Japan from the inside out

Letter bombs (18): Flybaits

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 19, 2011

A professional politician is a professionally dishonorable man. In order to get anywhere near high office he has to make so many compromises and submit to so many humiliations that he becomes indistinguishable from a streetwalker.
– H.L. Mencken

AN E-MAIL came from Peter in Toronto telling me of his blog about Japan. Peter wants to move to this country and reform it from the inside out by becoming a Japanese politician.

As the law stands now, Hong Kong-born Peter would have to become a naturalized citizen to run for public office here, but there is a precedent for him to follow. Martti Turunen was a Lutheran missionary who came to Japan from Finland in 1968. He divorced his Finnish wife two years later, married a Japanese woman in 1974, became a Japanese citizen in 1979, and moved to Kanagawa in 1981.

Six years after arriving in Japan, he ditched the missionary gig and started teaching English. He must have a taste for lathering hot air over groups of fidgeting listeners, because he ran for and won election to the municipal council of Yugawara-machi in 1992. Three years after that, he got really ambitious and ran for the Diet. Four tries later — three for the upper house, one for the lower — he finally hit the big time in 2002 when celebrity pol Ohashi Kyosen got tired of being a small fish in a large pond after just six months and resigned his upper house proportional representation seat. Mr. Turunen, whose Japanese name is Tsurunen Marutei, replaced him because he was the runner-up in the previous election.

Mr. Ohashi, by the way, is a specimen in his own right. He was a well-known master of ceremonies in the broadcast media, an operator of gift shops overseas with Japanese-speaking staff for Japanese tourists, and a showbiz racetrack tout. He was recruited to run for the Diet by Kan Naoto — you know him — and won a PR seat in 2001.

He proved to be the prickly type almost immediately, however. The 9/11 terrorist attacks in America occurred shortly after he took office. He was the only DPJ member to vote against the Diet resolution condemning the attacks because it was tantamount to “supporting America”. He tried to convince then-party leader Hatoyama Yukio that the DPJ should join Socialist International and come out of the closet as a left-wing party. He said the Japanese Democrats should position themselves as a “center-left” party, which reveals what the Anglosphere mass media means when they use that term to describe the current Japanese government. (That also gives us an idea about Mr. Kan’s eye for talent and his own political proclivities). Mr. Hatoyama deflected the suggestion, saying there was no consensus for it within the party. When Mr. Ohashi made his exit stage left, he complained that he didn’t realize the Democratic Party of Japan had become so undemocratic.

But let’s return to Mr. Turunen, though there’s little of consequence to say about him. He doesn’t seem to have done much in Nagata-cho for the past 10 years except sit there and (presumably) vote. From what I could dig up on the web, his political philosophy consists of growing and eating organic vegetables, recycling food waste, and using the suffix –san when addressing everyone, regardless of social status. He is so excited about “effective micro-organisms” he has 11 articles about them on his website. He favors giving Korean citizens born in Japan the right to vote. Instead of Lutheranism, he now proselytizes for the Church of Global Warming. He once described his outlook for the Japan Times:

“I don’t need to try to be Japanese or assimilate too much. I want to be accepted as a foreigner and still contribute to this society.”

That’s a curious attitude for someone who went to the trouble to become a naturalized citizen.

Therefore, being born a non-Japanese outside of Japan will not prevent one from becoming a politician in Japan. Judging from Mr. Turunen’s record, the absence of any recognizable ability, real-world accomplishments, or worthwhile insight isn’t a serious obstacle either. (Indeed, judging from his curriculum vitae, one doesn’t have to be a native English speaker or to have lived in the Anglosphere to operate an English language school in this country. Now that’s what I call the land of opportunity.)

The highlight of his career seems to have been the day he was sworn into office, an achievement he shares with Barack Obama, another politician with a variegated citizenship history. Considering that the voters of Kanagawa have chosen to award their PR votes to the DPJ for the past decade with people such as Mr. Ohashi and Mr. Turunen on the list, anyone has a plausible shot at a seat. That would confirm Margaret Thatcher’s advice to a young person who thought there wasn’t any room at the top for a person interested in a political career. “Nonsense,” said Mrs. Thatcher. “There’s plenty of room at the top.” Nature abhors a vacuum, even if it’s only dust filling the empty space.

The real problem with politics as a profession in any country isn’t that the chief job requirement is to have the character of a party balloon, either fresh and inflated or limp and slobber-filled. Rather, it is explicit in the Mencken observation quoted at the top of this post. Though his comment was in reference to American politicians almost a century ago, it applies to all of them, everywhere, in any age. Even Nikita Khrushchev noted that politicians were alike the world over: “They promise to build a bridge where there is no river.” Imagine what he might have said had he spent his career in a system that required he periodically lubricate the voters.

One Japanese politician who validates the universality of Mencken’s assertion is Matsubara Jin of the ruling DPJ, though as the Japanese would say, the choice of pols for that distinction from among any party is yoridorimidori; i.e., the options are multitudinous and varied. Mr. Matsubara appeared on Beat Takeshi’s Terebi Takkuru on Monday night. That’s a television program on which politicos, academics, commentators, and celebrities are invited every week to discuss current events and issues. Host Beat Takeshi, a comedian who also directs films under his original name of Kitano Takeshi, usually limits himself to the occasional interjection, leaving it to his guests to provide the polemical fireworks.

Over the past few weeks, the panelists have been discussing Kan Naoto’s plan to increase taxes to pay for the reconstruction of the Tohoku region. It’s gratifying that the program is providing plenty of airtime for opponents to make their case and fry the Finance Ministry in the process. (A discussion program on a major network bashing a left-of-center government and its representatives for that reason would be unthinkable in the United States.)

This week’s lineup of guests included a few members of the recently formed group of Diet members working to stymie a tax hike, which we discussed a few posts ago. In addition to Mr. Matsubara, others who appeared were Eda Kenji of Your Party and ex-Finance Ministry bureaucrat and current academic Takahashi Yoichi, both of whom I frequently quote here.

The discussion eventually flowed in the direction of the Kan Naoto proposal to cut national civil service salaries by 10% to help with the financing of the reconstruction. That’s when Mr. Matsubara lost the plot.

Even though he cites Margaret Thatcher as his primary political inspiration, Mr. Matsubara said that if the salaries of public sector employees were to be temporarily reduced, then private sector employees should be made to take home lighter pay envelopes too.

Had Mrs. Thatcher heard anyone say that in a policy debate, much less one of her admirers, she would have verbally filleted him and lined his giblets in a neat row on the cutting board before he could say Ginsu Knife. It took only a few seconds more for the rest of the panelists to hoot him down.

Now that’s a politician who has become indistinguishable from a streetwalker. Mrs. Thatcher saved England by walking into the union’s den with a stool and a whip. Meanwhile, both private and public sector unions are the backbone of organizational support for Mr. Matsubara’s DPJ. If his political ideals really are similar to Mrs. Thatcher’s, he’s sold them out for the salary and perks of a Diet seat. The price he pays is to be a party hack in public and a hypocrite in private.

A few years ago, I followed an Internet mailing list devoted to the discussion of music. One list member was a musician who wrote a minor hit song in the late 60s and led a band with a minor hit record in the early 70s. One day he told a story about a meeting he had with a record company executive in Los Angeles. They were joking around at lunch, and the musician mused, “You know, what I’d really like to do is become governor of (his home state).”

He said the executive turned serious and replied, “That can be arranged.”

I understand and appreciate Peter’s desire to make a difference through the political process, particularly because I once thought about doing the same thing myself. But I suspect it’s not possible to put oneself in a position to accomplish something in politics and still get to sleep at night, absent a narcissistic personality disorder or enormous alcohol consumption.

It’s long been the practice for show business or sports celebrities to make politics a temporary second career by running for an upper house seat. Both major parties actively recruit them for their name recognition. It’s not essential to already have a fully formed politicial philosophy; the point of the exercise is to be a safe vote doing their sponsor’s bidding once in office. The latest example was the Olympic gold medalist in judo, Tani Ryoko, whom Ozawa Ichiro recruited as a DPJ candidate for the 2009 upper house election. There’s more on the phenomenon in a previous post here.

Speaking of H.L. Mencken, here’s what he wrote about the public speaking abilities of then-President Warren Harding about 90 years ago:

“It reminds me of a string of wet sponges, it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of a dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble, it is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”

That’s such an apt characterization of Kan Naoto’s public speaking abilities it’s enough to make me wonder whether there’s something to that reincarnation idea after all.

Here’s a video credited to a Malaysian group called Fredo and the Flybaits. Does not the word flybait perfectly capture the essence of a politician?

In this video, however, the Flybaits don’t show up. It’s just a solo Fredo performance. (Freedo is a misspelling.) We should be so lucky with the other flybaits.

Wait for the Elvis impersonation!

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