ONE of the most colorful words in the Japanese language is funpan, written 噴飯. Used as a noun, it means absurd or preposterous. Used as a verb, it means to burst into laughter. The best part of the word is the combination of kanji; together they literally mean “spew rice” (or food).
Funpan is the word that usually comes to mind whenever I stumble across political analysis from the boys and girls playing newspaper at the Japan Times. JT staff writers Jun Hongo and Hiroko Nakata were in analytical mode today regarding the election of Noda Yoshihiko as DPJ president and imminent prime minister. Their piece should come with the Surgeon-General’s recommendation to read it at least 30 minutes after a meal. Failure to heed that advice could result in so much funpan the knowledgeable reader would be compelled to spend the better part of his day cleaning spewed rice off his computer screen, keyboard, and the wall behind them.
Here’s how it starts:
Market watchers and political experts welcomed the victory of Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda…
No, they didn’t mention the “political experts” by name, their qualifications as political experts, or why the experts welcomed Mr. Noda. That’s Japan Times policy.
….an advocate of a tax hike and a fiscal hawk, in the Democratic Party of Japan’s presidential race Monday
All the computers used at news outlets to write the English-language reports on new prime ministers and finance-related Cabinet ministers from the Democratic Party, both here and overseas, have specially programmed hotkeys. For example, type #%$ and the phrase “fiscal hawk” appears. Since “fiscal hawk” used in this context always means “supporter of a tax increase to reduce the budget deficit”, the editor (assuming the paper has any) missed the Hongo/Nakata pleonasm.
When a Japanese politician is approvingly called a fiscal hawk it never — never — means that the politician cited is serious about cutting government spending.
On the currency market, a Noda administration is likely to have more success in stemming the yen’s sharp appreciation against the dollar, as it will be easier for the Bank of Japan to cooperate with the person who served as finance minister than other candidates, many of whom looked too aggressive in putting pressure on the BOJ in dealing with deflation and the yen’s rise, Dai-ichi’s Kumano said.
Even the Japan Times’s identified experts require a funpan alert. Kan Naoto served as finance minister just before he was named prime minister, and his administration didn’t have any success stemming the yen’s sharp appreciation against the dollar, despite the presence of the Dynamic Fiscal Hawk Duo. The junior journos assured us last year that Mr. Kan was a fiscal hawk too. You could look it up, starting with the search engine on the left sidebar.
There is almost nothing the BOJ can do to stop the yen’s appreciation against the dollar when the Americans are beavering away at the devaluation of their own currency under prevailing economic conditions. The American journo/politico class dares not speak the name of those conditions, but other people do: Depression.
Tax data released earlier this month showed that American incomes in real terms fell 15.2% from 2007 to 2009, and that the number of taxpayers who reported any income from a job fell about 4.2 million during that time. Some people suspect the real unemployment rate is closer to a Rooseveltian 15% than the official 9%+. The official statistics also claim there’s been seven straight quarters of GDP growth. Why, sure there has, Mary Sunshine! But back to Japan.
Fukashi Horie, professor emeritus of politics at Tokyo’s Keio University, was pessimistic. “If Noda is able to seek fiscal balance while also pursuing the political pledges in the DPJ manifesto, then he will make great achievements,” Horie said.
They don’t make professors emeriti like they used to.
The DPJ manifesto contained promises for sharp spending increases for the child allowance and farm household subsidies, as well as the loss of income by eliminating expressway tolls. Noda the Fiscal Hawk voted for all of that. The DPJ manifesto also promised no tax increases for four years. Noda the Fiscal Hawk was down with that, too. He was the shadow finance minister, after all. Finally, the manifesto promised there would be cuts in wasteful government spending to offset the new expenditures.
Well, it’s not so easy for a government to keep all of its promises.
If he can “seek” fiscal balance while pursuing the political pledges of the manifesto, he won’t just “make great achievements”. He’ll be walking on water.
“But I fear that properly managing all the factors that come into play, such as handling of (sic) the resilient bureaucrats, won’t be so easy.”
It is to funpan. Mr. Noda was known in the media — and even in the Democratic Party itself — as the Finance Ministry candidate.
Noda, 54, is replacing Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who leaves a government ¥900 trillion in debt.
Passing the fiscal hawk baton to a younger generation.
Fiscal reform efforts took a back seat during Kan’s tenure due to the March 11 disasters.
Dealing with those disasters also took a back seat during Kan’s tenure. Everything took a back seat during Kan’s tenure to any activity designed to extend Kan’s tenure.
The native of Chiba Prefecture was the sole candidate among those running in the DPJ race considered as being oriented toward fiscal reform measures.
“Fiscal reform” is another one of those phrases people use in Japan when they dare not speak the name of tax increase in the context of bringing down the budget deficit.
Although he has toned down his stance lately, he has been an avid promoter of a tax hike to pay for Tohoku’s restoration. “It is an issue that can’t be shelved in any administration,” Noda said of a tax hike during policy debate over the weekend. “After slashing expenditures, we need a tax hike on a temporary basis.”
The Japanese response to the slashing expenditures part and the temporary part was funpan. The Finance Ministry wants the tax hike to pay for Tohoku’s restoration. The New Fiscal Hawk has never offered a convincing explanation why government funds on hand or (very) long-term bonds can’t be used to pay for Tohoku’s restoration.
He also advocates easing the burden on the private sector, saying the corporate tax should be slashed by 5 percentage points in order to support business competitiveness.
Now you see why Keidanren likes him.
He was also a central figure in writing up a $100 billion program designed to extend loans to domestic firms to spur overseas investment.
Hey, why not? The American stimulus programs have “made a great achievement”, haven’t they?
Hold on…it’s going to take a few seconds to fit $100 billion government loan programs to the private sector into the Fiscal Hawkery concept…OK.
Overall, Noda is known for his expertise in fiscal and economic policies, having served as senior vice finance minister from September 2009 in Yukio Hatoyama’s Cabinet and then being promoted to finance minister when Kan left that post to become prime minister in June 2010.
Mr. Noda applied that expertise to his assignment as vice finance minister to secure the funding to realize the manifesto pledges. His expertise was such that Mr. Hatoyama produced the highest budget with the highest budget deficit and highest deficit bond float in Japanese history (until the following year’s budget, which was produced by Kan The Fiscal Hawk Naoto).
He appears to have a head start on collaborating with the Liberal Democratic Party, whose president, Sadakazu Tanigaki, praised Noda by saying earlier this month that he “is not a person who acts without thinking much.”
Saying he isn’t a person who acts without thinking isn’t what most Japanese normally consider to be praise for politicians. Here’s the translation: He’s not Kan Naoto. The LDP long ago signaled they’d be willing to work with just about anybody not named Kan Naoto.
The first glimpse of how Noda will handle tough economic and fiscal issues will be demonstrated once he reveals his Cabinet lineup. “The key will be for him to appoint a finance minister who shares his beliefs and will not back down against the bureaucrats, in order to materialize DPJ’s policies,” Keio University’s Horie said.
You know, I can’t remember if I’ve ever read a four-dimensional non sequitur before. I think this might be the first one.
But enough of this — There’s a quicker way to get a read on Mr. Noda than by reading the JT analysis, and it too involves interesting Japanese vocabulary.
Recall that the fiscal hawk/financial and economic expert Noda Yoshihiko was vice finance minister during the Hatoyama administration. That government raised taxes on cigarettes by 33% a pack. The DPJ also discussed increasing the liquor tax earlier this year to help fund Tohoku reconstruction.
Mr. Noda demonstrated a nuanced approach to fiscal policy by taking a strong public stand against higher taxes on both tobacco and liquor. In fact, he called it “Oyaji-gari through the tax system.”
Oyaji is how Japanese men sometimes refer to their fathers in the way that Americans use the expression, “the old man”. It can also be used generically to refer to men middle-aged or older. The suffix “-gari” means “hunting”, in the sense of scalp-hunting or head-hunting.
Here’s the punchline: Mr. Noda is a man known to hugely enjoy cigarettes and booze.
Mr. Noda was a member of the first class of students accepted in the Matsushita Institute founded by electronics magnate Matsushita Konosuke. Matsushita’s expressed ideal was the “taxless state”, and he founded the institute to foster leaders with compatible ideals. He also said that one should not hesitate to die for one’s ideals and resolutions.
Were not Japanese usually cremated, it would be appropriate to say that Matsushita is rolling over in his grave tonight.