Japan from the inside out

Archive for December, 2010

Working together

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 30, 2010

THE WESTERN MEDIA has chosen to describe the DPJ administration that assumed power in Japan last year as a “center-left government”. From a limp-wristed foreign policy to spendthrift social welfare schemes designed to bribe the public with its own money, however, we’ve seen a lot more of the left so far than we have of the center. Writing on the Agora blog, Fujisawa Kazuki presents further evidence that their relationship with the center is little more than a passing acquaintance in a post titled Labor Unions will Destroy Japan. Here it is in English.

Since the Democratic Party of Japan formed a government, the political power of labor unions has grown, starting with the Japanese Trade Union Federation (Rengo), the DPJ’s largest support organization. It is possible to glimpse their enormous influence in the outline of the 2011 revision of the tax code.

This revision is said to focus on those with higher incomes. The revision will strengthen the “progressivity” of the code and result in a de facto tax increase on those with annual incomes of at least JPY 15 million (about $US 182,000) by reevaluating (i.e., eliminating) deductions from earnings. Corporate officers are expected to be subject to a more stringent elimination of income tax deductions.

First, I will examine the signs that the government has taken great pains to please the labor unions. The leading executive officers of labor unions generally have annual incomes of JPY 10 to 15 million. They were likely the ones who decided that the floor for tax increases would be an annual salary of JPY 15 million. This is not the only example of beneficial treatment they received, however.

A close examination of the outline of the 2011 tax code revision shows that in addition to the elimination of tax deductions, there will also be a revision of the “specified expenditure deductions”. For example, the expenses required to obtain certification as a lawyer or accountant will become deductable. Also, the following is written on page 44 describing the categories that will now be subject to specified expenditure deductions.

“Expenditures for the purchase of books or other documents related to work assignments, expenses for clothing worn at the workplace, entertainment expenses ordinarily required for work assignments, and the operating expenditures of groups related to one’s occupation.
N.B.: If the total amount of the operating expenditures required for work exceeds JPY 650,000 in a year, the limit of the deduction will be JPY 650,000.”

I didn’t understand what they meant by “groups related to one’s occupation” until I read an entry on the blog of Liberal Democratic Party upper house member Katayama Satsuki. The groups the passage refers to are only labor unions, and it means the union members will be able to deduct expenditures for union activities from their income tax. It gave me a gloomy feeling to realize the extent to which the current government had to curry union favor.

There are likely to be continued tax increases in the future, but labor unions, with their political muscle, will be able to escape those taxes, including their relatively high-paid executive officers. These people are indeed the “labor aristocracy”.

Ikeda Nobuo, the proprietor of the Agora website, often claims that the bottleneck in the Japanese economy is the rigidity of the labor market, and I agree. Under the current government, however, the politically powerful labor unions are pushing policies that will increase labor market rigidity. The burden is being forced on those without entrenched interests, such as newly graduated job seekers and irregular employees. I am concerned that at this rate, labor unions will destroy Japan.
(End translation)

Mr. Fujisawa ensures a boffo finish by quoting Milton Friedman. I couldn’t find the exact English equivalent, but paraphrased it was this: Labor unions aren’t necessary, because the sacrifice of other workers is required to ensure that certain union members receive benefits.

Let’s get it while the gettin’ is good.

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government, Politics | Tagged: | 11 Comments »

The Japanese junk food champs

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 30, 2010

THE UN still cites the Japanese as having the world’s longest life expectancy from birth at 82.6 years for everyone, and 86.1 years for females. The CIA World Factbook offers similar figures, but ranks the country third behind the mini-states of Macau and Andorra.

A Japanese doctor once told me that if I wanted a long life, I should follow the dietary habits of Japanese women 50 years ago—in other words, chow down on fish, rice, and soy-based products. That diet is one of the keys to Okinawan longevity, which for years was the highest in Japan, until the younger Okinawans started eating like Westerners. (There’s more information on the Okinawan Centenarian Study here.)

Not all Japanese are interested in healthful diets, of course. Those who might have wondered who in Japan has the worst dietary habits now have an answer—the residents of Oita City, Oita, on the southern island of Kyushu. Oitans are known as the national leader in the consumption of chicken and dried shiitake mushrooms, but a recent Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications survey reveals they are also tops nationwide in junk food consumption.

The ministry’s survey, which covered all the prefectural capitals and 49 other major cities, showed that Oita City led the nation in purchases of purin (a commercially prepared custard pudding), packaged snacks, and chocolates. They also ranked second nationwide in purchases of instant noodles of all types and third in hamburger consumption. Meanwhile, they were at the bottom of the table by a substantial margin in purchases of spinach and other fresh vegetables.

By the numbers: The amount of money spent in Oita City annually by households with two or more members on purin totaled JPY 2,240 yen, or roughly $US 27.27 (JPY 1,788 nationwide) JPY 5,816 (JPY 3,819) for snacks, and JPY 1,552 (JPY 1,058) for chocolates. They’ve led the nation in snack and chocolate purchases for two years running.

The ministry said these proclivities had a greater impact on men than on women. A 2008 government white paper found that 34.1% of the men aged 20 to 69 in Oita City were overweight, compared to 29.3% nationwide. A total of 14.19% of 12 year olds in the city were classified as junior porkers, compared to a national percentage of 12.41%.

The women of Oita City came off slightly better—27.7% of females aged 40 to 69 were overweight, compared to 26.6% nationwide. They ranked dead last, however, among all Japanese women in the consumption of vegetables.

To probe even further, three year olds in Oita Prefecture have an average of 2.03 cavity-infected teeth compared to 1.16 nationwide, ranking it among the worst three prefectures in the country. The news is even more painful for the local 12 year olds—they average 2.7 cavities against 1.6 nationwide, placing them next to the worst in Japan.

The ministry reports that 19,052 people in the city received annual physical checkups through work, etc., and of these, 3,334 were warned about the possibility of developing metabolic syndrome. That’s a bit more than 17% of those studied, compared to estimates of 20% to 25% in the United States. Those estimates also probably apply to Great Britain and Australia, as the problem is said to be just as severe in those countries.

At least the folks of Oita City can take consolation that their junk food jones doesn’t include deep fried candy bars, which has become a popular snack at fish and chip shops in Scotland. According to the Scottish government, almost two-thirds of their men (66.4%) and more than half of the women (59.6%) were overweight in 2008.

Maybe if they exported purin to Scotland it could help wean them off the hard stuff!

American health and fitness guru Jack LaLanne, still going strong at age 96, once said that the only part of a doughnut worth eating was the hole.

He could have said the same about jelly roll, too.

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Posted in Food, Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: , , | 6 Comments »

Letter bombs (13): Atlanticism

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 29, 2010

READER TOADOLD sends in a link to a blog post in The Atlantic by Megan McArdle called Japan and the Limits of Keynesianism. While the author’s primary concerns about the problems of the Japanese economy are on the mark, her post demonstrates why there is so little to be learned from people who spend so little time paying attention to Japan as it actually is.

Reading about the government’s behavior reminds me of the worst accounts of compulsive spenders on the verge of personal bankruptcy–a sort of “What the hell, we’re screwed anyway, so let’s not think about it and maybe go to Cabo for the weekend.”

Reading more extensively might have suggested to her that the problem is the behavior of Japan’s first serious left-of-center government since the creation of the Liberal Democratic Party in 1955 and the parameters of modern Japanese politics. The DPJ government is dominated by former campus radicals, unionistas of the public and private sector, other undifferentiated leftists, and European-style social democrats who are determined to implement their worldview in the face of the facts and justify everything they’ve believed all their adult lives now that their chance is here at last. Indeed, the primary actors in many ways resemble those of the Obama administration and the Pelosi-Reid Congress in the United States for the past two years. Reducing central government expenditures is not their objective.

This is not to say that the LDP did not follow the same model of Big Government/Big Business collusion and the widespread distribution of pork, but as Hayek pointed out many years ago, social conservatives are not loath to cooperate with statists.

(T)he Japanese are extremely patriotic about their nation’s financial needs.

Ms. McArdle writes this in the context of explaining that the Japanese debt is primarily financed at home. I have no idea what it is supposed to mean.

She quotes, without a link or attribution–or even identification–Felix Salmon. Mr. Salmon is a financial journalist and blogger for Reuters, a fact that on the face of it does not bode well for insight into current conditions in Japan. We don’t have to wait long; here’s his first quoted sentence:

The situation in Japan is particularly depressing because the country has no major ethnic or political rifts.

Anyone who thinks Japan has no major political rifts has no business offering his opinions on Japan. I could entertain a small group of bien pensants at a Manhattan cocktail party for the better part of an evening with stories of the country’s political rifts. He continues:

But still the technocrats can’t make any headway.

Perhaps that’s because the technocrats are part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Still more from Mr. Salmon:

(The Japanese government) is even getting rid of highway tolls. Oh, and it’s cutting the corporate tax rate.

As anyone who can read a Japanese newspaper knows, the government just announced a new toll schedule this week, which will include a maximum rate of JPY 2,000 on weekdays. The 2009 campaign promise to eliminate highway tolls was the first one jettisoned by the new government when it came to power–within a month after taking office.

Japanese newspaper readers are also aware that (1) the nominal corporate tax rate is being cut a mere five percentage points from an oppressive 40%, (2) many companies pay a lower rate than that already, and (3) the government will try to compensate for the reduction through a de facto increase in the income tax (particularly for those with higher incomes), elimination and/or reduction of deductions, and an increase in the inheritance tax. Oh yes, and an increase in the consumption tax from 5% to at least 10%. One senior party member says they plan to discuss that in the Diet starting in June, to avoid the tax becoming an issue in the sub-national elections in the spring.

The problem is, there hasn’t been a good time for retrenchment in 20 years.

How quickly people forget the Koizumi Administration, which successfully navigated the perilous straits of a financial sector on the verge of collapse due to non-performing debt, expended an enormous amount of political capital on privatizing the postal savings system (demonstrating that politicians who show real courage will be rewarded by the Japanese electorate), and brought the nation’s finances within sight of a balanced budget as recently as 2007. And which also put the expressway system on the road to a form of privatization.

Indeed, Mr. Salmon is quoted as saying:

But as we saw with George W Bush, the fiscal rectitude of one administration can be more than wiped out during the course of the next.

We’ve also seen that in Japan post-Koizumi/Abe, though Mr. Salmon seems to have missed it.

She also quotes blogger Matt Yglesias. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this sparkler, Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit notes that he advocates lying on Twitter, calls people Nazis and writes, “F*ck you.” This is a source who deserves to be quoted?

I can’t blame the politicians for trying to restore some semblance of normal growth in the run-up to elections. But at some point, they’re going to have to cut back, whether or not it’s a good time.

One can’t blame the Anglosphere commentariat for trying to make sense of Japan, but at some point they’re going to have to get serious about doing research instead of pontificating after observing the zebra through a picket fence.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government, Letter bombs, Politics | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

The perpetual infancy of the political and bureaucratic classes

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 27, 2010

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
– George Santayana,
The Life of Reason

IN A PAPER titled Explaining Japan’s Recession, Benjamin Powell examines the Japanese economic malaise from a Keynesian, Monetarist, and Austrian perspective, and posits that only Austrian theory can elucidate the problems:

The increase in the consumption tax and the failure to reduce government spending along with the other tax cuts delay recovery from recession. Government spending seeks to maintain the existing production structure, against the demands of consumers, instead of permitting its liquidation and reconstruction.

The repeated fiscal stimulus packages with public-works spending, the large amount of savings controlled by the postal savings system and allocated through FILP, and the efforts to prevent bank and business failures all have prevented the market process of recovery from working. These repeated government interventions have maintained the existing structure of production, delaying its necessary alignment to the particular demands of consumers.

Mr. Powell concludes (emphasis mine):

Japan’s development model over the past 50 years has emphasized government intervention and planning in the economy. During its recession, government interventions have manifested themselves as fiscal stimulus packages involving large amounts of public works, increases in the monetary base, interest-rate cuts, bailouts and nationalization of some banks, direct government lending to businesses, and increases in government spending despite some tax cuts. These interventions have tried to maintain the existing structure of production preventing the necessary market processes from working to correct the artificial boom’s malinvestments.

Japan has experienced an Austrian business cycle. The initial boom was created by a central bank-induced monetary expansion. Because of repeated interventions, the economy has not recovered. The greatest malinvestments took place in capital-intensive industries in the earlier stages of production. For Japan’s economy to recover the government must stop intervening in the economy and allow the market process to realign the structure of production to match consumer preferences.

His paper was published online on 19 November 2002.

The Koizumi administration took the first steps to bring these problems under control. The most important of these steps was the privatization of Japan Post, which would have prevented the government from dipping into the postal savings accounts for their stimulus schemes.

By the end of the Abe administration, the budget deficit had been cut from more than JPY 20 trillion when Mr. Koizumi took office to roughly JPY 7 trillion. It was only three years ago, but those days now seem like a mirage.

The DPJ promised that changes would be made. What changes have they effected? They shifted the emphasis of government stimulus programs from public works expenditures to social welfare schemes. That’s the crop.

Otherwise, they have provided expensive and unaffordable subsidies to farmers and families with children, plan to increase the income tax and the consumption tax while offering a token cut in the nominal corporate tax rate (which is not the real rate for many corporations), stopped the privatization of Japan Post, allowed businesses to temporarily forego loan repayments while guaranteeing the revenue to the banks, and plan more stimulus schemes. They even claim higher taxes will result in greater economic growth if only the government would spend the money properly. Their answer to a crisis is “more of the same”.

If the Kan Cabinet’s current budget proposal is adopted next year, the DPJ will have given Japan two consecutive record-high budgets while slathering on greater amounts of debt to the Fujiyama-sized pile already smothering the economy.

Meanwhile, the Western media referred to Mr. Kan as a “fiscal hawk”.

The perpetual infants of the political and bureaucratic classes are condemning the country to the continuation–not the repetition–of its economic malaise.

Much of the blame lies with the Finance Ministry. They’ve remained a constant. The only change has been in the puppets attached to their strings and the steps of the dance.

For years, people believed the elite educational and career path ran through the University of Tokyo to the front doors of the Ministry of Finance.

If anyone wishes to argue that the elites of the political and bureaucratic classes deserve to be called elites and are not guilty of decades-long malfeasance of their fiduciary trust, the Comment section is all yours.

Addendum: Both Europe (yes, really) and local governments in the United States are standing on the precipice of a sovereign debt crisis, but Japanese politicians are consumed instead by the question of whether Ozawa Ichiro should be forced to testify in the Diet. (He should testify, but the political class is investing more time and energy in the issue than required.)

Earlier this week, a reporter asked DPJ Secretary-General Okada Katsuya whether the party’s focus on Mr. Ozawa was detracting from their pledge to put people’s lives first. “Of course not,” replied Mr. Okada, “we’re quietly moving ahead with such issues as the reform of the Tax Code…”

Thus, in the DPJ equation, higher taxes + bigger government = putting people’s lives first.

Pardon the pessimism, but the current international situation has the potential to become the rudest of awakenings, and Nagata-cho isn’t paying attention.

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government, Politics | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

The Japanese gender gap

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 27, 2010

POLITICOS in the United States pay close attention to what some perceive as a gender gap in political preferences. Polls show that in general, women tend to favor the Democratic Party of the left in percentages higher than those for men.

There’s a gender gap in Japan, too, but some might be surprised to learn that the political preferences of Japanese women are different from women in America. Traditionally, women here have tended to support the Liberal Democratic Party on the right over the Democratic Party on the left. That has changed in recent years, but as a recently released Mainichi Shimbun poll conducted on 20 and 21 November shows, women are still less likely to support the policies conducive to big government than men.

Here are some of the questions and the responses broken down by sex.

* Do you support the Kan Cabinet?
Total: 24%
Men: 24%
Women: 23%

Total: 56%
Men: 62%
Women: 52%

Not interested
Total: 20%
Men: 13%
Women: 25%

* Which party do you support?
Democratic Party
Total: 21%
Men: 21%
Women: 20%

Liberal Democratic Party
Total: 18%
Men: 21%
Women: 15%

Your Party
Total: 9%
Men: 10%
Women: 8%

New Komeito
Total: 5%
Men: 3%
Women: 6%

No party
Total: 44%
Men: 40%
Women: 46%

Women tend to be more enthusiastic about a grand coalition with the LDP when asked about that possibility.

* The Kan Cabinet is trying to strengthen ties with other parties to deal with gridlock in the Diet caused by its lack of a majority in the upper house. Which other party do you think should be the primary partner of the DPJ?
Total: 28%
Men: 26%
Women: 30%

As for a party of the left led by a woman:

Social Democrats
Total: 11%
Men: 11%
Women: 10%

* The Kan Cabinet plans to add JPY 7,000 to the monthly child allowance payments from the government next fiscal year for those families with children younger than three years old. Families with children currently receive JPY 13,000 per month per child. Do you approve or disapprove of the additional amount?
Total: 28%
Men: 34%
Women: 23%

Total: 69%
Men: 62%
Women: 74%

* Do you approve or disapprove of an increase in the consumption tax rate?
Total: 46%
Men: 56%
Women: 39%

Total: 50%
Men: 41%
Women: 57%

* Do you think the North Korean shelling of a South Korean island, in which four civilians were killed, threatens the peace and security of Japan?
Total: 85%
Men: 82%
Women: 87%

Total: 12%
Men: 14%
Women: 10%

That women tend to be more conservative about government expenditures, even when they stand to directly benefit from entitlements, might be due to the traditional Japanese custom of women handling the household finances.

Some people maintain that the Japanese are natural social democrats. It’s clear that they’ll have to find some figures other than these to make that claim stick.

Maybe mothers have been talking to their daughters.

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Posted in Politics | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Nippon noel 2010

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 26, 2010

CHRISTIANS ACCOUNT for just one percent of Japan’s population, but no one can spot the potential for a good festival better than the Japanese. That’s why they’ve adopted Christmas, with all its secular symbols, as a winter festival of light–most fitting for the time of the year in the northern hemisphere with the least amount of daylight.

One of the most attractive aspects of the season is the Japanese use of the Christmas tree as an art form. Here are some of this year’s examples.

Local volunteers in Nanyo, Yamagata, began decorating a 25-meter fir tree at a local primary school in 2003, and they’ve continued every year since. They’ve also been adding to the amount of bulbs they use to trim the tree, and this year they hung 20,000 in four colors. This is actually called an “illumination event” because the tree will be lit every night from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. until mid-January, but that didn’t stop the piano, flute, and violin trio from playing Christmas hymns as well as selections from the classics at the lighting ceremony.

What’s better than having a Christmas tree? Two trees! These two fir trees down south in Yamaguchi City, 26 and 20 meters high respectively, are estimated to be 450 years old. They’re festooned with 35,000 lights hung by 50 volunteers. If you’re in the neighborhood, you’ll be able to see them until 10 January.

This tree in a park in Anan, Tokushima, is only 15 meters high, but it’s decorated with 500,000 light-emitting diodes. A lighted Christmas tree is not just a seasonal decoration here—it’s part of the Anan Luminous Town Project that’s been held two or three times a year since 2003. This December was the 17th time the project was presented. Anan is a luminous town because it’s the headquarters of the Nichia Corp., the nation’s largest LED manufacturer.

The Tokushimanians devised a new way to build their tree this year. Previous trees were raised on site using ropes or a crane, but this year’s model was built with a bamboo frame. Nothing says Christmas in Asia like bamboo. A total of 120 lengths of 4-6 meter-long bamboo were used. They liked the idea so much they also built a 10-meter-high bamboo pyramid and bamboo wreaths.

In addition to being one of the Christmas colors, green is also the color of the ecological movement, and one way the Japanese put the green into Christmas is to make trees out of used PET bottles. Here’s a 7.25-meter PET bottle tree at the L’Espace City shopping complex in To’on, Ehime. How interesting that the “green” tree is blue, but that won’t surprise anyone who understands the language. The tree wasn’t erected solely to raise ecological awareness—it also is to celebrate the 10th anniversary of L’Espace City. That’s why the 16,000 LEDs will be lit from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m. until end of January. It was assembled by a non-profit and some private companies in the city, which started collecting bottles at schools and shops in the fall. They found more than 10,000 in three months.

This PET bottle eco-tree adorned a Fukui City parking lot. Fukuan adults and kids have been trimming PET bottle trees in public for the past four years, and they used 700 PET bottles and electric lights for this year’s five-meter creation. To add to the holiday atmosphere, two Santa Clauses passed out candy, and they drew a picture of Snow White on the side of an adjacent building. The kids also built a haunted house. Why? Because it’s Christmas!

Fukui City adults and children also worked together to build this cardboard Christmas tree designed to lie on the floor of the gym at the Higashiago Primary School. The Christmas celebration for the grade schoolers included several events, including reading aloud from storybooks and group singing. This tree was created by 150 people working in groups of six or seven. It was 15 meters high and nine meters wide, and decorated with ornaments made from wrapping paper and milk cartons brought from home. They also set up and lit 200 candles in the form of a tree, and then went up to the second floor to enjoy the results of their handiwork from on high.

What else can be used for Christmas tree material besides PET bottles, bamboo, and cardboard? Glass! The employees of Aqua World, the Ibaraki Prefectural Oarai Aquarium, created this glass tree from 108 individual pieces with tropical fish inside. They wanted small colorful fish for the decorations, so they chose the betta Siamese fighting fish. That breed is well known for aggressively defending its territory and fighting until the finish. Territorial disputes aren’t really in the spirit of the season, so the feisty fish have been isolated from each other within the tree. A lonely Christmas for them is the best solution for everyone.

Speaking of fish, the Kagoshima City Aquarium had kindergarten students from 42 schools in the city work since early November to create fish ornaments for their Christmas trees. Yes, trees—they had 34 in all spread throughout the facility. Now how’s that for a scheme. They got the kids to do all the work of making Christmas decorations and called it an art project!

The Japanese are known for their appreciation of ephemeral beauty, and here’s an excellent Yuletide example. The ANA Hotel Clement Takamatsu in Takamatsu, Kagawa, arranges the lights in 46 guest rooms on the northeast side of the building on floors 5-19 in the shape of a tree. They ask the guests in the other rooms on that side of the building to shut the curtains, and the result is a tree pattern that is 48 meters high and 43 meters wide.

The hotel does this only on Christmas Eve, and for only one hour, starting from 6:00 p.m. The more you think about it, the more Zen it gets!

Drivers in Mino, Osaka, can’t miss this tree, nor have they for the past 15 years. This creation of the Mino Chamber of Commerce is almost impossible to miss—it’s 50 meters high and towers over the Green Road Tunnel.

Christmas is not always filled with peace and light, as louts are on the prowl every day of the year. To remind everyone of the need to be alert even on 25 December, the police department of Muroran, Hokkaido, made a tree of 30 PET bottles decorated with handmade Christmas cards from each of the separate bureaus. Instead of the generic “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men”, the cards contained crime-busting messages, such as “Don’t forget to lock the windows and doors when you go out.” Said the Muroran police chief, “A safe and sound yearend is the best Christmas present after all.” The kids might not agree, but their parents probably will.

Incorporating the Christmas theme with all sorts of national symbols is a seasonal tradition everywhere, and Japan is no exception. That might be one of the reasons the Fuji Q Highland amusement park in Yamanashi built a 60-meter-high, illuminated steel frame representation of Mt. Fuji in their parking lot for the season. It’s decorated with 100,000 LEDs. The park says that other than free-standing electric towers, it is the highest illuminated object in Japan.

Snow is a key part of Christmas music and imagery, even in places where it doesn’t snow. So in keeping with the seasonal theme, here’s a photo of the first snowfall on Mt. Fuji in Yamanashi in November. Luckily it includes some Christmas reds for contrast. Snow has dusted the summit since 25 September, but this was the first time the whole mountain was covered. It was – 1º on the ground when the picture was taken but -12.1º on top of Old Snowy. Makes me glad to be in Kyushu!

Yes, this Ampontan Christmas card is a day late, but accept it in the spirit of Suzuki Saeko—don’t you wish it could be Christmas every day?

If you’re still in the seasonal mood, click on the Christmas tag for some truly inspired trees from previous posts.

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Posted in Holidays, Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Japan budgets the vig

Posted by ampontan on Friday, December 24, 2010

IN 2006, Japan agreed to pay $US 6.09 billion to the United States for the costs associated with relocating American Marines from Okinawa to Guam. Of that, $US 740 million will be for the local infrastructure, including sewer systems, to handle the Marines.

On the 21st, the Japanese government allocated $US 720 million in their proposal for the FY 2011 budget as the first payment of their obligation. The money might be provided as a loan by the Japan Bank of International Cooperation, though the government of Guam says they’re not interested in repaying a loan. As we’ve noted earlier, the United States government has said it will not be responsible for guaranteeing the repayment of the loan.

In other words, the Japanese government is giving the United States money to relocate American military forces from Japan to United States territory. The Marines are now based on Okinawa, and the Okinawans have been desperate for years to have at least some American personnel moved elsewhere. The land area of the Okinawan islands totals 877 square miles, on which is based 70% of the American military presence in Japan. American military installations occupy slightly more than 10% of all Okinawan territory. They include one Air Force base, one Navy aviation facility, and two Marine aviation facilities.

In comparison, Rhode Island–the smallest of the 50 American states–has nearly twice the land area of Okinawa at 1,545 square miles.

The Japan-U.S. Security Treaty provides for the stationing of American forces in Japan “to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security in the Far East and to the security of Japan against armed attack from without”. While I have the utmost respect for the skills and dedication of the Marines, I suspect none of them would define their mission as defense. The negotiations to move some of the personnel, incidentally, began in earnest after two Marines and one sailor raped a 12-year-old Okinawa girl in 1995.

Yet there is a lot of resentment in some quarters in the United States, particularly among those who favor a strong military, for what they perceive as foreigners getting a free ride for national defense while Uncle Sam foots the bill and takes all the risks.

There is no longer any excuse–none–to apply this thinking to Japan.

Far from being a free ride, that $US 6.09 billion the Japanese will pay just to move the Marines would place it in a tie for 27th place with Norway among 152 countries in annual military expenditures in 2009, based on constant 2008 U.S. dollars, as calculated by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Japan ranks seventh overall on the list; North Korea’s expenditures are unreported.

Let’s dispense with the free ride hogwash and call a spade a spade: The Japanese government is paying vigorish to the United States of America for a protection scheme.

Those people who think the American media does a first-rate job of covering the news might consider this: As I write, the only American news outlets covering this story were the Stars and Stripes (the military newspaper) and UPI, which summarized the coverage by the Yomiuri Shimbun.

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Posted in International relations, Military affairs | Tagged: | 7 Comments »

The Edo period strip mall in Kuroishi

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 20, 2010

MODERN SHOPPING and commercial complexes have become ubiquitous in Japan since the deregulation of the retail industry 20 years ago. I live in a town of 180,000, and about a 10-minute drive away is a shopping mall as large as any I’d seen in the United States before coming to Japan. There are several more of equal size dotted around town, and bigger ones still in the major metropolitan areas.

Before that, the shopping centers in a Japanese city’s commercial district tended to resemble the covered arcades of Britain and France discussed in this post. But what did the traditional shopping area look like before Japan reopened to the outside world and its influences during the Meiji Era?

It’s still possible to see one in the city of Kuroishi, Aomori. In the early years of the Edo period (the first half of the 17th century), Tsugaru Nobufusa, the first head of the domain controlled by the Kuroishi Tsugaru family, built his central administration building in Kuroishi after the family split off from the Hirosaki domain in Aomori. Located to the north was the samurai neighborhood, and lying to the south was the commercial area. Today there remains in the city’s Naka-machi district a shopping arcade with wood frame buildings that date from that period. It’s been officially designated a district with important traditional structures. Covered passageways called komise were built in front of the shops along the street to protect shoppers and pedestrians from the sun in the summer and the heavy snows of winter.

The area at the boundary of the Naka-machi and Mae-machi districts thrived as a commercial neighborhood between the urban section of the castle town of Hirosaki and the port in Aomori where the kitamaebune called. Those were commercial sailing ships that worked the northern coast on the Sea of Japan. In other words, a lot of people with money to spend passed through.

Not everyone can trek up to the far north to see for themselves, but luckily there’s a two-minute YouTube tour that will guide you through the best spots of Kuroishi’s Edo period strip mall, dirt floors and all. There’s one advantage to going there yourself–as you watch the video you’ll be serenaded by two men playing Tsugaru shamisen!

While you’re there, don’t forget to stop by for a meal of some of the distinctive Kuroishi yakisoba.

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

Why does the world like Japanese manga?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 19, 2010

Fighting evil by moonlight,
Winning love by daylight,
Never running from a real fight,
She is the one named Sailor Moon.
– The first verse of the Sailor Moon theme song in English

JAPAN was once known as the land of the rising sun, but it might be more appropriate to say that more people know it today as the land of manga and animations. Here’s yet another example: An annual exhibition titled the Manga Day Commemorative Four-Panel Cartoon Awards is underway until 20 February at the Yokoyama Memorial Manga Museum (English-language website) in Kochi City, Kochi. It will run until 20 February.

The museum established the awards to recognize contributions to the development of manga culture, and this is the sixth exhibit. In October, judges at the museum selected 15 works from among the 1,197 four-panel strips submitted by 878 artists in 42 prefectures and the United States. The current exhibition presents the prize winners and the 139 works that made it past the first round of judging. There’s also an exhibit of 430 manga created by children of primary school age or younger that have been deemed to have promise.

The exhibit just began, so I’m not sure about the connection with Manga Day, which is 3 November in Japan. The museum was built to honor Kochi native Yokoyama Ryuichi, a famous manga artist who in 1961 created Japan’s first televised cartoon show, Instant History. He is also the first manga artist to have been named a Person of Cultural Merit.

Why have Japanese manga captured the imagination of young people around the world? Makino Keiichi, head of the Faculty of Manga at Kyoto Seika University, thinks their popularity originates in two aspects of Japanese culture: kanji and Yaoyorozu no Kamigami. The latter expression is literally “eight million kami” (divinity, divine essence), but what that eight million really means is “a heck of a lot”. In other words, the divine essence resides in all things.

Mr. Makino uses the kanji 重 as an example of the first aspect. He says that depending on the context, Japanese will immediately determine its meanings from among the possibilities of “overlapping”, “heavy”, “-fold” (as in three-fold), or “piled up”, and its reading from among the possibilities of kasanaru, omoi, e, ju, or cho.

He explains:

“Manga are the same as kanji. When the readers see one panel of a comic, they immediately understand the meaning and freely interpret the image. That culture is the backdrop for manga, so Japanese manga artists don’t draw anything into the background that isn’t necessary. They only include the content necessary to convey the information. That results in creations with communicative power which can be understood at a glance by foreigners and children.”

As for the second aspect, he explains that the Japanese believe the divine essence resides in everything, and this sense of spirituality underlies the rich story content of Japanese manga.

“It’s different from the monotheism that forbids idolatry. In Japan, the divinities and spiritual creatures take a multiplicity of forms and become anthropomorphic. I suspect that openness is what enables the free expression of stories and characters.”

Mr. Makino adds that in the West, the Devil is a frightening creature, but that demons and Tengu in Japan are depicted with human characteristics.

“Even that which is frightening is not rejected, but made into an engaging character.”

As demonstrated by the worship of the eight million divinities, a characteristic of Japanese culture is its acceptance of and openness to things foreign, which he cites as one reason for the diversity of storylines.

“Before they’re aware of what’s happening, people throughout the world become captivated by the spiritual culture of Japan.”

Now you know how the Sailor Moon girls got their magical powers!

Makino Keiichi has his own Japanese-language website that’s still under construction, but you can see some of his unusual creations on one part of it. Kyoto Seika University and the city of Kyoto operate the Kyoto International Manga Museum, which has the world’s largest collection of comics.

It’s not just the visual art or the stories, either. Listen to where this music from the Seek the Full Moon animation takes you in 80 seconds.

One final note: If you think Mr. Makino is off base with his Yaoyorozu no Kamigami idea, consider that today at the Museum of Art, Kochi–in the same city as the manga exhibition–a pop art exhibit opened showing the works of Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, among others. Kochi City has a population of about 340,000 and is somewhat isolated on the island of Shikoku, where it is one of the primary cities.

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Posted in Arts, Popular culture | Tagged: , | 9 Comments »


Posted by ampontan on Friday, December 17, 2010

THE NEWSPAPERS in Japan this week were filled with stories about the Kan Cabinet’s proposed cut of the corporate tax rate. Japanese blogger Fujisawa Kazuki asks: What tax cut? Here’s the English version of what he wrote.

The Tax Commission announced different measures for tax increases to offset the decline in tax revenue due to the reduction of the corporate tax rate that so many in industry and the commentariat have been pushing for. As widely predicted, the reduction in the exemptions for the income tax and the residential tax will mean a de facto increase of taxes on higher earners (defined as those making at least JPY 15 million [roughly $US 178,000] a year). There will also be a tax increase for individuals through the revision of the taxation system for dependent family members. Yet another increase will involve the broadening of the amount of assets subject to inheritance taxes.

The current corporate tax rate will be reduced by 5 percentage points from 40% to 35%. Concerns had been raised about the taxes on securities investments. It was decided to extend for two more years the preferential 10% tax rate on capital gains and dividends. To offset the corporate tax reduction, there will be another de facto increase in corporate taxes through modifications of the rules for depreciation and the (reduced deductions) for the carryover of losses. Moving to implement these measures will require legislative proposals to amend the tax code in the next regular session of the Diet. In short, there will likely be increases in every category of taxation other than the corporate tax.

I think a nation’s tax code shapes the nation itself, and that’s why I’m so amazed–or rather, extremely discouraged–at the Tax Commission’s measures. Other than a mere five percentage-point reduction in the nominal corporate tax rate, this is a fundamental, across-the-board increase in taxes. No philosophical justification of any kind can be discerned behind these increases; it is the result merely of the collision between the shameless populism of the politicians and the equally shameless attempt of the bureaucrats to save their own skins.

How did this (bad) proposal to amend the tax code come about? It’s very easy to understand what’s behind it. The politicians do not want to lose the next election, so they do not want to raise taxes. In particular, they must not raise the consumption tax. Also, they are being forced to lower the corporate tax rate amidst the global competition to cut corporate taxes. This has already been widely discussed in the mass media. Consequently, it has been decided through “political leadership” that the consumption tax will not be raised for now, and the corporate tax rate will be lowered to a certain extent.

The bureaucrats, of course, want to increase taxes to expand their power. The issue that comes before power, however, is the absolute inability to spend money one doesn’t have to begin with. It will be next to impossible to float deficit-financing bonds with the two houses of the Diet in gridlock. That would result in a sovereign default compounded by the politicians’ populism. Sovereign default would be extremely troubling for public employees, such as the bureaucrats, so they must find some way to avoid it.

What happened as a result? It is a host of under-the-radar tax increases of which the people are unaware. The Financial Ministry bureaucrats have racked their brains to devise ways to raise taxes by stealth while operating under the constraints of maintaining the consumption tax rate and lowering the corporate tax rate. The cut in dorporate taxes is offset to a certain extent by the tax increases resulting from the revisions of the rules for depreciation and carrying forward losses. Taxes will be increased further by the subtle changes to the tax code for income tax and the residential tax. The visible tax rates will not change in either case, so the tax increases will likely pass by the citizens without notice.

Ultimately, there is absolutely no philosophy about how to create growth for Japan or what sort of country they want Japan to be. The Japanese economy is stagnant, which by itself has caused a decline in Japanese global competitiveness. Yet when it comes to the tax code, the most important element for determining the course of the nation, all we have is the selfish ego battles of the ugly politicians and bureaucrats.

Why do they show no vision to simplify the tax code and thereby revive the Japanese economy? It would not be difficult at all. Go to any bookstore and pay about JPY 1,000 and you’ll find out. (N.B.: There’s a link in the original to a book called Nihon Keizai Yomei Sannen [Three Years Left for the Japanese Economy], by Takenaka Heizo, Ikeda Nobuo, Suzuki Wataru, and Doi Takero) Both the corporate tax and the income tax must be set at levels equivalent to those in other Asian countries. Both the corporate tax and the income tax must have flat rates below 20%. A tax code must be created that rewards the people who work hard. The corporate tax will be reduced to improve international competitiveness, but unless the income tax of the managers working at those corporations is also lowered, there won’t be any way to attract foreign-capitalized companies. In the aged society of the future, funding sources must be sought through the consumption tax to insure the equal liability of the elderly, who have a disproportionately higher amount of assets.

This proposed amendment of the tax code has none of these justifiable changes whatsoever. It is only a halfway measure to protect the mutual interests of the politicians and the bureaucracy. It is truly pathetic.

(end translation)
Neither the government nor the bureaucrats seem to be interested in real economic growth, do they? And did you notice that the floor for what constitutes the well-off is lower in Japan than in the United States?

It’s time again to quote Prof. Koto Kyoji on the corporate tax rate, since no one else has:

The effective tax rate as stated by the Finance Ministry bureaucrats and the business leaders is nothing more than the superficial rate that does not reflect the deductions from special tax measures. Calculating the effective tax rate that incorporates the special tax measures for reducing taxes by avoiding them altogether shows that the average rate for the top 100 companies ranked by current profit is 30%. It is 32% for the large auto companies, 15% for the telecommunications companies, and 8-9% for the trading companies. There are many provisions for revenue exemptions when calculating the corporate tax, and all of them benefit big business.

Social engineering

One recommendation made to the Cabinet was to eliminate or reduce the family deduction for non-working housewives, with the assumed revenue increase earmarked to pay for additional child allowance payments. They also clearly stated they want to use this measure to get women out of the house and into the workforce. The DPJ itself wouldn’t go for it, however. That will likely change after the regional elections conducted nationwide next spring. There’s already talk of a proposal to increase the consumption tax during the fall Diet session next year.

Enemies of the people

A senior official of the Social Democratic Party is opposed to the reduction of the corporate tax rate. He said the companies would only allocate the savings to internal reserves.

Why anyone in the Social Democratic Party would have the first idea about corporate financial behavior, or why he thought it was the business of the political class to dictate to corporations the disposition of their legally acquired income, he did not say.

Command economy

Tuesday, Prime Minister Kan met with Keidanren head Yonekura Hiroaki and asked that the group’s members start hiring more and boosting capital investments in return for the 5% reduction in the corporate tax rate.

It’s progress, I suppose. At least Mr. Kan has begun to understand there’s a connection between capital investment and economic growth. He also didn’t try to convince anyone that tax increases lead to economic growth, which was his line of a few months ago.

The dinosaur media

The Japanese mass media generally did not care for the proposal because there is no provision for an increase in the consumption tax. As we’ve seen before in this post about Hasegawa Yukihiro, Big Media in Japan often takes its cues from the Finance Ministry.

Missing in action: Calls for serious cuts on the fiscal side.

One of the objectives of this website is to show that it is counterproductive for the person with an interest in Japanese affairs to read the coverage or commentary from the English-language media.

Indeed, it is often the intellectual equivalent of watching someone walk into a five-star Michelin restaurant, tuck a napkin into his collar, eat with his hands, and chew with his mouth open.

Those inclined to dismiss that as an exaggeration are invited to read this piece of glorious ignorance by someone named Paul Jackson at a site called The Diplomat:

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Naoto Kan ordered a 5 percent cut (sic) in the corporate tax rate as had been widely anticipated…But after all the huffing and puffing by Kan about the need for fiscal discipline, how can he justify increasing the hole in the government’s finances by another 1.5 trillion yen? Surely that flies in the face of his backpedaling on his party’s general election manifesto commitments in the name of budget-balancing prudence?… So let’s keep a close eye on how Kan’s government is going to find the cash to fund this cut.

Maybe he could start by keeping a close eye on this.

And hubba-hubba, how about that writing style? Prime ministers don’t “order” anything, the proposal is for a five-percentage-point cut, not a 5% cut, and it’s a shame there’s no YouTube of something flying in Mr. Kan’s face while he’s backpedaling.

Let’s just hope he doesn’t pick his teeth and belch out loud before leaving the restaurant.

UPDATE: Nakagawa Hidenao of the LDP notes that the stealth “revenue enhancements” were obviously devised by the Finance Ministry’s Budget Bureau. He points out that when the DPJ was in opposition, they criticized the Liberal Democrats for piggy-backing on the bureaucracy and campaigned on a platform of instituting political control of the bureaucracy, but says that they have become even worse than the LDP. He also notes the farce of the Ren Ho-led policy reviews, which have no legal standing and whose recommendations have been vetoed by the DPJ labor union supporters.

Declare the pennies on your eyes…

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What is the real Chinese bustline?

Posted by ampontan on Friday, December 17, 2010

MEN HAVE always appreciated pictures or photos of women of curvilinear beauty in various stages of déshabillé, particlularly in the superstructure and the derrière.

For some reason that perhaps only evolutionary biologists could explain, however, today’s manly man seems to enjoy photos of women who have clearly benefited from implausible breast enhancement surgery. I don’t get it, at least on a personal level. As one Internet wag once put it, if I want to play with a couple thousand dollars worth of silicon, I’ll buy a new computer.

Meanwhile, modern technology is now rendering the Chinese economic miracle déshabillé, and the results are even less attractive than a phony silicon bustline. This brief blog post at The New Editor consists primarily of two links. One is a reference to an advisory from The Royal Bank of Scotland warning its clients to protect themselves from sovereign Chinese risk.

The other is a link to Google satellite photos of several city-sized versions of Chinese Potemkin villages:

“There’s city after city full of empty streets and vast government buildings, some in the most inhospitable locations. It is the modern equivalent of building pyramids.”

Now add that information to data provided by Gordon Chang and others, who found vast disparities in such statistics as automobile production and gasoline consumption.

Apparently some people enjoy the economic version of silicon and mirrors. One wonders how the evolutionary biologists would explain delusion on that scale.

So, China now has the world’s second largest GDP?

Sure they do.

Posted in China, I couldn't make this up if I tried | 11 Comments »

Ain’t no mountain low enough

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers.
– Qingyuan Weixin

FIRST there is a mountain / Then there is no mountain / Then there is, were the primary lyrics to Donovan’s ’67 pop hit that reached #11 on the American charts and #8 in Britain. In those days, no one knew whether he was singing about Qingyuan’s Zen awakening, a lysergic acid-fueled mind jaunt, or both, but for most listeners either one would have been equally groovy.

Mr. & Mrs. 100,000

Visitors to Mt. Benten in Katanokami-cho, Tokushima City, however, wouldn’t have to indulge in esoterica or psychedelia to find themselves wondering if the mountain was playing hide-and-go seek with them. A local society likes to boast that at 6.1 meters high—a skoche more than 20 feet–Mt. Benten is Japan’s smallest mountain. Lest you think no one would go out of their way to visit a glorified hill, be advised that 100,000 souls have braved the Benten trek since 2002 without Sherpas and lived to tell about it. In fact, a group of local Tokushimanians has been issuing certifications to anyone who reaches the top.

The 100,000th person to have visited Mt. Benten was one-half of a married couple (take your pick which one) from Komatsushima in Tokushima earlier this year. The local group held a special ceremony, at which the accompanying photo was taken.

Many visitors think that at first glance, Japan’s smallest mountain looks like a forest next to a wet rice paddy. The folks in Katanokami-cho started promoting it as a mountain as a cosmic joke in 1997, but then the rest of Japan decided yes, there is a mountain there after all, and started coming to see for themselves. Some intrepid travelers have made a point of climbing both the 3776-meter Mt. Fuji, Japan’s highest mountain, and Mt. Benten to receive certification for having been to the highest and lowest, a concept that contains some trippy esoteric elements of its own. Five couples have chosen to hold their wedding ceremony at the summit. Their reason? They think it will be auspicious for their relationship because “we can’t get any lower than this.”

Said the director of the local association:

“We started the promotion in the spirit of a game, and we never thought people would take it this seriously. We hope people continue to develop great affection for the mountain.”

Thanks to the magic of modern technology, armchair trippers don’t have to date the girl named Sandoz to go mountain viewing from wherever they are—there’s an official website in Japanese with a live mini-cam broadcasting Mt. Benten to the world in real time 24/7.

If you have any energy left after you come down, you might want to slip on over to see the mighty Butsubutsu—Japan’s shortest river.

Zen Brazilian style

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Posted in I couldn't make this up if I tried, Travel | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Learner’s permit

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 13, 2010

AT A PRIVATE GATHERING with several hundred supporters in Tokyo on the evening of the 12th, Prime Minister Kan Naoto had the following to say about his first six months in office, according to a report in the Asahi Shimbun:

“I’ve taken various things into consideration until now. In that sense, until now I’ve been operating on a learner’s permit…Now it’s about time for me to use a real license. I hope to receive your support…Starting now, I want to start (conducting government) in the real Kan Naoto manner.”

In its Japanese-language article, the Asahi notes that in his speech at the start of the October Diet session, Mr. Kan said:

“We have reached the stage of making this administration fully operational…(This will be a) Cabinet that puts its words into action.”

Mr. Kan was first elected to the Diet in 1980.

Really, is there any reason to read fiction when you can read stories such as these in the newspaper every day?

This time for sure!

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Posted in I couldn't make this up if I tried, Politics | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »


Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 12, 2010

SUMMER IS THE SEASON for fireworks, but there’s a real possibility the mad festival of Japanese politics could explode in a shower of light, fire, and dead flowers as early as this week.

The fuse has already been lit by an unpopular administration, a nebbish prime minister, and a Cabinet whose principal member is so unattractive one wonders how he ever convinced voters in his district to elect him in the first place. If the fuse doesn’t fizzle, the Big Bang could produce (a) A revived coalition between the Democratic Party and the Social Democrats, (b) A grand coalition with the Liberal Democrats, or Ozawa Ichiro (c-1) Either splitting to form a new party or (c-2) Being dumped by the DPJ, which would mean the end of the ruling party as we know it. Let’s see what’s burning under all those smoke signals.

Coalition with the Social Democrats

Unless they provide evidence that they’ve suddenly discovered how to negotiate with the opposition, the Kan Cabinet will have difficultly passing the enabling legislation for next year’s budget through the upper house, where the party does not have a majority. (The budget itself does not require upper house approval to go into effect.) One solution would be to form an ad hoc coalition in the upper house. Another would be to reconstitute the coalition with the Social Democrats that fell apart earlier this year when the Hatoyama administration backtracked on its pledge to have the Americans move the Futenma airbase out of Okinawa. Such a coalition would provide a two-thirds majority in the lower house, negating the need for upper house approval of any legislation.

Some in the DPJ are enthusiastic about the idea. Said Matsuno Yorihisa, the former Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary in the Hatoyama Cabinet and the editor of the prime minister’s e-mail magazine:

“We should hold discussions with the Social Democratic Party again and form a parliamentary coalition…regardless of the circumstances, we should create a framework in which we can exercise a two-thirds majority to pass legislation.”

More than a few in the ruling party don’t like the idea at all, however. The price of such a coalition, as discussed by Mr. Kan and SDP head Fukushima Mizuho last Monday, would be to break the agreement with the Americans about Futenma, reduce the Japanese financial contribution to the American military presence, and forget about the new idea floated by the Kan Cabinet to turn Japan into a weapons exporter. On her way out the door after the meeting, Ms. Fukushima said: 私がぶち切れなくてすむようによろしくお願いします.

Translation is not algebra, and there are many ways to approach any passage. For example, the concept of profanity is not the same in the two languages, and the concept of profanity itself has become degraded over the past few years in the Anglosphere. I prefer the high road, but it’s difficult to resist the temptation to translate the above sentence as, “Please make sure you don’t piss me off this time.”

She was joking, but that still wound up pissing off a lot of other people. Said Your Party head Watanabe Yoshimi:

“It’s a reversion to the terminal period of a government. They’ve flip-flopped so much they’ve gone into a Dutch roll.”

Considering the context, he also came as close as any Japanese politician I’ve heard to saying, “WTF are they doing?” and added:

“There has been absolutely no self-reflection based on what happened to the collapsed Hatoyama government, in which the dog’s tail wagged the head. They just want to extend the life of this government.”

LDP Secretary-General Ishihara Nobuteru said:

“This would destroy the Japan-United States relationship. What will be lost will be more than what is gained by a two-thirds majority.”

Meanwhile, senior LDP member Nakagawa Hidenao wrote on his blog, “It’s time to bring down the Cabinet.”

While there’s no Constitutional or legal problem with using a supermajority in the lower house to override an upper house rejection, some politicians think it runs counter to the spirit of the Japanese democratic system. Here’s what one MP had to say:

“This (maneuver) has been abused so much, the regular repassage of legislation using the two-thirds majority for bills in the lower house represents nothing more than the expiration of the “sell-by date” for the Diet itself, the denial of deliberative democracy, and, more than anything else, the desecration of the Japanese bicameral system of parliamentary democracy. The true path to resolving this situation is to dissolve the Diet as quickly as possible, hold a general election, and call for a vote of confidence from the sovereign will of the people.”

Oh, wait…that was SDP member Abe Tomoko speaking about the Aso administration on 19 June 2009.

Let’s try this one:

“This is the first time we’ve had such an anomalous situation in half a century, since 1957, and I can only say that it is extremely regrettable from the standpoint of parliamentary democracy. It’s clear to everyone that the only way to overcome this situation and create new hope is to dissolve the lower house and hold a general election.”

Oy, did it again! That was Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito in 12 December 2008, when he was an opposition member criticizing the Aso administration.

This time for sure!

“Isn’t it logical that the first thing that should be done is to dissolve the lower house and have a vote of confidence from the people to determine whether the lower house delegates represent the national will?”

Oh, boy. That’s what Prime Minister Kan Naoto said when he was in the opposition speaking out against the Fukuda administration’s use of the supermajority on 13 May 2008.

Grand coalition with the Liberal Democrats

FNN is reporting that DPJ executives asked Watanabe Tsuneo, the chairman of the Yomiuri Shimbun group, to act as a go-between in talks with the LDP to form one big happy political family a grand coalition. Mr. Watanabe served the same role three years ago during negotiations between then-Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo and then-DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro. They worked out a deal, but the other DPJ senior members balked and Mr. Ozawa briefly walked.

The Yomiuri chairman met with former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio on the 7th and with LDP head Tanigaki Sadakazu on the 8th. He’s also reportedly met with Sengoku Yoshito.

Writing about the action behind the scenes on his blog, Your Party Secretary-General Eda Kenji charged that the actors were trying to arrange a structure with older conservative elements and veterans in the background while pushing younger and fresher faces up front. He said, “It’s an artifice for double-crossing the people”.

He thinks such a coalition would ultimately benefit his party, because it would create a battle between “big government on a bureaucracy-led, high-tax course with pork, against forces favoring small government on a private sector-led, growth course with the regions playing the main role.”

He also suggested that people should pay attention to the statements of LDP leadership, as one senior party member said they would have to listen to DPJ proposals for a grand coalition if Mr. Kan came to them “on bended knee”.

It’s time to read between the lines. First Ishiba Shigeru, chairman of the party’s Policy Research Council:

“Reorganizing the coalition without an election is a perversion. If the DPJ cuts loose the Ozawa group, it is not out of the question that the LDP could work with them, but they’ll have to clearly state why they want to work together…if there is a coalition, they’ll have to completely change last year’s manifesto, so unless there is an immediate election and the confidence of the people, the government will not have any legitimacy.”

Bended knee, eh? Here’s Mr. Tanigaki:

“At present I am extremely negative (about the possibility). It is not easy to unify a party to create a grand coalition. Does Mr. Kan have that base and those skills?…Their approval rate is in the 20% range. It’s not possible to form a coalition with that sort of government….and there’s no reason to form a coalition with any party in which Mr. Ozawa is a member.”

Mr. Ishihara again:

“How are we supposed to get together with a party that can’t even clean itself? We can’t join hands with them just to increase their popularity.”

And Koike Yuriko, the chair of the party’s General Council, on the 10th:

“Isn’t the DPJ itself already a coalition of the left and right wings? We know how that grand coalition is working out for them. At this point the LDP should not casually engage in talks about a grand coalition.”

Former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro doesn’t like the idea at all. He met informally on the 8th with some former LDP and New Komeito officials and spoke against the coalition because it would only benefit the DPJ.

New Komeito head Yamaguchi Tatsuo is thumbs down too:

“Creating a framework of the two largest parties will result in an extreme amount of authority. We must have a clear sense of the side effects. It must not be like the Imperial Rule Assistance Association (of 1940, in which political parties dissolved themselves into a larger entity with the military and bureaucrats)….A grand coalition is not the only path. It is fully possible to form a consensus by creating the opportunity for the ruling party and the opposition to hold discussions…The DPJ as the ruling party of government should take the responsibility to lead those discussions.”

My sentiments exactly. But Watanabe Yoshimi eschewed the high road:

“I want to tell them, enough already–this isn’t a children’s game. If they’re going to turn politics into a game of playing house, it will only result in the people’s distrust of politics.”

It’s a little late for that now, I’m afraid.

That brings us to the prime minister himself. The media asked him about the possibility of a grand coalition, and he answered:

“I have nothing to say.”

Does that mean you’re not thinking about it?

“I have nothing to say.”

So what else is new?

Ozawa Ichiro

It’s not surprising that the bad penny of Japanese politics, now just a regular old DPJ MP, but formerly the head and/or secretary-general of enough parties to form a grand coalition with himself, is the gorilla in the middle of the room that everyone sees. The problem is that no one knows how much he weighs any more.

Another former LDP prime minister, Mori Yoshiro, said he wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to a grand coalition, but added this non sequitur:

“It’s just weird that the DPJ thinks it has to go that far to protect Ozawa Ichiro. Isn’t it just a ploy to extend Mr. Ozawa’s political career?”

That may be precisely the opposite of what’s happening. Today is election day for the prefectural assembly in Ibaragi. The DPJ has performed miserably in local elections since their poor performance in the July upper house ballot, including the elections for the open Hokkaido 5th district seat, the mayor of Fukuoka City, the governor of Wakayama, and the Matsudo City Council. Earlier this week, Mr. Ozawa told some younger acolytes:

“The local (party organizations) will be spewing fire if there is a (DPJ) defeat in the Ibaragi prefectural assembly election. (The Kan administration) will not survive in the party.”

Mr. Ozawa has already predicted the DPJ will collapse from the sub-national level. The DPJ is supporting 24 candidates, and their bottom line for success is at least 10 winners.

He’s also hinting broadly that he’ll leave the party and form a new one. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s made that threat, nor would it be the first time he’s left a party and formed a new one. Freelance journalist Itagaki Eiken, who seems to have a source in the Ozawa camp, wrote earlier this week that Mr. Ozawa’s mind is made up and that he and Hatoyama Yukio are already working together. A split, he wrote, might come as early as the 17th. Mr. Itagaki says that Mr. Ozawa told affiliates from the old Tanaka faction in the LDP and friendly prefectural politicians to be in Tokyo that day. He also noted that Mr. Ozawa won more than 200 votes in the DPJ presidential election in early September.

The story could be true—after all, if he wants the money from the government subsidy for political parties any time soon, he’s going to have to make his move this month. The story could also be disinformation.

Mr. Ozawa reportedly met at a sushi bar with Hatoyama Yukio on the 8th, in the company of younger brother and former LDP Justice Minister Hatoyama Kunio and former LDP Health Minister Masuzoe Yoichi. Mr. Masuzoe was considered prime ministerial material a couple of years ago, and left the LDP to form his own group, called the New Renaissance Party. The only people he could get to join, however, were former Ozawa Ichiro allies whose political philosophy would not seem to be in alignment with his. He is seen as an ambitious man, and everyone remembers that Hosokawa Morihiro was also the head of a small party when he became the prime minister in a 1993 coalition government run by Ozawa Ichiro behind the scenes.

Someone present at the sushi bar whispered to a reporter that everyone agreed to cooperate because Mr. Hatoyama and Mr. Ozawa are being cut adrift from the DPJ by the Kan administration and the party’s leftist elements as a means to buoy their popularity.

Perhaps hedging his bets, Mr. Masuzoe also met with Prime Minister Kan at the latter’s request the next day. Doesn’t hurt to listen, does it?

Watanabe Yoshimi said he’d have turned down a request by Mr. Kan for a meeting, and observed that Mr. Masuzoe apparently thinks either a coalition to extend the life of the Kan Cabinet or a coalition with Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Hatoyama would be fine. He added:

“I’m not like Mr. Masuzoe, who doesn’t have a guiding philosophy.”

Then again, Mr. Ozawa might get drummed out of the DPJ before he gets a chance to walk. Leaders of the DPJ will convene a lower house ethics panel this week to hold a vote on whether to summon him to testify over allegations that he helped the group managing his political funds to lie on their official reports. (It’s difficult keeping up with all his alleged financial irregularities.)

Mr. Ozawa doesn’t want to testify, and his supporters say it’s an insult. The DPJ is hinting that they might kick him out if he doesn’t show up.

Let’s leave the last word to Watanabe Yoshimi:

“If the DPJ takes a shellacking in the Ibaragi prefectural council elections, Armageddon will start within the party. It would be best for Japan if they broke up quickly.”

UPDATE: The DPJ won only six seats in the Ibaragi election, one-fourth of the number they backed. Four of the winners were incumbents; two DPJ-backed incumbents lost. In four electoral districts, there was a direct face-off between the DPJ-backed candidate and the LDP-backed candidate, with no others in the race. The DPJ lost all four.

What’s going to happen? I’m not going to make any guesses. Trying to predict the course of Japanese politics is Mission: Impossible.

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Posted by ampontan on Friday, December 10, 2010

BUSY with other things at the moment, but a friend in England passes along this linkette, which announces:

Taxi operators in Tokyo and Docomo started a partnership to equip 820 vehicles with onboard free Wifi for passengers.

He said it reminded him of this song:

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