine is located in an uncommon area. The Yudonosan mountain is one of three in a group of mountains and valleys that were a site for Buddhist ascetic practices for more than a millennium. Some of the heavy hitters of Japanese Buddhism came here for meditation and enlightenment, including Kukai, the founder of the Shingon sect, and Saicho, the founder of the Tendai sect.

Their practices were uncommonly rigorous, and included vegetarian meals, daily ablutions, and Yudono no Hozen worship three times a day for 30, 50, or 1,000 consecutive days to remove their impurities. Another objective for some was to achieve Buddhahood while still in the material body, a practice called sokushinjobutsu, and at Yudonosan the preferred method was to meditate until one became “mummified”, as the explanation has it. Some of the remains of these people still exist in northern Niigata.

While in those days the site primarily attracted Buddhists, the institution itself was one of many that shared space with a Shinto shrine. When they were split up during the Meiji era reforms, the Buddhist temples relocated elsewhere. Why did they move and the shrine stay? I don’t know, but it might have been because the shrine’s shintai, the object of worship in which the divinity’s spirit dwells, was a large rock from which a natural hot spring emerges.

It has to be easier to build another temple than it is to change the course of a hot spring in the mountains!

Posted in Festivals, Religion, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Asuka: Gagaku for the 21st century

Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 26, 2009

LONG-TIME FRIENDS know that I’m like iron filings for the magnet of modern Japanese roots music, including that goofy/funky mongrel known as chin-don, as well as Okinawan minyo. Hit the Music category on the left sidebar and you’ll find plenty of references to those styles, including one post about the Ryukyu Chimdon Band. That group combines both of them into a barrel of musical fun concealing a lot of sophistication behind the wackiness. (What better word to use to describe the use of Zairean soukous structures with chin-don instrumentation to play Okinawan melodies?)

Long-time friends also know that one of my avocations is informal research into festivals and Shinto traditions, and for proof of that all you have to do is get clicky with the Festival category on the same sidebar.

Somewhere in the Music category there are a few references to gagaku, the ancient music of the Japanese Imperial court. Both the music and the instruments of that style came primarily from China about 1,400 years ago, though some also crossed over from the Korean Peninsula. While that musical tradition has long been dead on the Asian mainland, it’s still alive here. Some musicologists say it’s the longest continuous musical tradition in existence.

Asuka me again and I'll tell you the same!

Asuka me again and I'll tell you the same

So it should be no surprise that I had to grab my tongue to keep from swallowing it in excitement when I stumbled across news of a progressive gagaku band on the run that’s updated the tradition for the 21st century. How do you do, Flame, meet the Moth!

What I read was almost too good to be true. The group is named Asuka (明日香), and all the members are conservatory graduates. While at music school, they specialized in studies of Western jazz, pop, and classical music.

But that’s not the half of it–the male members of Asuka are legitimate Shinto priests and the women are miko shrine maidens. And two members are from families of musicians who perform in what is known as the “festival gagaku” tradition (祭典雅楽). Rather than playing for the Imperial court or related functions, these musicians play at Shinto shrines and village ceremonies. (This is the first I’ve heard of it, and there’s not a lot of information about it on the web in Japanese, either.) It’s considered to be more cheerful than the Court version of the music.

Asuka has presented more than 100 performances a year since they came together, but it’s only recently that they’ve begun playing in more commercial settings. Now comes word that they’ll be making their concert debut (on stage as a solo act before several thousand people) at the Japan Expo 2009 in Paris from 2-5 July. They’ll also give a short live performance during the Expo at the booth of the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry.

If that hasn’t grabbed you by the shirt collar and woken you up yet, this will: in conjunction with their Japan Expo appearance, they’ve formally created a branch of Osaka’s Horiage Atago Shinto shrine and will have a small shrine structure and torii shipped from Japan. They plan to set up what their record company is calling a “mini theme park” of a Shinto shrine and festival. It will have the amulets, fortunes, lotteries, and ema (votive pictures) that are part of established shrines for the edification and enjoyment of the Europeans.

Asuka has released a CD available at Amazon Japan called Tenchi Muso (天地夢想). Here is their page in Japanese at the record company’s site. They helpfully provide a link to a YouTube promotional video of a live performance. By the time I’d made it this far, I was nearly salivating. And here it is:

It broke my heart! Why oh why did they have to screw it up by using computers and a drum machine? What wasted potential!

This is my confession, mama: I’m a such a diehard that when I finally flip out for good, I might just turn into a musical Carrie Nation. Instead of taking an axe to saloons, I’ll track down record studios and destroy all their rhythm machines. If I had a hammer, I’d swing it in the morning, into those consoles, all over this land. Computerized drum machines are to music what inflatable rubber dolls are to sex. They miss the point entirely!

I’m OK with electric or electronic instruments, as long as they’re performed in real time using hands, feet, head, heart, and lung.

Before giving up on them, I was lucky to notice that YouTube has several videos by Asuka. The next one I tried was this:

Now that’s more like it. It combines a transverse bamboo flute, acoustic piano, and electric bass with a jazzy melody. OK, I thought, there’s hope for these guys yet. And then I discovered this:

All is bliss! Fans of Japanese music will recognize the man playing the Yamaha as Sakamoto Ryuichi, Japan’s first Academy Award winner for his work on the score of The Last Emperor. He’s been composing and performing cutting edge pop/avant garde music for decades, first as a member of the Yellow Magic Orchestra and then on his own. Those with longer memories will recognize this song as Tong Poo (東風), one of his better-known numbers from the YMO days–though this version is quite different (and much more to my tase). Mr. Sakamoto has always been ready to incorporate Japanese and Asian elements into his music, including Okinawan minyo. What a lovely performance!

That sold me. The Asuka CD is going to be my next musical purchase, and I’ve got my fingers crossed that the tracks sound more like the second and third videos here than the first.

The instrument with the vertical bamboo pipes is called a sho. It’s a mouth organ with 17 pipes that can play tone clusters of five or six notes at a time. The two longest pipes are silent; the sound of the instrument is said to resemble the call of the phoenix, and those pipes are the wings. It’s tuned using wax. For those who can read music, here’s some sho notation:


I can’t read music, but I do know this: I’d jam some clothes into a rucksack tomorrow, leave home for good, and become the love slave of either of those women playing it! Dip me in chocolate and turn me into a licking stick!

Posted in Imperial family, Music, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , | 6 Comments »

Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope (2)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, June 24, 2009

BAREFOOTIN’ IN TEE-SHIRTS and short pants, all the better to deal with the 30-minute turnarounds of pouring rain and blazing sun: yeah, summer has arrived at last in Japan. During the dog days, the archipelago offers all sorts of hot-weather delights, including watermelon, shaved ice, and best of all, the transformation of even the most neo-radical of young women into traditional beauties once they exchange their jeans for yukata (a summer kimono).

What else is going on up and down the islands? Well, take a look and find out!

Firefly festivals

Once upon a time, summer nights on the East Coast of the United States came alive with a light show au naturel created by fireflies. The march of progress and suburbia seems to have ended all that, but the lightning bugs, as we used to call them, are still alive and flickering in the countryside here.

This is Japan, so take it as given that people know just when to expect their appearance every year, just how long it will last, and how to organize the viewing parties and festivals held to coincide with those dates.

Lightning bugs!

Lightning bugs!

The photo shows the fireflies near the Ayu River in Tanabe, in the southern part of Wakayama. It’s one of several locations in the area known as superb firefly viewing sites from the end of May to the beginning of June.

But as with the cherry blossoms and the rainy season, the firefly front keeps marching north, and right now the folks in Yonezawa, Yamagata, are enjoying a month-long firefly festival at the Onogawa spa. The festival is sponsored by the spa’s tourism association and the Yonezawa Firefly Protection Society. The opening ceremony was held at the local memorial firefly tower to pray for the safety of the participants during the event. Those Yonezawans must really like fireflies!

It’s not a festival in Japan without liquor, so right after the prayers they perform another centuries-old ritual by knocking open the head of a sake barrel with wooden hammers and passing the hooch around. They say some people see double when they drink too much, so you can imagine the sort of visions that light up the retinas of the festival-goers when a wave of fireflies floats by.

The viewing in Yonezawa begins on the riverbank right after it gets dark at 8:00 p.m. and lasts until 9:00. The area is such a firefly mecca that three different species breed here, and who but the entomologists knew there were different types of lightning bugs? For a spot of relaxation after all this excitement, the open-air baths stay open until nine, and there’s a tea house set up temporarily next to the firefly tower. The festival fun lasts until 31 July, but some people like to time their visit for the amateur entertainment contest on the 4th and 5th.


Sliding over from zoology to botany, here’s a photo of the festival held by the Miyajidake Shinto shrine in Fukutsu, Fukuoka, for the first cutting of Edo irises in a local garden. The purpose of the event, called Hatsukiri—first cutting, appropriately enough—is to present the irises as an offering to the divinities. They’ve got plenty of flowers from which to choose, because the garden has 30,000 individual plants. While the priests grunt, bend over, and swing their scythes, two miko hold irises as they perform a dance accompanied by a flute. More than 200 people came to watch. A small turnout, you say? That’s not a bad crowd for watching two girls perform a centuries-old dance in costume in a garden in a town of 56,000 while priests cut flowers. How many people would show up where you live?

hatsukiri 2

The shrine held its Iris festival on the same day. They place 70,000 irises in front of the shrine and light ’em up until 9:00 p.m. for 10 days. The shrine has its own iris garden too, started from bulbs sent by the Meiji-jingu in Tokyo in 1965. They now have 100,000 plants in 100 varieties. That’s a heck of a lot of irises, but they need that many to go around for all of Shinto’s yaoyorozu divine ones. (Yaoyorozu is the traditional number of divinities in Shinto. It literally means eight million, but figuratively represents an infinite number, signifying that each natural object has a divine spirit.)

Seaweed cutting

Irises weren’t the only flora getting cut for a Shinto ritual. Four priests from the Futamikitama Shinto shrine in Ise, Mie, boarded a boat with some miko and sailed offshore for some seaweed cutting. They present the seaweed—fortunately an uncountable noun—to the divinities, allow it to dry out for a month, and then distribute it to their parishioners to drive out bad fortune and eradicate impurities.


At 10:30 a.m., the priests set sail on their skiff festooned with red, yellow, green, purple, and white streamers, with bamboo grass placed at bow and stern, and headed for the special seaweed site 770 meters northeast of the Futami no Meoto, sometimes called the Wedded Rocks. (The word meoto designates a pair of something, one large and one small.) Since this is a special ritual, they can’t just start cutting—first they have to circle the divine Kitama rock on the seabed three times, then they haul out a three-meter long sickle and get to work.

Sea goya

Since the subject is aquatic plants, now’s as good a time as any to report that the Fukuka Aquaculture Center in Kin-machi, Okinawa, is ramping up production of a new variety of sea grapes they hope to popularize in Japan after sales start next month. The center has dubbed the new type “sea goya”, after the knobby bitter squash for which Okinawa is famous. (Here’s a previous post about sea grapes in Okinawa and goya in general.)

Tastes as good as it looks!

Tastes as good as it looks!

The center’s director said they discovered these particular sea grapes among a batch imported in March 2008. The new variety flourished in the southern climate, and that gave people the idea to turn it into a new product, particularly as they were looking for ways to juice the market after the prices of regular sea grapes and mozuku seaweed tanked.

They decided to call the new plant sea goya because it’s more elongated than regular sea grapes and has the bitter flavor of goya. The center has already applied to register the name as a trademark, and they’re confident the application will be approved. After hearing about the new product, more than 10 companies inquired about handling the distribution.

Nara ayu

After insects, irises, seaweed, and sea grapes, here come the freshwater fish: namely the ayu, or sweetfish, which we’ve encountered before in a post about their encounters with traditional traps.

Some sweetfish just for you

Some sweetfish just for you

These sweetfish, however, were caught by means with an even longer and exalted pedigree—trained cormorants. The birds require keepers that are somewhat analogous to falconers, all of whom ply their skills for the Imperial Household Agency because the technique is a tradition of the Japanese Imperial household. (Dig their costumes in the photo at the link.)

Six keepers were employed to catch the fish at the Imperial fishing grounds on the Nagara River in Gifu City, but the keepers can handle up to a dozen birds on the end of ropes, so they must have taken quite a haul. They go out in boats too, but at night, and they take along lighted torches. The fish are attracted to the flame like maritime moths, and the birds dive in after them. The lower part of the cormorants’ necks are collared to prevent them from swallowing the fish, and after they’ve snatched one, the keepers reel them in and make them cough it up. That’s got to be more cruel than feeding a dog peanut butter.

The fish were packed into paulownia boxes and shipped to the Kashihara-jingu, a Shinto shrine in Kashihara, Nara, as well as the Imperial Palace and the Meiji-jingu, another Shinto shrine in Tokyo. Both shrines have an Imperial connection.

The Japanese have been using cormorants to catch sweetfish since at least the 8th century—don’t you wonder who came up with that idea?–and the Nagara River event is more than a millennium old, but this shrine has been receiving the sweetfish shipments only since 1940 to offer in prayer for the safety of fishing and a good catch. (The 1940 date suggests it might have begun as part of the celebrations that year marking the 2600th anniversary of the establishment of the Japanese Imperial House.)

Contributing to the delinquency of minors

Yet another sign of summer in Japan is the yaoyorozu of rice-planting festivals held throughout the country. It’s easy to figure out why—they grow the rice in wet paddies, which are made even wetter by all the rain that falls this time of year.

high school sake rice project

But the students at Miyoshi High School in Miyoshi, Tokushima, weren’t planting this rice as part of a festival; they were getting classroom credit. The lads aren’t planning to be farmers when they grow up–rather, they’re enrolled in a course covering the brewing and fermentation of food products. They’ll harvest that rice in the fall and use it to make sake.

The rice is grown on a 3,000-square-meter paddy the school rents from area residents. The teachers do most of the planting with a machine, and then some of the second year students wade right in and plant by hand those parts the machine can’t reach. They expect to harvest 1.5 tons of the rice in mid-September, which can probably be converted into enough sake to keep the town of Miyoshi more lit than a riverbank full of fireflies until New Year’s. The school started the project last year, and this year they increased the size of the cultivated area six-fold to use only the rice grown by students.

One of those students, 16-year-old Fukuda Shinya, had planted rice before, but he said the seedlings were more difficult to handle because the size was different than that of regular table rice.

Now why couldn’t I have gone to that school!

Shochu collector

While the high school students were outdoors sweating and getting dirty as they planted the rice for the sake they will later brew, Masuyama Hiroki (73) of Izumi, Kagoshima, was relaxing with an adult beverage as he contemplated the success of his 12-year effort to collect one bottle each from all the prefecture’s shochu distillers. This is Kagoshima, where everyone drinks shochu and almost no one drinks sake, so he had his work cut out for him.

shochu collector

He’s so proud of his accomplishment he’s got them lined up on the wall, and hasn’t twisted the cap on a single bottle. Mr. Masuyama decided to make it is hobby after he retired from a job with the prefectural government in 1996 and started working in sales. His business trips took him throughout Kagoshima, and after he got the idea—probably in a bar during one of those business trips–he made a list and started buying while he was selling. He started with 1.8 liter (1.92 US quarts) bottles, but they were too heavy and took up too much space, so he switched to bottles half that size. He had a few difficulties completing the collection, and no, one of them wasn’t a tendency to polish off a bottle before before he could display it on the rack. For one thing, the smaller bottles were sold mainly to commercial establishments, but he applied his salesmen’s skills to get what he wanted. Another was that he didn’t have much of a chance to go to the prefecture’s many outlying islands on business. After retiring from his second job, it took two more years to finish the project.

Mr. Masuyama says he enjoys looking at his collection while having a late-night drink, but his libation doesn’t come from those shelves on the wall. He hasn’t opened any of the bottles and says it would be a waste to drink them.

Now there’s a man with discipline!

Miko class

Shinto shrine maidens, known as miko, get to do all sorts of fun stuff. In this post alone, they’ve sailed out to the Wedded Rocks to help the priests cut seaweed, carried the sacred sweetfish caught by cormorants, and danced while the priests cut Edo irises in Fukutsu. Even better, they get to handle the money at the shrine during New Year’s.

miko class

Doesn’t that sound like a great part-time job? If that’s the kind of work you’re looking for, the Kanda Myojin Shinto shrine in Chiyoda, Tokyo, is offering a beginner’s level course that provides instruction in how to become a miko. Even better, the class will last only one day, on 17 August—the middle of summer vacation!

Kanda Myojin conducts the class every year with the idea of giving young Japanese women a better idea of their traditions and culture, as well as teaching them more about the shrine. Last year, the student body consisted of 24 women who got to wear the red and white outfit for a day as they studied the shrine’s history, the daily conduct of affairs at the shrine, and its religious ceremonies.

Considering they charge only JPY 5,000 yen ($US 52.40), that sounds like a good deal. They’re looking for 20 unmarried young women this year from 16 to 22, and enrollment is open until the end of the month.

The declaration of the eisa nation

Start with a party, end with a party. This particular hoedown is the eisa dance native to Okinawa. Centuries ago, it was performed as a rite for the repose of the dead, but now it’s done for entertainment and is more likely to wake the dead than ease their way into the next world.

eisa summer party

Okinawa City issued a proclamation declaring itself Eisa Town earlier this month, and held a Declaration Day Eisa Night event outside the city offices to lay claim to the title. Six groups made their eisadelic statement as they performed in original/trad clothing they created themselves. Eisa Night means that eisa season has officially started in the city, and summer in this city means that local youth groups will give public performances every weekend until the really big show, the Okinawa Eisa Festival in September.

During her greeting at the ceremony, Mayor Tomon Mitsuko said, “We hope you come to Okinawa City on the weekends and enjoy yourselves.” Then the dancing started and everyone proceeded to do just that.

It’s not just for the Ryukyuans, either. One of the six groups performing was the Machida-ryu of Machida, Tokyo, who started their own group in 1999 after a trip to Okinawa. They were so captivated by the dance they had to do it themselves at home. Now the troupe has more than 100 members.

There’s an idea: create your own Okinawan dance and drum ensemble and visit Eisa Town next year. If you want to learn, watching the video is a great way to start!

Posted in Agriculture, Education, Festivals, Food, Imperial family, New products, Popular culture, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Ain’t nobody gonna steal my miso natto roll!

Posted by ampontan on Monday, June 22, 2009

SOME PEOPLE THINK Japanese schools stifle the imagination of their students, but you can’t prove that by me. I’ve associated with Japanese school-age children for the better part of a quarter of a century, and I’ve found them every bit as imaginative as the children I knew growing up in the United States, if not more so.



Now a group of students at the Yonezawa Commercial High School in Yonezawa, Yamagata, are displaying a creative imagination above and beyond that of some adults who get paid to do it for a living.

The members of the Research Club at the 107-year-old school delight in creating new food products. One of their past triumphs was cookies made with powdered locusts. They named them inagoma cookies, combining the word for locust, or inago, and sesame, or goma.

But they’ve outdone themselves this time. In March, their faculty advisor assigned this year’s research theme, which was to create something new by using the wisdom of the past. So the students, mostly 11th-graders, came up with the idea of making two different kinds of rolled cakes: one with miso and the other with natto.

Miso is a traditional seasoning made most often by fermenting rice and soybeans with salt to create a paste used in a variety of dishes. Most people outside of Japan are familiar with it as the base for the stock in miso soup, or miso shiru. Soldiers in Japan ate it as part of their rations several centuries ago, so that aspect fulfilled the requirement for the wisdom of the past.

While fewer foreigners know about natto, it’s the type of food one never forgets after a close encounter. It too is a fermented soybean, using a smaller type of bean with a special bacteria that results in a distinctive odor and a sticky consistency. Pick it up with chopsticks and you’ll see translucent gummy strings holding it together. There are several ways to eat it, but it’s usually spread over rice. Most people have trouble with the odor in the same way that some cheeses in Europe and the Middle East cause problems, though its smell is not as intense as that of limburger cheese, to cite one example.

Students at the school used to sell natto in the 1920s and 1930s to raise money for their tuition, so that also dovetailed with their research theme.

The rolled cakes are five centimeters (about two inches) in diameter and 13 centimeters long, with the miso and natto mixed into the cream. The students said they found it difficult to maintain a balance of tartness and sweetness with the miso roll. The natto is not in bean form, but a paste. The trick with that ingredient was to keep the odor in check but to retain the stickiness.

A local confectionary produces it for them, and you can imagine what the bakers must have said to each other when they found out what they would be making. The students got the last laugh, however; they took 60 rolls to a local event, offered them for JPY 500 ($US 5.19) apiece, and sold out completely. If they’re that good, it won’t be long before local beaneaters with a sweet tooth beat a path to their door. But the idea is not as unusual as it might seem; several traditional Japanese pastries are made with sweet bean paste (and are quite good).

Said 16-year-old Takahashi Shiho:

“We wanted to make products that weren’t sold anywhere else.

And they succeeded, too!

“Those are unusual combinations, but they have a rich taste.”

If the idea of miso or natto in a confection doesn’t sound appealing, think of it as a health food. Both of those ingredients are seriously nutritious, packed to the gills with protein, vitamins, and minerals. Natto is also said to be good for preventing blood clotting, and therefore heart attacks and strokes.

That’s my justification for eating natto every day, even though I didn’t care for the smell at first, either. My wife, for whom natto is a daily culinary event, found a clever way to get around my reluctance. She heard that the odor and the stickiness are minimized somewhat if the natto is mixed with grated daikon radish. After about a year of eating that combination I got accustomed to it. Then she decided it was too much trouble to keep grating the daikon every day, but by that time I was already housebroken and didn’t notice any more!

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Posted in Education, Food | Tagged: , | 17 Comments »

I know what you are; we’re just haggling over the price

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, June 20, 2009

Politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.
– Ronald Reagan

AND TO THINK that some people considered the late American president to be an amiable dunce! To prove his point, let’s read the lips of some of the practitioners of Japanese politics. First, however, we’ll start with a forecast from an unidentified bureaucrat.

The civil servant was speaking to freelance journalist Yokota Yumiko for an article she wrote in the June 2008 issue of Shokun! magazine. His prediction involved the relationship of the Kasumigaseki bureaucrats and the politicians in a possible government led by the current opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan. He said:

“No matter how you look at it, no policy proposals can be implemented without Kasumigaseki. Even if the Democratic Party of Japan were to form a government, it would be unlikely to have an adverse impact on our work. Indeed, it would make our work a lot easier if the DPJ did us the favor of winning the next lower house election and breaking the logjam in the Diet. It would be easier to pass bills, and we would be able to free ourselves from the chains that tie us to the engorged LDP politicians.

“If the DPJ were to form a government, they would wind up having to restrain their current irresponsibility. Having them take power once should be enough for the voters to realize they have no ability to handle the reins of government.”

Now for the political lips. Here’s Aso Taro of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party just after he was selected prime minister last year:

“I’m a politician that can skillfully utilize the bureaucratic organization…There is a distinction between what one should entrust to government officials without recklessly opposing everything they do, and what politicians should do….The bureaucracy is something to be managed.”

On 9 February this year, then secretary-general and now party president of the DPJ, Hatoyama Yukio, said during a speech:

“We will have everyone with the rank of bureau chief or higher in every ministry and agency submit their resignation, and then confirm whether or not they will implement the policies that the DPJ has in mind.”

It certainly sounds like he’s serious about reforming the bureaucracy, doesn’t it? It also sounds suspiciously like a loyalty test for government employees, but let’s read some more lips.

Here’s Acting DPJ President Kan Naoto answering a question at a press conference just this week:

Q: Will you seek the resignation of all personnel with the rank of bureau chief or higher (if you form a government)?

A: “It would be next to impossible to automatically force those resignations. Separating oneself from the bureaucracy does not at all mean being opposed to the bureaucracy or eliminating the bureaucracy. We want to utilize the bureaucracy’s experience and knowledge for crafting legislation. We want people to understand that the roles of politicians and bureaucrats are different, and to create a cooperative relationship in a new business model.”

By jingo, he sure sounds a lot like Aso Taro, doesn’t he? But Mr. Aso is the one people think Kasumigaseki has under its thumb!

It also sounds as if that unidentified bureaucrat was on to something.

And if you compare the statements of Messrs. Hatoyama and Kan, one has to wonder if all DPJ promises are delivered with a pre-existing expiration date.

At least this one expired before the election.

Up next is Nakagawa Hidenao, the de facto leader of the reform wing of the LDP. Mr. Nakagawa and a group of allies have drawn up a bill for consideration in the Diet that completely prohibits amakudari (the practice of giving senior bureaucrats important jobs in government-affiliated organizations and private companies when they retire) and watari (the name for the ministries’ arrangement of successive jobs for retired bureaucrats at government-affiliated corporations, with the former civil servants receiving a pension each time).

It also has a provision for reducing the rank and salary of senior bureaucratic executives, presumably for substandard job performance.

Mr. Nakagawa has collected 125 signatures in support of the bill from LDP MPs: 111 in the lower house, and 14 in the upper house.

Any Diet member can submit a bill for consideration; it requires 20 signatures for the lower house and 10 for the upper house, and Mr. Nakagawa obviously has them.

When bills are submitted, however, the speaker usually refers them to a committee. In this case, Mr. Nakagawa submitted his proposed legislation to the LDP’s Diet Affairs Committee and an LDP organization first. The committee chair said the legislation would be discussed in conjunction with the government’s civil service reform legislation.

Both Mr. Nakagawa and the DPJ have said the government’s legislation lacks muscle. He designed the bill specifically to gain the support of the opposition, giving it the potential to become a true bipartisan reform measure.

What has the DPJ said in public about the bill put together by Mr. Nakagawa?


Their lips haven’t moved yet.

If the opposition wanted to put pressure on the government, establish their reputation as serious reformers, and actually achieve real reform much needed by the government and much desired by the people, wouldn’t they have been all over this already?

Could it be they’re waiting for Ozawa “The Puppeteer” Ichiro, the party’s Shadow Shogun, to tell them what to think first? Or could it be they weren’t all that serious to begin with?

It looks like we’re about to find out which members of the world’s second-oldest profession in the Diet are really part of the first-oldest.

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

The tower of logo-babel

Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 19, 2009

THE UNITED STATES AND GREAT BRITAIN are two countries separated by a common language, observed George Bernard Shaw, but at least the written matter in one country can be read by the people in the other. Those two countries, along with the rest of the Anglosphere, use the same writing system.

Imagine how much greater the separation must be in the Sinosphere, where there’s more than one way to write Chinese. Many languages are spoken throughout the region that might be called Greater China, but different approaches to the lexicographic system for the written Chinese language are one manifestation of the perennial battle royale in Taiwan over the question of how closely they should associate with the Mainland. On one side are those who want to adopt the PRC’s standard writing system (now that they’ve already adopted the PRC’s Romanization system). Arrayed against them are those who think that’s just a ploy to promote unification on PRC terms. The latter group is using an argument based on the unusual combination of preserving tradition and maintaining ethnic diversity to support their claim.

First, here’s some historical background to get everyone on the same page. The Chinese have been using ideographic characters since at least the 11th century BC. They’ve developed several writing systems throughout their history, but the characters they use today became roughly standardized about 2,000 years ago. Other people throughout East Asia adopted (or adapted) them to write their own language. They were used in the earliest documents written on the Korean Peninsula, and the Koreans used them until they developed their own alphabet. The Korean writing system was formally adopted in 1446, but did not come into common use until the late 19th century. Thus, literacy in Korea until fairly recently required the ability to read Chinese characters.

The Japanese used Chinese characters to write their own language at first, but only as phonetic symbols to express Japanese pronunciation and not necessarily for their meaning. While those early texts appear to be superficially Chinese, no Chinese reader would understand them because it’s still the Japanese language. Japan later developed two phonetic alphabets to use in conjunction with the characters to express vernacular grammatical elements, and these alphabets came into general use from the 8th to the 12th centuries.

The Chinese characters are called kanji in Japanese (which is now also an accepted English word), hanja in Korean, and hanzi in Chinese, but they all mean the same thing: Chinese (Han) letters.

Some of the traditional Chinese characters are quite complicated and require many individual strokes to write. In 1946, the Japanese started modifying their written language by reducing the number of kanji they required students to learn and simplifying their written forms. For example, the character gaku, which appears in such words as daigaku, or college, and gakko, or school, once had 18 strokes, but now has only eight. Some of the modifications were so extensive it would be impossible for contemporary readers to identify the connection. (Here’s a chart comparing the old and the new, for Japanese readers.)

The Chinese started simplifying the same characters in the 1950s, but their modifications were different than those the Japanese adopted, making the divergence between written Chinese and Japanese that much greater. The Koreans still use the traditional form of the characters for hanja when they do use them, but that is seldom. The Taiwanese are the only people to have retained the traditional form of the characters in everyday applications.

But now some people want to change that.

The current president of the Republic of China/Taiwan is Ma Ying-jeou of the reconstituted Chinese Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang (KMT). That was Chiang Kai-shek’s party of the Chinese who fled China when Mao and the Communists took over to set up a government in Taiwan.

Earlier this month, the president proposed that Taiwan adopt the Beijing government’s simplified character set for writing only and retain the traditional characters for reading. The skeleton of the story is in this AFP article.

Said Mr. Ma:

“We hope the two sides can reach a consensus on (learning to) read standard characters while writing in the simplified ones…It is also our hope that the standard characters can be listed as World Heritage by the United Nations one day,” he said in a statement.

AFP is perhaps the least-bad of the major media outlets reporting on Northeast Asia, and this article gets the basic facts right. Yet they still manage to tilt perceptions in the direction they want all right-thinking people to support.

Relations with China have improved dramatically since Ma’s Beijing-friendly government was inaugurated in May 2008, vowing to promote reconciliation and trade ties.

Note that the Taiwanese president also wants the standard characters to become a “World Heritage”. He does not explain why any Chinese should think a UN imprimatur would enhance the prestige of a written language several millennia old and still in daily use by more than a billion people.

Though it’s not mentioned here, Mr. Ma also hopes that the PRC will implement two United Nations human rights covenants (the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) in Tibet in the future.

Add his Harvard Law degree to his wishful thinking about Chinese behavior and it’s easy to see why Time Magazine chose him as one of their top 100 “Leaders and Revolutionaries” for 2008.

Meanwhile, AFP chose an over-the-top yardbird to provide the only dissenting quote in the article.

“Ma is seeing China as his master. He is even trying to change our writing habits to please China, which is absolutely unnecessary,” said Cheng Wen-tsang, spokesman for the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP.)

It’s not as if they didn’t have other people from whom to choose. Take this editorial from the Taipei Times:

Since taking office, Ma has been leaning toward the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as can be seen in many things, from his statement on the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre to his plans to sign an economic cooperation framework agreement with China.

This may be the trend of the times and Ma may not have a choice, but this does not mean that Taiwanese should learn only to recognize traditional Chinese while writing with simplified characters, because there is a thin line between this and unification — or, rather, being unified.

In ancient China, the standard for unification included standardized wheel width for carts and a standardized script. Today, Ma is promoting simplified Chinese without receiving any goodwill from Beijing.

This is not far from unification as seen by ancient Chinese — how can we not be worried?


Ma may see an acceptance of simplified Chinese characters as part of cross-strait economic and cultural exchanges, but it constitutes a form of political recognition.

Mr. Ma’s statement on Tiananmen, incidentally, praised the Chinese for the progress they’ve made on human rights. (One of these days, perhaps we’ll understand why the people for whom Harvard Law degrees, Time Magazine lists, and the UN are so important think it’s commendable to be friendly with the maleficent Chinese regime, yet were so outraged by the existence of the South African apartheid government, or even the comparatively benign Chile of Augustin Pinochet.)

But the KMT wanted to quickly ameliorate any concerns. They explained:

President Ma Ying-jeou yesterday proposed a concept of “reading in traditional characters, writing in simplified characters…The Office of the President today explained that the suggestion was aimed at 1.3 billion simplified character users in China, not Taiwan. (emphasis mine)

The concept aims to make Chinese people get to know the traditional character symbolizing authentic Chinese culture, said the Office. Traditional characters should be used in publications, but simplified ones are allowed in writing. It is not necessary to promote the concept in Taiwan as Taiwanese are familiar with traditional characters, the Office noted.

The Presidential Office explained that some media misunderstood that Ma intended to push forward the use of simplified characters in Taiwan, and thus clarified that the use of traditional character in Taiwan, a token of preservation of Chinese culture, will not be altered.

Most Taiwanese people are accustomed to using traditional characters in writing. But, for the sake of convenience, it is difficult to ban the use of simplified ones in writing. However, schools, government agencies, and military units should still use traditional characters at all time, according to the Office.

Do we have that right? The KMT wants people to believe the president suggested adopting the simplified PRC writing system in Taiwan so that the people on mainland China will reconstitute its entire educational system for 1.3 billion people and have them turn back the clock and recognize traditional characters?

Did they really think anyone would believe that, or, as seems to becoming common for politicians these days, did they just say it because they had to say something and didn’t care if anyone believed it or not?

But that still leaves another question: if all the books and documents in Taiwan are going to be in traditional characters; the schools, government, and military will use all trad/all the time; and since most people today usually communicate in writing by using the Internet and text messages…

What’s the point?

The Taiwan News has some other objections:

Despite hasty denials by a presidential spokesman, such an interpretation (promotion of unification) is by no means far-fetched given the apish decision by the restored KMT administration to officially adopt China’s Hanyu Pinyin romanization system and exile to the margins Taiwan’s home-developed Tongyong system on the grounds that Hanyun Pinyin was the “international standard,” presumably because of the PRC’s rising global clout. This conclusion was based less on Hanyu Pinyin’s questionable advantages than on an ideological drive to “link” the PRC’s “putonghua” with “Mandarin,” which the KMT defines as the unitary “national language” of the “Republic of China,” and ignored Taiwan’s multilingual environment, in which Tongyong could well be more suitable.

Their concerns are not unfounded. While the advocates of Tongyong pulled off some backdoor maneuvering of their own to get it adopted a few years ago, the Ma administration quickly rolled that back, ditched Tongyong, and adopted the PRC Romanization standard after taking office.

One of Tongyong’s advantages, by the way, is that it allows foreigners who don’t know Chinese to better pronounce family and place names. For example, non-Chinese speakers are at a loss how to deal with the Q in Qingdao (青島) and the X in Xian (西安). Tongyong used other spellings.

The opposition might also have a point that the PRC will see this as a concession without making any of their own:

Ma’s proposal received immediate applause Wednesday morning from PRC Taiwan Affairs Office Spokesman Fan Liqing, who gushed that “both simplified and complex characters were rooted in Chinese culture” and proposed that “experts on both sides can actively discuss how to make mutual interchanges in writing more convenient.”

Notice that Mr. Fan said nothing about restoring the use of traditional characters for reading in the PRC. He knows that isn’t going to happen.

“(A) most objectionable facet of Ma’s remarks concerned his implicit privileging of Mandarin, “the” national language in Taiwan, and his complete lack of mention of the fact that Taiwan has at least three Sinitic languages (Mandarin, Hoklo and Hakka), which do not entirely use the same Han characters, and over a dozen Austronesian languages which have no relationship whatsoever to Han characters but are equally or even more entitled to be considered as “Taiwan languages.”

The anachronistic attachment of Ma and KMT ideologues to Mandarin and Han characters as an unitary “national language” reflects their continued colonialist imposition of a racial and patriarchal conception of “Chinese” culture on Taiwan’s multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual democratic society, as reflected by the arrogant and false declaration of his inaugural address last May 20 that “all the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to the Chinese race nation (zhonghua minzu).”

How refreshing to see the bogus concept of multiculturalism put to a positive use for a change. And then they drive the point home:

Instead of compromising Taiwan’s cultural sovereignty and democratic pluralism, the KMT government should demand that the PRC should fulfill its own international commitments and “converge” with the world community by implementing full freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of thought.

Writing in the August 2008 issue of Voice, Omae Ken’ichi suggested that the ties between the constituent elements of Greater China will loosen, and that the Sinosphere will eventually become a confederation rather than a single nation. The article itself was poorly written and poorly argued (and a disappointment, because that’s why I bought the issue), but this lexicographical dispute presents some of the reasons that confederation might come into being.


Meanwhile, as the Chinese argue about how to best write their own language, a native of Inner Mongolia—also part of Greater China—studying in Japan is creating art by combining two different languages.

A graduate student at Shikoku University conducting research into calligraphy is presenting an exhibit of his creations in Naruto, Tokushima.

Usually I include names with these stories, but in the article this man’s name was written in katakana, the Japanese alphabet used for foreign names (other than Chinese and Korean names, for which kanji is used). It’s not possible to track back the katakana and come up with an accurate Romanization of the man’s name–and doesn’t that dovetail perfectly with the theme of this post?


His calligraphic art is the combination of the 800-year-old Mongol script with kanji. Mongolian also has a calligraphic tradition, and he is studying ways to fuse kanji with that script. Written Mongolian is one of the few vertical scripts in the world read from left to right. (You can read more about it at this website.) The student has also created some works with the two scripts side by side that show identical words and phrases.

To create a bit of Mongolian atmosphere for the exhibit, the museum is serving chai, or milk tea, and playing tapes of horsehead lute in the background.

He came to Japan five years ago and began attending a calligraphy class to improve his Japanese. He was fascinated by the strength of the brushes and the beauty of the work, so he enrolled in college to focus on those studies. He’s now in his first year of grad school.

So to sum it all up, two countries with the same basic language want to impose their own lexicographical views on each other because they can’t read what the other has written, while in Japan a man can combine two entirely different writing systems, call it art, and hang it in a museum to be viewed while drinking tea and listening to music.

And some people wonder why I don’t read fiction any more!

Posted in China, Education, Language, Taiwan | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »

Good news, bad news

Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 19, 2009

HERE’S SOME good news and some bad news from China.

First the bad news.

The city of Guangzhou will implement a new regulation on 1 July that prevents households from owning more than one dog. The idea is to deal with the problem of stray dogs in the city.

Naturally, this is upsetting all the households with more than one pooch.

Now the good news.

No one will starve to death in North Korea this winter!

Well, maybe that’s too hasty. Beijing and other cities already have similar regulations, and the North Koreans are still on the thin side. In fact, Beijing officials caught 29,000 stray dogs in one month alone in 2006. Maybe Pyeongyang has applied its juche policy of self-sufficiency to canine cuisine too.

Some Chinese think they will find ways to get around the new regulation.

Mrs. Chen…said her plan was to register one of her dogs with her parents. She said the Chinese are masters at finding loopholes and other ways to skirt around laws.

“In China, we have a saying,” she said. “When the people at the top make a policy, the people at the bottom find a way to get around it.”

Memo to Mrs. Chen: That’s human nature, not Chinese. In fact, in the U.S. they have their own saying: “Don’t tread on me.” When the people at the top make too many unpleasant policies, the people at the bottom find a way to replace the people at the top.

Of course, having regularly scheduled elections makes it easier for them than for you.

But the story notes that Beijing has decided a lighter touch works best:

“Beijing realizes there are positive and non-confrontational ways to solve the problem of overpopulation, instead of draconian policies of taking pets away,” said (Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare).

Next step for Beijing: Realizing that there are positive and non-confrontational ways to solve the problem of human overpopulation.

Next step for Grace Ge Gabriel: Realizing that human welfare is more important than animal welfare.

Posted in China | 2 Comments »

The pictures of Japan inside your head

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 16, 2009

WALTER LIPPMAN ONCE OBSERVED that the popular conceptions of people, places, and events outside the range of our direct experience are informed by pictures inside our heads, and that these pictures are often created by journalists incapable of seeing beyond the pictures in their own heads.

As long as we realize that the prime directive for the print and broadcast media has always been to entertain rather than to inform, the damage will be no greater than that caused by the stories we habitually tell ourselves in our daily lives anyway. The problems arise when the journalistic drones start believing the pictures they create and cause real trouble by spreading falsehoods among people without the means to educate themselves otherwise.

While this phenomenon exists in the print and broadcast media everywhere, it is endemic in the overseas English-language media dealing with Japan. The pictures in their heads amount to a full-blown hallucination.

Here are brief descriptions of three newspaper articles that appeared today, all about the preparation of food. What sort of cognitive dissonance is created with the pictures in your head when you read them?

Japanese cooking school in Seoul

Shunted off to the side of page 11 in the Nishinippon Shimbun was a brief article covering the announcement that the Nakamura Culinary School of Fukuoka City will open a Seoul branch in September to provide instruction in the preparation of Japanese cuisine and Western confections. Licensed chefs in both fields will teach the classes assisted by Korean interpreters.

The school will offer two courses—one for prospective chefs, and one for professionals already working as chefs. The course for the pros will be limited to 24 students, and will include 132 hours of instruction over a six-month period. In addition to the school’s regular instructors, food preparers at well-known Japanese hotels, ryotei (traditional Japanese restaurants, very expensive) and patisseries will also be used as teachers for the course.

The Nakamura Culinary School thinks it sees a business opportunity because there has been a surge of popularity in Japanese food in South Korea over the past few years. More than 1,000 South Koreans came to Japan last year alone to learn how to prepare Japanese food at local culinary institutes.

But the sharp depreciation of the won caused attendance to dip this year. School head Nakamura Tetsu decided to offer instruction in Seoul to make it cheaper for the students. It’s also easier for the students to learn from courses conducted in the Korean language. (Instruction at cooking schools in Japan is of course entirely in Japanese.)

The article notes this is the second cooking school to open a South Korean branch, after Osaka’s Tsuji Culinary Institute.

Now how does this—and the many other similar stories I’ve presented here—clash with the pictures in the heads of people who have been entertained with tales about how the Koreans and the Japanese just hatehatehate each other?

Incidentally, the Fukuoka Asian Urban Research Center conducted a survey by questionnaire in February and March of residents in the major cities of South Korea to determine the city’s name recognition and its image in those areas. The survey found a name recognition of greater than 80% for their sister city in Busan, South Korea. That percentage soared to 95% for Busan women in their 20s and 30s.

The reason cited by the center for that stratospheric percentage among young Korean women was the frequency with which they or their friends hop across the Korean Strait to go shopping in Kyushu.

That doesn’t surprise me at all, but then I live near Fukuoka City, have seen and met many of those same young women, and know how easy it is to travel between the two cities because I’ve done it myself. Forgive me for believing the picture inside the dim cave of my own head.

The reggae izakaya

Takeo in Saga is a town of about 50,000 people roughly midway between the two slightly larger towns of Saga City and Sasebo, Nagasaki. It takes about a half hour to get from Takeo to either city, and an additional hour or so to travel to either Nagasaki City or Fukuoka City.

Buried even further in the back of today’s Nishinippon Shimbun was a blurb about a new dish being served at a “reggae izakaya” in Takeo called Nuf Nuf. (An izakaya is a traditional Japanese eating and drinking place.)

Nuf Nuf is run by 36-year-old Koga Manabu. The photo accompanying the piece showed a man with a genial smile and a knit tam covering what appears to be an impressive growth of dreadlocks.

Mr. Koga created a new dish that his customers think is quite tasty. He started with Sicilian rice, added wild boar meat, and used locally grown lemongrass as a flavor enhancer. He said he slices the boar meat very thin to neutralize its distinctive odor.

He offered it first at a trial tasting party on 31 May, and it went over so well he put it on the Nuf Nuf menu. He serves it with soup on the side and charges JPY 800 ($US 8.14), which sounds reasonable.

I’ve never been to Nuf Nuf, but I know people who have—including a Jamaican woman who enjoyed living in Saga for several years. She told me Koga Manabu was a nice guy and the food was good.

But aren’t the Japanese supposed to be xenophobic islanders turning even more inward and nationalistic? What’s this about some guy in dreadlocks in a town in the middle of the sticks creating new recipes using Sicilian rice? He’s going to ruin all those pictures in your head of Japanese who can’t abide foreigners or bear to put any kind of rice past their lips other than the plain but pure white variety grown on the islands.

Robo-chefs to take over Japanese kitchens

That’s what the headline in the New Zealand Herald said, and who are we to quibble with a source chosen as the Best Media Website in 2007, 2008, and 2009 in the Qantas Media Awards?

Here’s the first sentence in the article:

“They’ve got ones that clean, and others that pour drinks, so it was only a matter of time before Japanese inventors came up with robots that can cook.”

Just out of curiosity, have you seen one of those robots cleaning a house or pouring your drinks anywhere?

Neither have I.

But the best media website for three years running says it was just a matter of time before those robot-mad Japanese inventors came up with robot chefs.

Various prototype robo-chefs showed off their cooking skills at the International Food Machinery and Technology Expo in Tokyo, flipping “okonomiyaki” Japanese pancakes, serving sushi and slicing vegetables.

When did machines start to have “skills” instead of functions? And when did either machines or people start to “flip” okonomiyaki? Is poetic license the reason they’ve won that string of awards? It certainly isn’t because the person who wrote that article has seen anyone make those “Japanese pancakes”.

The real story here is that the Japanese have a knack for automating different types of labor that the biens pensants once lamented as dehumanizing, particularly on assembly lines in auto plants.

Robots are also efficient, dependable, show up for work sober and on time, and don’t have labor unions that demand retirement packages preventing the company from making a profit on the cars they manufacture. Ask the management personnel who used to work at General Motors, assuming you don’t have to chase them down on the golf course while they enjoy their severance packages.

“We all know that robots can be very useful. We want to take that utility out of the factory so that they can be used elsewhere,” said Narito Hosomi, president of Toyo Riki, manufacturers of the pancake-cooking robot.

Well, why not? Isn’t this just a logical progression from machines that mix carbonated water and flavored syrup in on-site dispensers at restaurants to give customers the soft drinks they order? Or the machines at any other plant the world over that manufacture and package food products in processes that are almost entirely automated?

Take a few seconds to think about it, and it turns out to be just the normal course of events in the development of any kind of technology. People come up with different ideas, spend the time and money to make them a reality, and see if they fly in the marketplace. If their ideas are useful, they make a profit. If not, they might be able to apply the new technology to different fields. It makes the world turn around that much more smoothly, and it’s even worth an article in the daily paper.

But how much more entertaining it is to create pictures in peoples’ heads of Robo-Chefs Taking Over Japanese Kitchens to flip okonomiyaki, presumably leaving the human Japanese to march around their rabbit hutches plotting new ways to conquer the Korean Peninsula! This time for sure! Taking an occasional break for sex with their inflatable dolls, of course.

If the media thinks they have to provide fictitious images to their consumers for the sake of entertainment, when the real information is much more entertaining, more enlightening—and much less dangerous—that’s the business model they have to live with.

But it’s too bad for them the soaring number of media bankruptcies and disappearing ad revenue isn’t just a picture inside their own heads.

Posted in Food, International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, Mass media, South Korea | Tagged: , , , | 16 Comments »

Who’s the servant and who’s the master?

Posted by ampontan on Monday, June 15, 2009

“Everyone wants to live at the expense of the state. They forget that the state wants to live at the expense of everyone.”

“People are beginning to realize that the apparatus of government is costly. But what they do not know is that the burden falls inevitably on them.”

– Frederic Bastiat

“Bureaucracy expands to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.

– Oscar Wilde

THE PARAMOUNT POLITICAL ISSUE of our time is not the death of “capitalism” or the end of the free market, the premature ejaculations of wishful thinkers and the commentariat notwithstanding, but rather whether the members of the political class demonstrate by their behavior the belief that the state should serve the people or the people should serve the state.

The electorate must insist that politicians demonstrate their beliefs by their behavior. The first rule for dealing with politicians, after all, is that nothing they say can be taken at face value.

The litmus test for the political behavior of politicians is how they treat the subject of taxes. Are their views on taxation based on the understanding that tax revenue is not their money to begin with? Are they aware of the concept of fiduciary responsibility? Are the uses to which they would put the money the legitimate concern of government? Would those uses penalize innocent people at the expense of others? Are there no solutions other than taxation and the inevitable growth of the program and the taxes levied to maintain it? Are the politicians making every effort to keep government spending to a minimum? Have they evaluated policy options based on the knowledge that the best solution is most often to do nothing at all—thereby allowing the citizens to keep their own resources instead of forking it over to the government? (This one never occurs to the policy wanks.)

The national pension

Japan has a national pension for which all residents aged 20 or older must register, including foreign nationals. Individuals are responsible for their own payments, however, and they must pay into the system for at least 25 years to receive retirement benefits. That quirk makes the system voluntary, in a manner of speaking. There is also an employee pension insurance system, but all the participants are automatically enrolled in the national pension system. The premiums paid in the latter scheme are in addition to those of the basic national pension premiums, and they are deducted from the employee’s salary.

The 2004 and 2005 campaign platforms of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan included planks stating it would be necessary to increase the consumption tax, currently 5% for all purchases, on the premise that the tax revenue would fund the pensions. The platforms treated this as an issue to be dealt with in the future and did not call for an immediate tax increase.

During the collegial discussion that masqueraded as a debate in the DPJ’s presidential election last month, both the winner Hatoyama Yukio and the unsuccessful challenger Okada Katsuya vowed to fund the national pension through compulsory taxes. Mr. Okada held that the consumption tax must be raised by three percent right away. Mr. Hatoyama allowed only that it was not necessary to pay for this immediately, nor was it necessary to discuss the issue just yet. He also thought the funds for the pension could be found by eliminating government waste.

Politicians promising tax increases of this magnitude and with such an impact on the way people conduct their lives, without fully discussing the alternatives, should be easy prey for their political opponents. But the politicians currently in control of Japan’s ruling party, the Liberal Democrats, are an odd exception. Finance Minister Yosano Kaoru (technically the Minister of State for Financial Services, Economic and Fiscal Policy) found Mr. Okada’s argument refreshing and serious, and dismissed Mr. Hatoyama as being vague. “I heard that he was spouting a fairy tale, so I wasn’t surprised.”

Mr. Yosano also approvingly noted that Mr. Okada will not run away from the problem, but that Mr. Hatoyama will.

What exactly it is that Mr. Okada will not run away from was not made clear. Mr. Yosano didn’t specify the monster in the fairy tale, or if he did, the mass media didn’t tell us about it.

In fact, he and his nominal boss in the Cabinet, Prime Minister Aso Taro, believe raising taxes is a red-ink badge of courage. They think it demonstrates their higher qualities as politicians. Mr. Aso actually wants to promise to raise the consumption tax in the LDP’s election platform. He thinks this will win the party popular acclaim by displaying what he calls his sense of responsibility.

His sense of responsibility to whom? The green eye shades in the Finance Ministry, or the people who will actually have to do without the money? It goes without saying, of course, that neither he nor Mr. Yosano have bothered with the litmus test above. Nor did the Finance Ministry drones who insisted on the idea to begin with.

It’s not just the consumption tax, either. It never is when politicians devise ways to spend the people’s money for legal vote-buying schemes. Here’s Mr. Yosano testifying at the Diet:

“I believe there will be consideration of raising the highest rates on the income tax. The opinion is overwhelming within the LDP too that the highest rates should be raised.”

Within the LDP too? They’re really not serious about winning that next election, are they?

The Cabinet Office has it all figured out. They suggest starting in 2011 to increase the current consumption tax of 5% in stages to reach 10%. This, they claim, will enable them to achieve “fiscal soundness” by the early 2020s. Their original projections called for budgetary health by 2018, but the money borrowed to deal with the fiscal crisis and the economic downturn will reduce anticipated tax revenues.

They’re basing their projections on an economic recovery that won’t die a crib death, suffocated by the consumption tax increases. Oh, and the fiscal balance they project in the 2020s will not include the expenditures to pay off the debt incurred from the recent financial crisis.

Nakagawa Hidenao

Nakagawa Hidenao

These people remind me of a doctor who told a friend of mine not to worry about a certain condition because medical science can easily handle problems such as his nowadays. What the doctor neglected to mention was that one of the primary options was the removal of the organ in question. He would survive, but at the cost of his quality of life. He would be medically sound, just as the Cabinet Office, and Messrs. Okada, Yosano, and Aso would make Japan fiscally sound in their theoretical world. But what would happen to the quality of life of the people?

Is there someone who still realizes it is not possible to increase the role of the central government and reform the bureaucracy at the same time? Is there someone who still understands that free markets are always a better solution than government paternalism or the nanny state? (Pick the authority figure of your preference.)

It’s not as if we don’t know the revenues to fund the welfare state will run out again in another few years, and a new generation of politicians will promote themselves as responsible public servants while pointing their fingers at others for running away. That’s why they say the only two certain things in life are death and taxes.

Is there someone who still realizes that the self-proclaimed responsible politicians have it backwards by expecting the citizens to serve the state, rather than having the state serve the citizens? And who understands that serving the citizens often means just getting out of the way?

Yes, there is. He’s Nakagawa Hidenao, and he’s known as the leader of the Ageshio, or “Rising Tide” movement in Japan. In brief, his platform is:

1. Ending deflation
2. Reducing government assets
3. Cutting government expenditures
4. Systemic reform, including major invasive surgery on the bureaucracy
5. Then, and only then, increasing taxes

Mr. Nakagawa has taken the trouble to write books outlining his proposals both for fiscal policy and systemic reform. The standard-bearer for small government in Japan recently sat for an interview with the Sankei Shimbun. The newspaper didn’t print the questions, but Mr. Nakagawa has the answers anyway. Here’s a quick translation.

Yosano Kaoru and the consumption tax

It seems that Mr. Yosano wants to use the consumption tax in the lower house election campaign. It’s not my intention to critique an individual’s statements, but I’m absolutely opposed to a major tax increase during a deflationary period, or to pledging a major tax increase when the economy is in the doldrums. If we were to do that, the bottom would drop out of (our) economy and have a negative impact on the global economy.

Fighting deflation and moving toward structural reform

The LDP should promise fiscal reform before they raise taxes. The first priority is to formulate a growth strategy based on fighting deflation and structural reform. Even if you accept that increasing the citizens’ liability for social welfare expenditures will be inevitable in the future, it’s incomprehensible to say you’ll increase taxes without implementing such reforms as making government more efficient and strengthening its functions.

We’re in a critical period for the economy now, so we must formulate economic measures of the type used only once every 100 years. But when normality returns, we must resume the process of the 2006 Robust Policy Statement, compiled when I was the head of the Policy Research Council. That calls for a primary balance in national and local government finances by 2011.

Systemic reform

The reform of Kasumigaseki (the bureaucracy) is critical. I’ve formed a group of Diet members to study ways to reform Kasumigaseki, and we created an outline of member-initiated legislation to supplement the bills submitted by the government to reform the civil service system.

We did this to obtain the consent of the DPJ, which claims that the reforms in the government’s legislation related to senior members of the bureaucracy don’t go far enough. Our proposals remedy that insufficiency. Without an agreement between the ruling and opposition parties, the bill won’t be passed during this session of the Diet. The LDP must show that it is more passionate about reform than the DPJ.

I haven’t talked to Prime Minister Aso about this issue, so I don’t know if there’s any common ground. But whenever I try to speak out, you in the mass media immediately start writing about a confrontation. I don’t care about such petty things. I made it my priority to make Japan better.

Trouble with the LDP

I haven’t been to a meeting of the Machimura faction since February. Interpersonal relations are important, but if the only objectives are just to maintain the old senior-junior relationships and to listen to the “wisdom of the elders”, then I can only call that an old faction. The Machimura faction should be a policy group. The issue is whether the member MPs share the same philosophy and direction, and trust each other.

I’ve fought for reform at every general meeting of the faction. But when that becomes a dispute, (you) play up the idea that the split is widening, and that causes trouble for the members. That’s why (I haven’t attended). I haven’t said that I’ll leave the faction.

The points at issue in political realignment are tax increases and reform of Kasumigaseki

I have consistently maintained that it is important to have a lower house election at the earliest possible time, and for the LDP to put every effort in promoting policies to win the trust of the people. But the timing is up to Prime Minister Aso.

I suspect we still haven’t won the support of the independent voters who want to see reform. (But) our support will rise if we formulate a platform that serves as a bridge between conservatives and independents. One of the people who could write that platform is Suga Yoshihide (Koga faction; the deputy chief of election campaigns for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party), who is expected to chair a research team. In principle, I am not opposed to restrictions on hereditary candidacies (which Suga supports).

In the future, the points at issue for political realignment may become the debate over raising taxes during an economic crisis and reforming Kasumigaseki. Do I want to become party president (with the implication of possibly being prime minister)? I won’t answer questions like that. It depends on the will of the people!

From a later speech

“The ruling party will not earn public support as long as it does not incorporate sweeping reform of Kasumigaseki in its platform.”

He added:

“Superficial responses such as the division of the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare are insufficient. We’ll be playing second fiddle in the lower house election if people have the impression that the DPJ’s reform plan is more advanced than ours.”

On raising taxes:

“That is a far cry from the popular will. The people want us to eliminate waste before we raise taxes.”

Some numbers

Mr. Nakagawa knows he has the numbers on his side. From a public opinion poll conducted 11 June:

What do you think of government by bureaucracy?

I prefer government by politicians: 72.2%

I prefer government led by the bureaucracy: 16.2%

I don’t know: 11.6%

His political future

Speculation continues to mount in the press about Mr. Nakagawa’s next move. That an unbridgeable chasm separates him from the mudboat wing of his party is now clear. Most observers expect there will be a parting of the ways, his excuses for not attending faction meetings notwithstanding. The only questions are when and under what conditions. He is not expected to have much difficulty in holding his Diet seat in the upcoming election.

One set of rumors has him trying to snatch back control of the LDP for the reformers. At a fund raising party in Tokyo last week, he said:

“Like-minded comrades will, using the common sense of the people, battle it out with common sense in Nagata-cho, which is the antithesis of the common sense of the people. This is a declaration of war.”

He threw down a challenge:

“The LDP is the party promoting reform. We reformers are not the ones who will leave the party—the ones who are not reformers should leave.”

On the DPJ:

“I can state with certainty that they lack the common sense of the world. We will make the common sense of the world national policy.”

That sounds as if he is thinking of trying to unseat Aso Taro before the election and have the party run a reformer in his place. (It might not be out of the question if the poll numbers have made enough of the party’s lower house MPs desperate. They ought to be.)

Having served as both chief cabinet secretary and LDP secretary-general, Mr. Nakagawa was being groomed for the job of prime minister himself, but he became embroiled in scandals involving both women and money. They were of a level that prevented him from rising further, but permitted him to stay in the Diet and out of jail.

As a result, he backed Koike Yuriko in the party’s election in an unsuccessful bid to replace Fukuda Yasuo (which Aso Taro won) rather than run himself. (Ms. Koike was also supported by former Prime Minister Koizumi, a Nakagawa soulmate.)

A different set of rumors has floated up in the current issue of the weekly Shukan Shincho. Those have him waiting for the election results to bolt the LDP and form a new party. The rumors include the new party’s name (Kaikaku, or Reform), and sounding out Takenaka Heizo to be the standard bearer. The magazine also noted that an alliance with independent reformer Watanabe Yoshimi would be a natural, and it would attract the first-term Diet members elected on Mr. Koizumi’s coattails in 2005.

Why government pensions?

In their 12 June issue, the editors of the weekly Shukan Post thought their readers might be interested in seeing how they would be affected if the national pension were eliminated altogether. They found what other simulations in other countries have long shown—people would be financially better off by handling their own pensions.

Their simulation postulated a 45-year-old man who started work at age 22 after college, and whose wife did not work. They calculated that he would have already paid in JPY 13.41 million, counting the employee pension insurance, in which the employer kicks in an amount equal to the employee contribution above the basic national pension.

Simulation Man will have to pay an additional JPY 17.42 million until he retires at age 60. Therefore, he will have paid total pension premiums of JPY 30.83 million during his working life. If he starts receiving a pension at age 65 and lives out an average lifespan, he and his wife will receive about JPY 36.90 million (about $US 375,000) in benefits.

But if the pension system were to be eliminated, all premiums returned, and if his future contribution (including the company’s contribution) is added together and invested under the same conditions as those in the present system, the 45-year-old man would wind up with JPY 48.60 million in benefits, or JPY 11.70 million more than under the current system.

The Shukan Post article might not be an isolated phenomenon. The current edition of the Sunday Mainichi weekly magazine has an article about how one can enjoy a comfortable life in old age with JPY 30 million.

Of course, if the pension system were to be eliminated, not everyone would employ a mechanism to provide for their old age.

But why should the ants who would find a way to handle their own retirement be forced to fund a system that rewards the grasshoppers?


Yes, the paramount political issue of our time. Here’s an article in the Telegraph by London Mayor Boris Johnson, showing himself to be a kindred spirit of Nakagawa Hidenao. The headline? Public Spending Begins with Private Enterprise.

He writes:

This whole debate is back to front. We are putting the cart before the horse. Every time you hear a politician stand forth and invite your good opinion by offering to “cut” this or “invest in” that, ask yourself the prior question: just how did the politicians come by this money? Who created it? And what are we doing to help them create more?

This is taxpayers’ money, amigos. It was produced by the sweat upon the brow of the 23.6 million private-sector employees, and by the hundreds of thousands of British businesses – 80 per cent of them with five employees or fewer – that are struggling on in spite of the recession.


Instead of this arid debate about “cuts versus spending”, we should be having a grown-up national conversation about the cost of regulation to business, and the growing burden of public-sector pensions.

(The emphasis is mine.)

He concludes:

I want to hear politicians talk less about themselves and their priorities and more about the entrepreneurs, the people who get up at 5am to organise their business or cut deals with the other side of the world. Every time you hear politicians swanking about what they are going to do with public funds, remember that wealth was ultimately created by private enterprise; and, if they don’t help the wealth creators, they won’t have any money to spend.

He also seems to have invented a word: necrarchy, or a zombie government. Not only is that a perfect description of the mudboat wing of the LDP, that’s what Takenaka Heizo called them in a Bungei Shunju article in December 2007.

Posted in Government, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Worse than you could imagine

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, June 13, 2009

THE POST ON THURSDAY focused on what I referred to as China’s insolent and arrogant eco-hypocrisy. It was prompted by the Chinese criticism of the Japanese pledge to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and contained this quote:

“I do not believe it is a number that is close to what Japan needs to do, should do,” Yu Qingtai, Chinese climate envoy, said. Japan’s pledge amounts to an 8 per cent cut in its emissions from 1990 levels, far less than the 20 per cent reduction promised by the European Union….China last month demanded that developed nations cut greenhouse emissions by 40 per cent by 2020 compared with 1990.

The Chinese, of course, are exempt from the Kyoto Protocol, and have Japanese ODA to thank for the bulk of their anti-pollution technology.

But the Chinese hypocrisy turns out to be even worse than one could imagine. Try this from the Times of London:

Officials from Beijing told a UN conference in Bonn yesterday that China would increase its emissions to develop its economy rather than sign up to mandatory cuts.

(The emphasis is mine.)

Their reason?

Qin Gang, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that China was still a developing country and its priority was to develop its economy, alleviate poverty and raise living standards. “Given that, it is natural for China to have some increase in emissions, so it is not possible for China to accept a binding or compulsory target,” he said.

But when the Times quoted UN climate change “chief” Yvo de Boer, which country bore the brunt of the criticism? Three guesses and the first two don’t count:

Responding to the Japanese proposal, the UN chief made no attempt to hide his disappointment. “For the first time in my two and a half years in this job, I don’t know what to say,” he said. “We’re still a long way from the ambitious emission reduction scenarios that are a beacon for the world.”

It seems to have taken Mr. de Boer a mere two or three seconds to recover from his unaccustomed speechlessness at the Japanese to come up with that silliness about being the world’s beacon.

Here’s a question no one seems to want to answer: Why should free market democracies be the ones to pay the price for the Chinese choice of Marxism-Leninism under Mao? Taiwan doesn’t have that problem. Its per capita GDP in 2008 was estimated at $US 31,900, compared to Japan’s $34,200 and China’s $6,000.

Worse yet was how the Times’s journalist characterized the Chinese statement:

The refusal is a setback for President Obama’s efforts to drum up support for an agreement at Copenhagen in December on a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol.

Ah, so. It’s not an effort by the international do-gooder set, but an effort by the new King of the World. But someone forgot to tell the Chinese:

The Chinese rejection of cuts emerged after talks in Beijing between Todd Stern, the US climate change envoy, and the Chinese Government, in which Mr Stern appears to have backed down from earlier calls that China make a commitment to reduce CO2 emissions.

It’s high time to start drawing some conclusions, particularly for the Japanese. First, the Chinese are going to do what they damn well please, whatever the issue, and no one is going to stop them with sweet measured reason. (They’ve just castrated another UN resolution on North Korea by inserting language that requires the consent of the “flag state” for the inspection of suspicious vessels at sea, and making voluntary all other sanctions on companies and financial institutions that do dirty business with Pyeongyang.)

Second, the subjects of His Majesty The King of the World, whether in Asia, the Middle East, or Europe, don’t seem to be so willing to tug their forelocks and offer a meek, “Yes, Sire.” Third, while the Chinese are the ones who promise to increase their emissions, the Japanese are the ones who catch hell because their targets for decreasing emissions don’t satisfy the Elders of the Eco-Church.

These problems and the underlying trends they represent will only grow worse in the future. The state of affairs that results isn’t going to be pretty.

Posted in China, Environmentalism | 2 Comments »

Hiroshima 1945-2008

Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 12, 2009

Thanks to Paul!

UPDATE: AMG points out a photo of Yokohama got in there somehow. That reminds me of an article I once saw in a Chicago newspaper with a map of Japan that showed Yokohama where Osaka is.

Posted in Popular culture, World War II | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

How hot does Kim Jong-il like it?

Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 12, 2009

VERY HOT indeed, if the latest reports are to be believed.

Start with this one from Fox News. It says American intelligence officials have advised their government North Korea will take four steps in response to a new U.N. Security Council resolution condemning their recent nuclear test. The four steps are:

1. Conducting another nuclear test
2. Reprocessing all of their spent plutonium fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium
3. Escalating their uranium-enrichment program
4. Launching another Taepodong-2 intercontinental ballistic missile

An additional American concern is that they’ve lost track of the North Korean missile.

“…(W)here American intelligence officials on June 9 observed components for the long-range Musudan missile leaving the Wapo-ri installation area, they have now “lost track of them,” FOX News has learned.

“We spotted the TELs [Transporter-Erector-Launchers] and then we lost track of them,” a source said. “NGA lost track.”

NGA refers to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, a unit the Defense Department that provides imagery and geospatial information for military and civilian purposes.

“It’s disturbing,” the source added.”

It should be more than disturbing, but the Chinese think everyone should just chill out instead. Relax, they say, it’s no big deal. The North’s overall strategy is to pressure the West, rather than start a war, according to this article in the Asia Times.

“North Korea has never abided by any agreement, and tearing up the truce with the South comes as no surprise,” Zhang Liangui, an expert at the Central Party School, which trains communist officials here, told the Southern Weekend newspaper. “This is an act aimed at pressuring the West, and not an indication of an impending military conflict.”

But if the Chinese realize North Korea has never abided by any agreement, why are there six-party talks, and why are the Chinese participating in them? If Pyeongyang intends to pressure the West, presumably the objective is to sign an agreement with the United States to guarantee their continued existence. Meanwhile, the Chinese expect the North to ignore its part of the bargain.

Of course the North will ignore it. Only nations with a sense of morality live up to their obligations.

That same article quotes a Chinese source as saying Beijing believes it can’t deny North Korea nuclear weapons because the North is just following the Chinese route to international respectability:

The outside view that China has the most leverage over North Korea but does not want to exercise it is skewed,” said Zhan Xiaohong, researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “The North believes that it is simply following China’s example of using military power to gain the international respect it lacks because of its backward economic situation. How could China deny Pyongyang that?”

Zhan points out that in the 1960s China went through a similar period. Emerging from a devastating three-year famine the communist country was desperately impoverished but resolved to develop its nuclear weapons.

“It was the nuclear deterrent that made great powers like the Soviet Union and America take count of China, and it was nuclear power that was able to guarantee the country’s peaceful economic development over the next decades,” said Zhan.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Mr. Zhan that North Korea’s adoption of a free market economic system and a democratic political system, as well as ending its international brigandry, would go a lot farther to guarantee the country’s peaceful economic development over the next decades than what they’ve been doing for the past half-century. The formula of the current North Korean system plus the H-Bomb certainly won’t.

There’s more. The Chinese are resisting efforts to include in a UN resolution a measure for the interdiction of suspicious North Korean ships:

China has warned that interdicting ships at sea on suspicion of carrying banned materials could provoke the North into a military response and at the very least discourage it from returning to talks on abandoning its nuclear program.

In other words, allow the country to continue testing its nuclear weapons and exporting nuclear materials to other blackguards around the world. Preventing them from doing so would discourage them from returning one of these days to the six-party talks and maybe signing an agreement they won’t comply with anyway.

Then again, maybe this is just an excuse for the impresario Kim to conduct the Joseon version of Götterdämmerung. The same Asia Times website has recently run two articles from one Kim Myong-chol, a Japanese-born man who retains Korean citizenship. He’s based in Tokyo, but is said to have close ties to the Dear Leader. Here’s how they describe him:

Kim Myong-chol is author of a number of books and papers in Korean, Japanese and English on North Korea, including Kim Jong-il’s Strategy for Reunification. He has a PhD from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s Academy of Social Sciences and is often called an “unofficial” spokesman of Kim Jong-il and North Korea.

In this case, “unofficial” spokesman seems to mean propaganda mouthpiece. He’s the head of the Center for Korean-American Peace, and the South Koreans have gone to the trouble to ban his books.

Here’s where we start to get really psychedelic. The first article, dated 21 May, says Kim has gone to Plan B. Who knew there was a Plan A? Well, here are Plan A’s contents as described by the author:

Plan A called for the DPRK to consider exploring a shortcut to enhanced independence, peace and prosperity through rapprochement with the US. Plan A obliged the Kim Jong-il administration to negotiate away its nuclear weapons program as part of a verified denuclearization of the whole of the Korean Peninsula in return for Washington’s strategic decision to co-exist peacefully with Pyongyang.

Plan A assumed the US would decide to leave behind its policy of hostility to the DPRK, conclude a peace treaty with North Korea, and pledge in a verifiable way it would not attack it with nuclear and conventional arms. It also assumed the US would establish full relations with North Korea, show respect for its sovereignty and independence, lift sanctions imposed on it, and provide it with fuel oil and light-water reactors.

Plan A was the engine behind the 1994 Agreed Framework with the Clinton administration and a series of nuclear agreements from six-party talks with the Bush administration, including the September 19, 2005 joint statement, the February 13, 2007 agreement, the October 3, 2007 agreement and the July 12, 2008 agreement.

Despite plan A, the US has remained hostile to North Korea as it is bent on its nuclear disarmament, painting it as a criminal state, and toppling its regime.

There’s some choice language in that passage, isn’t there? Plan A “obliged” the North to negotiate with the U.S., in return for Washington’s “strategic decision to coexist peacefully…establish full relations with North Korea, show respect for its sovereignty and independence, lift sanctions imposed on it, and provide it with fuel oil and light-water reactors.”

Doesn’t the phrase “delusions of grandeur” come to mind. Perhaps it’s time to reissue Leonard Wibberley’s 1955 novel with a new title: The Rat That Roared. (Note that the review called the original “eerily prophetic” in light of recent developments)

So, now that Plan A isn’t working, what’s the deal with Plan B? Take a deep breath:

Plan B envisages the DPRK going it alone as a fully fledged nuclear weapon-armed state, with a military-first policy, and then growing into a mighty and prosperous country. It will put the policy of seeking reconciliation with a tricky US, a helpless superpower with a crippled economy that is losing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, on the back burner.

The DPRK is equipped with all types of nuclear warheads, atomic, neutron and hydrogen, and their means of delivery puts the whole of the USA within effective range….The announced vow to quit six-party talks, restart nuclear facilities and conduct additional nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests is a clear message that the Kim Jong-il administration’s decision to shift to plan B is irretrievable.

Plan B calls for the DPRK to join all three elite clubs of nuclear, space and economic powers by 2012, without seeking improved ties or a peace treaty with the US, as the DPRK has built up an independent global nuclear strike force which can carry the war all the way to the metropolitan US rather than on the Korean Peninsula.

Lest you think that last phrase was just a throwaway line, a new article by the same author at the same site on 12 June is titled Nuclear War is Kim Jong-il’s Game Plan.

Here’s how it starts:

A little-noted fact about the second nuclear test conducted on May 25 by the Kim Jong-il administration of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is that it was a highly successful fission trigger test for multi-megaton warheads.

These types of warheads can be detonated in outer space, far above the United States, evaporating its key targets. This is a significant indication of the supreme leader’s game plan for nuclear war with the crippled superpower and its allies, Japan and South Korea.

Here’s how it continues:

The game plan for nuclear war specifies four types of thermonuclear assault: (1) the bombing of operating nuclear power stations; (2) detonations of a hydrogen bombs in seas off the US, Japan and South Korea; (3) detonations of H-bombs in space far above their heartlands; and (4) thermonuclear attacks on their urban centers.

He says the point of (3) is to render communications and electrical systems inoperable.

Mr. Kim gives us the skinny:

The Yongbyon nuclear site has always been a decoy to attract American attention and bring it into negotiations on a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War. Since as far back as the mid-1980, North Korea has assembled 100-300 nuclear warheads in an ultra-clandestine nuclear weapons program. The missiles can be mounted on medium-range missiles designed to be nuclear capable.

It’s understandable that some would dismiss this as the usual Pyeongyang gasconade, or the latest pathetic chapter of the opéra bouffe staged by the world’s most powerful otaku. After all, who expects North Korea to become an elite economic power by 2012? (Then again, it’s not as if anyone believes the economic projections issued by Western governments, either.)

It might be easy to dismiss Kim Myong-chol as a Northeast Asian version of Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, AKA Comical Ali. He was the Iraqi Information Minister during the American invasion in 2003 who provided information so absurd he became a cult figure for the ironically hip.

But a more compelling view is based on life experience that demonstrates actions speak louder than words. And we’ve seen plenty of actions: testing nuclear weapons and ICBMs, exporting nuclear weapons technology, sharing expertise with Iran and Pakistan, and helping build the facilities for such weapons in Syria. Nothing good can possibly come from any of that. Allowing it to continue means that one day, people are going to be killed in ugly ways for the ugliest of reasons.

It would be difficult to avoid the conclusion that North Korea and their Chinese enablers spot a golden opportunity in the identity, attitudes, and behavior of the current occupants of the White House. About the only Prime Time that group seems to be ready for is a political vaudeville revue hosted by a televangelist. Why should anyone be surprised that Pyeongyang and Beijing are busy trying to make hay while the sun shines? At this rate, they’re likely to wind up with enough to store in the barn for several winters, nuclear or otherwise.

The actions and words of North Korea, China, and the United States are of intense interest to the Japanese–it’s a matter of life and death for them. But Tokyo is still doggedly trying to work with the UN, for the time being.

Some in Tokyo have long wanted to amend the country’s Constitution with its so-called Peace Clause of Article 9. The Preface of that Constitution contains this phrase:

(W)e have determined to preserve our security and existence, trusting in the justice and faith of the peace-loving peoples of the world.

How much longer do you think it will be before they conclude that’s a sucker’s bet?

Posted in China, International relations, Military affairs, North Korea | 8 Comments »

Chinese eco-policies: the ultimate hypocrisy

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, June 11, 2009

IN HIS BLOG in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, James Delingpole has a post titled, China Doesn’t Give a Stuff about Global Warming: Thank God!

Within the post he quotes a Shanghai-based American source:

“The idea of looking to China for any sort of environmental leadership or effective environmental cooperation is simply preposterous. China currently appears to be operating under a triad of very basic principles:

1) No policies shall be enacted which would interfere with China’s economic growth
2) China shall increase its energy production and security by any and all means possible, as quickly as possible.
3) Int’l agreements shall transfer massive amounts of capital, industry, & technology from the West to fund China’s energy development.”

Mr. Delingpole approves:

“(F)or anyone…who cares about liberty, the state of the economy, or the free citizen’s inalienable right not to have his every hard-earned cent sucked into the gaping maw of eco tax and eco regulation in order to solve a problem that doesn’t even exist, China’s hard-headed realism may well be our only hope of salvation.”

The entire post is here.

Perhaps Mr. Delingpole spoke too soon, however. It turns out that the Chinese do give a stuff about global warming–as long as the work involved doesn’t have anything to do with them.

In response to the pledge by Japanese Prime Minister Aso Taro that Japan would cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 15% from a baseline of 2005, the Chinese government spokesman for environmental affairs yesterday excreted perhaps the most arrogant and insolent statement I’ve seen from a government official anywhere in my life:

“I do not believe it is a number that is close to what Japan needs to do, should do,” Yu Qingtai, Chinese climate envoy, said. Japan’s pledge amounts to an 8 per cent cut in its emissions from 1990 levels, far less than the 20 per cent reduction promised by the European Union….China last month demanded that developed nations cut greenhouse emissions by 40 per cent by 2020 compared with 1990.

Remember that China is exempt from the Kyoto Protocol, and that a significant percentage of the annual ODA it receives from Japan is accounted for by environment-related equipment and technology. Mr. Aso will ignore them, fortunately. One hopes the same can be said of the people who will succeed him, but that’s probably too much to ask for.

So, Japan’s plan to cut its greenhouse gas emissions isn’t close to what it needs to do, but China doesn’t even come close to its own informally determined targets. Gee, I wonder what that’s all about.

For an unintentionally risible post about how China is taking serious environmental measures while the rest of the developed world is just talking, try this. See if you don’t laugh out loud.

Some other “experts” were “deeply disappointed” in Japan, too:

Some climate change experts, though, were deeply disappointed. “Japan’s credibility to lead international negotiations is very much damaged by this low emission target,” said Takejiro Sueyoshi, an adviser to the United Nations environment programme finance initiative who was a member of an expert panel assembled by Mr Aso to advise on the mid-term target.

Apparently the experts couldn’t make their case. Mr. Aso probably realizes Japan’s time in international negotiations could be better spent on issues of value, considering that global warming stopped about a decade ago, and that the earth’s temperature has always fluctuated independently of human factors. But it’s still not safe for the run-of-the-mill politico to run against the grain of the eco-church in an election year.

Any comparisons with European pledges are meaningless, by the way. They haven’t kept the ones they made the last time, and they’re just as unlikely to keep these. But this is all a pointless exercise to begin with. A Canadian newspaper a few years back used government statistics to calculate that for the Canadian government to meet its targets under the Kyoto Protocol, it would have to eliminate domestic air travel entirely.

Perhaps that’s the point.


For those who want to keep feeding that Chinese monkey on your back, another blog post from the same newspaper has several links to interesting articles, including those on an underground railroad that smuggled dissidents out of China after Tienanmen Square, how the US will no longer provide shelter for corrupt Chinese officials, and why you shouldn’t eat chicken and celery together.

Posted in China, Environmentalism | 1 Comment »

Campaign slogan or Freudian slip?

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, June 10, 2009

AGREE OR DISAGREE, it’s always worth reading the opinions of Takenaka Heizo, the economics and privatization guru for former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro. I usually agree, so it was satisfying to see him present in the first paragraph of a recent article in the Sankei an argument I’ve had half-written for this site for two months. Here’s my quick translation of that paragraph. I left one Japanese expression untranslated for a reason. Stick with me for a little bit and the reason will become apparent later.

Mr. Takenaka is speaking of the Democratic Party of Japan, the primary opposition party.

“In essence, seiken kotai must ultimately be just a method. Emphasizing seiken kotai is a channel for clearly identifying and achieving whatever policy one has. Certainly, the DPJ is offering a fresh perspective on the conduct of governmental affairs, including eliminating (excessive) bureaucratic (influence), but the content of the policies they want to achieve isn’t clear at all. That’s precisely why the rate of support for the DPJ is lower than one might expect. If (the upcoming election) is simply to be a negative choice in which the voter thinks that, well, at least they’re better than today’s Liberal Democratic Party, they will be immediately met with powerful opposition as soon as they take power. The DPJ has a responsibility to clearly present solid policies for the sound development of Japan’s economy and society.”

No sooner had I begun congratulating myself for having come up with the same idea than this quote from Prime Minister Aso Taro floated up:

Seiken kotai is a method, not an objective. The issue is what you want to do after seiken kotai, and what sort of policies you will implement.”

He’s right, of course, but that’s sure starting to sound like the LDP message of the day, isn’t it? Why would Mr. Takenaka would feel compelled to coordinate his message with that of the prime minister, whom no one would mistake for his intellectual soulmate? But we’ll leave that for another day, if it ever happens again.

My enthusiasm was further dampened by this commentary, also in the Sankei:

“The prime minister’s interest is a manifestation of his dread of the expression seiken kotai. No matter how the ruling party criticizes the individual DPJ policies, the DPJ can always counter by telling the people that they won’t know for sure unless they’re given a chance to form a government”.

Is the LDP afraid of what the expression represents, or are they disdainful of it? I suspect it’s a combination of both.

It’s not unusual that so many people would notice it, however—that’s all they talk about. It’s as if they sing it to themselves in the bathtub at night. Mr. Aso was correct when he noted that seiken kotai is the DPJ objective. He’s only repeating what they constantly say themselves.

Here’s the new DPJ head Hatoyama Yukio earlier this year when the DPJ drama queens were stressing out over Ozawa Ichiro’s scandal:

Our objective is ultimately seiken kotai. I’ve said that (Ozawa Ichiro) and I will share the same fate….If we think it will be difficult to achieve seiken kotai, we will both take responsibility (and step down).

How’s that for a revealing quote? It shows the ultimate DPJ objective, what Hatoyama Yukio means by taking responsibility, and whether he can be trusted to keep his word.

This is from Okada Katsuya, Mr. Hatoyama’s opponent in the recent DPJ presidential election, from about the same time:

I understand that with (the people) unable to comprehend (the campaign finance scandal), we will not be able to achieve seiken kotai.

It’s no exaggeration to call it the party line; even Mr. Ozawa’s DPJ opponents spout it. Here’s Komiyama Yoko, the Education Minister in the party’s Shadow Cabinet and a member of the Maehara/Edano group, at a press conference during the crisis:

“The priority is to take an approach for seiken kotai. At this point, he really should withdraw. I do not think we can win a difficult election with apologies and excuses.”

The DPJ clearly thinks the phrase is critical, and the LDP just as clearly thinks it’s worth using as a line of attack. Now there are suggestions that the DPJ will use it as their slogan for the upcoming election. So what does the phrase mean in English?

It literally means alternation of government; in other words, a system in which the two major parties alternate power rather than power being exclusively in the hands of the LDP, as has usually been the case since 1955.

The DPJ themselves translate it as a “change of government” on their English-language website. Some have translated it as “regime change”, but that’s not a good idea. Joseph Stalin had a regime. Pol Pot had a regime. Saddam Hussein had a regime. Kim Jong-il has one now. Great Britain has governments and America has administrations, but free market democracies do not have “regimes”.

Mr. Takenaka makes an excellent point when he reminds us that the DPJ has a lower support rating than one would expect with the LDP’s backsliding from reform and the demonstrated lack of a rudder on their mudboat.

Is it that the phrase does not resonate with the public in the same way that the word “change” has for many years in American politics? Since I’m not a native speaker of Japanese, I’m not qualified to say with certainty. It’s worth noting, however, that the phrase is a four kanji compound, which the Japanese have long used for national sloganeering (and the Chinese for even longer). The impact might be greater than I realize.

But even though I’m not a native speaker, I do believe this: the DPJ’s choice of that expression demonstrates why it’s been so difficult for the party to get traction with the electorate even though the voters are clearly fed up with the recent conduct of the LDP. Further, the party’s behavior has prevented the people from taking their use of the expression seriously.

It didn’t have to be that way, and to see why, one need look no further than Mr. Koizumi and two governors who champion reform, Higashikokubaru Hideo of Miyazaki and Hashimoto Toru of Osaka. The reason the three of them have maintained sky-high popularity ratings for a period of time almost unheard of in politics is that they put citizen-centered reform first. There’s no better example than Mr. Koizumi ignoring his party’s advice and calling for a lower house election to let the public decide the issue of postal privatization. Both his party’s mudboat wing and the DPJ were opposed, but he was rewarded with one of the most decisive mandates in Japanese political history.

Why haven’t the DPJ gotten the same political love, despite their desperate chanting of the mantra of reform?

It’s the slogan, stupid. Citizen-centered reform is not the first thing they mention. For them, it’s all about seiken kotai…Is that two-party government? Change of government?

No. The voters know what that expression really means to the DPJ.

Our objective is to take power.

From the people’s perspective, what they’re saying is that they want to be part of the problem, rather than the solution. That’s why it’s taken so long for the electorate to even think about taking them seriously.

Even worse for the dim bulbs of the DPJ is that their actions have spoken louder than their words, especially after they gained control of the upper house in 2007. Rather than present coherent policy alternatives and use the new platform as a bully pulpit for the discussion and debate of those alternatives, they chose to behave as a teenager behind the wheel of a new muscle car with a six-pack on the passenger seat. Many people share the sentiments of the LDP’s Nakagawa Hidenao:

“They should dispense with this philosophy of making political crises a priority and compete on citizen-centered reform.”

The way to the Japanese electorate’s heart is easier to see than a neon-festooned pachinko parlor on the outskirts of a country town on Sunday night. Mr. Koizumi certainly saw it, as well as the two governors. Of course they’re ambitious—they wouldn’t be politicians otherwise—but they made sure to put citizen-centered reform first, or at least do a believable job of faking it. They’ve made themselves answerable to the people.

The castrati in the DPJ, on the other hand, have made themselves answerable only to the cynical calculator Ozawa Ichiro, not out of a sense of conviction for his principles—whatever those are this month—but out of the fear that he’ll split and deprive them of their chance to take power.

Forget about walking the walk—they can’t even talk the talk. What was that Mr. Hatoyama said about accepting responsibility if Ozawa Ichiro had to step down? And what was the reason he and Mr. Ozawa gave for stepping down? To apologize for the arrests over campaign financing? To demonstrate the sincerity of their claims of being the clean party? To honor their own sense of decency?

No. The reason they gave is that the scandal would prevent them achieving their objective of seiken kotai: Taking power.

Mr. Hatoyama should make a dandy prime minister.

It doesn’t take much insight to know exactly why the party’s rates of support are lower than common sense says they should be. The DPJ has done nothing to make people feel good about voting for them. That’s why Mr. Takenaka’s observation about the party confronting enormous opposition on taking power is likely to be dead on. And since they’ve done nothing to win the goodwill of the people—indeed, they’ve done everything to ignore it—any honeymoon period is likely to be very short.

If the party succeeds in forming a government this year, their first problem will be illustrated by the old story of the barking dog that forever chases the family car. What will the dog do when it finally catches the car?

Don’t ask the DPJ. They haven’t figured it out themselves. After all, their objective is to take power.

But they’d better start thinking fast. When you’re the party in power, words really do mean things.

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