Japan from the inside out

Archive for November, 2011

Matsuri da! (122): The air’s apparent

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 27, 2011

THIS is going to stump everybody, including the Japanese readers: What is the object shown in the following photograph?

Here’s a hint, but it won’t help at all: Those are five-meter-square stainless steel sheets.

The answer? It’s a Shinto shrine in Asahi-machi, Yamagata.

In fact, that’s a photograph of the Kuki shrine’s main sanctuary, the site in all shrines which houses the shintai, the sacred object in which the spirit of the deity resides. The deity in Shinto is described as the yaoyorozu no kami, or the 800 myriads of divinities, which some (but not all) interpret as being different aspects of the One. Therefore, the presence of the divinity is manifest in every aspect of life.

Some deities are divinized ancestors or famous figures of the past. (That’s the point behind the often misunderstood concept of the Emperor as a “living god” until 1945, or the enshrinement of the spirits of the war dead in Yasukuni.) Natural phenomena are deities: the wind, sun, moon, water, mountains, trees, and rocks (including those that are phallic- and yonic-shaped). Man-made objects can be divinities: mirrors, swords, polished stones (tama), bells, clothes, dishes, and, after Buddhism began to exert an influence, paintings and statues. Mirrors have been used in Shinto worship since ancient times, so the creation of what is essentially a large mirror isn’t as odd as it might seem at first glance.

The deity worshipped at this shrine is air. That’s why it’s called the Air Shrine (unless you can think of a better translation for 空気神社).

On the approach to this site, one passes through monuments to earth, fire, wood, metal, and water, the five elements that created the cosmos.

As you might expect, Asahi-machi is located in a glorious natural setting — the somewhere in what city slickers would call the middle of nowhere — and the primary occupation of the residents is rice and fruit cultivation. Before he died in 1986, Shirakawa Chiyo, one of the older Asahi-machi natives, offered the opinion that the town should build a shrine in which air was the tutelary deity as a way to give thanks for the clean air that was a blessing to them all.

Nothing came of Mr. Shirakawa’s idea when he was alive, but it began to get serious consideration a year after he died in 1987, when the town launched a municipal development campaign. Because this is a religious institution, the money to build it had to come from private citizen/sector donations. Even though the Japanese are extraordinarily ecumenical, that wasn’t an easy sell. Still, they collected the money they needed and finished the shrine the following year.

Yeah, they pray there.

The idea behind the use of stainless steel for the air shrine was that it would reflect natural views of the surrounding area throughout the year from different perspectives. This would help people reflect on the existence of air.

Yeah, they have festivals there too.

The townsfolk designated 5 June as the local Air Day, which coincides with World Environment Day. They hold the Air Festival every year on the Saturday closest to Air Day. The main sanctuary is open to the public for viewing the divinity and pausing for reflections suitable for the spirit of the occasion. There’s also a performance by the miko of kagura, or Shinto Dance, which is traditional at shrine festivals. That’s shown in the photo above.

Oh yeah, there’s even a video:

And to conclude here’s a question theological but not rhetorical — Is the sound of the wind on that video the voice of the divinity?

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Posted in Environmentalism, Festivals, Religion, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Kidz Я the Cabinet

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 27, 2011

IGNORANCE of the law is no excuse, say the authorities, in their perpetual search for new handholds by which to seize us by the scruff of the neck and keep us docile and lowing.

If the authorities have it right, there’s no excuse for the presence in the Cabinet of Azumi Jun, the Boy Finance Minister who’s extended to three the DPJ string of finance ministers that know squat about finance and even less of the law. Then again, Kan Naoto and Noda Yoshihiko, numbers one and two in the sequence, used the position as a steppingstone to the premiership despite their comradeship in the blind mice brotherhood. There might be hope for Master Azumi yet. After all, his only job experience before becoming a national legislator was as an NHK newscaster, and he’s never held a major Cabinet post until now. Thus, his one marketable skill is the ability to read without stumbling over someone else’s script on camera or in public. What other qualification is there for serving as a politician these days?

It was Mr. Azumi’s turn to flunk the test during Question Time in the upper house of the Diet on the 15th. Kawakami Yoshihiro, a fellow traveler in the Democratic Party, was ragging on the Bank of Japan and their monetary policy due to the presence in that chamber of the bank’s Deputy Gov. Yamaguchi Hirohide. Pressing Mr. Yamaguchi on what he considered to be an insufficient money supply, Mr. Kawakami fumed, “The Bank of Japan is hindering the Democratic Party.”

Azumi the Lad quickly stepped up to their defense and explained:

Under the Bank of Japan Law, we cannot disregard (the objectives) of price stabilization and increasing the value of the currency. It is an important requirement to conduct monetary easing to the extent possible in that context.

It would seem that he is under the impression monetary easing is something central bankers are supposed to be in the habit of. He’s also confused about the provisions of the law regarding the Bank of Japan’s activities.

Article 1.1: The objectives of the Bank of Japan…are to issue banknotes and carry out currency and monetary adjustments.

Article 1.2: In addition to the provisions of the foregoing item, the Bank of Japan shall contribute to the maintenance of trust and order.

Article 2: When conducting currency and monetary adjustments, the Bank of Japan shall contribute to the sound development of the national currency through price stability.

There’s no mention anywhere in the law of “increasing the currency’s value”, so his answer raises the question of where he came up with that idea.

There’s only one possibility. His knowledge of fiscal and monetary matters before Mr. Noda thought he was just the man to be finance minister was no greater than the average convenience store clerk, and that means he requires tutoring by Finance Ministry bureaucrats. They’re only too glad to help. That allows them another handhold to seize fiscal policy by the scruff of the neck. Besides, how could he convincingly read his script without special instruction? (Kan Naoto made a point of getting up earlier than usual to make his 8:00 a.m. briefings.)

Thus, Mr. Azumi’s only source of information is his ministry minders. QED, they have convinced him a strong yen is a Good Thing. Japan’s major exporting companies are groaning from their yoga contortions to deal with the havoc the high yen has caused, but the Finance Ministry seems to think it’s copacetic. The limited monetary easing during the Koizumi administration was a factor in helping the economy recover, according to some observers, and the average rate then was 116 to the dollar. Yes, so much better for the nation at the mid-70 level, isn’t it?

But more to the point is that the two elements of the Azumi Definition of the BOJ role —- price stabilization and increasing the value of the yen — are incompatible. Under the purchasing power parity theory, if there is price stability in all the advanced industrialized countries with, for example, a 2% annual rate of increase, the currency would also stabilize and could not increase in value relative to the others.

While we’re on the topic of what Mr. Azumi doesn’t know, it was apparent from his response to an Eda Kenji question in the lower house on the 9th that his education hadn’t progressed to an explanation of credit default swaps yet.

That would be ever so helpful for a finance minister to understand. If any of the European sovereign debt falls, the American financial institutions that issued swaps against the debt —- you know, like Goldman Sachs — will be liable for gadzillions of dollars they don’t have, even after Mr. Obama bailed out his campaign financiers. That would put the U.S. financial system at risk of default.

The swaps are also important in Europe, too. Or at least they used to be.

But perhaps the biggest sin of the lot was effectively to render all credit default swaps (a form of insurance against default) on sovereign debt essentially worthless, or void, by making the Greek default “voluntary”.

This has made it impossible to hedge against eurozone sovereign debt purchases, and thereby destroyed the market. Worse, it’s made investors believe that the euro cannot be trusted, that it’ll repeatedly find ways of reneging on contract. That’s the point of no return. This is no longer a serious currency.

So, we’ve got the combination of people openly talking about the extinction of the Euro as a currency, other people openly talking about a global economic crisis worse than that of 2008, still others who think the collapse of the massive Chinese real estate bubble is underway, and Japan’s finances under the nominal stewardship of Azumi Jun.

Isn’t that just ducky?

An interesting theory was floated recently about all the pratfalls Japan’s “finance ministers” take on the Diet floor during Question Time. When Kan Naoto appeared before the Diet after his appointment as finance minister, it was obvious that knowledge of the multiplier effect was not part of his résumé. (Meanwhile, it was just at this time the English language media of the West was touting him as a “fiscal hawk”.)

Mr. Kan too was given daily instruction by the Finance Ministry bureaucrats. The story goes that he had trouble grasping the concept of the multiplier effect during his briefings. (That’s understandable; a lot of concepts can be slippery that early in morning if you’re nursing a hangover.) The LDP Diet member who asked the question that tripped Mr. Kan up is said to have close ties with ministry bureaucrats. Some people suspect that the ministry deliberately tipped off the questioner about the lacuna in Mr. Kan’s knowledge to make him look bad.

But why would they so blatantly humiliate a politician with whom they were working? The answer is that it was an object lesson to Kan Naoto in particular and all politicians in general. He had to have known the ministry deliberately handed a weapon to the political opposition to knife him in public. Unless he was forever after their humble and obedient servant, the ministry would find other ways to make life even more unpleasant for him…

Recall that the ministry has jurisdiction over the National Tax Agency. Was it coincidental that the tax problems of Hatoyama Yukio and Ozawa Ichiro came to light just two or three months after the DPJ formed a government in 2009 which promised to keep the bureaucrats from meddling in national governance? (Let’s assume for the moment they were serious about that promise, dodgy though the assumption may be.) Mr. Hatoyama had to pay the equivalent of $US six million in back taxes and penalties. The case against Ozawa the Real Estate Tycoon, who pulled the equivalent of roughly $US four million out of his safe at home in cash to give an aide so his political funds committee could buy some property, is still to be resolved.

And we can’t end without a mention of Kawakami Yoshihiro, yet another rare bird in the DPJ aviary. Did you notice from his question that he thinks the Bank of Japan is supposed to conduct itself as an arm of the Democratic Party government?

His background makes for entertaining reading. Originally an LDP lower house member, he was one of the MPs that Koizumi Jun’ichiro tossed from the party for opposing the Japan Post privatization. He later joined the opposition DPJ and won election to the upper house in 2007, two years later.

One of his pet causes is the integration of the residents of Chinese and Korean nationality into Japanese society. In fact, according to a 2010 interview with China’s Global Times newspaper, he favors the common administration (共同統治) of Japan with the Chinese and Korean permanent residents, who should be given full political rights. He also advocates closer ties to North Korea and thinks Mr. Koizumi’s two visits while prime minister should have resolved all the problems with that country. He’s been quoted as saying that it’s strange Japan doesn’t support (支援) North Korea.

Strange is in the eye of the beholder, it would seem. That a man with his background and incongruous combination of beliefs actually sits in the Diet, sponsored by the ruling party, is strange in itself.

Ben and Jun got them Young Boy Blues.

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government, North Korea | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

The Kobot

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, November 26, 2011

WHEN the Segway hit the market 10 years ago next week, some people viewed it as a revolutionary product with the transformational potential of the Internet. Rather than transforming anything, however, after a decade down the road the device has become a SWPL toy for a certain type of status-seeking urbanite who wants to differentiate himself from the bicycle crowd. They’re the same sort of folks who go out of their way to pay through the nose for a mug of designer coffee at a trendy shop rather than a regular cup of Joe.

The adult two-wheeler hasn’t even got that far in Japan, where only about a thousand have been sold. Here, they’re used exclusively by corporate employees on larger tracts of private property, such as production plants or theme parks. The Nagasaki resort Huis ten Bosch, for example, has 10 of them.

Those looking for an intermediate alternative to the automobile and the bicycle might be interested in test driving a new transportation device jointly developed by the robot manufacturer tmsuk (yes, that’s how they spell it) and pharmaceutical/industrial equipment manufacturer Kyowa. It’s called the Kobot, and they’re touting it as the next-generation electric personal vehicle. The public will get a chance to see it up close for the first time when it’s exhibited in this year’s Tokyo Motor Show, which opens in the first week of December.

The two companies have a vision for the Kobot similar to that people once had for the Segway. They see it as a car that will change the shape of the future – the shape of vehicles, the shape of transportation, and the relationship between people and their cars. Indeed, the car itself is capable of changing shape. One of the three models can be folded in a manner similar to a cellphone to reduce its size by about 25% for storage.

As you can see from the photo, it is compact and shaped somewhat like a bean, or at least that’s what the promo material says. At present, there are two one-person models and one two-person model. Kyowa/tmsuk are projecting speeds of 45-80 kilometers per hour, and they’re working to give it the capability of traveling for up to 100 kilometers on one charge.

In addition to use by a single owner, the developers anticipate the increasing popularity in Japan of car-sharing schemes in condos and other urban neighborhoods will create another niche for the vehicle. If things fall into place, it could be commercialized and placed on the market next fall.

If that happens, perhaps they could use this as a tip for their TV ads.

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Posted in Environmentalism, New products, Science and technology | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Yomiuri poll on the popular perception of politics

Posted by ampontan on Friday, November 25, 2011

THE Yomiuri Shimbun conducted a nationwide poll on the 12th and 13th — by direct interview, for a change — of the popular perceptions of today’s politics.

They were asked whether they thought politics in Japan had gotten worse in recent years.

Yes: 76%

The DPJ diehards will be tempted to shift the blame to the opposition for that — until they see the answers to some of the other questions. For example: Is the vote you cast in elections reflected in actual politics?

No: 81%

The last time this question was asked was in February 2008, under a LDP government. The percentage of noes then was 67%. The current percentage is a record high for the Yomiuri surveys.

One result the people hoped for with the change of government in 2009 was a move toward politican-led government (as opposed to bureaucrat-led government). Effecting this change was one of the major DPJ promises. Has the DPJ delivered on that promise?

No: 88%

The public was also asked to cite the most important problems with politics today, and was given the option of multiple answers. Here are the top three responses:

1. Politics is not conducted from the people’s perspective: 45%

2. Decisions on policy take too long: 42%

3. There is no vision for Japan’s future: 33%

“Margin of error” cannot be used to fudge these results. Has there been a more epic failure in postwar Japanese politics than the past two years of Democratic Party governments?

If you give me a week, maybe I can think of one.


During the past week, former DPJ President and Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro, former DPJ President (and Foreign Minister) Maehara Seiji, and LPD Secretary-General Ishihara Nobuteru raised the possibility of an early election next year. Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Maehara warned their supporters in the Diet that many of them could lose their seats unless they get on the stick. Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Ishihara suggested that the election would be held on the issue of the tax increase. The former, who opposes higher taxes, suggested that the DPJ might split as a result. The latter suggested that both parties might split as a result, and that two new parties could be created: an anti-tax-increase party, and a pro-tax-increase party.

If an election were to be held on that basis and an anti-tax party won, it might still be too late to stop the initial tax hike. In that scenario, the polling figures for some of the questions above would likely rise even higher.

Meanwhile, People’s New Party head Kamei Shizuka is dissatisfied with the DPJ’s progress on blocking Japan Post privatization, and that’s the only reason his splinter group joined the coalition. He’s also opposed to a tax increase. It’s been widely reported that he’s now approached Tokyo Metro District Gov. Ishihara Shintaro about leading a new, anti-tax “conservative” party. He’s also trying to get younger members of the DPJ and the LDP interested in the idea, as well as Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru, who recently resigned to run for mayor of the city of Osaka (that’s a long story).

The elder Ishihara was one of the not-so-silent partners in the formation of the paleo-convervative (in Japanese terms) Sunrise Party with Hiranuma Takeo and Yosano Kaoru. The little viability that party had was in helping media outlets fill space, and that was lost when Mr. Yosano joined the Kan Cabinet as part of the effort to raise taxes.

Always quick with a quip, Your Party President Watanabe Yoshimi observed that such a party would be radically backward-looking, and be indistinguishable from a faction in the old LDP. He added:

If they’re going to apply the term “conservative” to the course of purified socialism, that might create one grouping.

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Posted in Government, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Letter bombs (22): Worth several thousand words

Posted by ampontan on Friday, November 25, 2011

PICKING and shoveling through a mountain of translation work, which is the reason for the slack activity this week, but reader Toadold sent in a link to a bar graph that is worth a wider look. It shows the relative percentages for government debt, business debt, and household debt in several advanced industrialized countries, including Japan.

The ratio of government debt to overall national debt in Japan, as well as the comparison with that of other countries, is most instructive.

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government, Letter bombs | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Ichigen koji (75)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 23, 2011

– A person who has something to say about everything

The past four days have been spent in yet another incomprehensible political show, a performance known as the policy review…Where is the meaning in the Government Revitalization Council, which no legal basis, conducting nonsense such as this, when it has no authority to issue warnings to ministries or agencies, and there is no Cabinet resolution stating that its conclusions should be given the maximum consideration.

It’s time to end these performances in which a lot of tax funds are used to rent a hall at Sunshine City in Ikebukuro. The council should soberly conduct its business every day in a government-owned building and work to eliminate whatever waste they can by following up the progress on the previous policy reviews. Really, this policy review itself is a waste. What they should do is review the policy reviews themselves.

– Eda Kenji, Secretary-General of Your Party.

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Posted in Government, Politics, Quotations | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Is the truth a lie?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 20, 2011

DURING the past week, a debate has been underway in Japan about whether the government promised the Americans they would join negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or whether they promised only to hold discussions about joining negotiations. Wait, don’t fall asleep — I know that’s abstruse, but the Japanese national conversation, in which everyone is participating except the Noda Cabinet, involves more than just buying and selling. It also includes the questions of whether the TPP is an American attempt at economic hegemony in the Pacific to counteract the move of China to establish its own hegemony, and whether the Noda Cabinet is being honest with the Japanese public and the Diet on a matter of critical importance.

Prime Minister Noda and the foreign ministry swear that he never committed to joining TPP negotiations during the APEC summit last weekend. Perhaps they are telling the truth — and perhaps that truth is concealing a lie.

During that summit, Economy, Trade, and Industry Minister Edano Yukio met with United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk. NTV (Nippon Television Network) this week ran a video that it claims shows a binder with talking points prepared by the METI bureaucrats for Mr. Edano to use in the discussion.

Here’s a screenshot of the document:

Here are the talking points:

● Immediately before departing Japan, and following a national debate, a decision was made by the Noda administration to participate in TPP negotiations.

● There was discussion about why a decision (should) be made now, when recovery and reconstruction (from the Tohoku disaster) is our greatest priority, but it was resolved that Japan’s participation in TPP would be in Japan’s own interest.

● First, using the TPP to foster a regional order that can comply with sophisticated rules in the Asia-Pacific region, and our participation in that process, is in the Japanese national interest.

● Second, overcoming the trials of extensive liberalization will result in greater growth capacity for Japan.

● Japan is prepared to submit all categories and sectors to negotiation, including non-tariff measures. We intend to conduct a strong debate during those negotiations.

● We understand that the approval of all the nations concerned is required for our formal participation in the negotiations. We want to proceed with lively discussions with your country in particular and participate in negotiations as soon as possible. We would like to ask about specific ways for moving those discussions forward in the future.

In re: WTO – ITA

● Expanded negotiations for ITA (information technology agreements) are, with the TPP, one way to break through to trade liberalization in the future, and will be a good stimulus for the Doha Round. We want to continue to be closely linked to this in Japan.

No one other than those directly involved knows the specifics of the Edano-Kirk discussions, or whether Mr. Edano actually said what is written here. (Here’s what he said they said.)

But if this document is on the legit, it would explain the reason the Americans are sticking with their story (and not changing the report on the government website) that the Japanese promised to hold negotiations and to put all goods and services on the table. It would also demonstrate that the Noda government is, as is widely suspected, lying about it all.

One’s position on the TPP pro or con is irrelevant here. What is relevant is whether the government is lying to the people about a matter that will significantly change Japan. Also relevant is whether this decision is being made by the elected government or is in fact yet another decision made and executed by the unelected government of the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy, using politicians as their tools.

It should be remembered that many people, some of who are in the DPJ government, were upset for years because they thought the old LDP governments lied about allowing American naval vessels to bring nuclear weapons into Japan. One of the first things they did was to retrieve and make public documents showing that the LDP governments did, in fact, let the Americans bring nuclear weapons into the country. (The U.S. stopped in the early 90s. The public responded with a collective yawn at the revelations, however. It was an issue for people of an older generation.)

The LDP thought their actions were justified to maintain the alliance with the United States. How then does the current DPJ behavior differ in substance from what the LDP did?

Mr. Edano was in the studio during the NTV presentation (that’s him in the screenshot insert), and he kept insisting that Japan only committed to discussions leading to negotiations.

It should also be remembered that Mr. Edano was the Chief Cabinet Secretary in the Kan Cabinet and began lying to the Japanese public with his boss from the first day of the Tohoku disaster. He’s had plenty of practice before this.

During the recent Question Time in the Diet, upper house MP Sato Yukari made the point that the government’s own research shows the ASEAN + 6 free trade scheme would be more economically advantageous to Japan than the TPP.

In a similar vein, the Seetell website has translated into English excerpts from a Japanese-language article by Waseda Prof. Noguchi Yukio that appeared in the Nikkei Veritas (which requires paid registration to view). Prof. Noguchi is known for writing a book arguing that the reliance on/dominance by Japan’s bureaucracy in policy matters and affairs of state did not start during the LDP era, but dates back to 1940. He’s also pessimistic about a resolution of the government’s fiscal problems without a great deal of economic unpleasantness. Here are the excerpts from his article:

The Cabinet Office released estimates on Oct. 25 of the economic boost from the TPP. Real gross domestic product would go up 0.54%, or by 2.7 trillion yen, according to the projections. But that is the expected increase over the next decade or so, which means a yearly average of just 0.05%, or 269.5 billion yen. In other words, the TPP’s potential for growing Japan’s exports and expanding its economy is so small as to be negligible.

He also brings the Chinese into the discussions:

Japan’s biggest export market is China, which makes that nation’s response to the TPP an important element in Japan’s economic fate. Some say that if Japan joins the TPP, China will seek membership as well. That is not going to happen for two reasons.

First, China itself can expect little export growth from joining the TPP, putting it in the same boat as Japan. In China’s case, however, there is also the fact that its U.S.-bound exports will continue to grow even if it does not enter the trade pact.

The second reason China would not join is the investor-state dispute settlement provision. This is an agreement that lets companies sue member countries for damages caused as a result of national polices.

To understand why the ISD clause is such a big problem for China, just think about Beijing’s clash with Google Inc. If China loses in a dispute involving its censorship, for example, it would have a devastating impact that could threaten the very foundation of the country.

So, should Japan take part in the TPP while aiming for an FTA with China? That would be impossible. The TPP is an element of the U.S. strategy in Asia, which seeks to hold back China’s expansion. America is unlikely to tolerate Japan signing both the TPP and an FTA with China.

There is no way to know for sure how China would respond to the TPP. But Beijing clearly is not going to welcome a policy that seeks to exclude the country.

China could very well react by moving toward economic partnerships that do not include Japan, such as pursuing an FTA with the European Union. Because the EU maintains higher import tariffs than the U.S., China has an incentive to sign such an agreement. For the EU, particularly Germany, China is a major market, making a China-EU FTA perfectly plausible. Should that happen, there is a danger that Germany could sweep the Chinese market, bringing ruin to Japanese manufacturing.

Further, he recognizes some real benefits:

Of course, some aspects of the TPP would have desirable effects for Japan. Lower tariffs on farm imports would be good news for Japanese consumers. Domestic food prices are strikingly high from a global perspective. And among industrialized countries, Japanese have a considerably high Engel’s coefficient, meaning that they spend a high proportion of their income on food. Lowering food prices is an urgent matter. That being said, Japan can lower agricultural tariffs on its own, and there is no need to sign on to the TPP for that purpose.

Note that last sentence. There has been a shift in the arguments made by some pro-TPP supporters away from the economic benefits and toward the benefits accruing from a larger economic alliance with the United States. See, for example, the quote from Prof. Ikeda Nobuo in the last Ichigen Koji, which you can access from the top of this post.

When I first arrived in Japan, politics were still dominated by the LDP (and Tanaka Kakuei, for that matter). The DPJ, the current ruling party, did not exist. The primary opposition was the Socialist Party, which survives today as the greatly diminished Social Democrats.

Those Japanese interested in reform and uninterested in the Socialists (which had close ties with North Korea and kind words for Karl Marx in the party charter) viewed the United States government as Japan’s most effective opposition party. That didn’t mean they liked it; that was just how things were.

Is not the argument in favor of the TPP as a means to form an economic alliance with the U.S. in the Pacific, with the unstated but obvious premise of countering the rise of China, a remodeling of the old Cold War alliance model? Also, the argument that the TPP is necessary for domestic reform seems to be an updating of the logic of the Japanese reformers 30 years ago.

Prof. Noguchi and others argue that the Japanese can (or at least should) handle that on their own, and I agree. It’s time to slough off the old and ill-fitting garments handed down to the American stepchild.

Polls show that people in their 20s and 30s are those most opposed to Japan’s participation in the TPP scheme. Some say this is because they’re concerned about their employment prospects in a freer market, but I disagree. That age group never wore those hand-me-down garments to begin with. That too was an issue for an older generation.

It’s possible that China’s exports to the U.S. may not grow significantly in the future, in contradiction to Prof. Noguchi. There are studies suggesting that rising wages in China mean such regions as the American South (Alabama, specifically) will become competitive for manufacturing and allow companies to shift procurement there before the end of the decade.

So, which will happen by 2016: Japan officially joins the TPP, or this?

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

Ichigen koji (74)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, November 19, 2011

– A person who has something to say about everything

Koizumi Shinjiro, the director of the LDP’s Youth Division (and the son of the former prime minister), strongly criticized LDP President Tanigaki Sadakazu for such statements as “It is not good for Japan to excessively cooperate with the United States while omitting China and Asia.” He stressed that the Japan-U.S. relationship should be the axis for both the Japanese economy and diplomacy. This is a good point. The TPP is of no great significance economically, but it is of great diplomatic significance as a Japanese-American economic alliance promoting economic integration with Asia on a Japanese-American axis.

– Ikeda Nobuo (The emphasis was in the original)

The LDP removed the younger Koizumi from his post as chairman of the lower house Rules and Administration Committee because he did not support a motion against the TPP.

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

Jiji on the Noda cabinet

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, November 19, 2011

THE Jiji news agency’s public opinion polls have the most value for gauging popular sentiment in Japan for several reasons. Unlike the other major news media polls, they’re conducted by targeted door-to-door interviews rather than by random digit dialing. That means they incorporate more fully the younger demographic that uses only cellular telephones. They’re also conducted by Jiji’s marketing survey unit, which will not be profitable and viable for the company unless it produces accurate results — unlike those individual outlets in the print and broadcast media that grind a political axe. Further, Jiji does not always release their results, even though they conduct the polls monthly. They only appear when they contain significant information.

Jiji released the results of their last one, taken from 11-13 November. That period coincided with the start of the sharp reaction to Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko’s uninspired performance as a pawn in the human chess match of TPP negotiations. It does contain significant information. Here are the Jiji figures for Cabinet support:

Support: 35.5% (down 6.7 points from previous month)
Do not support: 36.0% (up 9.2 points from previous month)

While the result is within the margin of error, this is the first national poll to show greater non-support for Mr. Noda than support. His support is also well below the 40% level, which is the first sign of trouble for a Japanese prime minister.

As always, the secondary numbers are worthy of note. Respondents were allowed multiple choices to state their reasons for either approval or disapproval. Here’s the leading reason for the support of the Noda Cabinet:

There is no other suitable person: 13.8%

Approval of his policies didn’t make it into the top three.

Jiji also polled for party support. Here are the results:

LDP: 12.8% (down 2.6 points)
DPJ: 12.6 (up 0.5 points)

This is the lowest percentage of support Jiji has recorded for the LDP since it went into the opposition in September 2009. In other words, the voters think there ain’t a dime’s worth of difference between the two parties. The LDP is not benefiting from the public’s rejection of the DPJ.

They also think the rest aren’t worth wasting a dime on:

New Komeito: 2.5%
Your Party: 1.5%
Communists: 1.4%
Social Democrats: 1.1%
People’s New Party: 0.2% (see what I mean when I said their support was fractional?)
Sunrise Japan: 0.1%

And the most important number of all:

Do not support any party: 66.4%

Since 2005, Jiji polls have shown that “independent” is the default political mindset of the Japanese public. One or two months before an election, the electoral tides start shifting in one direction (that was one reason for the timing of the Hatoyama/Kan leadership switch in 2010), and then recede to their normal level after the election.

It’s clear that the global rift between the people and the political/governmental/social elites, created and continually widened by the latter, extends to the Japanese archipelago.

UPDATE: Commenting on these poll results, Your Party Secretary-General Eda Kenji reminds his blog readers that he predicted the decline to the 30% level before the end of the year, and a further decline to the 20%-25% level — or lower — next spring when the 2012 budget is being debated in the Diet. He adds:

At this rate, we’ll see a fourth DPJ prime minister by perhaps next summer…as long as the “all talk and no action”, “do as the bureaucracy says” DPJ government stays in power, this (pattern) will be repeated.


They’re called universal truths because they apply everywhere at all times, whether Britain in 1911, or Japan (and the United States, and the EU, and — yes — China) today.


“When a dead body is rotting, it does not diminish; it swells. Ignorance of this elementary truth is at the back of nearly all our political blindness. When we speak of a decaying people or a dying institution, we always have somehow the notion of their dwindling; of sparser and sparser tribes gathering on their mountains, of meaner and meaner buildings arising in their skies. But it is not so that social bodies really rot. They rot like physical bodies, being horribly distended from within by revolting gases demanding egress. Institutions, like corpses, grow larger and larger as they grow more and more shapeless. A dying monarchy is always one that has too much power, not too little; a dying religion always interferes more than it ought, not less. Our own country is really in this state of swollen decay, and the test of it is this: that every function of the State has grown more formless and more vast. Every power, public and private, has been stretched long past all sane definition and we live under a government of entangled exaggerations. It is a government that has all the practical effects of anarchy. Indeed, it is something worse than chaos; a warring polytheism. It is a conflict of incalculable autocracies, under any of which at the moment we may fall.”

– G.K. Chesterton (1911)

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Japan, the U.S., and the TPP: You don’t know the half of it

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, November 17, 2011

A free trade environment is beneficial for Japan. That is the national consensus…On the question of whether the prime minister has the ability to negotiate, however, the people don’t think so.
– Former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo

Britain is a world by itself; and we will nothing pay for wearing our own noses.
– Shakespeare

IT didn’t take long for circumstances to expose the inadequacies of Japan’s new “prime minister”, Noda Yoshihiko. After a mere two crisis-free months, it’s obvious that he lacks the skills at either governance or politics demanded of a national leader. Indeed, it’s an open question at this point whether he is in fact the national leader.

When he took office, some touted the new choice as a safe Democratic Party driver after the vaporous insubstantiality of Hatoyama Yukio and the toxic cluster of erratic electrons that is Kan Naoto. But beyond a constitutional predisposition to ambling along at 45 on the expressway with his hands frozen in position on the wheel, this safe driver is now perceived as a chauffer for the dirigistes of the bureaucracy-that-is-the-government at home — particularly the Finance Ministry — and the delivery boy for governments overseas. Mr. Noda has compounded that problem by behaving as an inert gelatin too incurious to inform himself on the laws of his country or the policies of his own government beyond the instructions received over the horn from the back seat of the Brougham.

The events of the past week have created suspicions that this paleface is speaking to his fellow countrymen with the most forked of tongues about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations. If those well-founded suspicions harden into belief, it could jeopardize Japanese participation in the TPP, as well as the survival of the DPJ government and the party itself.


The fun started hitting the fan last Friday on the afternoon of the 11th, when upper house Diet member Sato Yukari of the opposition LDP questioned Mr. Noda about the TPP. The “prime minister’s” performance was so inept that 30-minute clips of the session began circulating immediately on YouTube. (The industrial media, both in Japan and overseas, ignored it, but I belabor the obvious.)

Ms. Sato asked the “prime minister” about the possibility that domestic law would be distorted by the ISD clauses in a TPP treaty. She was referring to Investor State Dispute (Settlement), which allows entities in Country A to initiate dispute settlement proceedings against Country B under international law, rather than in the courts of Country B, as has been customary in the past.

The first treaty to allow developed nations this option was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) among Canada, the United States, and Mexico. If the Party of The First Part has a beef against the Party of The Second Part in another country, they can demand arbitration under the Arbitration Rules of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law or the Arbitration (Additional Facility) Rules of the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes. Entities in both Canada and the United States have already created some unpleasantness by employing this option against each other.

Here was Mr. Noda’s answer:

We will negotiate in order to enable a response under Japanese law.

First, note the word “negotiate”. The “prime minister” has been trying to buy time at home, particularly with the TPP opponents in his own party, by insisting that Japan hasn’t decided whether it will “negotiate”. It is only going to hold “discussions” with the related countries first.

At that point the sound shuts off on the video when two men approach the presiding officer for a discussion. (Their conversation is not recorded, and it resembles the scene in an American courtroom when attorneys approach the bench.)

Someone seems to have spoken to Mr. Noda during that time, because when the recording resumes, he adds:

The treaty takes precedence over Japanese law, so we will think of how to respond within the reality that we must respond to that.

A heckler, probably Nishida Shoji of the LDP, retorts:

What are you talking about? How are we going to be able to respond? The treaty takes precedence, so we can’t respond under international law.

The “prime minster” continues:

I didn’t have a detailed knowledge of ISDS, but treaties do take precedence over Japanese law. Therefore, we will not kill or destroy Japanese law to conclude a treaty.

In other words, when Ms. Sato first asked the question about ISD clauses, “Prime Minister” Noda had no idea what she was talking about.

She also presented a hypothetical example of a local government putting public works contracts to bid and restricting the bidding due to concerns about local employment or the hollowing out of the economy. That could generate a demand by overseas contractors for resolution in front of an international body. How, she asked, would you deal with a situation in which a local government puts the national government at risk?

Justice Minister Hiraoka Hideo was the picture of matter-of-fact, banal self-satisfaction when he answered for the government. Of course, he said, they had every intention of allowing international rules to apply, because it would be discrimination against other countries otherwise. Japan would be a good international partner.

Ms. Sato dismissed the idea that Japan could negotiate favorable terms for the treaty framework. Japan’s participation would begin in six months, she noted, and by then it would be too late to have an impact on the general structure.

As for the issue of ISD, she dismissed Mr. Noda out of hand:

Constitutionally, this is an elementary matter, so I’m flabbergasted that you couldn’t give an answer based on what is in the Constitution. To declare our participation in TPP without understanding this is to disrespect the people.

TPP supporter Eda Kenji, the secretary-general of Your Party, understood immediately that this line of attack presented a legitimate threat in the arena of public opinion. He attempted a counterattack on his blog this week by pointing out that Japan is already a part of 20 treaties containing such clauses, starting with a 1978 treaty with Egypt. He reported that no one has sought international arbitration against Japan stemming from those treaties.

Mr. Eda’s mention of Japanese-Egyptian trade is instructive, however, if only to vitiate his argument. Japan has a trade surplus with Egypt. The Japanese embassy in Cairo states that the primary Japanese exports to that country are transportation equipment and electric machinery, while the Egyptians export petroleum, petroleum products, cotton, and cotton textiles. Considering the relative economic development of the two countries, none of these categories is likely to generate a dispute of unfair access. He does not identify the other 19 countries Japan has such treaties with, though the United States is not one of them. Until demonstrated otherwise, it would be reasonable to assume that many, if not most, of those countries have trade relationships with Japan similar to those of Egypt; i.e., concentrated in a few sectors that supplement mutual needs.

That is unlikely to be the case in any treaty relationship with the litigation-loving Americans, however.

What country are you the prime minister of?

Fukushima Mizuho, head of Japan’s Social Democrats, is almost always a waste of air, water, and space in the enclosed hothouse of Japanese politics. But to give credit where credit is due, she was pertinent, direct, and relentless in her questioning of the “prime minister” following Ms. Sato on Friday. She pummeled him for not saying a word about Japanese participation in TPP negotiations in the Diet, yet promising to people overseas that Japan would participate.

You’re going to get on a plane to go to the APEC summit later today, but we’re here in the Diet now. Why aren’t you saying anything?

She added, with perfect justification:

* “Why won’t you make the declaration to participate in TPP in the Diet?”

* “You won’t make the declaration in the Diet, and at home you’re just like a dojo fish in the mud, so why can you go overseas and make that declaration?”

* “Just what country are you the prime minister of?”

* “For whose purpose are you conducting politics?”

The safe-driving chauffer, unwilling or unable to deviate from the road map, only repeated that the government was in the process of reaching a consensus, and that he would discuss it sometime later. A particular favorite was this word game:

We will participate in discussions with the related countries with an eye toward joining TPP negotiations.

That night, Mr. Noda met at the Kantei with Henry Kissinger, who stopped by on his way to Okayama to participate in a forum. The Japanese media reports said he conveyed to Mr. Kissinger his government’s policy of participating in TPP negotiations (not discussions). Mr. Kissinger was delighted to hear it.


Mr. Noda flew to the APEC summit in Honolulu and back last weekend, and well and truly stepped in some very deep poi. After discussions with President Barack Obama, the Americans announced that the Japanese “prime minister” had placed all Japanese goods and services on the negotiating table for TPP. The repercussions were audible on the other side of the Pacific.

Japan’s foreign ministry complained to the Americans that Mr. Noda said no such thing, and insisted that he had only committed to participating in discussions. The ministry claimed they filed an objection with the American government and received an informal acknowledgement of the error.

Question Time in the upper house resumed after Mr. Noda’s Hawaiian weekend. On Tuesday, Yamamoto Ichita of the LDP took up where the Sato/Fukushima tag team left off and amped up the voltage. If anyone thought the “prime minister” was capable of salvaging the situation, listening to his answers soon disabused them of that notion.

Mr. Yamamoto kept pressing for simple answers to simple questions, but never got one. He asked Mr. Noda several times about the discrepancy between the American and Japanese versions of the Japanese promise. He wanted to know why the Americans had not formally withdrawn and corrected their earlier statement. Mr. Noda robotically repeated that the U.S. government “recognized their error”. No, he would not demand that the Americans change their statement. No, he never said that to begin with. Japan would keep stating the truth about their negotiating position. How did the Japanese government intend to do that, Mr. Yamamoto asked. No clear answer was forthcoming.

It is already past the point at which anyone will believe a Japanese government “statement of truth” on the matter, however. Here was the headline on a 15 November piece on the Voice of America website:

Noda Pledge to Join Trans-Pacific Partnership

The VOA tried to soften it a bit in the body, but the intent is the same. Note how they mention that everyone has concerns about Japan without mentioning everyone’s mutual concerns about them:

Noda’s endorsement of joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership is merely the first step in a longer process that still must overcome opposition at home as well as concerns from the nine other TPP member nations involved in the talks.

Mr. Yamamoto asked several more questions — several more times for each — but Mr. Noda played talking Tar Baby:

Q: Why is the U.S. saying that you made that promise?
A: I haven’t said a word about that.

Q: Will you clearly state that non-participation is an option for Japan?
A: Nothing is 100% certain.

Q: Will rice be an exception in the treaty?
A: It will basically be an exception, but I can’t give a 100% guarantee.

Q: If the government is going to compensate farmers for opening the market, where is the money going to come from?

A slight note of hysteria arose in Mr. Noda’s voice on two occasions, but he soldiered on with a story that no one believes.

The White House isn’t bothering to pay attention. The WH website hasn’t altered its account of Mr. Noda’s statement. In fact, they’re not going to, either:

The White House said Monday it stands by an earlier press briefing on a Japan-U.S. summit Saturday and does not intend to revise it, despite a protest from Tokyo that the Japanese premier was misquoted in it over his position on the issue of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade initiative.

In response to reporters’ questions, Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, “The readout that we put out was based on the private consultations that (U.S.) President (Barack) Obama and (Japanese) Prime Minister (Yoshihiko) Noda had. It was based also on the public declarations from Prime Minister Noda and other members of his administration.”

The statement is still accurate and “we don’t anticipate revising” it, Earnest said, while declining to clarify whether the White House has been asked to revise the statement.

The statement, available on the White House website, said Obama “welcomed Prime Minister Noda’s statement that he would put all goods, as well as services, on the negotiating table for trade liberalization.”

But the Japanese government said Noda had only explained the government’s basic policy in general on a comprehensive economic partnership and that the U.S. side misinterpreted it as an explanation of Noda’s stance on the TPP.

Who’s telling the truth?

Somebody’s lying. The United States government, regardless of the White House occupant, is certainly capable of that, particularly when it comes to squeezing an “ally” — but not this time. Here’s an excerpt from a Japanese Cabinet Decision rendered on 9 November 2010 following last year’s APEC summit in Yokohama. The emphasis is mine:

Basic Policy on Comprehensive Economic Partnerships

2. Concrete action to strengthen comprehensive economic partnerships
On the basis of the international and regional environment surrounding Japan, the Government of Japan will take the following concrete steps to strengthen comprehensive economic partnerships with major trading partner countries and regions.
With regard to EPAs or broader regional economic partnerships that are politically and economically important and will be of especially great benefit to Japan, the Government of Japan, while taking into consideration the sensitivity of trade in certain products, will subject all goods to negotiations for trade liberalization and, through such negotiations, pursue high-level economic partnerships.

“Prime Minister” Noda told Fukushima Mizuho in the Diet that the government was in the process of reaching a consensus when he should have known that the government’s own documents show the fix was in a year ago, unbeknownst to the public. (To be sure, the Senkakus incident was still dominating the news.)

Mr. Noda was serving in the Cabinet at the time as “finance minister”. One might expect that he would have read the decision of a Cabinet in which he was a key member, but let’s not forget whom we’re dealing with. This is the same guy who didn’t know the law about Bank of Japan purchases of government debt, and didn’t know about ISDs in international treaties.

So what’s going on here?


To find out what’s really at stake, let’s return briefly to Sato Yukari’s questioning of Mr. Noda in the Diet on Friday.

Ms. Sato presented a large chart with bar graphs and figures based on the research of someone affiliated with the Cabinet Office — in other words, someone in the government. The graphs compared the benefits of Japan’s participation in the TPP with the so-called ASEAN Plus Six. That’s an emerging free trade zone that would consist of the 10 ASEAN nations plus China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. (There’s also an ASEAN Plus Three that includes Japan, South Korea, and China only. ASEAN + 6 came about because the Japanese were worried about Chinese dominance of the +3 arrangement.) The chart also had a section showing the benefits that would accrue to the United States under TPP. America is not part of either ASEAN scheme.

As Ms. Sato explained using the chart, the Cabinet Office’s analysis clearly shows the benefits for Japan would be much greater with ASEAN + 6 than they would be with TPP. It also showed that America would benefit more from the TPP than Japan would.

Why then, Ms. Sato asked, is Japan not pursuing ASEAN + 6, but hot to trot with TPP? Mr. Noda tried to explain that the government had no preference for one over the other. He said they’re only “thinking about” ASEAN + 6 (kento was the word he used), but that TPP had already started, and they had to move on that one.

That’s another porkie, as the Brits would say. Ms. Sato pointed out that Japan will not be involved in TPP discussions for another six months, so it will already be too late to influence the structure of the talks.

But the Japanese government has been doing more than “thinking about” ASEAN + 6, and they’ve been doing it for a few years now:

At the second East Asia Summit (EAS) held on 15 January 2007 in Cebu, the Leaders of ASEAN and six other nations (China, India, Japan, S Korea, Australia and New Zealand, agreed to launch a study on a Comprehensive Economic Partnership in East Asia (CEPEA) among EAS participants. An underlying ambition was the establishment of an ASEAN + 6 FTA.

A free trade zone has already been created in the region:

Starting the first day of 2010, Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand can import and export almost all goods across their borders at no tariff.

As of 1 January, for ASEAN-6 an additional 7,881 tariff lines will come down to zero tariffs, bringing the total tariff lines traded under the Common Effective Preferential Tariffs for ASEAN Free Trade Area (CEPT-AFTA) to 54,457 or 99.11%. Additionally, with the reduction, the average tariff rate for these countries is expected to further decrease from 0.79% in 2009 to just 0.05% in 2010. In 2008, intra-ASEAN import value of commodities for these 7,881 tariff lines amounted to US$ 22.66 billion, or 11.84% of ASEAN-6 import value within ASEAN.

Also last year, ACFTA (the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area) came into effect between the 11 countries. It is now the world’ s largest free trade area by population and third-largest by trade volume (behind the EU and NAFTA). Tariffs were eliminated on 90% of all categories. They are near zero for trade between China and the six original ASEAN nations, and are zero among those six countries.

WTF is going on here?

The Mainichi Shimbun explained it succinctly in a Japanese-language op-ed. They think the U.S. is determined to obstruct any trade regime in Asia that it isn’t a part of, for both economic and security reasons. They are using trade and commerce as a weapon to fight the Chinese in the Pacific, and Japan is caught in the middle of the Great Game.

Chinese Ministry of Commerce sources say they prefer the ASEAN + 3 arrangement, but they’re flexible. They also understand that they and the U.S. are involved in a tug-of-war over Japan, and think the Japanese are using TPP to patch over the strains in the relationship with the U.S. that emerged over the Marine air base in Okinawa.

Further, they are concerned about Japanese participation because it would provide a fillip to Japanese growth, reduce their own economic strength, and tend to weaken their position in dealing with the U.S. As far as the TPP goes, the Chinese are biding their time as they watch whether all the nations involved will be able to work out their differences. Finally, they think the TPP is too ambitious and doesn’t take enough consideration of newly emerging countries with growth markets.

The Russians aren’t involved in either arrangement, but they have a similar view. Though the TPP was started by three countries (Chile, New Zealand and Singapore), and joined by Brunei shortly thereafter, they think the Americans took over the process because they perceived it as a useful vehicle for regaining the influence they’ve been losing in Asia and for blocking the Chinese.

Of course the Yanks are also in it for the money, as Japan’s Cabinet Office survey demonstrates. Some in Japan opposed to or doubtful of the TPP suspect it is to allow Americans to conduct trade in the region under their own rules, including their export taxes and tariffs. American agriculture is also heavily protected, and if they can push their own tariffs into the agreement as a base, it could wind up implanting protected trade in a new form.

Meanwhile, in talks with ASEAN, China has brought up the subject of using the yuan as the common regional currency. Indeed, the Chinese claim they already have the common Asian currency. In one of their occasional stabs at cleverness, Britain’s Economist referred to the yuan as the redback.

The pols and the polls

Noda Yoshihiko’s safe driving skills will be tested when he tries to steer any TPP treaty through the Diet, as is required by the Constitution. There are 480 members in the lower house, so 241 is the magic number for passage. A media outlet’s informal survey of lower house members last week found more than 220 members opposed the treaty, including nearly one-third of the ruling DPJ’s delegation. If those numbers hold, the treaty would still squeak through, but it’s not a lock when one considers how Mr. Noda has handled the political automobile so far. According to the Japanese Constitution, the lower house decision will be the final determination if the upper house rejects it.

It’s quite a different story in prefectural assemblies, however. The Asahi Shimbun conducted a survey that found 44 of 47 prefectures opposed to TPP, often by large margins. A recent vote in Chiba, next to Tokyo, was 72-22 opposed.

The results of public polls are fascinating. The industrial media is playing up the results of a recent Yomiuri poll, which showed a public thumbs up by a 51%-35% margin, but that’s the only one with majority approval. A recent Asahi poll had it at 46%-28%.

Other polls are not as positive. The NNN poll (TV) had it 43.7%-35.7%. FNN, another TV network, came in at 46.5%-35.2%, and the numbers from the quasi-public NHK were 34%-21%.

No, it is not beyond the inclination or the abilities of either the Asahi or the Yomiuri to doctor the questions or the composition of those surveyed to get the desired results — particularly if the Foreign Ministry let it be known what results they desired.

More intriguing are the numbers behind the numbers. The Asahi poll found that 84% of the respondents thought the government’s explanation was insufficient, while Yomiuri’s response for the same question was 86%. That means there’s a nation full of people unhappy about what little the government is telling them, which suggests the current poll readings for approval/disapproval are just skin deep.

In addition, the undecideds in the surveys range from a low of roughly 18% to as much as 38% in one poll. There’s a lot of potential for a major swing one way or the other, and we all know in which direction any swing is likely to occur.

Here’s another one— the NNN poll also asked the respondents whether they were uneasy or hopeful about TPP. The results:

Uneasy: 56.1%
Hopeful: 39.3%

Why should anyone take seriously the results of an up or down question in the face of nearly universal dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the issue and a majority in one poll more worried than hopeful about the treaty? Refer once again to Mr. Abe’s quote at the top.

Of course the mass media — particularly the foreign media — is thrilled that the farmers have wiped the dirt and dung off their boots and driven the buckboard to town to protest. Colorful videos of a farmer demonstration are circulating. But FNN had the wit to actually poll by occupational sector (as well as age). Their survey found that people in the agriculture, forestry, or fishing industries were evenly split at 45%-45%. While there is strong opposition in that sector, it is not as strong as the media would want you to believe. (Is that because the indolent louts who write for newspapers can’t be bothered to reexamine their assumptions, or is it that they prefer that narrative and they’re just as unimaginative as Mr. Noda?)

And here’s one more: All these polls are conducted by random digit dialing (RDD) to fixed-line telephones. That eliminates many younger people who sleep with their cell phones but don’t have any of those old clunkers with wires going into the wall. The FNN poll broken down by age shows that people over 60 supported the treaty by 52.8%, but only 36.3% of those in their 20s backed it. Thus, the numbers might look quite different if the younger demographic’s views were better factored in. (Also, 54.2% of men were in favor but only 39.3% of women.)

You don’t have to be a psephologist to know which way the wind’s blowing for Mr. Noda’s support ratings. The NNN poll had it down to 40%, which is a Kan-like drop from the 60% after he took office in September. The non-support is climbing and is now up to 34.2% in that poll, 8.1 points higher than the previous month. FNN had the Cabinet support down to 42%, while a TV Asahi poll this week pegged it at 39.5%.

What do we know?

Here’s a partial list of the conclusions we can draw from all this.

* Noda Yoshihiko has no business being in a real Cabinet, much less being “prime minister”. When serving as “finance minister”, his position in opposition to BOJ purchases of government bonds was based on his ignorance of the law. As “prime minister”, he was ignorant of a critical aspect of the TPP treaty that would irrevocably change Japan.

Not that he would tell the public even if he did know.

* Custom and courtesy require that everyone refer to Noda Yoshihiko as the “prime minister”, but he seems to have little influence on the decision-making process or control over what the government actually does. He’s what the mob lawyers call a mouthpiece. Indeed, Japan’s position on TPP was determined a year ago. It’s already taxing his abilities just to drive the Miss Daisies of Kasumigaseki and keep the car on the road.

* He fairly lays himself open to the charge that he and his government give precedence to American economic growth in the TPP rather than to Japanese economic growth in ASEAN + 6.

* European MP Daniel Hannan of Great Britain observes that the French have the terms pays légal, which now refers to the group composed of politicians, civil servants, business leaders, and newspaper editors, and pays reel, which refers to everyone else. Since the former are making the decisions everywhere else, why should Japan be the exception? Also, as in the Western world, some people in the Japanese branch of the pays légal detest the concept of nation states. They will support any international treaties that require countries to subordinate domestic law as a necessary step on the royal road to global governance. Why do you think Kan Naoto was so taken with the idea of TPP?

* Mr. Noda has no problem lying about an issue that will have substantial domestic consequences either to the people or to the rest of the political class, in public at any rate. He’s not very good at it, either. During his wind-up-doll line of defense in the Diet, he came off as a talking life-sized cardboard figure of Col. Sanders at a KFC regional sales managers’ convention. But then he knows he dare not give the real explanation. Not that it makes any difference. Everyone in Nagata-cho knows what’s going on anyway.

* Another reason he can’t come clean is because of the strong opposition to the TPP in his own party. Coming out and saying what everyone knows could wind up destroying the DPJ. In fact, that’s the paramount reason the DPJ has no business as a ruling party in the first place. The potential for collapse is why they are incapable of taking a stand on any major issue. They’ve abdicated governance to the bureaucracy as a result. Some people in Japanese media circles outside the industrial core think bureaucratic control is more blatant now than at any time in recent history.

* All the talk about opening or closing the country, the opposition by farmers, the exclusive focus on TPP, blah blah blah woof woof, is so much vaudeville and just as passé. We’ve got bleacher seats for the early 21st Great Game, and it’s all about making Japan choose sides.

Predictions aren’t what I do, but here’s one anyway: Noda Yoshihiko will not handle this very well. Here’s another: If Japan doesn’t join the TPP, or his government falls as a result, watch the foreign media and the pretentious blogs get it all wrong in their commentary.

Regardless of what happens, however, even those supporters of free trade — and I’m one of them — have to admit that all the issues raised here are legitimate and cannot be waved aside with airy-fairy platitudes. Being a neo-liberal is one thing, but being a neo-conservative is another.


* The bilingual website Seetell makes an excellent and often overlooked point:

(I)n order to join, Japan will have to be “approved” by the current TPP member nations. That poses few problems for Japan from any of the nations except the US. And because the US Congress will have the final say on whether Japan is allowed to join, Japan will be forced to concede most of its negotiating points to the US before the negotiations even begin…

Plainly stated, Japan will have to negotiate first with the US – and without input from other member nations – before it will be approved to join the pact. The bulk of Japan’s negotiations will occur before the official negotiations begin.

The US has totally usurped the TPP from the original nations as a vehicle to gain access and influence into the Asian economy. Now, it sits as the sole judge and determinant as to the terms of the agreement.

* Before becoming “prime minister”, Mr. Noda was best known for delivering political speeches at his local train station every morning for years to the morning rush-hour commuters. One has to wonder: What the deuce did he tell them?

* Only the merest of glimpses of the real issues are being afforded in the mainstream Western press. The New York Times this week ran a lengthy article about United States pressure on China. Here’s all they could find to say about the TPP:

Mr. Obama wants to appear strong in pressing Beijing. He made headway on an ambitious American plan to create a Pacific free trade zone, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that, for now, would not include China.

There was no mention of ASEAN + 6 in the article, but then we should all have seen through the tiresome fiction of full (or even intelligent) coverage from the New York Times by now.

It’s also noteworthy that the Times refers to the TPP as an “ambitious American plan”, when that certainly wasn’t how it started. Even the Times can be jingoists, it seems, as long as their Golden Boy is in the White House, rather than one of the evil, wicked, mean, and nasties of the other party.

* I listened to Yamamoto Ichita’s questioning of Noda Yoshihiko on NHK radio while working on a translation. Mr. Noda did not perform well. On NHK radio news that night, the announcer briefly mentioned one of Mr. Yamamoto’s questions without replaying it, and they ran a single, brief clip of one of the few times Mr. Noda gave a lucid and crisp answer.

Yes, there is media bias in Japan, too.

* It was puzzling to see that the Voice of America article was written by that well-known peddler of Weird Japan stories and FCCJ barfly, Justin McCurry. Justo is a Brit who, the last time I saw a sample from the cloaca that constitutes his body of work, was affiliated with The Guardian.

If it is the Voice of America, why do they speak through a Brit from an often anti-American newspaper? Do they think no Americans in Japan are capable of producing the same lukewarm dribble of the type at that link? Here’s one of the sentences from his piece on the TPP:

But it could mean stiffer competition for some domestic industries, especially Japan’s farmers who could struggle to compete against cheaper imports.

Yeah, I guess it “could”, couldn’t it? If the idea is to cook the gruel that thin, what’s the bleedin’ point other than filling website space?

* Now Canada wants to join the TPP discussions. They also want a bilateral trade deal with Japan.

* The Australian government says that TPP is an important priority for them, but they also have serious concerns about ISDS:

Some countries have sought to insert investor-state dispute resolution clauses into trade agreements. Typically these clauses empower businesses from one country to take international legal action against the government of another country for alleged breaches of the agreement, such as for policies that allegedly discriminate against those businesses and in favour of the country’s domestic businesses.

The Gillard Government supports the principle of national treatment — that foreign and domestic businesses are treated equally under the law. However, the Government does not support provisions that would confer greater legal rights on foreign businesses than those available to domestic businesses. Nor will the Government support provisions that would constrain the ability of Australian governments to make laws on social, environmental and economic matters in circumstances where those laws do not discriminate between domestic and foreign businesses. The Government has not and will not accept provisions that limit its capacity to put health warnings or plain packaging requirements on tobacco products or its ability to continue the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

In the past, Australian Governments have sought the inclusion of investor-state dispute resolution procedures in trade agreements with developing countries at the behest of Australian businesses. The Gillard Government will discontinue this practice. If Australian businesses are concerned about sovereign risk in Australian trading partner countries, they will need to make their own assessments about whether they want to commit to investing in those countries.

One Australian op-ed opposed to TPP made this point:

In its negotiations over the AUSFTA during 2003-04, the office of the United States Trade Representative focused in particular on Australia’s Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (which provides heavily subsidised access for patients to listed medicines under patent), its process of blood procurement (which for health and security reasons is not open to international competition) and its laws mandating minimum levels of local broadcast content on television. The USTR sees these policies as “protectionist” and wants them abandoned, regardless of Australia’s arguments that they are in our national interest.

The Australians have no trouble standing up for Australia. Does anyone think the Japanese government is capable of doing the same?

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

Bare trees and lonelyhearts

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, November 15, 2011

ONCE upon a time, they say, university life for the Chinese was a combination of the military and the monastery. Students lived more than 10 to a dorm room and became ghouls, as my university’s slang had it, haunting the libraries and carrels until late at night. Had they the time, most still wouldn’t have had the money to pursue one of the primary extracurricular activities of Western students — pursuing the opposite sex.

Today, however, the partial application of market economics and the single child policy have made more Chinese financially comfortable, if not gloriously rich, and many students have refocused their priorities: Now, everyone’s got a love jones. Though the government still pledges public allegiance to communism, the first thing the students learn is that everyone is not equal in matters of the heart. The monkey on the back that comes with the love jones is that nobody is guaranteed to score.

As in Japan, a side effect of the increasing openness and prosperity in China has been the popularity of American-style celebrations of Valentine’s Day, Halloween, and a secular Christmas. But the lonelyheart Chinese students soon became frustrated when they saw those more equal than others having all the fun on Valentine’s Day (and perhaps Christmas, too; Christmas Eve in Japan has become a heavy date night for young lovers). Instead of moping, their solution was to create a celebration for themselves that has become a national phenomenon.

Most people attribute the origin to Nanjing university students circa 1990, and the festivities began to spread throughout society as they graduated. It gained momentum in the new century and broke out nationwide in 2005. Now the events of the day receive regular coverage in the media and have become a part of social life similar to Valentine’s Day in the United States.

That day is called Guang Gun Jie (光棍節), and it falls on 11 November. The first two characters are the word for stick (with the bark peeled off, by some explanations), and it was chosen to represent a tree trunk with no branches, i.e., someone with no spouse or children. The word has now come to be used as a synonym for single people. They picked the date of 11 November because 11/11 can be visualized as a row of four tree trunks without branches. (This sort of creativity is a trait common throughout Northeast Asia, by the way.)

What do all the lonely people do on 11 November? They try to get dates, of course, and if they can’t get dates they get goofy. Some of the goofiness is a bit more innocent than the baroque time-wasting schemes concocted by American college students. One example is this fight using pillows stuffed with paper scraps instead of feathers. The release of all that intensity is to be expected when people lack other outlets for their energy.

They also get risqué, for China anyway. In Chinese, the character 脱 (second from the right on the sign) also means to remove one’s clothes, as well as to break away from something (the sense in which the Japanese use it). These guys got all barechested to show how ready they are to break away from Mary Palm and her five sisters:

Nowadays, however, it’s not just for students any more. The public at large has gotten behind it, as you can see from the poster in the first photo, one of many of which were hung throughout the city of Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. The folks in Fuzhou, Fujian Province, went so far as to hold a mass o-miai (marriage meeting) in a public park.

It’s also no surprise that the Chinese found a way to turn 11/11 into another shopping opportunity, and the event has become a golden goose for merchants. That raises the question of what people would buy to celebrate the day instead of the usual Valentine’s or Christmas presents, other than a fifth of liquor. Reports suggest there’s a lot of traffic in normal merchandise sold at special discounts. The big seller this year was the iPad.

Another question is whether the event has mushroomed into something that’s just as depressing as Valentine’s Day or Christmas for the people stuck with penny stocks in the sexual market. Here’s a message from a young woman on a Net bulletin board:

Everybody else has got someone, but only I am alone. I’m looking for someone to spend the holiday with. We’ll split the costs.

And yes, that facilitates the manifestation of the natural Chinese mercantilism in other ways, too. Here’s some bulletin board advertising:

I’ll spend the holiday with you for 8 yuan an hour. (JPY 96, which is about US$1.25 these days)

The Joseon solution

A more clever response to datelessness comes from those holding a losing hand in South Korea. They have a similar, informal tradition, but their solution contains more humor. The bare trees in that country, referred to as the Solo Squad (솔로부대, which Japanese will recognize as ソロ部隊), celebrate Black Day on 14 April. On that day, the folks who drilled dry holes on Valentine’s Day or White Day (14 March) dress up in their best black clothing and get together to commiserate with each other by eating jajangmyeon, a dish of white Korean noodles with black bean sauce, washed down with black coffee. Jajangmyeon is the Korean version of zajiang mein, a northern Chinese dish of thick wheat noodles with ground pork stir-fried in zajiang (炸酱), a fermented soybean paste.

In passing, it’s interesting that the Koreans have adopted the Japanese creation of White Day, despite the studied Korean ambivalence in some quarters for things Japanese. (There’s more of that going on than outside observers might think.) An important part of Valentine’s Day in Japan involves women giving giri-choko (obligatory chocolate) to their male co-workers on 14 February. The men are supposed to return the favor one month later, often with confections that are white. (Japanese merchants certainly one-upped their American counterparts in creating profit opportunities with that one.)

While Guang Gun Jie or Black Day might not appeal to everyone’s taste, they certainly are a more pleasant, innocent — and tasteful — response than the Western solution.

Maybe the Japanese have the best solution of all. This is Rockappella from Hitotsubashi University in 2009.

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Posted in China, Popular culture, Social trends, South Korea | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Matsuri da! (121): Hanging the sake balls

Posted by ampontan on Monday, November 14, 2011

EVERYONE who’s seen a movie whose action takes place aboard a naval vessel knows the phrase, “The smoking lamp is lit”. It originated in the era of wooden sailing ships, when preventing fires was the first order of business and permission to smoke was signaled by lighting a lamp hanging at the forecastle.

Years ago, the sake establishments in Kyoto had a similar signal that must have been more eagerly awaited by landlubbers and swabbies alike. The proprietors of those establishments hung a ball made of leaves from the Japanese cedar to announce that a new batch of sake was finished and ready to be poured down the hatch.

Nowadays all that’s required is to look for a tavern where the exterior lights are still on and the noren (shop curtain) is suspended over the door, but the custom of leaf ball hanging still lives at the Matsuo Taisha, a Shinto shrine in Kyoto. In fact, a male parishioner put up three last week — one at the main building, one at the administrative office, and one at the storehouse where the mikoshi, or portable shrine for the deity, is kept.

This is a Shinto event, after all, so of course they’ve maintained the liquor connection. The balls are hung from the eaves with care as part of the Jo’u Festival held at the shrine every autumn in supplication for the safety of the sake brewers. As every devout worshipper knows, the first commandment for getting righteously ripped is divine protection for the brewers.

The sake/Matsuo Taisha link is a very long one. A shrine was first established on the current site in 701 — note the triple digits — though they didn’t settle on the Matsuo name until 1950. It’s associated with the Hata clan, a prominent immigrant clan whose origins are in China and who are thought to have come to Japan from Korea in the 3rd Century. According to the barroom scuttlebutt, one of the jewels of continental culture the Hatas brought with them was sake brewing techniques. The shrine’s association with grog in the popular imagination is at least several centuries old: It’s mentioned in that connection in a kyogen comedy from the 16th century.

In an interesting turnabout, the ball of leaves was originally hung as part of the festival to denote the start of a new sake batch, rather than its completion. The heavenly spheres are about 60-70 centimeters in diameter, and they’re made from the trees in a grove at nearby Nantan. The festival itself has been expanded to include the manufacturers and wholesalers of other fermented food items, such as soy sauce and miso paste. This year, representatives of about 50 companies showed up to receive their blessings.

What do they give in return? Take a look at that wall of sake barrels in this brief video to see.

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Ichigen koji (73)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, November 12, 2011

– A person who has something to say about everything

I’ve spent the last 40 years as a management consultant helping companies adapt to globalization, and with the nine countries participating in the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) negotiations, not once has there been an instance in any country in which a trade barrier has been an obstacle for management strategy. The emotional catchphrase (of those in favor of joining) that “We’ll utilize Asia’s growth capacity” is a bit strange, but when the opponents, with their delusion of damage, say “Japan will be destroyed”, it is utter nonsense.

– Omae Ken’ichi

Between the TPP opponents’ hysteria and the government proponents’ disdain for providing an adequate explanation to the public, who could blame the Japanese if this were their response? (Regardless of their opinion on TPP, polls show that 78% of the Japanese public agree that the government’s explanations have been unsatisfactory.)

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, International relations, Quotations | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Four wasted years

Posted by ampontan on Friday, November 11, 2011

JIJI is reporting that Health, Labor, and Welfare Minister Komiyama Yoko said after a Cabinet meeting this week the government plans to introduce a bill during the regular Diet session next year to combine the country’s separate pension systems — one for salaried employees and the other for public employees and teachers at private sector schools.

They still haven’t got it together enough to submit their proposal at the start of the session, but she says they’ll come up with something in time for a vote. Leave it to the DPJ to add their distinctive touch combining the incompetent and surreal. She added:

“We’re thinking of basing it on the bill that was introduced in 2007.”

That bill to unify the two systems was offered by the Abe Shinzo government. It ran into trouble later that year after the DPJ became the leading party in the upper house in the July 2007 election, and Fukuda Yasuo had become prime minister.

The LDP and DPJ had differences of opinion on the structure of the unified system, but another obstacle was the DPJ insistence that all the revenue from the consumption tax be allocated to fund the pensions. The LDP wanted to have the public continue to pay premiums. (Note the distinction between the Big Government DPJ, which prefers to play lord of the progressive manor and dispense the benefits centrally from taxes, while the Somewhat Smaller Big Government LDP wanted people to pay into the system directly. One creates a sense of dependency, and the other creates a sense of personal responsibility.)

Further, the DPJ insisted that the consumption tax rate not be raised. In contrast, Prime Minister Fukuda said that raising the consumption tax might be unavoidable under the DPJ proposal.

The LDP finally abandoned the legislation in 2009 in the face of DPJ opposition. The DPJ took control of the government after the August 2009 election, when they ran on a platform that included a promise not to raise the consumption tax.

Here we are four years later, and now the DPJ will base its new bill on the 2007 LDP bill — when they get around to it — and are getting ready to ram a consumption tax increase down people’s throats, even though they were dead set against it when Mr. Fukuda suggested a tax increase would be inevitable.

Observing the DPJ after their victory in the upper house election of 2007, former LDP Secretary General Ibuki Bunmei said the party was behaving like a grade school boy with a loaded pistol.

So, the DPJ has shot their wad, and all they have to show for it is four wasted years and three prime ministers full of proverbial bullet holes.

If anyone can think of anything positive these time-servers, hacks, and mendacious leftoids have done for the country in that time, the comment section is all yours.

PS: I forgot to include the category of “juvenile airheads”. Former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio in September commended Prime Minister Noda for avoiding the practice of impromptu news conferences began by Koizumi Jun’ichiro. He said:

I think I had to resign (after less than a year) because I held so many (impromptu) interviews. It looks like Noda has learned from my mistakes.

No, Honest to God, as my Great Uncle Julius used to say, those words actually came out of his mouth.
From the ridiculous to the nearly sublime

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Wrong question, Mr. Noda

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, November 10, 2011

FOR those who suspect that I exaggerate about Financial Ministry manipulation of Japanese politicians and the unsuitability of those Japanese politicians for either higher office or important government posts, here’s an anecdote from the 7 October edition of the weekly Shukan Post.

After the Tohoku disaster this March, the Kan government discussed issuing more than JPY 10 trillion in bonds as a funding source for reconstruction and having the Bank of Japan accept the tranche. This was unacceptable to the Finance Ministry bureaucrats, who were intent on using the disaster as an excuse to raise taxes. They conveyed their position to then-Finance Minister Noda Yoshihiko, now the prime minister.

Mr. Noda declared at a news conference that it was against the law for the Bank of Japan to purchase Japanese government bonds, so he wouldn’t even consider it.

During Question Time in the lower house Financial Affairs Committee on 25 March, he was asked the following by LDP member Yamamoto Kozo, a former Finance Ministry official:

“Did you know that the Bank of Japan directly purchases a substantial amount of government bonds every year?”

According to the record, Mr. Noda replied:

“Directly? Uh, well…what the BOJ does is monetary policy, er…”

Asked again whether he knew that or not, the finance minister answered:

“No, I didn’t know that.”

Another LDP member then explained to Mr. Noda that while the law does prohibit BOJ purchases of government bonds, Article 5 of the law permits those purchases for specified reasons, within a specific monetary range, on the approval of the Diet. He also explained that the BOJ already purchases at least JPY 10 trillion worth of government debt issues every year, and this was well known by all government authorities involved with financial matters.

After the committee meeting, Mr. Noda complained to an aide, “Why didn’t they tell me about that?” He was referring to his tutors in the ministry.

More to the point is why Mr. Noda didn’t do his basic homework when the Finance Ministry’s puppeteering skills are so well known in Japanese political circles.

The DPJ government has had four finance ministers in the two years since they assumed power. The last three — Kan Naoto, Noda Yoshihiko, and Azumi Jun — knew less about economic and financial matters when they were appointed than my mailman. They were tutored by the Finance Ministry after they were given the job. (In Mr. Noda’s case, when he was appointed deputy finance minister in the Hatoyama Cabinet.)

The first was Fujii Hirohisa, who lasted all of three months at the post. He resigned, reportedly because he found it too difficult to keep up with the job at his age. There were also stories, however, of friction with Ozawa Ichiro (as well as a taste for liquor in the daytime).

Mr. Fujii was the exception, because he is an ex-Finance Ministry bureaucrat — from the Budget Bureau, no less, which is the locus of power in the ministry. He might have been one of the tutors for the other three. Indeed, it was reported that he told Mr. Noda that true political leadership meant listening to the experts in the Finance Ministry.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, Mr. Noda believed him.

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