Japan from the inside out

Archive for January, 2012

By jingo

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 15, 2012

At the moment, we lose, but in ten years, the U.S. will lose. We can be more patient than a U.S. administration,
– Shen Dingli, a professor at the Center of American Studies at Fudan University

The tremendous defeat at Hawaii was first ascribed to treacherous Japan, launching an attack at the very time that the American government was trying to lead the erring war lords of Nippon into the ways of peace. The administration conveniently forgot to remind the American people of the part played in bringing about the result of December 7 by its campaign of economic warfare, its secret diplomacy, its covert military alliances, the submission of demands which Japan found “humiliating,” and its own complete abandonment of neutrality in favor of non-declared war.
– George Morgenstern, Pearl Harbor: The Story of the Secret War

THE world is entering a new age of imperialism, according to a former Japanese Foreign Ministry official in an article written for a monthly magazine currently on the newsstands. Perhaps the term he should have used was neo-imperialism. Just as today’s neo-socialist eschews such overt efforts as the nationalization of industry in favor of subtle and incremental changes to the economic and cultural wiring behind the walls, the modern neo-imperialist no longer works through trading empires or the combination of colonialism and mercantilism favored by the Europeans and later imitated by others, including the Japanese. There is a preference instead for the semi-subjection of satellite states in which the hegemons exert their power and manipulate those states for economic and political advantage without having to assume direct administrative control of their neo-fiefdoms. Both past and present, however, the justifications and self-congratulation are the same.

That China is exhibiting many of the symptoms of the neo-imperialist syndrome is apparent to the casual observer and need not be explained. But the Japanese commentator was referring to an “age” inhabited by more than one neo-imperialist actor. What was apparent to the commentator, but less so to the casual observer, is that the United States is presenting the same symptoms as well.

Consider: Again the world is sinking into the quicksand of Depression, and again the Americans are sticking pins in the heads of rattlesnakes in East Asia. The strategy of the current occupant of the White House is to focus on economic issues while outsourcing cultural and foreign policy matters to others in government. As a result, Mr. Obama’s foreign policy is moving along the same rails laid down by his gloriously initialed predecessors FDR, JFK, and LBJ, and, to a lesser extent, the more singular and sober W. It isn’t just Asia, either — in addition to making the Middle East safe for Islamicism last year by leading in Libya from behind and encouraging the Arab Sprung, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate dispatched 100 troops to Uganda in October. Imperators need not trouble themselves to obtain Congressional approval when issuing commands to the legions for overseas operations.

As troubling as the behavior is the enthusiasm with which that behavior is hailed by the court heralds. Again, the Chinese taste for hegemony and their belief in the local version of Manifest Destiny is apparent to the casual observer and need not be examined. What is now becoming apparent, however, is the American enthusiasm for the mission.

More troubling still is that some members of the credentialed American “opinion leaders” are serving as willing cheerleaders for Team USA’s feats on the geopolitical gridiron while either grossly exaggerating or ignoring the facts.

One of those now shouting through a megaphone is Walter Russell Mead. Prof. Mead has a wall covered in credentials — he serves in an endowed professorship at Bard, teaches at Yale, is the editor of American Interest, and writes for all the Big Top journals, magazines, and newspapers. He also wrote an article for a website in November with the incongruous title of Softly, Softly, Beijing Turns the Other Cheek — For Now. Its tone is so extreme one wonders if the point of the exercise were to lead the underclassmen in cheers of Yay, Eagles!

Take a deep breath:

The cascade of statements, deployments, agreements and announcements from the United States and its regional associates in the last week has to be one of the most unpleasant shocks for China’s leadership — ever. The US is moving forces to Australia, Australia is selling uranium to India, Japan is stepping up military actions and coordinating more closely with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea, Myanmar is slipping out of China’s column and seeking to reintegrate itself into the region, Indonesia and the Philippines are deepening military ties with the US: and all that in just one week. If that wasn’t enough, a critical mass of the region’s countries have agreed to work out a new trade group that does not include China, while the US, to applause, has proposed that China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors be settled at a forum like the East Asia Summit — rather than in the bilateral talks with its smaller, weaker neighbors that China prefers.

Does he — or anyone — really think China’s leadership was “shocked” by any of this? The Chinese were building dynasties long before people in the West were numbering their years; an understanding of this behavior is inherent in the East Asian version of the classical education. Considering that the timeline of “ever” for unpleasant shocks encompasses everything China’s been involved with for the past 60 years, including great leaps forward, cultural revolutions, and massacres at Tiananmen Square, it is unlikely to have caused little more than a raised eyebrow in Beijing.

Let’s examine the specifics of the American counteroffensive.

The Marines in Australia

The initial deployment is 250 troops this year in the tropical north, rising eventually to all of 2,500. The mission of Marines is not to serve as defenders, much less defend Australia. Their mission is to attack, and the only reason for stationing them here is to threaten an attack if the Chinese behave unacceptably in the South China Sea. The status quo is therefore a faceoff of the neo-imperialists: the Chinese claiming “indisputable sovereignty” over the region, and the United States, through Secretary of State Clinton, countering with the new idea that international law in the South China Sea is a matter of American national interest. In other words, Globocop holds that the Monroe Doctrine now extends to the other side of the world.

As Sam Spade observed to Casper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon, however, the threat of force is meaningless unless the other party believes the threat is real. That is by no means a given in this situation, if only because the Americans are threatening a country larger than itself that can inflict serious damage on it in return. Now then: Does anyone think this American saber swishing is credible? Does anyone believe that Marines in Australia will make the Chinese reconsider? It’s been a while since anyone seriously thought the Americans would come to the defense of Japan in the event of an attack, and the American military infrastructure here consists of nearly 40,000 troops at 100 installations. The Chinese are unlikely to become alarmed about the possibility of a robust American military response to their behavior in the South China Sea.

It makes one wonder how much thought was invested by the people responsible for the American policy. The Marines are a formidable force, but 2,500 of them are insufficient to either deter China beforehand or push them back afterwards. They’re certainly not meant to serve as a tripwire in Australia, either.

As for the Australians selling uranium to India, the Indians have had nuclear weapons since 1974. Will they not buy uranium from somewhere?


By the “deepening” military ties with Indonesia, Prof. Mead seems to be referring to the dispatch of 24 F-16s to that country. Rather than being one of the bold new initiatives in a geopolitical That Was The Week That Was, it represents an ongoing development that gained impetus after Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s visit in the summer of 2010.

Congress cut off military training assistance to Indonesia in 1992 after Indonesian security forces shot and killed East Timorese demonstrators in November 1991. The restriction was partially lifted in 1995, but military assistance programs were suspended again after violence and destruction in East Timor following an Aug. 30, 1999, referendum favoring independence from Indonesia. Though normal military relations between the United States and Indonesia have resumed, the issue of providing training for Kopassus remained unresolved until earlier this week, the official said.

“I was pleased to be able to tell the president that as a result of Indonesian military reforms over the past decade, the ongoing professionalization of the [Indonesian armed forces], and recent actions taken by the ministry of defense to address human rights issues,” Gates told reporters after his meeting with Yudhoyono, “the United States will begin a gradual, limited program of security cooperation activities with the Indonesian army special forces.”

If wading into the surf up to the calf is your idea of deep, then these are deepening ties. This again is unlikely to have jolted the Chinese, even taken in combination with the assignment of the Marines to a pleasant duty station in Oz. In fact, that combination may not have had the desired effect in Beijing at all — especially after the Indonesian foreign minister said the announced deployment of Marines to a neighboring country could create “a vicious circle of tension and mistrust”.


Assertion: Japan “is stepping up military actions”. Reality: Japan will assign some Land Self-Defense Forces to the small island of Yonaguni, the westernmost part of the Japanese archipelago, 110 kilometers from Taiwan. Rather than being a part of a grand strategic mosaic, it is a move the Kan administration began talking about last February after the contretemps with the Chinese in the Senkakus in September 2010.

Placing troops on the island had been under discussion for some time, as then-Prime Minister Aso Taro made a reference to it in July 2009. The Japanese have been carefully monitoring that part of their territory for years. When serving as foreign minister in 2006, Mr. Aso told local government officials from Yonaguni that the Japanese government had dissuaded Taiwan from conducting a planned naval artillery exercise west of the island. Concerns about Taiwan began as early as 1996, when the Taiwanese navy began moving their exercises northward. Local fisherman complained that the artillery was scaring away the fish.


Is Myanmar really “slipping out of China’s column”?

Myanmar vowed on Saturday to address concerns raised by President Barack Obama, outlining far-reaching plans to make peace with ethnic rebels, gradually release all political prisoners and relax controls on freedom of expression.

But its government, fearing an Arab Spring-style revolution if it moves too quickly, stressed reforms must be gradual after nearly a half century of isolation and authoritarian rule that ended when the army handed power in March to a civilian parliament stacked with former generals.

Mr. Obama himself said only that the country, which has a border with China, was making “flickers of progress”. Again, someone forgot to tell the Chinese that they were supposed to be shocked:

Vice President Xi Jinping of China welcomed the leader of Myanmar’s military on Monday in a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and called for closer military ties between the countries, in what appeared to be a response to the visit by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Myanmar later this week. (Emphasis mine)

Mr. Xi, the heir apparent to President Hu Jintao, met Min Aung Hliang, the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s military, and said that China would “work with Myanmar to further bolster the comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation,” according to China’s official Xinhua news agency.

Others offered a better perspective on this bilateral relationship than Prof. Mead:

Myanmar’s past isolation meant it sought friends only where it could find them. It became heavily reliant on China for weapons, international diplomatic support, trade and investment. But the relationship with China has never sat well with Myanmar’s military rulers. While some exploited the situation for personal gain, others became very concerned about Beijing’s growing presence and commercial influence.

It is unlikely that Naypyidaw intends to unilaterally ally itself with one great power over another. During its decades-long period of isolation and international condemnation, it has become adept at playing bigger powers off against one another, and has a long-established tradition of nonalignment in its foreign relations. The power games being played between Washington and Beijing, and also with New Delhi, are certainly not lost on Myanmar’s leaders.

Days before Clinton’s visit, military head General Min Aung Hliang travelled to Beijing in what was interpreted as a move to assuage Chinese fears of growing relations with the US. Despite a rift over the recent cancellation of the important Chinese-backed Myitsone dam project, the general held discussions with Vice President Xi Jinping, slated to become China’s leader next year, and chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, General Chen Bingde. Both sides pledged continued military cooperation and signed a new defense cooperation agreement.

Because the sincerity of Thein Sein’s reforms are far from certain, Clinton’s visit and concessions represent a diplomatic gamble.

The Philippines

Manila is also supposed to be deepening military ties to the United States, though Prof. Mead offered no specifics. A search of recent newspaper articles turns up one from the New York Times dated 16 November 2011, just before the East Asia summit. The first sentence reads:

During a high-profile visit to the Philippines on Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stood on the deck of an American warship in Manila Bay and reaffirmed the strong military relationship between the United States and the Philippines.

That’s it.

Just as important, if not more so, were the last two sentences:

“The Philippines does not want to be the representative of the U.S. military in Southeast Asia,” (a local analyst) said. “I think the Philippine government wants to maintain its friendship with both these great powers and not become a ball in the middle being kicked by both sides.”


Prof. Mead refers to a “new trade group” that does not include China, by which he means the Trans-Pacific Partnership. What is new about the trade group is that the United States hijacked regional discussions among four smaller states to employ it as a double-edged sword. One side of the blade cuts against the Chinese, and the other stimulates the American economy while doing little for the other partners.

The American-decreed terms of the partnership make it unlikely China will be interested in participating. This letter to three U.S. Cabinet members signed by 257 academics offers one reason for that:

Many U.S. free trade agreements and bilateral investment treaties contain provisions that strictly limit the ability of our trading partners to deploy capital controls. The “capital transfers” provisions of such agreements require governments to permit all transfers relating to a covered investment to be made “freely and without delay into and out of its territory.” Under these agreements, private foreign investors have the power to effectively sue governments in international tribunals over alleged violations of these provisions.

And this from a site in New Zealand:

Another secret document from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations has been leaked, the first dealing with issues other than intellectual property and medicines.

This follows yesterday’s leak of documents showing the US is pushing for rules on healthcare products that would give its pharmaceutical giants new tools to attack national drug buying agencies like Pharmac

“We warned the government that obsessive secrecy surrounding the TPPA negotiations would spawn more leaks, and that’s what is happening,” said Professor Jane Kelsey, a critic of the proposed agreement.

The leaked regulatory coherence text sets out the agencies, mechanisms and processes that governments should use when deciding on domestic regulations. This has never been included in a free trade agreement before.

“It is totally inappropriate for a ‘trade’ agreement to dictate how governments should structure their domestic bureaucracy and procedures”, said Professor Kelsey.

The way the TPPA is shaping up, large, mainly foreign corporations and powerful lobby groups will have the right to exert undue influence over New Zealand’s (or any country’s) policy and regulatory decisions and demand minimalist regulation. There would be no equivalent rights to public interest groups that may have contrary views.”

Speaking of healthcare:

“The US proposals would allow drug companies to challenge every Pharmac decision as not appropriately recognising the ‘value’ of patents – a dangerous and undefined standard. Adopting this standard would open floodgates of litigation against Pharmac and will ultimately raise medicine prices and ration access.”

What the New Zealand critics are referring to has also been a point of contention among opposition politicians in Japan: the ISD clause, or Investor State Dispute (Settlement). That 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.

As you might expect, the Americans see it differently:

The trans-Pacific trade pact that the United States is negotiating with eight other nations is not directed against China, a top White House adviser says.

The Obama administration has made the Trans-Pacific Partnership a key plank of its enhanced engagement in Asia. But it does not include the region’s largest economy and rising power, China, which Washington has criticized for its currency policy and support of state-owned enterprises.

Does this mean the U.S. won’t export GM autos to East Asia?


In a commentary published Tuesday in the Indian daily, The Economic Times, Jagdish Bhagwati, a professor of economics and law at Columbia University in New York, criticized the U.S. trade policy, which he said aimed to marginalize an assertive China….

“A closer look reveals that China is not a part of this agenda. The TPP is also a political response to China’s new aggressiveness, built, therefore, in a spirit of confrontation and containment, not of cooperation.”

Froman recounted that Chinese officials at the November summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in Hawaii expressed concern that they had not been invited to join the pact.

“Our response is that TPP is not something you are invited to, it’s something you aspire to. If countries aspire to achieve these standards they’re welcome to (join) the TPP as well,” he said.

People understand that great powers behaving as neo-imperialists will try to stifle their adversaries. They understand that great powers will promote an international order tailored to their specifications with the primary benefits accruing to themselves.

What the Americans fail to understand, however, is that no one appreciates the arrogance of self-interest masquerading as the global gold standard of idealistic behavior.

Then there is the demand of one hegemon to another that the latter settle its claims in the South China Sea at a multinational venue, though the former makes no such demand of its client states. (e.g., the Japanese – South Korean dispute over Takeshima) But Prof. Mead does not stop there:

Rarely has a great power been so provoked and affronted. Rarely have so many red lines been crossed. Rarely has so much face been lost, so fast.

Rarely has a professor of foreign affairs indulged in such profligate exaggeration in three short sentences. The entire geopolitical and diplomatic history of nation-states is a cyclopedia of great power provocations, effronteries, and red line crossing. As for the idea that the Chinese lost face, it’s unfortunate that Westerners whose understanding of East Asian social concepts doesn’t extend beyond the words insist on parading a sophistication they don’t possess, but that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

Or are we to think that because “in your face” is a crowd-pleaser in the NBA, it will go down well when conducting foreign relations in this part of the world?

The timing turned out to be brilliant. China is in the midst of a leadership transition, when it is harder for important decisions to be taken quickly.

Harder for whom?

Prof. Mead is referring to Xi Jinping, who will become China’s general secretary next year and president in 2013. The former Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations does not mention this transition has been underway for almost three years. The Japanese knew he was to become the next Chinese leader when then DPJ Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro outraged many in late 2009 by breaching an informal protocol to finagle an audience for Mr. Xi with the Emperor. (He didn’t schedule a month in advance.) Mr. Xi has also toured Europe and Latin America.

He does not seem to be a man who is easily shocked. The Japanese consider him a hardliner who could shift from what they perceive as the softer line of the current leadership, though none of this has soaked into Western consciousness yet. Here’s a taste of Mr. Xi’s thinking:

“There are some bored foreigners, with full stomachs, who have nothing better to do than point fingers at us. First, China doesn’t export revolution; second, China doesn’t export hunger and poverty; third, China doesn’t come and cause you headaches. What more is there to be said?”

Transitions in China might be quite different than those Prof. Mead and other Americans are familiar with. Four years before the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama was a part-time Illinois state legislator and part-time adjunct law professor. He needed a crash course to serve as the chief executive of government (and it shows). Xi Jingling won’t.

Back to Prof. Mead:

The (Chinese) economy is looking shaky, with house prices falling across much of the country.

Unlike the robust American housing market:

Lender Processing Services reports that the percentage of mortgages in foreclosure is at its highest level ever. “Foreclosure inventories are on the rise,” LPS writes, “reaching an all-time high at the end of October of 4.29 percent of all active mortgages.”

Now for the truly appalling:

The diplomatic blitzkrieg moved so fast and on so many fronts, with the strokes falling so hard and in such rapid succession, that China was unable to develop an organized and coherent response. And because Wen Jiabao’s appearance at the East Asia Summit, planned long before China had any inkling of the firestorm about to be unleashed, could not be canceled or changed, premier Wen Jiabao was trapped: he had to respond in public to all this while China was off balance and before the consultation, reflection and discussion that might have created an effective response.

…The effect of this passive and low key response (the only thing really, he could have done) is to reinforce the sense in Asia that the US has reasserted its primacy in a convincing way. The US acted, received strikingly widespread support, and China backed down.

Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth:

China and Japan pledged Wednesday to boost political trust between the two countries during Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba’s visit to Beijing…

…China is ready to make joint efforts with Japan to further advance their strategic relationship of mutual benefit in a sustainable way, Yang told his Japanese counterpart, Gemba.

At Yang’s invitation, Gemba was in Beijing to pave way for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s planned visit to China in December. If his trip is made, Noda will be the first Japanese prime minister to visit China since the Democratic Party of Japan came to power in 2009.


The Chinese premier attended the 6th East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia on Saturday and put forward a five-point proposal for boosting the regional economy, such as carrying out and improving agreed free trade arrangements, advancing the building of new free trade areas and opening markets further.

Here’s a photo of the Chinese foreign minister backing down with the Japanese foreign minister a week later:

Finally, we come to the professor’s agenda:

That (i.e.; backing down) is in fact what happened, and it was as decisive a diplomatic victory as anyone is likely to see. Congratulations should go to President Obama and his national security team. The State Department, the Department of Defense and the White House have clearly been working effectively together on an intensive and complex strategy. They avoided leaks, they coordinated effectively with half a dozen countries, they deployed a range of instruments of power. In the field of foreign policy, this was a coming of age of the Obama administration and it was conceived and executed about as flawlessly as these things ever can be…(T)he effects of the President’s re-assertion of American primacy in the Pacific will reinforce the public perception that he has grown into the foreign policy side of his job. He looked very presidential in Asia; those things count.

Prof. Mead self-identifies as a Democrat and has stated that he voted for Mr. Obama in 2008.

You’ve heard of drive-by journalists, who make ex cathedra declarations on subjects they hadn’t heard of the week before? There are drive-by Thinktankers too:

But a successful opening is not the same thing as a final win. The opening American gambit in the new great game was brilliant, but China also gets a move. On the one hand, the sweep, the scope and the success of the American moves make it hard for China to respond in kind; on the other hand, the humiliation and frustration (and, in some quarters, the fear) both inside the government and in society at large over these setbacks will compel some kind of response.

China must now think carefully about its choices and to work to use all the factors of its power to inflict some kind of counterblow against the United States. Look for China to reach out much more intensively to Russia to find ways in which the two powers can frustrate the US and hand it some kind of public setback.

Two months before Prof. Mead drove by:

High-ranking military officials from China and Russia held talks here Friday, pledging to further step up bilateral military cooperation between the two countries.

During an official visit to Moscow, Guo Boxiong, Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, met with Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov on bilateral military relations.

Guo noted that this year marks the 10th anniversary of the signing of the China-Russia Treaty of Good-Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation, adding that the China-Russia comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership have maintained the momentum of a robust growth.

He stressed that Chinese President Hu Jintao’s successful visit to Russia in June and the consensus reached by both countries’ leaders during Hu’s visit have determined the future direction of the development of bilateral ties and laid solid political foundations for the further promotion of military relations between the two countries.

But he got this prediction right:

Certainly any Chinese arguments against massive military build ups will be difficult to win. The evident weakness of China’s position will make it impossible to resist calls for more military spending and an acceleration of the development of China’s maritime capacity.

Sure enough:

Chinese President Hu Jintao on Tuesday urged the navy to prepare for military combat, amid growing regional tensions over maritime disputes and a US campaign to assert itself as a Pacific power.

The navy should “accelerate its transformation and modernisation in a sturdy way, and make extended preparations for military combat in order to make greater contributions to safeguard national security,” he said.

In a translation of Hu’s comments, the official Xinhua news agency quoted the president as saying China’s navy should “make extended preparations for warfare.”

…Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao last month also warned against interference by “external forces” in regional territorial disputes including in the South China Sea, a strategic and resource-rich area where several nations have overlapping claims.

The Pentagon wasn’t surprised either:

“They have a right to develop military capabilities and to plan, just as we do,” said Pentagon spokesman George Little, but he added, “We have repeatedly called for transparency from the Chinese and that’s part of the relationship we’re continuing to build with the Chinese military.”

Transparency? When two card sharps play high-stakes poker, does one expect the other to show his hand?

Prof. Mead presses on:

Longer term, the conviction in the military and among hard liners in the civilian establishment that the US is China’s enemy and seeks to block China’s natural rise will not only become more entrenched and more powerful; it will have consequences…China’s military or factions within it could begin to take steps on critical issues that the political authorities could not reverse. Islands could be occupied, flags raised and shots fired.

Yet Prof. Mead lauds American efforts to publicly humiliate the Chinese as brilliant and a sign that the Obama Administration has come of age. Is he having second thoughts before the essay is finished?

An intense debate in China will now turn even more pointed. There will be some who counsel patience, saying that China cannot win an open contest with the US and that its only hope is to stick with the concept of “peaceful rise”: eschewing all conflict with the US and its neighbors, behaving as a “responsible stakeholder” in the US-built international system, and growing richer and more powerful until such a time as alternative strategies can be considered. That in my opinion is China’s wisest course.

That in my opinion is one of the most futile efforts at propaganda and wishful thinking ever delivered from a credentialed academic writing about serious international issues. China sees itself on the rise and the US on the wane, but its wisest course is to do as the Americans say in a US-built international hegemony with US rules that give the biggest advantages to its own companies?

What’s next? All your base are belong to us?

The Obama administration and its successors will now have to deal with a long term contest against the world’s most populous country and the world’s most rapidly developing economy. The Obama administration may not have fully counted the costs of the new Asian hard line…

True, in the midst of a brilliant diplomatic blitzkrieg announcing that you’ve come of age, it’s not hard to lose count along the way.

…for one thing, it is hard to see significant cuts coming in defense spending after we have challenged China to a contest over the future of Asia.

That prediction didn’t pan out. Note the concern from a client state:

A new, more austere U.S. defense strategy unveiled Thursday gives up on fighting major wars overseas and reduces active-duty troops from 570,000 to 470,000. The aim is to cut more than US$450 billion in defense spending over the next decade. The new strategy would make it virtually impossible for the U.S. military to fulfill a pledge to South Korea to deploy 690,000 troops on the Korean Peninsula in an emergency.

By this time, Prof. Mead is neck deep in The Big Muddy, but that doesn’t stop him:

Given where things now stand, follow through will be as important as the first steps; the US must now try to make it as easy as possible for China to accept a situation that, in the short to medium term at least, it cannot change.

What situation is it that China can’t change?

Beijing wants to open full negotiations on a free trade agreement with Japan and South Korea next year, Chinese state media said yesterday, amid growing rivalry with the United States.

The report in the Global Times daily follows efforts by US President Barack Obama to woo countries from across the Pacific Rim into a US-led free trade agreement, which China has so far not been invited to join…

…Yesterday’s report said China’s Premier Wen Jiabao had pledged to speed up work on the agreement with Tokyo and Seoul during a meeting on the sidelines of last week’s East Asia Summit on the Indonesian island of Bali.

And here we were told that Mr. Wen was stunned speechless in Bali.

“Wen proposed that joint studies by governments, industries and experts on the FTA from the three countries be completed by the end of this year and that formal negotiations on the trade pact begin next year,” it said.

South Korea, Japan and China said in January 2010 they would conduct a feasibility study within two years on creating a single free trade bloc grouping their three countries.

Rather than going for the blitzkrieg — which didn’t work so well in the end for Germany — the Chinese are taking the long view and combining both hard and soft approaches. For example, at almost the same time Mr. Wen was making this proposal, six Chinese naval vessels made a show of sailing between the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Miyakojima.

They’re taking another approach with the United States:

When we last checked in on the low-level trade war between China and the US, which was sparked by President Obama’s 35% tariff on Chinese tires, the Chinese government had ruled that American large cars and SUVs were being “dumped” on the Chinese market, but wasn’t doing anything about it. Now, Reuters reports that China is doing something about it, namely saying that it plans to impose tariffs of up to 22% on imports of American-built large cars and SUVs. And the “up to” is key: GM and Chrysler are being hit hardest (unsurprisingly), while American-made BMW, Mercedes and Acuras are receiving considerably lower tariffs.

In fact, however, what Prof. Mead presents as a new strategy by an administration coming of age is not new at all, but rather a limp extension of a strategy already in place. Here are excerpts from an article in Salon last year:

This summer, despite America’s continuing financial crisis, the Pentagon is effectively considering trading two military quagmires for the possibility of a third. Reducing its commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan as it refocuses on Asia, Washington is not so much withdrawing forces from the Persian Gulf as it is redeploying them for a prospective war with its largest creditor, China.

According to the defense trade press, Pentagon officials are seeking ways to adapt a concept known as AirSea Battle specifically for China, debunking rote claims from Washington that it has no plans to thwart its emerging Asian rival. A recent article in Inside the Pentagon reported that a small group of U.S. Navy officers known as the China Integration Team “is hard at work applying the lessons of [AirSea Battle] to a potential conflict with China.”

AirSea Battle, developed in the early 1990s and most recently codified in a 2009 Navy-Air Force classified memo, is a vehicle for conforming U.S. military power to address asymmetrical threats in the Western Pacific and the Persian Gulf — code for China and Iran….It complements the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance, a government white paper that precluded the rise of any “peer competitor” that might challenge U.S. dominance worldwide. The Planning Guidance is the Pentagon’s writ for control of what defense planners call “the global commons,” a euphemism for the seaways, land bridges and air corridors that are the arteries of international commerce. For a foreign power to challenge this American dominion is to effectively declare war on the United States, and that is exactly what China appears to be doing in the South China Sea, a resource-rich and highly contested waterway in Southeast Asia.


A U.S. mobilization in Asia is well underway, in faith with a spring 2001 Pentagon study called “Asia 2025,” which identified China as a “persistent competitor of the United States,” bent on “foreign military adventurism.” Three years later, the U.S. government went public with a plan that called for a new chain of bases in Central Asia and the Middle East, in part to box in the People’s Republic…

…Unlike America’s allies in Asia and Europe, however, China is not about to outsource its national security obligations to a foreign power, particularly when it comes to the South China Sea. There more than ever, and not without reason, Beijing identifies the U.S. not as a strategic partner but as an outright threat. In 2007, when China destroyed one of its weather satellites with a ballistic missile, it served as a warning to Washington after the ramming six years earlier of a U.S. spy plane by a Chinese fighter jet off the coast of Hainan Island…

…In March 2010, when a Chinese official was quoted by Japanese media as identifying the region as a “core interest” of Chinese sovereignty, the White House retaliated by declaring that freedom of maritime navigation is a U.S. “national interest.” As it turns out, according to the China scholars Nong Hong and Wenran Jiang, writing in the July 1 edition of the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation’s China bulletin, the core interest to which the official referred was “the peaceful resolution” of the disputes in question.

The authors of this article in McClatchy agree:

The Obama administration pledge to shift American military strategy toward Asia overlooks a key fact: The United States never really dropped its focus on the region.

The authors are not blinded by the strategy’s brilliance, however:

But the current budget proposal that might flow from that pledge contains a potentially crippling contradiction: The plan might cut the big-ticket items the United States needs to increase its presence in Asia and counter China’s growing military capability.
The result, some analysts fear, is a muddled approach that could end up with a tough-talking United States saying it will do more in Asia but not committing the resources needed. That, they say, could leave America and its allies in the region exposed if China’s military moves aggressively in the future.

And that brings us to the most troubling aspect of this business that Prof. Mead calls a “game”:

U.S. alliances in the region have caused some in China, particularly in military circles, to charge that the United States is working to contain China’s rise. The phrase harkens back to the Cold War and the globe-as-chessboard strategy of “containment” toward the Soviet Union.

I submit that it harkens back to an even earlier era and a geopolitical game that required the expenditure of more blood than money to win: The American attitude and behavior toward Japan before Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt’s predecessor Herbert Hoover kept a contemporary account of what he viewed as American foreign policy blunders and FDR’s “lost statesmanship”, but he never published it. Edited by historian George Nash, it was finally released last year under the title, Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath. It is 920 pages long and meticulously documented. Here’s a description of part of the contents:

Consider Japan’s situation in the summer of 1941. Bogged down in a four year war in China she could neither win nor end, having moved into French Indochina, Japan saw herself as near the end of her tether.

Inside the government was a powerful faction led by Prime Minister Prince Fumimaro Konoye that desperately did not want a war with the United States.

The “pro-Anglo-Saxon” camp included the navy, whose officers had fought alongside the U.S. and Royal navies in World War I, while the war party was centered on the army, Gen. Hideki Tojo and Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka, a bitter anti-American.

On July 18, 1941, Konoye ousted Matsuoka, replacing him with the “pro-Anglo-Saxon” Adm. Teijiro Toyoda.

The U.S. response: On July 25, we froze all Japanese assets in the United States, ending all exports and imports, and denying Japan the oil upon which the nation and empire depended.

Stunned, Konoye still pursued his peace policy by winning secret support from the navy and army to meet FDR on the U.S. side of the Pacific to hear and respond to U.S. demands.

U.S. Ambassador Joseph Grew implored Washington not to ignore Konoye’s offer, that the prince had convinced him an agreement could be reached on Japanese withdrawal from Indochina and South and Central China. Out of fear of Mao’s armies and Stalin’s Russia, Tokyo wanted to hold a buffer in North China.

On Aug. 28, Japan’s ambassador in Washington presented FDR a personal letter from Konoye imploring him to meet.

Tokyo begged us to keep Konoye’s offer secret, as the revelation of a Japanese prime minister’s offering to cross the Pacific to talk to an American president could imperil his government.

On Sept. 3, the Konoye letter was leaked to the Herald-Tribune.

On Sept. 6, Konoye met again at a three-hour dinner with Grew to tell him Japan now agreed with the four principles the Americans were demanding as the basis for peace. No response.

On Sept. 29, Grew sent what Hoover describes as a “prayer” to the president not to let this chance for peace pass by.

On Sept. 30, Grew wrote Washington, “Konoye’s warship is ready waiting to take him to Honolulu, Alaska or anyplace designated by the president.”

No response. On Oct. 16, Konoye’s cabinet fell.

In November, the U.S. intercepted two new offers from Tokyo: a Plan A for an end to the China war and occupation of Indochina and, if that were rejected, a Plan B, a modus vivendi where neither side would make any new move. When presented, these, too, were rejected out of hand.

At a Nov. 25 meeting of FDR’s war council, Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s notes speak of the prevailing consensus: “The question was how we should maneuver them (the Japanese) into … firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.”

“We can wipe the Japanese off the map in three months,” wrote Navy Secretary Frank Knox.

As Grew had predicted, Japan, a “hara-kiri nation,” proved more likely to fling herself into national suicide for honor than to allow herself to be humiliated.

That description was written by Patrick Buchanan, a notorious isolationist whose views I seldom agree with. I quote this excerpt because his review contains the most details pertinent to the issue available, and in any event, the sentiments are Hoover’s. Further, this is not to defend Japanese behavior before 1945 or Chinese behavior now. It is rather a historical comparison that must be made in view of American actions and the Veg-O-Matic salesmanship with which they are being plugged.

Prof. Mead continued his discussion in an article published in The Wall Street Journal (that requires a subscription). It plays the same notes, but in a different key. The first sentence reads:

The United States has quietly established a bipartisan Asia policy that may well be as influential on that continent as the Marshall Plan and NATO were in Europe.

If we examine the record and bet on form, the odds for this initiative (and other initiatives extrapolated into the future) are likely to favor a result more similar to the events of December 1941 than to a 21st century Asian version of the Marshall Plan and NATO (used in this case as triumphalist symbols of the Cold War victory). That would be a bet we should all hope to lose. It behooves us, therefore, to ignore the racetrack touts regardless of their academic credentials.

What are the Japanese to do if they are not to become a ball in the middle being kicked by both sides, as the Filipino analyst warned? Japan has the wherewithal to choose a course that is perhaps not available to The Philippines, but it is unlikely to do so until the status quo becomes untenable. That might happen sooner than we think.

But more on that in the next post.


* From Global

America has nearly twice as many aircraft carriers – 20 – as the rest of humanity combined – 12 – and America’s aircraft carriers are substantially larger than almost all the other’s aircraft carriers. The Navy likes to call the big Nimitz class carriers “4.5 acres of sovereign and mobile American territory” — and all twenty American carriers of all classes add up to nearly 70 acres of deck space. Deckspace is probably a good measure of combat power. The rest of the world’s carriers have about 15 acres of deck space, one fifth that of America’s.

At least ten of the American carriers are more than 100,000 tons, and the Enterprise is more than 90,000. The largest “for the rest of humanity” are the new Chinese carrier at more than 60,000 tons and the Russian carrier at more than 50,000. None of the others are even close.

That’s one reason the Chinese are focusing on submarines.

* Yan Xuetong, a professor of political science and dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University, wrote in the New York Times:

I am a political realist. Western analysts have labeled my political views “hawkish,” and the truth is that I have never overvalued the importance of morality in international relations. But realism does not mean that politicians should be concerned only with military and economic might. In fact, morality can play a key role in shaping international competition between political powers — and separating the winners from the losers.

I came to this conclusion from studying ancient Chinese political theorists like Guanzi, Confucius, Xunzi and Mencius. They were writing in the pre-Qin period, before China was unified as an empire more than 2,000 years ago — a world in which small countries were competing ruthlessly for territorial advantage.

Prof. Yan was writing in Chinese for a Chinese audience that desperately needs to read it. It should also be required reading for the officials in Washington, but the Times’ translation will be wasted on them. They’re already convinced of their morality.

* The journos are joining the chorus, with their usual combination of ham-handedness and superficiality. Try the first paragraph of this piece by William Pesek in the Sydney Morning Herald and see if you can bother yourself to finish.

* Xi Jingling’s reference to people with “full stomachs” was a clever barb that might have gone over the heads of the porkers he was referring to.

Here’s Peter “I’m a Different Species” Garrett and his band Midnight Oil of Australia performing live a song called US Forces. The lyrics start, “U.S Forces give the nod / It’s a setback for your country,” before falling down the elevator shaft of unintelligibility.

And here’s the lede of an article in The Telegraph of Australia following a speech by Barack Obama in that country last November as part of the Bali blitzkreig:

Labor minister Peter Garrett personally told Barack Obama his speech on an expanded US military presence was “inspiring” – almost three decades after he attacked the same armed forces in song.

Yeah, it’s the same Peter Garrett. Neo-socialists quite like neo-imperialism as long as it comes from another neo-socialist.

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Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 10, 2012

ONE segment on a Japanese television program tonight featured an experiment in kissing with participants from five different countries.

The program hired an attractive young woman in each of those countries, had each of them stand for an hour outdoors in an urban district with a lot of pedestrian traffic holding a sign that read, “Kiss me please”, and filmed the events that transpired. Of course they counted the number of kissers, but only kisses on the cheek were allowed. All of the models were very kissable. Women were free to kiss the model too. The results:

Italy: 24
United States: 11
Japan: 7
The Philippines: 4
South Korea: 0

That Italy was the champion by such a large margin isn’t surprising at all. Nor was it surprising that a large share of those 24 were old men who kissed quite stylishly.

Two of the seven Japanese kissers were young women who were photographed in the act by their women friends with cellphone cameras. One said she wanted to upload the photo on Twitter. Two college-aged men walked by the model, but only one kissed her. The other said he would be uncomfortable with people watching.

The South Korean woman attracted a crowd, but no kissers at all during the hour. One middle-aged woman briefly scolded her. A group of older men stood back and watched, but none could bring themselves to approach. Interviewed later, one of the men said he wanted to kiss her, but couldn’t because he was with his wife. The Japanese on the program thought the influence of Confucian culture might have been responsible for the Korean goose egg.

Some foreign residents and visitors say that Japanese television isn’t interesting.

Oh? Compared to what?

Think I better dance now!

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Ichigen koji (89)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 10, 2012

– A person who has something to say about everything

After covering the nationwide local elections (last winter) and the Osaka double elections, I have come to believe that (new Osaka Mayor) Hashimoto’s momentum is real and not transitory. In fact, all the major parties and politicians are making overtures to him to make him an ally and not an enemy.

One aspect of Japanese elections for more than 20 years has been the movement on the axis of Ozawa Ichiro — i.e., whether one is pro-Ozawa or anti-Ozawa. I suspect the next election, however, will move on the axis of Mr. Hashimoto.

Even if he were not to run for the lower house and become a member of the Diet, he can cross swords with the leaders of the existing parties from his position as a local government chief executive and influence national politics. That would mean he would replace Mr. Ozawa as the political kingmaker. In that sense, the aftershocks of the revolution of his Osaka Restoration Association (One Osaka) are still continuing.

After he sets a course as mayor for the creation of an Osaka Metro District, he could run in the election after the next one. If he wins, that could lead to the creation of a Hashimoto government. The progress of Mr. Hashimoto’s strategy of using the existing parties to have an impact on national governance is not possible to predict, however.

– Hakuoh University Prof. Fukuoka Masayuki. He thinks an alliance between Mayor Hashimoto’s party, Your Party, and the LDP is a possibility.

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It’s dango time

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 10, 2012

ONE post yesterday presented journalist Suda Shin’ichiro passing along information that the pro-tax increase faction in the ruling Democratic Party has become taken with the idea of putting off a lower house election over the tax issue — which they’d lose — by raising the problem of the imbalance of voter weighting in individual election districts. A few days before that, we saw that the DPJ has been considering for nearly a year the creation of a grand coalition government following a lower house election unlikely to result in a clear majority for either of the two major parties. Even though many of them would die a gruesome political death, some would still keep the perks of power.

Here it comes!

Former Chief Cabinet Secretary and current backstage DPJ bigwig Sengoku Yoshito appeared on Fuji TV on the morning of the 8th. He suggested a bill to reduce the number of lower house members would be submitted before the legislation for raising the consumption tax.

We have to do “first things first”, and I think that bill (lower house reduction) will come before the other.


The biggest problem is that politics can’t get anything done. Doesn’t that need to be handled with a grand coalition?

Your Party head Watanabe Yoshimi sees what’s going on and doesn’t like it. Asked about Prime Minister Noda’s call to the opposition parties to discuss legislation, he said:

If you want to raise taxes, submit a bill quickly and let’s deal with it in the Diet. We won’t respond to talks for bid-rigging schemes (dango) beforehand.

(Dango is the Japanese term referring to construction companies holding discussions to determine in advance who gets what public works project in advance for how much.)

Mr. Watanabe knows that the Democratic Party, Liberal Democratic Party, and New Komeito will try to work out an arrangement that keeps them at the top of the power structure and protect themselves from the reform parties. They’re particularly worried about the new local parties pushing for major reforms that have been winning sub-national elections handily against the Old Guard.

He also knows that the LDP mudboaters want to restore the old multiple-seat districts that facilitated their political dominance in the second half of the last century, and that New Komeito will fight any reduction of proportional representation seats. That is an existential issue for them.

The DPJ announced it would build a new Japan when it took power in the fall of 2009. Their version of a “new Japan” turns out to be the spitting image of the old Japan with a bigger table to make room for their seats at the banquet of power.

It’s dango time!

If an Argentinian singer, American ukelelean, and Bolivian sanshin player, all of Japanese heritage, can peform La Bomba in a university lounge in Okinawa, those three parties can surely cut a deal they’ll be happy with.

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Rankings first to worst

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 9, 2012

THE results of two recent public opinion polls tell us more about the Japanese perceptions of their political leaders than anything you’ll read in the English-language media.

The first is from Nikoniko News, which sponsored an online poll for two weeks in October asking people to rank their selections for the best prime ministers since Mori Yoshiro in 2000. They broke down the responses by sex, which reveals some eyebrow-raising differences. The caveats: It was an Internet questionnaire survey and it had a small sample size, as the baseball statheads like to say.

* Name your favorite prime ministers since 2000. Multiple answers are accepted.


1. Koizumi Jun’ichiro: 55.3%
2. There weren’t any good prime ministers: 24.9%
3. Aso Taro: 15.7%
4. Abe Shinzo: 5.4%
5. Fukuda Yasuo: 2.2%

They liked Mr. Koizumi when he took over, they liked him throughout his term, and they’d vote for him tomorrow. Funny how some people like to pretend he never existed.

The respondents who chose him said they liked his guts, charisma, ability to act, and leadership.

Those men who didn’t like anybody typically said that Diet members act only to look after themselves.

The totals for Mr. Aso are higher than one might expect. His supporters liked him because he “worked for Japan”.

One respondent said about Mr. Abe: I can’t see any problems with him. He was just crushed by the media.

The guys don’t seem to care much for the three Democratic Party prime ministers, do they?


1. Koizumi: 51.8%
2. Nobody: 36.4%
3. Aso: 6.0%
4. Noda Yoshihiko: 2.9%
5. Kan Naoto: 2.5%

That Kan Naoto slipped in, albeit with just 2.5%, is surprising, if only because most media reports said he was particularly unpopular among women. Their comments:

Koizumi: Leadership / Brought the abductees back home / Stayed true to his beliefs despite what others said or thought

None: They’re all half-baked / It’s hard to tell with the media criticism / If Japan had a good prime minister, we wouldn’t have all this debt. (Can’t fault that one)

Aso: Sound foreign policy / Did a good job despite media bashing

Noda: Sincere / Tranquil

Kan: Didn’t run away from the Tohoku disaster / Didn’t give up in the face of criticism

Worthy of note: Most of the commentariat criticized Mr. Kan for running away from taking responsibility for any of the serious issues. (One of his nicknames was Nige-Kan; nige(ru) means to flee or run away.) Yet the women who liked him thought he was a stout-hearted man.

Meanwhile, the Sankei Shimbun announced on 1 January the results of a poll on leadership conducted in cooperation with Macromill, an online market research company. Here are the questions:

* Regardless of the time period in which they were active, name one person you would not want to have as a leader, and your reasons.

1. Hatoyama Yukio
2. Kan Naoto
3. Ozawa Ichiro

It’s a hat trick for the DPJ!

4. Watanabe Tsuneo, chairman of the company that publishes the Yomiuri Shimbun. Guess which newspaper is unlikely to run these results.
5. Noda Yoshihiko

* Of Japan’s 33 postwar prime ministers, select the person you thought was the worst leader.

1. Hatoyama
2. Kan
3. Uno Sosuke (Prime minister for three months in 1989, was in charge when the first consumption tax was instituted, was outed by a mistress (expensive nightclub hostess mistakenly identified as a geisha) who said he treated her rough and didn’t give her enough money.

The reasons:

Hatoyama: Wishy-washy / Ignorant waffler / How could anyone get any work done under a leader like that? / Changed his mind day to day (literally: Spoke, slept, woke up, said something different) / Spaceman / Never could understand what he was talking about / Weird / Casual liar

Kan: An unexpectedly ridiculous politician / Dreck / Thought only of himself / Untrustworthy / Never seen such an idiot / First time I’ve ever seen anyone so half-assed (ii kagen na yatsu) / Unaware of his own (lack of) ability / Slapdash from first to last

Ozawa: Out only for himself / Dishonest / Unmanly (N.B.: That never occurred to me before, but they have a point.) / Dirty / Sloughs his crimes off on his underlings / Shady

Apart from Kan Naoto’s name popping up in the Niconico women’s poll and the relatively good showing of Aso Taro, little of this is surprising, and most of the attributes of the prime ministers were already apparent before they took office.

Maybe people just enjoy fooling themselves.

All they brought was love in their khaki suits and things, but it was enough to win the top ranking in the UK.

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White collar hit men

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 9, 2012

ONE reason people overseas fail to see the reasons for the dysfunction of Japan’s political system at the national level is the difficulty in comprehending the strength and influence of the bureaucracy, which considers itself to be permanent ruling class. Here are two views on one aspect of that problem. The first is by journalist Suda Shin’ichiro, which appeared in the 18 January edition of the biweekly Sapio.

It’s well known that the Finance Ministry officials responsible for dealing with the mass media are sent to deliver individual briefings (“lectures”) to opinion leaders with a certain amount of influence in forming public opinion, such as television commentators. The objective of these briefings is to convince them of the necessity for raising the consumption tax.

This has become more evident of late. As a producer with an important Tokyo-based network says:

They haven’t tired of developing a pro-tax increase group, and they’ve begun to pressure television producers to prevent them from using commentators who are critical of tax increases.

To be specific, the name at the head of the list they’re told not to use is Koga Shigeaki, former Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry official. The producer continues:

Mr. Koga is their sworn enemy. Politicians with the support of the Finance Ministry are making it a condition for their television appearances that Mr. Koga not be invited.

The Finance Ministry seems to be in something of a rush. To pacify the Democratic Party Diet members, they’ve fastened on the idea of vote differentials. Explains one mid-level DPJ MP:

Prime Minister Noda said he will take the issue of the tax increase to the public after the legislation passes, but before it goes into effect. Some party members who favor tax increases have begun to argue it’s not possible to dissolve the Diet and hold a general election unless the unconstitutional condition (differences in voter weight in election districts across the country), frequently cited by the Supreme Court, is resolved.

They’re calculating that public opinion will simmer down and they won’t be at such a disadvantage if they can use this situation to put off the election as long as possible. The Finance Ministry is likely encouraging them in this belief.

It doesn’t seem possible that buying time will get the electorate to swallow the tax increase and settle down. But even if the DPJ, which has fallen for the con, loses the next election, it would present no problem at all for the ministry. The Liberal Democratic Party is also calling for a 10% tax increase.

(End translation)

Furthering the discussion on his blog is Your Party Secretary-General, Eda Kenji:

I’ve raised in the Diet the question of what Katayama Yoshihiro, former Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications, calls the Finance Ministry’s “mind control”. Their assault in waves is something out of the ordinary. I got a real sense for the terror of it when I was involved with Finance Ministry reform during the Hashimoto administration.

Even then there was talk about Finance Ministry efforts to prevent television appearances by people such as Koga Shigeaki. But operations on that level are not so surprising. That’s child’s play for the Finance Ministry bureaucrats.

It’s often remarked that the trio of Finance Minister Azumi, Vice-Minister Katsu, and Deputy Vice-Minister Kagawa are on a “tax increase pilgrimage”. They’re making their explanatory pilgrimages to opinion leaders in many circles, including key people in the financial industry, academia, and mass media, in addition to politicians in the ruling and opposition parties. They pay particular attention to people asked to give commentary on television or in newspapers.

In a sense, it’s natural for the Finance Ministry to promote tax increases. One would have to question the insight of the so-called analysts who would fall for that sort of persuasion. They haven’t approached me, a dyed-in-the-wool member of the anti-tax increase faction, at all.

The problem is that their efforts go beyond that level. In my case, the Finance Ministry sent people out on pilgrimages to attack and slander me. Those bureaucrats even had a manual. Their stories of course filtered into the mass media, which thrives on such rumors.

If a person is going to assertively promote reform against the wishes of the Finance Ministry, they must be prepared for those attacks and stay clean.

(End translation)

After all that, it’s time for a palate cleanser and a burst of sunshine on a winter’s day from the original Nenez.

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What goes around

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 8, 2012

Bullets are flying from all directions. Recently they’ve been coming from behind, from my allies.
– Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko

THE Japanese prime minister announces that he wants Japan to participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement to “open the country”. A large group in his party immediately declares their opposition. The prime minister also insists on a consumption tax increase as part of a “fiscal reform” program to tie consumption tax receipts to social welfare expenses. A larger segment of his party declares their opposition, remembering how the mere mention of discussing a consumption tax increase turned a potential upper house election victory to defeat in 2010. The legit opposition parties refuse to discuss the bills for the upcoming fiscal year budget if they are premised on a consumption tax increase. The poll numbers for the unpopular prime minister are dropping, and the opposition sees a chance to force an election.

The prime minister has half a mind to do just that, and hints he’ll dissolve the Diet. He knows an election will inflict one of the largest electoral slaughters in Japanese history on his party, but a commanding officer has to ignore his emotions to send his troops into battle. His strategy is based on the belief that the Liberal Democratic Party, the primary opposition, won’t win enough seats to form a government without his party’s help. Even if his party loses and he is ousted as prime minister, he will die a happy man because history will remember him as the man who did what had to be done.

No, that’s not a rehash of the news from the past two weeks, but the summary of the lead article that appeared in the 10 February 2011 edition of the weekly Shukan Bunshun. The prime minister was not Noda Yoshihiko, but Kan Naoto.

Yet today circumstances are much the same; only the date is different. Last year, New Komeito head Yamaguchi Natsuo’s opposition to budget negotiations was the factor pushing Mr. Kan into thoughts of an election. He had hoped to convert New Komeito into an ally, if not coalition partner. Mr. Yamaguchi is said to be sympathetic to the DPJ, but the women’s group in the party, a critical element of their election campaigns, actively disliked Kan Naoto.

Prime Minister Kan was also obsessed with his place in history. (He wanted a large bust of himself placed in the prime ministerial pantheon, but all anyone has to do to see one of the largest busts in Japanese history is to look at his photograph. Funny how it works out that way.) Mr. Noda, in contrast, does not seem to share that obsession. Other than that, everyone’s back where they were last winter, just before the Tohoku earthquake.

If our political leaders were accountable the way business leaders are for keeping the books straight, they would all be in jail.
– Phillip K. Howard

When last we saw Noda Yoshihiko, he was promoting Japanese participation in the TPP talks and the doubling — at a minimum — of the consumption tax rate. A large group in his party immediately declared their opposition to both ideas, many of them reprising last winter’s discontent. Former party president and secretary-general Ozawa Ichiro is the most closely watched of those opponents. Though Mr. Ozawa has lost some of his political heft, shown by his failure to unseat Kan Naoto in a party election and in a no-confidence motion in the lower house, he retains the loyalty of many party members.

Late last month, Mr. Ozawa said he opposed the tax increase. The party, he maintained, should first emphasize the reduction of unnecessary expenses and government reform.

Former Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito, and now one of the party leaders, said, Bah, Humbug! on national TV:

No matter how many reforms we carry out now, we’d still get only about two or three trillion yen.

That’s one of the leaders of a party that two years ago claimed during their successful election campaign they could conjure up JPY 16.8 trillion through reform and budget revisions alone. Mr. Sengoku used on Mr. Ozawa the charge that others used on the DPJ: all that hooey was just political pie in the sky fed to the voters:

It’s (his) experience that simplification and sloganeering wins elections.

During the same broadcast, he also suggested the country would fall apart in five years unless the consumption tax was raised to 15%. Such are the threats of those for whom a reduction in the size of government would be a denial of their life’s work.

For now, the Noda government chose the moderate, prudent, let’s-not-scare-anybody approach by adopting a plan to increase the consumption tax to 10% in 2014, while promising to attach a clause to the tax bills stating that the government is preparing for “the next reform”. Translation: We’re planning to raise the tax still further to 15% or 20%. For some reason, the media falls for the Newspeak that higher taxes = “reforms”.

They’re not likely to stop there, either. Takenaka Heizo, former Prime Minister Koizumi’s privatization guru and man of many Cabinet portfolios, thinks they’ll have to up the bidding to 25% or higher.

And not a bit of this will do any good. From university professor/author/blogger Ikeda Nobuo:

The government has finally settled on a draft of legislation to combine the tax systems and social security, and increase the consumption tax to 10% by October 2015. There was strong opposition within the party, and the plan was finally approved after a lot of slapstick, including a kerfuffle about members bolting the party. Can this result in the reconstruction of the nation’s finances?

The answer is no. The reform to unify taxes and social security is expected to increase income by 13.5 trillion yen, while simultaneously increasing social security expenditures by 15 trillion yen. Thus the budget deficit will only increase. Taking so much trouble to create this reform that isn’t a reform means it is just a matter of time before the financial debacle occurs.

Speaking of slapstick, the Finance Ministry floated a plan on the 26th last month to return a portion of the consumption tax increase on food to those who make JPY 5.5 million or less a year. They project a revenue increase of JPY 13.5 trillion from the tax increase, less JPY one trillion for the refunds.

Now for the punch lines: The ministry made no distinctions for a person’s marital status or number of children, which means 60% of the nation’s households qualify for rebates. After realizing they resembled the kid in the joke who smacks the ice cream cone into his forehead, they announced they were rethinking the problem to lower the income level of those eligible and insert family size into the equation.

They still refused to consider exemptions in the tax increase for food items of the type applied in other countries. Nope, that just won’t do. The people have to understand they’re entitled to receiving payments of other people’s money from the government. How else can they make the country safe for social democracy?

Government spending does not ‘spur growth’. If it did, Japan would have been the world’s growth engine for the past two decades.
– Peter Tenebrarum

Mr. Noda’s Cabinet has also finalized a budget for 2012 that increases the national debt, though it supposedly reduced outlays by JPY two trillion from the previous year. This was achieved by the magical political technique of book cooking and the idea that saying it makes it so. For the third straight year, the government will issue more debt than it will recoup in tax revenues. The upcoming year’s spending for rebuilding the Tohoku region (JPY 3.7 trillion) is tucked away in a different account over there somewhere. In other words, they’re saying it doesn’t really count because they put it in a different pile.

The government will also make another pretend pile and offset half of next year’s pension benefit expenditures by issuing JPY 2.6 trillion in so-called special bonds that aren’t going to be counted as expenditures. They’re going to wait until the consumption tax increase brings in more money before they start pretending to count it. This invisible shell game to bring in a budget lower than the previous year will fool those who limit their intake of information on current events to reading the Headline News. Kiuchi Takahide, chief economist at Nomura Securities, can see the pea under the shell:

The government is trying to maintain surface appearances by playing with the numbers…This budget clearly shows Japan’s fiscal situation is worsening.

More comical than the attempt to hide fiscal baldness with a comb-over was this comment from The Japan Times:

This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, a fiscal hawk and former finance minister, said earlier this month that it was imperative to get the country’s public finances back on track.

That’s some more of what Prof. Ikeda termed slapstick. Most Japanese “finance ministers” know nothing about financial affairs; their job is to be the media spokesmen for the Finance Ministry. In addition to Mr. Noda in the DPJ governments, that includes ex-political agitator Kan Naoto and ex-newscaster Azumi Jun.

Whenever any media source uncritcally parrots the the ministry line that these people are “fiscal hawks”, it is a signal for the reader to find new information sources.

That phrase was never part of the public discourse until it became necessary to convince the gullible that a left-of-center party really and Honest to God truly was serious about reducing government expenditures. The truly serious, however, did the math. The average annual government expenditures from 2001 to 2008 under the Koizumi, Abe, and Fukuda (LDP) administrations were JPY 83.6 trillion. The budget deficits fell. So did the bond issues, for all but the Fukuda administration. The similar figures from 2010 to 2012 for the Hatoyama, Kan, and Noda (DPJ) administrations was/will be JPY 94.3 trillion. The budget deficits rose. So did the bond issues.

(That omits the outlier, Aso Taro (LDP) for the FY 2009 budget, whose government boosted government outlays in the name of stimulus when the United States and other countries were doing the same.)

This tax and social security “reform” misses the point, as securities analyst Kondo Shunsuke points out:

The government plan positions the social security system as “the shared asset of the people”. They say that a consumption tax increase will be necessary to offset the continuing rise in expenditures. They say they have hammered out a policy to secure a stable revenue source for the social security system and achieve fiscal soundness at the same time. The plan also responds to changes in society, such as the globalization of the economy and the widening income gaps.

The view that the social security system is “the shared asset of society” is only one aspect of the thing. The problem with the social security system begins with the aspect that it is a liability of the state. This perspective is essential. As long as the public is brainwashed that the problem of the social security system is a problem of “the shared asset of society”, the problem that it is a liability of the state will continue to be hidden, and there should be no hope a real discussion will be conducted for the benefit of the nation and the people.

The sooner we recognize the 20th century entitlement state is over, the sooner we can ring in something new. The longer we delay ringing out the old, the worse it will be.
– Mark Steyn

In addition to the consumption tax, which is inherently flat and therefore considered “regressive” in some quarters, the DPJ plans on doing what governments of it type always do. They will take proportionally more money from the people who have proportionally more of it. Starting next fiscal year, they will reduce income tax deductions for those making more than JPY 15 million in salary, raising the income tax on those making JPY 50 million from 40% to 45%, and boosting the maximum inheritance tax rate from 50% to 55%. How effective that last measure will be after they get done cutting the gift tax to children and grandchildren — another DPJ plan — is not apparent.

Yet another bright idea is raising the tax on the new ersatz beers to the same level as regular beer. This will be successful — in killing off the market, because the only reason those beers were created was to beat the higher tax rates on real beer.

What can be said about a government that thinks the solution to the governmental failure to fulfill its fiduciary responsibilities is to confiscate 45% of anyone’s income, 55% (or even 50%) of anyone’s assets on death, and eliminating profitable business sectors? Here’s one thing that can be said: Those are not ideas from a government interested in the well-being of its citizens or the economic growth of the nation as a whole.

The real opposition?

Some people realize there are better ways to address the problem. As usual in the post-Koizumi era, the ideas are coming from sub-national governments, where voters have better luck installing politicians willing to walk the walk. Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru, elected at the end of November, is showing signs that he might be a real fiscal raptor rather than a media throwaway line. He’s already announced that he will scrutinize municipal subsidies with the intent of eliminating as many of them as he can. These outlays total JPY 32.124 billion, and it’s not entirely clear yet who gets what. What is known is that JPY 110 million goes to the Osaka Philharmonic Association, which operates the local symphony, and JPY 139 million is handed out to the group that operates the Kids Plaza Osaka museum, which seems to be a glorified playground. Says Mr. Hashimoto:

I don’t understand the meaning of a lot of these subsidies.

Oh, it’s not that hard to understand. What politicians can resist playing Sugar Daddy Warbucks, or the temptation to spend public funds as a way to justify their jobs?

Japan’s second- and third-largest cities (Osaka and Nagoya) are now being run by mayors with an approach diametrically opposite to that of the national parties. They claim to be interested in reducing the size of government. (Nagoya’s Mayor Kawamura Takashi just announced plans to introduce a bill to cut municipal taxes by 10%.) Both trounced their opponents last year, indicating where popular sentiment lies.

A few at the national level are finally seeing the light. Ten DPJ Diet members recently quit the party, and nine of them cited the Noda government’s tax increases as their reason. They’ve formed a new party called Kizuna. The name means “ties”, as in ties of friendship or blood, and it became the buzzword for 2010 in the aftermath of the Tohoku disaster. (Some politicians criticized the name selection as a cheap ploy, but what would politics be without cheap ploys?)

Their slogan is “autonomy and self-reliance”, a capital idea if they’re interested in seeing it through to the end. In addition to opposing the tax increases, they’re also part of the anti-TPP crowd.

How interested they are in real autonomy and self-reliance remains to be seen. Some view them merely as a receptacle for Ozawa-Hatoyama allies. They’re also positioning themselves to stay viable for a lower house election widely expected this year.

Snap goes the Diet

Prime Minister Noda said that if his tax increase and budget-related bills don’t pass the Diet, he will dissolve the lower house and call for an election.

He has therefore guaranteed that the bills won’t pass the Diet, forcing his hand on an election. It might be difficult to get them through the lower house, where the Ozawa-Hatoyama allies could try to derail the train, but it will be even more difficult to get them through the opposition-controlled upper house.

Thus, into the Valley of Death marches the DPJ. The current issue of the weekly Shukan Post features a simulation of the election results. The authors are the first to admit their projections could vary widely depending on a number of factors, but every projection assumes there will be bucketfuls of DPJ blood in the water. As a mid-line forecast, the Shukan Post calls for the DPJ strength to plummet from its current total of 301 seats to roughly 160. In contrast, the magazine looks for the LDP to climb from 118 to 195 and their New Komeito allies to move from 21 to 31. That will not be enough to form a government on their own, however. Recall that last year, Kan Naoto planned on both a DPJ defeat and an opposition whose lack of seats required DPJ cooperation to rule. Then again, this time last year Mr. Kan was unconcerned about Mr. Ozawa starting a new party. A report this weekend says he’ll do just that by March or April and take 70 people with him.

Another factor has changed since then. The magazine also projects the seats for the reform Your Party to climb from five to 38. They also expect the local parties of Osaka Mayor Hashimoto and Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi to run candidates, and think the former might win as many as 18 seats and the latter as many as 12. That would an aggregate of 68 seats for the three reformers, which could enable them to exert real influence on the direction of national affairs.

That would suit the public just fine. Public opinion polls show that from 60% to 70% of the voters prefer a complete political realignment rather than a government centered either on the DPJ or the LDP. In many ways, the Japanese public has been years ahead of their counterparts in the West in consistently choosing to cast their votes for real change.

Meanwhile, Mr. Noda chose to demonstrate his determination by quoting Winston Churchill in English in his first speech of the New Year. He said he would “never, never, never give up”. (There might have been more nevers, but I lost count.)

That would usually be an admirable approach for a political leader guiding his nation in difficult circumstances, albeit self-imposed, but one wonders just whom Mr. Noda thought he would impress with a backbone fashioned from hot air. He wants to rally the nation by demonstrating his resolve to gun the engine of government and drive the nation off the cliff?

For years, people both in Japan and the West have criticized Japan’s politicians as being inferior to those paragons of wisdom and practicality in the United States and Europe. I most strongly disagree, however. I maintain that Japanese politicians are truly world-class.

They are just as myopic, stupid, and absorbed by self–interest as any group of the bunkum peddlers anywhere.

Consider: It’s been 11 months since the political situation was as described in the first paragraph. After all the sound, fury, earth quaking, big wave crashing, and the subsequent aftermath, they’re finally back where they were in February 2011.


The tenth DPJ refugee said he left the party for personal reasons, but he wound up in a new vanity party of ex-LDP mini-baron and jailbird Suzuki Muneo with a few other DPJ bolters close to Ozawa. That allowed them to reach the minimum number of members for political parties to receive public funds for their operations.

Will Mr. Noda and his government be successful in getting what they want? Maybe not at all.

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Kumamoto new year

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 4, 2012

WHAT do Japanese do in public on New Year’s day? This short video from RKK, a local television station in Kumamoto, will give you an idea.

The announcer begins with a New Year’s greeting and then introduces four different scenes. The first starts at 6:00 a.m., when the gates of the Kumamoto Castle are opened for visitors who want to see the first sunrise of the year from there.

He mentions that the temperature was relatively mild, closer to that of a mid-March day at 5.4°C. The sky was cloudy, however, disappointing the people who were hoping to see the sun.

The second scene is of visitors to the Kato Shinto shrine, where about 420,000 people come during the first three days of the new year. The first man interviewed says he is praying for the happiness and health of his family. The woman who follows says she asked for the sound growth of her children.

Scene three is of the Wild Bunch at the Kumamoto Central Post Office roaring off to deliver New Year’s cards after attending a Shinto ceremony. They expect to deliver 25.8 million throughout the prefecture. That’s how the mailmen deliver the mail in my neighborhood too.

After that, actress and model Margarine (which is how it’s spelled in Japanese) and the prefectural PR character Kumamon (the big black bear) visit a nearby maternity hospital to welcome the babies born that morning. They also give newly made commemorative seals as presents to two people.

And of course there are miko!

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Norks nix Noda

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 4, 2012

YESTERDAY the Korean Central News Agency of North Korea mentioned Japan in an editorial for the first time since Kim Jong-il’s death. They weren’t happy, either. Then again, Pyeongyang’s default position toward diplomacy is that it’s not happy unless it’s not happy.

This time, they were upset at the Japanese government for failing to express official condolences for Kim Jong-il’s funeral (though it did immediately after Kim’s death). The two countries do not have diplomatic relations.

They were also cheesed because Japan refused to allow some senior members of Chongryon (the General Association of North Korean residents in Japan) to attend Kim’s funeral.

Translating from the Japanese report:

Even if a neighboring country does not share in the sadness of a great state funeral, the Japanese authorities are responsible for the vile act of obstructing the condolences of the Korean people…Morally speaking, they are immature infants…They are unaware of even elementary human ethics, morality, or courtesy.

But the English from the KCNA site is not only better, it is downright entertaining:

The whole world was in bitter grief at the end of the last year over the demise of leader Kim Jong Il, peerlessly great man produced by mankind and great leader recognized by the world.


The Japanese authorities…officially revealed their hostile stand, saying “the government has no intention to express condolences”. Worse still, they let loose such balderdash as uttering it was their hope that the great loss the Korean nation suffered would not adversely affect the peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.


The Japanese authorities’ evil actions found a more striking manifestation in the fact that they desperately blocked the visit to the homeland by the chief vice-chairman of the Central Standing Committee of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon) to express condolences before the bier of Kim Jong Il.

They’re just getting warmed up:

The Japanese reactionaries have put the DPRK-Japan relations at the lowest ebb, talking for years about the abduction issue which no longer exists and poses no problem. Yet, they are using it as a pretext for hurting the supreme leadership of the DPRK even today when the Korean nation is grieving the great loss. This is unpardonable in any respect.

The phrase “poses no problem” in the Japanese version was literally “doesn’t even have an odor”. It is probably closer to the original Korean.

The winds are gusting up to gale strength:

This is nothing but a mean and ridiculous behavior of the morally stupid guys who stoop to any infamy to gratify their political greed.

It is as clear as daylight what miserable end they will meet.

That’s quite some alliteration in the first sentence. Unconscious genius?

They come close to sticking the knife in, though the thrust misses at the end:

Japan has topped the world list of replacement of prime ministers, becoming the laughing stock of the world and not a day passes without unstable domestic politics. Hence, Japan will never understand the social system in the DPRK, most stable in the world.

Some literary scholars say that the American novelist Thomas Wolfe (You Can’t Go Home Again, Look Homeward Angel) wrote with his hand in his pants (literally). The scribes at KCNA seem to have the same habit.

The complaint about the “chief vice chairman” of Chongryon is telling. They’re referring to Ho Jong-man, the group’s de facto leader. Japanese reports note that the authorization refused was for Mr. Ho to go to Pyeongyang and come back.

Ho Jong-man was born on the Korean Peninsula and is a delegate to the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea, though he lives in Japan. Here’s another excerpt from the KCNA editorial:

That was why many officials and lawmakers of Japan urged the prime minister and the chief Cabinet secretary to allow the visit of the chief vice-chairman.

The photo here shows the Chongryon memorial held in Tokyo for Kim two weeks ago. The group’s leader, a resident of Japan, is a member of what passes for the North Korean legislature. The policy of the Democratic Party of Japan, the country’s current ruling party, is to pass legislation permitting citizens of foreign countries with permanent residence permits to vote in local elections — including Korean citizens who are members of the North Korean legislature — though that would seem to be in violation of Article 15 of the Constitution. Providing that suffrage would surely be the foot in the door toward permitting their vote in national elections, or even holding public office. (That is the implication of the Japanese expression used for this policy). And some “lawmakers”, presumably Diet members, thought the government should have let the Chongryon officials attend the funeral.

See what I mean about a fifth column in Japan?

One Japanese politician did stop by the Tokyo service and express his condolences, however: former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro. Of course Mr. Koizumi is not a North Korean sympathizer, but he did convince Kim Jong-il to let some of the Japanese abductees in that country return home. His gesture is understandable.

It took a couple of decades, but at least they could go home again.

On the Christmas post, I mentioned that Yamashita Tatsuro can sound like a combination of uptown soul music and the Beach Boys. Here’s what he sounds like when he emphasizes the former mode. Happy greetings!

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Back to front

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 4, 2012

ALL of the following stories appeared yesterday in the back pages of newspapers or the less well-traveled sections of websites. All of them present aspects of a reality quite different from the narrative of major news media outlets outside the region.


The National Institute of the Korean Language conducted a survey of the Korean language ability of foreigners in South Korea married to Koreans, based on the results of a language competence test conducted from 10 September to 20 October. The highest score possible for the test was 100.

The institute broke the results down by nationality and found that the Japanese had the best results, as 62.8% of that group scored 90 or better.

They were followed by Chinese of Korean ancestry at 55.7% and Mongolians at 45.6%. In last place were natives of The Philippines at 21.3%.

They also broke down the results by region of residence. (They do things like that in East Asia.) Foreign spouses in Daegu did the best with 45.5% scoring over 90 points. By province, Gangwon was at the top of the table with 40.8%, closely trailed by Gyeonggi at 40.0%.


Speaking of Daegu:

Daegu City and Yeungjin College jointly launched an investment seminar on Dec. 8 for 11 invited Japanese-member companies of the Technology Advanced Metropolitan Area (TAMA)….

The investment seminar catered to 14 to 19 attendees representing a total of 11 Japanese companies. In addition, officials from Japan’s Kanto Economy and Commerce Department attended the event, with the number of participants estimated at 20. Another 30 local companies from Daegu participated in the seminar, providing one-on-one consultations with Japanese companies on technology and business partnerships.

The participating Japanese companies are located near Tokyo and specialize in electronics and mechanical metal parts. The participants were able to look forward to possible exchanges and cooperation with established auto- and machinery-parts manufacturers in Daegu and the North Gyeongsang Provincial region. According to Daegu City, the occasion paved the way for some Japanese companies to consider entering the Korean market.

The governments of Japan, South Korea, and China are talking about having talks about a free trade agreement, but local governments and the business sectors in both countries aren’t futzing around. Similar articles appear nearly every day in the middle or back pages of the Nishinippon Shimbun, with reports of South Korean and Chinese businesspeople coming to Kyushu for discussions and signing business agreements. Governments and business associations in Kyushu, the southern Korean Peninsula, and Northeast China have been working together for several years to create a de facto free trade zone.

Oh, and if you hit that link, you’ll see a photo of cherry blossoms in Daegu.


Seoul-based Harmony Cruises has begun sales of cruise packages to Kyushu that will call at Fukuoka City, Beppu, Nagasaki, and Kagoshima (as well as Jeju) from home ports in Busan and Incheon. The initial sales are for 19 cruises between February and April. The company plans to offer almost 100 cruises per year. The Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport says they will become the first South Korean company to operate cruises to Japan.

There’s also been a sharp increase in the number of Chinese cruises to Kyushu over the past five years. They already call on six Kyushu ports 118 times a year, and more are planned. The Kyushu Economic Research Center says the economic effect for each city of each port call for each cruise is JPY 44 million.

There are plenty of things to do and see in Fukuoka, Nagasaki, and Kagoshima, ranging from theme parks to historical and cultural attractions. Beppu is famous for its hot springs, and many Koreans like to come to Kyushu to play golf.


Low-cost carrier Jeju Air of South Korea announced plans to inaugurate regularly scheduled daily flights between Fukuoka City and Seoul this year, beginning sometime after March. The number of flights and their times are undecided, pending authorization by South Korean authorities. (If the project has gotten this far, however, they’ll get the authorization.) Jeju Air has been operating three flights a week between Kitakyushu (Fukuoka City’s neighbor) and Seoul since March 2009.

Said a Jeju Air spokesman:

The Fukuoka Airport has many users from both Japan and South Korea, and it has excellent access because it is close to the city center. (It’s 10 minutes by subway.)

Jeju will be the second Korean LCC to operate flights to Fukuoka; the first was T’way, which also flies to Osaka and Nagoya.

And that’s in addition to the Japanese LCCs and the major Japanese and Korean airlines flying the same route.

Read the primary articles in the English-language media about Japan-South Korea relations, and you can’t get past the second sentence without them dipping into all the bad blood. Oh, it’s there all right, kept at a boil and stirred by the politicos and their Greek chorus in the commentariat and academia.

But read the newspaper back to front and you see that it’s a different story altogether on the ground.


The Daegu story is a couple of weeks old, but I found out about it yesterday in an e-mail alert from the Korean Herald.

Happy New Year is a Matsutoya Yumi (“Yuming”) song, but here she performs it in a duet with Suga Shikao

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A year of smiles

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 3, 2012

IT is not possible to have too many pictures of miko!

This photo shows Obama Hiroko on the left and Goto Asuka on the right, third-year classmates at the Ofunato Higashi High School in Ofunato, Iwate.

Iwate was one of the three prefectures hardest-hit by the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami. Ms. Obama and her family lost their home and are staying with relatives. She decided to become a miko shrine maiden for the New Year holidays as a lesson in the study of society, and as a memory of her high school days.

Ms. Goto said:

There was a lot of sad news last year, so I hope we can smile this year.

The sign they’re holding says, “A Year of Smiles”.

I can’t think of a better New Year’s resolution. Can you?

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Number one son

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 3, 2012

JAPANESE commentators have more pressing reasons to pay close attention to movements and events in North Korea than their Western counterparts. The nation’s ties to the peninsula are ancient and complicated, they are within range of North Korean missiles under the control of very unfriendly folks who also have nuclear weapons, and there is a group of people in Japan who are potential (and actual) fifth-columnists. That group extends to the political class.

One focus of Japanese interest that seems to have been largely ignored by those in the West is the potential behavior of Kim Jong-il’s eldest son Kim Jong-nam, now leading a life of exile in Macao. The 11/18 January issue of the biweekly Sapio provides a brief and excellent explanation of the circumstances. Here it is in English:

Because he is being protected by Kim Jong-il’s aged subordinates, Kim Jong-eun is only running on rails laid down by his father before he died. Even if Jong-eun were to place advisors from his generation around him and take charge of the military to strengthen his personal authority, an even bloodier battle awaits to stabilize that structure: internecine warfare.

Since ancient times, throughout the world, some rulers have stabilized their authority by liquidating relatives who were potential threats. Unless these “side branches” are removed, they can’t be sure when their antagonists will focus on and support another member of the same family who could become a threat to themselves.

Jong-il established his own authority by passing through similar struggles. One of then was with his half-brother, Kim Pyeong-il, the son of Kim Il-sung and second wife (and former secretary) Kim Song-ae. His brother was seen as a powerful candidate to succeed his father; he was held in such esteem that Kim-Il sung is said to have declared that control of the party would be passed to Jong-il and the military to Pyeong-il. That engendered strong feelings of jealousy in Jong-il, who sent his younger brother into exile. After Jong-il prevailed in the power struggle, Pyeong-il was relegated to service as the ambassador to Hungary in 1988. For the past 23 years, he has served as the ambassador to several European countries, thus keeping him at a distance from the corridors of power. (He is now the ambassador to Poland.) There are even rumors that he was castrated to prevent him from having more children. (N.B.: He has a daughter and a son.)

In the same circumstances is Kim Jong-il’s eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, who lives in Macao. When Jong-eun established his position as his father’s successor in September 2010, he twice planned assassinations of his older brother, but sources say those were blocked by China. Some think that if Jong-nam returned to North Korea for the state funeral of his father, he would be taken into custody and not allowed to leave again.

In accordance with Confucian tradition, the one person who could arise to destabilize Kim Jong-eun regime is Jong-nam, the eldest son. In fact, attention focused on him as the successor to his father around 2000, and some senior leaders tried to place him in that position. Nishioka Tsutomu, a North Korean analyst and chairman of a group to bring the Japanese abductees home from North Korea, points out that Jong-nam is at the eye of the hurricane:

Senior members of the North’s leadership are filled with doubts that Jong-eun will really work out, and suspect that the Chinese actually support Jong-nam. In September 2010, Jong-nam made a point of appearing before the Japanese media to declare that his father was opposed to the transfer of authority to Jong-eun. His attitude was that of a man protected by the Chinese Communist Party. Word of his appearance and statement was conveyed to the North.

Some in North Korean leadership are of the view that the Kim Jong-eun regime will not last long. There are even reports they’ve been telling each other to come up with $US 300,000 to prepare for the collapse.

North Korea would not exist without the support of China. If the young Kim Jong-eun were to cause relations with China to sour due to his concerns and envy of his half-brother’s Chinese ties, it could further weaken his regime. If that were to happen, it is not out of the question that the military could grow out of control, bare its teeth, and launch a coup or civil war.

Here’s a link from the Daily NK with more details of the family history and photographs of Kim Pyeong-il with his son and daughter. Photographs can be deceiving, but they actually seem to be normal and well-adjusted people, unlike their relatives.

The North Koreans operate a propaganda website for South Koreans. On 1 January, a video of a song said to be in praise of Kim Jong-eun was uploaded to the site. The publication is viewed as part of the regime’s effort to stabilize Jong-eun in power. The song is called Balgorum or Footsteps; i.e., the military’s footsteps are in synch with those of Jong-eun.

That website has a YouTube account, and Balgorum was also uploaded there on 1 January. It starts off with a minute’s pep talk in the distinctive North Korean style. I once asked a young South Korean woman what she thought of that manner of speaking, and she said it gave her the creeps. (She visibly shuddered.)

The song is accompanied by printed lyrics. As far as I can tell, they mention only “General Kim”, but there are scenes of Jong-eun accompanying his father.

It’s worth watching from beginning to end. Not only is it educational, the video production and the musical performance are also well done.

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The Korean hue in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 2, 2012

ONE of the guilty pleasures this website provides is the chance to contribute to the disappointment of those people overseas, particularly in the West, who think it is a matter of received wisdom that the Japanese hate Koreans. It would be more pleasurable to think it contributes to their enlightenment, but that would assume they’re interested in being enlightened.

Page 38 of the 1 January edition of the Nishinippon Shimbun (which runs to 40 pages, with page 40 being an advertisement) has an article about the popularity in the Kyushu region of a Busan vocal duo known as Hue. The article reports that the duo, Kim Ji-hyeon (she) and Ryu (or Yu) Mu-yong (he), will make a concerted effort to extend their popularity throughout Japan this year. They’ll start with their first solo concert in the country in Fukuoka City on 6 March.

Once members of the Busan Municipal Chorus, they formed their duo in 2005 to perform what they call popera. Their repertoire seems to consist of pop music that requires sophisticated vocal technique, as well as some opera selections.

Hue’s first Japanese appearance was in Fukuoka City at a Fukuoka City – Busan Friendship Commemorative Concert in 2009. They’ve since performed here more than 10 times, mostly in Fukuoka City. That’s easily arranged, because the city is accessible from Busan by a three-hour jetfoil ship service, or dozens of daily flights that take less than an hour.

They were encouraged to step up their activities in Japan after Yoshida Fumi (56) formed a fan club for them in Fukuoka City. Ms. Yoshida cried when she heard them perform the Japanese song Sen no Kaze ni Natte with Korean lyrics. That’s a translation of the line “I am a thousand winds that blow” from the English-language poem Do not Stand at my Grave and Weep. The song, a tear-jerker suited to a semi-operatic performance, was originally released by the Japanese composer on only 30 privately-produced CDs. It became a national phenomenon in slow motion, however, and eventually inspired a special television drama with that name.

Ms. Yoshida’s fan club, which consists mostly of junior high and high school girls, turned out for Hue’s three Fukuoka City concerts last year, as well as a performance in Busan. Hue returned the favor with an expression of thanks to the club on their newest disc, which was released last fall. They also printed all the lyrics in Japanese and recorded the song Prologue, the lyrics of which are by Ms. Yoshida’s favorite poet, Yun Dong-ju.

Poet Yun studied English literature at two Japanese universities in 1942, but was arrested as a thought criminal by Japanese police and sentenced to two years in jail in 1943. He died in prison in 1945 in — get ready for it — Fukuoka. There’s plenty of information available about him on the Japanese-language part of the Web.

The newspaper report notes that the duo is almost unknown in South Korea.

Now roll all of the above information around in your head one more time and marvel at how amazing life its own self can be.

Here’s a YouTube clip of an appearance they made on Kumamoto television promoting a concert in that city in December 2009. The interview before and after the song consists of the pleasantries you might expect; Ms. Kim (who now has red hair) says she looks forward to seeing the local tourist attractions, such as Kumamoto Castle and Aso. It’s easy to understand why they’re popular. They’re quite talented, though the style of music won’t be to everyone’s taste. But that isn’t the point, is it?

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot: They sing in English.

When they’re not singing in Italian, that is:


Speaking of those in the West who either can’t be bothered or are too thick to get it, BBC introduces a Roland Buerk report this way:

South Korea’s K-pop music has overtaken Japanese music as the industry’s most popular genre in the country.

Relations between the two countries have been difficult after Japan’s colonisation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century.

But with the growing popularity of Korean culture, will attitudes to people of Korean origin, who make up a large ethnic minority in Japan, soften?

Let’s see…in the first paragraph, someone writes that South Korean pop music is more popular in Japan than Japanese pop music, but in the third paragraph asks if Japanese attitudes towards the Koreans living in Japan will change. Spit out that gum before you try walking, son.

Buerk even mentions the growing popularity of Korean restaurants in Japan, but still can’t see beyond the end of his nosenetwork’s pre-packaged narrative.

Further, he fails to provide actual statistics for his claim about K-pop dominance. Taking a mass media report on faith has been a suckers’ proposition for decades. Korean music could very well be the Top of the Pops in Japan, but he has to show us the numbers to be credible.

Finally, he still can’t competently pronounce Japanese place names, despite having lived in the country three years this month. Any native English speaker can learn proper Japanese pronunciation in a matter of minutes. Buerk’s failure to do so demonstrates his level of commitment to his assignment.

If you’re interested in seeing the clip, please hit the search engine of your choice. Links around here are reserved for serious journalism.

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Ichigen koji (88)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 2, 2012

– A person who has something to say about everything

Japan and India – as energy-poor countries heavily reliant on oil imports from the Gulf – are seriously concerned by mercantilist efforts to assert control over energy supplies and the transport routes for them. Indeed, despite their messy domestic politics and endemic scandals, India and Japan have the fastest-growing bilateral relationship in Asia today. Since they unveiled a “strategic and global partnership” in 2006, their political and economic engagement has deepened remarkably. A free-trade agreement between Japan and India, formally known as the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), entered into force in August. And, in response to China’s punitive use of its monopoly on rare-earths production to cut off such exports to Japan during the fall of 2010, Japan and India have agreed to joint development of rare earths, which are vital for a wide range of green-energy technologies and military applications.

Today, the level and frequency of official bilateral engagement is extraordinary.

Brahma Chellaney in the Khaleej Times, 2 January 2012

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Nengajo 2012

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 1, 2012

CENTURIES OF TRADITION inform the festivities during the New Year holiday in Japan, making it an analog for the Christmas holidays in countries with a Christian orientation. That includes customs, activities, and events at home and in public, both semi-sacred and secular, specific to the season. For example, just as others send Christmas cards, the Japanese send New Year’s cards to family, friends, and business associates called nengajo. If they’re mailed by a certain date, the post office will deliver them smack dab on 1 January.

That’s how I began the New Year’s post for 2011. Beats me if I can think of a way to improve it, so that’s how I’ll begin the Ampontan nengajo for 2012. The first paragraph may be recycled, but the rest isn’t!

Cleanliness really is next to godliness in Japan. One reason is that the concept of kegare, or impurity, is an important part of the Shinto worldview. A manifestation of that on the mundane level is the conduct of spring cleaning at yearend. Then again, spring was traditionally considered to have begun with the New Year, an idea that survives in the nengajo message that offers congratulations on the “new spring”. Shinto shrines are also given a thorough spring cleaning at yearend. That ritual is called susubarai, which translates as an exorcism or purification of the soot.

Here’s a scene from this year’s susubarai of the main hall at the Kashima Shinto shrine in Kashima, Ibaraki. Those bamboo poles are four meters long. Ibaraki is near the three prefectures that were hardest hit by March’s Tohoku earthquake, and the shrine’s torii and beams in the main hall were heavily damaged. Said the chief priest:

The shrine deity is the one who limits earthquake damage, so I think that’s the reason it wasn’t any worse. We want to have the new torii finished by the 2014 spring festival. I pray that next year will be a good one.

He’s not alone in that.

The susubarai at the Oyama shrine in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, is called the sendensai, or the festival for purifying the hall. It is a festival of sorts, as the miko shrine maidens start by performing a traditional dance, which is followed by a rite for purifying the tools used for cleaning. If cleanliness and purity is the point, half measures just won’t do.

Then they got to work and exorcised the soot at the main hall. It was 2º C when the picture was taken. That isn’t the most spring-like of temperatures, which is the main reason I’m not excited by the custom of spring cleaning at home in December. Surely they were wearing something warm underneath. The entire operation was handled by 12 people, and those poles they’re wielding are seven meters long. Take the time to look at this photo of the shrine’s front gate: the architecture is both striking and unusual.

It stands to reason that some shrines will be easier to clean than others. Among the others is the Tosho-gu shrine in Nikko, Tochigi, which has more than 500 kirin (sorry for the Wikipedia) and dragons on the outside. That’s particularly true when the kirin and the dragons are national cultural treasures. The shrine was established in 1617, and the enshrined deity is the spirit of none other than The Shogun himself, Tokugawa Ieyasu. It takes 100 people to do all the work here.

Buddhist temples also get the yearend purification treatment, and the insides of the temples get just as dirty as the outsides. The priests and parishioners of Nishi (west) and Higashi (east) Hongwan-ji, a temple complex in Kyoto, have a unique method for driving out the old year’s dirt using bamboo sticks and large fans. It must work: They’ve got 445 tatami mats in the main hall in the west and 927 in the east to clean, and they’ve been cleaning them on 20 December every year since the 15th century.

It starts when the chief priest gives a signal, and the entire line starts whacking and waving. The more nimble climb a ladder to the transoms and blow it out that way. The ritual is also a way to give thanks for a safe year, and it ends when one of the priests draws the character for long life in the air.

While some shrines have to deal with the cleaning of kirin or dragons on the exterior, some Buddhist temples have challenges of their own, such as cleaning statues of the Buddha. That’s quite a challenge at the Kiko-in Obihiro, Hokkaido, whose 6.8-meter-high statue is the largest wooden Buddha north of Tokyo. To be specific, it is a statue of Amida Nyorai. Those bamboo poles are three meters long. It only takes them about 30 minutes, however, as the work surely becomes lighter when it’s sanctified. It’s also a gesture of thanks for the past year.

The cleaning involved with sending off the old year includes the disposition of more than dirt. The shrines also have to do something with all the ema that people entrusted to them during the year. Ema are small wooden plaques on which people write their prayers and wishes. They’re left at the shrine, where they’re received by the divinity. It’s unacceptable to just dump them in the trash, not only for emotional or spiritual reasons, but also because a shrine can have 45,000 of them, as the Hofu Tenman-gu in Hofu, Yamaguchi, did last year. Many of them bore wishes for success in upcoming entrance exams, and most of them were probably granted. It’s an elegant solution: The shrines combine ritual purification and an environmentally friendly fire lit by candles.

Once they’ve taken care of the old year’s business, it’s time to get to work on the new. Speaking of ema, most shrines put up big ones of their own with the symbol from the Oriental zodiac for that particular year. Happy year of the dragon!

Here’s the Big Ema installed at the Kumano shrine in Wakayama. Big in this case means 2.8 meters high and 3.9 meters wide. The eastern-central part of Japan was lashed by a summer typhoon that caused substantial damage, and the Kumano shrine was not spared. Therefore, the painting on this year’s ema has the image of a rising dragon breaking through the black clouds of disaster. The chief priest painted it himself in four days, and it took six priests to carry it to the grounds and replace the old one in the back with the new one.

Just as some Western families hang wreaths on their homes at Christmas, the Japanese adorn the outside of their homes or offices with kadomatsu (corner pine), which is viewed as a temporary abode for the divinities. The folks at Omi-jingu, a shrine in Otsu, Shiga, are known for their jumbo kadomatsu. This year’s version is just as jumbo at four meters high, and it was arranged to resemble a soaring dragon. It was made by a group of parishioners, who also handled the susubarai. For the past seven years, they’ve used a pine tree on the shrine grounds that they temporarily transplant, roots and all. Said one of the kadomatsu designer/gardeners:

There were all sorts of disasters this year, so we made this with the wish that everyone would have a happy life next year.

Another decoration for home or shrine is the shimenawa, a straw rope that denotes a sacred space in general, and the temporary abode of the toshigami, the divinity of the new year, in particular. Of the 30 hung at the Kogane shrine in Gifu City, the one at the front is a jumbo version eight meters long, 40 centimeters in diameter at the thickest part, and 30 kilograms in weight. It’s made from straw from mochi rice stalks, mochi being an even more glutinous variety of rice than japonica.

The Kogane shrine is known for providing good fortune to those interested in money and wealth. In fact, the kanji used for the name of the shrine is the same as that for money, but with a different reading. Shrine officials expect 130,000 hopeful high rollers to visit in the first three days of the new year.

While we’re on the subject of jumbo decorations, here are two jumbo origami of dragons in red and white, the Japanese national colors, at the Tsurusaki Shinto shrine in Hayashima-cho, Okayama. (Japanese language, but nice photos.) They’re 1.8 meters high and four meters long, and if you can’t make it for New Year’s, don’t fret — they’ll be up until the end of the month, and they’re illuminated until 9:00 p.m. every night. Said the chief priest:

With Japan covered by a dark cloud due to the disasters and other reasons, we hope this year everyone can soar again like the dragons that push their way into the sky.

As evidence that old religions can incorporate new elements, this is only the 11th year for the shrine’s origami displays. They started in 2001 with the year of the horse. To symbolize their support for Tohoku recovery, they procured the paper from a wholesaler in Sendai.

An even newer New Year twist on a traditional Japanese art is a public performance of calligraphy by a priest at the Kumano shrine in Tanabe, Wakayama, on a platform in front of the main hall. The folks at the shrine, which is the same one with the big ema above, started the tradition just two years ago. In keeping with the theme of jumbo-ness, this calligraphy is three meters square and was rendered with a brush one meter long. The character can be read as either kirameki or ko, and it means glittering.

Calligraphy is not done with just a flick of the wrist; it also demands internal stillness. The reports from Wakayama say the priest stared at the cloth for a time for spiritual preparation before he started. The reports also say the priest put his entire body into it, which the audience appreciated. One of those watching was a woman from Nagoya, who said:

There was a dignified and awe-inspiring atmosphere, and I found myself straightening my back without realizing it.

Said the calligrapher/priest:

Conditions were very harsh this year with the Tohoku disaster and the typhoon. I hope that next year, each one of us recovers and shines.

Are you noticing that people use the holiday as a way to cleanse themselves of more than just dirt and old objects?

You’ve also probably noticed that the priests aren’t doing all this work by themselves. Their helpers are the Japanese equivalent of Santa’s elves, the miko shrine maidens. Those are the young women dressed in white hakui and red hibakama. (There are those colors again.)

So many people visit during the three-day period that the shrines have to hire extra miko part-time to help. They’re usually high school and college-aged girls, and dealing with the public in a manner befitting a religious institution requires special training in manners and speech. That training also includes instruction in how to wear the clothing, and how to properly hand over the amulets that people buy on their visits. Here’s a scene from the orientation for the 23 arubaito miko conducted by the Toishi Hachiman-gu in Shunan, Yamaguchi, which will celebrate its 1300th anniversary next year. To give you an idea of why the shrines need to supplement the help, the Toshi Hachiman-gu expects 200,000 people to drop by from 1-3 January.

Bigger shrines require more miko, and the Kitano Tenman-gu in Kyoto needed 70 this year for New Year’s duty. (That one’s in English.) They expect 500,000 visitors in the first three days of the New Year. One reason so many people come is that one of the shrine divinities is the deified spirit of Sugawara Michizane, renowned for his learning and erudition. That attracts all those who want to pray for success on the entrance exams for schools or places of employment.

The first order of business for miko training at Kitano is to say a prayer at the main hall, after which the priest performs a purification ritual. That’s followed by an explanation of the buildings, fixtures, and amulets, and the proper way to interact with the worshippers.

Most of the shrines are somewhat strict about the appearance of the Jinja Girls — dyed hair is usually prohibited. Well, wait a minute, let’s modify that. The women old enough to dye their hair, i.e., post high school, are old enough to know that they can buy a bottle or tube and go back to basic black for a few days before getting stylish again.

While they’re sticklers for appearance, the shrines are downright ecumenical about identity. The job is usually open to young women of any nationality. I read one account of a Korean university student in Nagasaki who enjoyed her experience so much one year, she signed up for a second. I’ve also read about one shrine hiring an Italian woman for the season. In fact, here’s an article from China talking about New Year’s customs and the Chinese girls who also serve as miko. Aren’t those hairbands nifty?

Meanwhile, the Gokoku shrine in Kagoshima City trained 40 new miko to help greet their expected visitors. One 20-year-old said she had wanted to wear the white clothing for a long time and was happy to finally get the chance. She also promised to do her best to ensure that the worshippers will be able meet the new year with a good feeling. About 150,000 people are likely to drop on by, so let’s hope she doesn’t get tired from being that cheerful for that long to the crowds. Then again, it isn’t as if she he’ll have to cope with the “behavior” of American shoppers on the day after Thanksgiving.

Here’s the training for 20 miko at Tottori City’s Ube shrine, which is thought to have been founded in 648, so they’ve been at this for more than 1,300 years. The chief priest told the novitiates he wanted them to be sure to give the parishioners a cheerful smile, which might be more difficult than it sounds. How easy is it to be solemn and smiley at the same time?

This shrine also has a connection with money matters, and is said to be just the place for those praying for success in business. In fact, it was the first Shinto shrine to be depicted on paper money — an engraving of the shrine and the founder appeared on the five-yen note in 1900. It also showed up on five-yen and one-yen notes into the Showa era, which began in 1925. They make only five- or one-yen coins instead of notes now, but in those days, a yen was still a yen.

If the global economy doesn’t improve, I might get on the train to Tottori myself.

Hey now! Some guys like photos of women with large silicone implants hanging out of small bikinis. Me, I go for the miko! It’s my website and I’ll steal the photos I want, and I want one more:

Here they are receiving instructions at the Kamegaike Hachiman-gu in Kanagawa City. This is a popular New Year’s destination because it has all the Shichi Fukujin, the Seven Gods of Fortune of Japanese mythology and folklore. Legend has it that the munificent seven come to town on New Year’s and distribute gifts to good little boys and girls of all ages, just like Santa Claus. Instead of a reindeer-powered sleigh, they show up on the good ship Takarabune, which literally means treasure ship. In another Christmas analog, children are given money in envelopes on New Year’s as a gift, and sometimes these envelopes have a picture of the Takarabune on them.

The Kamegaiki shrine is also a good place to go for those who are desirous of safety in traffic and the luck in the draw in the lottery. Then again, the sacred sake the shrine gives away is another attraction. Clever punsters that they are, some Japanese employ the word for a Shinto shrine to refer to the holy hooch as “jinja ale”, and no, I did not make that up.

The more you think about it, the more appealing Shinto gets.

Speaking of grog, the Takara Shuzo sake brewers of Kyoto conducted a survey to find out everyone’s favorite New Year’s drink, and topping the list was sake. (That’s the same takara as the treasure in the takara above.)

The survey was conducted in the Tokyo and Kinki regions among 400 men and women aged 20 to 60+. When asked to name their New Year’s poison, 57.8% replied sake, 53.6% said beer, and 21.2% said wine. (Multiple (hic) answers were possible.) Sake was the leading choice in all age groups except for the people in their 30s.

It’s not all good news for the brewers — some people said they drink it only on New Year’s Day. The explanation of 56.9% was that it’s a special occasion. Others said they just go along with the choice of their family and friends.

In addition to downing the regular old sake, another special holiday custom is three sips from a cup of o-toso, sake mixed with (originally) medicinal herbs and mirin. The survey found that 88.6% of the respondents knew what it was, and that 50.8% drink it either every year or occasionally on New Year’s. The survey also turned up the fact that 53.5% of the people mistakenly thought it was a specially brewed sake, rather than being a mixture. That group consisted mostly of young people.

It was originally drunk to flush out the illnesses of the old year and promote long life in the future. The characters for toso, by the way, are 屠蘇 (the o is the honorific). The first means “to massacre”, and the second is most commonly used to mean a revival or resurrection. Some Western Christians get carried away by the connection they see, but the standard Japanese explanation is that the second character originally represented “the demon that causes illness”. In other words, o-toso is drunk to slay the demon. It’s more likely the origin of the expression Demon Rum than a derivative of the Easter story. Different season altogether.

Of course there’s a connection between liquor and miko, and not what you’re thinking, either. Here are some shrine maidens out tachibana citrus fruit picking at the Iwashimizu Hachiman-gu in Kyoto. Iwashimizu is so famous for the fruit that it’s used as a symbol on the shrine crest. The trees are planted on the east and west of the main building, and the miko can pick 10 kilograms of the three-centimeter fruit in 30 minutes of farm labor. These fruit are not for eating — they’ll be the main ingredient in tachibana citrus fruit wine instead. Nowadays they subcontract the work to a sake brewery in Joyo, Kyoto, and it will take three years before it’s drinkable. They donate the finished product to the Imperial household. During the Edo period, they also passed some of the stash around to the shoguns.

Speaking of the Imperial household, the members like this place. There’ve been more than 250 household visits to the shrine since 860.

And speaking of all this booze, here’s a report from Asahi TV about making New Year’s sake in Utsunomiya, Tochigi. It was below zero on the morning this segment was filmed:

But back to the miko and New Year’s amulets! They do more than sell them — they make them, too. See what I mean about Santa’s elves?

Here they are at the Atago shrine in Fukuoka City making o-mikuji fortunes for the New Year. They’ll offer 14 kinds, including the red daruma and, for the first time, the medetai mikuji. Medetai is a word for a joyous occasion, but the pun is in the shape of the fish — the tai, or sea bream, which is served at other joyous occasions, such as wedding ceremonies. The Japanese like the fish so much they have an expression that insists they’re great even when they’ve gone bad. The shrine made 800,000 last month for the 700,000 visitors they expect, so they might have a few left over.

They also made lucky arrows at the Tsuruoka Hachiman-gu in Kamakura, Kanagawa, the most important shrine in the city. These arrows are called hamaya, which are sold as amulets that drive away evil spirits. Some also say they provide safety to the home and prosperity to business. The sale of hamaya is derived from the days when the exhibition of archery skills was a part of New Year celebrations. They’ve got two varieties here: One 60 centimeters long and the other 94 centimeters long. They’re wrapped in washi (Japanese paper), have bells on the end, and are affixed with kabura, a device that makes a whistling sound when the arrow is fired. It was once a popular item among the archers participating in contests or banditry. The shrine makes 245,000 of them, which takes most of the year.

They’re also readying amulets for sale at the Hakusan shrine in Niigata City. Shrine officials think the facility was built in either the 10th or the 11th century, but they’re not sure because two fires in the 16th century destroyed some of their records. In this case, the amulets are rakes and arrows, and people got a head start on buying them on the 26th. The shrine prepared 40,000 for their 170,000 visitors to come.

The word for the traditional bamboo rake is kumade, literally a bear’s paw, and they were used to rake leaves and grain. They started selling them as New Year’s trinkets during the Edo period so folks could play croupier and rake in the good fortune.

New Year’s amulets are also produced outside the shrines. One example is the dragon dolls, for the year of the dragon, made at a studio at the Toyama Municipal Folk Craft Village in Toyama City.

Another is the earthen bells in the form of dragons made by the Nogomi Ningyo Kobo in Kashima, Saga. A nogomi ningyo is a local toy conceived by the late studio’s founder soon after the war. He passed the business on to his son Suzuta Shigeto, a national living treasure for his fabric dyeing artistry, so we’re talking serious art here.

The studio is offering three types this year, one a design by the founder, another a jade (colored) dragon, and another designed by Shigeto to represent a dragon riding the clouds. He said he wanted to create the image of vigorously climbing and riding beyond the troubles of the past year. All of them are handmade, and the report said that the slight variations in sound and color would beguile potential customers. They’ll make only about 7,000 to sell throughout the country for the holiday, and all things considered, they’re probably more expensive than the items on sale at a shrine.

Shinto isn’t the only source for New Year’s ceremonies. A traditional ritual for presenting water from the fountain of youth to the governing body of the old Ryukyu Kingdom, now Okinawa, is still held today, and this year was held on the 25th in Naha. Forty people dressed as government officials and female priests lined up for some water carrying. The elixir in question is a mixture of two varieties of water that’s been concocted at the Enkaku-ji Buddhist temple. The original idea was to meet the New Year with a wish for the kingdom’s peace and the king’s health and long life.

Which to choose? The Ryukyu waters, sacred sake, or o-toso?

Finally, it isn’t possible to discuss New Year’s in Japan without a mention of the Kohaku Utagassen. That’s a New Year’s Eve musical variety show based on the premise of a singing battle (utagassen) between the female Ko team — Red! — and the male Haku team — White! It debuted on radio in 1951 as a one-hour special, but has now evolved into a four-hour extravaganza broadcast simultaneously on TV and radio. At one time it was the highest-rated single show on Japanese television, but changing times and tastes have taken it down a few notches. Nevertheless, it is still the highest-rated musical program every year.

An appearance on the program is a sign that the performer has made it in Japanese show business, and because NHK requires (or used to require) that all singers pass a singing test to appear on the network, it meant that viewers would be getting quality entertainment. It features all styles of music, including enka for the old folks (Sakamoto Fuyumi was on last night for the 23rd time) and straight pop for the kids. Selected members of the AKB 48 girls also appeared for the third time as a group last night, early in the evening, and I was surprised at how good they sounded.

In keeping with Japanese ecumenicalism, foreigners, especially East Asians, are frequently invited to appear; the South Korean pop idol BoA has been on six times. Largely unbeknownst to their fans in the West, Cindy Lauper and Paul Simon once performed in the same year.

Last night, the Red team won the contest for the first time since 2004. The White team has the series edge to date, 33 to 29.

Whose performance to pick from the wealth of options on YouTube? I’ll go with the special one-off appearance of the Drifters in 2001. Those aren’t the American Drifters, but the Japanese group. They started out as a band in the late 50s and evolved into a comedy team whose television program ran from 1969 to 1985 and became the highest-rated regular program. (They also made a couple of movies, at least one of which was quite entertaining.) Older folks might remember their 40-second performance as the opening act for the first Beatles concert in Japan.

The man in the green is Ikariya Chosuke, the nominal leader, who died in 2004. Later in his career he starred as an attorney in a courtroom drama series similar to Perry Mason, but with lighter moments. He also won a Japanese Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in the film Bayside Shakedown. He was the host/narrator of the Drifters’ TV show, and often wound up as the guy getting dumped on by the others.

The man in the orange is Shimura Ken, who started working with the group in 1968 and became an official member after replacing one of the originals in 1974. Most of The Drifters weren’t really comedians, but rather performers acting in comic sketches. Shimura is an exception, however, as he is a talented comic, and at his best was as funny as any comedian anywhere. (You other foreigners can cool it with the wise lips right now.) He took over The Drifters program with a show of his own that was often hilarious and sometimes bordered on the surreal. He and the staff of that program were masters of running gags, both within a single program, and also from show to show.

Translating the lyrics wouldn’t be productive — did you catch the brief background chorus of papaya, papaya? — but it’s more fun to watch the dance troupe anyway.

Shimura Ken might say, Dafun Da!, but I’ll stick with: Akemashite, o-medeto gozaimasu. Happy New Year!


Very late on New Year’s Eve (one report said early New Year’s morning), one of the three most-wanted criminals in Japan gave himself up to police:

Makoto Hirata, a member of the Aum Shinrikyo cult that released deadly sarin gas on Tokyo subways in 1995, surrendered to police last night, Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported.

Hirata, 46, and fellow Aum members Katsuya Takahashi and Naoko Kikuchi are listed as Japan’s three most-wanted fugitives, on a police website. Hirata was wanted in connection with the murder of a notary, while the other two are alleged to have been involved in the poison gas attacks.

Hirata turned himself in at the Marunouchi police station in central Tokyo, NHK said, citing the Metropolitan Police Department. He is being questioned at the Osaki police station, according to the broadcaster.

Another New Year’s cleansing of impurities, is it not?

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