Japan from the inside out

Archive for April, 2010

Out of the gate

Posted by ampontan on Friday, April 30, 2010

WHERE WOULD a South Korean jockey of modest abilities go to improve his professional techniques?

Bak Jae-ho came to Japan.

Though he started racing in 2003, the 31-year-old jockey has chalked up a career record of only 37 wins in 684 professional races. With just three wins on 110 mounts last year, he decided to come to the Arao Racecourse in Arao, Kumamoto, for special training.

Mr. Bak was inspired to choose Arao after watching well-known Japanese jockey Nishimura Eiki beat the field by several lengths in an October 2008 race in South Korea. The Japanese jockey, who races frequently in South Korea, recommended that he hone his skills in Kumamoto. After receiving a three-month racing license, Mr. Bak hopped across the Korean Strait with his wife and son. Japan’s National Association of Racing says he is the first South Korean jockey to obtain a short-term license to race continuously in this country.

Said Mr. Bak, who usually works at the Busan Gyeongnam Race Park:

“Horse racing is extremely popular in South Korea right now. I wanted to learn the superior jockey techniques in Japan….I want to become as good as Japanese jockeys.”

One reason for the sport’s popularity on the Peninsula is that the government-operated tracks allow legal gambling. The fans started to attend in greater numbers when a new track was built in Seoul about 20 years ago.

Racing is also more lucrative for the winners in Korea than in Japan. The purses for single races can be as much as KRW 35 million, the Nishinippon Shimbun reports, or JPY 3 million (about $US 32,000). That’s about 10 times more than at Japanese regional tracks. No wonder South Korean jockeys spend their time at home—or that Mr. Nishimura worked about seven months in Busan last year.

Neither is the sport as profitable in Japan, and regional tracks are in the midst of a slump. Arao was once popular among people working in the local coal industry, but the mines closed and the workers have either moved on or can’t afford a ticket at the pari-mutuel window. The track was JPY 1.35 billion in the hole as of March 2009, and there’s talk of closing it down.

Bak Je-ho was scheduled to run his first race at Arao yesterday, but the absence of any news reports on the results suggests his nag finished out of the money again. That might soon change, however. Mr. Bak reportedly gets up at 3:00 a.m. every day to practice. Dedication of that sort is bound to pay dividends sooner or later.

Posted in Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea, Sports | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Japan to go space sailing

Posted by ampontan on Friday, April 30, 2010

THE AMERICANS and the Russians aren’t the only ones making aerospace news. Next month, Japan will launch the world’s first solar-powered spacecraft. It’s called Ikaros, or the Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun:

Ikaros…marks the first time a space craft will enter deep space towed by solar sails, which provide a fuel-free means to explore the solar system provided the craft is near enough the sun to catch a particle powered breeze. Several prototype space sails have been unfurled in orbit by various agencies including NASA, but as far as long-term propulsion is concerned the Ikaros mission is solar sailing’s coming out party.

The technology is imaginative and sophisticated:

Ikaros’s 46-foot flexible sails are thinner than a human hair and equipped with thin-film solar cells that will generate power for the craft, which mission controllers on the ground will steer by making adjustments to the angle at which incoming radiation strikes the sails.

That’s not all JAXA plans to do:

JAXA’s ambitions are pretty aggressive in the near term in stark contrast to the U.S.’s long-term space exploration approach recently detailed by President Obama…The country plans to spend at least 2 billion dollars on its lunar ambitions over the next decade.

That might be a misspelling. Instead of “detailed by President Obama”, they could have written “derailed by President Obama”.

Whether the JAXA projects will continue might also be at issue. Consider the Finance Ministry-produced government daytime TV programming of clipping the fingernails of national public-sector spending while gluing on the artificial nails of their cash giveaway programs in legal vote-buying schemes. There’s not going to be enough money for everything, unless they decide to heck with it and print some more.

Will the Japanese space program be grounded before ignition and lift-off? Let’s hope not.

Posted in Science and technology | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

The square pegs

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 29, 2010

THE NEAR IMPOSSIBILITY of Japanese politicians fitting into blocs representing conventional political philosophies–at least in the Western sense–is one of the reasons a strong, two-party system has yet to emerge in this country. (Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that a strong, two-party system is desirable.)

How uncategorizable are they? Here are some anecdotes directly from the mouth of Kamei Shizuka, the head of the small People’s New Party, one of the junior partners of the ruling coalition. They might be an example of why all the standard classifications are just round holes for the square pegs of the politicos.

Mr. Kamei was invited to contribute to part of a book-length, roundtable political discussion called Jiminto ha Naze Tsuburenai no ka (Why Won’t the LDP Collapse?), published in November 2007. The last anecdote is a one-word description of his political beliefs. See if you can guess what he calls himself before you read it.

The primary participants were Murakami Masakuni, former head of the Liberal-Democratic Party group in the upper house and one-time Labor Minister; Hirano Sadao, a former upper house member who started out in the LDP and followed Ozawa Ichiro through several parties to wind up in the Democratic Party of Japan (and is known as Mr. Ozawa’s closest political associate); and Fudesaka Hideyo of Japan’s Communist Party, also a former upper house member.

Mr. Kamei was invited to the discussion for two reasons. First, he was deeply involved in the creation of the LDP-Socialist coalition government—a political platypus if there ever was one—that wrested control back from the first non-LDP governments since 1955. Second, he briefly headed an LDP faction with Mr. Murakami.

That same faction was once led by former Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro. The state-run Japan National Railway was privatized during his administration. Mr. Nakasone is also keen to rewrite the Japanese Constitution, and probably has been since the day it was adopted. The faction was later led by former Foreign Minister Watanabe Michio, the late father of reform/small government firebrand Watanabe Yoshimi of Your Party.

In contrast, Mr. Kamei’s political raison d’être for the past five years has been to renationalize Japan Post. He helped form his party after being drummed out of the LDP by Mr. Koizumi.

Here he is, in his own words.

Yasukuni Shrine

As an individual, I have affection for (Abe) Shinzo. Every year during the O-Bon holidays and at yearend, I pay my respects at the graves of (former Prime Minister) Fukuda Takeo, (former Foreign Minister) Abe Shintaro, and (former Agriculture Minister) Nakagawa Ichiro. Twice a year for a long time now.

This year…after I finished, Abe Yoko (Abe Shintaro’s widow) was there. I said to her, “Won’t you deliver a message to Prime Minister Shinzo (sic) for me? I mustn’t help him, I’m unable to help him, and I shouldn’t help him. But I would like you to tell him this one thing.” I talked about the question of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine.

Here’s what I said. I think it’s natural for a prime minister to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, as is the policy of making such visits. But, for example, if there’s a housewife who must associate with her next door neighbor, and if the neighbor dislikes the couple, or if her husband quarreled with the neighbor, the two wives will be unable to associate with each other in the neighborhood. So, I thought it should be the standpoint of the prime minister of one country to refrain from going, even if he wanted to, until the neighbor understood his position. Until now, I’ve said that the prime minister should not go (to Yasukuni).

But I’ve changed my mind. Relations with the next door neighbor are important, but Japan itself, our family, has become distorted. The Japanese are in a terrible psychological state. The circumstances are not such that what the neighbors think should be at issue. When we Japanese have to become strong-minded, I want the prime minister to be resolute and visit with his head held high. So I asked her to please tell him what I said. But she acted as if she didn’t hear me.

On Marx and Communism

A while ago I told Shii (Kazuo, Chairman of Japan’s Communist Party), “You have to be steady and strong. We’re now in the age of Marx. Do you understand?” We’re now in an imperialist age, the whole world, too. That trend is occurring in Japan as well. We can’t behave in a facile manner under these conditions. Isn’t it Marx’s time to come on stage?

On the necessity of standing up to the DPJ

The DPJ has gotten a bit overbearing recently. I said the same thing to Ozawa not long ago, but they’ve got to think seriously about this. They whoop it up and go around saying, “We won, we won,” but they don’t know what’s going to happen in the next election.

(Response from Hirano Sadao)

There’s something bureaucratic about the DPJ’s character. They have a tendency to respond only with formal argument. They should be aware that the people voted for the DPJ because they thought there wasn’t any choice, not because of the DPJ’s abilities.

His self-identification

“I’m a liberal.”


* I suspect even those Japanese opposed to Yasukuni visits, or even Yasukuni itself, would at least understand where Mr. Kamei is coming from. The same sentiments are partially shared by the organizers of the Sunrise Party (Hiranuma Takeo, Yosano Kaoru, and Ishihara Shintaro). Some of it is probably generational, but there also seems to be a sense of dismay that the postwar Japanese Miracle—to which they contributed their adult lives–might evaporate.

* His analogy of harmonious relations in the neighborhood, regardless of personal feelings, is another story that all Japanese will immediately understand. The theme is a common one here. I can’t remember ever hearing anyone talk much about neighborhood relations when I lived in the United States, however. When I lived in California, people didn’t know who their neighbors were.

* Anyone who says it is time for the Age of Marx, for any reason, shouldn’t be allowed within 50 miles of the executive branch of government.

* How close is Hirano Sadao to Ozawa Ichiro? According to a self-proclaimed eyewitness in the February issue of the Bungei Shunju, Mr. Hirano’s son-in-law, a former Ozawa aide, was one of those who helped remove incriminating documents from the latter’s office a few hours before prosecutors arrived to search it.


A half-hour after I put this up, I ran across this quote from a Kamei Shizuka news conference on the 27th:

“(What’s important) is that the (Futenma) issue be resolved from the standpoint that Japan and the United States are equals. The mass media standpoint is subservience to the United States.”

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Adult education

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 27, 2010

ANYONE IN JAPAN who was looking forward to a healthier economy should be warned that it’s going to get a lot sicker before the vital signs show a sustainable recovery. That’s the price to be paid when the patient is in the care of quack doctors. When the internist and surgeon are guilty of malpractice, the patient’s prognosis will be poor regardless of his constitution. Now the Japanese economy must undergo the modern equivalent of bleeding with leeches with the treatment of an internist from the monetary side and a sawbones from the fiscal side.

During a speech in New York on the 2nd, Shirakawa Masa’aki, the Governor of the Bank of Japan, said:

The average tax rate in European countries is 20%, while Japan’s is 5%. There’s plenty of leeway to raise taxes.

It’s a shame he doesn’t think there’s any leeway to raise growth first.

Actually, “taxes” was the incorrect word choice. The proper term arose when paper doll Finance Minister Kan Naoto convened a meeting with the Fiscal System Council, a panel of advisors. According to Kyodo, he said:

Tax is not a burden (on the people) but a contribution. If we consider the appropriate (use of taxpayers’ money) with such a mind-set, it will lead to economic growth.

There you have it. It’s just not true that every yen the government spends was taken from people who had other plans for that money. The people are really making a contribution out of public spirit.

Mr. Kan is unlikely to ever understand that concept, however. That would require the mind-set that government funds aren’t his money to begin with. Here’s what he also said at the meeting:

I wish (the panel) will discuss how to strike a balance between boosting the economy and restoring fiscal health.

Shirakawa Masa'aki

In other words, it’s the Hatoyama administration’s position that economic growth can be created even when taxes are raised. He’s asking the panel to figure out a plausible explanation for why arithmetic shouldn’t work any more..

But they won’t have to fabricate a modern fairy tale if they start digging. They could take a tip from the BOJ governor instead and look to Europe. For example, the European Court of Auditors hasn’t given official approval to the EU balance sheets for 16 consecutive years, citing “unacceptable levels of illegality and irregularity”. In fact, the COA admitted in 2006 that “80 per cent of all taxpayers’ money is never properly accounted for.”

Ah, but Japan still has plenty of leeway before it reaches that point.

Here’s an idea: Why not take a tip from Mao’s China and have these guys contribute by enrolling them in a re-education program while doing agricultural work? We could call it a work-study scheme. After a day spent mucking about in the paddies, they would start on the first item on the syllabus, this brief article called The Economic Cost of High Tax Rates, by Robert Carroll. It’s about the United States, but the lessons still apply. Such as:

What is critically important from the government’s perspective is that while it collects an extra 10 cents for every dollar subject to the higher rates, it loses over 45 cents for every dollar by which reported income falls due to taxpayers working less or otherwise reporting less income.

Mr. Carroll concluded:

High tax rates carry economic consequences. They cause taxpayers to base decisions more on tax considerations and less on economic merit. They also can be expected to shrink the size of the tax base and raise less revenue than the casual observer might assume. Another important consideration is the substantial effect the higher tax rates will have on the entrepreneurial sector, whose business income tends to be subject primarily to the individual income tax.

After they’ve digested that information—assuming they were still awake in the evenings after what would surely be their first experience with serious manual labor—they could move on to the next item on the syllabus, an article by Tyler Cowen that appeared in the New York Times:

The most potent way to add revenue is to impose a value-added tax. As its name indicates, a V.A.T. takes some percentage of the value added at each stage of production. V.A.T.’s raise money so readily and so invisibly that they often climb to a range of 15 to 20 percent; politicians like the revenue, and voters don’t always notice the burden. A move toward a V.A.T., however, also brings price inflation, a big increase in the tax-collecting bureaucracy and the emergence of favored sectors with exemptions or lower rates.

One member of the current government suggested that the consumption tax should be raised to double-digit levels, but to less than 20%. See what Japan has to look forward to with all that leeway?

Burdening citizens with much higher taxes would fundamentally change what this country is about.

Professor, please! It’s not a burden, it’s a contribution.

Prof. Cowen suggests looking to Europe for inspiration, too:

The macroeconomic evidence also suggests the wisdom of emphasizing spending cuts.

Though the word “macroeconomic” will fly over the head of the Hatoyama government in general, and Mr. Kan in particular…

In a recent paper, Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna, economics professors at Harvard, found that in developed countries, spending cuts were the key to successful fiscal adjustments — and were generally better for the economy than tax increases. Their conclusion was based on data since 1970 from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The received wisdom in the United States is that deep spending cuts are politically impossible. But a number of economically advanced countries, including Sweden, Finland, Canada and, most recently, Ireland, have cut their government budgets when needed.

Most relevant, perhaps, is Canada, which cut federal government spending by about 20 percent from 1992 to 1997….In his book “In the Long Run We’re All Dead: The Canadian Turn to Fiscal Restraint,” Timothy Lewis describes Canada’s move from fiscal irresponsibility to a balanced budget — a history that helps explain why the country has managed the current global recession relatively well.

None of us has any way of knowing whether the students would be capable of assimilating the teaching material of this work-study program. It’s difficult to reorient the thinking of people who believe that the individual exists for the state, rather than the other way around.

Still, it might be worth a try. It’s about time they made a contribution to us for a change, instead of us making a contribution to them.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The race is on

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 27, 2010

IN JUNE 2008, we had this post covering Hiranuma Takeo’s criticism of former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro and the financial and privatization specialist in his Cabinet, Takenaka Heizo. Mr. Hiranuma was quoted as saying they would have been burned at the stake in another era. That’s an arresting statement, but it probably revealed more about the role of superstition in Mr. Hiranuma’s thought processes than it did about the accomplishments of Messrs. Koizumi and Takenaka.

Since then, Mr. Hiranuma’s recent launch of the small Sunrise Party with Yosano Kaoru generated more media heat than light among the electorate, while the Koizumian philosophy, either generally or specifically, is being raised as a banner by some of the most popular opposition politicians in Japan.

Part of that post included this prediction by former Labor Minister Murakami Masukuni, who was once in the same LDP faction as Mr. Hiranuma:

In two years the LDP-New Komeito coalition will not be in power. The next election will see a shift in the LDP’s strength relative to the opposition DPJ, resulting in an Ozawa Administration. The DPJ won’t have the numbers to form a government by themselves, but they will ally with Hiranuma’s new party for an anti-LDP, anti-New Komeito government. Once it is out of power for two years, the LDP will break up.

Well, he was right about the change of government, and about the DPJ coalition with a social conservative party, though it turned out to be the party of Kamei Shizuka and not Hiranuma Takeo. Also, no one could have foreseen at the time the scandal that would knock Ozawa Ichiro off his perch.

His last prediction about the LDP falling apart after two years in opposition is also a live possibility. To Mr. Murakami’s prediction, I added this:

Saying that the LDP would break up if it were to spend two years in the opposition is the easy prediction. Here’s the prediction Mr. Murakami won’t make: The Democratic Party of Japan would break up before it spent two years in power.

First, there are too many incompatible groups within the party for it to survive a disposition of the spoils and the determination of a uniform party policy. People have kept their mouths shut until now for the sake of party unity. They’ll stay open loud and long once they’re in a government together.

Second, we have the example of Mr. Ozawa’s previous experience at governing—albeit behind the scenes—with a coalition consisting of eight oil-and-water groups during the Hosokawa-Hata administrations. They lasted a combined total of 10 months.

If either an Ozawa Administration or the DPJ itself sticks around longer than that, chalk it up to the favors of Lady Luck.

June 2008 was also the month that former DPJ president and current Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport Maehara Seiji criticized the behavior and strategy of then DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro in the monthly magazine Gendai. He would continue his criticism of Mr. Ozawa over the next few months in a roundtable discussion in another monthly magazine (in which Yosano Kaoru also participated), and in an article he wrote for a third monthly magazine.

Speculation mounted that Mr. Maehara might bolt the party to form a new group with co-faction leader Edano Yukio and some reformers from the LDP, but he kept a low public profile after that. He was in position to receive an important Cabinet portfolio once the DPJ took power, after all. He did support Okada Katsuya to replace Mr. Ozawa as party president last year, while the latter backed Hatoyama Yukio, but the two men have managed to keep their mutual dislike out of the public eye.

Until now.

When the popular dissatisfaction with the new expressway tolls was brought up in a news conference, Mr. Maehara responded that Mr. Ozawa’s insistence on building roads while simultaneously lowering or removing tolls was “antinomian”, a philosophical term for a contradiction between opposites.

It didn’t take long for the media tattletales to snitch on him to Ozawa Ichiro. When the Big Boss Man heard the story, he said:

What Maehara said or what he did neither concerns me nor interests me in the slightest.

In other words, you and the 20 members of your group can take a hike as far as I’m concerned. I don’t need you anyway.

If Mr. Maehara took the hint, he might not have to look to far for a branch on which to alight. He’s on good terms with the leaders of the new Innovation Party–they’re fellow graduates of the Matsushita Institute–and it turns out he was present when planning for the new party was discussed at a February meeting. He turned down the offer to join because he thought he couldn’t very well leave the Cabinet.

If Mr. Maehara were to switch to the silks of the Innovation Party with some of his group members, it would give the new party an instant voice in the Diet. (That’s not to say it will happen, of course.)

So the race is on. Will the LDP or the DPJ be the first to splinter?

If the summer upper house election doesn’t go well for the DPJ, that race might wind up in a photo finish.

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


Posted by ampontan on Monday, April 26, 2010

We fancy men are individuals; so are pumpkins; but every pumpkin in the field goes through every point of pumpkin history.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

PEOPLE AND PUMPKINS are interchangeable in the preceding epigram from Emerson, but it’s also possible to substitute another term in the first clause and maintain the meaning of the sentence:

We fancy nation-states are individuals; so are pumpkins; but every pumpkin in the field goes through every point of pumpkin history.

Just as every country is a special case unto itself, the manifest interconnectedness of the modern world and the innate interconnectedness of the species means there are occasions when the same phenomena, whether for good or for ill, arise simultaneously on several continents.

It’s happening again today. It’s now apparent to people throughout the world that there’s nothing particularly elite about their elites in the national ruling class, and they suspect current conditions are another in a long line of fine messes they’ve gotten us into.

More people are aware that the motivations of the political class in their countries are self-importance, self-glorification, and the survival instinct rather than a desire to cultivate the virtue of service, and they are no longer willing to overlook it.

Japan is also a special case unto itself, but some of the political and social phenomena occurring here are identical to those more widely reported and discussed in other parts of the world. Some simple substitution with two recent reports, one from Great Britain and the other from the United States, should make that clear.

Here’s Daniel Hannan, a writer, journalist, and MEP for South East England in The Telegraph:

Nick Clegg is recognised by Eurocrats as One Of Us. A graduate of the College of Europe in Bruges, he went on to work in the European Commission before being elected to the European Parliament. In each of those three institutions, he was taught the them-and-us elitism that is the hallmark of the Eurocrat: the belief that voters are simple, often bigoted, souls, who require guidance from experts….There is something eerie about the Lib Dem leader presenting himself as anti-Establishment when he is a product and champion of the smuggest, tightest and most powerful Establishment on the planet: the Eurocracy.

To modify that for the Japanese experience, let’s use a term coined by the leading Koizumian reformer still in the Liberal-Democratic Party, Nakagawa Hidenao. He refers to the elite in the bureaucracy, their allies in the national legislature, and some of their sympaticos in the news media as the Stealth Complex.

(Insert Name) is recognised by the Stealth Complex as One Of Us. A graduate of the Faculty of Law of the University of Tokyo, he went on to work in the Ministry of Finance before being elected to the Diet. In each of those three institutions, he was taught the them-and-us elitism that is the hallmark of the Stealth Complex: the belief that voters are simple, often bigoted, souls, who require guidance from experts….There is something eerie about (Insert Name) presenting himself as anti-Establishment when he is a product and champion of one of the smuggest, tightest and most powerful Establishments on the planet: the Stealth Complex.

There are variations on the theme—the university attended, the bureaucracy with which one is aligned—but the song remains the same. Some of those involved don’t even bother with stealth. They think the voters are such simple souls, they don’t have to go to the trouble of concealing themselves.

Now here’s Kimberly Strassel writing in The Wall Street Journal about media commentary promoting the idea that the Republican Party is involved in a “civil war”. The author agrees there is a civil war, but it is:

…(n)ot the one the media is hawking…The Republican Party is split. But the real divide is between reformers like Mr. Rubio and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, who are running on principles and tough issues, and a GOP old guard that still finds it politically expedient to duck or demagogue issues. . . If an angry public has done anything, it’s been to embolden more of these reformers to run.

This is also easily modified for Japan:

The political class is split. But the real divide is between reformers like Your Party and the new Japan Innovation Party of governors, mayors, and chief municipal officers, who are running on principles and tough issues, and an old guard in both major parties that still finds it politically expedient to duck or demagogue issues. . . If an angry public has done anything, it’s been to embolden more of these reformers to run.

Now that’s the kind of Uno Mundo I can get behind!

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

Crimes against humanity

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 25, 2010

IT’S TIME to call a spade a spade.

Let’s accept for the sake of discussion the premise that the International Criminal Court should be allowed to have the authority to pass judgment on the behavior of nations.

The Rome Statute is the treaty that established the ICC. Article 7 defines “crimes against humanity”, and Item (g) includes the following:

(g) Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity;

The Explanatory Memorandum of the Rome Statute elaborates on the definition of crimes against humanity.

They are not isolated or sporadic events, but are part either of a government policy (although the perpetrators need not identify themselves with this policy) or of a wide practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government or a de facto authority. However, murder, extermination, torture, rape, political, racial, or religious persecution and other inhumane acts reach the threshold of crimes against humanity only if they are part of a widespread or systematic practice.

Let’s call that an addition term and assign it the value of 2.

To the first addition term, let’s add another term and assign it the value of 2 as well:

Health authorities are planning to sterilise nearly 10,000 people in southern China over the next four days as part of a population control programme.


Chinese newspaper reports say that those who refuse to be sterilised have seen their elderly mothers or fathers taken away and detained. Hundreds of people in Puning are said to have been locked up.


Huang Ruifeng is the father of three girls. “Several days ago, a village official called me and asked me or my wife to return for the surgery,” Huang told the local paper. “Otherwise they would take away my father.” He refused. His father was later rounded up and detained by the authorities.

Two plus two equals four, which is elementary and universal. If the ICC is to be accepted as a universal authority, it should be elementary that the sum of four in this case adds up to Chinese guilt of crimes against humanity.

The failure of certain types of activists and theorists to make Chinese behavior an international issue is not only prima facie evidence of their hypocrisy, their pursuit of soft targets also shows a craven opportunism. They can’t be expected to tackle the big issues and the most serious offenders when they’ve got an army that large, now can they? So if the activists and theorists won’t treat this behavior in the same way they treated the behavior of South Africans, for example, it means their primary motive is to indulge a taste for self-glorification.

By my definition, the behavior of the Chinese government is odious and the worst form of tyranny. By the definition of others, however–a definition they insist is universal–the behavior of the Chinese government is a crime against humanity.

So when are we going to hear those people say it?

No one expects either the activists or the theorists to actually do anything about it.

But the least they can do is call a spade a spade.

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Posted in China | 8 Comments »

A limited liability partnership for Japan and the U.S.?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 25, 2010

ALL THE MORE WORTHWHILE to read because it’s been written by serious people, this article in The National Interest by Robert Madsen and Richard J. Samuels about the Japan-U.S. alliance provides an excellent summary of the bilateral relationship in the postwar period and sketches the possibilities and problems that lie ahead.

You’ll understand just what they’re talking about by the time you reach this paragraph:

(T)he image of Tokyo as a feckless ally that prevails today completes the century’s cycle. Japan has by turns been a promising newcomer in the Pacific, an evil enemy, a dedicated junior partner, a serious economic and technological threat, and now a strategic disappointment. All of these images have been problematic, deviating as they do from the surprising degree of continuity in the fundamental interests that bound the two countries together for many decades.

They also have their eyes fixed on the future:

Before, geopolitical and political bases of the alliance were relatively stable. But that is not true today. Japanese domestic politics and the East Asian balance of power are evolving rapidly, and diplomatic estrangement in these circumstances could harm Tokyo and Washington’s strategic interests, not to mention fuel a domestic backlash against the United States that has been building for decades. Politically, Japan is not the country it was a few years ago.

Their suggestion:

The two allies must adjust to the facts on the ground. Just as it was unwise for the DPJ government to reject diplomatic pacts that had taken years to negotiate, it would be a mistake for the United States to continue to ignore the Japanese public’s yearnings for sovereignty and for equality that are no longer the exclusive preserve of Japan’s Far Right and Far Left. Post-LDP Japan will eventually become a “normal” country, but what version of “normalcy” is yet to be determined….

They even have a realistic understanding of Japanese politics and admirably restrain from using it as an opportunity to moralize.

(P)ersistent instability in Japanese politics and the structural weakness of the Japanese government ensure that Tokyo cannot play the more assertive role that some envision for it anytime soon.

There are some nits to pick, and everyone will find a few. They refer to the “once-mighty” Hirohito, which is a bad choice of adjectival phrases. While they do provide a good perspective on the DPJ election victory, they overlook the forehead-smacking incompetence of the Hatoyama administration in dealing with the United States in general and the Futenma Base issue in particular. (The latest installment: Some municipal officials on the offshore island of Tokunoshima might have been disposed to accept the base at one time, but now they’re livid over the behavior of the Cabinet. Meanwhile, the islanders seem ready to burn them in effigy.)

The absence of any mention at all of the serious physical and psychological burdens the American presence imposes on Okinawans is unfortunate.

Then there’s this:

(T)he Hatoyama government has from the beginning sought better relations with China and the potential establishment of a pan-Asian economic bloc.

When the closest political ally of DPJ Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro gives a news conference in Shanghai and describes how Mr. Ozawa explained to the Chinese leadership that he wants to create an “equilateral triangle” of the Japan-U.S.-China relationship, it is a change of much greater magnitude than mere “better relations with China”.

Finally, the expression, “sought..the potential establishment of a pan-Asian economic bloc”, is as ill-defined as the Hatoyama Pipe Dream itself. While mentioning the idea is pertinent to this discussion, it’s not possible to provide the background information critical for placing his ideas, such as they are, in context. It might also have been more useful to have offered an expression that isn’t as empty as “seeking the potential establishment” of something.

Nevertheless, it’s a refreshing change from the embarrassments that too often pass for critical commentary on this issue.

Posted in China, Government, History, International relations, Military affairs, World War II | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

The Mainichi on Your Party

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, April 24, 2010

SATO CHIYAKO wrote an op-ed about Your Party for the Mainichi Shimbun this week. Here it is in English:

They’re calling it the Tama Shock. In the three-candidate election for the mayor of Tama in the Tokyo Metro District, the candidate endorsed by Your Party, 34-year-old Endo Chihiro, ran a superb campaign and finished 1,475 votes short of the winner backed by the Democratic Party, the Communist Party, and the Social Democratic Party. He received 6,772 more votes than the Liberal-Democratic Party candidate. Considering the organizational strength of the parties involved, it is no exaggeration to call this a de facto victory, as one person involved put it.

I talked to Mr. Ando as he made courtesy calls after the election. He seems to be a very businesslike person. He spent eight years with a consulting firm, and as I interviewed him he jotted down notes in a notebook that a university student might use. He noticed that the average annual salary of the Tama municipal employees is about JPY 8.5 million (about $US 91,200), the highest of any sub-national government in Japan. He fought his campaign on the promise to reduce annual personnel costs by 10% for a savings of JPY one billion. It was a strategy based on his judgment that the other candidates couldn’t muscle in on his position because they were either a former city employee or closely connected with labor unions.

“You wouldn’t be allowed to join the DPJ.” That’s what he said many housewives in their 40s and 50s told him after listening to his street corner speeches. His was an easily understood appeal, combined with the strength of a new party untainted by any scandals and free of constraints. Mr. Endo thinks Your Party resembles the DPJ before they took power. I look forward to seeing how this party evolves in the future.
(end translation)

One of the weekly magazines suggested the possibility that Your Party might form a coalition with the DPJ after the upper house election this summer. Nothing is impossible in Japanese politics, but I’ll believe that when I see it. There seem to be too many philosophical incompatibilities, and Your Party members are now unloading their double-barreled scorn on political parties and coalitions formed of barely compatible elements. That a journalist would seriously consider the possibility at this point suggests he might not understand what’s happening. That wouldn’t be surprising, however–the party spent most of last year being ignored by the big boys in other parties and the media.

This is where the energy and vision is, however, and the public is starting to notice. It’s what they’ve been clamoring for, but most of the political class is too myopic to see it or too craven to try it. I too look forward to seeing how this party evolves in the future.

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“The good news is the wolf is at the door”

Posted by ampontan on Friday, April 23, 2010

IN JAPAN, that is. That’s why it’s good news for one American, Kyle Bass:

“The good news is the wolf’s at the door in Japan and that we in the U.S. have front row seats to see what’s going to happen,” he says. “I hope we learn something from it.”

He’s a jolly good fellow, isn’t he? He isn’t just munching popcorn in his front row seat to see “what’s going to happen”, either. He’s rooting for the country to collapse. In fact, he’s put his money where his mouth is and bet on it.

Kyle Bass has bet the house against Japan–his own house, that is. The Dallas hedge fund manager (no relation to the famous Bass family of Fort Worth) is so convinced the Japanese government’s profligate spending will drive the nation to the brink of default that he financed his home with a five-year loan denominated in yen, which he hopes will be cheaper to pay back than dollars. Through his hedge fund, Hayman Advisors, Bass has also bought $6 million worth of securities that will jump in value if interest rates on ten-year Japanese government bonds, currently a minuscule 1.3%, rise to something more like ten-year Treasuries in the U.S. (a recent 3.4%). A former Bear Stearns trader, Bass turned $110 million into $700 million by betting against subprime debt in 2006. “Japan is the most asymmetric opportunity I have ever seen,” he says, “way better than subprime.”

It’s not clear why a man who generated almost $US 600 million four years ago needs to finance a house, but let’s run with what the article says.

Of course, a poor showing by the ruling party in the upcoming election could set in motion a series of events that removes the current gang of economic illiterates from office, which would pull the rug out from under Mr. Bass’s feet in that yen-leveraged home. And considering the behavior and philosophy of the ruling party in Washington, finances there could get much worse before they get better, too.

The article from which these quotes are taken, in Forbes Magazine, doesn’t single out Japan for criticism–it uses the country’s financial condition mostly as a lead-in and a closer. There is more discussion of the United States, though that discussion also has ramifications for this country:

Carmen Reinhart, a University of Maryland economist…has found that a 90% ratio of government debt to GDP is a tipping point in economic growth. Beyond that, developed economies have growth rates two percentage points lower, on average, than economies that have not yet crossed the line….It’s not a linear process,” she says. “You increase it over and beyond a high threshold, and boom!”

The OECD estimates that ratio in Japan will hit 200% next year.

The author of the article is quick to admit, however, that betting against Japan is never a sure thing:

Bass could be wrong on Japan. The island nation (and the world’s second-largest economy) has defied skeptics for so long that experienced traders call betting against it “the widowmaker.”

That might turn out to be the case once again after the adults are put in charge.

The sooner the better.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy | Tagged: | 3 Comments »


Posted by ampontan on Friday, April 23, 2010

MORE THAN a few Japanese—at least in the print media—got a bit sulky after an op-ed columnist in the Washington Post referred to Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio as loopy.

That suggests the Japanese journalists don’t spend a lot time reading overseas English newspapers. Calling a politician loopy—even a foreign head of government—is not going to make anyone spill their coffee at the breakfast table, especially these days.

In fact, choice pejoratives from foreign countries about American presidents are regularly reported in the United States, and most Americans who read newspapers have learned to discount it by the time they’re graduated from high school.

One reason Yanks let it roll off their backs is that a lot of it is criticism just for the sake of criticism. That was particularly true of the Germans before national reunification. Whenever a Republican was in the White House, the West German press would get upset at the hard GOP line against the Soviets and worry that it might antagonize them. Whenever a Democrat was in the White House, they would get upset at the wimpy appeasement of the Soviets and worry that Red Army tanks might roll into the country any minute now unless they grew a spine.

To see some serious political slicing and dicing, the Japanese media might read the British press. If they aren’t the heavyweight champions of the world at this sport, I don’t know who is.

For example, take a look at this blog post by Gerald Warner in The Telegraph that appeared earlier this week. He’s writing about the sudden emergence of Liberal Democratic Party head Nick Clegg as a serious candidate in that country’s upcoming election. In two paragraphs, he manages to savage Mr. Clegg, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Conservative Party head Dave Cameron, the late Princess Diana, and the people who created a cult around her:

Even Bambi’s rise to three-election ascendancy was more gradual than the trajectory of Meteor Clegg. So, is there a precedent? Yes, in a sense, there is: the hysteria surrounding the cult of Diana, the “People’s Princess” (proclaimed as such by the Great Charlatan Blair in one of his more shameless moments). That is the nearest parallel. Princess Nick has answered an emotional need of the masses…

But every disaster has its compensations. In this instance it is the delicious spectacle of the Vichy Tory Party – Dave’s arrogant, vacuous, PR construct and its enforcers who, in the name of thinly disguised cultural Marxism, imposed their will, their pathetic imposture and their air-head candidates on what was once a great party of state – stretched on the rack by the sudden advent of an even bigger fraud than David Cameron. On reflection, make that almost as big a fraud as Cameron.

That’s a bit intense even for the Brits, but fusillades of that sort are common everywhere in the country’s print media, regardless of which corner of the political pasture the writer is grazing.

Some Japanese journalists can be rather wicked themselves, but they save it for the weekly and monthly magazines. Those who work for the mainstream daily press have to operate on a very short leash in the press club system. Any journalist who used language as a lash in the manner of Mr. Warner would have his chain jerked rather quickly by the government in power. Criticize the bureaucrats too heavily, and they would lose their anonymous scoops from “high government officials”. It is the price they pay for a near monopoly on access.

But the sensitivity also suggests the Japanese print journalists might not be paying very much attention to their own public, either. The J-Cast website has an article today discussing the respective poll numbers of Your Party (very good for a small party less than a year old) and Prime Minister Hatoyama (Do not ask for whom the bell tolls…).

They refer to an online poll conducted earlier this week by the Nikkei Shimbun, the country’s premier business and financial newspaper. The Nikkei recently rolled out a fee-based Internet edition, but this poll was for registered users regardless of their fee-paying status. They received responses from 3,503 people. To the question, Do you support the Hatoyama Cabinet, only 11.8% answered yes.

More interesting was the response to another question: “What do you think of the harsh criticism Prime Minister Hatoyama received from the American media during his American visit?”

A total of 84.7% of the respondents answered, “They took the words right out of my mouth.” (同感だ)

Posted in International relations, Mass media | Tagged: , | 8 Comments »


Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 22, 2010

ONE REASON it seems to be so difficult for Japanese politicians to create a stable two-party system is that their behavior makes it so difficult for them to gather in conventional groupings. That’s compounded by the natural impulse of politicians everywhere to look out for their own interests first.

People have been watching for some time to see whether upper house member and former Health Minister Masuzoe Yoichi of the Liberal Democratic Party would bolt to form a new party or stay put and work from within. The question is of interest because Mr. Masuzoe has been topping the polls in recent weeks as the man Japanese would most like to see as the next prime minister (at roughly the 20%-25% level). More than a few politicians suspected he would stay in the LDP because they thought he really wanted the job of party president, despite a somewhat sulky, uncooperative attitude toward other members in recent weeks.

Other politicians were spreading rumors, however, that he was having trouble coaxing enough people to join him in a new splinter party because he’s a limelight hog uninterested in applying himself to the unglamorous work of starting from scratch and putting together a structure from the ground up. Today, however, brought reports that he’s rounded up the other four Diet members needed to meet the numerical requirements to receive public funds as a political party. Perhaps he finally realized the LDP was not going to turn its lonely eyes to him, and that they would rather die separately than live together.

If there was ever an instance that demonstrates the futility of trying to predict the course of Japanese politics, here it is in capital letters. Mr. Masuzoe has been talking the talk of a small-government, Koizumian-style reformer, but that isn’t even light-years close to the philosophies of his new stablemates—he’s recruited four members of the Kaikaku Club. While that name does translate to “Reform Club”, and they’ve taken to calling themselves the Renaissance Party in English, they are reformers only because that’s what’s printed on the name tags clipped to their lapels. Indeed, most of them would have fit in well with the LDP of yesteryear. Until late summer 2008, one Kaikaku Club member now on Mr. Masuzoe’s team was a member of the now-ruling DPJ when it was in opposition, but he split for several reasons. They included an understandable exasperation with then-party head Ozawa Ichiro, an affinity for LDP policies, and a cultural conservatism that seems incompatible with the DPJ. Another member of Mr. Masuzoe’s new group, Arai Hiroyuki, was once tossed from the LDP for his opposition to postal privatization.

In fact, there were rumors when the Kaikaku Club was founded that the financial backing to create a party came from the LDP itself as a way to whittle away at the DPJ’s working majority in the upper house at the time. (Try the second half of this post for some background on what happened then and to get an idea of what they’re like.)

Has Mr. Masuzoe’s talk been as hollow all along as the Kaikaku Club’s name? Instead of a reform party, this enterprise smacks of a hastily cobbled-together vehicle of expediency. Any stickers on his campaign truck in the coming upper house election campaign should have “It’s all about me” printed on them rather than “reform”.

In the 1732 collection of proverbs known as Gnomologia, Dr. Thomas Fuller wrote: “The higher an ape mounts, the more he shows his breech.”

In Mr. Masuzoe’s case, perhaps it’s time to hide our eyes. Rather than being a productive contribution to political realignment, this is an almost perverse backward step.

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »


Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, April 21, 2010

THE HATOYAMA ADMINISTRATION is now dead in the water. Oh, the prime minister will still bob in to news conferences like a rubber duck in a straw hat for a few more weeks, and his party will still grind some bologna through the Diet. Who knows–he might even pull a rabbit out of his hat and come up with a solution for the new location of the Futenma air base that won’t cause anyone to gnash his teeth. Then again, it’s not as if he has anything up his sleeve.

The only question is when he’s going to pack up and move out of the Kantei. Political punters are placing their bets at the window marked “End of May”, so the parlor game of Who’s Next has already begun.

Mo, owari da ne...

The news agency Jiji conducted a poll from 9-12 April showing that the rate of support for the Hatoyama Cabinet has pancaked to 23.7%, a 7.2 percentage-point plunge since the previous survey. Meanwhile, the percentage of respondents who said they didn’t support the cabinet jumped eight percentage points to 56.5%. A different poll from NNN conducted from the 9th to the 11th had the support rate at 28.6%.

When Japanese Cabinets have those numbers the night shift nurses in the political ward start the death watch—especially with an election looming.

Those polls aren’t outliers. The Asahi Shimbun ran a survey on the 17th and 18th that found his support at 25% and non-support at 61%. The reason most frequently cited by the Asahi respondents for pointing their thumbs south was the lack of ability to get things done, at 57%. In reference to Mr. Hatoyama, 53% said he did not meet expectations, and 31% said they never expected anything to begin with. Only 1% thought he exceeded expectations, and 13% said things turned out to be about what they thought. Those who said the party itself didn’t meet expectations totaled 51%.

No one likes the junior coalition partners very much, either—they could manage only 1% worth of positive feedback between them. Koizumi Shinjiro recently needled Kamei Shizuka for leading the People’s New Party that people don’t support, and the Asahi survey bears that out: They’re skunked at 0%.

Finally, the Shinhodo 2000 poll has the rates of Cabinet support/non-support at 28.6%/62.4%.

It didn’t take long for the public to catch on that Mr. Hatoyama and his party as presently constituted lack the temperament, judgment, and capacity to conduct the affairs of government. The news media usually points to the dirty money and the Futenma air base issue they went out of their way to step in, but it’s evident to even the casual observer that if anyone in a leadership position knows what they’re doing, they’re disguising it rather well.

Party supporters for years claimed that the DPJ was a haven for serious policy wanks who had all sorts of creative solutions for the country’s problems. Well, we’ve seen the old uncreative solution of throwing other people’s money around to buy off voting blocs for the past six months, so if they actually have devised any creative solutions, now would be the time to flash their wankery.

Say what you will about Tokyo Gov. Ishihara Shintaro—and I’d probably agree—but he is a keen observer. Here’s what he said about the younger members of the DPJ in the 15 April issue of the weekly Shukan Bunshun:

Watching the younger DPJ politicians on television, they all look like bureaucrats, despite being politicians. Their talk is filled with nothing but detailed arguments, but I have no sense at all of the spirit of what they want to do with the nation. Are those politics capable of moving the country?

Perhaps the most tasteful challenge to the government has come from the Citizens’ Council to Build a New Japan, a group that seems to be affiliated with Sentaku, an organization consisting of current and former politicians at the sub-national level working for reform from the bottom up.

Last week the council issued a “Declaration on the Issue of Political Reform in the Age of Political Choice”, and thoughtfully sent Mr. Hatoyama a copy. It contained this passage about his government:

One cannot fail to notice that the people have begun to doubt the prime minister’s leadership ability…there is a (political) climate that views the statements and debate of politicians as political leadership…While the aspect of the three primary figures of cabinet minister, vice-minister, and parliamentary secretary being involved with every issue in every ministry might appear to be “political leadership”, it is really “politician leadership”…The expression “political leadership” has taken on a life of its own, but your concept of political leadership, its content, and your use of it are extremely vague.

They politely reassure the prime minister that they understand a new government will be confronted by problems it did not anticipate. They therefore urge the government to amend its political platform and explain the reasons for the change to the voters.

To wit: Why not postpone your plans for family stipends from the government—to pick one of a dozen out of the hat blindfolded—and formulate a rational budget until you find the money to pay for your schemes without going deeper in debt?

Breakdown in classroom discipline

Kamei Shizuka, the head of junior coalition partner People’s New Party, has now made it perfectly clear his party will never support a measure to allow permanent resident non-citizens the right to participate in local elections, which is backed by leading members of the DPJ.

The Social Democratic Party of Japan, the other junior coalition partner, also has the vapors. They’ve already threatened to walk unless the government moves the Futenma air base out of the country, so that sound you hear is their grunting as they bend over to lace their designer sports shoes. Futenma is the issue they’ve chosen as their national identity, and since the party’s single-digit membership in the Diet consists of the usual champagne socialists nursing a grudge, walking out is the one thing they can be counted on to do.

Now they’re carping about other parts of the government’s agenda and its methods for adopting them. The DPJ wants to pass bills on political and Diet reform sometime in May, and they’ve threatened to use their lower house majority to push them through. Not so fast, says the SDPJ, as reported in the Mainichi. “These bills should not be forced through when the support rate for the Cabinet is plummeting.”

In one of the party’s occasional periods of lucidity from their normal disassociative fugue, party Secretary-General Shigeno Masuyasa waxed philosophical at a news conference:

The Diet is the seat for debate, so it is basic that complete and thorough deliberations be conducted.

The collapse has also spread within the ruling party itself. Rather than speaking with one voice and holding their tongues when they disagree, the Cabinet members are quarreling with each other in public.

Last week the government announced plans for new expressway tolls that met with immediate and widespread opposition. The DPJ election platform promised to remove expressway tolls entirely, so naturally once they took charge of government they created a new toll system that makes expressways more expensive than they already are.

DPJ member Kawauchi Hiroshi, the chair of the lower house’s Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Committee, spoke out publicly against the new highway tolls last week. It’s rare for a lower house committee chair to oppose a measure from the government of which he is a part—mostly because in the past the bureaucrats wrote the measures—but he says it contradicts the party’s political platform, dadgum it, and he won’t back down.

The Pollyanna prime minister, Hatoyama Yukio commented:

They’re calling it a collapse of classroom discipline, but I think it’s healthy to have debate.

The man sounds as if he’s been eating too much sun for breakfast.

Dietary habits notwithstanding, Mr. Hatoyama’s goose is cooked, and it’s only a question of when, not if, the dish is served. Rumor has it that one of the national dailies conducted an informal poll for the upper house election in July. The DPJ’s goal is to win an outright majority in that house, which would enable it to rule without coalition partners. They need to win 60 seats to achieve that, but the newspaper pegged their total at 45+.

Next man up

While finding someone to fill Mr. Hatoyama’s shoes won’t be difficult—the Japanese take theirs off indoors—the problem is that the party has an embarrassment of a lack of riches for people to step into the job.

The default candidate is deputy prime minister/faux finance minister Kan Naoto, if only because his turn is next. That was the philosophy that governed the LDP’s choices when it ruled for so many years, and since the DPJ is dead set on turning back the political clock, he’s probably the next duck in the row. Mr. Kan might have been an interesting choice 15 years ago, but the times have moved on, and he hasn’t. Besides, what nation wants to be led by a man who chooses to wear a diaper on his head?

Pro-DPJ/anti-Ozawa Ichiro journalist Ito Atsuo thinks he will be the man if Mr. Ozawa retains his influence within the party. Mr. Kan has apparently chosen to cast his lot with Japan’s version of Boss Tweed, and he’s also starting to behave as if he thinks the brass ring is within his grasp at last. He’s recently stopped talking off the record to reporters, who have begun calling him The Hands-Off Minister (nobanashi daijin) behind his back.

A Japanese-language report this weekend had Mr. Kan making arrangements to place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery during a visit to Washington to attend the G20 summit of finance ministers and central bank heads. Can you remember the last time a Cabinet member of a foreign government did anything like that? No one else does. It’s clearly intended as a gesture to placate an increasingly impatient American government that wonders if the DPJ is going to come up with someone even loopier to replace the present prime minister.

It’s a tossup, however, as to which is the loopier notion—that Mr. Kan thinks the Americans would take this gesture seriously, or that the Obama Administration actually takes Japan seriously to begin with. It’s not as if they take any of the other traditional American allies seriously.

Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan recently, the Finance Minister displayed his grasp of Finance Ministry briefing papers.

Bringing about the second Keynesian revolution will enable us to break free of the economic stagnation of the past 20 years. It is important for us to circulate money.

That was the signal to bump up the threat level for the national finances to Code Orange.

The rest of the pack

Sengoku Yoshito is getting attention as a possible replacement, if only because he’s one of the few Cabinet ministers that talks as if he has a lick of sense. He was particularly insistent about the government’s irresponsible budget before he played the good soldier and caved in. Some wonder if he is physically up to the job, however, as his stomach’s been completely removed due to cancer.

Maehara Seiji’s stock rose immediately after the government came to power. He even received praise from Koizumian Takenaka Heizo for his plan to turn Tokyo’s Haneda airport into a 24-hour hub facility. (Mr. Takenaka said the Koizumi administration wanted to do the same thing, but couldn’t overcome the alliance between the bureaucracy and their LDP chums.) Some think the moment has passed him by, some think he seems too boyish and lacks gravitas, while others think Ozawa Ichiro wouldn’t stand for giving the job to someone who refuses to kiss his ring.

Here’s the PNP’s Kamei Shizuka on those two men:

I thought Sengoku and Maehara were politicians capable of more, but they’re not what I expected.

Mr. Kamei is a veteran of the National Police Agency, so he’s used to sizing up men at a glance.

Internal Affairs and Communication Minister Haraguchi Kazuhiro is mentioned as a dark horse candidate because he’s become an Ozawa acolyte, and he has that soft look women appreciate in a politician and Mr. Ozawa appreciates in a front man, but he’s also viewed as a lightweight. Particularly whenever he opens his mouth.

Mr. Ito suggests Okada Katsuya could take the job if Ozawa Ichiro has lost influence, but then the journalist has been a long-time Okada supporter. He thinks Mr. Okada is unsuited for the job of foreign minister, but could be just the man to present and explain policy options to the public. The journalist suggests that he’d be a safe choice because he doesn’t come from the party’s yoghurt-weaving left, but also admits that his straight arrow image and refusal to be a backslapper are handicaps.

One final note: Rumors are also flying that Ozawa Ichiro might resign from his position as party secretary-general at the same time Mr. Hatoyama steps down. The party wouldn’t suffer, because he’s already put together the machine for the July election. It would also allow him to say he’s taken responsibility for the political funding scandals and thereby give his party a boost going into the polling.

Baseball megastar Oh Sadaharu had the same operation as Mr. Sengoku in which his stomach was removed. I was surprised at the time to learn that it was now possible for people to survive such procedures. In fact, it was minimally invasive—the entire surgery is performed through an incision only a few centimeters long.

I asked my family doctor about it, and he was nonchalant. “There are a lot of people,” he said, “walking around without their stomachs.”

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

A double election in Japan?

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 15, 2010

Newspapers have come upon a bend in the road. As the bureaucratic structures of Kasumigaseki have hypertrophied, I wonder whether newspapers are now dependent on the bureaucracy for too much of its information. I wonder whether the reporters’ club system, which has existed as a mechanism for monitoring government offices and authority, has now become a tool through which the bureaucracy has domesticated reporters. I’ve been a reporter for a long time, but I cannot restrain these thoughts, which have been growing over the past few years…Newspapers have been working as a cheering section for Kasumigaseki.
– Hasegawa Yukihiro, in the opening sentences of “The Real Face of the Japanese Nation”, published last year

Ishiba Shigeru, Chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party’s Policy Research Council, suggested in a speech at Ginowan, Okinawa, on the 14th that it is highly likely the prime minister will fumble the resolution of the Futenma air base issue promised by the end of May. He also noted that when it was in the opposition, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan often criticized as disgraceful the LDP’s habit of rotating the prime minister’s job among its members without holding lower house elections. He continued:

It’s natural (in these circumstances) to hold an election. A double election is highly possible.

By that he is referring to dissolving the lower house of the Diet before the end of its term to hold an election on the same day as the upper house election in July. Elections in that chamber are held regularly every three years, with half of the seats at stake. This Diet could be dissolved when its term ends in June for a double election the following month.

Mr. Ishiba suggested that his party find a way to form an electoral alliance with the new Tachiagare Nippon (Arise Japan) Party recently created by Hiranuma Takeo and Yosano Kaoru, both former LDP members, rather than criticize them as backstabbers.

During last year’s election campaign, Yosano Kaoru dismissed Hatoyama Yukio’s promise to maintain the consumption tax rate for another four years as a “fairy tale”. He praised Okada Katsuya, Mr. Hatoyama’s opponent in the election for the DPJ party presidency, for being more realistic about the need for a tax increase.

Takenaka Heizo, former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s privatization guru, harshly criticized the government of Fukuda Yasuo at the end of 2007 for allowing the Finance Ministry to reestablish control over economic policy. At that time, Mr. Takenaka used the phrase, “The zombies are back.”

That accelerated when Yosano Kaoru held three different ministerial portfolios for economic and financial affairs from 2008 to 2009, into the government of Aso Taro.

The Finance Ministry is the most powerful of the government ministries, and the one most likely to interfere with the political process. Though Mr. Yosano was not affiliated with that ministry or an MP working on their behalf in the early part of his career, he is now viewed as such. As the head of an LDP group examining fiscal reform in 2007, he opposed proposals to dip into the so-called “Kasumigaseki buried treasure” of special account surpluses and other reserves, estimated at JPY 15 trillion (about $US 160.6 billion).

Bureaucrats heart big government. The Finance Ministry also wants sound finances. That means they want higher taxes to pay for their main squeeze, rather than a government downsizing by reformers who want lower taxes, privatization, and less bureaucratic meddling.

Mr. Yosano and Ozawa Ichiro are friends. They play go together.

Mr. Ozawa has long been rumored to be interested in splitting up the DPJ, taking the non-leftist elements loyal to him, and creating a new political force. He surely knows the electorate views him as kryptonite. Mr. Yosano ran for LDP party head against Aso Taro two years ago, and would have become prime minister had he won.

In addition to go, one of Mr. Ozawa’s hobbies is cobbling together coalition governments with small, incompatible parties.

Sock puppet Finance Minister Kan Naoto has brought up the possibility of raising the consumption tax in recent days. He thinks convincing the public of the need for a tax increase is “doable”. National Strategy and Reform Minister Sengoku Yoshito also alluded this week to the need to boost the consumption tax.

But everyone knows a tax increase wasn’t in the DPJ’s election platform, so a significant tax hike would require a referendum. In a parliamentary form of government, that means a lower house election.

Journalist/commentator Itagaki Eiken, who writes as if he has sources in the DPJ, thinks Ozawa Ichiro might be planning a double election as a way to destroy the LDP and to “purify” the DPJ of their money politics problem. He notes that LDP Secretary-General Oshima Tadamori referred to the possibility of a double election at a meeting of senior party leaders on Monday. Mr. Oshima stressed the need for the party to move quickly to round up potential candidates.

Mr. Itagaki admits it might be an Ozawa bluff to clamp down on anti-Ozawa elements within the party, but he also says the Ozawa clique has been circulating and talking up the need to “smack the dog that’s fallen in the ditch” (the LDP).

He thinks the Futenma base issue will be the excuse used to call an election. The results of that election would facilitate a political realignment and the establishment of a new “grand coalition” government.

Senior DPJ member Watanabe Kozo, a former associate of Ozawa Ichiro when both were in the DPJ, and now the unofficial leader of the relatively centrist and anti-Ozawa group in the party, said on the 14th:

(The Hatoyama government) is seven months old. Rather than recall that something great was achieved, I only think it would have been better had it not happened. It now faces a political crisis…and (its) survival is now in question.

On Ozawa Ichiro:

(With him) it’s always elections, elections. Policy must not be formulated based on the standards of judging whether they will be an advantage or disadvantage in elections.

Watanabe Yoshimi, the head of Your Party, lambasted the new government in an interview appearing in the 15 April issue of the weekly Shukan Bunshun and challenged Mr. Hatoyama to call a double election.

Some segments have popped up on TV discussion programs like dandelions after a rain warning that Japan’s stratospheric debt levels could turn the country into another Greece. The programs follow the same pattern. They describe the disarray in Greece and the controversies over an EU bailout, and then reassure the public that everything is fine—today—because the nation’s aggregate savings are sufficient to pay off the debt. The bad news follows the first commercial break. Mounting debt levels will soon surpass the total aggregate savings, so “the country” has to start thinking of what steps need to be taken to get its fiscal house in order.

Now take a look at that quote at the top of the post again.

Japan has held two double elections since the end of the war. The first was called by Prime Minister Ohira Masayoshi and held on 22 June 1980, and the second was called by Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro and held on 6 July 1986. Both resulted in substantial gains for the LDP, the ruling party at that time.

In the first instance, however, the Ohira government had just been hit with a no-confidence motion that passed with some LDP votes. Ohira died before the election date, and it’s generally assumed that the ensuing LDP landslide was the result of a sympathy vote.

One reason for a double election now would be to stick a fork in the LDP. It’s difficult to find candidates willing to run on short notice, and the LDP brand is no longer a popular one. Mr. Ozawa doesn’t think the DPJ would have a problem finding candidates, and he certainly knows the party has the money to run a double campaign. Does he underestimate the public disgust with the DPJ—or is he counting on that disgust to achieve his master plan of a political realignment?

It’s worth noting that Watanabe Yoshimi’s attitude in this context is “Bring it on”. Your Party wouldn’t be able to contest many seats–their goal is 30 for the upper house election–but they don’t have to work hard to recruit candidates—the candidates are flocking to them, and the party is turning some people down. (Even, reportedly, a former Cabinet minister.) He’s also told those who want to run under the Your Party banner that they’re going to have to bear primary responsibility for their own campaign funding.

Anyone who tries to predict the course of Japanese politics is a fool, and journalism that relies on speculation is a counterproductive waste of time to begin with.

But Japanese politics does sometimes seem as if it has the qualities of the Buddhist state of emptiness, or the void, in which several possibilities exist simultaneously at a given point, any one of which might or might not manifest.

Many factors are starting to converge.

* Entropy is having its way with the LDP.

* The DPJ quickly demonstrated that it is incapable of governing in its current form. The party was little more than a “We’re not the LDP” political congeries to begin with, so its long-term survival once it attained power was always questionable.

* The hapless Hatoyama Yukio has been revealed as more helpless than even his immediate predecessors, and none of his potential successors within the party set the electorate’s soul on fire.

* The public is impatient for reform.

* The growing bureaucracy needs tax money to feed, and will always fight the efforts of small-government reformers such as Your Party.

* The forces of those who favor smaller government, individual responsibility, and lower taxes are becoming established with the emergence of smaller agenda-driven parties based on those principles.

* A double election might swamp the ability of those smaller agenda-driven parties to compete on a large scale, despite the public’s growing interest in them.

* It might also hinder the ability to compete of the two junior coalition parties, the Social Democrats and the People’s New Party–not that many people would be very upset.

* Those in financial circles overseas have been cranking the sirens about Japan ever since the DPJ government insisted on its irresponsible budget earlier this year.

* The Finance Ministry seems to have launched its efforts as a political action committee in a campaign using free television advertising masquerading as infotainment to scare the public into jumping on board for higher taxes.

Some think the stated reason for a double election would be Mr. Hatoyama’s handling of the Futenma base issue, and the use of the base as a metaphor for the Japan-U.S. security arrangement. While the prime minister’s base-related blundering is also a metaphor for his party’s incompetence in power, the real issues would be the big-government/small government debate and the necessity for a drastic political realignment.

Whether or not the country is treated to the spectacle of a mid-summer double election jamboree, one thing is certain: Something new is starting to take form in the Buddhist void of Japanese politics.

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Magic mushrooms

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 13, 2010

SOME MAGIC MUSHROOMS create an interior light show after ingestion, but other magic mushrooms in Japan emit their own light.

Called shii no tomobishi-dake in Japanese and mycena lux-coeli in English, the night-glo shrooms were discovered on Hajijojima, an island under the jurisdiction of the Tokyo Metro District, in the early 1950s. Scientists thought they were exclusive to that island for several decades, but in 1995 they started to find other sites in the coastal area of the southern Kii Peninsula, Kyushu, and elsewhere.

One reason reason for their recent discovery is that they grow only in humid areas with a lot of trees and little human presence, which means they prefer places where people are unlikely to be wandering around in the dark. They sprout during the rainy season from the end of May to July, when the weather is humid enough in this part of the world to be ladled into a bowl. The caps can grow to about two centimeters (roughly one inch) in diameter, but they seldom survive more than a few days after the rain stops because they’re prone to dehydration.

They glow green in the dark because a chemical reaction occurs with luciferin, a light-emitting pigment in the mushrooms. No one’s sure why the reaction occurs, but one theory holds that the shining light attracts insects that help disperse spores in areas with little wind dispersion.

It’s not the rainy season yet, and it’s not Hajijojima, but some mushrooms popped up in Tatsugo-cho on Amami island in Kagoshima this week well ahead of schedule. Residents attribute the early appearance to unseasonably warm weather.

People also say they’re edible, but there’s no word whether their consumption will lead to spiritual illumination!

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