Japan from the inside out

They can see for miles

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, June 4, 2011

They are a bus without a destination sign.
– Tanaka Shusei, former director-general of the Economic Planning Agency, speaking at a forum in Nagoya last fall about the Kan Cabinet.

THE USUAL clique of overseas observers who understand Japanese issues better than the Japanese themselves has morphed into a gaggle of schoolmarms exasperated by the political turmoil of the past week, after the dastardly plot by caped mustachioed men to tie the maidenly Kan Naoto to the tracks for slicing and dicing by the Shinkansen was foiled in the nick of time. How much better it would be, they insist, to stop the childishness and allow Mr. Kan and his Cabinet to continue directing the Tohoku recovery, which they have heretofore conducted with such selfless efficiency and dispatch.

Typical was the comment of Michael Auslin writing at the National Review website. He is the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Wall Street Journal columnist, and occasional television commentator. He made the obligatory reference to the short lifespan of Japanese prime ministers, with the obligatory glossing over of the Koizumi years. He also wrote:

“Japan’s politicians, busy stabbing each other in the back in the narrow alleyways of Japan’s neon-lit entertainment areas, are oblivious to the fact that they are driving their country off the cliff.”

Yes, it would be so much better if the Japanese modeled themselves after American politicians and stabbed each other in the back in spacious, klieg-lit television studios on programs in which the sharpness of the knives are in inverse proportion to the channel’s ratings.

It would be so much better if the political class of Nagata-cho were as self-aware as the American pols barreling down the royal road to peace and prosperity, generously forcing banks to provide home loans to people unable to afford the payments and penalizing the institutions that didn’t cooperate, thereby fueling the economic crisis of the century. It would be so much better if the Diet were to function like the American Congress, whose superior processes were used to pass — or to deem to have passed — the Obamacare legislation. It would be so much better if Japanese government debt were held by foreign interests, as the United States so magnanimously permits, instead of domestic interests.

How much more efficient the Americans are at encouraging national diversity with a strategy of leaky and lawless southern borders, resulting in Balkanization Español in California, Arizona, and Texas and providing the opportunity to criticize the Japanese for being chary of large-scale immigration. How much better that local government is on such a sound financial footing and is always working to improve the lives of its citizens.

And that dysfunctional Japanese political system with rotating papier-mâché prime ministers! How much better it was for the Americans to have benefited from the wise and steady leadership of Lyndon Johnson after the Tet offensive, Richard Nixon during his last year in office, Jimmy Carter during his last three years and six months in office, Bill Clinton after his historical 1994 repudiation or post-Lewinsky (take your pick), George W. Bush post-Katrina, and Barack Obama post-21 January 2009.

How much better instead would it be for Japan to have a system that would have allowed Hatoyama Yukio and Aso Taro to serve out their full terms of office.

These latter-day Mrs. Jellybys and the other fly-by telescopic political philanthropists don’t seem to have closely tracked events in Japan during the past year. Here’s a quick summary to remind them.

In June 2009, Mr. Kan was elected president of the Democratic Party, whose Diet majority meant he became prime minister. He took office with 60% approval ratings, not because the public thought he was the man for the job — please — but because he was not Hatoyama Yukio, with approval ratings at 18% and falling, and because he shut out from a leadership role Ozawa Ichiro, whose negative ratings were north of 80% then and at 89% today.

Mr. Hatoyama stepped down to avoid a DPJ bloodbath in the July upper house election. It was a critical election for the party: Had they picked up a few more seats, they could have ruled without pesky and incompatible coalition partners. It seemed as if the leadership switch had worked, until Mr. Kan broke the party’s no new taxes pledge in their 2009 lower house election manifesto and waxed ineloquently about the need for a consumption tax hike. That managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by creating a quick about-face in voter sentiment in fewer than six weeks. The party lost seats instead.

For two years after the LDP’s defeat in the 2007 upper house election, the DPJ’s quotidian demand was a dissolution of the lower house and a general election because, they said, that vote was the most recent expression of popular will. The DPJ mislaid the pages of that script after the 2010 election.

In September, Mr. Kan was challenged for the DPJ presidency by Ozawa Ichiro, upset that the prime minister had reneged on the party no-new-tax pledge, leading to the electoral debacle, and that his many allies were deprived of a voice in government. Mr. Ozawa’s electoral skills and money management, after all, were instrumental in the party’s rise to power in 2009. The challenge failed, but the residual bad blood has placed the DPJ on the verge of disintegration, able to act with unity only when their existence and power are at stake.

Later that month came the epic failure of Mr. Kan’s government when it was incapable of upholding national sovereignty with their handling of the Chinese fishing boat captain who rammed Japanese Coast Guard vessels near the Senkaku islets. Credentialed overseas observers like to think the territory is at dispute, but forget that both China and Taiwan recognized it as Japanese territory until 1971, when the possibility of enormous seabed oil deposits was discovered.

Rather than accept responsibility for the disposition of the sea captain, the government insisted it was all the doing of the public prosecutors in Naha Okinawa, a claim disbelieved by three-quarters of the nation. The Chinese responded with in-your-face threats, starting with wildly fictional accounts of the incident and continuing with economic pressure by cutting off rare earth exports and thug state pressure by arresting on espionage charges Japanese nationals helping the Chinese deal with their dismal ecological problems.

The cowed Kan government locked up a video of the incident verifying that the Chinese were at fault so as not to anger the Chinese government or to stir up the backwards nationalist sentiments of the non-progressive Japanese public. It didn’t work; anger was the diplomatic policy of the Chinese government regardless of the Japanese response, while the Japanese public accused him of betraying the nation. The video was released anyway on YouTube by an upset Coast Guard officer.

Demonstrating his diplomatic skills, Prime Minister Kan went all the way to Brussels to tug on the sleeve of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in a hallway and get him to sit on a chair and chat for 25 minutes, pretending they met by accident. He also held consultations with President Hu Jintao at the APEC meeting in Yokohama that fall by reading from memos prepared by the Foreign Ministry.

Encouraged by the Kan Doctrine in foreign policy, Russian President Medvedev visited the occupied Northern Territories in November, which the Soviets seized in 1945 after Japan’s surrender. Mr. Kan was livid. Mr. Medvedev told him to bugger off.

The key person of the first Kan Cabinet was Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito, widely assumed to have been the man actually running the government because the task is beyond Kan Naoto’s skill set. (Those hangovers can be a bitch until the fog clears around noon.) But Mr. Sengoku had so alienated everyone in government with bullying behavior, lies, evasions, insults, and gangsterish threats that he was censured by the upper house and forced to resign in six months. (An opposition MP also revealed that Mr. Sengoku told him the Japanese had been in vassalage to the Chinese for some time.)

The ruling Democratic Party’s thrashing in local elections nationwide started in February this year with the balloting for the Ibaraki prefectural assembly and continued through two more rounds in April. An estimated half of all local DPJ candidates left their party affiliation off their campaign posters lest it encourage the voters to choose Anyone But Them.

During Question Time in the Diet with the other party heads that month, Mr. Kan’s blink rate was measured at more than 100 times a minute, leading one psychologist to wonder if he was suffering from panic syndrome. His rate of support fell to Hatoyama levels, New Komeito party chief Yamaguchi Natsuo warned that the Cabinet was in “a perpetual state of collapse”, and talk of a no-confidence motion began.

The government’s response to the earthquake/tsunami of 11 March has most closely resembled that of headless zombie chickens with a taste for duplicity. They’ve been lying and concealing information about the Fukushima nuclear accident. (They really don’t trust the people they’re supposed to represent, do they?) To be fair, one reason they can’t get their stories straight is that they themselves don’t know which story is straight to begin with.

The Kan Cabinet formed 20 separate government bodies to deal with the recovery, creating a situation in which the centipede’s left legs don’t know what its right legs are doing. Nevertheless, neither the Cabinet nor the 20 appendages have formulated a basic law of reconstruction for the Diet, much less submitted one, even though the opposition pledged national unity and were resigned to putting up with the prime minister for another two years.

The Kan Cabinet had passed no legislation for the recovery within the first 40 days of the event, whereas the Murayama government had passed 16 recovery-related bills in that same time after the Hyogo earthquake. The Cabinet pulled back one recovery funding measure from the Diet just before introducing it last month because DPJ party leaders had yet to give their approval.

Less than two weeks ago, Kan Naoto gave a speech at the G8 summit and pledged to commit the country to a breathtakingly expensive program of promoting solar energy use. He inserted the proposal in his speech at the last minute without telling anyone in his Cabinet. Some wonder if he cooked up the scheme over a two hour-plus lunch with Son Masayoshi, the third-wealthiest businessman in Japan. A former supporter of nuclear energy, Mr. Son has donated an enormous amount of money for disaster relief, but is also positioning himself with local governments throughout the country to promote the construction of solar power plants. (The DPJ understands crony capitalism as well as the LDP and the Americans.) They intend to build the plants on unused farmland, which might not be unused had Mr. Kan’s Democratic Party not ditched the previous LDP government’s initiatives for promoting agribusiness to institute a legal vote-buying scheme of cash subsidies to individual farm families.

Even without the earthquake, the Kan Cabinet would have submitted a record-high budget with record-high debt for the upcoming fiscal year. It would have broken the records of the previous year’s budget passed under the Hatoyama administration when Kan Naoto was Finance Minister.

Kan Naoto is widely viewed in Japan as a hysterical hothead whose primary talents are self-aggrandizement and the evasion of responsibility. He is seen as more interested in perpetuating the life of his administration and putting his name in capital letters than working for the nation’s best interests.

George Orwell put pacifism in its place during the Second World War when he wrote that it was objectively pro-Fascist and derived from intellectual cowardice.

By their criticism of the no confidence motion, the Jellybys have demonstrated they are objectively pro-Kan, support his behavior in office over the past year, and think he’s just the man to handle the coming challenges. Rather than intellectual cowardice, however, I suspect their position is derived from intellectual laziness.

All politicians seek personal and party advantage, but it should be apparent to the casual observer who examines the record that the politicos behind the no-confidence motion believed they were part of the solution rather than part of the problem, and were acting to prevent the nation from being driven off the cliff that so frightens the overseas critics.

It should also be apparent to the casual observer that Die Drei Weisen of media, academia, and thinktankia prefer spitballing to real research and comparisons with their own environment. Anyone who says that Japanese politicians are oblivious to the problems facing their country are oblivious to the world of Japanese politics.

This one’s for all the telescopic political philanthropists. Be careful not to choke on it too.

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6 Responses to “They can see for miles”

  1. Matt Oh said

    Thorough and informative, as usual.

    However, I don’t think that the Auslin piece, which you might want to add a link to, makes a direct or implied comparison to US politicians. I enjoyed your critique of the latter, but I think you’re reading too much into his argument.

    Also, Auslin doesn’t seem typical of foreign pundits who see Kan as having directed post-disaster recovery with ‘efficiency and dispatch,’ in that he doesn’t directly touch on Kan’s recovery performance and says Kan is ‘not even a very good politician.’ (I disagree with this evaluation, by the way, at least to the extent that someone who manages to become prime minister is probably better at politics than most. Might not be a good leader, but that’s another issue.)

    Myself, I think that Auslin’s criticisms of Tokyo’s economic policies are too harsh, and that his headline oversells the content. In addition, I’m not clear on the comparison he makes between China and Japan on the international stage. I think that there is a danger that the China model of governance may emerge as a viable and even attractive alternative to what we used to accurately call liberalism, in much the same way that an alarming number of Western leftists in the 20s and 30s held up fascism as superior to free-market democracy. The main reason for this problem, however, is more likely the cultural, economic, and political failures and fecklessness of much of the “West” in general, not necessarily those of Japan in particular.

  2. richard hendy said

    “It would be so much better if Japanese government debt were held by foreign interests, as the United States so magnanimously permits, instead of domestic interests.”

    A superb instance, Ampontantanman, of the frogs of foolishness croaking so far from within your asshole that your tadpole mouth must belch in disbelief. You know NOTHING of government debt, because you’re an English teacher; never, ever, forget that.

  3. richard hendy said

    “Yes, it would be so much better if the Japanese modeled themselves after American politicians and stabbed each other in the back in spacious, klieg-lit television studios on programs in which the sharpness of the knives are in inverse proportion to the channel’s ratings.”

    So… I guess you approve of the Kan administration’s response after all, then! I do. Sensibly done! We’ll have you prostrate with a mouthful of gravel in the face of Edano yet.

  4. toadold said

    Hendy: Is English your native language?
    You apparently read something that I didn’t see in this post and then launched an ad hominem attack against the host. I refer you to this site.

  5. Robert Meurant said

    Pete Townsend rocks!

  6. Matt Oh said

    Mr. Hendy:

    I would appreciate a little more substantive critique of the issue at hand. I am not saying that you are wrong, but if you could explain exactly how Mr. Ampontan is wrong, I would greatly appreciate it. I have much to learn.

    All the best,

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