AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

The sporting life

Posted by ampontan on Monday, June 20, 2011

Our politicians, left and right, are, to belabor the metaphor, the wastrel son: they are free to spend, to chase fantasies, and to squander resources, for the resources are not theirs, and there is no penalty for their misuse or loss.
– David Mamet, The Secret Knowledge

DAVID Mamet’s analogy of the wastrel son for the generic politician’s spending patterns works better than that of the drunken sailor. After all, the sailor earned the money he‘s burning.

Consider the wastrel sons and daughters of Nagata-cho. The Koizumi/Abe administrations had the national budget on a path from deficit toward surplus, almost inconceivable after the collapse of the economic bubble and the Lost Decade of legend. In the four years since 2007, however, they’ve boosted the budget deficit by roughly 500% — yes, that’s the right number of digits — to almost double the total when Mr. Koizumi took office. Now consider that no one has any idea of the size of the bill for the cleanup and reconstruction of the Tohoku area after the earthquake/tsunami. Some estimate that it could run as much as JPY 40 trillion, which is almost the size of the current DPJ government deficits.

So, during the national crisis, what spending measure did the Diet deem essential to enact last Friday? Here’s the first sentence of a Kyodo report:

“A basic law outlining the promotion of sports and physical activity as a state responsibility was enacted Friday with bipartisan support, fully revising for the first time a 1961 law that has served as the main legal basis for sports-related measures.”

Doesn’t the idea that promoting sports and physical activity is a “state responsibility” have a tinge of Iron Fist statism? The Soviets established a Supreme Council of Fitness Culture in 1920, and this paper explains that state’s responsibility:

“(a) perfect the scientific system of bringing sports within the reach of the whole population, (b) build and operate sports facilities, (c) train coaches and instructors, (d) manufacture sports goods and equipment, (e) stage country-wide competitions, and (f) maintain international contacts and cooperate with other state agencies as well as the trade unions and Young Communist League organizations. The promotion and administration of sports is to be carried out by the party, government, trade unions, Young Communist League, and sports organizations.”

Other than (d), those are the same general objectives of the Japanese legislation:

“The 1961 sports promotion law was created with an eye to building facilities for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and improving school gymnasium curricula. The new law covers professional athletes and those with disabilities, while acknowledging the right of all people to enjoy sporting activities.

“The two main pillars of the basic law are improving the performance of top international athletes and supporting local sports clubs across the country, with the need for the state to take fiscal and tax-relief measures in pursuing such goals being noted.

“The lawmaker-sponsored legislation, which is the culmination of more than three years of efforts by a supraparty league of lawmakers, also makes it easier to get the government’s financial guarantee for a bid to host the Olympic Games and other international sports meets.”

Who says there’s government gridlock in Japan? Plenty of bipartisanship here.

Kyodo reports that the bill acknowledges the existence of something no one knew existed before: “the right of all people to enjoy sporting activities.” That idea is just as vapor-based as my “right” to enjoy a harem using government-owned facilities. By definition, a right requires a collective and individual obligation to allow everyone the opportunity to exercise it. Both sports and sex are voluntary recreational activities that are usually beneficial for health.

My wife wouldn’t allow me to work out exercise that right in the spare bedroom, but the state should be on my side. It would make a lot of people happy and we’d all get our calisthenics in, the opportunity for which is the state’s responsibility to provide. It’s the law!

Had I access to the voting records in the Diet, I would be curious to see who supported the legislation. It would be educational, but not surprising, if among the aye votes were those who tout themselves as small government types, such as Your Party and the Rising Tide wing of the LDP. One LDP marveloso wrote on the Web that he wanted to make Japan a Great Power in sports.

Politicians that they are, they pre-packaged the bill with justifications:

“The government intends to set a basic plan on sports based on the new law, aiming to establish a new sports culture to help revive regions and cut medical spending by capitalizing on the benefits offered by participating in sporting activities.”

A new sports culture was also one of the ideals of The Third Reichians, who increased the amount of phys. ed. time in schools from two hours a week to two hours a day. I’d bet cash money that none of the MPs supporting the legislation could offer a convincing explanation of how this will revive the regions, even if you cornered them with a knife in the alley. It’s understandable that the government wants to cut medical spending, since they’re already responsible for the bulk of it, but this excuse is just a running broad jump away from justifying the rationing of medical services. That’s one Western government budget-cutting innovation the Japanese have yet to adopt, though given the decline in the birth rate and the rise in longevity, it shouldn’t be long before someone argues for its importation.

Nevertheless, it is possible to catch glimmers of intelligent life among the politicos. The same day the Diet passed this bill, the municipal council of Koryo-cho in Nara Prefecture approved a resolution calling on the Diet to eliminate the tax-funded political party subsidies and allocate the funds to the relief of the Tohoku region.

Political parties with at least five members are eligible for the subsidies, which will total roughly JPY 32 billion this year. It’s the law! The funds are allocated based on the number of seats a party holds, so the DPJ will wind up with slightly more than half of the money. That provision means it’s also a life insurance policy for incumbents.

Here’s some of the language from the resolution:

“Continuing to receive political party subsidies while receiving corporate and group donations is tantamount to deceiving the public.”

And:

“Today, public funds account for the major portion of a party’s finances. That means the parties are disengaged from the people, and it engenders the disengagement of the people from politics.”

Plus:

“It is criminal that parties eat up tax funds when so many people are suffering from poverty. That idea grows stronger when we think of those who suffered in the disaster.”

While Koryo-cho has a population of only 34,000 and 16 council members (two of whom were absent for this vote), it is yet another data point for the argument that many people at the local level are more clear-headed about how a government is supposed to behave than their betters in Tokyo.

Subsidy supporters claim it is the cost of democracy. Others would suggest the real cost of democracy is having to suffer fools who’ve made a profession out of spending other people’s money. The subsidies were created to prevent politicians from being obvious about going on the take. They are a result of the national spasm of revulsion over money politics in the early 1990s, one example of which was the gold bullion Kanemaru Shin stashed for the LDP at home.

In other words, the real reason is this: “We are too corrupt, undisciplined, and immoral to govern our own affairs without taking dirty money, so to minimize that temptation, we’ve discussed it among ourselves and agreed to confiscate it from you.”

The best part of the story — and yet another reason I no longer read fiction — is that the legislation was introduced by a Communist, one of two party members on the Koryo-cho council. Eleven delegates voted in favor, including members of the DPJ and other “conservative” independents, as the report had it, while the New Komeito representatives were among the three opposed. What “conservative” means in this context is unclear, because the source of the report was Akahata (Red Flag), the house organ of the JCP. Japan’s Communists are the only party in the Diet that refuses to accept the funds.

What does it say about a nation’s political culture when the Reds are the only party with an occasional sense of fiduciary responsibility?

Afterwords:

The name of the Buddhist temple shown in the above photo of a Koryo street scene is Kudara-ji. Kudara is the Japanese reading of the characters for the Korean Baekche, one of the three ancient kingdoms of the Korean Peninsula. This blurb in the Britannica explains how the other two Xed it out by 660. It doesn’t explain that Japanese forces fought alongside those of Baekche, and that some of the Koreans fled south across the Korean Strait after their defeat. Many of them settled in Nara.

No one is sure when the temple was founded, except that it was A Long Time Ago.

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