Japan from the inside out

Simultaneous silliness or coincidence?

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, February 10, 2011

To take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress
– The editorial policy of The Economist

The folks at The Economist…seem to operate under a kind of distributed version of the divine right of kings — always asking whether the rulers rule wisely, seldom asking whether they have the right to rule at all, and never asking whether and how much we actually need them. That’s why The Economist is the in-house newsletter of The Establishment.
– Kevin Williamson

MORE INFORMATION is now available to more people than ever before, and more people have become more knowledgeable about events and conditions in parts of the world that were once difficult to visit, much less understand. In such an environment, one might assume the accuracy and pertinence of the content provided by the mass media would be exponentially higher than before.

So much for logic. The most significant change technology has wrought on the mass media is to accelerate the dissemination of errata and vapor-based opinion.

For example, was The Economist’s Tokyo correspondent delusional or desperate for content and up against a deadline?

“(J)ust as Mr. Kan seemed likely to follow his predecessors into the dustbin of history, he has put together a package of proposed reforms more radical than anything attempted during two decades of economic malaise. Even Junichiro Koizumi, the prime minister from 2001-06 who dazzled outsiders and quit while on top, did not attempt anything so bold.

“…(F)or the first time since Mr Koizumi, a prime minister is articulating a vision of Japan’s place in the world, as well as a response to a rising China.

“…If he cannot get politicians’ support for his reforms, he should, like Mr. Koizumi, go over their heads and appeal to urban voters fed up with cossetting farmers and others…”

These marvelous reforms presented by a man with one foot on the dustbin of history and his toenail dragging are the suggestion that Japan might–or might not–participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks for free trade. The claim that the prime minister “put together” these reforms, or is articulating a response to a rising China, is hazardous to the health of the magazine’s readership. Laughing too hard and too suddenly might cause a cerebrovascular accident. The only thing going over anyone’s head is the reality of conditions in Japan flying over an oblivious foreign correspondent. Let’s take the last first and mention the most recent Shinhodo 2001 poll numbers for the Kan administration:

Support the Kan Cabinet: 22.2%
Opposed to the Kan Cabinet: 70%

If an election were held today, which party would you vote for?

DPJ (Mr. Kan’s party): 14.8%
LDP: 27.2%
Your Party: 6.8%

Japan’s opposition parties would be thrilled to have the prime minister call for an election and appeal to urban voters.

Here’s what Japanese freelance writer and blogger Miyajima Tadashi wrote about this article, translated into English.

“The Economist is irrationally hopeful about the increases in the consumption tax and TPP participation proclaimed by the Kan administration. As I’ve said before, there is no one so stupid among the Japanese reform wing as to be irrationally hopeful about the Kan administration. In particular, I would like to hear the reasons why we should be hopeful about the Kan administration’s participation in the TPP, considering their efforts to renationalize Japan Post.

“The British media and the self-proclaimed reformers of the Japanese intelligentsia viewed the Abe administration harshly for some reason, yet are indulgent with the Kan administration (as they were at the start of the Hatoyama administration).

“While the Abe administration was criticized for allowing the so-called postal rebels to return to the LDP, all of them had to sign a pledge to support Japan Post’s privatization. It did not halt the flow of privatization. In contrast, the Kan administration is promoting the renationalization of Japan Post. Indeed, they all opposed the privatization. After criticizing the Abe administration and voting for the DPJ in the 2007 upper house election, and being irrationally hopeful about the Hatoyama administration, the self-proclaimed reformers of the Japanese intelligentsia noticed the shift away from reform and became irrationally disappointed.

“To be blunt, these people are cabbage heads. They were accomplices in crushing reforms, and then became indignant when the politicians switched to the anti-reform course.

“The intelligentsia who are self-proclaimed reformers should recognize their mistake in crushing the Abe administration, which had aggressively promoted agricultural and other reforms. Yet they’ve learned nothing and now have irrational hopes for the Kan administration. One can only think they are deliberately playing the good cop as a way to crush reforms.

“The British media completely ignores the real reform wing in Japan and with great bias pays attention only to the intelligentsia who are self-proclaimed reformers. Bill Emmott, the former editor of The Economist, was irrationally disappointed in the renationalization of Japan Post when it was an inevitable result of the change of government. Even Mr. Emmott, who is familiar with Japan, had irrational hopes for the DPJ government for some reason (and later, irrational disappointment). For that reason, it is likely the information sources of the British media are heavily weighted toward the intelligentsia who are self-proclaimed reformers.

“The Economist thinks Prime Minister Kan should follow Mr. Koizumi’s example and call an election to seek approval for the TPP policy and other measures. This is another incomprehensible delusion that treats the voters of Japan as idiots. Prime Minister Koizumi was victorious in the “Japan Post election” because the privatization of Japan Post was one of his long-held beliefs, and he had already established a track record for reform…

“That’s why Prime Minister Kan will not produce Mr. Koizumi’s results through imitation and newly coined slogans. Even before the question of policy content, the impotent Kan administration does not have the ability to pass difficult legislation, and voters, regardless of their political perspective, see no reason to support them. Another aspect real reformers absolutely cannot support is that despite the government’s incompetence, the only measures they have promptly enacted are those based on a left-wing ideology, such as those involving issues with a specific political perspective on history, and policies that protect their hard-core base of support–labor union interests.

“The people who would vote for this pasteboard-thin Kan DPJ are the lightweight intelligentsia who call themselves reformers. I don’t know about Britain, but the average voter in Japan is much wiser about politics than the witless intelligentsia.”

(end translation)

Mr. Miyajima hits most of the high points, but neglected a few because he was writing for Japanese readers. He is probably unaware that strong support for free trade, particularly in agriculture, is part of The Economist’s DNA. They were founded in 1843 to oppose the Corn Laws that limited corn imports and placed high tariffs on the corn that was imported. Not being a regular reader of the magazine, I don’t know their position on the agricultural subsidies British farmers receive from the EU.

But he, and not The Economist, is aware that the Abe administration had implemented reforms to facilitate agribusiness on a larger scale, critical to the success of an open agricultural market. The DPJ campaigned on a promise of higher subsidies to individual farm households. It is one of the few promises the DPJ has been able to keep.

Being a staunch advocate of free trade, however, does not explain The Economist’s circus-level hyperbole over a proposal Mr. Kan is merely mouthing on behalf of the Finance Ministry and Keidanren. They call it “the boldest reform in decades”. Placing it in that temporal context is accurate considering that the Nakasone government in the 1980s privatized the national rail system—before Britain privatized theirs—and the phone company—a year after Britain privatized theirs. It’s also been a couple of decades since the large-scale retail store law was revised to effectively end the old Japanese system of retail distribution and allow the creation of American-style shopping malls. Unlike the Kan proposal, however, those were deeds and not words.

Yet less than a decade ago, Koizumi Jun’ichiro put all his chips on the privatization of Japan Post and won big. In addition to being the nation’s postal service, Japan Post is also the world’s largest bank and sells life insurance. Meanwhile, Britain still hasn’t privatized Royal Mail, and Mr. Kan thought the de facto renationalization of Japan Post with a former Finance Ministry bureaucrat in charge was just hunky-dory.

The Economist is excited about a proposal for which a decision has been delayed until June, and for which the prime minister is serving as a messenger rather than a leader. Any of the accomplishments cited above are beyond the capabilities of Kan Naoto and his party. Indeed, in last month’s Cabinet reshuffle he couldn’t even replace his agriculture minister, who is opposed to the TPP.

In addition, the magazine ignores the Kan government’s shocking botch of national security issues in the Senkakus incident and its capitulation to the bureaucracy. This is reform?

Meanwhile, another article appeared on the same topic in the Asia Times this week by Daniel Leussink that concludes, “This is more Koizumi than Koizumi”.

Golly—what a coincidence!

Stranger still are the headline and the first two paragraphs, which proclaim that Mr. Kan is actually a “fundamentalist”:

“The biggest mystery in contemporary Japanese politics is perhaps the reason why a party that was voted into power in 2009 on a pledge to improve the lives of ordinary citizens has come to stand for economic fundamentalism. That has been the unexpected outcome of the one-and-a-half-year rule by Minshuto, the Democratic Party of Japan.

“Its sudden metamorphosis into a party that chases this kind of fundamentalism has best been illustrated by the full weight that its coalition government has thrown behind new free-trade policies and an overhaul of the tax and social security systems.”

The biggest mystery in contemporary journalism is how so many people who know so little about Japan manage to get paid to write about the country.

Another mystery is how an “overhaul of the tax and social security systems” that would result in hefty increases–eventually to European VAT levels–in the consumption tax, removing tax deductions to promote social theories, raising income taxes on those with higher incomes (above roughly $US 150,000) and raising the death tax, in part to pay for its new and unnecessary social welfare and legal vote-buying schemes, can be described as “fundamentalism”.

What is not a mystery is the reason for Mr. Kan’s turnabout–survival in office.

Had Leussink taken the trouble to pick up a Japanese newspaper last week, he would have read that Gemba Koichiro, the Chair of the DPJ Policy Research Committee and Minister for National Policy, explained the reason the party was voted into power. Mr. Gemba said it would be just fine for the DPJ to drastically revise its 2009 election manifesto without calling for a new election because the manifesto wasn’t the reason the people voted for them to begin with. (Here’s a hint: Disgust with the LDP for abandoning the Koizumi reforms of the economy and governance.)

Most of the article is an unexceptional review of others’ views pro and con on the participation in TPP talks, tilting slightly against free trade, with a brief summary of what would be expected of Japan:

“If Japan were to negotiate more free-trade partnerships, it would be forced to remove tariffs on food produce from the agricultural sector…The TPP is a tariff-free partnership. Subsidies would have to be faced (sic) out within a decade.”

The United States is part of this partnership, but Leussink does not mention whether that country will also have to “face out” its $US 50 billion in agricultural subsidies.

He also flirts with conspiracy mongering by running with this quote from an academic:

“The hidden purpose of Koizumi’s structural reforms was to assist the US government in its demands.”

The professor in question, Kaneko Masaru, is a self-described “al-Qaida economist” and a long-time foe of Koizumi and basic market principles. He thinks any benefits from deregulation and IT are “an empty dream”.

It’s curious that two articles with the incredible claim that Kan Naoto is out-Koizumi-ing Koizumi appeared at almost the same time. There are three possibilities. First, the authors might have simultaneously come up with the same weird idea independently of one another.


Second, Leussink might have ripped off The Economist and added his own peculiar spin. After all, the employees of The New York Times in the U.S. and the Asahi Shimbun in Japan have a hard time resisting the temptations of plagiarism.


Third, it might be that an aversion to doing their own research led both to cooperate in the attempted vivification of a political scarecrow. We already know that Kasumigaseki in general, and the Finance Ministry in particular, plants stories in the Japanese media to manipulate public opinion. The combination of English-fluent bureaucrats and an incurious English-language media has the potential for a marriage made in purgatory. It would be a shame for Mr. Kan to be tossed out so soon after selling out to Kasumigaseki and Keidanren. The least they can do for him is a little carnival barking in the direction of an indolent press.

Leussink shows that he is at least listening to them:

“But despite the economic growth that Koizumi’s policies generated, wages were stagnating or declining, the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry said.”

As if anything else could be expected from the bureaucratic elite speaking of a governmental privateer.

Unlike Koizumi Jun’ichiro, Kan Naoto has achieved nothing other than a sequence of poorly performed pratfalls. Though I support free trade in general, and this proposal in particular if the negotiations are not one-sided and Japan is allowed time to restructure before opening its agricultural market, I would suggest we wait until he actually does something before indulging in hagiolatry. But since it looks as if he will not be prime minister when the scheduled TPP decision comes in June, and his party may even have been turned out at the polls by then, that would be superfluous.


I watched some televised excerpts of Mr. Kan’s performance during question time in the Diet yesterday with the leaders of the LDP and New Komeito, and it was compelling. The opposition tastes blood in the water and hammered the prime minister in an uncharacteristically charged atmosphere. No one took Mr. Kan seriously, and he had trouble looking at his questioners when offering his excuses. It must be crushing for a person to realize that he has failed so completely after less than a year at a job he had coveted for more than 40.

Hope and change, or I hope there’ll be a change?

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2 Responses to “Simultaneous silliness or coincidence?”

  1. […] might be a fanboy for The Economist, but Ampontan, criticizing an editorial I reproduced here, has a point. …it might be that an aversion to doing [it's] own research led…to cooperate in the […]

  2. Aceface said

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