AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Archive for July, 2009

The DPJ otsefinam

Posted by ampontan on Friday, July 31, 2009

IT’S WORTH TAKING a close look at the photo accompanying this post even if you don’t read Japanese. The picture shows Hatoyama Yukio, the head of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, holding up a booklet with the party’s campaign slogan, Seiken Kotai, or Change of Government, as the title. Just below that the English word “manifesto” is visible. (The Japanese have imported that British term directly into their language to describe what Americans would call a party platform.) At the bottom right of the booklet is the party symbol and the name of the party.

Who are you going to believe--me or your lying eyes?

Who are you going to believe--me or your lying eyes?

The photo was taken at a Tokyo press conference on 27 July attended by roughly 500 members of the media when Mr. Hatoyama presented the party manifesto for the upcoming lower house election just one month away. As the vernacular edition of the Asahi Shimbun reported, it specifies the schedule for implementing the party’s primary policies if they wind up forming a government. The Asahi adds, “The DPJ positions this manifesto as its basic policy for budget formulation.” The event itself was surely the best-attended press conference in Japanese history for the presentation of an opposition party’s political platform, and that’s just how the DPJ wanted it. It was a prime opportunity to demonstrate to the nation that they are indeed capable of governing.

This time, however, the picture is not worth quite a thousand words–it helps to have some supplementation from the following three short videos of television news reports. The first video is a report of the press conference. It starts off with Mr. Hatoyama saying, “We will fight our campaign for a change in government based on the manifesto.” At the 1:25 mark, the news reader reveals that the DPJ says it will continue for the time being Japan’s UN-approved Indian Ocean refueling mission in support of the NATO effort in Afghanistan. Trying to stop that mission was the first ploy the party used to try to bring down the LDP government in the fall of 2007 after it took control of the upper house of the Diet. (It didn’t work.) Then, at about the 1:30 mark, there’s a close-up of the booklet with a clear shot of the word “manifesto”.

The news reader continues by noting that critics charge the DPJ’s spending proposals are unrealistic and will have problems finding the money. A DPJ official appears at about the 2:00 mark to say, “It’s not possible that there aren’t any funding sources.”

The second video also offers coverage of Mr. Hatoyama’s press conference. It shows the banner above and behind the podium that describes the event as the “announcement of the manifesto”.

Further, it shows Mr. Hatoyama saying that if he becomes prime minister and is unable to achieve the promises in the manifesto, “I will accept responsibility as a politician”.

It concludes with a brief clip of Prime Minister Aso Taro: “The funding sources are irresponsible. It’s extremely vague. That’s the biggest problem.”

Finally, here’s a third video of a television report with a male and female news reader. It was broadcast on Wednesday, 29 July, just two days after the DPJ presented its manifesto.

The male news reader leads off with Mr. Hatoyama’s claim that what he presented as the party “manifesto” isn’t the “official manifesto”. The female news reader adds that people think his about-face stems from Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru’s criticism of the platform, and that the DPJ is going to make some additions.

This video is worth watching if only to see the facial expression and demeanor of Mr. Hatoyama from 20-40 seconds in when he lies to the reporters realizing that every last one of them knows he’s lying as he stands there talking. What’s he saying?

“What I presented before was a “Collection of Government Policies”. It wasn’t the official manifesto. I have given instructions that language be inserted regarding a deliberative council for the nation(al government) and the region(al governments).”

The female reporter then explains Gov. Hashimoto slammed the party’s failure to include a plank in the platform calling for the creation of that body to discuss devolution.

She adds that Mr. Hatoyama now says the party won’t extend the Indian Ocean refueling mission after it expires on January 15, despite what he said two days before.

The Osaka governor has good reason to be upset. For starters, devolution is his pet policy–it’s the foundation of his political career, and it’s kept his public approval rating at the 80% level. That rating is why the DPJ is courting his support. Not long ago, they sent party bigwig Okada Katsuya to Osaka to sorta kinda promise that the DPJ would back the creation of a state/province system, which Mr. Hatoyama strongly supports.

The party’s pas de deux with the Osaka governor is made more complicated by the fact that they backed his opponent in the last election.

Then, as you can see from this English-language page on the DPJ website, four other DPJ officials paid a call on Mr. Hashimoto on 8 July. The DPJ’s report on the meeting contains this sentence:

“…in order for decentralization to take place, he wanted the DPJ to include a reference to it as a governing mechanism that would fundamentally change the relationship between the central government and the regions in the party manifesto.”

That’s not the best translation, but it’s understandable. In other words, the governor asked the party to create a deliberative council for devolution, and fewer than three weeks later, they blew him off. Were they so busy scouting around for funding sources for their other platform planks that it just plumb slipped their mind, or was their hot interest in devolution just so much hot air to attract votes?

My, but aren’t the DPJ a piece of work? They play kissy face with one of the country’s most popular politicians and then forget completely about him before the month is out. On a Monday, they hold a press conference to unveil their long-awaited party platform. Mr. Hatoyama calls it a manifesto, the banner in the hall calls it a manifesto, it says manifesto on the cover, and the mass media calls it a manifesto.

On a Tuesday, Mr. Hashimoto wonders what happened with all those sweet nothings the party fed him earlier this month. On a Wednesday, Party President Hatoyama Yukio, looking for all the world like a teenager talking to a store manager while desperately hoping the shoplifted merchandise he’s stuffed under his shirt isn’t showing, says, oh, that, that was no official manifesto, that was just a “Collection of Government Policies”.

Too bad he forget to tell the rest of the party. Clicking on the link to the Democratic Party of Japan on the right sidebar will take you to their English site. That in turn has a link to a 47-page PDF file in English that has Manifesto written all over it. It’s even there in English on the Japanese version. Could it be that it doesn’t really count because the word “manifesto” is written in English?

Then again, at the bottom of the last page of the English version, it says:

Date ***, *** 2009

Now you know why the percentage of undecided voters for the upcoming election is still hovering between 35-40%, even though the LDP is so clapped out as a political force they probably couldn’t muster the energy to rig the election if their lives depended on it.

The DPJ has been trying to convince everyone for two years that they’re finally ready to take over the reins of government. Yet two days after rolling out their party platform, they come up with a dog-ate-my-homework excuse to deny it was the platform to buy time for rewriting it and include a plank to placate an important, non-DPJ governor they were flirting with earlier this month.

During the same two-day period, Mr. Hatoyama did another 180-degree spin on his statement about the Indian Ocean refueling mission.

Here’s the funniest part: If the DPJ wins the election and forms a government, pundits and talking heads around the world will try to fill newspaper space, airtime, and websites with predictions on what the party will do while in office. But every last column inch, broadcast second, and pixel will be a waste of time for the news consumer.

The DPJ itself doesn’t have a clue what it’s going to do from day to day. How is anyone else supposed to know?

The party and its supporters like to claim it’s full of policy wanks. Maybe they’re right–who else would have so little experience with retail politics and actual government to think that the most important document in the party’s history is a cut-and-paste collage subject to change at a moment’s notice?

Manifestly, it’s no exaggeration to say that if the party’s not ready for prime time now, it never really will be.

Afterwords:

Reading the entire DPJ platform is mildly interesting if you have some time to kill. As with most documents of this sort, it’s a combination of some good ideas and some arrant nonsense.

It was a bit of a surprise to see that they stuck with their old plan to eliminate 80 proportional representational seats from the lower house. The Social Democrats threatened to withhold any cooperation with the DPJ in government if they included that plank. Perhaps the DPJ has calculated that they don’t need their help after all.

On the other hand, they claim they have to freeze postal privatization because the LDP decided to take the step without “public engagement”. Before you ask yourself if they expect anyone to believe that bologna, remember that the party also expects people to believe that Monday’s Manifesto was really only Wednesday’s “Collection of Government Policies”.

Those who remember the lower house election of 2005 don’t need to be reminded that then-Prime Minister Koizumi dissolved the Diet and fought the campaign entirely over the issue of postal privatization. That’s the most “public engagement” a politician or party has ever offered the Japanese public in the last quarter of a century, and it electrified the country.

Then again, maybe the DPJ forgot about that, too. Okada Katsuya was party president at the time, and he does often seem as if he’s sleepwalking during broad daylight.

It’s also worth noting that the “Collection of Government Policies” does not include a call for providing voting rights in local elections to non-citizens; i.e., the people born in Japan who choose to retain Korean citizenship. All the top DPJ brass support that measure, but a reported 51 of the party’s Diet members are so strongly opposed that it created concerns of a rupture. (The constitutionality of that measure is also on the iffy side.)

And one wonders what Mr. Hatoyama means by “taking responsibility as a politician” if he’s unable as prime minister to implement the policies in the platform. The last time he said he would take responsibility, it was in the context of resigning from his party leadership position if former president Ozawa Ichiro resigned over a fund-raising scandal.

On a Monday, Mr. Ozawa did resign. On the following Saturday, Mr. Hatoyama “took responsibility” by taking Mr. Ozawa’s place.

UPDATES:

Mr. Okada has since chimed in by saying he thinks having flexible policies is A-OK:

“We shouldn’t be reluctant to amend (the manifesto) if it’s necessary.”

In fact, the DPJ had one of its local Osaka party members visit Mr. Hashimoto for an explantion.

But everyone had to wait for the man who some think still calls the shots for the DPJ behind the scenes: disgraced former party president Ozawa Ichiro. You betcha he had an opinion, too.

“It wouldn’t be (a) bad (idea) to include (the plank about the deliberative council), but we’re saying that we will make a fundamental change to the current government mechanisms. It isn’t necessary to conduct a debate on the premise of the current mechanisms.”

In other words, he thinks the manifesto doesn’t have to be changed.

Now there are reports (which I haven’t seen first-hand), that the party has pirouetted once again and is saying their first manifesto is official after all.

If true, it would seem as if they had to go ask daddy to straighten up their most recent fine mess. It brings yet another dimension to the phrase, in loco parentis.

FURTHER UPDATE: How interesting that YouTube pulled the third video for the lack of proper authorization, but the two initial reports remain available.

Somebody somewhere obviously doesn’t want you to see something. I think we can all draw our own conclusions.

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

Does the rubber meet the road with the DPJ platform?

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, July 29, 2009

ONE SALUTARY EFFECT emerging from the real possibility that the opposition will take control of the Japanese government after next month’s election is the greater scrutiny given to the parties’ political platforms than has been the case in the past. That is particularly true for the platform of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which critics claim involves some serious book cooking.

Attention so far has been focused on the party’s child-rearing subsidy, but some are also looking at their plan to eliminate the tolls on the nation’s expressways and make their use free of charge.

Here are some recent comments:

First, Kaneko Kazuyoshi, the Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, and a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, at a press conference after a recent Cabinet meeting:

“(If they make the expressways toll-free), it will require that we triple our budget for roads. The party says they will reduce wasteful spending on public works projects, but how are they going to do that by tripling the amount spent on roads?”

From the vernacular edition of the Asahi Shimbun:

“(The party) intends to implement two “eye-catching policies” next fiscal year: eliminating the tolls on expressways and the surcharge for gasoline taxes. These are expected to cost about JPY 7 trillion (about $US 736 million) a year. It is not clear at present whether they will really be able to obtain the funds (to make up for this loss) for the overall budget.”

From a press conference with Miyazaki Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo:

The plank about eliminating the tolls on expressways was placed under the category of regional sovereignty, but I don’t understand the connection.

From an interview with Tokyo Metro Vice-Mayor Inose Naoki, a fierce critic of the national bureaucracy:

Q: There were immense traffic jams this year during Golden Week (the holidays at the end of April and the beginning of May). Wasn’t it strange for the government to allow people unlimited access to the expressways during the holidays for JPY 1,000 (about $US 10.50)? These tolls are for a company that’s been privatized.

A: I can understand it as a temporary economic stimulus measure. The Nippon Expressway Companies (collectively known as NEXCO, which pre-privatization were the Japan Highway Public Corp.) maintain a framework in which they repay JPY 1.6 trillion in debt every year. The tax funds invested will be only for the discounted amount. The DPJ’s idea of eliminating (highway) tolls, however, is more of a problem than (temporarily) reducing the tolls to JPY 1,000.

Q: But the users will be more grateful for not having to pay any tolls at all.

A: That way of thinking is a mistake. If the tolls are eliminated, they’ll have to sink in tax funds forever. Only one vehicle (in Japan) in 10 uses the expressways, so the people who don’t use them will also bear the burden. The citizens who are happy that the expressways will be free should be aware that it allows the current dominance of the bureaucracy (to continue).

***

Will the party resolve these contradictions with stealth taxes down the road, or will the DPJ follow the precepts of former head Ozawa Ichiro and “replaster” their campaign promises once they’re in power? Time will tell.

Afterwords:

A friend in England occasionally rants about the steps taken in that country to cut back on rail service over the years. He insists that rail travel better suits the country than expressway travel, and the cutbacks have caused economic hardship for some local areas.

I’ve never been to England, so I can’t vouch for that claim, but it does make me wonder if the same is true of Japan. (Not that they’re cutting back rail service here, but that trains are generally a better way to get around than the expressways.)

I also can’t vouch for the figures of either Mr. Kaneko or Mr. Inose, but if the latter is correct, forcing everyone to pay for something that only 10% of the people use does seem like a cheap ploy to win votes in the near term that will wind up being quite expensive further down the road.

Posted in Government, Politics | Tagged: , , | 12 Comments »

A dime’s worth of difference?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, July 28, 2009

AS THE DATE for the lower house election in Japan approaches, the electorate is becoming increasingly interested in identifying policy differences between the two major parties. In some instances, they’re discovering that the differences among some candidates are negligible, and that party labels resemble nothing so much as merchant ships flying a flag of convenience.

The following article, which appeared in the Nishinippon Shimbun last week, describes an extreme example in Kagoshima. Here’s a quick English translation.

*****
Enthusiasm was high at a hall in Kagoshima City on the evening of the 16th as a crowd of 1,600 overflowed the 800-capacity venue at a rally for Uchikoshi Akashi, a new Democratic Party of Japan candidate for a lower house seat in the Kagoshima District #2. When Uchikoshi declared that the time for a change of government had come, a man in his 70s who has known the candidate for many years was overwhelmed with emotion. “He was finally recognized as a DPJ candidate,” the man said.

L-R: Uchikoshi Akashi and his new boss

L-R: Uchikoshi Akashi and his new boss

Uchikoshi’s political career began as a delegate in the prefectural assembly. A member of the Liberal Democratic Party, he served for four terms over 15 years and rose to chair the group of LDP assembly delegates. When he chose to run for a seat in District #2 in the 2005 lower house election, circumstances in the electoral district meant that he had to run as an independent. He was defeated, left the party, and joined the DPJ in June 2007 at the invitation of then-party head Ozawa Ichiro.

When Uchikoshi began leaning toward joining the DPJ, his supporters from his days in the prefectural assembly objected and urged him to continue to run as an independent. A friend convinced him to join the DPJ, however, by telling him that the next election would be fought between the two major parties, and he would be unlikely to win unless he was affiliated with one of them.

In the 2007 upper house election held immediately after Uchikoshi joined the party, the DPJ candidate received 99.3% of the vote total of the LDP candidate in the Kagoshima district. A senior member of the local DPJ organization said that was due in large part to Uchikoshi’s efforts, who has a strong base of support among the conservative elements in the district.

***
Two current LDP lower house delegates met at a rally on Amami Oshima on 26 June: Yasuoka Okihiro of Kagoshima District #1, and Tokuda Takeshi of Kagoshima District #2. When Tokuda said they should overcome past history to fight the campaign together, the hall erupted in applause.

L-R: Tokuda Takeshi and his new boss

L-R: Tokuda Takeshi and his new boss

The past history to which he referred was the intense “Yasutoku War”, political battles fought in District #1 between Tokuda’s father Torio and Yasuoka in the days when the electoral system was based on multiple-representative districts instead of the current single-member districts. Today, the two men cooperate by supporting each other in their separate districts.

Tokuda was elected to the Diet for the first time in 2005 when he ran as an independent with backing from the DPJ. He joined the LDP at the end of 2006, however. One of his chief aides explains: “He was unable to accomplish anything for one year. As a member of the ruling party, he was able to exert his efforts for the area.”

The aide had a jarring experience during a campaign swing in June, however, while circulating among supporters. One supporter asked, “How do the LDP’s policies differ from the DPJ’s?” Inside the house, he spied a DPJ pamphlet placed there by Uchikoshi supporters. It called for rooting out wasteful expenditures of tax money, improving healthcare, and boosting the rate of self-sufficiency in the food supply. The language was almost identical to that on the LDP flyer the aide had brought.

This election is a clash between Tokuda and Uchikoshi, both of whom were supported by different parties four years ago. Supporting Tokuda this time are agricultural cooperatives, the Chamber of Commerce, and the construction industry—all of which campaigned for his LDP opponent 2005. In contrast, Uchikoshi is being supported by the labor unions that backed Tokuda last time. The labor unions justify their choice by saying they should close their eyes to any minor differences between the two for the sake of a change in government.

*****
There have been pre-election skirmishes over the promises of pork made by both parties. It is difficult to distinguish a clear demarcation between the parties’ policies in some cases. The DPJ promises to make expressways free, provide income supplements to individual farm households and others, and pay a monthly child-rearing stipend of JPY 26,000 (about $US 275.00). The LDP is offering a JPY 2 trillion economic stimulus rebate (about $US 21 billion), reduced highway tolls, and a resumption of temporarily frozen highway construction projects.

According to Saga University political science Prof. Hatayama Toshio, “The voters know that the days of pork will not return. The hearts of the voters will be disengage from a party unless they can create a trustworthy platform.”

(End translation)

*****
Meanwhile, the Sankei Shimbun briefly summarized some of the areas of similarity in the LDP and the DPJ platform planks regarding child-rearing, and the DPJ’s acceleration of the period of implementation.

The centerpiece of the DPJ platform is their child-support allowance, which will eventually be JPY 26,000 per month. The party has moved up by a year, to FY 2011, the period at which the full amount will be paid, as well as the period for providing their subsidy to individual farm households. Until then, the party would pay JPY 13,000, or half that amount, as a child-rearing stipend.

That allowance will require JPY 5.5 trillion annually, while the farm household allowance will require JPY 1.0 trillion every year.

In contrast, the LDP’s platform has a plan to allow parents of 3-5 year olds to send their children to authorized preschool facilities without paying tuition. This is viewed as a measure to counter the DPJ allowances and the opposition’s plan to make high school free. It is estimated to cost JPY 790 billion per year.

Afterwords

* Were party discipline in Japan a bit looser—i.e., not at the Politburo level of conformity—the party switching such as that in Kagoshima might not be so significant. But votes in the Japanese Diet are usually conducted along party lines without the opportunity to create ad hoc coalitions for individual issues. Party policy, and therefore government policy, is determined higher up the food chain, and that will usually determine individual votes.

* I’m going to be on the Saga University campus tomorrow to give two final exams, and I’m tempted to drop in on Prof. Hatayama to see if he’s smoking any contraband in his office. Look again at Mr. Tokuda’s reason for joining the LDP—he was unable to accomplish anything for a year as an independent backed by the minority opposition. In other words, he wasn’t able to bring home the bacon for the people in his district.

The days of pork have never gone away.

* This morning’s newspaper contains a report on a Kyodo survey that shows 37% of the respondents hadn’t made up their mind which party to vote for in the proportional representation phase of the election. (The DPJ still leads by about 30% to 15%, but that’s a 5.5% drop for the DPJ since the last survey.)

All things considered, that demonstrates an astonishing lack of trust in the DPJ.

* The child-rearing planks in both party platforms are classic examples of legal vote-buying schemes. They’re counting on the public not taking the time to think it through, and the media not to help them by prompting. Of course the free money for school won’t be free, because the beneficiaries will pay for it through some other form of taxation. There goes the supposed benefit of lowering the financial burden on families to encourage them to have more/some children.

It’s also unlikely to improve Japan’s birthrate–certainly not to a level required to produce more revenue sources for social welfare programs, which is the point to begin with. The claim that people are not having more children because it costs too much is an excuse, not a reason. People just aren’t as interested in creating families as they used to be.

Since the program will have no requirements to spend the money for specific uses, such as children’s clothing, it will be a rerun of the pattern for Third World foreign aid, in which the cash was diverted to the discretionary spending of the ruling class rather than infrastructural development. (In the early 1990s, the World Bank said it absolutely no idea what happened to 30% of all the money it gave to Indonesia. The U.S. stopped giving financial aid to post-Soviet Russia when they discovered most of the money was being shifted from Moscow to Swiss bank accounts within 24 hours after the initial transfer.) It is just as likely to enable non-essential expenditures for the parents as it is to be spent on children.

That’s just one inevitability. Here’s another one—the scheme won’t result in a higher birth rate (they never do) and the people who originally pushed it will insist that’s because an insufficient amount of money was allocated to the families. They will therefore call for increases in the amount of the payments rather than admit the program is a failure.

It’s like the sun rising in the east every morning.

Also, no one seems to be mentioning the additional tax burden this will impose on working singles and newly married couples without children who won’t receive any of these funds at all. If the DPJ thinks thinks folks aren’t having children because of the financial burden, why—by their logic—are they making it harder for people of prime child-rearing age to start families?

If they were serious about giving families with children a break, they would increase rather than eliminate the current income tax deductions for children, which the DPJ proposal entails. Instead of taking money from people at tax time and then distributing it, let them keep their money to begin with.

But that wouldn’t serve the real purpose of the scheme. That’s to shift the political debate from more fundamental questions to the issue of the level of government services, and which party is prepared to use the most tax money to attract votes.

Meanwhile, many people have resigned themselves to voting for the DPJ because they promise to more actively pursue the devolution of authority and weaken bureaucratic control of government.

Yet the tiara in the crown of the DPJ platform will engender more dependency on the central government and create yet another bureaucracy.

There’s a Japanese phrase applicable to all this: fu ni ochinai, or, “it doesn’t fall into the bowels”. In other words, it’s not convincing at all.

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

Shanghai ending one-child policy

Posted by ampontan on Monday, July 27, 2009

THE TIMES OF LONDON is reporting that the municipal government of Shanghai, China, is now encouraging married couples to have a second child. The government has been holding the line at one toddler for 30 years, and has gone so far as to forcibly sterilize women or abort pregnancies.

The reason?

“The move was prompted by the growing demographic imbalance in the city and fears that the younger generation will not be able to support the ageing population

And:

‘Shanghai’s over-60 population already exceeds three million, or 21.6 per cent of registered residents,’ Zhang Meixin, a spokesman for the Shanghai commission, said…

And:

The elderly population is rising at a similar rate across the rest of China, mainly in cities, with the working-age population expected to start shrinking in about 2015. The overall population will peak in 2030, with China becoming the first country to grow old before it grows rich and therefore able to support a nation of pensioners.”

(Emphasis mine)

It is worth examing the cause for the aging of the population in China. The article quotes one of the parents:

“It costs more than 35,000 yuan (£3,500) a year just to leave our baby in a kindergarten. Why spend this amount of money on a second?”

This is of interest in Japan, and not only because of the country’s aging population. One of the centerpiece policies of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan is the introduction of a monthly government stipend to parents for child-rearing through junior high school. They seem to be on the verge of taking power, and they promise this measure will be one of their first legislative acts.

The excuse they give echoes that of the parents above: Japanese parents say they can’t afford more children. But I use the word excuse instead of justification intentionally, and the next sentence in the article explains why:

Many young couples are willing to have one child to continue the family line, but they let the grandparents raise it so that they can go to bars and restaurants and go shopping and travelling without being restricted by the responsibilities of children.

The Japanese don’t slough off child-rearing responsibilities to the grandparents to an extent worth mentioning, but the idea is the same: Having children cramps one’s style.

Someone has the wit to see the contradiction:

“One person remembered the policies of the 1950s and 1960s when Chairman Mao appealed for large families. ‘Our parents were poor and they had five or six children.’”

Alas, this reporter too is not immune to the journalistic afflication of a failure to distinguish news reports from op-eds:

The one couple, one child family-planning policy is less rigorous than its name suggests. Urban parents are permitted to have two children if the husband and wife were only children. In rural areas, couples are allowed a second child if their first is a girl.

That still sounds excessively “rigorous” to me. Besides, it’s not a question of degrees of rigor; when a government gets involved in family planning, either by limiting or encouraging new babies, it is a question of despotism.

“The one couple, one child family-planning policy is not applicable to all households” is shorter and contains no reference to what the author thinks is or isn’t harsh.

This is the subject of another post I’ve been working on, which will include why government schemes encouraging larger families have historically failed, and why the DPJ speaks with a forked tongue on this issue, as they do with several others.

Since the concern is really about finding revenue units to fund social welfare services, the obvious solution would be to reduce costs by having people accept more responsibility for their own social welfare, and eliminating large swaths of otherwise unnecessary government while they’re at it, but that’ll have to wait until later.

Soon come!

Posted in China, Demography, Government | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

A glass of champon

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, July 26, 2009

WHEN THE FOLKS in Kyushu use the word champon, they’re usually talking about a bowl of noodle soup created at a Chinese restaurant in Nagasaki during the latter part of the 19th century. In other words, it’s a Japanese version of Chinese food.

But when the folks in Fukuoka City’s Higashi Ward use the word champon, they’re talking about glass toys sold during the Hojoya festival presented by the local Hakozaki-gu Shinto shrine. The work for putting the finishing touches on those toys is being done now, even though the festival is held in September.

Edo beauty toys with a <em>champon</em>

Edo beauty toys with a champon

The champon is an unusual toy because it employs the flexibility of glass. The user alternately inhales and exhales from the tube end, causing the film at the bottom of the flared end to vibrate back and forth and make a noise. First there is a higher-pitched tone that to Hakata ears sounds like “chan”, and that’s followed by a lower tone that sounds like “pon”. The traditional glass blowing technique used to make the toys requires great skill, but the blowing technique to play with the toy takes little or no skill at all.

People in other parts of the country call these playthings biidoro, which is derived from vidro, the Portuguese word for glass. Some also call them poppen, which is a different onomatopoetic rendition of the sound the glass makes. Same sound, different ears!

The toys have been around in Japan for a while, as the illustration shows a well-known Utamaro print of an Edo beauty amusing herself with one. They weren’t sold at the Hakata festival until the second part of the 19th century, however, and the shrine stopped making them during the Taisho period, which ran from 1911 to 1925. But if your national history goes back a couple of millennia, it’s easy to find something old on a shelf in the cultural warehouse when looking for a new idea to spice up a custom, and the shrine resumed making the champon in 1971.

Hakata beauties making <em>champon</em>

Hakata beauties making champon

The photo shows two of six miko, or shrine maidens, using bright acrylic paint and thin brushes to paint pictures on the toys. The decorative illustrations are usually of flowers and dragonflies. This year, however, the miko are using for the first time a chrysanthemum design that one of them created, demonstrating yet again how willing the Japanese are to incorporate new tricks into an old tradition. There are 10 different types of champon, and the miko will make about 2,100 by the end of August. That hand-painted labor doesn’t come cheap—it’ll cost from JPY 3,000 to 9,000 ($US 94.98) to buy one at the festival.

The Hojoe festival, by the way, is known as one of the three major Hakata festivals, Hakata being another name for the Fukuoka area. It attracts in the neighborhood of 300,000 people every year. The festival itself originated from a Buddhist ceremony for releasing fish and birds back into the wild, based on the old precept in that religion against the killing of animals. The Shintoists liked it so much they adopted it as well, and the festival is conducted at other Hachiman shrines throughout the country under the name of Hojoya.

All this talk of mixing religious traditions and giving them different names in different places is an excellent excuse to refer back to the bowl of Chinese noodles created in Japan known as champon. The origin of that word is not onomatopoetic; rather, one theory holds that it comes from the Chinese word 掺混 in the Hokkien dialect, which means “to mix”. It would be pronounced chanhun in standard Chinese, and the Japanese would naturally change that h to either a b or a p in their pronunciation because it follows a syllable-ending n.

But it gets better. The Okinawans have a dish of their own called chanpuru, which also means “mixed” in their dialect. The Koreans eat yet a different version, called jjamppong (짬뽕), which is also said to be slang for “mix up” (though it’s not in my K-E dictionary). And the word champon itself has entered standard Japanese to mean mix together or alternate. That one is in my J-E dictionary, though I can’t remember hearing anybody use it that way in a conversation.

Buddhist and Shinto, Hakata and Fukuoka, hojoe and hojoya, champon and poppen, and champon, chanhun, chanpuru, and jjamppong…doesn’t that sum it up perfectly? Northeast Asia in general–and Japan in particular–has always been a champon kind of a place!

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

Japan’s cosplaying Wiki-diplomats

Posted by ampontan on Friday, July 24, 2009

“Embassies are relics of the days of sailing ships. At one time, when you had no world communications, your ambassador spoke for you in that country. But now, with instantaneous communications around the world, the ambassador is primarily in a social role…I would recommend we redo the whole embassy structure.”
- Ross Perot

A FEW WEEKS AGO, reader NB sent this message with a link to a Kyodo article:

“(Here’s) an item I’d like to see in another post.
What do you think about the Japanese government harnessing stereotypes about the Japanese and using “pop culture diplomacy” to sell themselves around the world as “cute” manga-reading girls in short skirts?”

Here’s the story in brief: The Japanese Foreign Ministry has appointed three people known officially as “pop culture ambassadors”, but known casually as “ambassadors of kawaii (cute), to promote the Japanese version of chewing gum culture to people in other countries. Their appointments will last for one year.

L-R: Misako-chan, Yu-chan, Shizuka-chan

L-R: Misako-chan, Yu-chan, Shizuka-chan

The three are Aoki Misako, a model associated with the magazine Lolita Fashion; singer Kimura Yu, referred to by some Japanese as a “fashion leader” of the Harajuku type, and Fujioka Shizuka, an actress known for wearing designer brand high school uniforms.

Ms. Fujioka appeared at an event called the Kawaii Festa in Thailand in March to offer fashion advice. Japanese-language Internet sources suggest that the word kawaii has become part of the international lingua franca. A photo at the link shows a banner at the event bearing that title.

There’s a reason she was sent to Bangkok. School uniform-type outfits are now the rage among college-age Thai girls (the phrase “college women” no longer seems applicable) due in part to the local success of a Japanese anime.

The article quotes one young Thai (boy or girl, we don’t know; the article is sloppily written):

“You look very pretty in the uniform. I would like to go to Japan.”

The other two envoys to Global Youth Land visited the Japan Expo in Paris earlier this month, an event that drew more than 100,000 people last year. The Kyodo article says that cosplay has intrigued young people in France.

The word “cosplay” is derived from the Japanese kosupure, which itself is derived from the English words costume and play. It involves people dressing up in costumes as characters from comic books or animated cartoons and acting out those roles.

That the Japanese government has become involved with cosplay—there’s no better way to describe older females wearing high school uniforms as a fashion statement—should tell us that we’re dealing with a serious international phenomenon here.

Epictetus, a Greek philosopher born in the first century AD, had it right when he said, “Preach not to others what they should eat, but eat as becomes you, and be silent.” That applies just as well to a person’s taste in the arts and his leisure time activities. As long as they’re not breaking any laws, how people to choose to spend their time and money is their own business.

The fashion aspect is not so difficult to understand. Women have always spent an enormous amount of time trying to guild the lily in ways unfathomable to men ever since there have been men and women, so this is just the latest chapter in a never-ending story.

Cosplay is not as easy for me to get my head around, however, particularly when males are involved. I’m one of those people who think that most people on the planet wake up every morning, put on a costume, and pretend to be the person whose name is on their birth certificate. Is that not a form of cosplay to begin with? But then esoteric philosophy is not a theme of this website.

On the other hand, reader Mac commented:

“What “better” or more commonly used PR is there in the world than using beautiful young women?”

Eat as becomes you…

An international phenomenon

I’d rather the Japanese had chosen other parts of their culture to present to the rest of the world—festivals, for example—but might there be a bigger picture that we’re missing?

Plug the word kawaii in English into Google and you’ll get 7,590,000 hits. Do the same with cosplay and you’ll get 24,200,000. Yes, I was astonished too. When the words kawaii and cosplay are so commonly known and accepted around the world, I think it’s safe to say we’re dealing with a phenomenon that transcends Japan.

Is this infantile? Yes, and that’s inescapably the truth. (That’s not preaching, that’s just an observation.) But infantilism seems to be the default position for a lot of people these days. Witness the global reaction to the recent death of the mega-infantile, Michael Jackson. Should we be shocked that every American television network chose to cover his funeral live, or should we just note that that’s how the modern world turns?

A few years back, an American comedian joked that Michael Jackson was the only example he’d seen of a poor black boy growing up to become a wealthy white woman. Jacko was so wealthy, in fact, that he could go beyond clothes and cosplay for years with his pigmentation and facial structure.

But even that does not tell the full story of conditions in the United States. Try this account from a Detroit newspaper:

“Two hearses jammed with stuffed animals left in memory of Michael Jackson were given a two-car police escort Friday to the toys’ burial at Woodlawn Cemetery…
Detroit Police officials said they couldn’t say how much the escort cost the city. The escort guided the hearses from the funeral procession through red lights.
Mourners had left the toys and other items at the Motown Historical Museum on West Grand Boulevard since the singer died June 25 at age 50. After sitting outside for three weeks, the toys were not safe to donate to a children’s museum or orphanage, museum Chief Operating Officer Audley Smith said.
“We have now concluded that it would be best to bury the items,” Smith said Friday morning…
At the cemetery, the toys were unloaded from the tops of the hearses and from boxes inside the vehicles. They were then placed into clear plastic bags and then inside donated vaults…”

The article reports that senior officers of the Detroit police are upset, but let’s not forget that someone in authority thought it was a good idea and executed the decision to provide a police escort to a hearse full of ruined toys given to a dead 50-year-old child, including the right of way through stoplights, to be buried in a cemetery.

This infantile reordering of priorities might be closer to the norm than we think. Consider baseball fans in the United States, who have morphed into something their parents and grandparents would have found unimaginable. Once upon a time, the priority for young American men in their 20s was to get married and get started on a career and a family. Those who were interested in the sport followed it by watching the occasional game on TV (most games weren’t televised) or listening on the radio, reading accounts in the newspaper the next day, and perhaps attending a handful of games a year.

The harder guys joined softball leagues—fast pitch—for summertime recreation.

Now, however, there are websites for baseball fans in which they analyze every play of every game with game threads during the action, and argue about player evaluations using such newly created statistics as VORP and OPS+. Those evaluations not only include the players on the major league team, but also every last player on each of a team’s seven minor league affiliates, with occasional examinations of the players in the Dominican summer league. The U.S. major leagues hold their annual draft of amateur players in early June; these fans already began talking about the June 2010 draft before the June 2009 page was torn off the calendar. Many are members of fantasy leagues, in which they create their own teams from scratch and play simulated games on a computer. When the lads actually do attend a real baseball game to watch real players in real time, they often wear the jersey bearing their favorite player’s name and number and a team hat. Some even paint their bodies and faces.

Is that whole subculture not a type of cosplay too?

Perhaps it’s time to draw conclusions from these facts, and one of the conclusions we may safely draw is that society everywhere—Thailand, Tokyo, or Toronto—has become more infantile. To say that 40 is the new 20 is already a commonplace observation.

Since things are thus, who among us would dare single out young Japanese females as somehow being a goofy exception? Suddenly, a magazine named Lolita Fashion doesn’t seem all that strange any more.

There comes a point when you realize there are only two choices—either live it or live with it.

Foreign Ministry involvement

But there is one aspect to this whole business I do find inappropriate. To wit: I can understand that the private sector would be anxious to leverage the zeitgeist for national PR, or to boost tourism. It’s good for business, after all.

But why is the Foreign Ministry wasting its time and our money on this?

One of the Japanese-language links sent in by reader Ponta contained this explanation, though it sounds more like an excuse to me:

(These projects select) people to serve in PR roles for the country or a region…Today, with the spread of the Internet, anyone can express their opinion to the world. The ideas of the general citizen have a much greater impact on relations between two countries. Rather than improve relations between Japan and other countries by limiting discussions and contact to diplomats, it is important to further mutual understanding based on a mutual interest between citizens.

The same entry reminds us that the cartoon character Doraemon was designated an “anime cultural ambassador”, and in that role, the feature-length movies in which the cartoon character appeared were screened in 65 countries around the world in five languages.

While Ross Perot’s 1992 suggestion that the concept of diplomacy be reworked has been shown to be prescient despite the initial ridicule it received, even Mr. Perot might be astonished to see that less than a generation later, the conduct of relations among nations has degenerated into a kind of Wiki-diplomacy.

The goldbricks of international diplomacy

The only response to the infantilization of culture throughout the world might be to sigh and shrug the shoulders, but the Japanese foreign ministry, like its counterparts elsewhere, still has serious business to attend to.

Unfortunately, the Japanese equivalent of Foggy Bottom doesn’t seem to be doing much in the way of attending to those issues.

* When the Japanese government donated $11 million to restore the Mesopotamian marshlands in Iraq that Saddam Hussein had purposely drained, then-Prime Minister Koizumi asked the Foreign Ministry to conduct a survey of local residents. The ministry said it would take a year to complete.

Not wanting to wait that long, the government turned to the Self-Defense Forces already in Iraq and asked them. The SDF personnel conducted the survey in their spare time and finished in a week.

* The story of the five Japanese citizens forcibly abducted and finally returned by North Korea more than two decades later is fading from public memory, but it’s worth remembering that Pyeongyang at first allowed the abductees to return only temporarily. The abductees didn’t see it that way, however. After having been captured while minding their own business in their own country and held prisoner in another, it was natural that they wouldn’t want to go back.

Yet the people responsible in the Japanese Foreign Ministry were upset by their decision and publicly criticized it. They insisted that Japan throw its own innocent citizens into the hellhole once again. Their justification was that Japan had to uphold its part of the deal with a country that’s welshed on every important international agreement it’s signed during its existence–and who were holding those people unlawfully to begin with.

Could they have been more wrong? The five abductees stayed and their family members followed later, demonstrating yet again that the hard line does work in diplomacy, especially with tinhorn bullies.

* One capability the Foreign Ministry does have is setting public policy without conducting public debates about that policy. Try this from a recent article in a Canadian newspaper:

“A Japanese diplomat once told me that his assignment in Canada was to acquire lessons on the merits of multiculturalism in an effort to convince the Japanese people that, for them also, immigration will fix the problem of an aging society.”

“For them, also”? Immigration without assimilation has never fixed any problem anywhere, much less “the problem of an aging society”. The problem they’re really talking about is finding a tax source to fund the social welfare services for an aging society when the birthrate is far south of the replacement rate and isn’t going rise in the foreseeable future—particularly when those of prime breeding age are adult kiddies in a cosplay world.

As the article points out, however, even the Canadians are realizing that immigration isn’t a solution to that problem. The result of that policy, as the Europeans are also starting to understand, is that the problem will cease to exist because the country as they have known it will cease to exist. Japanese like to cite the proverb, go ni ireba, go ni shitagae (in other words, when in Rome, do as the Romans do) as the model for behavior when living overseas.

What the dwindling native European population is discovering, however, is that their Muslim immigrants aren’t in the least interested in go ni ireba. To them one part of Europe is a lost area of the ummah, the Community of Believers, that once was theirs. As for the rest, the immigrants’ fertility rates will eventually incorporate that into the ummah too, while the Europeans fade out by cosplaying everything except traditional family life.

One phrase some Japanese use in public debates is the charge that if a certain person is allowed to continue in office, or certain policies are maintained/not adopted, then kuni ga horobiru, or the country will cease to exist. Often the use of this phrase is language inflation of the same type used in debates in other countries, too.

Except in this case Japan’s foreign ministry has apparently decided on its own, without telling anyone else, that the country must adopt a policy by which it really will cease to exist.

Try this instead

While Mr. Perot might have had a point when he said that embassies are obsolete, the foreign service does have a role to play overseas by speaking up for its country. Japan’s foreign ministry, however, is too often tongue-tied instead of calmly but forcefully making the government’s case, whether the issue is Takeshima with South Korea, undersea natural gas rights with China, whaling with Australia, or the comfort women issue with the United States.

The point here is not about agreement or disagreement with any of those policies. Instead, Japan’s Foreign Ministry does little or nothing to promote the stated policies of its own government overseas–and that is their job. It chooses instead to cosplay as diplomats in international conferences using the obsolete postwar paradigm of presenting the country as a responsible international citizen reborn. Sign up for everything, pay for a lot of it, and smile and say nothing.

But since 1945, Japan has been a more responsible international citizen than any other country whose name could be drawn from a hat. It’s time for the Foreign Ministry to draw that conclusion and take the initiative to make that point abroad.

Instead, they spend their time promoting Misako-chan, Yu-chan, and Shizuka-chan as the face of their country to that part of the world inhabited by childish spirits in adult bodies.

When are they going to stop cosplaying the role of foreign service officers, knock off the Wiki-diplomacy, and speak for Japan in the world?

Or have they become so integrated in the global infantile culture that we should forgive them, for they know not what they do?

Afterwords:

* The Canadian newspaper article is worth reading for several reasons, chiefly about how immigration won’t work. It also contains this classic bit of journalistic stupidity about Japan:

It’s true, for example, that by working insanely hard, the Japanese are able to maintain high productivity despite their low fertility rate. But a 17-hour work day in a Tokyo cubicle, where you feel guilty taking bathroom breaks, is hardly a family-friendly environment.

45 words, five mistakes resulting from sheer ignorance masquerading as knowledge.

* When I have occasion to mention Nakagawa Hidenao here, it’s usually in a positive light. But Mr. Nakagawa is one of the most prominent politicians to have taken a clear public stand in favor of large-scale immigration. We disagree. Perhaps I should start sending his office e-mails.

* Anyone is free to disagree with me about multiculturalism without assimilation, but I suggest to put your socks on first. I grew up in the United States speaking only English. My father’s father was born in what is now Belarus and was not a native speaker of English. My father’s mother was not exactly sure where she was born, but the family thinks it might have been that part of Romania held for a while by Russia. She too was not a native speaker of English. (She used to joke that she was Austrian; her birth certification said Austria-Hungary.)

Meanwhile, of my four great-grandparents on my mother’s side, one each came from Poland, Lithuania, and Bremen, Germany; none of them were native speakers of English either. The fourth, however, was from Canada.

I’ve been multicultural since I was zero years old.

* Why is it that Japan shies away from talking about the Europeans’ experience with immigration? Not all the immigrants are going to come from China or The Philippines. As someone who occasionally is called by public prosecutors in Saga and Fukuoka to interpret for illegal aliens apprehended when they were being smuggled into the country, I know that many of the people who would come to take the unskilled labor jobs will be from Muslim countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, statistics show that the most frequently used name now for male babies born in Brussels–the capital of the EU–is Mohammed. And in Amsterdam. And in Rotterdam. It’s creeping up the charts in England. Sometime around 2025, there will be more Muslim babies born in The Netherlands every year than ethnic Dutch. Huis ten Bosch in Sasebo might wind up being more Dutch than the European country in another generation.

It’s time for the Japanese media to start talking about this openly.

Thanks to NB and Ponta for the links!

Posted in Demography, Government, International relations, Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: | 38 Comments »

Monkey see, monkey don’t

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, July 22, 2009

ONE RECURRING VOICE IN THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION in Japan when I first arrived here was the tendency by some people to promote a political, social, or cultural cause by claiming that it was already a common practice in the West (usually the United States), so therefore Japan should adopt it too. Those who didn’t care for the ideas countered by accusing the proponent of saru mane, or monkey imitation—in other words, monkey see, monkey do.

Japan’s postwar success means they no longer have to crane their necks to look up at other countries they think might be more advanced. That means fewer pet theories are justified by pointing to behavior in other parts of the world. But the practice hasn’t entirely disappeared, and the following describes two examples that I ran across last week.

Rather than advocating a particular position, the first example is the unnecessary use of the United States as a standard for comparison. It’s harmless in this case, but it was presented by a man who should know better. In contrast, the second example has the potential to bring about some downright ugly changes to Japanese society.

Japanese Unemployment

Appearing on a recent NHK TV program, Prof. Noguchi Yukio of the Waseda Graduate School of Finance, Accounting, and Law created a stir when he claimed that Japan’s unemployment rate, which as of May was officially 5.2%, is really about 9%.

Here’s what Prof. Noguchi said:

“If the (effectively) unemployed still working at companies due to the Employment Adjustment Subsidy were counted, the unemployment rate would be more than 9%, a level not much different from that of the United States.”

The subsidy is offered by the government to companies who are cutting back on operations due to deteriorating profits as a result of the economic downturn. The government provides part of the funds for job furloughs or the rent of employees temporarily furloughed or seconded elsewhere. The government calls it a “subsidy for corporate efforts”, but it’s in fact a measure to keep those companies from terminating the people they’d rather lay off.

Noguchi Yukio

Noguchi Yukio

The program has mushroomed over the past seven months. The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare reported that in October 2008, 140 companies received these subsidies for 3,632 workers. Those figures had risen to 67,192 companies and 2,338,991 workers by May 2009. Technically, those workers are not unemployed, but that’s only because the government is subsidizing their continued presence at their place of employment.

Prof. Noguchi’s point is that adding those 2.3 million people to the unemployment roll would lift the rate to 9%. In fact, the unemployment rate might be higher still. It does not count NEETs (people not currently engaged in employment, education or training), or the furiitaa, the underemployed youth (15-34) who tend to live with their parents after leaving school and shift from one low-skilled, low-paying job to another (such as convenience store clerk) rather than start a career. The latest figure for the former category is 640,000 and 1,700,000 for the latter.

Of course Prof. Noguchi is trying to drive home the point that employment conditions in Japan are much worse now than the government cares to admit, and he’s probably right. But the man received his doctorate in economics from Yale, so he is well aware that the American government is just as likely to blow smoke over employment statistics as its Japanese counterpart. The United States is not the gold standard for government honesty, assuming that any such standard exists.

American unemployment

To look behind the smokescreen covering current American unemployment figures, try this article in the Wall Street Journal by Morton Zuckerman, the editor in chief of the US News and World Report.

June’s total assumed 185,000 people at work who probably were not. The government could not identify them; it made an assumption about trends. But many of the mythical jobs are in industries that have absolutely no job creation, e.g., finance. When the official numbers are adjusted over the next several months, June will look worse.

- More companies are asking employees to take unpaid leave. These people don’t count on the unemployment roll.

- No fewer than 1.4 million people wanted or were available for work in the last 12 months but were not counted…(b)ecause they hadn’t searched for work in the four weeks preceding the survey.

- The number of workers taking part-time jobs due to the slack economy, a kind of stealth underemployment, has doubled in this recession to about nine million, or 5.8% of the work force. Add those whose hours have been cut to those who cannot find a full-time job and the total unemployed rises to 16.5%, putting the number of involuntarily idle in the range of 25 million.

- The average work week for rank-and-file employees in the private sector, roughly 80% of the work force, slipped to 33 hours. That’s 48 minutes a week less than before the recession began, the lowest level since the government began tracking such data 45 years ago…If Americans were still clocking those extra 48 minutes a week now, the same aggregate amount of work would get done with 3.3 million fewer employees, which means that if it were not for the shorter work week the jobless rate would be 11.7%, not 9.5% (which far exceeds the 8% rate projected by the Obama administration).

So while unemployment in Japan might be worse than people realize, conditions could be harsher still in the United States.

The 9% number should be shocking enough for the Japanese public. There’s no need to bring the United States into the picture, but old habits die hard.

But as I said, that’s a harmless example. The second is a classic case of saru mane that is troubling because, while based on what the advocate thinks is commonly accepted conditions in the United States, it combines a failure to understand the real circumstances with a transparent sense of self-importance. If adopted, her proposal would seriously degrade the Japanese political dialogue.

Election Reporting

Oguri Izumi began working for the Nihon Television Network as a newscaster in 1988, and spent three years on the Kyo no Dekigoto (Today’s Events) late-night news program. Her husband is a reporter for the Tokyo Shimbun.

Oguri Izumi

Oguri Izumi

Ms. Oguri left the network in August 2007 to accept a Fulbright Scholarship to the Edwin O. Reischauer Center For East Asian Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in The Johns Hopkins University.

She released a book last month about her observations of broadcast journalism in the U.S. called Senkyo Hodo, or Election Reporting. (It’s an inexpensive Chuo Koron Shinsha paperback on display in bookstores now.)

I haven’t read the book, but I have read the promotional material, and here’s the scoop:

During her stay in the US, she was shocked to see many television journalists openly declare their support for presidential candidates.

Ms. Oguri thinks this is a capital idea. She proposes that all Japanese television journalists be allowed to become “opinion leaders” and openly advocate the candidates they favor on the air—not as a disclaimer, but as a matter of practice.

She claims that supporting a party is not necessarily a violation of fairness or neutrality, and offers her book as a plan for creating a “good country”. She added that she had a hard time maintaining her own fairness or neutrality while on the air in Japan.

Specifically, she says that newscasters should make their choices based on their reading of party platforms and then explain those choices to the viewers.

Let us count the ways in which that is a very bad idea.

Had Ms. Oguri turned off the TV set and talked to off-campus America, she might have discovered that they too were shocked—and angered—that many television journalists openly declared their support for presidential candidates. They do not watch television news to see manipulated reports or hear a talking head tell them what they should think.

The consumers of news are intelligent enough to know where to find political opinions when they want them. There are already plenty of outlets for that expression, both in the United States and in Japan. What the consumer of basic news programs seeks is a straight accounting of the facts.

The job of journalists in the print and broadcast media outside the op-ed corner is to present just the facts, and nothing but the facts. That so many of them feel compelled to twist those facts to conform to their own biases, and then aver that true neutrality is not possible, is testimony to flawed temperaments underpinned by a belief in their superior intelligence.

It should be a simple matter to stick with the facts, regardless of what the biens pensants would prefer us to believe. I have no doubt that if I were a television journalist, or responsible for the production of television news programs, that—unlike Ms. Oguri—I could handle that part of the job in my sleep. It would be easy money. Indeed, it would be a lot more difficult (not to mention creepy) to insert propaganda while trying to pretend that I wasn’t.

All Ms. Oguri is trying to do is to take the difficulty out of pushing her own views on everyone else by hijacking a medium that should remain neutral. Supporting her pet plan by saying that the Americans do it–without realizing that many Americans detest the mockery the practice has made of the political process–is nothing but saru mane.

It’s tempting to buy the book to see how she tries to make the case that open advocacy isn’t a violation of the principle of neutrality, but who has the time for what is likely little more than a string of excuses?

One reviewer stated the obvious objection that since private-sector television is supported by advertising, overt support for specific candidates could subject the network or the station to pressure from those advertisers. The pressure from ownership cannot be overlooked, either, considering that the press is really only free for those who own the enterprise. It’s one thing to claim to speak truth to power; it’s another thing entirely to speak truth to the man who signs your paycheck and tells you to parrot his line.

Broadcast journalists who openly support candidates will surely do so on the basis of pre-existing beliefs. The idea that they will read and judge a platform is a false front, and it’s hard to believe that they’re even fooling themselves. Anyone can find reasons for either supporting or opposing the planks of any specific platform, based on their own cast of mind. Lawyers do the same sort of thing every day with the law and legal precedents. It’s their job.

Taking this one step further, broadcasts journalists freed from the obligation to be objective will then be guided by their political preferences. That would prevent them from exercising the self-examination required to root out the idea that they alone have the intelligence or the right to decide which facts should be broadcast, which should be emphasized, and which should be glossed over. Does Ms. Oguri seriously believe this would not happen? Has she even thought this out?

That would leave us with an overtly biased media, which would mean that none of its news content could be trusted. If this sector of the media cannot be trusted to stick to the facts, they have eliminated the reason for their existence. They would have in effect become the PR wing for a particular politician or a cause using an enormous megaphone. Let the politicians and the activists do that on their own time.

Far from being a model for Japan, the former news gatherers of the American print and broadcast media now find themselves in exactly this predicament. That’s why so many of them are going out of business, in the case of newspapers, or ignored, in the case of network news.

The electorate does not need opinion leaders, and the idea that it does is insulting to its intelligence. All it requires is that the facts—as many as the limited programming time allows—be reported. Self-appointed elites are not required to filter those facts for anyone, especially since the people on camera don’t seem to be any more intelligent than anyone else on the street. Indeed, viewed from the perspective of day-to-day life, they’re likely to have less practical intelligence than most people on the street.

People are capable of figuring things out for themselves. If Ms. Oguri lacks the insight to understand that, she lacks the insight required to offer us her political opinions while claiming to be fair and neutral.

And if she has that much trouble squelching her bias on the air, she should find another job.

Are Japanese broadcasters unprejudiced now?

In passing, I should note that more than a few Japanese would laugh at the idea their broadcast media is neutral to begin with. The general approach of the Asahi network is from the left, and even I could see the slant in their broadcasts before I was able to make the connection between the announcers and the network.

Some Japanese have long thought that the news on the quasi-governmental network NHK is also tilted. A common observation is that they are soft on China and hard on the United States.

It should be obvious that anything other than strict neutrality for a public broadcaster is an affront to the ideals of democratic government. The network is supported by funds that all citizens are required to pay, so they have a moral obligation to present the news impartially. If people do not care for the programs offered by a private sector broadcaster, it costs them nothing to stop watching. If enough people take that step, it will lower the network’s ratings and cut into their ad revenue. Viewers can even go over the head of the network itself directly to the sponsors to complain.

From reporting to making the news

Regarding the connection between the media and politics, by the way, I recently ran across a Japanese-language article reporting that more people from both the print and broadcast media are becoming professional politicians. For the upcoming lower house elections, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan is running at least 23 people who came from that industry, either recently or longer ago, while the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is running 10.

Takeuchi Ken, former mayor of Kamakura, founder of the Internet newspaper JanJan, and a visiting professor at Waseda University, thinks he knows why there are more in the DPJ. It’s not necessarily because of political philosophy:

“The DPJ most definitely have the wind at their back, but a careful examination of local conditions shows that they lack an organizational base. That’s why, as a party, they look for people who can catch that wind. In contrast, the LDP is an organizational party from the candidates’ perspective, and younger people have a difficult time obtaining their recognition. People from the mass media have name recognition due to their exposure, and they’ve mastered communication skills, which makes it easier for them to pick up votes. As a result, more of them have gravitated toward the DPJ.”

Perhaps Ms. Oguri should take the hint. If she thinks her analyses are so penetrating, she should try her hand at retail politics instead of making Olympian pronouncements from a TV studio.

Or get a blog!

Afterwords:

Ms. Oguri also represents another aspect of saru mane, and that’s what some Japanese refer to as the madoguchi phenomenon. It dates back at least to the beginning of the Meiji period, when the country reopened to the outside world and was hungry for knowledge of other places and the technology of the modern age.

Madoguchi is the word for a clerk’s window at a bank, venue for ticket sales, or other similar facility. There has long been a tendency for some people here to go abroad to study some specialty—Chinese regional cuisine, Scotch whisky distillation, Italian sports cars, British politics, watermelon cultivation in Missouri, black gospel music recorded but unreleased by local labels in the American south in the 1960s—in short, anything and everything. Then they return to Japan and create the equivalent of a madoguchi (glorified lemonade stand?) to offer their knowledge, much as the delegations dispatched overseas by the Meiji-era governments brought back knowledge from their observation tours of Western countries. The idea is to make a career out of their specialty.

The easy accessibility of international travel has removed many of the obstacles that prevented people from pursuing their interests abroad, so the practice is less prevalent than it once was. It’s been a while since I’ve seen such a clear example, but with this book, Ms. Oguri seems to be setting up a madoguchi of her own.

Incidentally, I have no idea what Ms. Oguri’s political ideas might be. Another former newscaster on the Kyo no Dekigoto program, Sakurai Yoshiko, is quite conservative politically, and now quite active writing opinion pieces for monthly magazines.

Posted in Books, Government, Mass media, Politics | Tagged: | 7 Comments »

The warring sandbox period in Japanese politics

Posted by ampontan on Monday, July 20, 2009

You’re only young once, but you can be immature forever.
- Larry Anderson

NO SOONER do I compare the behavior of Japanese politicians at the national level to that of the daimyo during the Warring States period than one of those prominent politicos uses a different historical reference that underscores the internal disarray which has turned the ruling Liberal Democratic Party into a Warring Sandbox. It also provides a disturbing glimpse of how some politicians might view their personal role in what everyone else views as a liberal democracy.

Hatoyama Kunio makes a political statement

Hatoyama Kunio makes a political statement

Kicking the sand this time was Hatoyama Kunio, a former Cabinet minister in three different governments. He most recently headed the Internal Affairs ministry in the Aso administration until he resigned over a dispute about the sale of a Japan Post-owned business. He’s also the younger brother of Hatoyama Yukio, the head of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, of which Kunio was a founding member until he split as the result of a fraternal dispute.

Hatoyama the Younger and Aso Taro have been celebrated in the Japanese media for having a close friendship, and it’s easy to see why. The former represents district #6 in Fukuoka Prefecture, and the latter represents district #8 in the same prefecture. They are both well-to-do grandsons of former prime ministers, who themselves were members of the old postwar Liberal Party that merged with other right-of-center parties to become today’s LDP.

But Mr. Hatoyama appears to have some difficulty staying on good terms with the people closest to him. His conflict with his elder brother doesn’t seem to have been completely resolved–witness his recent reference to him as a “momma’s boy”, which, come to think of it, does jibe with the public personality of Hatoyama the Elder. It also might be an expression of chagrin over the amount of family money that some suggest momma has been funneling to Big Brother’s campaign war chest. In any event, however, petty family feuding is never conducive to good government at the best of times, and this is not the best of times.

Now he’s all upset with buddy Taro since his hissy fit and resignation. But Mr. Hatoyama caused some eyebrows to rise even further when he said that Prime Minister Aso was “the Northern Court” and that he was “the Southern Court”.

He’s referring to an ancient dispute over Imperial succession in Japan that led to two separate courts from 1337 to 1392. In brief, the Imperial house split into two lines created by brothers who both served as tenno (emperors). The Kamakura Shogunate cut a deal in which the two lines would alternate members on the Chrysanthemum throne. One tenno of the junior line wanted to keep the succession in his family, however, so he wound up creating the Southern Court. After a few decades of intrigue and military skirmishing, the Muromachi Shogunate brought them back to the original compromise involving the alternation of the two lines, but the Northern Court didn’t keep its promise and the Southern Court died out.

The dispute over the legitimacy of the two lines kept cropping up over the years, as some scholars claimed the Southern court had the bona fides because they maintained possession of the Imperial regalia. That argument continued until the early part of the 20th century, when the Meiji Tenno—himself a descendant of the Northern Court—officially recognized the legitimacy of the Southern Court. Thereafter, history textbooks have treated the Northern Court as the outlier.

But that brings up the question of why a politician who sees himself as a potential prime minister would compare his dispute with Mr. Aso to one more than half a millennium ago involving the Imperial household. Does this not suggest that Mr. Hatoyama’s background of wealth and heritage has created a sense of identity that causes him to believe he’s a member of the political nobility bestowed with the divine right to rule Japan?

And wasn’t the lad being clever when he chose for himself the identity of the Southern Court? Japan’s history books recognize that court as being the legitimate line of succession whose members were deprived of the opportunity to reign. Remember also that the Southern Court was founded by the younger brother, suggesting that Mr. Hatoyama sees himself as the rightful ruler even if Big Brother becomes the next prime minister.

Finally, there’s yet another factor that really brings this down to the sandbox level. Not long ago there was an informal group in the Diet called the Taro-kai (the Taro Association). The membership consisted of MPs from several LDP factions, and the group’s objective was to promote Aso Taro for the job of prime minister. After Fukuda Yasuo abruptly resigned last year, it swung into action and finally achieved its goal.

The chairman of the Taro-kai was Hatoyama Kunio.

Now where’s the mass media when you really need them? One thing they do quite well is to cut people down to size when they get too full of themselves. Yet the media seems content to use the childish bickering as a way to provide entertainment without having to pay fees to show business performers rather than an opportunity to do something useful. Does not their enabling behavior make them a willing accomplice?

***
The quarreling brings to mind a passage from the ironically titled book, Jiminto ha Naze Tsuburenai no ka? (Why doesn’t the LDP Fall Apart?). That consists of the edited transcripts of a series of roundtable political discussions between Murakami Masakuni, a former Labor Minister and head of the LDP delegation in the upper house of the Diet, and current jailbird sentenced to the pen for influence-peddling; Hirano Sadao, a former DPJ upper house member and close associate of Ozawa Ichiro; and Fudesaka Hideyo, a former Communist Party member of the upper house who resigned after an accusation of sexual harassment.

Here’s a quick translation of the relevant part:

Hirano: When I was in the New Frontier Party, we discussed the subject of a possible conservative coalition with some members of the LDP. (Then-party leader) Ozawa Ichiro asked me to meet with Aso Taro and tell him that he (Ozawa) would support him if he left the LDP and formed a new “Aso Taro Party”. Mr. Aso is (former Prime Minister) Yoshida Shigeru’s grandson, and Mr. Ozawa’s father Ozawa Saeki was a very close associate of Yoshida Shigeru. Prime Minister Yoshida entrusted him with some important tasks. It was Yoshida Shigeru who talked me out of joining the Communist Party when I was about to become a member. So knowing that background, that’s why he sent me to talk (to Mr. Aso).

Mr. Aso’s political thinking in those days was just like that of a child. To me it looked as if he didn’t really care about principles, policies, or human relations. I thought it couldn’t be possible that he was related to Yoshida Shigeru.

Fudesaka: Not all second- and third-generation politicians are like that, but when I look at Mr. Aso…I get the impression that he’s playing.

Murakami: He’s (like some) chairman of the Junior Chamber of Commerce. In the end, he’s just the young master who’s never had to deal with any hardships.

Hirano: An Akihabara otaku, eh? He’s the captain of the otaku.

Fudesaka: Hatoyama Kunio is the same type (of person). They don’t seem as if they’re seriously concerned about the country’s direction.

***
In addition to captain of the otaku and head of the Junior Jaycees, a third description of Aso Taro might be the best one of all. After observing Mr. Aso in action years ago, the late former Prime Minister Takeshita Noboru remarked:

“He’s like a man on stilts.”

***
Please don’t get the impression, by the way, that I’m singling out the aged bon-bons of Japan. People of this type can be found in politics the world over, and two who come immediately to mind are Al Gore, who grew up in the Washington D.C. hotel rooms of his Senator father, and Ted Kennedy.

To the credit of the Japanese, at least the LDP mudboaters didn’t throw a tantrum that threw their country into turmoil as Al Gore did when he lost an election in Florida—several times, in fact—after first trying to steal it. Nor did it cause them to go so far off the deep end that they morphed into the political equivalent of a Bible Belt evangelist darkly warning that global warming meant the end of the world was nigh. And just as some of those preachers are revealed as hypocrites when their sexual liaisons come to light, so too does Mr. Gore show his true colors by purchasing offsets for his immense carbon footprint from a company in which he has an ownership stake.

Nor did any of the Japanese politicians–as far as we know—get drunk and drive off a bridge with a staffer/girlfriend in the car, leave her to die trapped underwater, and spend the better part of a day trying to find a fall guy and getting his story straight before calling the police. How lucky for him that his money and family name eliminated the possibility of a jail term for criminally negligent homicide.

***
And lest the DPJ supporters start indulging in schadenfreude over the rapidly imploding LDP, a word of caution is in order that their time will come too.

More than one serious Japanese journalist thinks former DPJ (and Liberal Party, and New Frontier party) boss Ozawa Ichiro’s eventual aim is to use Hatoyama Yukio as a vehicle to take power, break up the DPJ, and realign Japanese politics more in accordance with his own tastes.

Even if that scenario is a flight of fancy or never comes to pass, the LDP’s incipient collapse and shift to the opposition gives it a head start on rearranging itself into more workable groups–something the DPJ is also going to have to do, soon or late, willing or not.

***
But let’s be fair–Hatoyama Kunio does have his movements of lucidity. He’s been recently quoted as saying that it would be hell to leave the LDP and hell to stay in the party.

He should have extended his analogy. It will be hell if the LDP retains power and hell if it doesn’t. But since a trip through Hades is both inevitable and necessary, getting through the flames as quickly as possible means that the first step should be taken as quickly as possible.

Posted in History, Imperial family, Politics | Tagged: , , , , | 6 Comments »

The DPJ and the pero-guri pol

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, July 18, 2009

IT SOMETIMES SEEMS as if the only person with the skills required to describe Japanese politics today would have been the novelist Charles Dickens–and sometimes it seems even he wouldn’t have been up to the task.

Tanaka Yasuo

Tanaka Yasuo

For example, spearheading the drive for the devolution of governmental authority are Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru and Miyazaki Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo, two Dickensian characters who have parleyed their celebrity into a national soapbox to present the case for stronger local governments. The former is an attorney turned television performer, and the latter was a television comedian associated with Beat Takeshi, himself a famous comic and film director under his real name of Kitano Takeshi. The nation’s mass media are happy to give the TV veterans and audience favorites that soapbox, and the pair are just as happy with the chance to perch themselves on top and promote their cause while indulging their inner publicity hounds.

Working in a loose alliance, they’ve had a significant role in shaping the parameters of the national political dialogue this year with a potentially landmark lower house election due next month. But constant media attention and popular support is a dangerous combination that can drive anyone over the top. Over the past month, Mr. Hashimoto might finally have found the adult supervision he needed, while Mr. Higashikokubaru did indeed go over the top, but we’ll save that for later.

Of interest this week was the sudden reemergence of the celebrity governor who foreshadowed nearly a decade ago the appearance of the Dynamic Duo on the national political radar. That would be Tanaka Yasuo, an award-winning and best-selling novelist, governor of Nagano for six turbulent years, and now a national at-large delegate in the upper house of the Diet for his vanity party, New Party Nippon.

Mr. Tanaka has agreed to act as an electoral assassin for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan by running in Hyogo’s 8th district against incumbent Fuyushiba Tetsuzo of New Komeito, who has a Dickensian background of his own. Mr. Fuyushiba began his lower house career as a member of Komeito in 1986, switched to the New Frontier Party in 1994, served as a party official when former DPJ head Ozawa Ichiro led the group, and then switched back to New Komeito when it reorganized in 1998. He later served as New Komeito’s secretary-general, but resigned that post in 2006 to serve for two years as the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport.

With his New Frontier Party background, Mr. Fuyushiba might be considered an Ozawan-style conservative, if that concept still has any meaning. Like the DPJ, he supports voting rights in local elections for those people of Korean ancestry born in Japan who choose to retain Korean citizenship. Yet the DPJ, depending on who’s doing the interpreting, is either trying to eliminate New Komeito as a political force because Mr. Ozawa detests them, or making them an offer they can’t refuse to have them defect from the ruling coalition with the Liberal Democratic Party. But let’s get back to Mr. Tanaka.

The incumbent might seem to be in a strong position. New Komeito is backed by Soka Gakkai, the lay Buddhist group. The membership of that group is said to have a relatively high proportion of Japanese-born Korean citizens, as does the population of Hyogo.

Mr. Tanaka might be able to overcome these disadvantages because he is well-known in the area for his hands-on volunteer work during the recovery from the 1995 Hanshin-Awaji earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people. He told the Sankei Shimbun that those volunteer activities opened his eyes to the necessity for changing politics and society. He added, “I want to create a type of politics with a close connection to the local residents, and destroy the vested interests of rule by the bureaucracy.” And this is definitely a year for the anti-incumbents.

La vie est belle

La vie est belle

What would Dickens make of him? He wrote a best-selling novel while still a university student, as did the granddaddy of celebrity governors, Ishihara Shintaro—with whom he is engaged in a long-running feud.

After a career as a novelist and critic, and recording one LP as a singer, Mr. Tanaka became involved in community grassroots activities. He spent six months helping the earthquake victims and then campaigned against the construction of the Kobe Airport. He was asked to run as the governor of Nagano, where he lived as a child after his father began teaching at Shinshu University. He originally declined, saying that he thought he could be more effective outside politics, but changed his mind.

Sui generis is the only term to use to describe his politics. He favors stronger local government, but is opposed to municipal mergers, particularly in remote areas. He is an anti-bureaucracy reformer who was blood-in-the-eye-angry over former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s privatization of Japan Post, citing as his reason concerns that the measure would allow foreign interests to purchase it. Though he is known to have a personal relationship to some degree with Ozawa Ichiro, he dislikes both the LDP and the DPJ and calls himself an “ultra-independent”. He dismisses both the major parties as “department stores”, staffed by personnel seconded from business and industry groups in the case of the former, and labor unions in the case of the latter. He is critical of the influence of what he calls the Labor Aristocracy in the DPJ.

Mr. Tanaka also says he combines the best qualities of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, though it isn’t clear if he knows what they actually did, or is attracted to what he perceives as their image. He has somewhat nativist tendencies—the URL for his party’s website includes the string “love-nippon”–and he thinks that Japan should stake out a more independent international position. Yet he is also well-known for his taste in foreign automobiles, particularly Audis and BMWs. He rejects the label anti-American, preferring to refer to himself as a critic of America. (The Japanese expression he uses is the difficult-to-translate 諫米, if anyone wants to take a crack at it.) But he strongly supported Bill Clinton and redoubled that support after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. (We shall see the probable reason for that shortly.)

He ran for governor in Nagano after his predecessor became embroiled in scandals, which parallels Higashikokubaru Hideo’s entry into prefectural politics. He campaigned in opposition to unnecessary public sector projects, most notably a local dam. He was opposed by every political group except the Communist Party, as well as local legislators. But he was one of the few people in the country to understand and act on the hunger of the Japanese electorate for anti-establishment politicians. Assisted by the publicity that a friendly national media provided, he won the election and assumed office in 2000.

The media coverage lavished on his administration very much prefigured that now bestowed on Mr. Hashimoto and Mr. Higashikokubaru. At one point his approval ratings were slightly above 90%, outdoing even the other two, whose ratings still languish at the 80% level.

Tanaka Yasuo 3

Mr. Tanaka recently sat for a long interview with the Sankei Shimbun, but his scattered line of thought makes it too difficult to describe concisely what he said, much less translate. Let’s look instead at this interview from four years ago in the Japan Times. It too is scattershot, combining a serious discussion of legitimate issues, grandiose unsupported statements, and more holes than a pound of sliced Swiss cheese. There are too many hard truths to keep it from being useless, but too many flaws that prevent it from being important. Complicating matters is an amateurish interviewer who seems more interested in producing hagiography than bringing to the attention of a non-Japanese audience a man who then was a nationally prominent politician. It all starts with the second sentence.

After converting his private office into a glass-walled room to make his work as transparent as possible…

Excellent PR, isn’t it? “I have nothing to hide.” It also screams, “Hey, everybody, look at me!” The glass substantiated one of the most common criticisms of Tanaka—that he’s nothing more than a publicity hound.

It’s puzzling why a journalist would be making positive references to the glass-walled room at that point in his term. Not long after he became governor, Mr. Tanaka demonstrated his transparency by entertaining a female television personality in this office. They shared a drink together while she sat on his lap. The glass walls made it easy for someone to take their photo and send it to a weekly magazine, which promptly published it. That embarrassed the people of his prefecture, who probably expected him to behave like most politicians and dally somewhere other than his office on his own time. For Mr. Tanaka, however, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Gov. Yasuo Tanaka defiantly declared “No More Dams” in a direct counter to the local economy’s heavy reliance on public works projects at the expense of ecological concerns. He also abolished the traditional, self-serving press club system in his prefecture.

Here we give the man credit where credit is due—Japan could use more governors (and prime ministers) who pursue the same policies, even when the ecology isn’t a consideration. He brings up other worthwhile points in the interview.

Besides tackling local politics, the flamboyant 49-year-old devotes his time to writing columns for magazines and criticizing and analyzing national and local politics on radio and television programs. He is also a well-known restaurant critic….When he was still a student at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo in 1980, he received the prestigeous Bungei Award for his novel “Nantonaku Kurisutaru (Somewhat Like Crystal).”

But he hasn’t written a worthwhile novel since then. He has, however, written a regular column for a magazine called The Pero-Guri Diaries. Here’s how Time Magazine explained it a few years ago:

“To understand Yasuo Tanaka, you need a piece of slang you won’t find in any Japanese-English dictionary. Pero-guri is a phrase Tanaka coined himself to describe the sexual act. More specifically, his sexual acts. It’s an onomatopoeic word, the pero coming from the slang pero-pero, which means to lick. The guri comes from guri-guri, which means to grind….Tanaka is Governor of Japan’s mountainous Nagano prefecture, west of Tokyo, but he’s also a writer, specializing in autobiographical pero-guri tales, which reveal a predilection for flight attendants, married women and fine champagne.

“‘Appointment with Mrs. U. Nap at Park Hyatt. The entire floor must have heard us. Midnight. She goes home to her husband… Dom Perignon at Roppongi’s Kingyo. Head to Chianti at Iikura for an espresso chaser but end up on the roof of the adjacent building, pero-pero guri-guri with the Tokyo Tower in the back. Her screaming fills the air. Pull out moist wipes from the bag and clean up.’”

Once upon a time, they used to say a gentleman never tells…And leave it to the Japan Times to fail to mention any of this in the interview.

After graduation, Tanaka at first joined the oil giant Mobil, only to leave three months later to pursue his career as a writer.

Tanaka also got married soon after joining Mobil, but got divorced 11 months later to pursue his career as a pero-guri writer.

…in 2002, conservative assemblymen who were upset by Tanaka’s challenge to tradition and decades of pork-barrel politics passed a no-confidence vote against him, and forced him from office.

Yes, they were upset by his challenge to pork-barrel politics…and creating undesirable attention for Nagano Prefecture by drinking in his glass-walled office with celebrities on his lap, his pero-guri tales, and endless self-promotion.

In the ensuing gubernatorial election, however, Tanaka made a successful comeback, thanks to overwhelming popular support.

Showing once again how desperately the Japanese voting public craves a reformer.

Then…he expanded his curriculum vitae yet again when he became leader of New Party Nippon, a new political party founded to challenge Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party in the Sept. 11 general election.

His party mates are strange bedfellows for a reformer—in addition to Mr. Tanaka, the other four members of his party all voted against Mr. Koizumi’s reforms in the Diet. In other words, they are anti-reformers who support the status quo of tradition and pork barrel politics.

At least the other members ran for the Diet, but Mr. Tanaka didn’t. He just went around the country giving interviews about his new party, leaving the citizens of Nagano to shift for themselves in his absence.

Though (the party) is small…

So small, in fact, that they had to “borrow” one member from another party of anti-reformers to meet the minimum requirements for selection in the proportional representation phase of the election.

Tanaka hopes his fledgling party will make a difference in Japan by encouraging people to think twice about Koizumi’s ongoing reform drives, which he believes fall far short of being true reforms.

Though his interview strangely lacks any concrete suggestions for reform.

On to the content:

Many young Japanese can only define themselves by naming the company they work for or the designer brand they wear. Our society is filled with people who can’t objectively describe themselves without the help of company names or brand products.

If I were Mr. Tanaka, I wouldn’t be so quick to complain about people incapable of objectively describing themselves.

Just as I described in my book, Japan is an affluent society with an abundance of material goods, where people have no need to worry about food or clothes. But who can be proud of, or be happy about, being a member of this society?

The basic needs of human beings are food, clothing, and shelter. Despite admitting that Japan is remarkably successful in providing the basics that so many other countries lack and offering an abundance of pero-guri opportunities, Mr. Tanaka thinks this is nothing to be proud of or happy about.

Japan’s debts have increased by 170 trillion yen since [Prime Minister Junichiro] Koizumi took office four years ago. What’s more, 100 people take their own lives each day.

That’s called a non sequitor. He might be able to do something about the first, but he’ll never be able to do anything about the second.

The interviewer, Sayuri Daimon, pipes up:

How can we reform this sick society?

Before you can call it a sick society, Sayuri, you have to show us some of the symptoms. Too much food, shelter, clothing, and pero-guri? Plenty of countries are just waiting to come down with that disease. But if the problem is pork-barrel politics, why is Japan being singled out for an illness that is endemic over the globe?

Back to the governor:

In my case, if someone gives me a hard time, I write or speak publicly about it. So I think people decided not to give me a hard time.

Was that before or after you were removed from office in a no-confidence vote?

Question:
What do you think about Koizumi’s postal reform drive?

Answer 1
Where would the money in the postal savings and postal life insurance go once they were privatized?

Uh, nowhere?

Answer 2:

What happens if a foreign company takes control of the privatized postal savings company and the postal insurance company?

Is his alliance with the anti-reformers beginning to make more sense now?

I think politics should be about what politicians actually say. For example, South American countries may have some political turmoil, but the debates in their parliaments are like an art formed by the politicians’ speeches.

Yes, Japan could learn a lot about parliamentary democracy from the politically stable and economically thriving South American countries.

…in other non-English-speaking countries, such as Thailand, there are foreign-language media that enjoy a leading position in those countries. But in Japan, unless something is reported in Japanese-language newspapers or it appears on Japanese TV, it does not become “evidence” to be taken seriously.

If the foreign-language media in Thailand have a leading position, what does that say about the indigenous media? And how can media that the Thai people—or Japanese people–can’t understand have a leading position?

My current girlfriend doesn’t seem to want to get married.

No surprise there.

Question:

Are you going to run for another term as governor?

Answer:

I will do what the Nagano people want me to do. I want to listen to what people in Nagano say, whether they say I should stay or leave office.

The people of Nagano were already speaking, but he wasn’t listening. As of the date of that interview, Mr. Tanaka had the lowest approval ranking of any Japanese governor. (35% unqualified approval, 40% unqualified disapproval; when combined with those who approve somewhat, his approval rating exceeded 50%)

In fact, he was defeated for reelection the following year in 2006. He began his term as a media favorite, but his stance against the kisha club system that allows major media outlets to monopolize information put the kibosh on that. (More than politics and government needs reforming in Japan.) He certainly didn’t help himself with the prefecture’s voters by neglecting local affairs to start his own political party and get involved in a national campaign. And what can you say about the lack of common sense demonstrated by his failure to escort a female companion to a private spot for a tête-à-tête rather than share a drink with her in his glass-walled office on government property?

Nevertheless, to his credit, he did succeed in producing budget surpluses seven years running and slashing the amount of money required to win bids on local public works projects by making bidding practices more transparent.

Now imagine what will happen if he wins the Hyogo seat and joins an alliance with a government led by the DPJ, whose membership ranges from Nanking Massacre deniers to de facto Socialists looking for a piece of the action instead of holding meetings in coffee shops with the rest of the faux Social Democrats. Team them up with the corrupt petty baron Suzuki Muneo, the paleos of the People’s New Party, and the Social Democrats themselves, and circus will not be the word to describe what ensues.

But even Charles Dickens could not find the words for that.

Afterwords:

Japan’s lax residency requirements for running in an election, which allow Mr. Tanaka to parachute into Hyogo at the last minute (though Ozawa Ichiro claims the decision was made a long time ago) are more conducive to political maneuvering in the back rooms of upscale Tokyo restaurants than they are to serving the people of a particular area.

The longer I’m in Japan, the more I’m convinced that the political class remains stuck in the Warring States Period:

(F)or all practical purposes, Japan by 1467 was in fact 260 separate countries, for each daimyo was independent and maintained separate armies. The political and territorial picture in Japan, then, was highly volatile. With no powerful central administration to adjudicate disputes, individual daimyo were frequently in armed conflict with other daimyo all through the Ashikaga period.

The only way this ends is if the electorate reminds these people just who serves whom and makes them unemployed every time they get the chance to vote.

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

The multiple exposures of early Joseon films

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, July 15, 2009

THOSE FOLKS interested in the history of Japan, Korea, and international cinema have been delighted by the discovery and restoration during the past five years of the first movies filmed in Korea. Made during the period of Japanese colonization/merger, the films were assumed to have been lost. For that matter, most of Japan’s prewar movies also no longer exist, and the Korean finds are rarer still.

The content of the films themselves is intriguing, to say the least. Here’s a quick translation of an article that appeared in Monday’s edition of the Nishinippon Shimbun about a screening and symposium that will be held in Fukuoka City on Saturday. I’ve appended some more information that I found on Japanese-language websites. The word choice in the article follows that of the author, Prof. Shimokawa Masaharu of the Oita Prefectural College of Arts and Culture.

*****

Since 2004, films made on the Korean Peninsula during the latter part of the colonization period that were thought to have been lost have been discovered in the storage areas of the China Film Archives in Beijing and other locations. The Joseon films of the colonization period are referred to as the Dark Age in South Korea, and it’s not just because the country had become an Imperial vassal state. The films themselves were lost, which agonized those people interested in the field and who wanted to study the history of the medium’s development in South Korea. The work to find these films began after 2000, primarily at the Korean Film Archive in Seoul.

Scene from <em>The Crossroads of Youth</em>

Scene from The Crossroads of Youth

What was the truth of the Joseon colony? Was it plundered, or was it developed? That question is the focus of the historical conflict between the two countries, but one has the sense that emotions based on ethnicity have superseded an investigation of the facts. The realism and impact of the movie medium might well have the power to destroy stereotyped historical interpretations. The Joseon films that have been discovered seem to offer a new perspective for research into the colony during the war.

These movies include the oldest extant Joseon talkie, Mimong (迷夢 or Delusion, 1936, Yang Ju-nam, director); Homeless Angels, a story of urban street children, 1941; Volunteers, a story of wartime mobilization (1941, An Seo-yeong, director); and Korean Strait, 1944. They are sold in South Korea in a series of DVDs called The Excavated Past.

When I watched the DVD given to me in October 2007 by someone involved in the project, I was surprised by the unexpected scenes that unfolded before my eyes. Homeless Angels starts with a night scene of streetcars in the thriving downtown area of Jongno, Seoul. Then a barmaid, her patron, and the street children appear. In Springtime on the Peninsula (1941) modern Western buildings rise from within a traditional Korean residential district. All the movies unquestionably show a city in the midst of modernization.

Some scenes are difficult to understand. The female lead in Volunteers is Mun Ye-bong (N.B.: 文芸峰, an obvious stage name; the hanja mean artistic peak). After liberation she became an actress in North Korea. She was 24 at the time of the filming, and her beauty recalls Joseon white chinaware.

The last scene is puzzling. She is seeing off her fiancé, who has volunteered for military service. She picks up a Japanese flag that has fallen in the street and regards it with a cynical smile. The camera moves in for a close-up of her face that continues until the movie ends. The meaning of this scene is not clear. (The scene drew the most attention when it was broadcast on NHK television in the program, Korean-Style Cinema: The remnants of opposition.)

The dialogue in the films was entirely in Japanese after 1944. Before then, the dialogue was a rough mixture of Japanese and Korean. Was the prohibition of the Korean language a policy that was due more to the war than to colonization? That question rises to the surface. The place name 京城 (Keijo) often appears in the movies’ subtitles, but the actors invariably say Seoul. The popular theory that the name Keijo was forced on the people while Seoul was forbidden seems to be false.

Heitai-san (Soldier/honorific, 1944, Bang Han-jun, director) will be shown at Kyushu University in Fukuoka City on the 18th. Its theme of the “prosecution of the holy war” is a continuation of the themes of Volunteers and Korean Strait. This will be the film’s first screening in Japan. Following the movie will be a symposium in which Prof. Choi Gil-sun of the University of East Asia will participate. He holds that these works, which had been dismissed as propaganda films, should be understood in the context of the period and for their policy intent as part of the research into the colony. Arima Manabu of the Research Center for Korean Studies will also participate. He says the rediscovered Joseon films will excite those who want to know more about the Korean colony and Japan in the modern era.

I hope this symposium with the participation of such distinguished researchers is successful.

*****

Prof. Shimokawa seems particularly interested in the films with a wartime text, which is understandable, but some Japanese are drawn to other aspects of the movies. One such focus of attention is the depiction of the emergence of a modern, urban consumer culture in Korea during this period.

One example is the 1934 silent film Crossroads of Youth. This was a major discovery for two reasons. First, it is the oldest known silent Korean film in existence, and it was made at the peak of the silent era on the peninsula. (The first talkie was made in 1935.) Second, it has been reproduced from an original print that had been in private hands since liberation. All the films found in other countries were copies of the originals.

joseon bus riders

The Crossroads of Youth looks at life in Seoul from the perspective of a man and his younger sister who move to the capital from their hometown. The opening scene depicts wealthy young businessmen playing golf.

Director An Jong-hua made 12 films from 1930 to 1960, but this is the first one to have turned up. Part of the film was unrecoverable and only 74 minutes remain. The restoration work was performed in Japan.

Another example is the film Mimong, or Delusion, which is the oldest surviving Korean talkie. Only 48 minutes remain of this remarkable movie.

Mimong tells the story of a middleclass housewife who lives in Seoul with her husband and daughter. Her husband grills her about the details of a visit she made to a downtown department store. Fed up with being treated like a “bird in a cage”, as she puts it, she abandons her family. She later meets another man and moves into a hotel room with him. Not long afterwards, however, her romantic interest shifts to a traditional dancer.

She then makes two discoveries. First, her live-in lover at the hotel is not a man of means, as she had thought. He is actually a delivery boy for a clothes cleaner. Second, she finds out that he has been breaking into other rooms at the hotel to steal the guests’ money and valuables, so she coolly reports him to the police.

After hearing that the dancer has left Seoul, she jumps into a taxicab and directs the driver to take her to Seoul Station. She urges the cabbie to step on it, but he gets reckless and runs over a pedestrian, who turns out to be the woman’s daughter. Shamed by her wicked ways, the woman takes poison at her daughter’s bedside.

Forget the plot line and consider this: Life in Seoul during the period of colonization/merger must not have been so harsh as to prevent the 1930s Joseon version of a Desperate Housewife from having enough money and leisure time to gad about in department stores and taxicabs and hop from bed to bed.

Granted, some of the Depression-era movies made at the same time in the United States depicted a lifestyle beyond the means of the theater patrons. Yet those lifestyles, and other more modest but comfortable lifestyles–in which young married women in the cities could afford to shop in department stores–existed nonetheless.

It’s possible that the heroine of Delusion was a patron of the Seoul branch of the upscale Japanese department store Mitsukoshi, which opened there in 1930. Private sector retail operations don’t expand overseas unless they expect to turn a profit. The woman might even have been one of those in the second illustration who chose to stand and hang on to the strap while riding the bus, rather than sit on an open bench–all the better to show off their new watches and rings.

But here’s the most important point: These films are being openly screened in Japan, available to the public free of charge, and discussed at symposiums by Koreans and Japanese together. Scenes are shown on Japan’s quasi-public television network. The work to restore some of them is being done in Japan. Nor are they subject to a ban in South Korea. Anyone with a DVD player can buy a set, take them home, and watch them.

And no one’s making a big fuss over it, though the Japanese are less prone to public self-congratulation than people in some other countries. The newspaper article ran on page nine, just above the fold on the left-hand side.

Posted in Arts, Films, History, Japanese-Korean amity, Popular culture, South Korea, World War II | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Japan’s political Big Bang, V.2

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, July 14, 2009

WE’VE ALL HEARD THE EXPRESSION about running around like a chicken with its head cut off. That’s derived from the way in which chickens will thrash around the barnyard in a headless state.

After the reports on the radio I heard yesterday morning about how the pols in the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party were taking their party’s defeat in the Tokyo Metro elections on Sunday, I can imagine what it must have been like to see dinosaurs with their heads cut off.

Some thought a lower house election should be called right away, while others were aghast at the prospect. Former Cabinet member Hatoyama “Little Brother” Kunio was uncharacteristically lucid when he said that holding an election now would be like group suicide. Yamasaki Hiraku (AKA Taku), who’s already pushing a petition from within the party to oust Mr. Aso, observed that dissolving the lower house would be fine if the prime minister intended to leave the LDP a burnt-out wasteland. Mr. Yamasaki purposely chose a phrase the Japanese use to describe the state of their cities after the flyovers of Allied bombers during the war.

About an hour later, NHK interrupted their broadcast to announce that Prime Minister Aso had chosen the group suicide/wasteland option after briefly consulting with leaders in the LDP and the party’s New Komeito coalition partners. He’ll dissolve the Diet later this month and scheduled an election for 30 August.

Some reports claim there was shock over the election results in the LDP camp, but surely they jest. Japanese pollsters can add just as well as those elsewhere, particularly the ones hired by the major parties, so they already had to have put two and two together. Not that anyone needed a pollster to know in advance. Indeed, if they really are shocked, they need to be looking for another job, and as soon as possible, please.

Mr. Aso put on a brave face and said the Tokyo Metro results were unrelated to national issues. He plans to campaign on his government’s financial policies, i.e., a promise to be responsible and raise taxes. (The more responsible position would be to eliminate wide swaths of the Nagata-cho and Kasumigaseki Leviathan while cutting some taxes, but I digress.)

He knows that’s nonsense, of course, because his party’s national polls have to be showing the same numbers as the Tokyo results writ large. Does he think he can prevent the opposition Democratic Party of Japan from obtaining a majority and limit them to replacing the LDP as the largest party in the Diet? A DPJ government in an alliance with their motley crew of potential coalition partners would certainly be a chabangeki, the Japanese term for a farce or burlesque. Perhaps the party poobahs are calculating that a DPJ-led coalition government likely to strew its own path with banana peels would cause a voter revulsion and reversion back to the LDP that much sooner.

Or does he and the rest of the party realize that Nagata-cho needs a political realignment, and it won’t start unless the LDP is in the opposition? The party isn’t capable of resolving its internal conflict between the mudboaters and the reformers while it’s still in power, so they can conduct their headchopping out of public view while the DPJ circus occupies center ring.

Reorganizing around philosophical viewpoints rather than personal associations—if that’s what they intend—will be a lot easier after the smoke clears, the bodies are counted, and the identity of the survivors is known next month.

Quo Vadis?

Political predictions in Japan are pointless, which is why I seldom read or write any, but here’s one anyway: The upcoming lower house election will be Part Two of the Japanese political Big Bang, following an interval of more than a decade after Part One and the short-lived Hosokawa administration. Or from a scatological perspective, it will be the second flush of the toilet. There’s still too much residue in the bowl that needs to be sent to the sewer, and political health demands proper hygiene.

With some luck, it just might happen. For example, former Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro is worried about the challenge in his district from ex-tour conductor Tanaka Mieko, who is less than half his age. On the one hand, it was already time for him to go during the 20th century, and I’m of the school that holds we’d get better government by picking names at random from the phone book. Then again, Ms. Tanaka’s voting choices will probably be determined at party headquarters by people who should be shuffling on board the same ferry across the Styx as Mr. Mori.

Here’s something else that shouldn’t be a surprise: DPJ leader Hatoyama Yukio now says a DPJ-led government won’t end the refueling mission in the Indian Ocean for the NATO-backed effort in Afghanistan. That should make some people feel foolish—including some English-language journalists—for taking the party seriously in the fall of 2007 when they tried to leverage Japan’s reputation abroad for petty political advantage at home. There’s a reason the LDP calls on its opponents to pursue policy rather than political crisis, but the Japanese phrase for that is uma no mimi ni nembutsu: Like a sutra in a horse’s ear.

Why should anyone be surprised about their about face when that’s the only dance step they know? Mr. Hatoyama promised to vacate his office to accept responsibility if Ozawa Ichiro resigned as party head, but instead wound up in Mr. Ozawa’s old office less than a week after the resignation. Now that’s a golden parachute! The party also opposed the bill dealing with the Somali pirates, but also said they wouldn’t eliminate it if they formed a government.

And now comes the report that DPJ and three smaller parties will introduce a motion in the upper house to censure Prime Minister Aso, coupled with a no-confidence measure in the lower house. Well, what’s the bleedin’ point, as Basil Fawlty would ask. The man will be gone before autumn. Then again, what’s the bloody point of bothering with serious criticism of the DPJ when they’ve demonstrated the only thing they take seriously is a manufactured political crisis? At least the Koizumi Children—or most of them—behaved like adults.

What to do?

If the LDP had an ounce of wit left in their collective DNA, they’d see the DPJ’s bet and raise it by agreeing with them. They could say yes, we know, but since we’ve already set the election date, we’ll replace Mr. Aso with (Fill in the Name of Plausible Reformer) until the election. That seems to be a longshot now; the members most likely to be interested are heading back to their districts to keep their own necks off the chopping block. Some say one of the men who could lead that effort, Nakagawa Hidenao, is thinking of developing his own platform to position himself and his fellow travelers for an apres-election aligment with Watanabe Yoshimi and other reformers.

Some well-meaning and serious people are urging the citizens to read the political platforms of the parties before deciding how to vote. Now what would be the bleedin’ point of that? It’s obvious even to real children that policy for a DPJ-led government will be an ad hoc affair. Why read their platform when the key point about the DPJ’s behavior regarding the Indian Ocean refueling mission won’t be in it? That might let down the policy wanks, but it isn’t as if there’s anything scientific about “political science”, now is there?

An additional benefit of the upcoming election will be to set the fuse for Part Three of the Japanese political Big Bang, whether it is lit soon or late. Or, to put it another way, there’s so much crap in the system it will take another flush—at least—to get rid of it all.

For the next two months, many in the old and the new media will be making the cyber-welkin ring with unreadable/unwatchable meta-commentary on Japanese politics, but it’s safe to predict they too will miss the bleedin’ point. Flushing away this layer of crap won’t result in a clean toilet bowl: It will just expose the next layer of crap outside the LDP that the older layer has partially obscured until now.

Looks like a job for Ben and Joe the Plumbers!

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

Japan’s Political Kaleidoscope (3): DPJ edition

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, July 12, 2009

THE MOST RECENT JPK focused on the two sides of Aso Taro before “no side” is called for him, which might be sooner than we think. Turnabout being fair play, it’s time to cross the aisle for a look at recent developments with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, a worthy subject for examination if only because they always seem to be on the verge of losing the elastic in their political trousers.

How I spent my summer vacation

The last time we checked in with Kan Naoto, the veteran of nearly 30 years in the Japanese Diet was off to England for a three-day field trip to study the workings of Parliament.

Mr. Kan held a press conference in London to tell the class what he had learned. He said he discovered that the opposition party in Great Britain has a formal meeting with the national bureaucracy before an election to prepare for a smooth handover of power. He asked the Japanese government to permit a meeting of the same type.

“I intend to ask the government to recognize formal contact between the bureaucratic organizations and the party before the next election.”

That’s a good idea, but finding that out required a three-day junket in Westminster? It’s something a junior staffer from the British Embassy in Tokyo could have told him over a two-hour lunch, saving everybody a lot of time and money. Then again, he would have missed seeing the changing of the guards and hearing the chimes of Big Ben. Perhaps he prefers to study using the full immersion technique.

Tails wagging the dog

Awarding seats in the legislature to parties that haven’t won elections using a formula based on the proportion of votes received amplifies their power beyond justification. There are people in every country who believe all sorts of things, but the right to free speech and free thought does not include the right to be taken seriously, much less the right to have a voice in government. The general plot in a democracy is to fashion a rough consensus based on majorities and move in that direction. The only effect fringe elements have on society at large is to cause paralysis or work at cross-purposes with the majority. What else would anyone expect to happen in the world of politics?

As part of its strategy to take control of government, the DPJ formed an alliance with the Social Democratic Party, who represent the flannel-headed death spiral left, as well as the semi-fossilized People’s New Party, who are blocking privatization of unnecessary government ministries and bureaucratic reform.

Many Japanese politicians also realize there’s a problem, and moves are afoot to reduce the number of MPs in both houses of the Diet. (Proportional representation is not the only issue; there are just too many legislators in Japan at all levels of government, period.) Proposals are floating around that call for cuts ranging from 50 to 180 of the lower house legislators. That 180 is an important figure because it’s the number of proportional representation seats in the House of Representatives.

The DPJ adopted a platform plank during the last national election to reduce those seats from 180 to 100, nearly halving the number of proportional representation delegates. But they could afford to be honest since the voters weren’t ready to take them seriously as the head of a national government yet. It’s funny how that changes the closer one gets to power.

The SDP is taking them very seriously, however. They have seven seats in the lower house, only one of which they won outright. The rest are all filled by proportional representation delegates. Eliminating those seats eliminates their voice, such as it is.

So it’s no surprise that their participation in a DPJ-led coalition government is conditioned on maintaining the status quo on proportional representation. Said party head Fukushima Mizuho:

“An electoral system based on one delegate in a winner-take-all district will lead to a two-party system. The Diet requires a multidimensional value system, including small parties.”

Defending this idea inevitably means that one has to defend minority control of the majority, which is anathema to the idea of a democratic government.

Incidentally, it’s worth remembering that the last non-LDP government in Japan fell apart when the Socialists, the previous incarnation of the SDP, bolted the coalition.

Yukio steps in it again

The subject of proportional representation intersected with DPJ party head Hatoyama Yukio’s tendency to babble, particularly where the PNP is concerned.

Said Mr. Hatoyama during an FM radio broadcast:

“Our preference is a coalition with the SDP and PNP until we can take an absolute majority in the upper house election next July.”

The PNP was not amused, and who could blame them? Asked party chief Kamei Shizuka:

“Would anyone get married knowing they’ll divorce in a year?”

From that you can tell pre-nuptial agreements aren’t yet commonplace in Japan.

But Mr. Kamei is more old-fashioned. If you want us to hop into bed in bed with you, he suggested, give us a real kiss instead of a kiss-off.

To show their displeasure, the party postponed a decision on offering their support to 50 candidates in the lower house election proposed by the DPJ.

Mr. Hatoyama offered an excuse:

“My true intent was not conveyed.”

That’s the best he can come up with after 40 years of marriage? Then again, maybe he’s never had to do better. In 1996 it was revealed that he had a mistress in Hokkaido for 10 years, but his wife blamed herself and took him back.

Considering the mood of electorates world-wide and the odds a DPJ administration will belly flop, it might not be such a good idea for them to start counting any badger skins from an upper house election. (The Japanese proverbially warn against counting those pelts rather than unhatched chickens.)

Not all the DPJ Diet reform plans are meeting with opposition from their small-party allies, however. Some are meeting with opposition from DPJ members themselves.

For example, some want to include a measure in the platform reducing the number of upper house seats. Naturally those DPJ members with upper house seats aren’t ready to get on board that train. They say the party is being “too hasty”.

So, what will the party’s latest edition of its “true intent” turn out to be?

Yukio tries to wipe it off

Those who have been following the DPJ hymnbook know that Mr. Hatoyama’s plan for reforming the Japanese bureaucracy is to have everyone at the level of department head or above resign when the party forms a government. They’d be rehired on the condition of signing a loyalty oath pledging to support DPJ policies. Acting Party President Kan Naoto has already begun backing off that one, and now Mr. Hatoyama is sidling away too, though he hasn’t conveyed his true intent yet. He said:

“(When the) current law is unraveled, (we find) it’s difficult from a legal perspective to demote civil service personnel. (So) it’s my understanding this will not necessarily take the form of a written resignation.”

Unraveling that statement leads to the question of what form it could possibly take. Let’s assume they won’t be lined up against the wall, given a last cigarette and blindfold, and shot.

Here’s an idea: Make a phone call to Nakagawa Hidenao of the LDP and tell him you’ll support his bill to make it easier to demote civil servants as well as outlaw the revolving employment door for retired bureaucrats. He’s got more than 100 signatures on the bill, and he said he wrote it specifically to get DPJ backing. If you worked together, it would easily pass both houses.

That’s assuming you’re serious, of course.

Manifestly devolving

The DPJ has formulated the outline for a new platform a plank on devolution. It’s seen as a nod to the ideas (and more importantly, the popularity) of Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru, surely with the intent of capturing his support in the election. The party claims it will promote a great shift of authority to local government by 2013, their fourth year in office, if they’re still there.

They plan on eliminating the prefectural government liability for local agencies of central government enterprises, which is near the top of Mr. Hashimoto’s wish list. Also included for elimination are grants with strings attached to specific agencies.

The party hopes this will neutralize the authority of the central bureaucracy and the influence of the zokugi-in, those legislators sitting in the Diet who serve as the handmaidens of the individual ministries by acting as their de facto in-house lobbyists.

They’ve also ditched Ozawa Ichiro’s idea to reorganize local government around 300 units, which Mr. Hashimoto and the National Association of Towns and Villages opposed. In its place they’ve offered up a vague program for basic local governmental units (usually municipalities in most countries) with authority equal to that of prefectures. They promised to “think about” the state/province system, an LDP idea that is already halfway down the runway, and which Mr. Hashimoto likes.

In fact, DPJ bigwig Okada Katsuya visited the Osaka governor and played up to him by suggesting a state could be created in the Kinki region. Mr. Hashimoto says he will “cheer on”, rather than endorse, a party in the upcoming election, so perhaps Mr. Okada thinks that flattery will get him everywhere.

Never underestimate the power of a local politician from a populous region with poll ratings north of 80%!

Political indoctrination of children Public school education

Koshi’ishi Azuma, one of the troika of DPJ acting presidents with Ozawa Ichiro and Kan Naoto, addressed the Supreme Soviet general meeting of the Japan Teachers’ Union, held at Social Democratic Party headquarters in Tokyo. Mr. Koshi’ishi is one of seven DPJ legislators to have a Socialist Party background, and he formerly headed the JTU-affiliated Yamanashi teachers’ union. Once a Red, always a Red, eh?

You think I exaggerate? Last month Mr. Koshi’ishi said at a press conference:

“Rather than inspecting North Korean ships, we should inspect the Aso Cabinet.”

As he frequently does, Mr. Koshi’ishi spoke about the relationship between politics and education:

“There is no such thing as education without politics.”

Well, that clears that up. The JTU criticism of the use of innocuous patriotic gestures in the schools, such as singing the national anthem, is so habitual as to be knee-jerk. Now we know it’s not because it injects politics into education, but rather because it injects the politics they dislike into education—i.e., they’d rather sing the Internationale.

Koshi'ishi Azuma

Koshi'ishi Azuma

But there was no mystery about what he thought to begin with. The Yamanashi union got caught a few years ago squeezing contributions from primary and junior high school teachers for his election campaign, and they even had teachers working the phone banks to bug voters at home. The teachers themselves admitted the money went into a dummy bank account for Mr. Koshi’ishi, who wound up with JPY 3 million.

At another JTU meeting in Tokyo in January, he said:

“It is not possible to be politically neutral in education…We will change education through politics.”

Statements such as these skate close to the edge of violating the Japanese laws regarding politics and education, and–let’s face it–are a de facto pledge to indoctrinate students.

The Japanese electorate might be desperate for a change of government, but it’s unlikely this is what they have in mind. Most of the DPJ rank and file probably don’t care for it either, but that’s the price they pay for trying to paste together unwieldy coalitions.

As an example of how far the DPJ is willing to follow the JTU party line, they said they would abolish the JTU-opposed supplementary reader on morality, Kokoro no Noto (Notebook of the Heart), of which several editions are used in primary and junior high schools. It would save JPY 300 million ($US 3.24 million), which admittedly is a bit steep.

Developed by a psychologist, the book is very easy to read, is written in a soft and fuzzy tone, and talks about the importance of working for a living, raising a family, and becoming a responsible citizen. In other words, it’s as controversial as vanilla ice cream.

But here are the objections raised at one website:

“For example, about working, the reader includes such sentences as, ‘When do you get the feeling that you have worked? Is it when you’ve studied? Is it when you’ve come home from school?’, and ‘Working is not only for your own sake, but also for contributing to society.’

“We think that tries to whitewash the idea of working. Considering the reality of employment in Japan today, some children are not able to have a satisfying life at school because of the burden they feel from their parents (having lost their jobs) due to restructuring.”

No, I did not make that up.

Their real beef, however, is probably to be found on the page about patriotism (the only one) that appears later in the book. Here’s the complete and unexpurgated version of how one reader treats the subject:

“If you extend the feeling of loving your hometown outward
It will connect with the feeling of loving Japan.
The feeling of loving this country where we live
And wishing for its development is perfectly natural.
But, how much about this country do we know?
We should have a thorough knowledge of Japan now and renew our awareness of its splendid traditions and culture.
When seeing the excellence of this country, and passing on its merits to the future,
Loving Japan as a member of international society, and as one of the people on the Earth,
Must not be the narrow and exclusionary glorification of one’s country.
Loving this country will connect with loving the world.”

Mark my words! If they force Japanese junior high school kids to read this propaganda, before you know it they’ll want to start marching into the Korean Peninsula again!

Is it any surprise that people who think Aso Taro is a criminal and Kim Jong-il should skate would respond to the sentiments in the above excerpt like Dracula to a cross?

Look for a lot of Ministry of Education news to be generated in the event of a DPJ victory.

Grave robbers

Now that we’re on the subject of people who sleep in coffins, what is it with necrophilia and Democratic Parties? The Democratic Party of the Daley machine in Chicago (where Barack Obama learned whatever it is he knows about politics) has long been the butt of jokes for having perfected the technique of counting the graveyard vote. It’s part of the American political folklore that the Illinois ballots cinching the White House for Richard Nixon in 1960 are in a cement-weighted chest at the bottom of Lake Michigan.)

Now it turns out that the Democratic Party of the Hatoyama machine in Hokkaido modified the grave robbing technique by having the dearly departed donate money to DPJ President Hatoyama Yukio rather than rise up and vote for him.

Good idea. The write-in ballot is used in Japan, and that could get messy.

The Asahi Shimbun reported on 16 June that from 2003 to 2007, at least five very still people contributed an aggregate of 1.2 million yen on 10 occasions to Mr. Hatoyama’s personal political fund raising group. When contacted, relatives of four of the five said WTF? and the fifth said he wasn’t sure. Perhaps he needs to conduct a séance.

When asked about it at a press conference, Mr. Hatoyama said he would look into it right away. He also said:

“I’m surprised, because it was completely unexpected.”

What was unexpected? Getting caught, or getting money from dead people?

Then a curious thing occurred—several other media outlets, including the Yomiuri Shimbun, the Kyodo news agency, and weekly magazines, started matching up obituary columns with Mr. Hatoyama’s list of donors. The original list swelled to 90 corpses (or the urns containing their ashes) who donated up to JPY 21.77 million (about $US 235,000) in 193 instances.

And here we thought all the zombies were in the LDP!

The DPJ boss asked his attorney to investigate. The lawyer came back to report that the donations were derived from JPY 10 million which Mr. Hatoyama had entrusted to an aide if political funds ran short. The aide was embarrassed that he wasn’t able to shake down enough people, so he used those funds to cover for it. The report quotes the aide:

“I should have asked for donations in person but I neglected to do so. So I repeatedly made false accounts (in the political fund reports).”

Said Mr. Hatoyama:

“I assume that since there was so few donations from individuals for me, (the aide) thought it would be embarrassing if the fact came into light.”

The DPJ wants everyone to think that settles it.

The party—which submitted a bill to the Diet for amending the political campaign law to prohibit corporate donations after their former chief Ozawa Ichiro’s fund-raising group got caught taking illegal contributions from a construction company—refuses to cooperate with a Diet investigation of the matter. Said Okada Katsuya:

“(Hatoyama Yukio) has fulfilled his responsibility to explain.”

But wait!

There’s a lot that hasn’t been explained. For starters, if Mr. Hatoyama gave all that money to his aide to cover expenses, which the aide diverted to graveyard donations, why didn’t he ask the aide for a yearend accounting of the money provided? You know–follow normal business practices. If he’s that cavalier with his own money, how will he be with the national treasury?

“There’s something wrong here someplace.”
- Bo Diddley, Ooh Baby

But another question remained unanswered: What shortfall in donations? Mr. Hatoyama said the aide was embarrassed over the lack of money collected, but that wouldn’t be the appropriate word for the amount of individual donations the DPJ leader received, unless it was used in the context of an embarrassment of riches.

According to Mr. Hatoyama’s political fund reports between 2003 and 2007, he received from 50 million yen to 110 million yen annually in individual donations.

Further, the Mainichi Shimbun reported that during the 10 years from 1998 to 2007, Mr. Hatoyama received JPY 590 million yen (about $US 6.37 million) in political largesse. (Remember that he represents just a single legislative district.) Rather than having a shortage of fund raising, his committee brought forward money at the end of every fiscal year.

But wait!

Even subtracting the JPY 21.78 million in dead man money from the total, Mr. Hatoyama scraped up far more that of other DPJ and LDP leaders in recent years, including former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Ozawa Ichiro himself. And Mr. Ozawa was getting money from construction companies.

The annual political contributions to other LDP and DPJ party presidents averaged JPY 1.40 million during that same time period, a paltry amount in comparison.

And of those donations to Mr. Hatoyama less than JPY 50,000 ($US 540), which is the level at which tax deductions kick in, 60% were from anonymous contributors. In 2003, at least 1,500 of the quick rather than the dead made these small donations without stating their names or addresses.

A useful contrast is the individual contributions given to blueblood Aso Taro, whose family is so fabulously wealthy he pretends to read comic books to acquire the common touch. They exceeded JPY 10 million only once, and anonymous donations accounted for less than 10% of the total.

Mr. Hatoyama is on the record as calling for greater use of tax-exempt contributions to encourage individuals to give money to candidates, yet he is the undisputed champ for pulling in small anonymous contributions that aren’t eligible for tax deductions.

The law states that individuals can contribute a maximum of 10 million a year. Did Mr. Hatoyama and his supporters employ anonymous donations that wouldn’t show up on tax statements to get around the law?

But wait!

In addition to dead people, it also turns out that the DPJ president also hauls in a substantial amount of swag from local legislators at the prefectural and municipal level. He’s the official representative of a DPJ district level group in Hokkaido that receives hundreds of thousands of yen annually from local pols, and an aggregate of JPY 16.50 million over five years.

What’s so unusual about that? One Diet member from the LDP–you know, the money politics party–said that he had never heard of local politicians donating to the campaigns of national politicians before.

But wait!

The local politicians have a tendency to give their money to Mr. Hatoyama on 25 December. That’s not a public holiday in Japan, but it’s still an unusual coincidence. Christmas in 2005 fell on a Sunday, yet that’s the day the fund-raising group reported receiving the cash-stuffed envelopes in its stocking. Ho ho ho!

Is the group visiting the homes of local politicians in Santa suits picking up individual donations on Christmas Sundays?

Or, in addition to their mobilization of the deceased, does the DPJ share with their American counterparts a puerile sense of humor? What will the party try next, a dead flower hanami?

But wait!

There were 26 local legislators who gave money to the group in 2007—Christmas Day again—and all of them received the documents issued by the government permitting their donations to be deducted from their income tax. The local DPJ explained that the donations were a substitute means for offseting party expenditures. But party expenditures are not eligible for income tax deductions, so if they received deductions, they broke the law.

The contributions ranged from JPY 18,000 to JPY 264,000.

There’s even more!

Another political support group for Mr. Hatoyama based in Muroran, Hokkaido, reported JPY 0 ($US 0.00) in operating expenses on their financial statements for the three-year period starting in 2005. The DPJ explained that their president’s main group paid the office’s rent and phone bill. They said the other group was just a volunteer body created to organize and hold events, that it had no employees, and that it didn’t use the offices every day.

It turns out, however, that the volunteer group’s offices are in a building owned by Mr. Hatoyama’s mother. Of course the LDP pointed out that the recording of zero expenditures is eccentric bookkeeping, and that if his mother let them use the offices rent-free, it should be considered a political donation.

Ooh, baby. Bo knows. There’s something wrong here someplace.

Haven’t these people learned how to deal with revelations of unpleasant facts yet?

It doesn’t matter if the media is discovering this on its own, or if sources within the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy are feeding them the information now to derail any civil service reform before it leaves the station.

It’s all going to come out now. Trying to stall in the Diet by saying it’s already been explained isn’t convincing anybody.

Just hold your nose while we hold ours, take the medicine, and get it over with.

Posted in Education, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments »

Amae, amas, amat…

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, July 11, 2009

“JOURNALISM LARGELY CONSISTS of saying ‘Lord Jones is Dead’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive,” observed G.K. Chesterton, and that corresponds all too well to the reports earlier this week of the death of Dr. Doi Takeo. A psychoanalyst, Dr. Doi developed and presented first to Japan and then to the world his theories on the role of amae in the Japanese psyche and cultural behavior. As the obituaries noted, people consider him to have been the first Japanese trained in psychiatry to influence Western psychiatric thought.

Those with an interest in psychiatry and in Japan knew his work well. When I studied Japanese at university, it was considered de rigeur to have read Dr. Doi’s book, Amae no Kozo (The Anatomy of Dependence). For everyone else, however, Dr. Doi might as well have been Lord Jones, and that’s how the English-language press treated his passing.

That treatment is something of a tragedy, because his work and the concepts he presented offered an important new perspective for Japanese to understand themselves and for foreigners to understand them. Perhaps that’s shikata ga nai, as the Japanese say; it can’t be helped. The interest of the lumpen readership in either Japan or psychiatry is limited, and the concept of amae is difficult to understand for anyone not familiar with Japanese society. In fact, I suspect it would be next to impossible to understand unless one were Japanese or had lived in Japan for several years and paid close attention to what was going on.

Amae defined

Dr. Doi used the word amae because there’s no real English equivalent. Indeed, it is said to be a back formation he coined himself from the verb amaeru. The underlying emotions, said Dr. Doi, are instinctual and present in every society, but the Japanese have a greater awareness of those emotions because they have specific words to describe them. Thus, Western terminology is insufficient to describe the Japan psyche. That further complicates the understanding of subtle concepts difficult to describe and prone to misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

One trustworthy source translates amae as “dependency wishes”, in which a person relies on the love, patience, and/or tolerance of other people or groups who form the other pole of an emotional relationship. Dr. Doi himself described it as presuming on another’s love, basking in another’s indulgence, or indulging in another’s kindness. Right away, that definition causes problems with misinterpretation. Westerners often view relationships and emotional dependence of that sort in a negative light. Dependency is to be outgrown because it is a manifestation of weakness and childishness.

That view does not predominate in Japan, however. The word amae has the same root as the word amai, or sweet, imparting a positive sense that makes it impossible to render into a single English word or phrase. In that spirit, the name of his book could also have been rendered literally as The Structure of Amae. Translators know better than anyone that converting from one language to another is not the same as handling an algebraic equation.

Amae in everyday life

A Freudian, Dr. Doi postulated that the origin of amae lies in the restoration of the lost mother-and-child union, a relationship that might be considered even more important in Japan than elsewhere. He then used it as a way to describe the dynamics of different relationships in adult life, including those between parent and child (in which amae is present even after children become adults), husband and wife, teacher and pupil, patron and acolyte, master and apprentice, and even feudal lord and samurai.

In many instances, the one-way direction of this relationship is only temporary, and in other cases, the dynamics move in both directions. People often use as an example of amae women indulging in emotional dependence on men, but that works in reverse from men to women as well. Also, pupils grow up to become teachers, and apprentices grow up to be masters. While Westerners may consider dependency a weakness, in Japan amae can strengthen the social fabric through a relationship between two people or among a larger group of people.

Dr. Doi used the concept to explain the importance in Japan of developing a rapport or relationship that transcends the feeling of simpatico, in which there is merging, or tokekomu. He held that amae helped explain the blurring of the distinction between subject or object—or self and other—in Japan, and why the notions of privacy and individual rights were different here than elsewhere.

He extended his theory by using it to explain the Japanese dislike of cut-and-dried logic, frequently referred to as “fart logic” (herikutsu), the nature of long-term business relationships, and the importance of nonverbal communication.

Giri-ninjo

Another layer of complexity was added by his application of amae to examine the contrasting feelings of giri, or obligations in social relationships, and ninjo, or human emotions—in other words, the conflict between what one should do or has to do, with what one would naturally want to do. This issue is a much greater part of both the daily dialogue and general cultural discussion in Japan than elsewhere. In Japan, Dr. Doi claimed, ninjo is characterized by both using and responding to amae, while giri is infused by ninjo.

While giri may seem to be an unpleasant burden that Westerners might prefer to shuck as soon as it becomes convenient, the Japanese recognize it as an important social lubricant. Unlike ninjo, it is not universal, so it is restricted to specific relationships. It can involve helping those who help you and returning favors to those who do one favors. People neglect these obligations at the risk of their social standing.

Of course these same obligations are present in the West, but they seem to have an added dimension here. Try giving an unexpected present, no matter how insignificant, to a Japanese with whom you are on friendly terms and watch what happens.

This side up

There’s still more. One of the first things a foreign student of Japan learns is that it is a vertical society, rather than a horizontal one. Dr. Doi claimed that amae was the reason for the prevalence of vertical integration in Japan to begin with.

Incidentally, the Japanese themselves are aware that vertical structures can be inefficient and frequently discuss them as an obstacle rather than an advantage. For example, people often criticize the excessive verticalization of the governmental bureaucracy when discussing ways to reform the system. Some think it was one reason for the poor performance of the military command structure during the war. That might provide a hint why bureaucratic reform has been so difficult to achieve–how does one change the natural default position of everyone’s emotional structure?

Those who disagree

Naturally, these theories were, and are, wide open to criticism. All the Japanese with whom I’ve discussed the book said that while they thought it was essentially accurate, the doctor tried to stretch the concept too far by applying it to every aspect of life. Perhaps that’s to be expected of pioneers anxious to spread the awareness of new ideas they’ve developed.

Some of this might also be dated. Dr. Doi was born in 1920 and formulated his theories after a psychological culture shock while visiting the United States in 1950s. For example, he thought that the phrase “help yourself” was rude. He assumed it meant “no one will help you”, when it actually means “do as you like”. (Let’s also not forget that some Westerners raise their children by emphasizing “no one will help you” as a way to inculcate self-reliance.)

Lately, however, it seems that some of these tendencies might be disappearing. Perhaps this is most apparent in the way that single women now deal with men. In passing, it should be noted that people often fail to consider just how fast Japan is able to change or adapt to change, and yet retain its stability. This was still a feudal society fewer than 150 years ago, and it is astonishing how quickly it has incorporated concepts for which it took hundreds of years to evolve in the West. Thus, it’s not surprising that emotional structures in place for more than a millenium might melt in the space of a few decades.

One of Dr. Doi’s Western critics was Peter Dale, whose book The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness no longer seems to be in print. (None of the on-line descriptions I found of Mr. Dale’s objections cite his qualifications, though he must have had some.)

Dale dismissed the whole concept as belonging to the class of ideas known as nihonjinron, or theories on the Japanese people. That was once a thriving cottage industry for the presentation of claims that the Japanese were unique, which itself gave rise to another thriving cottage industry for the snorters offended by those claims.

More specifically, Dale criticized Dr. Doi for irrationally expanding the meanings of common Japanese words to convey the idea of uniqueness. He compared it to the prewar twisting of such words as kokutai (national polity) and kokusui (national essence) for propaganda purposes.

One can imagine the criticism that would have erupted had Dr. Doi analyzed the Japan-U.S. relationship through the prism of amae.

The problems of nihonjinron

Discussions of nihonjinron from either perspective have always seemed like a waste of time. First, it has little or no practical application for anyone’s life in Japan, regardless of nationality, giving the whole enterprise an airy-fairy quality. Second, some of the ideas are grounded in the social sciences, whose limits tend to be reached very quickly. Third, the debate attracts the type of people who think intellectual discussion consists of inflated claims informed by emotional predispositions, again from either perspective, and who enjoy it for that reason. We’ve all heard it said that academic arguments are so ferocious because there is so little at stake. Is it a coincidence that many of those involved seem to be either the overeducated or people who insufficiently digested what education they did receive? Given a choice, I’ll take in vito over in vitro every time.

Not to be overlooked is that those who most intensely argue against nihonjinron often use it as a vehicle for their real motive—Japan-bashing. And in turn, Japan bashing is often a vehicle for lashing out at some demon in one’s personal background entirely unrelated to Japan. Perhaps more Japanese should consider developing the field of gaijinron as it concerns foreigners’ views of them.

Nor should we overlook that those most scornful of nihonjinron somehow fail to notice the libraries full of arguments claiming a similar uniqueness for the Americans, the English, the French, the Germans, the Russians, the Chinese, the Koreans, and scores of small tribes throughout the world known only to their neighbors and anthropologists.

So who was Lord Jones?

A website post cannot do justice to all the issues required to fully examine a concept as important and as difficult to grasp as amae, both pro and con. That’s why journalists might honestly struggle to describe for use as corner space filler the life and ideas of Dr. Doi–a Japanese Lord Jones whom the public did not know, and whose reputation was formed in a different era for a subject with which few people are conversant and even fewer would want to be.

So how did they handle it? Here’s one example from AP (emphasis mine):

Takeo Doi, a scholar who wrote that the Japanese psyche thrived on a love-hungry dependence on authority figures, has died, his family said Monday. Doi…wrote the 1971 book, “The Anatomy of Dependence,” which introduced the idea of “amae” – a childlike desire for indulgence - as key to understanding the Japanese mind.

One wonders just how many people in journalism—helplessly watching their credibility vanish, their market shares vaporize, and their stockholders hit the silk—realize that much of the public has grown to detest them for the habitual and intentional professional malpractice the above excerpt demonstrates. There is no question that the person who wrote that–and I don’t care what her name was–deliberately chose the most unflattering way to describe the man’s work.

One also wonders if the journalists realize that for the same disgusted public, watching them commit suicide is an opportunity to pop some corn and crack open a beer. It’s obvious to those of us familiar with Japan that the journalists assigned to cover this country are (pick one or more) superficial, ignorant, incompetent, eager to play off negative stereotypes, or ready to create new ones. They have an attitude of charity towards none and malice towards all.

If all your information about Japan is derived from the Western mass media, then everything you know about Japan is wrong.

Afterwords: I was curious about the statement that Dr. Doi coined the noun amae (it’s been a while since I read the book), so I did a quick check of Japanese-Japanese dictionaries. The word does not appear in the 1984 edition of Kojien, which was the standard reference in those days, but it is defined in Sanseido’s 1984 Reikai Shinkokugo Jiten. That dictionary was compiled for younger students, but it has excellent examples and concise definitions that are useful even for adults. There’s now a fourth edition, and I highly recommend it for foreign students of the Japanese language.

Posted in Books, Language, Mass media, Science and technology, Traditions | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

Open letter to Yosano Kaoru

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, July 9, 2009

To: Yosano Kaoru, Minister of Finance, Liberal Democratic Party headquarters
From: Ampontan, c/o This Website
In re: Your criticism of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan’s new platform

Mr. Yosano:

The Asahi Shimbun account of your recent speech in Unnan, Shimane, in which you slammed the DPJ platform, contained some most interesting quotes.

For example:

“It’s mostly a world of pipe dreams and trompe l’oeil.”

And:

“It makes me think even the Communist Party is more serious.”

I agree completely. It is a world of pipe dreams and optical illusions, and considering how they hold fast to their core beliefs, the Communist Party of Japan is more serious (despite offering even stronger opiates and more distorted optical illusions). Then again, at least they have party-wide core beliefs to hold fast to.

In fact, I suspect that most of the Japanese electorate would agree with you too. The DPJ’s policies are a weird blend of the childish and the cynical, are they not? No one in Japan believes their numbers—least of all themselves—and the internal contradictions of the platform show a disrespect for both the electorate and the political process. In some ways, it does border on the criminal, as a Kyodo report quoted you as saying.

And bringing up the Communists is apropos, because the DPJ platform is a bit Bolshie in places, isn’t it?

For example, the Asahi report said you specifically mentioned the DPJ policy of giving income supplements to individual farm families, after which you commented:

“You cannot trust a party that appeals to the people with assertions that are mistaken in their most basic aspect.”

There’s an even better example you could have chosen: Their plank calling for the elimination of the income tax deduction for children and replacing it with a direct monthly government stipend through junior high school. Of course they’ll want to extend that through high school, eventually, once they put the hook in.

But you couldn’t very well mention that one, could you? After all, that idea originated with your New Komeito coalition partners in the Tokyo Metro District.

Still, all these complaints are beside the point, and we both know why. Absent a change in the status quo, they’re going to beat you like a drum in the lower house election.

And just about everyone in the country understands the reasons for it but you.

Here’s the most important one: You didn’t learn the Koizumian lesson. Mr. Maverick came into office with public support rates above 80% and left five and a half years later with those same rates at 70%, after delivering the second-largest lower house electoral victory in postwar history. That might well be unprecedented for a modern democracy, particularly one of the larger ones like Japan.

Did he achieve all the reforms that he promised? No, but politics is the art of the possible, and he had to lay his political life on the line to get as much as he did.

But let’s be honest–It’s not as if you understood any of that to begin with. It took the political equivalent of a Hail Mary pass after the porcine ineptitude of Mori Yoshiro and a revolt from the local rank and file to force you to select him at all.

Yet within months after he stepped down, you readmitted the people he threw out of the party for opposing postal privatization, which immediately sliced 20 percentage points off those public support numbers. You must have suspected that would happen, but you did it anyway, didn’t you?

According to Nakagawa Hidenao, 70% of the lower house members are (were) reform supporters, but you allowed the party machinery and the bureaucracy to slowly grind them down.

The drubbing the electorate administered to your party in the upper house election of 2007 should have been enough to grab the attention of the most slack-jawed of dullards, but you didn’t learn even after that brick wall fell on you.

You might have been relieved by the rebound of the Cabinet support rate to almost 60% after you installed Fukuda Yasuo as prime minister, but that was a pipe dream of your own. It fell back into the 20s as soon as everyone understood that Mr. Fukuda’s forte was that he had no forte, as a DPJ wag put it. But that’s one you should have understood to begin with.

It could not have been clearer what the Japanese people have thought for nearly 20 years about the wicked way your party has gone about its business, and how they will reward anyone who makes the effort to do something—anything–else.

So you’re finally worried about losing to the party that behaves like a primary school student with a loaded pistol, as Mr. Ibuki so accurately described them?

You’ve got no one to blame but yourselves for that, I’m afraid.

And now you’re stuck between several rocks and the proverbial hard place. You can have Mr. Aso lead the party into the election on a platform of raising taxes and defending the bureaucracy, and stand on the deck of the Mudboat-maru as it crumbles and dissolves.

Or, you could replace him with some semi-plausible reform alternative and prepare for the election. But no one will blame the DPJ for screaming bloody murder over that one. And your coalition partners say they’ll withhold support from any LDP Diet member who calls for Mr. Aso to step down.

Goodness only knows what backroom deal you cut with them behind the scenes—a promise to delay the election until October so they can play their shell game with Japan’s 90-day residency requirement for voters after the local Tokyo balloting? Whatever it was, you’re stuck with it.

On the other hand, replacing Mr. Aso with a serious reformer holds the risk that the bureaucrats will find a way to bring him (or her) down too. We’ve seen how the Social Insurance Agency nailed shut Mr. Abe’s coffin when you were ready to privatize them. That’s one lesson you did seem to learn. More than a few people think sources in Kasumigaseki provided the prosecutors with information on the fund-raising practices of Ozawa Ichiro. Isn’t it funny how no one could find any dirt despite sniffing around Mr. Ozawa’s finances for years—until it looked like his party might win?

And now the same thing’s happening to Mr. Hatoyama. What a coincidence!

Mr. Koizumi might have caught them off guard, but you can be sure that won’t happen again. They’ll be ready for your next reformer.

So it’s a bit late in the game for you and the rest of the LDP sleepwalkers to start worrying about a party that offers only pipe dreams, isn’t it?

You might be familiar with an old English expression–You made your bed, now you’ll have to lie in it.

Don’t forget to turn out the light.

Sincerely,

Amp

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

Fukuoka-Busan: The gateposts of the Asia Gateway

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, July 7, 2009

IT’S A CURIOUS PHENOMENON that the farther people are from Japan and South Korea, the more likely they are to think folks in the two countries get along like dogs and monkeys, as the Japanese say about dogs and cats. If the articles and snide asides that the print media offer as infotainment are to be believed, it’s taken as a given in the West that the Koreans and Japanese can’t stand each other, and it’s mostly Japan’s fault.

But that’s not the picture that emerges in the part of the world where the two countries are closest to each other. It’s a mere three-hour boat ride or 50-minute flight across the Korean Strait separating Kyushu and the southeastern part of the Korean Peninsula. Here in Kyushu, it’s no big deal to eat a leisurely breakfast while listening to a Busan radio station, and then follow that with a leisurely lunch in Busan. In fact, I’ve done it myself.

It’s not as if I’m a trend-setter, either. That trip has become an everyday occurrence for people in both countries. The sister cities of Fukuoka City and Busan know better than anyone that their bread is buttered on both sides, and they’ve been working together to whip up more tempting treats.

That’s why the two cities have embarked on their Asia Gateway campaign for encouraging people in both regions to drop by and set a spell, and in the process drop as much money as they can afford. They took the next step in the campaign today when they launched the joint Asia Gateway website. Their concept for the overall tone of the site is that the two cities are actually “neighboring towns” where people regularly travel back and forth, rather than cities in foreign countries that people visit occasionally for business or pleasure.

Considering the state of modern transportation and the real people I’ve seen traveling across the strait, that’s no exaggeration. For starters, young single women in both countries think nothing of hopping on the boat for a weekend cross-strait shopping expedition.

The website is jointly managed by the Nishinippon Shimbun and the Busan Ilbo newspapers. The homepage is in both languages, and from there visitors can access the separate Japanese- and Korean-language content. The section created in Fukuoka for Koreans contains videos of local attractions popular with Koreans, as well as blogs. There’s also a map of the Tenjin district in Fukuoka City, Kyushu’s largest commercial area, translations into Korean of Nishinippon Shimbun articles, and information on the Kurokawa Hot Springs in Kumamoto, another destination popular with Korean tourists.

The ties between the two areas aren’t PR dreamed up by the respective Chambers of Commerce. Coming soon to the site is an interview with a bi-strait married couple. The husband is Japanese and lives in Fukuoka City, while his wife is Korean and lives in Busan. Now that’s my idea of bisexuality!

Later this month, Busan plans to add more information in Japanese about their tourist attractions and Korean-style fortunetelling.

But you don’t need yuk hak to get a glimpse of the future in this part of the world, and now you’ve got more to go on than the English-language press. Just take a look at the Asia Gateway website and see for yourself.

Afterwords: The interview with the married couple is already supposed to be up there, but I couldn’t find it. Perhaps in the next day or so.

Posted in Foreigners in Japan, International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, Social trends, South Korea, Travel, Websites | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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