Japan from the inside out

Experts unwrapped

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, October 26, 2010

ASIA UNBOUND is a blog on the website of the Council on Foreign Relations, which also publishes the renowned Foreign Affairs quarterly. The website touts the blog with this line: “CFR experts give their take on the cutting-edge issues emerging in Asia today.”

Their Japan Hand is Sheila A. Smith. Here is her website bio:

Sheila A. Smith is a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), where she directed the New Regional Security Architecture for Asia project. Dr. Smith joined CFR from the East-West Center in 2007, where she specialized on Asia-Pacific international relations and U.S. policy toward Asia and directed a multinational research team in a cross-national study of the domestic politics of the U.S. military presence in Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. As an Abe Fellow at Keio University in Tokyo, she researched and wrote on Japan’s foreign policy toward China and the Northeast Asian region.

Senior Fellow for Japan Studies Sheila A. Smith’s latest blog post is about the Japanese reaction to the Senkakus Incident. People with those credentials spend a lot of time at conferences, and sure enough, she just got back from one:

I have just returned from a week in Tokyo, where I attended the annual CSIS-Nikkei conference on U.S.-Japan relations.

Sheila A. Smith talked about the debate in Japan:

The debate began with opposition party critique of Japan’s “weak” diplomacy (yowagoshi) in the face of Chinese pressure, but by week’s end, the Kan government had deftly resorted to imagery of willow branches to express their sense that Japan needed to demonstrate more flexibility in its approach to a rising China.

“Deftly”? That’s the first time I’ve seen or heard anyone describe the Kan government’s explanation of their flustered, seat-of-the-pants response as “deft”. In fact, that’s the first time I’ve seen or heard anyone outside of government say anything positive about it at all. Translated into English, the opinion of most Japanese is that their response was “daft”. My opinion is that they choked.

With a whisker short of 80% of the Japanese public giving a thumbs down to the government’s handling of the incident and a similar percentage saying they think the government is lying about how it was handled, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies Sheila A. Smith’s opinion is not going to find many backers here.

Was it the willow imagery that appealed to her, or was it just wishful thinking? Wait, it gets worse:

This conversation kept me close to my Japanese-English dictionary as I sought to understand the nuances afoot in this linguistic battle over diplomatic style.

Do I really have to say anything?

I will note, however, that anyone who uses phrases such as “the nuances afoot in this linguistic battle over diplomatic style” is more in need of an English language style manual than a Japanese-English dictionary.

Sheila A. Smith follows that with several paragraphs light on the insight and heavy on the jargon:

“Multiple avenues of global cooperation are available for this conversation…”

“(Japan) is now well positioned to demonstrate what it means to be a ‘responsible global stakeholder’.”

“Issue by issue, Japan should seek out opportunities and partnerships for collective action as it seeks to address its concerns.”

Are you nodding your heads in agreement with the sagacity of the observations or because you’re trying not to fall asleep?

Sheila A. Smith observes:

(I)n the Diet conversation there seemed little interest in analyzing the interaction or in devising prescriptions for improvement. Rather Japan’s faults were magnified, and the current government chastised. Today’s opposition in Japan was yesterday’s government, and with a half century of diplomatic experience in dealing with China, one would think there would be greater room for advice and constructive feedback than in the past.

Japan hands who pay attention and read newspapers and other periodicals without constantly flipping through dictionaries already know that the DPJ government—whose defining traits were arrogance and incompetence even before this incident—was determined to go it alone and didn’t bother to consult with the Foreign Ministry, let alone the LDP. Yet Sheila A. Smith hints the opposition should have helped more.

Rather than 50 years of political experience, it would have been more practical to rely on the nearly two millenia of cultural experience the Japanese have had in dealing with the Chinese and the common sense most people have developed by the time they reach middle age. But the leaders of the DPJ government ignored the former and have none of the latter.

And yes, the willow imagery did strike her fancy.

In its bilateral relations with China, the graceful elasticity of the willow imagery works in the sense that Japan should be patient and supple in its response to Beijing’s assertiveness.

The latest post on Asia Unbound, by the way, is a comment about the comparative development of high-speed trains in the U.S. and China by Yanzhong Huang. This was of particular interest after last week’s guest post here about China’s semi-extortion of foreign technology to build their own trains. Not a whisper of that from Mr. Huang, however. With traces of an ancient tribal pride, he hails the Chinese:

The development of high-speed train epitomizes China’s rapid emergence as a great power.

And frets over the U.S. failure of will:

Where is that “can-do” and “get-it-done” attitude that had characterized America’s state-building experience?

China shunned standard international business practice and instead demanded that foreign companies transfer the technology to satisfy a 70% domestic production requirement, in exchange for promises of large contracts for other business in the country that never materialized.

Now that tonic would certainly energize any country’s “rapid emergence as a great power” and fuel a “can-do” attitude.

Frankly, the author of the guest post here and the people who contributed comments seem to be more knowledgeable about this subject than the CFR expert.

And Mr. Huang also misses the point of New Jersey Gov. Christie’s cancellation of a project to build additional train tracks between his state and New York City.

This is a think tank? Please. This is a self-congratulatory joke dressed in expensive clothing. They probably do a bang-up job of organizing conferences and selecting après-conference restaurants, though.

America has reached a critical point in the public consciousness with the realization that those who consider themselves to be an educated elite are nothing more than a credentialed gentry. People now understand that most of the experts in fields other than the hard sciences have little in the way of real expertise.

Guess who’ll be the last ones to get it.

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10 Responses to “Experts unwrapped”

  1. Tony said

    Smith seems to disprove the contention that to become fluent in a language (Smith claims Japanese fluency) one also acquires a great deal of cultural understanding. Perhaps it is her recent lack of residency here in Japan that led her to forget the general population’s thinking about China. Additionally she seems to have little understanding of how a democratic parliament/house generally works as exemplified by her statement that “Today’s opposition in Japan was yesterday’s government, and with a half century of diplomatic experience in dealing with China, one would think there would be greater room for advice and constructive feedback than in the past.” One would normally thing that the LDP’s insistence that the DPJ “missed the boat” in dealing with the Chinese trawler is an example of the role an opposition party, which until recently held power for the past 50 years, is supposed to act in a functioning democracy. Has she never heard of constructive criticism? Instead she implies one would expect the LDP to offer a solution on how to deal with the situation which the DPJ would then utilize to resolve the situation. Sadly, not only is her understanding of how a democracy works severely limited but her understanding of Japan an its political parties in particular is completely misguided. Either one of these lapses in understanding raises legitimate questions concerning her aptitude and ability to be an “expert” on Japan, let alone being an expert for the Council on Foreign Relations. In fact, her very role with the CFR raises questions as to how important the CFR views Japan in the first place

  2. Robert said

    I love experts. They so often make me feel better about not completing grad school.

    That said, I really think you’ve understated the emotional appeal of willow trees, Bill. In Buyeo, there is an old pond surrounded by willow trees. Lovely place, especially in summer.

  3. Pearl Harbour was not designed to be a sneak attack. US telegraphy held up the transmission of the vital declaration. As they had broken the code used they could time the decoding to the minute. UK and Dutch subs had kept the USA informed of the attack fleet progress.

    Yet this is such a big “secret” that those blamed on the US side are still not exonerated for what happened, as it would demonstrate a very strong appetite for aggression that does belie the calim to be a democracy. Oooops, your skirts are showing!

    Trotting out the incompetent often takes a bit of cunning. Thanks for telling us where to look.

    What comes next?

  4. slim said

    I want access to the strong narcotics Pat Donnelly is clearly using every time he comments here!

  5. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    Following the late great James Brown, I would only say this: I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open The Door, (I’ll Get It Myself).

  6. Roual Deetlefs said

    I have noticed that women tend to worship harmony, while men tend to worship order. And women will sacrifice order to attain harmony, while men will do the reverse. So the question is should a philosophy of harmony or order be pursued by Japan. I think the latter is more apt.

  7. Anonymous Seven said

    Wow. You think Sheila Smith is incompetent? She’s about the best Washington has. Exhibit A:

    (BTW, Japan’s “herbivores” were on the front page of the Washington Post yesterday).
    AS: Thanks for the note and the link. The article borders on the unreadable and the unintelligible. The premise is absurd. He doesn’t even seem to understand the basic facts of the Japanese election, if he’s talking about voters in both countries. There sure is one hell of a lot of words, though. I read the first part of the WaPo article this morning but didn’t go to the second screen. In case you missed it, here’s a take by a Japanese novelist on the herbivores that I translated earlier this year.

    – A.

  8. James A said


    I’d safely say with Pat Donnelly we’ve finally got our own Baduk. Does this mean Ampontan’s blog has finally hit the big time in the Asian blogosphere?

  9. Aceface said

    Word.I think Sheila A.Smith is the best Japan hand in the Dem camp.

  10. […] He wrote this post as a guest of the regular blogger, Sheila A. Smith. Considering what she’s offered in the past, it’s a pity he can’t replace her […]

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