Japan from the inside out


Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 18, 2010

THE SHOCK was as if everyone in the nation had touched a live wire at the same time.

Maruyama Kazuya (Mainichi Shimbun photo)

During a meeting of the upper house budget committee yesterday, Liberal Democratic Party proportional representative Maruyama Kazuya related the content of a telephone conversation he had with Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito, who is widely perceived as the man actually running the Kan administration.

Mr. Maruyama was discussing the release of the Chinese fishing boat captain with Mr. Sengoku. The government insists they had nothing to do with the captain’s release, and that it was the decision of the Okinawa prosecutors alone.

The wording differs depending on the account, but the conversation went something like this:

Maruyama: (The captain) should have been prosecuted, held in custody until a verdict was reached, and then deported.

Sengoku: Had we done that, it would have wrecked (literally, blown away) the APEC summit meeting (scheduled for next month in Yokohama)….

Maruyama: Japan will become a Chinese vassal state.

Sengoku: Our conversion into a vassal state didn’t begin with this.

When asked about the conversation, Mr. Sengoku admitted that it took place, but said:

Perhaps I’ve developed amnesia, but I have no memory of that conversation at all.

He was also displeased that Mr. Maruyama brought it up:

It is quite against my wishes if a conversation about something between friends is quoted and becomes (the basis for) a question in a public setting, such as the Diet. If there is a possibility of that happening, I now fully realize (literally, it is engraved on my liver) that I mustn’t answer the phone, even if it is a friend calling.

The news media carried the tale back to Mr. Maruyama, who said:

That’s Mr. Sengoku’s typical way of playing dumb.

This should just about shred the last slender thread holding together the tissue of a story that it was the prosecutor’s decision to release the Chinese sea captain. It was on the verge of disintegration last week when upper house member Yamamoto Ichita of the LDP questioned Justice Minister Yanagida Minoru. Mr. Yanagida, whose lack of intellectual footwork already had some questioning the reason for his recent appointment, began his answer this way:

Before I decided to release the captain…

He quickly caught himself and amended his statement, but that toothpaste ain’t going back in the tube.

The public wasn’t buying the government’s story even before these two incidents occurred. A Jiji poll conducted from 8 to 11 October found that 79.9% of the respondents—let’s round it off to 80%–didn’t believe the explanation that it was the prosecutor’s decision, against 6.4% who did.

Let’s take a stab at some speculation.

1. It will be quite some time—perhaps more than a decade—before the Democratic Party of Japan can live down the events of the past six weeks. There is an outside chance the party as presently constituted may never live it down. Upholding national sovereignty is the prime directive. Admitting vassalage is suicidal.

2. This could be the start of a long overdue national conversation about the Japanese nation-state in the modern world.

When reading the upcoming stories about the related events or attitudes in Japan in the English-language media, stat-heads might be interested in counting the occurrences of the word “nationalism” or “nationalist” used in a pejorative sense to describe what in Western countries would be considered unremarkable behavior. I found three in an AFP article over the weekend in an article that wasn’t more than six or seven paragraphs long.


Nicholas Cueto sent in a link to the video of the exchange on YouTube, which is in the comment section. The part I quoted above came from newspaper reports, but they were condensed. While the first part of that dialogue does begin around the 6:30 mark, the killer quote comes at the end, around 14:30 or later.

Here’s the Japanese expression Mr. Maruyama used quoting Mr. Sengoku:


I wondered about the nuance of this, and whether Mr. Sengoku just meant to say that the incident didn’t mean that vassalage had begun. The way it was expressed by Mr. Maruyama, however, led me to translate it as I did (particularly because the “subject” of the sentence is the idea of vassalage rather than the incident). Plenty of native-speaking Japanese agree–they’re all over the Internet this morning asking, well Mr. Sengoku, just when did it begin?

But then the Chief Cabinet Secretary held a news conference this morning. He could have sloughed it off by using the explanation I described in the previous paragraph, but he didn’t. Instead, he used a euphemism to call Mr. Maruyama a liar, the same euphemism to say the statement was a lie, and then said he wasn’t going to get involved in talking about them. (Of course, he would have had to change his mind about recalling the conversation.)

His sensitivity to the content makes me think my original translation was close to the mark.

There are two other items of interest in the video. Mr. Maruyama asks, so what if we blow off APEC this once to make a point?


The other is Mr. Maruyama’s comment during the questioning that the higher a politician climbs, the more likely he is to have problems with his memory. (This came before the vassalage quote.) The amused grins on the faces of Mr. Sengoku, Prime Minister Kan, and Defense Minister Maehara are a tacit admission they know Mr. Murayama isn’t making up the story.

NC also writes about a discussion at work:

But, the simple act of even bringing up a political topic, and everyone continuing it for a minute or so despite differences in age and seniority, to me spoke volumes.

This is an excellent point.

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3 Responses to “Vassalage”

  1. Nicolas Cueto said

    Beginning to read this in the morning over breakfast, my jaw literally dropped. Forgot I was chewing my cereal until I finished reading. And even then could barely swallow, so bad were the lump in my throat and the sinking feeling in my gut.

    But this was an English translation of a Japanese quote, I thought, so maybe “conversion into a vassal state” was a bit over the top. Perhaps what the Cabinet Secretary of Japan was reported to have said doesn’t sound as strong in Japanese.

    But dictionary searches confirm “vassal state” is what the words would mean in English.

    Still, I thought, maybe the context in which the words were being quoted is being overlooked. Or perhaps this LDP representative whom I’d not heard of before is not a reliable source.

    Googled some more, got some details about Mr. Maruyama (first impression: he’s a guys’ guy, with quite the cojones, though possibly a bit too full of himself), and finally found actual video footage of the House of Councillors committee session in which Mr. Sengoku was confronted with the above words.

    It is at:

    My Japanese ability is nowhere near perfectly reliable, but I think the video portions relevant to the above quotes begin at about 7’20” and in the last minute.

    Looking at Mr. Sengoku reacting to Mr. Maruyama politely (and engagingly!) tongue-stabbing him, I imagined that a thick skin and an inscrutable poker face are career-saving skills politicians must develop. But even a veteran like Mr. Sengoku could not maintain the face.

    And, again, I left with a bad feeling in the pit of my gut.

    As Ampontan concludes, I too hope this starts that long overdue national discussion.

    If it means anything, in the many years of polite conversation with my colleagues over lunch, only twice have they ever ventured into politics. Once was after the change in town mayor. The other was the day after that early release of the Chinese fishing boat captain. Even then, nothing heated. And concluded after a minute or so with a kind of what-can-you-do feeling. But, the simple act of even bringing up a political topic, and everyone continuing it for a minute or so despite differences in age and seniority, to me spoke volumes.

    Thank you as always, Ampontan-san, for bringing attention and convincing detail to news items my heta-nihongo would leave me either overlooking completely or ineptly interpreting.

  2. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

  3. Roual Deetlefs said


    Eloi Eloi lamma sabbagtani

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