Japan from the inside out

Archive for October, 2011

Ichigen koji (65)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, October 29, 2011

– A person who has something to say about everything

Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio was the first Japanese prime minister to talk about putting the Japanese-American relationship on an equal footing. I was hopeful that we would make a clean break from the long-continued politics of subserviency to the United States, but he stumbled on the Futenma (base) issue.

– Kamei Shizuka, the head of the People’s New Party, a junior partner in the ruling coalition

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Posted by ampontan on Saturday, October 29, 2011

We must hang together, gentlemen…else, we shall most assuredly hang separately.
– Benjamin Franklin

WATCH how this works.

The EU came up with…a new plan!…this week to bail out its profligates and keep the fiction alive for a while longer. Here it is in brief:

Europe is happy because the European private banks, the creditors of the European governments, have agreed to eat 50% of Greece’s sovereign debt and to be recapitalized by public money handed to them by the European Financial Stability Facility rescue fund.

In other words, the banksters are in danger of losing their shirts, trousers, and underwear by placing bets on a government and a polity that conspires to feed on public money but is unable to survive on its own. That will require the people of countries who can survive on their own to feed them with their own public money, and with no guarantee that the Welfare Queens of Europe will ever get off the dole.

But the Europeans are so desperate — they haven’t got enough to cover their bets for Italy, Spain, and Portugal — they have to fly to East Asia to bang their tin cups on the pavements here:

The move comes as European officials have turned to China and Japan for possible funding of the eurozone’s bail-out fund. In Tokyo, Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, told the Financial Times he would like to see “even greater efforts” in Europe to “ease crisis worries by creating a stronger and more detailed approach”.

The world’s third-largest economy remained concerned about possible contagion. “This fire is not on the other side of the river,” Mr Noda said. “Currently, the most important thing is to ensure it does not spread to Asia or the global economy.”


Klaus Regling, the head of the European financial stability fund, travelled to Beijing on Friday in the hope of persuading China to step up support for the beefed-up fund and is expected to also visit Japan.

Japan currently holds just over 20 per cent of the €10bn in bonds issued by the EFSF, and Mr Noda, who was finance minister until becoming premier last month, signalled that Tokyo would continue to back the expanded fund.

Note in passing that the Financial Times refers to the former Media Spokesman for the Japanese Finance Ministry as a “Finance Minister”.

But the lads at the Finance Ministry seem to have forgotten that actions have reactions:

The European Central Bank is following the lead of the Federal Reserve and creating new money to bail out debt. The cost will be paid in inflation and flight from the euro and the dollar. As an indication of the future, despite the positive spin on the news and the rise in US stocks, on October 27 the Japanese yen rose to a new high against the US dollar.

The appreciation of the yen is causing such severe problems in Japan’s business sector that companies are accelerating their moves to shift production overseas.

The fire might now be on the Japanese side of the river too, but that doesn’t mean the Japanese government has to pour gasoline on it while pretending to put it out.

Mr. Noda’s replacement as Finance Ministry spokesman, ex-TV talking head Azumi Jun, whined to the media:

Azumi said today that the yen’s climb to a new postwar high was “extremely unfortunate.” Azumi told reporters in Tokyo he will take “decisive” action in the market if needed, and said the yen’s moves are “clearly speculative and don’t reflect economic fundamentals at all.”

Well, that didn’t work. Plan B?

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s cabinet last week approved a 12.1 trillion yen spending plan to rebuild after the March disaster. The package includes 2 trillion yen to help companies cope with the higher yen, with subsidies planned for building plants in Japan and hiring workers.

So, Japan’s government supports the use of public funds to recapitalize European banksters AND to bribe Japanese businesses from moving abroad to counter a situation that results in part from using public funds to recapitalize European banksters.

That cash has got to come from somewhere. Guess where. From Kyodo:

At the Group of 20 summit in early November, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda will pledge to hike the consumption tax to 10 percent from the current 5 percent in stages by around 2015, government sources said Thursday.

The pledge will be included in a document to be adopted by the G-20 leaders at the end of the summit in the French resort of Cannes on Nov. 3 and 4, the sources said.

With the eurozone sovereign debt crisis rocking the world economy, Noda will make an international pledge to raise Japan’s sales tax to underline Tokyo’s determination to achieve fiscal discipline.

Evidently fiscal discipline does not include serious cuts in government spending. It will include raising the retirement age, however. It’s OK to give public money to failed European governments, but Japanese retirees will have to wait a few extra years to get their share of the money they paid into the system.

Meanwhile, the Bank of Japan is indulging in another round of monetary easing, i.e., printing money, while keeping interest rates at close to zero. It won’t be news that they’ll continue to be puzzled why new private sector lending doesn’t expand. The whizzes haven’t figured out that banks might be hesitant to lend money they’re not going to get much of a return for.

This is yet another illustration in the picture encyclopedia presenting the global disconnect between “democratic” governments and the people they “govern” — increasingly, without the consent of the governed.

Did I slip and mention democracy there? How silly of me.

It seems as if the rest of us could well be hung together for a crime none of us committed. Does somebody out there think there’s going to be — what’s the phrase they like to use — “a soft landing”?


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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government, International relations, Politics | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »


Posted by ampontan on Thursday, October 27, 2011

EARLIER this week, a post from Prof. Shimojo Masao described a lawsuit filed by a South Korean citizen in New Jersey to prevent a school for Japanese students (enrollment: 90) from using a history textbook that states the islets of Takeshima are Japanese territory despite the current Korean occupation.

Those familiar with the conduct of affairs in Northeast Asia already know that behavior of this sort — over-dramatized, malicious pettiness made grandiose — is a not-uncommon attribute of the Joseon mindset. Yet another data point surfaced this week when Korean netizens fulminated over a scene in a Japanese television program. The drama was Boku to Sutaa 99 Hi, which translates to something like The 99 Days of Me and the Star. It was broadcast earlier this month on the Fuji Television network. One of the stars of the show is Korean actress Kim Tae-hee, who occasionally appears on Japan TV.

The scene at issue is brief. A child asks about the location of South Korea, and another actor spins a globe, points to the country, and says, “It’s here.” Those people with the time and the interest to give very extremely close scrutiny to fictional television programming noticed that the writing on the Japanese globe identifies the Sea of Japan as the Sea of Japan and the islets of Takeshima as Takeshima. Everyone else on the globe would consider that unremarkable, but the Koreans insist they’re called the East Sea and Dokdo, respectively.

This caused an uproar in the irritable bowels of the South Korean Internet, and the flatulence generated was sufficient to provide content for that country’s mass media. Someone on the net in South Korea claimed to have read a tweet from a Fuji TV staff member saying the network had used a graphic to erase those two place names to avoid giving offense, but that it wasn’t used in the final editing for the initial broadcast. The tweeter supposedly said it would be used in rebroadcasts and DVDs.

Fuji TV, however, denied they will alter the scene for rebroadcast and said their plans were to do nothing in particular. Fuji also reported that a producer looked into the matter and found there was no such tweet from a staff member. That’s only logical; this was a Japanese TV program broadcast in Japan, and it’s not as if many people off the peninsula are concerned about how to avoid offending the global network of Korean nationalist vigilantes. The first rebroadcast was very early in the morning today, and there’s been no word yet on what that showed.

What did the scene in the drama look like? Here’s a screenshot of how it was presented on a Korean website:

The report on the J-Cast website in Japan doesn’t mention whether or not Kim Tae-hee will be forced to wear the scarlet letter in her homeland for her contribution to this inexcusable affront to the national honor. She might already have some built-in credibility, however, because this isn’t the first time Ms. Kim has been involved in a political incident. In May 2005, the South Korean branch of the Swiss government’s tourism department filmed a video to promote Korean tourism in Switzerland, and she was the spokesman. One month before that, the international website of the Korean Broadcasting System (English-language) put up an apparently bogus page that suggested the Swiss government supported Korea in its territorial disputes. The Swiss denied the assertion. That same month, they confiscated a shipment of t-shirts with similar political messages being brought into the country by an employee of the South Korean branch at the Zurich airport. (See what I mean about over-dramatized, malicious pettiness?) The Swiss government stays clear of international territorial disputes and doesn’t allow proselytizing of that sort in the country. Everyone knows about Swiss neutrality, which is probably what attracted Korean interest to begin with.

During her stay in Switzerland, Ms. Kim is said to have worn one of the propaganda t-shirts. Her career on Japanese TV had already begun by that time, so to prevent any blowback she denied the charge to the Japanese branch of the Swiss tourism department. That’s not what people at the Japanese branch learned when they made inquiries, however.

After she returned to South Korea from Switzerland, her agents told the local media that she thought it was only natural to please the expectations of her Korean fans. Shortly thereafter, she visited Japan to promote a TV show. She told the media there that she had been a science major in school and needed further study in politics and history. She should also check the library for any books on how to concoct plausible excuses.

Those readers inclined to believe the puffenstuff they see elsewhere about the rabid nationalism of the Japanese should note that Ms. Kim has continued to appear on Japanese television since her small contribution to the Korean propaganda campaign. They might also speculate on what it would have meant to Ms. Kim’s career had the situation been reversed and she departed from the Joseon cultural party line while on an overseas trip.

When Japanese Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko visited South Korea last week for a summit with President Lee Myun-bak, one English-language newspaper ran the headline, “Japan seeks to smooth prickly ties with Seoul”. That’s an apt description, but none of the prickliness originates in Japan.

Indeed, we can improve that headline. It’s the job of newspaper headline writers to find short, punchy words that fit into a limited space and attract the reader’s eye. There’s a shorter alternative for “prickly” that would also improve its accuracy.

Just remove the l.

Here’s an another update on the East Asian Ein Volk, Ein Reich front. Last week in a post about Hatoyama Yukio, I wrote:

Without exception, every young Japanese I’ve known with an interest in China who has gone to study or to spend an extended period of time in that country has returned with their illusions shattered following their encounter with kokumin who mainline on ethnocentric nationalism.

To see what causes the shattering, here’s an older article by John Derbyshire describing his experience on a Chinese-language mailing list for software engineers in the United States infected with the Black Plague strain of ethnocentric nationalism:

Bear in mind, please, that the writers of these e-mails are the intellectual cream of Mainland China, now immigrants to the U.S. Few do not have Master’s degrees; many have Ph.D.s. The average age is around thirty, I suppose. Their academic and professional qualifications, and their command of English, are sufficient to have impressed an American consul into awarding them a visa—no easy matter, allegedly. Yet for all this, their notions about national sovereignty were essentially those of the Ming dynasty mandarinate, and their knowledge of history a collection of false and preposterous clichés.

You have to read it to believe it.

These attitudes could be of significance beyond the circulation of a mailing list. Did any of those engineers know Kexue Huang, I wonder?

While he was working for two American chemical companies, a Chinese scientist was stealing trade secrets and sending them to accomplices for further research, assisting the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) long-term strategic goals in the science field, according to court documents in a recent case.

There were also reports in Japan yesterday that a committee in the PRC’s National Peoples Congress began discussing a revision of the citizens’ identification law that would require inserting the fingerprints of all the country’s citizens on individual IDs. It would seem that the decision won’t require a lot of discussion, however. The Chinese began issuing new IDs in 2004, and one billion have already been distributed — carrying chips designed for the input of fingerprint information.

Consider what might happen when an entire nation populated by citizens of this sort, who view themselves as the flower in the center of the universe, decide that now is the time to bloom. Some overseas observers are unconcerned because they think a collapse of the Chinese economy and the resultant domestic anger might stop international mischief before it starts. They point to the observation of others that the Chinese real estate bubble is beginning to look as if it’s started to pop.

Then again, a pessimist might wonder if the rest of the world will follow the Chinese economy down the open elevator shaft, or if the Chinese leadership decides international buccaneering is the surest way to deflect internal dissent.

Or further still, if it is not a question of “either/or”, but a question of “both”.

Let’s end with the rousing finale of Leni Riefenstahl’s cinema classic to keep our flagging spirits high.

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Posted in China, International relations, Mass media, Popular culture, South Korea | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

Ichigen koji (64)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 26, 2011

– A person who has something to say about everything

* Though a supplementary budget using government bonds must be formulated immediately, the idea that the people will positively respond to a tax increase as long as it’s for (Tohoku) reconstruction is tantamount to holding reconstruction hostage.

* Some people say the reason Mr. Kan announced his intention to resign on 2 June was the delay in (Tohoku) reconstruction, but that (assessment) is off the mark. The real reason is lies in the fact that Mr. Kan did not challenge the strange logic of the Finance Ministry. In that sense, it could be said Mr. Kan’s judgment was in error

* With the Noda administration, there’s been an almost complete return to the era of the Liberal Democratic Party. I worked with Mr. Noda during my year in the Kan Cabinet, and he never went beyond the framework established by the financial bureaucracy.

* When the Democratic Party of Japan was in the opposition, one of the policies in the party manifesto had the sense of expanding the mechanism that would prevent the intervention of bureaucratic organizations, and (for the party to) act as the locus of opposition to the Liberal Democratic Party governments that had become integrated with the bureaucracy. That was the “new public commons”, and that was the reform of regional sovereignty. There really are people who seek that sort of society, but there are also people who think that isn’t necessary once they’ve assumed control of government. They think it’s better to play it safe by getting along with the bureaucracy. Mr. Noda is typical of the latter.

– Katayama Yoshihiro, Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications in both Kan Cabinets, in an article in the 25 October Asahi Shimbun. He is a political independent who served two terms as Tottori governor, and has never been a Diet member.

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Shimojo Masao (15): The school for Japanese in New Jersey

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, October 25, 2011

LEADERLESS Japan has been devoting its energy to domestic issues since the Tohoku earthquake and has been neglecting foreign affairs. An incident occurred in the state of New Jersey at the end of September that we cannot afford to ignore. I would like to examine a few issues that bear on the future course of events in East Asia.

The 24 September online edition of the Hankook Ilbo in the United States reported that a South Korean in that country brought an administrative suit against a school for Japanese in the state of New Jersey (with 90 students), the New Jersey Department of Education, and the Oakland Board of Education. The suit charged that the school for Japanese was using a civics textbook that, in regard to the Takeshima islets (Liancourt Rocks), which are a subject of dispute between Japan and South Korea, contains the passage, “Takeshima is being illegally occupied by South Korea.” This was a problem because “an American educational institution was educating its students with a Japanese textbook that distorted the facts.” The plaintiff said that unless the matter was resolved by eliminating the offending passage and the Board of Education rescinded its approval of the school’s curriculum, it would bring a civil suit.

But Takeshima, in the Sea of Japan, is Japanese territory both historically and under international law. There is no truth to the assertion in the lawsuit that the textbook’s statement is distorted. The plaintiff objects to the phrase, “South Korea claims it that governs Takeshima, and has control of it, but under international law and historical fact, it is Japanese territory.” This description is in accordance with the facts of history. Why was historical fact ignored to bring suit against a small school for Japanese in New Jersey? In South Korea, students are taught that Takeshima is Korean territory, an outlook that differs from the textbook’s statement that Takeshima is illegally occupied by South Korea.

But Takeshima was incorporated as Japanese territory in 1905 based on international law and the concept of terra nullius. It was controlled by Japan for nearly a half century thereafter. It became the center of a land dispute in January 1952, when the South Korean government proclaimed the existence of the Syngman Rhee Line in international waters, with Takeshima on the Korean side of the line. When the South Korean government occupied Takeshima by force in September 1954, the Japanese government immediately proposed to the South Korean government that the matter be referred to the International Court of Justice. The South Korean government refused, however, and the matter remains unresolved to this day. That this abnormal state of affairs continues is due to the fact that Japan presents absolutely no threat to the South Korean government.

Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution prohibits the resolution of international disputes through war or the force of arms. The South Korean government knows that Japan cannot regain control of Takeshima through military action. Japan is therefore precluded from either the use of force or recourse to the International Court of Justice. Explaining the historical background of the illegal South Korean occupation is its only option.

If the administrative lawsuit is successful in prohibiting the use of a textbook that explains Takeshima is illegally occupied by South Korea, it would thwart Japan’s chances of seeking the return of the islets. A court in Superpower America would have delivered that verdict. Their idea of using a great power to achieve one’s objectives, based on the worship of the powerful, is not limited to this administrative lawsuit. South Korea has already been partially successful with it before.

When Japan claims sovereignty over Takeshima, the South Koreans impute that to Japanese territorial ambitions, and then turn the tables by criticizing Japan as an aggressor nation. They validate that latter assertion by bringing up the name of the Sea of Japan, saying it should be the East Sea instead, or the issue of comfort women (prostitutes) during the Second World War. Using the UN and the international community as a stage, they have plotted to isolate Japan as an aggressor nation.

The South Koreans explain that what is now called the Sea of Japan is known as the East Sea in South Korea, and that name has been used since before the birth of Christ. Later, the explanation goes, the Sea of Japan name spread due to Japanese expansionism and colonial domination. A South Korean group in the U.S. claims that “The Japanese insistence on the (name of the) Sea of Japan is the means for imperialism, which includes the ambition for sovereignty over Dokdo (the South Korean name for Takeshima).” They have begun a campaign to change the name to the East Sea, which they insist is correct. The group has disseminated South Korean public opinion abroad by collecting signatures for a petition and submitting them to the American Congress and the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO).

There is no historical basis that the Sea of Japan was ever the East Sea, however. In fact, some people in South Korea think the name should be the Sea of Hanguk (韓国海) and not the East Sea. Respect for historical fact should the determining factor for the name of the body of water. Facts should not be determined by petition drives. The method of using a petition drive to stop the use of the name of the Sea of Japan in favor of the East Sea is similar to the idea of employing an administrative suit to prohibit the use of a textbook that says Takeshima is illegally occupied by South Korea.

The issue of the prostitutes referred to as comfort women also originates in the South Korean historical view of Japan as an aggressor state. The existence of women whose vocation is prostitution for military forces during wartime, however, is an issue that humankind has not been able to overcome. There have been comfort women in South Korea for the American forces since the start of the Korean War. The existence of comfort women for the South Korean army during the Vietnam War is also not irrelevant in this regard.

South Korea created the history that the comfort women were forcibly impressed and controlled by the Japanese government, and has used that to repeatedly criticize Japan. But women from the Korean Peninsula were not the only ones that became comfort women — many of them were Japanese. Poverty drove women to sell their bodies.

Today, the Northeast Asia History Foundation, which the South Korean government established as an instrument of national policy to deal with the Takeshima issue, is the driving force behind the comfort woman issue. It has a division that works to link the comfort women, the name of the Sea of Japan, and Japanese history textbooks with the Takeshima issue to use them for political propaganda. It works with the South Korean organization in the United States and a group of juveniles acting as cyber-terrorists to promote anti-Japanese propaganda in the United States and the rest of the world in regard to these three issues.

It is a fact, however, that the territorial issue of Takeshima is entirely unrelated to the issue of the comfort women and the name of the Sea of Japan. South Korea occupied Takeshima using military force in 1954, but the other two issues predate that. The South Korean government has shouted to the international community about comfort women and the Sea of Japan, and plotted to seal off the Takeshima issue by declaring Japan to be an aggressor nation. At the 2007 UN Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names — whose work is overseen by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and who has also played a central role in the Takeshima dispute — the South Korean representative called for the joint use of the historically groundless East Sea name. South Korean efforts have also resulted in the U.S. House of Representatives and the national legislatures of Canada and The Netherlands passing motions condemning Japan over the comfort women issue.

That these efforts now extend to an administrative lawsuit prohibiting the use of a textbook in a small school for Japanese in New Jersey is likely the result of their past successes. But the claim that the textbook used by the students “is in violation of the U.S. Constitution, and betrays the universal expectations of humankind for education” in a lawsuit that uses superficially democratic procedures is merely an attempt to justify the aggressive act of South Korea. This cannot be overlooked.

My role is to disclose the circumstances surrounding this issue for the school for Japanese in New Jersey and the New Jersey Department of Education, which have been dragged into this false accusation. I trust that the court will clarify the facts of history based on law and justice.

– Shimojo Masao

Ampontan P.S.:

1. Japanese sources say that at least 40% of the WWII comfort women were Japanese, and I’ve never seen an attempt to rebut that.

2. It is worth noting in regard to the South Korean claim for the East Sea name that the body of water lying to the west of the Korean Peninsula is known in Korea (and even by an English-language blogger there who should know better) as the West Sea. The rest of the world knows it as the Yellow Sea. There seems to be no South Korean effort to have international bodies recognize that particular name, from which we can draw our own conclusions.

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Posted in History, International relations, South Korea | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

We love chin-don too!

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, October 23, 2011

CHEESE and crackers, Laurel and Hardy, strawberry ice cream and tempura — felicitous combinations all, but none are so fine as the pairing of high school girls and chin-don!

We Love Chin-Don Girls

As long-time friends know, chin-don is that whacked-out Japanese urban street music presented by musical jesters decked out in Edo High Camp, armed with Western and Japanese and instruments, and performing a repertoire from the Western and Japanese Hit Parades stretching as far back as the turn of the century — the 20th Century, that is. Now I ask you: Could anything be sweeter than these young sweeties getting down to century-old East Asian funk in a style that makes Weird Al Yankovic and Spike Jones look as straitlaced as a Salvation Army marching band?

Those lucky enough to be at the Lunar Park amusement park in Maebashi, Gunma, last Sunday would have seen six female high school seniors from the Tatebayashi Commercial and Technical High School in Gunma’s Meiwa-machi working out in a group called We Love Chin-don.

They aren’t the only Gunma girls with a chin-don jones. Their formation was inspired by the Chin-don Girls, another group of students from the same high school who were graduated this spring. They were the first to perform at Lunar Park last year.

The new group was started by senior Kawasaki Ayumi, who saw last year’s band up close and personal and thought they were too cool for school. She rustled up five of her friends to continue the new tradition. They were tutored by the Umaya Bashi Chin-don Club of Maebashi, an amateur group who won a national championship in April at the national chin-don competition in Toyama. They also picked up tips by watching videos of the Chin-don Girls in action.

We Love Chin-don began performing in local festivals and senior citizen homes in July, and their Lunar Park performance was a joint appearance with their mentors. Said Kitahara Yuichiro, the big chikuwa of the Umaya Bashi Chin-don Club:

“Today they performed with a lot of guts, and all their practice resulted in a big success.”

Said the big chikuwa-ette Miss Kawasaki:

“The great part about chin-don is that we get excited by coming in contact with other people. We want to pass chin-don on to the younger girls in school.”

This time we’re in luck! We Love Chin-don will next appear at the 9th National Amateur Chin-don Competition in Maebashi on 5-6 November. That gives us two weeks to get ready.

Now if only they had seen fit to put videos of their performances, or those of their models in the Chin-don Girls, on YouTube or a similar site. They haven’t — yet — so we’ll just have to make do with this brief clip of their teachers in the Umaya Bashi Chin-don Club.

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Media cred

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, October 22, 2011

WHILE looking for something else on the Japanese-language sector of the Web, I ran across a reference to survey results that were cited in a 2009 book by Masuda Etsusuke, Kakusashakairon ha Uso De Aru, or The Argument (that Japan is a) Society of Inequality is a Lie. (Doesn’t mince words, does he?)

The nature of the survey and the people who conducted it weren’t mentioned in the source I found, but the part he thought worth discussing included questions asked of people in 45 countries about which media they use for news.

The results for some of those countries follow. Category one is the country, category two is the percentage of respondents who said they get their news primarily from newspapers, and category three is the percentage of respondents who thought the news media had a beneficial influence on society.

United States / 47% / 65%
Russia / 47% / 61%
Germany / 62% / 77%
China / 63% / 89%
India / 75% / 80%
Japan / 75% / 48%

Japan and India were tied for first in the percentage of citizens who got their news from newspapers. In other words, the survey results suggest that the Japanese are the people most likely both to read newspapers and to assume that what they read is probably full of bologna.

This reminds me of a story about the late Watanabe Michio, a former Finance Minister and Foreign Minister in LDP cabinets and the father of LDP renegade MP and Your Party founder Watanabe Yoshimi.

Watanabe ranked the five media sources in Japan that a politician had to employ to get out his message. First was television, second was weekly magazines, there were no third and fourth, and newspapers were fifth. The elder Watanabe, by the way, started his career as a reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun.

This result isn’t as surprising as it might seem. The kisha club system has allowed the government and Big Media to create a symbiotic relationship of controlled access that allows the first to manage the news and the second to monopolize the news, a state of affairs with which all Japanese newspaper consumers are familiar. As a result, weekly magazines in Japan have long served as a combination samizdat press and print media proto-blogosphere to provide information that the politicians would prefer people not have. Their sources for political stories are often reporters who would be shut out of the loop if they published that information in the newspapers that employ them. (The magazines preserve their anonymity by quoting “a political journalist for a national daily”, for example.)

One curious aspect of this relationship is that people in both the large media outlets themselves and the freelancers who are their critics tend to think this problem exists only in Japan. An illustrative example is freelance journalist and disillusioned Democratic Party of Japan supporter Uesugi Takashi. Mr. Uesugi was one of the fiercest critics of the response of the government and Tokyo Electric to the Fukushima nuclear accident, and to the mass media’s coverage of all of it. He became so disgusted with the mess he vows to cease his activities as a journalist at the end of the year.

While his reaction is understandable, less so is his not-atypical belief that the Western news media is superior to that of Japan. He often cites the behavior of the New York Times and CNN with approval, and uses them as a positive contrast to the third-rate Japanese news media. (One possible reason for his myopia is that he once worked as the Japanese-language go-fer for the NYT Tokyo correspondents.)

That leads one to wonder about Mr. Uesugi’s familiarity with how the American news media conducts itself these days. Speaking of illustrative examples, here’s another: Upset with the political agenda of the Democratic Party in the United States after they took full control of government in 2008, some Americans as an act of protest created the Tea Party movement, named after the famous incident in which revolutionaries among the American colonists threw tea from ships into Boston Harbor. “Tea” was an acronym for “taxed enough already”, and the website of a group calling itself the Tea Party Patriots said they supported three “core values”: fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets.

This really upset Big Media in the United States; how dare people object after they had spent so much time and effort to drag the Democrats across the electoral finish line. The news media’s knee-jerk response was to delegitimize the movement, and their weapon of choice was juvenile humor. They started referring to the Tea Party people as “teabaggers”, a deliberate reference to a sexual practice that is reportedly most often performed by homosexuals. Rachael Maddow of MSNBC seems to have been the first in the news media to use it, followed a week later by CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. Mr. Cooper was:

…interviewing David Gergen, the political pundit. And Gergen was saying that, after two very bad elections, conservatives and Republicans were “searching for their voice.” Cooper responded, “It’s hard to talk when you’re teabagging.”

Those two were perhaps more familiar with the term than their broader audience. Rachel Maddow is out of the closet and living with a woman in an openly gay relationship. Mr. Cooper declines to talk about his personal life (good for him), but Out magazine named him number two on its list of the 50 “Most Powerful Gay Men and Women in America”. (David Geffen was first.)

The phrase was then picked up by people on the PBS network, ABC news, and columnists for the Washington Post and New York Times…and the President of the United States. Such is what passes for political discourse as led by the American Fourth Estate today.

Everyone forced to rely on the American news media for information realizes the real motive behind their response was the fear of the success of a political outlook opposed to their own. Why else would some of the same people so quickly hail the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators as the Tea Partiers of the left — but this time, with approval? (And it isn’t just the Americans, either.)

The issue is not, of course, one’s political preferences, or the sex of the partner one prefers as the cup for dipping one’s teabags. It is, as they say, a free country. Rather, the problem is the news media’s utter disregard of anything even remotely resembling journalistic standards, not to mention standards for behavior in public. Wait, scratch that — the real problem is the lack of any sort of standards to begin with.

These are the organizations on which Mr. Uesugi thinks the members of the Japanese news media should model themselves. These are the people the members of the Japanese news media think should be taken seriously for their coverage of current events.

Back to that survey: It certainly looks as if the Japanese public is ahead of the pack in more ways than one.

The Japanese aren’t the only ones in East Asia with tea ceremonies — it’s a Korean tradition too. The Koreans also have tea ceremony music, called da’ak. Here’s a taste.

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Ichigen koji (63)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, October 22, 2011

– A person who has something to say about everything

People say the Liberal-Democratic Party hasn’t changed, but those who were the winners in the difficult (2009) election are now running the party. Even if you tell them they need to do some soul-searching, there’s no way that they will.

– Hagiuda Koichi, former LDP Diet member who was defeated for re-election in that 2009 election

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Matsuri da! (119): What a cool crash!

Posted by ampontan on Friday, October 21, 2011

DESPITE the priests dressed in ancient robes who conduct ceremonies and offer prayers that are centuries old, the main activities of some Shinto festivals seem as if they were conceived by bored college frat boys with a buzz on and looking for anything else to do besides study on a midweek evening.

You won’t think I’m exaggerating after you read about the Honyama Shinji held annually in late September at the Yamasaki Hachiman-gu (shrine) in Shunan, Yamaguchi.

It started roughly 300 years ago, when this area, then part of the Tokuyama domain, suffered a particularly bad harvest. They created and conducted this festival in supplication for a bumper crop the next year.

Festival floats in Japan are often called yama, which is the word for mountain. This one has three: The honyama, or main mountain; jiiyama, or grandfather mountain, and baayama, or grandmother mountain. They’re assembled using traditional methods, which means mortised joints and no nails at all. The honyama is 2.7 meters long, 2.6 meters high, and weighs nearly a ton. They are lashed together with the kazura vine and adorned with sacred pine boughs for good luck, as well as lanterns.

The three floats are paraded through two districts near the shrine in the days leading up to the festival. Then, early in the evening on festival day, they’re taken as far as the torii in front of the shrine itself. That would be a simple matter in most instances, but in this case the Yamasaki Hachiman-gu torii is at the top of a steeply sloped hill 10 meters above the ground below.

But no logistical problem is unsolvable at a Japanese festival if there’s enough manpower and grog for the task. The solution is to pull all three floats to the top of the hill on rollers one at a time — first the jii, then the baa, and then the one-ton honyama. On board the honyama are about 10 people, including a priest and musicians.

The floats are met at the torii on the top of the hill by a group that has carried down a mikoshi — a sort of palanquin bearing the shrine’s tutelary deity — from the shrine itself. A brief Shinto ceremony is conducted with the three floats and the mikoshi facing each other.

Then they turn the floats around and push them down the hill to crash at the bottom: first the jii, then the baa, and then the honyama. When they come to a stop, the locals quickly scramble to snatch the pine boughs and the shide paper streamers that denote a sacred space. Possession of one brings good luck in the year ahead. Luck in the harvest is determined by the direction in which the honyama collapses at the bottom of the hill.

After that, the folks from Shunan disassemble the crashed floats and retrieve all the salvageable material, which is used to build next year’s floats.

Nothing’s mentioned in the newspaper reports, but it’s safe to assume that after the festival, the participants — including the priest — get just as ripped as any of those collegians in the frat house living room.

How did they come up with this idea 300 years ago? That isn’t mentioned in the newspaper reports either, and the city’s website offers no explanation.

But this is what it looks like:

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Posted by ampontan on Thursday, October 20, 2011

READERS might assume from some of the posts on this site that I’m opposed to all things governmental, but that assumption would be mistaken. In fact, here’s a story about a South Korean government decision that is of such exquisite and perfect wisdom, I would be happy to buy a drink for the man responsible for it.

Over the years, the veterans affairs ministry of the South Korean government has paid compensation to families of victims of the 1950-1953 Korean War. Recently, the government has come under civilian fire for first refusing compensation to a woman whose brother was killed in that war, and then offering her KRW 5,000. That’s the same amount paid to families 50 years ago, but today it’s worth just $US 4.20.

Here’s the first paragraph from ABC News Australia:

The South Korean government has been slammed by a civil rights commission for offering a woman a little over $4 in compensation for the death of her brother in the Korean War.

Followed by the inevitable wailing and pants-wetting:

The presidential Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission has called the decision “incomprehensible”, saying the government failed to take into account six decades of inflation.

“We hope that this case will lead to forming a system of adequately compensating the families of Korean War veterans who continue to live with deep pain,” the commission said.

Now that we’ve gotten the bathetic fru-fru out of the way, here’s the important stuff:

The South Korean woman, 63, only discovered a few years ago that her brother had been killed during the war…she never knew of his existence until told of his death by a neighbour, local media reported, adding the children’s mother suffered from dementia.

In a 1964 obscenity case, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote in his concurrence to the majority opinion that hard-core pornography was hard to define, but added, “I know it when I see it.”

It is also difficult to define which demands for compensation are legitimate and which are just a racket, but, like Justice Stewart, we know them when we see them.

I wish I knew that anti-racketeering G-man in Seoul. His bar tab would be on me.

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Ichigen koji (62)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, October 20, 2011

– A person who has something to say about everything

It has been reported that the Noda administration is now working to extend the original 10-year period for higher income taxes to fund (Tohoku) reconstruction to 15-20 years. In contrast, the Liberal Democratic Party insists the period should correspond to the 60-year term for government construction bonds.

During a news conference on the 17th, Prime Minister Noda said, “I think the 60 years as proposed by the LDP is a mistake.” As a matter of principle, however, the mistake is the idea of having one generation assume the liability for funding the reconstruction of social capital.

What principle is it that would have only today’s generation assume the liability for funding reconstruction after the events of 11 March, a once-in-a-thousand-years event?

The fiscal principle is that the next generation, which will use that infrastructure, should also assume the liability. A 60-year period with the next generation also sharing the burden makes sense.

The LDP should steadfastly maintain a policy of a term (for the tax increases) corresponding to the 60-year period for government construction bonds.

– Nakagawa Hidenao, LDP Diet member and former party secretary-general.

One assumes that the party wants to extend the term as a way to minimize the tax increase (this is the first mention I’ve seen of it), but it’s never safe to assume anything but the worst when it comes to politicians and taxes. One thing it is safe to assume is that neither the DPJ nor the LDP as presently constituted intends to rescind those taxes after 10, 15, 20, or 60 years.

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Still spaced

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 19, 2011

THERE are two possibilities: One is that former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio, nicknamed the Man from Outer Space, has again reentered Earth orbit after another of his rambles through the far reaches of the cosmos. The other is that he has somehow found a way to use the family fortune to contravene East Asia’s strict drug laws and treat himself to daily hits from a hookah.

Mr. Hatoyama was in Seoul today to give a speech to Campus Asia, a group for exchange between Japanese, Korean, and Chinese students. He again brought up the subject of an East Asian entity:

During the Kan administration, the prime minister made very little mention of this, and that tendency has continued with the Noda administration. I do not think this is at all desirable.

He added:

Conceiving of an East Asian entity is a historical inevitablity. The movement (toward this) among the people is proof that the ideas of the citizens are superior to those of politics.

Rereading this nudges me toward the possibility that he’s packing a bong in his briefcase. The reason the Kan and Noda governments have said next to nothing about his East Asian entity idea is that next to no one in Japan took it seriously to begin with. Just because the man might be sparking up some spliffs doesn’t mean he sparked anyone else’s imagination. The only thing inevitable about an East Asian entity is that Mr. Hatoyama will never stop talking about it and will never notice that no one is listening.

Some in the overseas media and commentariat took it seriously when he became prime minister, but they might as well be wearing tin foil-lined paper bags over their heads for all the insight they have into matters Japanese. Of course, more than a few in that category were more than happy to entertain that fantasy because they share Mr. Hatoyama’s slobbery pipe dream of global governance. (His former speechwriter once admitted it was his job to plant that idea in the minds of the people without spooking them by coming right out and saying it.)

Additional evidence that Mr. Hatoyama is still stacked up over Narita and ain’t coming down for nobody is his continued intentional use of the term shimin (市民) for citizen, rather than the usual kokumin (国民). The latter clearly denotes the citizen of a nation, while the first does not. Those who use this term in this context (some in the DPJ and points left) communicate their intent so clearly they might as well be wearing flashing fluorescent badges.

Additional evidence that Mr. Hatoyama might have too much residual tetrahydrocannabinol in his brain cells is that he is still talking about the idea, now that the concept on which his East Asian entity is based — the EU — seems more likely to collapse than survive, and soon rather than late. To fail to see that the idea isn’t going to work, and to fail to see that the reason is human nature its own self, makes one wonder if the man is more than one toke over the line.

While the countries of Northeast Asia share a common culture of thrift, and the countries of Europe — Germany and Greece for two — do not, the kokumin in this part of the world have no desire to subsume themselves in a larger political entity, much less with any countries further to the south. (The idea would appeal to the Chinese if they are allowed to assume what they consider to be their natural role of hegemons in the center of the universe and everyone else pays tribute to the superior specimens of humanity. But then some Chinese have always had a taste for opium.)

It is true that ties between the Japanese, South Koreans, and Chinese are growing closer at the kokumin level rather than the governmental level, but in one sense that represents a return to conditions in the region that predated nation states. Indeed, closer ties at this level between Japan and China tend to blunt any such unifying trend rather than promote it. Without exception, every young Japanese I’ve known with an interest in China who has gone to study or to spend an extended period of time in that country has returned with their illusions shattered following their encounter with kokumin who mainline on ethnocentric nationalism. Any other Japanese who had any illusions about China had them shattered after the incident in the Senkakus last year.

It should now be obvious to even the oblivious that those who tried to force upon the rest of us their vision of uno mundo with themselves at the seat of power are nothing more than Potempkin elites with expensive haberdashery and control over the heavy weaponry. The glassy-eyed among us, however, will never see it at all.

Fire up that match, Yukio! We have ignition…we have liftoff…now give us a lift.

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Japan and the TPP

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Politicians can solve almost any problem — usually by creating a bigger problem.
– Thomas Sowell

DISCUSSIONS to create free trade agreements are always a bit like negotiating one’s way through a briar patch, regardless of the parties involved. The case for free trade isn’t easy to make, and appeals to our hard-wired tribalism often find a resonance whose amplitude far exceeds the input. Another complication is the natural tendency of countries to advocate the liberalization of those sectors in which they have an advantage and to get all huffy about industries in which they are at a disadvantage.

Those negotiations become more complicated when agricultural products are tabled for talks. When the crop being discussed is rice in Japan, it is next to impossible to separate the rhetorical grain from the chaff. It isn’t simply that rice paddies account for 56% of all Japanese cropland; there are cultural and spiritual dimensions to rice in this country that are difficult to explain to outsiders, assuming they’re interested in hearing an explanation to begin with. Despite declining consumption and the broadening of the diet, rice is still treated as the main attraction of any meal. Every other food is thought of as a side dish, both at the table and linguistically. And then there’s the dimension unique to Japan. The status of each new Emperor is affirmed in a state ceremony called the Daijosai. In this rite, the Emperor offers newly harvested, sacred rice to the divinities and then partakes of it himself. (Contemporary Japanese themselves recognize that the ceremony exemplifies the universality of the concept of You Are What You Eat.)

In short, to understand the role of rice in Japanese life, it might be useful to imagine how Westerners of an earlier age must have viewed wheat based on the line in the prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread”, and then multiply it by a power of three. Now imagine the response of some people in Japan when they learn that the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement, known as TPP, would eliminate all tariffs among member states in 10 years without exception — including rice.

All of these factors should be taken into consideration by anyone overseas who would report or comment on the debate in Japan over joining the discussions for the TPP, but that won’t happen with the Western media or its on-call stable of bite-sized quote generators in academia. Former Prime Minister Kan Naoto briefly glommed onto the idea in his Sisyphean search for a policy that would endow him with political legitimacy. But Mr. Kan soon fluttered over to some other issue — his priority was to prolong his survival in office, his interest in the matter was tepid and transitory, and even he knew he lacked the skills to either persuade or bulldoze the farming communities, the roughly 50% of his own party opposed to participation, and the agricultural lobby in the bureaucracy. His interest was so superficial, in fact, he carried out a Cabinet reshuffle after bringing up the issue of TPP participation and retained an agriculture minister opposed to the idea.

Now the new government of Noda Yoshihiko is eyeing the potentially poisonous fruit and wondering if it should take a bite. His government and the ruling DPJ will decide early next month whether Japan will take part in the TPP talks. (Mr. Kan was supposed to have decided early this summer, but the prompt execution of affairs is not the hallmark of DPJ governments in general or Mr. Kan’s in particular.) Their decision seems to be timed to coincide with the APEC summit.

Opponents offer the same protectionist arguments to be expected in any country, and chief among them is perhaps Nakano Takeshi, once a bureaucrat in the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy and now a Kyoto University professor. Mr. Nakano published a book this year called TPP Bomeiron, or TPP: On National Ruin. The knee-jerks might assume this is yet another example of Japanese isolationism, but Mr. Nakano himself would beg to differ. Also the author of a book titled Free Trade is a Trap, he claims his arguments are based on the economic nationalism of David Hume in Britain, Alexander Hamilton in the U.S., Friedrich List of Germany (the founder of the German historical school of economics), and even the neoclassicist British economist Alfred Marshall. (The inclusion of the latter is somewhat odd; Marshall has been described as “a firm but cautious adherent of free trade”, though he also advocated protecting new industries.)

Author and university professor Ikeda Nobuo has added TPP Bomeiron to his list of “books that must not be read” (either at the top or bottom, depending on your perspective). He dismisses it as a 200+ page rehash of two false arguments: (1) TPP is a de facto American FTA, and (2) The increase of imports in TPP will result in deflation.

Others who urge caution warn of being bulldozed in the negotiations by the United States. Superficially, it would appear they have a point; Japanese negotiators seem to be congenitally incapable of defending themselves against American pressure in any negotiations. Yet this argument ignores Japan’s partial ban on U.S. beef imports that has remained in effect since 2005 due to mad cow disease. Only meat from those cattle aged 20 months or younger is allowed in the country.

Meanwhile, DPJ member and former Agriculture Minister Yamada Masahiko is mobilizing opposition within the party. He also claims that half of the DPJ MPs are opposed to participation, and insists this is not an issue requiring urgent action. His estimate of half might have been too low. It’s now reported that he’s collected 191 signatures from party members in the Diet backing his opposition.

For an idea of the absurdities to which the obstructionists will resort, here’s a paragraph from commentator Yayama Taro, a TPP proponent:

Japan’s Ag Ministry bureaucrats, agriculture industry groups, and their allies in the Diet haphazardly oppose any attempts at liberalization without thinking of the future benefits. When the government wanted to liberalize banana imports, the apple growers of Aomori were fiercely opposed. They claimed they would no longer be able to sell apples. When the import of bananas finally was liberalized, the farmers made improvements to Aomori apples and were able to supply a greater variety. Today, they are exported to Taiwan and China, and domestic consumption has also risen.

It gets even worse:

An Oct. 12 meeting of DPJ lawmakers opposed to or skeptical about this proposal focused on issues related to the health-care and pharmaceutical industries.

At the meeting, senior executives of the Japan Medical Association warned that the deregulation of these industries resulting from Japan’s participation in the accord would cause the health-care system in Japan to collapse.

Foreign Ministry officials in charge of the TPP pointed out that a public health-care insurance program is not covered by the TPP negotiations, but the participating legislators refused to be reassured.

No one has ever gone broke underestimating the intelligence of the average politician. Then again, an intelligent person is unlikely to go into politics to begin with.

Japan’s Free Marketeers

Despite the broad unsupported assertions, verbal sand-throwing as a diversionary tactic, and superficial commentary, the Japanese public is being offered counter-arguments and is finding those arguments to be worth their consideration.

Asakawa Yoshihiro, the deputy editor of Nogyo Keieisha (Farmers’ Business) published Nihon ha Seikai Goi no Nogyo Taikoku (Japan is the World’s Fifth-Largest Agricultural Superpower) in February 2010. It ranked #2 on the Amazon non-fiction best-seller list for the year. (The copy I bought was printed in March 2011, and it was already in the 14th printing.)

Mr. Asakawa holds that the argument claiming Japanese agriculture is weak lacks a basis in fact. He claims that the Agriculture Ministry deliberately understates the agricultural self-sufficiency rate to maintain a crisis atmosphere among the public as a means to enhance its influence. He insists that the industry has successfully boosted production, that a decline in the farming population will not result in the waning of agriculture, and that Japan has enormous potential for becoming a food exporter.

This previous post summarizes an article in the September 2009 issue of Voice, which features an interview with Itochu Corp. Chairman Niwau Ichiro. Mr. Niwau also thinks Japanese agriculture can be internationally competitive, that it could thrive in markets that were completely open, and that even rice would be price competitive if the tariffs were removed. The key, he says, is to reform misguided government policy and amend current land use laws that encourage acreage reduction to prop up rice prices.

Kon Kichinori, the editor of the aforementioned Nogyo Keieisha summarized the view of the optimists in a recent article in Diamond Online. Here’s most of it in English.

Japanese agriculture is often thought to be suffering from declining numbers of agricultural workers, the aging of the agricultural workforce, small-scale farming, and the lack of competition. The backdrop to these assertions is the historical view of an impoverished peasantry, in which farm households are poor and weak. This view still survives in the contemporary administration of agricultural affairs. But we have already developed a dynamic class of agribusiness entrepreneurs, and it is time for us to abandon the romantic historical view of an impoverished peasantry.

This view is based on the historical awareness of the meager harvests and famines of the Edo period when farm productivity was poor. Another factor is the hardships resulting from the high percentage of production confiscated in annual tributes, in which the public sector took 50% or 60% of the crop. This awareness has changed, however, as more research has been conducted into the original documents of the Edo period. Based on surveys from the 16th century, it has been shown that the public sector share of annual tributes fell to 30% to 40% as new technology for agricultural production was developed, and in some cases below that. In addition, the production of such highly profitable products (other than rice) of tea, mulberries, cotton, vegetables, and tobacco rose in tandem with urbanization.

The concept of postwar agricultural reform has been based on the theme of the liberation of the poor peasantry. Laws related to farmland and agricultural cooperatives designed to protect smallholding farmers are still on the books. The historical view of an impoverished peasantry has been the premise of the characterization of agricultural issues as the declining numbers of agricultural workers, the aging of the agricultural workforce, small-scale farming, and the lack of competition.

According to the 2010 Census of Agriculture and Forestry conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization, the (Japanese) farming population fell from 3.35 million to 2.61 million, a 22.3% drop, in five years. Meanwhile, the average age of the farmers rose from 63.2 to 65.8

Farm households, however, are defined as those with at least 10 ares under cultivation (one are = 100 square meters), or with at least JPY 150,000 in sales of agricultural products. Thus the term “farm household” is a concept that represents households, rather than an occupation. It does not refer to the people who sell their agricultural products. Even those people who have retired from regular jobs and have begun to cultivate at least 10 ares of land to distribute the crop to their relatives as an old-age pastime are counted as agribusinessmen. (Slightly less than 10% of farming households who sell their products report no sales at all.) The average age of 65.8 does not indicate the advanced age of the farm households with people involved in crop production. Rather, it indicates nothing more than the advanced aging of society itself. Apart from the issue of aging, the decline in the number of farm households — even though it is a desirable change — is viewed as a problem, and utilized to proclaim the waning of agriculture.

Most of the households known as farming households in Japan are those headed by salarymen, in which one of the grandfathers grows rice on several dozen ares of land. They won’t stop growing rice even if they lose a lot of money — it’s become part of their lives as well as a pleasant avocation. But the productivity and technological level of the hobbyist rice farmers is of course declining. There are some exceptional producers among those associated with the agricultural cooperatives, but the rice produced by small scale farmers with such self-satisfaction is mixed in the drying facilities with the crop from the producers associated with the cooperatives. The result is a deterioration and variation in rice quality due to small production units and the inability to properly conduct cultivation. The declining labor productivity of the hobbyist farmer who has lost his sense of professionalism has caused the quality of Japanese rice to worsen.

The agriculture industry insists that Japanese rice will be overwhelmed by the foreign product if the high tariffs are eliminated. It is very possible that foreign rice will become dominant if foreign rice and Japanese rice are of the same quality. But the Japanese consumer will probably select Japanese rice from farm households that grow high quality rice with lower costs, even if it is more expensive.

It is undoubtedly true there are aspects to agriculture that cannot be explained just from the industry perspective, which claims that it has maintained rural settlements and transmitted culture. Those people involved with agriculture who use that as a reason to cling to the historical view of an impoverished peasantry are preventing innovation in Japanese agriculture that exceptional agribusiness entrepreneurs are achieving. If they continue to insist on the fragility of Japanese agriculture, it is because they can harvest the benefits of protection through their defeatism.

We have already developed a dynamic class of agribusinessmen. If we abandon the romantic historical view of an impoverished peasantry, we will begin to see the great potential in Japanese agriculture and agricultural villages.

(end translation)

Former Finance Ministry bureaucrat and current university professor Takahashi Yoichi supports Japanese participation in TPP. Here’s the English version of a brief article that appeared in J-Cast on the Web:

The liberalization of trade has long been a matter for debate. In the end, liberalization is desirable for Japan’s national interest. The logic that trade liberalization is desirable has been demonstrated for the past 200 years in the field of economics. This wisdom is also the shared heritage of the world.

While there are of course negative aspects to trade liberalization, we know the benefits will outweigh these over the long term. Specifically, the trial calculations of the Cabinet Office finds the losses of joining the TPP to be about JPY 8 trillion, but the benefits to be more than JPY 11 trillion. The negative aspects would be borne by the domestic producers in agriculture, while the benefits would be enjoyed by consumers and exporters.

While there is some variation in the calculations depending on the preconditions applied, there is no change in the conclusion that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. Even the economists, who are always mocked for their divergence of opinions, agree that trade liberalization will result in benefits.

It is the job of politicians to determine how to make adjustments and redistribute the positives of trade liberalization to the negatives. This could create a situation in which no one in Japan suffers. The politicians opposed to TPP have abandoned the original intent of their jobs.

The principles that have survived throughout history demonstrate there are more than a few errors in the many arguments opposed to TPP. There is the argument that TPP will destroy Japanese agriculture. But the claim that opening the market will kill agriculture is incorrect. This is clear from the example of the liberalization of American cherry imports.

When the import of American cherries was allowed, some were opposed and claimed it would destroy the Japanese cherry sector. In fact, however, domestic cherry growers differentiated their product by upgrading the quality. The value of production soared by 1.5 times from 1977 to 2005. During the same period, the producers who avoid liberalization and cling to protection — rice — have become moribund. It is a fact that the producers who improved their strengths while having to compete due to liberalization — cherries — have grown.

There is even the extreme view that TPP will inevitably lead to the end of all tariffs. But there are always exceptions in international negotiations. Even in the original TPP talks with four countries, about 10% of the categories were exempted. Besides, the tariffs would not be eliminated immediately, but in stages. Long-term liberalization of more than 10 years has been sought by Chile for milk products and New Zealand for textiles and footwear.

Some argue that once Japan enters negotiations, it will have to participate. No international agreements and frameworks, however, have content that is determined from the start. That content is always determined through negotiation. There are many instances of countries entering negotiations and then not participating. There are also instances of countries that have compromised in negotiations and then not participated because they could not receive the approval of national legislatures.

At any rate, the arguments opposed to TPP are banalities that have been presented throughout the world over the years. At the same time, they provide people with important information: It enables them to clearly understand just who has the vested interests. No matter how much they say it is good for the people, if we carefully examine their claims, we will understand who has the vested interests, and who does not want to lose those interests. This is valuable information, so we must be always vigilant.

One thing we should keep in mind is that the high yen will minimize the advantages of TPP, making adjustment difficult. The government must work toward a lower yen to maximize the benefits of TPP.

(end translation)

It is no surprise that the free marketeers are the positive optimists who treat their audience as sentient adults, while the political class still talks down to them as children. Here’s an example: Japanese prime ministers distribute what they call an “e-mail blog” in both Japanese and English. Earlier this month, one e-mail sent out under the Noda name promised a new agricultural vision for the country. It starts this way:

Yesterday (the 10th), in order to obtain some insights into the revitalization of agriculture, I observed agricultural areas in Gunma Prefecture where people are engaged in leading-edge efforts such as the production of premium brand rice and the operation of direct-sales storefronts. Under the penetrating clear autumn sky, I was able to feel the fruitful nature of autumn throughout my entire being.

Yes, that clumsy translation was not rendered by a native speaker, but the original Japanese is just as dweeby and unlikely to have been finished by most of the people who received it. At the end of the note, the aide who wrote the post for Mr. Noda asks:

In what ways can the national government assist in order to revitalize agriculture and transform it into a growth industry?

The best way to assist is to get out of the way. Events on the ground are providing support for the people who think Japanese agriculture has the potential to be a growth industry without government help. The Diet relaxed the regulations on farmland rental in December 2009 (a step little noted at the time, which at long last puts one in the plus column for the DPJ). Since then, there have been, or will be by next year, 120 instances of companies from other sectors leasing land to grow crops.

One of them is the railroad company JR Kyushu, one of the six companies spun off from the 1987 privatization of the state-run railroad. They started by growing nira, or Chinese chives, on 0.4 hectares in Oita Prefecture last year and harvested 20 tons for use in their restaurant chain in China or sale on the market. They expanded their area of cultivation to 3.5 hectares this year and project JPY 10 million in revenue. Their initial efforts have been so successful, JR Kyushu’s agricultural subsidiary plans to diversify into citrus fruit, cherry tomatoes, and chickens. Their target is JPY 1 billion in revenue in two or three more years.

Also in Kyushu, the Saibu Gas utility is growing lettuce, the retailer Yazuya is growing strawberries and melons, and Kyudenko, primarily engaged in providing electric power facility engineering services, is growing olives. Other companies are producing tea, onions, shellfish, and organic vegetables.

On one side of the debate is the private sector, convinced that Japan can become an agricultural superpower, and that they can get gloriously rich by feeding the nation and helping to feed the world. The people standing in their way are those who always block progress everywhere. They are the romanticists who cling to a vision that was never real to begin with, and the wolf-criers who thunder about a foreign takeover that never occurs. (If it didn’t happen after the postwar Allied occupation, it ain’t going to happen.) Then there are the Ag Ministry bureaucrats protecting their turf, and the beetle-browed politicians who pander to them all to justify their existence when everyone else knows their most productive contribution would be to disappear.

What is likely to happen? As always, it will be a minor miracle if the sensible people win. If Japan joins the TPP after negotiating a treaty that it believes is fair, and the politicians can be prevented from spending everyone else’s money to buy off compensate the small farmers (particularly without Diet redistricting that gives those regions more seats than they deserve) it will be a miracle of Lourdesian proportions.

Here’s a different look at the benefits of open markets in the Taiwanese mod/trad group A Moving Sound’s performance of the Market Song. Note the American man playing the moon lute, a Chinese woman playing the cello, and the use of the electric bass to present a fresh take on an old sound.

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Posted in Agriculture, Business, finance and the economy, Food, Government, History, Politics | Tagged: , , , | 14 Comments »

New world order

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 17, 2011

XEROXING other people’s blog posts is something I avoid, but this is important enough to make an exception. Try this about China and the EU — and note the condition on which the Chinese are insisting — to see what I mean.

PS: I’ve been busy with paying work, which is the reason for the sporadic posting. I hope to get back to speed soon.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, China | Leave a Comment »

Your Party’s Diet reform proposal

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, October 16, 2011

JAPAN’S Your Party has become something of an enigma. Since their formation in February 2009, their agenda of serious political, governmental, and civil service reform, coupled with their refusal to compromise that agenda by forming an alliance with one of the larger parties, has won them a level of recognition and approval that often places them third in public opinion polls for party preference. (The first two are the ruling Democratic Party, and the former long-term ruling party but now primary opposition party, the Liberal Democrats.)

They have benefited from the public’s disillusionment with the DPJ, as shown by the increase in their representation from one to 11 in last year’s upper house election. One of their new upper house MPs is Eguchi Katsuhiko, a long-time associate of Panasonic founder Matsushita Konnosuke, former president of the PHP Institute, and active in civic affairs for many years. Another is the stylish and handsome 43-year-old Matsuda Kota, who became fabulously well-to-do after launching Tully’s Coffee in Japan, building a 300-store chain, and selling a majority stake in the company eight years later.

Here’s the reason for the enigma: Their insight into the structural problems of Japanese politics and government is unmatched in the political class. They have refused to water down their reform objectives, and they have rebuffed feelers to enter the government as coalition partners of the DPJ. Yet despite their solid analysis of the problems, the solutions they offer range from the merely acceptable to the awful.

This week, their secretary-general, Eda Kenji — an intelligent man who is one of the few people in modern Japanese politics to have maintained a Diet career as an independent before forming the party with Watanabe Yoshimi — briefly explained their program for reforming the national legislature on his website. While the premise is, as usual, dead on, he followed it with self-interested hypocrisy so blatant it’s astonishing that Mr. Eda thought anyone would fall for it. Here’s most of it in English, with my comments.

A sweeping reform of the election system is required to achieve equality in the value of votes and large reduction in the number of seats in the national legislature.

Japanese courts have ruled that the disparity in the number of people represented by individual Diet members was too large in the last election. That means there’s supposed to be a redistricting, if the parties can find the time, the willingness, or the ability to get around to it. Further, Japan has 722 national legislators in the bicameral Diet, almost 200 more than the 535 in the United States, despite having less than half the population.

Three hundred of the 480 of the lower house members are elected on the winner-take-all system in single-seat constituencies, and the rest are selected by proportional representation from party lists in 11 electoral blocs. Those who run in the single-seat districts can also appear on their party’s PR list. One of the perversions of the system is that it allows an incumbent to retain a Diet seat through PR even if his constituents turn him out of office.

In the upper house, 146 members are elected from the 47 prefectural constituencies, with multiple delegates chosen for each of the prefectures. The other members are PR members chosen from each party’s national list.

The ruling DPJ promised to reform this system in its 2009 campaign platform, as did the LDP in its upper house election manifesto last year.

Your Party has pledged to reduce the seats in the lower house by 180 to 300 and by 142 in the upper house to 100.

A capital idea!

When the Constitution is amended in the future, further large reductions will be achieved by creating a unicameral legislature.

This idea leaves me cold, even with the potential for downsizing. The advantage of a second body is that it can perform an important check-and-balance function — if it is properly structured. For example, U.S. Senators were originally chosen by either state legislatures or state conventions. That was a superb mechanism for governmental devolution and decentralization until the 17th amendment to the Constitution converted the selection of Senators to statewide popular vote. One reason was that people of the era thought that the Senate had become a rich man’s club. That’s a classic example of a solution making a problem worse — it’s still a rich man’s club, and since the rise of the centralized national government, state governments now have no way to prevent Congress from forcing them to assume unfunded mandates.

Giving Japanese prefectural assemblies the power to select upper house members would bring about immediate and drastic change for the better in the way the national government conducts business.

There are also several ideas floating around to modify the functions of the two bodies. One of those ideas is to provide the lower house with the function of formulating the budget, and giving the upper house the function of account settlement at the end of the fiscal year.

I’m also not sure about the need for 100 members. There are 47 prefectures; two from each should suffice.

There must not, however, be superficial reform of the type in which there is an increase by six and a decrease by six, or an increase by six and a decrease by nine.

Of course everyone can get behind this. But now watch Mr. Eda go off the rails.

We believe reform must be based on a proportional representation system that faithfully reflects the popular will, rather than the current predominately single-district system in which there are many “dead votes”.

The political system functions only when there is a rough agreement on direction in which to proceed. If a large group is traveling on a road that breaks off into five directions, one path must be selected, not the median point of the five.

As we’ve seen from the DPJ-led coalition that took power in 2009, mini-parties that reflect the will of only a sliver of the population — the Social Democrats and the People’s New Party — become tails wagging the dog. The DPJ promised reform, the PNP is a single-issue party opposed to reform, and the SDPJ lives in an ether of its own creation. Neither of the junior partners got what they wanted, and the SDPJ left the coalition, but then reform for the DPJ was only a cosmetic to begin with.

Most Western European coalition governments seem to be a bland porridge of center-left groupings with slight variations in the proportion of the ingredients. Few, if any, British seem to be happy with their coalition government, which is a marriage of political forces just as absurd as the original Japanese coalition.

Both the Americans and the British have winner-take-all systems. There are no serious complaints about that in the former, and the voters of Great Britain just trounced a proposal for a PR system in a national referendum. Few people in those two countries buy the concept of “dead votes”. The right to hold a political opinion does not imply the right that it be taken seriously.

As for the idea of a system that represents the popular will, the problem in those countries is not that single-issue splinter parties can’t be heard, it is that the major parties ignore the popular will as clearly expressed by the voters in elections. That problem also exists in Japan, but proportional representation hasn’t done anything to change that.

Now for the hypocrisy:

We are not saying this for partisan interest as a way to ensure the survival of smaller parties. This is also the mainstream thinking at the Japanese Political Science Association and the Japan Association of Electoral Studies.

Whenever anyone says, “We are not saying this for XXX,” bet your sweet bippy that’s exactly why they are saying it. Your Party doesn’t want to lose its PR legislators and have to survive on winning elections outright.

The Social Democrats make the same claim. Indeed, their president, Fukushima Mizuho, has never won a single-district seat, and she knows she never will. Proportional representation is her only ticket to a Diet seat.

This actually represents a change from Your Party President Watanabe Yoshimi’s original position. He supported the elimination of PR on the condition that redistricting be conducted first.

Finally, citing the positions of the two political associations is irrelevant. Even if they supported a winner-take-all system, Mr. Eda’s preference for PR would still not change.

In the current system that combines both single-seat districts and proportional representation, 80 new MPs known as the Koizumi Children were elected in 2005, and 140 new MPs known as the Ozawa Children were elected in 2009. This fluctuation is too large. Even though these legislators have been tutored for four years at taxpayer expense, they disappear in the next election.

Excellent! Turnover of that sort shows that Japanese democracy — at least at the ballot box — is healthy and vibrant. A semi-permanent political class funded by taxpayers is the ideal only for the members of the semi-permanent political class and those striving for membership in the class.

It is time for the major parties — the Democrats and the Liberal Democrats — to cast aside their partisan interests, show some generosity, and make concessions for creating a system based on proportional representation.

People are so disgusted with the current system that a few commentators have now floated the idea of a complete ban on political parties. If the major parties were really interested in casting aside their partisan interests, they’d dissolve. That’s not going to happen, of course, but frustration with parties unresponsive to even their primary supporters has become so extreme and widespread, former President Jimmy Carter’s chief pollster Patrick Caddell has described sentiment among the voters in the U.S. as “pre-revolutionary”.

Is it not worth remembering that political parties are not mentioned in either the Japanese or the American constitutions? It isn’t for the people to sacrifice their interests for the sake of the political class, but for the political class to sacrifice its interests for the sake of the people. Unfortunately, they are as likely to relinquish their taxpayer-funded subsidies and other perquisites as shrimp learning how to whistle.

Your Party has now revealed itself to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. It’s a shame, but it is what it is.

Fancy that. I was away from the news yesterday, so just found out this morning that the DPJ and the LDP decided to postpone discussions reducing the number of proportional representation MPs in the face of objections from the smaller parties. They will give priority to redistricting instead.

The only way to end after all this glumness is on an upbeat note: Dangdut and healthy young women!

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Posted in Government, Politics | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »