Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Aichi’

All you have to do is look (124)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Handa Dashi Festival is held once every five years in Handa, Aichi, and this year was the year. A dashi is a festival float, and the city has 31 one of them, each rather elaborate. The main attraction is when they’re lined up in a row, which you can see at the end of the short video.

Here’s a previous report on another festival in Handa featuring large floats.

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Ichigen koji (222)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 7, 2012

– A person who has something to say about everything

Neither politicians nor the bureaucracy are as respected as they once were, but the title of “university professor” still has prestige. Under the pretext of learning and culture, governments will inject tax money into money-losing universities and no one will complain. This is Japan’s final taboo.

The promotion of science and technology is also sacred ground for the government, and journalists do not criticize universities, and I speak from the standpoint of a part-time professor lecturing on the mass media. When it comes to prolonging unproductive services, universities are worse than agriculture.

Private universities have already collapsed. National universities are now collapsing at the graduate school level through the “laundering” of academic backgrounds.

– Ikeda Nobuo. He is speaking in reference to the uproar caused by Education Minister Tanaka Makiko’s decision to refuse authorization for three new colleges. The decision has been reversed, and the three proposals will undergo a new screening process. De facto, that means they will be approved.

All three of the schools are local institutions. One is a junior college of the fine arts in Akita whose operators want to convert it into a four-year college. Another is a women’s college in Aichi.

But it gets better!

I don’t know what’s specifically wrong with the three schools. I also don’t think they’re bad.

– Minister of Education Tanaka Makiko

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All you have to do is look (9)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 6, 2012

Fans in Miyoshi, Aichi, stayed up late to watch hometown boy Morofushi Koji win a bronze medal in the Olympics for the hammer throw. He won the gold medal in the same event in Athens in 2004.

(Photo from Jiji)

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Collision course

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 24, 2012

THE political and social forces in Japan are now arrayed and moving on a course that makes a noisy electoral collision inevitable. How the forces sort out post-collision isn’t possible to determine, but one thing is certain — the collision will be just one of the major engagements in an ongoing war.

Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi in Tokyo

That much is clear now that we’ve seen the evisceration of the work of Koizumi Jun’ichiro after he steered Japan to the course of reform. The reactionary Politburocrats included the old guard of his own party, the bureaucratic establishment at Kasumigaseki seeking to reclaim sovereignty over policy, and the chancers of the Democratic Party snouting around for any excuse to rise to the level of Politburocrat Nouveau. They accomplished their work in less time than the five years Mr. Koizumi spent in office.

Last week, the Men of System demonstrated again how they operate. The ruling Democratic Party lacks an upper house majority, so it was unable to prevent the opposition from censuring two Cabinet ministers: Maeda Takeshi of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport (for political misbehavior) and Tanaka Naoki of Defense (for being a doofus on the job).

Upper house censures are non-binding, so the two men can technically stay, but the opposition parties are refusing to participate in negotiations until they’re removed. Said LDP head Tanigaki Sadakazu:

“As long as those two stay in office, there will be no progress on the bill to combine social security and the tax system.”

Added New Komeito chief Yamaguchi Natsuo:

“We cannot respond to any parliamentary proceedings in which they have jurisdiction.”

Everyone understands that it’s a chabangeki farce staged to gain political advantage. Mr. Tanigaki and most of his party already back a consumption tax increase, and the ruling Democratic Party intends to use only 20% of the revenue from the increase for social security. A larger amount will be allocated for public works projects. Just like the old LDP.

The DPJ understands the farce better than anyone because upper house censure was a weapon they created to gain political leverage after they and their allies took control of that chamber in 2007. They censured then-Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo in 2008 for reasons that were trivial then and which no one can remember now.

But when the plastic sword was used to smack them around, Prime Minister Noda and DPJ Secretary-General Koshi’ishi Azuma decided they didn’t like the idea after all. Both men are protecting the censured miscreants, and Mr. Noda won’t remove them from office. Said Chief Cabinet Secretary Fujimura Osamu last Friday:

“The prime minister’s policy is clear. He wants them to fulfill the responsibilities of their job.”

Both men of course realize that’s beyond the capabilities of Mr. Tanaka, but they have appearances to maintain and the Ozawa wing of the party to mollify.

Their display of plastic backbone has caused some consternation in Japan’s real ruling class, however. That spurred one of their agents in the DPJ to give the prime minister his marching orders.

That would be Fujii Hirohisa, the former head the Finance Ministry’s Budget Bureau — Dirigiste Central — also the former secretary-general in Ozawa Ichiro’s old Liberal Party, the first finance minister in the DPJ government (for all of three months), the head of the Tax Commission in the Cabinet Office, one of the DPJ’s Supreme Advisors, and (if the rumors are to be believed) a daytime drinker.

Mr. Fujii and his comrades worry this will delay their objective of raising the consumption tax to European social democrat levels. Therefore, Mr. Fujii called on the prime minister to “remove the thorns”, because:

“The two of them have definitely done something wrong.”

But he quickly added the real reason:

“Whenever the prime minister makes a decision on what to do, the basis for everything is to pass the consumption tax increase by any means necessary.”

Now what is Mr. Noda to decide to do? He wants to project himself as a man of vision with the unwavering resolve to gouge the public and maintain the system do what is best for Japan. He also reportedly hates being called a Finance Ministry puppet.

On the other hand, Mr. Fujii has been molding Mr. Noda since the DPJ formed its first government, when the latter was the deputy finance minister in both the Hatoyama and Kan administrations. The prime minister is also aware that the Finance Ministry is capable of using the various means it has developed for staging de facto internal coups d’etat.

In other words, look for Messrs. Maeda and Tanaka to start cleaning out their desk drawers, soon rather than late.


Kasumigaseki in general and the Finance Ministry in particular have developed a substantial armory over the years to maintain their citadel. For example, all the national dailies have now published several editorials supporting a consumption tax increase. Most of them used nearly identical phrases, probably because they all received the nearly identical Finance Ministry briefing. The most enthusiastic member of the print media has been the Asahi Shimbun. They ran an editorial on 31 March titled “A consumption tax increase is necessary,” which included this content:

“With the rapid aging of society, we must provide even a small amount of stability to the social security system and rebuild the finances that are the worst among the developed countries. The first step requires that we increase the consumption tax. That is what we think.”

And the next day:

“It is important to come to a prompt decision without evading a tax increase.”

Another column appeared on 6 April with the title: “Politics and the consumption tax increase – stop the excuses”. It contained this passage:

“While you’re saying “first”—such as first reduce government waste, or first let’s end deflation, or first dissolve the lower house for an election — Japan will become insolvent.”

The Asahi insists the voters can have their say after the tax increase has been safely passed. That’s the same strategy foreseen months ago by ex-ministry official and current reformer Takahashi Yoichi.

As a newspaper of the left, the Asahi might be expected to favor higher taxes and stronger central government, but perhaps they have a more compelling reason. That would be explained by another news report that the Asahi tried to hide in an overlooked part of the paper, but which the rival Yomiuri Shimbun gave more prominent coverage on 30 March.

It seems that a tax audit revealed the Asahi failed to report JPY 251 million in corporate income over a five-year period that ended 31 March 2011. They were required to pay substantial penalties.

Golly, what a coincidence!

On the other hand, the bureaucrats are not picking on just the Asahi. All the newspapers and their reporters are being audited, which is a process that can take from several weeks to several months. The reporters treat their sources, anonymous or otherwise, to food and drink, and we all know that expense accounts are there to be padded. Tax officials are even said to be visiting the eating and drinking places listed on the returns for confirmation. Both the Asahi and the Yomiuri already had to refile their taxes in 2009.

The Asahi insists their editorials are unrelated to the audits, and they might have a point. There are about 20 people on the paper’s editorial committee, and all of them support a tax increase. Most of them once covered the Finance Ministry as members of the ministry’s kisha club, a system that combines short leashes with exclusive access. And many of them are also graduates of the University of Tokyo, which is the institution of choice for the Finance Ministry’s recruitment.

It’s natural to assume that the members of the old boys’ club would think alike, but a tax audit certainly helps to focus their thinking.

Not a rhetorical question

Fortunately, irresistible forces are headed straight for these immovable objects. Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi, one of the squad leaders in those forces, launched his political juku in Tokyo on Saturday. He told his 200 students:

“I want to change the mechanism of this country, in which taxes are not reduced by even one yen.”

Mr. Kawamura is screening and preparing candidates for the next lower house election by using the same juku mechanism employed by Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru and Aichi Gov. Omura Hideaki. There will likely be an alliance of some sort between those local parties and Your Party at the national level. Their message is the largely the same.

Delivering that message on Saturday as the first lecturer was former METI official turned bureaucratic reformer Koga Shigeaki. Mr. Koga rebuffed requests to run for governor of two prefectures to serve as Mr. Hashimoto’s senior advisor, and he also has connections with Your Party. He told the juku students something that everyone in Japan apart from the Politburocratchiks understand: The current system of governance is dead, and the creation of a new system starts with civil service reform.

Part of the problem

The experience of Koga Shigeaki illustrates one of the many reasons that Japan’s Democratic Party has become part of the problem instead of the solution. He was selected as an aide to then-Reform Minister Sengoku Yoshito in the Hatoyama Cabinet, but that appointment lasted only a few days. Kasumigaseki wouldn’t stand for it, and Mr. Sengoku is not one to stand on principle when his place in the power structure is at stake. Indeed, the former lawyer confronted Mr. Koga with a semi-gangsterish threat (likely picked up from his former clients) during the latter’s Diet testimony on reform at the request of Your Party.

Try this for a thought experiment: Imagine that the cities of Chicago and Los Angeles, and their respective states of Illinois and California, are governed by local parties calling for radical governmental reform. One of the primary planks of that reform is putting a leash on the public sector. Three of those four chief executives were once members of the two major parties. The deputy mayor of New York is a colleague, and the mayor is a sympathizer.

Need I mention that this would be topics #1, #2, and #3 in the American mass media 24/7, and that the Journolist-coordinated efforts to slime them all would be rank even by their standards?

(Of course, this is only a thought experiment. California is actually heading 180° in the other direction.)

Japan has the oldest and most dynamic of the modern anti-elitist reform movements of the world’s major democracies. It’s the one with the greatest chance of success, and it’s also possible to make the case that it is the most positive in outlook. (The French just gave 18% of the vote to Marine LePen, though in their defense the Eurabia concept was idiotic even by Eurocrat standards.)

Predictions are usually a waste of time, but here’s one you can hold me to: The English-language media in general, and the FCCJ lackwits in particular, won’t bother to notice what’s happening in Japan until they find themselves ankle-deep in the muck after the bloodletting of the next general election, and some well-coiffed and -dyed heads will be adorning the tops of pointed stakes. The media will then be “surprised”.

And then they’ll launch a slimeball fusillade. Take it to the bank.


Yes, this is a national phenomenon. It’s happening again, this time in the city of Kasumigaura, a largely agricultural town of 43,600 in Ibaraki Prefecture.

After the city was created in 2005 through the merger of two smaller municipalities, the residents expected to benefit from the economies of scale. They really should have known better. Instead of one unified municipal office, the new city officials created two, one in each of the constituent entities. One of them required the construction of a new building. They also separately maintained their former methods of collusion for deal-cutting: one controlled by the civil service, the other organized by private sector industry.

It got worse after the new city’s second mayor took office in 2007, when he was unopposed in the election. Opposition quickly materialized after the city council voted themselves a 40% pay raise. A citizens’ group was organized, and they ran Miyajima Mitsuaki for mayor in the next election. He upset the incumbent by a 276 vote margin.

The problem, however, was that there was little turnover in city council members. Four are reformers, 11 are in the flybait class, and one is a fence-sitter. In one year and eight months, City Council has rejected 32 of the mayor’s initiatives, including the rollback of the salary increase, other salary cuts, and a bill to provide free medical care for children through the third year of junior high school. (That last is an idea common to many of the reformers in local government. There are several possible explanations for this mixture of welfare statism into what is primarily a small government philosophy, but it does suggest they are not ideologues.)

The mayor therefore announced last week that he and the citizens’ group will start a petition drive to recall City Council. They’ll have a month to come up with 15,000 signatures. It won’t be easy, but Mr. Kawamura overcame the same hurdle in Nagoya, and his hurdle was much higher because of that city’s larger population. I wouldn’t bet against them.

It bears repeating that the next lower house election will not be the last battle of the war, regardless of the result. The reformers at the regional level have found their voice and their allies are not going to go away. Meanwhile, the Politburocrats are stocking the moat with as many alligators as they can breed.

The current system of governance requires that the bureaucracy oversee the process as the Cabinet formulates a bill and the ruling party examines it before it’s submitted to the Diet. Defying the wishes of Kasumigaseki requires a thorough knowledge of policy and some serious spine, neither of which is a hallmark of the political class anywhere. The civil servants devote a lot of time to anticipating objections to their favored policies and formulating arguments against those objections to feed to the politicians.

One advantage of the reformers is that people such Your Party’s Watanabe Yoshimi and Eda Kenji, Hashimoto advisors Koga, Sakaiya Taiichi, and Hara Eiji, as well as advisor to both Takahashi Yoichi, have extensive knowledge of policy and Politburocrat tactics, and took a clear public stand long ago.

Another man who combines both is Takenaka Heizo, a Cabinet member throughout Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s entire term of office, and the man responsible for producing the Japan Post privatization package. Mr. Takenaka has said that victory will require 10 years of continuous guerilla warfare.

In short: Japan is in the midst of the most civil Civil War a modern democracy has ever seen.

Drunken sailor watch

The Prime Minister’s Office unveiled its new website earlier this month, which they created as a portal site to provide comprehensive information on policy. That’s a fine idea, but the Jiji news agency reported the redesign of the old site required an expenditure of JPY 45.5 million (almost $US 560,000 on the nose).

What? You didn’t hear the detonation on the Internet?

A lot of people thought it could have been done for 10% of that amount, and some said they would have been happy to take the job at that price. They also said they wouldn’t have created a site with text that was unreadable for those using Apple’s Safari browser and without the kanji errors on the page for children.


Piano prodigy Okuda Gen appeared on television again Sunday night. Now ten years old, Gen has been playing piano since the age of four and giving concerts since the age of seven. He’s composed 50 pieces of his own. He likes all sorts of styles and plays classical music well, but is a particular fan of jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. On Sunday, he performed as an equal with an adult drummer and bassist.

The boy is remarkably self-assured for his age, even without his musical ability. It seems unlikely at this point that he’ll acquire the problems that usually attend children such as these when they enter The Jungle of Puberty.

But the most astonishing part of Gen’s story is that he started playing because he thought he would like it. Neither parent is involved with music, and they say he’s never taken a music lesson.

Here he is at age eight. Pull your socks up.

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Hashimoto Toru (2): The company he keeps

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 28, 2012

**This is the second of a multi-part series on Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru and the phenomenon he represents. The first is here.**

SOME people in Japan were suspicious: Was Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru just blustering with his declaration of intent to capture the Bastille of Japanese politics at Nagata-cho and implement his revolution from the inside out? That concern is now a very unlikely scenario — to prepare potential candidates for a lower house election, which rumor has it could come as early as June, he opened and begun operating on Sunday a political juku to prep potential candidates running either under the banner of One Osaka, his local party, or as allied forces. Backing down now would seriously wipe out the credibility of a man who’s riding The Big Wave.

Nagata-cho, here we come. Hashimoto Toru announces that One Osaka intends to field candidates in the next lower house election.

The word juku is often mistranslated as “cram school” in English, inspired by those exemplary Western educators who think Japanese children study too much. (Kumon is one of those jukus, and its system was adopted some years ago in a few of the lower southern states in the U.S. as a way to help laggard students.) This, however, is a juku in the original sense of the term — a private facility for the instruction of one’s “disciples”.

Mr. Hashimoto announced his intention to eventually accept 400 students for intensive training, of which 300 will become candidates, and of which he hopes 200 will win election. That’s a bit short of a lower house majority, but with even half that number, nothing happens in the Diet without him. That’s also before the totals of Your Party and other regional parties are factored in.

An article in the 10 February weekly Shukan Asahi (Hashimoto opponents) presented the argument that it won’t be possible for One Osaka to field 300 candidates. They quote one veteran pol as saying that it costs about JPY six million for a campaign, either for a single-district seat or a proportional representation seat, and the party doesn’t have the national organization, money, or bed of existing votes to pull it off. He thinks that even 200 is a pipe dream.

Someone the magazine claims is close to One Osaka is quoted as saying that even Mr. Hashimoto knows its an impossibility to run that many candidates, but he’s using that as a ploy to get the national government to approve his Osaka Metro District plan.

An anonymous source affiliated with New Komeito in the Osaka area suggests that many of his local supporters are ready to back him in local elections, but because they are affiliated with other parties, they will revert to their former allegiances in a national election.

Elsewhere, LDP Secretary-General Ishihara Nobuteru declared, “They can’t take 100 seats. 30-40 is the reality.”

The magazine appeared on newsstands at beginning of February. Since then, he received 3,326 applications for admission to his school, and after a review of their essays, 2,262 students were accepted. The 400 selected for more intensive study will come from that group.

Some of the applicants were said to be sitting Diet members of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan. Now who can blame them? They didn’t learn anything about politics, the popular will, and keeping promises where they are now.

The funding for elections might be a problem because One Osaka is not a national political party with a minimum of five Diet seats. Therefore, it receives no public subsidies, and candidates will have to pay their own way. They’re already paying JPY 120,000 for the tuition to meet five times between now and June, when the winnowing takes place.

If you can tell a person by the company he keeps, Mr. Hashimoto is clearly a respectable but radical reformer. Several of the teachers already work with Your Party and have often been mentioned on this site. (In fact, there are tags for most.) Here’s a list:

Sakaiya Taiichi: Former head of Economic Planning Agency, non-fiction/fiction writer, chief Hashimoto advisor, professor emeritus at the juku

Nakata Hiroshi: Former lower house member and Yokohama mayor, member of the Spirit of Japan Party

Okamoto Yukio: Former diplomat, now foreign affairs commentator and independent businessman, former aide to Prime Minister Koizumi, has served on board of several companies, including Asahi Beer, and served as Mitsubishi auditor

Koga Shigeaki: Former Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry official, author of three books, and the man who became the symbol of the national victimhood when the DPJ betrayed its promises to get the bureaucracy under control.

Hara Eiji: Another METI vet and bureaucracy-bashing author

Takahashi Yoichi: Former Finance Ministry official, devised the original plan for Japan Post privatization under Takenaka Heizo’s supervision, now a commentator, advisor to Your Party, and university professor.

Yamanaka Toshiyuki: Former diplomat, now works in human resource training

Suzuki Wataru: Economics professor

Kitaoku Nobuichi: Professor specializing in foreign affairs and diplomatic history, former personal advisor to Prime Minister Koizumi.

The belle of the ball

Winning big is the best way for a politician to win friends, influence people, and become a supersized enchilada himself, and that’s just what Mr. Hashimoto does. Since his initial success as Osaka governor, many politicians flocked to the political alpha male in the hope some of his shine would reflect off them. Three years ago Masuzoe Yoichi, then the Health Minister in the terminal LDP governments and viewed by some as the last great hope for the LDP reformers, tried to coax the governor into an alliance. Some viewed him as an ineffective political organizer/operator, which subsequent events have borne out. Mr. Hashimoto seems to have understood that right away, and deflected his interest.

He’s also attracted the attention and approval of Tokyo Metro Gov. Ishihara Shintaro, who’s defended him against charges of dictator tendencies:

“People call him a dictator, so perhaps everyone’s a little daunted by him. But that’s just arbitrary. Unless a person with the power of ideas directs affairs from the top down, nothing gets done. It’s the same way here (in Tokyo).”

Mr. Ishihara’s only beef seems to be that the Osaka Metro District plan calls for the creation of an “Osaka-to” in Japanese. That’s a throwback to the Tokyo governor’s emergence into the public eye more than 50 years ago as a literary sensation writing best-selling fiction and non-fiction. (He was also a Vietnam war correspondent on special assignment.) He objects to the use of “to” (都), which he insists should be applied only to national capitals. (He has a point; one meaning of the Japanese reading of the word is “seat of government”. Then again, Osakans have always had a big idea of themselves.)

While Mr. Hashimoto welcomes the attention and is respectful of his elders, he’s also done a good job of deflecting the talk of an alliance with the Tokyo governor. Mr. Ishihara is discussing the formation of a new political party with Kamei Shizuka, an anti-Japan Post privatization non-reformer and paleo-conservative in the Japanese sense, whose party is still officially a junior coalition partner with the DPJ government. Mr. Hashimoto politely gave them the stiff-arm:

“There has to be a certain agreement on policies, such as opposition to tax increases and devolution from central authority.”

Mr. Kamei is not interested in the second of those policies mentioned. He’s part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The Osaka mayor has also developed a close professional relationship with Nakata Hiroshi and Yamada Hiroshi of the Spirit of Japan Party (more here). Both were appointed special advisors to the city after Mr. Hashimoto’s election, and Mr. Nakata is teaching at the juku. Asada Hitoshi, the chairman of the Osaka Prefectural Assembly and the policy chairman for One Osaka, attended a banquet for the Spirit of Japan Party in Osaka. Mr. Asada thanked them for their help in creating the Ishin Hassaku, or One Osaka’s policy framework, and added, “We share a sense of values.” Replied Mr. Yamada:

“We have great hopes for what’s happening in Osaka…We hope to be able to create a third political center by gathering people who share their view of the state and history.”

Former LDP Secretary-General Nakagawa Hidenao, the most prominent of the Koizumians left standing in the party, invited Mr. Hashimoto to Tokyo to participate in a study group and offer his opinions on devolution. Said the mayor:

“The people think that nothing will happen unless the Kasumigaseki social system is changed.”

But he was preaching to the converted. Several younger and mid-tier LDP members are attracted to the mayor’s movement, and there are also rumors of more private contacts with LDP member Kono Taro. The son of a former prominent LDP pol himself, Mr. Kono claims to be an advocate of small government, but sometimes skates onto very thin ice. (He thinks international financial transactions should be taxed and the funds given to multinational public sector do-gooders. He still hasn’t figured out that the global warming bologna was a scam.)

Another LDP member in the Hashimoto corner is former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. Mr. Abe recently spoke at an Osaka symposium for a private sector group called the Organization for Reviving Japanese Education. Attending was new Osaka Gov. Matsui Ichiro, Mr. Hashimoto’s partner in One Osaka. Their common objective is to reshape the current educational system, and at a post-conference meeting with reporters, the governor said they were on the same page. Mr. Matsui also said that the schools’ opposition to the amendments of the Basic Education Law passed during the Abe administration means that the popular will is not reflected in the school curriculum.

The most important of Hashimoto’s allies, however, is the reform Your Party. (Reports of their activities often grace these pages.) Party head Watanabe Yoshimi was interested in joining forces when Mr. Hashimoto arose as a political figure (a year or two before Your Party was formed), but was said to have been restrained by his party co-founder and Secretary-General, Eda Kenji, due to concerns that the Osaka mayor was a loose cannon. If that was true, the leash is now off. Said Mr. Watanabe:

“We must work to ensure as a party that this movement (One Osaka) spreads nationwide.”

He says the policies of One Osaka and Your Party are nearly the same, and adds that they have plans to form a joint policy study group and a political alliance nationwide. Those policies include the reorganization of local governments into a state/province system, the creation of an Osaka Metro District, and the idea that the new sub-national units receive all the consumption tax revenue. Mr. Watanabe has created a catchphrase to crystallize the ideas of his party’s policies, which is “giving the ‘three gen’” to local governments. Gen is the final syllable of the words kengen (authority), zaigen (revenue sources) and ningen (people).

L-R: Gov. Matsui, Mayor Hashimoto, Mr. Watanabe, Gov. Omura. The shape of things to come?

Further, Your Party executives as well as others in the party responsible for the candidacies in single-seat districts will study at the One Osaka political juku with the party leadership’s blessing. That includes about 20-30 people from Osaka, Kyoto, and Hyogo. Your Party plans to run 100 candidates in the next lower house election, and they’ve settled on about 70 so far.

The Shukan Asahi also quoted a Your Party source as saying that Mr. Watanabe and Mr. Hashimoto have reached a private understanding that the former would be “the first prime minister”. They suggest that Mr. Watanabe thinks control of the Diet is in their aggregate grasp.

The Osaka mayor is also an official international phenomenon — he’s attracted the attention of South Koreans. That’s only natural: national elections will be held in that country in April and December this year. KBS-TV sent a crew to hop over to Osaka for interviews. Commenting on the Korean interest, the mayor said:

“I look forward to the emergence in South Korea of new politicians who aren’t beholden to vested interests.”

Asked by a Korean reporter about his political juku, he answered:

“We must create politicians who aren’t under the thumb of vested interests. If South Korea can get excited about the same thing, I’d like to see Japan and South Korea move in same direction.”

The Japanese media spoke to one of the KBS reporters after the interview, and he told them:

“There’s quite a lot of reporting on Hashimoto in South Korea. After actually meeting him, I sensed his strong intent for reform.”

Critical to the success of any politician is his capacity to appeal to people who don’t agree with all his positions, but are on board for the most important of them — in this case, governmental reform. For example, Mr. Hashimoto supports amending the Constitution to permit the Japanese to maintain military forces for self-defense. Chiba Mayor Kumagai Toshihito also supports amending the Constitution, but for the opposite reason — he wants to prevent Japan from becoming involved in any conflict. Nevertheless, he said:

“The structure of the local governments where we live is an important issue, but one that has not attracted much interest. That it became the primary issue contested in the Osaka election is epochal…We of the “government ordinance cities” (cities with authority similar to that of prefectures) strongly seek the transfer of authority from the prefectures. I don’t agree with all of the opinions in Mr. Hashimoto’s Osaka Metro District concept, but our intent to change Japan from the regions is the same.”

Local party time!

Hashimoto Toru is the most visible manifestation of the ferment of regional politics in Japan, but he is by no means alone. This time last year, all eyes were on the newly elected mayor of Nagoya, Kawamura Takashi, and the governor of Aichi Prefecture, Omura Hideaki. Their victory in a February 2011 triple election might have been more impressive than the Osaka result because the Kawamura — Omura alliance is between men originally of different parties. Also, their tax-cutting, small-government message was accepted by people in a region that has been a stronghold for the tax-raising, big government DPJ. (This is the national headquarters of Toyota, and there are plenty of labor unions.)

Mr. Hashimoto actively lent his support to the two men and their respective regional parties last year, and members of One Osaka came to help campaign. (It should not be overlooked that this revolution is occurring in Osaka and Nagoya, Japan’s second- and third-largest cities.) It’s expected that the three men will form an alliance for a national election, and while that will probably happen, there are some differences in viewpoints between them.

For example, Kawamura Takashi’s party is called Genzei Nippon, or Tax Reduction Japan. He favors sharp cuts in taxes (which he has partially achieved in his first year in office). Though Mr. Hashimoto has criticized the Noda Cabinet’s plan to raise the consumption tax, and he is allied with the anti-tax increase Your Party, he has also criticized the Kawamura approach. That criticism provides a fascinating glimpse of his philosophy:

“The awareness I would like to see is not transferring work or duties from city hall to the ward offices, but transferring decision-making authority from the mayor to the heads of the ward offices. The ultimate objective is, ‘We don’t need a mayor’.”

He’s also said that he would be cool to a formal alliance with them unless Mr. Kawamura makes some adjustments, including his campaign for tax cuts:

“At the current stage, let’s stop talking about tax increases, or reducing taxes, or opposing tax increases. It is nonsense in our present state for politicians to be expressing an opinion about either tax increases or cuts. If society as a whole is going to create a system of mutual support, it’s natural for the members of society to assume the liability for an appropriate share. First, we should identify what sort of social system we want to create. Whether or not the residential tax should be cut is a minor matter that should be discussed at the end of the process.”

Mr. Hashimoto has presented this view on several occasions. If he’s serious, that would represent a drastic departure from the political status quo anywhere, much less Japan. He’s talking about bottom up government with the political class last.

The Aichi governor and Nagoya mayor have a plan for the administrative reorganization of their own area, which they call Chukyo-to. (Ishihara Shintaro won’t like that to either.) While they’re working on common ground, Mr. Hashimoto believes they need to do some more thinking about the concept, and he has the sense that they aren’t clear on exactly what they want to accomplish. Representatives from Aichi and Nagoya have had meetings on the Chukyo concept, but they have yet to present a plan for changing the current form of the administrative bodies, such as breaking up Nagoya (The Osaka plan calls for eliminating the administrative entity that is the city of Osaka and creating self-governing wards in the region.)

Mr. Kawamura says, however, that he spoke to Mr. Hashimoto by phone and explained that their plan calls for the merger of Aichi and Nagoya, but that the framework will take into account regional considerations. That will include maintaining the form of a city of Nagoya. Nevertheless, he wants to maintain their alliance.

Complicating this somewhat is that Your Party’s Watanabe Yoshimi has his own plan for the region, which would eliminate Nagoya and its current 16 wards and create seven new regional districts. Each of these special districts would have a chief municipal officer and a legislature. As with the Osaka Metro District concept, the idea behind the Watanabe plan is to eliminate redundant government systems. It would reduce the number of city workers by 20% and save JPY 50 billion. Mr. Kawamura thinks the people of Nagoya would not support it, and Mr. Omura thinks the Watanabe plan lacks specifics.

Meanwhile, both men have decided to establish a political juku of their own. The first was Mr. Omura, who announced his at the end of January:

“I want the three major metropolitan areas of Tokyo, Aichi, and Osaka to form an alliance and change Japan.”

His idea is to present candidates for the four Tokai prefectures of Shizuoka, Aichi, Gifu and Mie. Mr. Omura announced yesterday that he had received 751 applications, and after reviewing their documents, 678 have been accepted. About 80% are from Aichi, and include company employees, national and local civil servants, and local government council members. One of the speakers will be Takenaka Heizo, the Koizumi privatization guru, and another will be one of the elder statesmen of Japanese journalists, Tahara Soichiro.

Oddly, Mayor Kawamura didn’t like the idea at first. He told reporters, “I cannot agree with how they’re going about it.” That didn’t change his relationship with the Aichi governor, however. He still supports the Chukyo-to concept, and said, “There is no change in our friendship.”

But Mr. Kawamura suddenly changed his mind — you know what they say about imitation and flattery — and plans to set up his own political science class to start next month. His reasons:

“I want to communicate my thinking to the next generation. It is also for the next lower house election.”

The curriculum at his school will focus on taxes and national defense issues, and he will ask Hashimoto Toru and Omura Hideaki to send over some teachers. He expects to run Genzei Nippon candidates in the next lower house election in the five lower house districts in Nagoya.

He’s sticking to his tax cutting pledge, too. Despite Mr. Hashimoto’s criticism, it’s easy to like his approach.

“To improve the people’s lives, we must not raise taxes. Rather than tax revenue, we must raise (the people’s) income…the revenue source for tax reduction is governmental reform.”

It’s not often mentioned in the media, but Mr. Kawamura would have special committees established in each district of the city to have the residents determine how they would spend the tax revenue in their area. While taxes would be cut, it would give — you got it — power to the people to decide how they want to spend the money.

Now this is the kind of debate I can get behind. One man is opposed to immediate tax increases absent reform and says let the people decide what they want first, while the other man says the issue is raising income rather than taxes and tax reduction should be achieved by cutting government.

That’s my idea of win-win.

Coming next: An overview of other Hashimoto policies and a first look at his critics. Here’s a taste — He’s backing an idea proposed by the man being interviewed.

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

Nippon Noel 2011

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 25, 2011

CHRISTMAS customs in East Asia may lack the self-perpetuating momentum of the holiday in Christian countries in the West with a longer tradition, but the season and its symbols can still generate intense emotion in this part of the world. An example is the the steel towers decorated as Christmas trees that an evangelical group erects every year two miles from the North Korean border on the 100-foot-high Aegibong Hill. They were to have been illuminated on Friday, which would have made them visible to soldiers on the northern side of the border and residents of the North Korean city of Kaesong.

The decorations have caused periodic friction between the two countries — Bah, humbug might well be the North Korean national motto — and so were stopped in 2004. The group resumed the practice in 2010, but this year the Scrooges in Pyeongyang said they’d shoot out the lights and it would be the southerners’ fault if they did. Since no one has any idea of the leadership’s current state of mind up north, or even who constitutes the leadership, the South Koreans decided discretion was the better part of holiday virtue and will refrain from flipping the switch on the towers this week.

Fortunately, there’s a lot more peace on the Japanese part of the earth, and they can and do light all the Christmas trees they want anywhere they feel like it. The Japanese view Christmas as an excellent opportunity to stage a festival of light. Indeed, with all the imagination incorporated into the designs, their variations on the theme of tannenbaum might be considered a minor form of public art. Here are some of the best in 2011.


They’ve been partying since 13 November at the Aqua Christmas 2011 festivities in Odaiba. The sponsors have exhibited a seven-meter-high Marina Fantasy Tree that represents a Christmas tree rising out of the sea, which is a satisfying image for an island country. An added touch is that the colors change in coordination with the music.

They’re just as abstract over at the Shinjuku Southern Terrace shopping facility. Inside the tower are two switches that change the lights from red to green to blue to a Christmasy pink to yellow to rainbow, accompanied by stately bell sounds. They’re calling it the Kizuna Tree, with kizuna being the human ties that bond, and they suggest it’s an excellent way for couples to strengthen their own ties. Christmas Eve is the big date night of the year in Japan, and if a young couple were to stop by to strengthen their ties at the Kizuna Tree and wound up buying something before they left, then so much the better.

The cutbacks in power consumption necessitated by the Tohoku disaster forced people to use their imaginations and discover new ways to find the juice for the lights. The most frequently adopted solution is LEDs, but many places also use wind power, and some even went with vegetable oil.

Wind power was the choice to light up a 400-meter stretch of zelkova trees in toney Roppongi Hills. It’s the first time they’ve trimmed the trees for Christmas in this neighborhood, so they decided to get creative with pink and beige lights designed to look like a waterfall. Those lights don’t look pink or beige, and they don’t resemble a waterfall either, but that’s what the copy said.

Awareness of the Tohoku disaster is still fresh in everyone’s minds, and that’s why the trees displayed in the central concourse at the JR Ueno Station were decorated with ornaments made in the areas hardest hit in March. They were put together by women in Kuji and Rikuzentakata in Iwate, and Ishinomaki in Miyagi who were suddenly unemployed in the aftermath of the earthquake/tsunami. The operation was put together by a group in Saitama called Team Tomodachi to help those in the stricken areas. They asked the women to make the ornaments, which they then sold to remunerate them for their work. The material used was the leftovers from the process for manufacturing organic cotton products.

The trees themselves were put up by Atre Ueno, a local shop, with the help of the Tokyo and Sendai branches of the East Japan Railway Co. and Ueno Station.

Seven women from Ishinomaki came to Ueno in November to hang the ornaments with Atre Ueno employees. One of the women explained that she thought she wouldn’t be able to do it when someone approached her with the idea — she had spent her whole life processing wakame seaweed by hand, and crafts were not her hobby. The longer the group worked together, however, the more fun they had. She said that, on reflection, she lost a lot this year, but also wound up gaining something as well.


A look at some of the posts under the Christmas tag for a peek at Christmases past will show that PET bottles are a favorite choice as a tree material substitute. All the trees along this pedestrian walkway near the municipal offices in Nantan, Kyoto, were made with the preformed polyethylene terephthlate. The members of a local club found about 3,500 empties, which surely left them with sticky fingers. They weren’t too sticky, however, to prevent them from putting together 30 1.8-meter trees of six levels with 30 bottles, and two 2.4-meter trees of eight levels with 500 bottles, and then lining them up along the 200-meter pathway. If you’re in the neighborhood and want to see for yourself, they’ll be lit until 8:00 p.m. tonight.


An executive committee consisting mostly of JCs got profligate with the LEDs a little further to the north in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, and used 200,000 to decorate a 200-meter-long row of zelkova trees at the city’s Tsuba Center square near the train station for the seventh year.

This year, they wanted the display to reflect the wishes for national recovery, so the lights spell out Gambaro Nippon, or Let’s Fight, Japan.

There’s another tree-based illuminated decoration at the Chuo Koen (Central Park) in the city. If you can’t make it there for Christmas, don’t worry — they’ll be up until 9 January, and that makes a few more than the standard 12 days of Christmas.


Santa will visit and a tree will be lit at the Noritake Garden, a ten-year-old park in Nagoya. Mr. Claus will again climb the chimney on the ceramics plant to plant a 12-meter-high tree there. The reduced supply of electricity this year caused by fallout from the Fukushima disaster will be offset by a solar power generator installed at the facility in October, capable of producing an average of 120 kW a day.


Everybody likes Christmas surprises, so the Shinwa Construction Co. in Osaka has had a suprise for a different neighborhood every year for the past eight years. They use the front lot of whatever condominium that they happen to be in the process of building and put up a 12-meter-high Christmas tree with 30,000 LEDs with no warning on 1 December. Naturally, this keeps the Osakans wondering where the tree will turn up every year, and making a special trip to see when they find out. This year the tree was put up in Yodogawa Ward, but this photo shows one from about five years ago.

The company also staged a “Christmas Event” on the 22nd and 23rd with an artificial snow machine and stalls selling such Yuletide delicacies as oden and yakitori roasted o’er an open fire.


Not all that gllitters is an LED. The 10-meter-high tree put up by the Ukai Venetian Glass Museum in Hakone consists of 70,000 pieces of crystal glass, which flash in seven different colors in the sunlight. Though it’s illuminated externally at night, as you can see in the video, the tree itself has no internally lit ornaments. The facility also added 60 candles and 180 lanterns to the park exhibit on 1 December.


The northern island of Hokkaido is cold enough to pass for the North Pole — they start wearing jackets at night at the end of August — so Christmas comes naturally to the natives. The city of Hakodate is also known for the big trees at its Hakodate Christmas Fantasy. It’s so well known, in fact, that the city of Hirosaki in the neighboring prefecture of Aomori put up their own 20-meter tree at the site. Hirosaki Mayor Kasai Noriyuki explained the display was to promote ties between the two cities.

And hey, what’s Christmas without a fireworks display?


The Kagoshimanians also got into the Christmas spirit by making three trees out of PET bottles, which they displayed at a big shopping mall in the center of the city. It’s the third year Yamagata-ya has put up PET bottle trees to enhance awareness of ecological activities and recycling. The main six-meter-high tree used about 2,800 bottles brought by customers and 6,500 LEDs provided by the store, and if you look behind the adult Santa in the photo, you can see one of the three smaller subsidiary trees. They got the store customers to help put them together and hang the decorations, which is a bit like Tom Sawyer getting his friends to paint the fence, though this was more fun and a lot less messy.


A cosmetics manufacturing and sales company way down south in Fukuoka City decided to help make spirits bright up north after a very gloomy year in Fukushima, whose name will now be forever associated with a nuclear disaster. That’s why they put up this big tree next to the JR Fukushima Station in the city. Trimming any tree with more than 40,000 LEDs is bound to brighten the neighborhood and spirits both. Said local resident Matsumoto Ryoko, aged 75:

Just looking at it cheers me up. After this difficult year with the disaster, these are lights of hope.

They’ll be lit in their city until 11:00 p.m. tonight, and hopefully in their hearts for many more nights to come.

The year I came to Japan there was a musical tsunami in the form of Yamashita Tatsuro’s soundtrack to the movie The Big Wave. It hit #2 on the charts, making it one of the most successful soundtrack records in Japan. It was especially popular among people in their 20s and 30s, both because it was so well done, and because Yamashita himself was a favorite among people of that age at the time.

One half of the LP consisted of Yamashita’s tunes, and the other half of Beach Boy remakes that are more listenable than the originals, but then my taste lies in directions other than that of the Wilson brothers. He didn’t need any brothers for the harmonies because he overdubbed all the vocal parts himself.

Yamashita is (or should be) in the top rank of international pop music auteurs. Asked about his musical inspiration, he said he grew up listening to FEN (Far East Network), the radio station for American servicemen in this part of the world, which anyone with a transistor radio in Tokyo can hear. The production values of his music also recall uptown soul music, so if you can imagine a Japanese singer creating original material that mixes Beach Boy and soul music influences, then you’re close to the Yamashita sound.

Even better known than the original Big Wave LP is his Christas song, called Christmas Eve, which was released as a single the year before. It reached only #44 on the 1983 charts (the LP from which it came was #1), but it had miraculous staying power: it’s the only Japanese pop song to reach the Top 100 for 20 straight years. The single eventually sold 1.8 million copies, boosted by its use as the theme song for JR East’s seasonal commercials starting in 1986. The residuals alone must surely mean that all of his Christmases will be bright.

What better cyber-present could there be than an embedded video of the song with scenes from the commercials throughout the years? Here’s hoping that your real presents are as sweet as the girl waiting behind the train station pillar in 1989. メリークリスマス!

Posted in Holidays, Popular culture | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Now what

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 28, 2011

In the several elections held since the beginning of the 21st century, the (Japanese) people have continued to shout, “Affairs cannot be entrusted to the bureaucracy,” and “Grow out of bureaucracy-led politics”.
– Sakaiya Tai’ichi

In the past, they would change the era name to stop ongoing natural disasters, but isn’t a change of government what’s needed now?
– Kan Naoto, 23 October 2004, on his blog after visiting Ehime and Kochi to view typhoon damage

SUNDAY was election day for the second and final round of sub-national elections. Even Prime Minister Kan Naoto atypically admitted the results represented a defeat for his ruling Democratic Party. His assertion that none of it was his fault, however, was all too typical.

Part two consisted primarily of balloting for chief municipal executives and assemblies. Politicians at this level in Japan are less likely to have a formal party affiliation; 60% of the winners in the assembly elections do not belong to a party, and those who do tend to be associated with the smaller parties. Nationwide, the rank of municipal seats by party before the election started with New Komeito, followed by the Communists, the Liberal-Democratic Party, and the DPJ. That ranking is unchanged after this election, and the DPJ’s gain in their aggregate seat total was marginal at best.

At the top of the tickets, DPJ party candidates went head-to-head with opposition candidates in 10 elections for chief municipal executive and lost seven. One of their victories was the reelection of the incumbent mayor of Oita City. This was the fourth such sub-national election for the DPJ since their founding, and these results, combined with their dismal showing in Round One, demonstrate the ruling party of the national government is losing ground with the electorate rather than gaining.

The defining action by the party that demonstrates its current predicament was a non-action—they failed to contest a by-election for the lower house Diet seat a DPJ member vacated in a futile campaign for Nagoya mayor in February. That failure was the focus of post-election commentary in Japan. Said the Nishinippon Shimbun:

“Conspicuous from the first round of elections was the party’s losses due to uncontested elections, and their cooperation with the LDP and other parties to back candidates. While this exposes the weakness of their local organizations, which are incapable of developing candidates of their own, in many cases they also avoided running candidates in elections they thought they would lose. The DPJ has a heavy responsibility for failing to face the voters and offer policy and electoral choices, despite being the ruling power in national government.”

The poor DPJ showing was the signal for the resumption of moves to find some way—any way—to get rid of Prime Minister Kan. The key word is “resume”; were it not for the earthquake and tsunami, he would already have been disposed. The downside to this good news is that replacing Mr. Kan might be akin to a lothario ditching a girl who gave him the crabs and winding up dating a girl with chlamydia.

First the electoral truth, and then the consequences.


Momentum continued to gather for Osaka Ishin no Kai, the regional party led by Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru, as their candidate Inoue Tetsuya defeated the incumbent mayor of Suita, who was supported by the DPJ and two other parties. It was Mr. Inoue’s first election campaign.

DPJ Diet member Tarutoko Shinji resigned his position as chairman of the local party federation to take responsibility for the party’s poor showing in Osaka this month. Mr. Tarutoko’s strategy was to confront Gov. Hashimoto (a switch from 2009, when the party went out of their way to kiss his posterior), and that nothing turned out to be a real uncool hand. Some party members now want to rethink their support of Osaka Mayor Hiramatsu Kunio, a Hashimoto critic, in his re-election bid this fall.

In the 17 cities of Osaka Prefecture, New Komeito and Your Party elected all of their candidates. The DPJ elected 46 of 56, or 82%, (down from 95% four years ago), and the Communist Party 63 of 73, or 86% (down from 96% four years ago). Eight candidates from local reform parties were elected in three cities, including the Ryoma Project x Suita Shinsenkai.


Former LDP lower house MP Niwa Hideki regained the seat he lost in 2009 in Aichi #6, defeating freelance reporter Kawamura Akiyo of Tax Reduction Japan by a margin so large city employees should be congratulated for taking the time to finish counting the votes. TRJ, led by Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi, was hoping their tsunami of a victory in February would carry them into the national legislature, but in this campaign they didn’t generate a ripple. Name recognition, a wish for post-disaster stability, and Ms. Kawamura’s inexperience may have been factors. (The two Kawamuras are unrelated—different kanji for the kawa.) The LDP focused its attention on this election, and party head Tanigaki Sadakazu came to campaign several times. Mr. Niwa also had the de facto support of New Komeito. This is the race the DPJ was too chicken to run in.

The results for the TRJ were so poor Mr. Kawamura confided to an old friend in the DPJ several days before the election that it would have better to give it a pass. Nevertheless, he made some progress on his agenda in Nagoya despite the election results. His party offered a bill to permanently halve the salaries of city council. The LDP and the DPJ countered with a bill providing for a temporary salary cut with a neutral third party determining the amount. None of them had the votes to get their bills passed, so they compromised by passing a bill for a temporary 50% reduction with no time period specified. Mr. Kawamura seems to have gotten the better end of the deal for now.


Events in Akune, Kagoshima, over the past year have received prominent coverage nationwide. Akune is a small city, and most of its revenue goes to public employee remuneration. Former Mayor Takehara Shin’ichi had strong public backing for his plan to pay city council members on a per diem basis instead of straight salaries. When the council refused to pass his legislation, however, he started governing by decree and the public turned against him. He was recalled in a close vote a few months ago, and lost the campaign to replace himself by another close vote. But when the new mayor reinstated the old salary system, Mr. Takehara’s supporters succeeded in having the entire city council recalled.

The new election for the 16 council members was held on Sunday, and both factions ran 11 candidates. The anti-Takehara group, mainly city council veterans, campaigned on a promise to end confusion in government and won 10 seats, while the pro-Takehara group of amateurs won six seats on a platform of reducing the number of assembly members, reinstating the per diem pay system, and cutting the fixed asset tax. The group of veterans also received about 1,000 more votes in the aggregate.

The winners will still have to mind their Ps and Qs, however. The candidate who received the most votes was Takehara Emi, the former mayor’s sister, who was part of the faction calling for downsized government.


The DPJ lost six of eight de facto head-to-head elections among mayors and ward heads in the Tokyo Metro District. The party also must have been discouraged by Murata Nobuyuki’s failure to gain a seat as a delegate to the Meguro Ward assembly. Mr. Murata, a freelance journalist, is the husband of DPJ national poster girl and reform minister Ren Ho. His candidacy developed no traction despite an early declaration. Neither Mrs. Murata’s speeches on his behalf nor her photograph on his campaign posters helped. There were 55 candidates for 36 seats. Mr. Murata finished in 42nd place with 893 votes, 457 votes shy of a seat.

Another Tokyo election of interest was that for the chief municipal officer of Setagaya Ward. The winner was Hosaka Nobuto of the Social Democratic Party (Japan’s loony left), who campaigned on an anti-nuclear power platform. The mass media thought his victory was Very Important News Indeed and treated it as such.

What they found less worthy of reporting was that the local LDP party organizations failed to agree on a single candidate, so two candidates split the LDP vote in the ward. The party organization for the Tokyo Metro District backed Hanawa Takafumi, while the organization for Setagaya supported Kawakami Kazuhiko. Mr. Hosaka received roughly 84,000 votes, Mr. Hanawa 78,000, and Mr. Kawakami 60,000. Had there been a single LDP candidate, the news from Setagaya on election night might have been Not Very Important At All.


Sakaiya Tai’ichi once held high positions in the predecessor of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. He is now a freelance writer, commentator, and harsh critic of the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy in general, the Finance Ministry in particular, and the Bank of Japan and the domestic banking industry to boot. It would be impossible to improve on his summary of the DPJ government since taking power:

“The DPJ boasted that by eliminating waste from the budget they could squeeze out JPY 7 trillion in fiscal resources. They offered such new policies as the child allowance, the elimination of expressway tolls, and subsidies to individual farm households. The people were doubtful, but they expected the party to do something new. That’s why they won 308 seats in the 2009 lower house election.

“But the people were betrayed. The new DPJ government immediately became captives of the bureaucracy, and amakudari flourished. The ministers merely read out by rote the texts the bureaucrats had written for them. The budget reviews were broadcast live, but because the Finance Ministry had drawn up the scenario, they cut out only JPY 700 billion. That’s about the same total the LDP came up with when they were in power.

“Their promise to reduce civil servant salaries by 20% was an utter lie. In addition, their ignorance and lack of information in foreign policy and defense matters was exposed with the Okinawa base issue, as well as with the Senkakus and the Northern Territories.

“That’s why the DPJ has continued to lose elections since 2010. They defended 54 seats in the July 2010 upper house election and lost 10. They lost a by-election for a Hokkaido lower house seat that October, and also lost the elections for governor of Wakayama and mayor of Fukuoka City and Kanazawa. This year they’ve been defeated in local elections in Aichi and Nagoya.”

Mr. Sakaiya left out one other complaint, but Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru finished it for him:

“The DPJ has to distance itself from public employee unions. I think popular sentiment when they took control of government was for a change in the public sector.”

The expression Uma no mimi ni nenbutsu—Buddhist sutras in a horse’s ear—would seem to be applicable.

The Kan administration’s post-earthquake behavior is just one of several reasons for the party’s electile dysfunction, but as the most recent demonstration of that dysfunction, it’s a convenient place for politicos to pitch a tent—even for those who are supposed to be their allies. Shimoji Mikio, secretary-general of the People’s New Party and technically part of the ruling coalition, gave the party some excellent advice:

“That the Kan administration’s response to the disaster is not understood by the people is reflected in the election results. Their continued election losses make even clearer the people’s lack of trust in the government. They should reevaluate their approach to policy and organization in light of these results.”

More sutras for the horse.

Sunrise Party Japan leader Hiranuma Takeo also found their approach to organization wanting:

“The government has created more than 20 councils to deal with earthquake relief and Fukushima, but their duties overlap. The people are scornful, so we must change the trend of politics.”

No one was more scornful than Keidanren Chairman Yonekura Hiroaki, who said on the 26th:

“The leadership’s erroneous instructions were the source of the confusion (after the earthquake).”

Referring to the Cabinet’s boast that it had declared a moratorium on their travel overseas to deal with the recovery efforts, Mr. Yonekura said:

“A Cabinet that does its job properly should stay at home and take charge of affairs, but if people incapable of properly performing their jobs do us the favor of leaving, I wouldn’t care.”


It might well be a waste of energy to hold Mr. Kan and the rest of the DPJ leadership in contempt. They seem at times to be living on another plane of existence. A Fuji-Sankei poll last week asked those surveyed if the prime minister had demonstrated leadership in dealing with Fukushima. The answers:

Yes: 13.4%
No: 79.7%

The losers of an election in a democracy are supposed to accept defeat gracefully. They are expected to acknowledge that the people have spoken and accept their verdict. The standards for accepting responsibility in Japan are higher still—those in positions of authority are expected to resign. Indeed, the head of the Aichi federation of DPJ parties, lower house member Maki Yoshio, said after the elections: “I will resign the position because I don’t want the voters to think this is a party of people who don’t take responsibility.”

Contrast that with the behavior of the party’s national leaders. Election campaign committee chairman Ishii Hajime offered his resignation at first, saying:

“The DPJ was defeated in the election and it was beginning to seem as if no one would take responsibility.”

But party Secretary-General Okada Katsuya said that wouldn’t be necessary:

“The results are better than the last time. Resigning by itself is not a way to take responsibility.”

So Mr. Ishii withdrew his resignation.

For his part, Kan Naoto has exasperated many because he wouldn’t recognize the concepts of accepting responsibility and gracefully accepting the will of the people if they walked up and bit him:

“Different people have said that (the DPJ) lost because our response to the earthquake was bad, but that’s not right. Our response to the earthquake has been sound.”

In fact, he has his own view on what constitutes the responsible course of action. When asked if he would resign, he said:

“Abandoning my responsibility is not the path I should take.”

He can’t say “Après moi le déluge” because there’s already been one in the Tohoku region.

It gets worse:

“That I am in this position (at this time) is fate. The people have a quite favorable opinion of what we’ve done so far.”

People who would be national leaders must realize everything they’ve said or done will be exposed, but Mr. Kan hasn’t made it there yet. When confronted with his blog post quoted at the top of this article, this is the best he could do:

“I can’t say right away whether I wrote that or not.”

The prime minister isn’t the only DPJ leader to have failed to notice it is no longer possible to hide one’s public past in the information age. Reporters asked Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio about poll results showing the public was extremely unhappy with the government’s handling of Fukushima. Mr. Edano’s usual response to these questions is that there are ups and downs in individual polls, and that he won’t respond to each one; i.e., the ones that make his party look bad. He should have stuck with that line instead of what he actually said this time:

“It’s natural that criticism would be harsh (but) I don’t think public opinion polls accurately reflect public opinion.”

He might as well have written Kick Me on a piece of paper and taped it to his backside. Before the day was out, reporters had dug up other Edano comments about polls made on the record in the Diet:

“Looking at the public opinion polls, most people think Health Minister Yanagisawa Hakuo should resign.” (March 2007)


“Looking at the public opinion polls, it is clear the people are opposed to the (Aso Cabinet’s) stimulus fund proposal.” (January 2009)

Enough already

It’s inevitable that political prey this weak will attract predators. But the only way to deal with people who act as if it is their fate and their mission to cling to office and make things worse is a Constitutional coup. The many plotters in this instance aren’t bothering to conceal their intentions. For starters, the Asahi Shimbun reported that destroyer-of-worlds Ozawa Ichiro met with People’s New Party head Kamei Shizuka, another veteran backstage manipulator, on Sunday evening “to exchange opinions about the political structure for disaster recovery”.

Ha ha ha!

On Monday, DPJ Diet members close to Mr. Ozawa launched a petition drive to convene a party meeting and hold an election to recall Mr. Kan as party president. Some suspect the real intent is to convince Mr. Kan to resign, as the petition would require the signatures of one-third of all DPJ Diet members. Said Kawauchi Hiroshi, the ringleader of this particular plot:

“Prime Minister Kan has no management ability. At a time such as this, the absence of a true leader will cause real trouble.”

Some politicians are accused of having lapdogs. Ozawa Ichiro has a lap pit bull, Yamaoka Kenji, one of the most obnoxious and nasty politicians ever to cast a shadow in a parliament building. Mr. Yamaoka convened a meeting this week of a group whose stated intention is knocking off Mr. Kan. The lineup was predictable: Boss Tweed’s daughter, former Foreign Minister Tanaka Makiko; politicians allied with former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio; and Haraguchi Kazuhiro, an Ozawa acolyte who served in the Hatoyama Cabinet.

About 50 or 60 people attended, an impressive showing of rebels for a party in power. In this case, however, it falls short of the 80 DPJ MPs needed to pass a no-confidence motion in the lower house, and it’s just about half the DPJ pols the media assumes are allied with Mr. Ozawa. Because everyone involved is aware of the numbers, they took the unusual step of calling on New Komeito to join them in forming a new coalition government. (That would give them a two-vote majority in the upper house, where the current government now falls short.)

Another reason, however, is that most members of the opposition LDP outside of the mudboat wing want nothing to do with an Ozawa Ichiro plot. They would prefer not to work with the Ozawa group if the latter were to submit a no-confidence motion. If the LDP were to submit their own no-confidence motion, however, an aye vote by a DPJ member would mean expulsion from the party. Therefore, the idea is to get inside the LDP’s collective head and threaten them with the loss of their former coalition partner.

Do they know something no one else does? New Komeito head Yamaguchi Natsuo has already said Mr. Ozawa should resign from the Diet altogether. Urushibara Yoshio, New Komeito’s Diet Affairs Chairman, told his LDP counterpart not to worry:

“They used the New Komeito name without asking us about it. We’re not in lockstep (with Ozawa).”

While the people want the Kan Cabinet gone, that isn’t the group they want to replace them. They lost what little confidence they had in Mr. Kan long ago, but they lost their confidence in the likes of Mr. Hatoyama, Mr. Ozawa, and the rest of the DPJ before that.

Here’s a comment from one person identified as a “long-time Nagata-cho observer”:

“The LDP and New Komeito dislike and reject Prime Minister Kan and Mr. Ozawa in equal measure. Many in the DPJ also dislike Ozawa. If a no-confidence motion were to pass, it might cause a political realignment that would shut out both Kan and Ozawa.”

Compatible with that observation is another scenario involving Nishioka Takeo, the president of the upper house. Serving in that role requires the resignation of their party membership, and Mr. Nishioka was an Ozawa ally in the DPJ. He’s been calling for the prime minister’s resignation for several weeks, and finally said he would have to make a decision of his own if Mr. Kan doesn’t quit. By that, people assume he will ask the opposition to submit a censure motion in the upper house, which would likely pass. Such a motion is not legally binding, but the Kan Cabinet would find it impossible to govern if the opposition decided to boycott the Diet until they resigned.

One writer speculated another ungainly platypus-like coalition might result: LDP head Tanigaki Sadakazu as prime minister and former DPJ Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito as deputy prime minister. Though Mr. Sengoku is from the same leftist turf where Kan Naoto grazes, he has a low opinion of the prime minister. After being brought back to the Cabinet as a deputy chief cabinet secretary to handle the recovery/reconstruction effort, he has openly criticized Mr. Kan’s conduct of post-earthquake affairs and the many organizations that he’s created.

Everyone would have to hold their noses, but that arrangement might work as a time-limited grand coalition with the LDP, New Komeito, and the anti-Ozawa faction in the DPJ to handle the recovery without having either Mr. Kan or Mr. Ozawa involved. The LDP has the experience, Mr. Sengoku is an intelligent and capable man, and no exchange of money between Mr. Ozawa and the construction companies would occur in addition to what already is being passed under the table.

How does Mr. Kan view these moves? There are now rumors that he wants to reshuffle the Cabinet and include some Ozawa and Hatoyama allies to forestall a DPJ revolt and prolong his political life.

History will judge Kan Naoto harshly as prime minister, to the extent that he is remembered at all. The longer he stays in office, the harsher that judgment will be.

Mustt Mustt is the title of a qawwalli that translates as “lost in intoxication”. The Indian singer has something else in mind, but that’s as good an explanation as any for the pride the Kan Cabinet takes in being dazed and confused.

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Wabbit season! Duck season! Kan season!

Posted by ampontan on Monday, April 18, 2011

The Kan DPJ has three principles when someone asks who will take responsibility for the election defeats: We will not apologize, we will not accept responsibility, and we will assume a defiant attitude. No one’s going to accept responsibility.
– A politician described as a “veteran Diet member”, speaking to a reporter off the record

IN ADDITION to determining the chief executives of local governments and the composition of prefectural and municipal assemblies, the first round of sub-national elections held throughout the country a week ago last Sunday ended the moratorium on political warfare that began with the Tohoku earthquake on 11 March. Hunting season on Prime Minister Kan Naoto and his Cabinet has resumed. Unlike the wascally wabbits and the ducks, however, the prey painted the targets on themselves.

The Democratic Party of Japan was desperate to bag some big game of its own in the balloting. The party has always had weak organizations at the local level, and they viewed the election as a means to strengthen their presence. The national party had hoped to win an outright majority in last summer’s upper house election, eliminating the need for coalition partners, but they lost seats instead. They’ve been smacked around in local elections since then, and were humiliated in the Nagoya/Aichi elections of February, an area where they traditionally do well. Had it not been for the political ceasefire called after the earthquake, Mr. Kan would already have been a dead duck rather than a lame one.

Prime Minister Kan in camouflage clothing at Ishinomaki

The prime minister tried to play his part. He demonstrated his familiarity with the concept of Western-style photo ops by paying a third visit to the distressed region on Election Day, and the news media cooperated by treating his trip as if it were an important story. Few of them reported that he spent all of 10 minutes at a shelter in Ishinomaki, Miyagi, and talked to two of the 15 people staying there. His inspiring message? Gambatte kudasai, please do your best. One resident later offered a rhetorical question to a reporter: Is that all he can say? Mr. Kan spent the rest of his time on the ground meeting with local pols, making a quick trip to survey the fishing port, and giving an impromptu radio broadcast. One wonders how many people bothered to tune in.

He might as well have sent a decoy instead. Japan has 47 prefectures, corresponding to states or provinces, and 41 held elections for their local assemblies. The DPJ failed to become the majority party in any of them. The Asahi Shimbun reported that the percentage of victory for party-backed candidates in the prefectural assembly elections was 60% for the DPJ and 90% for the opposition Liberal Democratic Party. LDP- and DPJ-backed candidates went head-to-head in three gubernatorial elections, and the DPJ lost all three.

In short, the people have given the DPJ government in general, and the Kan government in particular, a second vote of no confidence. The Mainichi Shimbun noted that the results were not only a reflection of Mr. Kan’s unpopularity. They were also, the newspaper said, a reflection of the party’s general weakness as a political group, their inadequacy at conducting the day-to-day business of retail politics, and their inability to coordinate candidates.

Here’s one example: The party wanted to find 21 candidates for the Nara prefectural assembly to run under the party banner (rather than the other options of “recommendation” or “support”). They canvassed several districts for interest, but got no takers. Said the local party chairman, “The confusion in the Diet has spread and created a sense of disappointment in the party itself.” Some of the people who agreed to run as official DPJ candidates later changed their minds and withdrew. The party wound up backing 15 candidates in all. It was the first try for public office for six of them, and five of them lost.

The Nishinippon Shimbun wrote that the election shows the voters are continuing to desert the established parties, particularly the DPJ, and shift to local parties. They called it another step towards devolution and the kind of tax reform that isn’t a euphemism for a tax increase. While they have a point, the local parties did not perform as well as they had hoped, as we shall see.


None of the gubernatorial candidates in the Tokyo Metro District election ran with the official backing of the DPJ or LDP at the national level, though the local LDP and New Komeito backed 78-year-old incumbent Ishihara Shintaro, and the local DPJ supported businessman Watanabe Miki.

That the ruling party of national government was unable to recruit a candidate for the most visible sub-national office in the country is evidence of their problems. They tried to convince Ren Ho to leave her upper house seat to run, but she demurred. The polls did not look good for her even before Mr. Ishihara changed his mind and decided to seek another term. Besides, having to take real executive responsibility instead of serving as one of more than 700 legislators and Cabinet window dressing would be too much like real work.

Mr. Ishihara was reelected to a fourth term with 43.40% of the vote in a multi-candidate field. Mr. Watanabe finished a poor third with 16.81%. In between was former Miyazaki governor and show business personality Higashikokubaru Hideo, who ran without party support, official or unofficial, and received 28.06% of the vote.

A more detailed look at the results reveals some fascinating information. Mr. Higashikokubaru finished first among voters in their 20s, with 42.2%. He was less popular among voters aged 40 and older, however. He also appealed to the independent bloc—they gave 34.8% of their votes to Mr. Ishihara, but 32.1% to Mr. Higashikokubaru. (That’s more bad news for the DPJ—independents account for roughly half of all voters, and the DPJ-backed candidate received an even lower percentage of the independent votes than he did overall.)

Most people attribute Mr. Ishihara’s victory to the support of local LDP voters and the perception that he would be the most capable person to take charge in the event of a Tohoku-like crisis.


A more painful result for the DPJ, and the one that might cost Secretary-General Okada Katsuya his job, was the gubernatorial election in Mie. It was the first time in 16 years this election had been directly contested by both the ruling and opposition parties in national government. In addition, the DPJ does well in Mie—the party holds four of the prefecture’s five seats in the lower house of the Diet, and two in the upper house. The officially endorsed or recommended DPJ candidate had won five straight prefecture-wide elections since 2000, including the last election for governor. Finally, it is also Mr. Okada’s home prefecture.

The two primary candidates were Suzuki Eikei, an ex-bureaucrat in the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, and Matsuda Naohisa, the former mayor of Tsu. Mr. Suzuki was recommended by the LDP and Your Party and supported by New Komeito. Mr. Matsuda was recommended by the DPJ.

The national opposition parties devoted particular attention to this election. Abe Shinzo and Aso Taro, two former LDP prime ministers, stumped for Mr. Suzuki, as did Your Party head Watanabe Yoshimi.

Mr. Suzuki won.


If anyone in Japanese politics today can be said to roll their own, it would be Osaka Prefecture Gov. Hashimoto Toru. No one, including the governor himself, can anticipate what he’ll say or do next, but that doesn’t bother the people of Osaka. They still give him 70%+ support in polls in the last year of his first term.

Gov. Hashimoto and his party came this close

His eccentric orbit notwithstanding, he has always piloted his spacecraft in the galaxy of regionalism. His consistent position has been that local governments should have more authority and the national government less. Over the course of his first term, he developed what he calls the Osaka-to Concept. By that he means reorganizing the prefectural government into a structure administratively similar to that of Tokyo’s. The Tokyo Metro District government has the primary responsibility for the municipal administration of the core 23 wards of the “city” of Tokyo, but the city of Osaka and its 24 wards are now governed independently of Osaka Prefecture. The governor’s idea is to incorporate the governance of that city and the city of Sakai with that of the prefecture, and to give Osaka’s wards more authority than those of Tokyo’s 23 wards.

Mr. Hashimoto created the Osaka Ishin no Kai, a de facto political party, to achieve that goal. His group backed candidates in the elections for the Osaka Prefecture Assembly and the assemblies of the city of Osaka and Sakai. The latter is a substantial city in its own right, with a population of 840,000.

The results of the election were mixed. Mr. Hashimoto’s party won 57 of 109 seats in Osaka Prefecture—the first outright majority in that chamber by any political party since the end of the war. They also won 33 of 86 seats in the city of Osaka (having backed 44 candidates) and 13 of 52 seats in Sakai, to become the largest party in both chambers.

But because the party failed to win an outright majority in the two cities, Mr. Hashimoto declared the election to have been a failure. He said he would go back to the drawing board for his Osaka-to Concept, even though the day before the election he declared that a majority wouldn’t be necessary if he received cooperation from other delegates.

A few days later, he announced that he and his group will hold discussions with the other parties in the two cities to reach a consensus by September. If an agreement is impossible, he will resign in November, four months before his term is scheduled to end, and run in a double election in December when the city of Osaka selects its mayor. That is an imitation of the successful strategy employed by Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi in February. Speaking of Nagoya and Aichi…


Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi and Aichi Governor Omura Hideaki continued the alliance that won them election in February on a program to cut local taxes by 10%. Their objective was to capture an outright majority for their political groups in the Aichi prefectural assembly.

They did pick up seats, but not as many as they wanted, and not a majority. Their total went from one to 18 members in a 103-seat chamber, and 45 if the candidates they recommended are included. The LDP lost its outright majority, but they are still the largest party with 49 seats.

Most observers think the earthquake/tsunami dimmed the appeal of their tax-cutting program. Mr. Kawamura attributed the defeat to “the mistaken theory that a tax increase was unavoidable”, but he stuck to his guns at a post-election news conference: “In difficult times, you have to stimulate the economy with a tax cut.”

Mr. Omura thought the general mood of self-restraint resulted in a subdued campaign. The turnout was disappointing after the interest generated by the triple elections two months ago. Just 42.01% of the voters went to the polls. 1.09 percentage points down from the previous election, and the lowest percentage ever.


Located next door to Aichi, Shizuoka was another battleground for the fight between the Tax Reduction Japan of Kawamura Takashi in Nagoya and the established parties. The former mayor of Shizuoka City stepped down after 16 years in office, clearing the field for new candidates. The LDP recommended Tanabe Nobuhiro, while Unno Toru, who lost the same election four years ago by 1,303 votes, ran under the Tax Reduction Japan banner. Mr. Tanabe also received the endorsement of several influential local DPJ politicians.

Thus the two largest national parties created an ad hoc, de facto alliance of forces to take on the insurgents. Both Maehara Seiji, who recently resigned as defense minister in the DPJ government, and LDP Secretary-General Ishihara Nobuteru campaigned in Shizuoka for Mr. Tanabe. He cannily used the post-earthquake mood and the year-long political turmoil in Nagoya to good effect against an opponent with greater name recognition. His speeches always presented this choice: “The election during this crisis is (the choice of) selecting either a stable city government or a city government in turmoil.” He stressed unity and contrasted that with the combative attitude of his tax-cutting neighbors. He made a point to always appear on stage with politicians from both the LDP and DPJ, and declare in his speeches: “Now is the time for us to become one. Men, women, people in their 20s, people in their 80s, the DPJ, the LDP…I have plenty of colleagues”

In contrast, Mr. Unno’s campaign slogan was “true government reform begins with tax reduction.”

Mr. Tanabe won the election with 45% of the vote. Mr. Unno received 42%, and a third candidate received the rest.

Meanwhile, the DPJ suffered large losses in the prefectural assembly, and the LDP won an outright majority.

The earth quakes in Nagata-cho

The many people who would like to see Mr. Kan gone were dismayed immediately after the earthquake/tsunami because they thought the disaster might prolong his occupancy in the Kantei by up to a year. Wrote former journalist, author, and commentator Shioda Maruo:

“Though (the earthquake) was a bitter event that left many people saddened, one person gained from it—Prime Minister Kan Naoto. The Kan administration had lost all support and become a mudboat that seemed to be on the verge of sinking at any moment. The emergency left the opposition, which was about to corner the government, no choice but to call a cease fire. Prime Minister Kan himself must have thought he had been saved. When I look at him, behaving as if his mudboat has been made seaworthy again, it makes my blood boil.”

Caution: Kan at Work

A less-than-inspirational figure under normal circumstances, Mr. Kan staggered rather than rose to the occasion. He nearly broke down at a news conference and did not hold another for three weeks. He finally showed up on the day after a national newspaper called him the hikikomori prime minister. (Hikikomori is the word used to describe those young people who hole up in a bedroom of their parents’ homes rather than conduct normal lives.) His behavior left the impression that uppermost in his mind was converting the disaster to political capital, thereby extending his term.

In addition, his administration made the conscious decision to shut out the bureaucracy from decision-making to deal with the aftermath of the earthquake. While the political class does need to put the Kasumigaseki bureaucrats in their place, they could also utilize the machinery of government and the expertise of its operators in this situation. Mr. Kan chose instead to show everyone that the DPJ government could do it themselves. Less than competent under normal circumstances, they again staggered rather than rose to the occasion and showed everyone that they can’t.

Mr. Kan is often criticized for his tendency to do whatever pops into his head at the moment. That tendency became manifest again when he made an out-of-the-blue telephone call to LDP President Tanigaki Sadakazu with the demand that the latter immediately agree to join a coalition government. He hadn’t bothered to discuss the possibility with anyone in his party or government beforehand, and insisted that Mr. Tanigaki decide without talking it over with his own party. When the LDP chief asked him for time to take the proposal to his colleagues, the prime minister said he took that as a refusal and would describe it that way to the news media—which he did. (Are the reasons people dislike Mr. Kan becoming clearer?)

Another frequent criticism of Mr. Kan and his Cabinet is for their seeming preference to form new committees and hold meetings without actually doing anything. A recent Asahi TV program presented a large chart showing they had created 10 new organizations (that I could count) for dealing with the disaster. Who could blame the announcers for speculating on the amount of wasted and duplicated effort? And as if on cue, the prime minister’s semi-regular e-mail message arrived as I was writing this post. The title is, “Launch of the Reconstruction Design Council”. The council held its first meeting yesterday.


Once people realized that the one-two combination of earthquake and tsunami had staggered the country, but not put it on the mat, the DPJ shellacking in the local elections crystallized dissatisfaction with the prime minister, both among his own party and the opposition.

Tokyo Gov. Ishihara Shintaro said what a lot of people were thinking:

“The DPJ was thrashed in both gubernatorial and assembly elections. Will the policies of a government that has lost the trust of the people serve the people?”

About the election results, he said:

“What else could you expect? They’re a group of immature people to start with. It’s inconceivable that they never convened a meeting of the administrative vice-ministers. They talk about saving electricity, but why haven’t they issued a cabinet order?

Mr. Kan might find it easy to dismiss this as an opposition attack, but he will not find it so easy to dismiss the attacks from within his own party.

Here’s DPJ member Ishihara Yosaburo, who represents Fukushima District #1 in the lower house:

“Prime Minister Kan Naoto said he understood (Fukushima) would be a long-term issue and he would deal with it in that manner, but this threatens the lives of the people of Fukushima and Japan. If he thinks this is a long-term issue, I hope he resigns immediately and is replaced by a new regime that can resolve the situation more quickly.”

Haraguchi Kazuhiro, a member of the Hatoyama Cabinet, said the following on the government’s response to Fukushima at a news conference sponsored by the Free Press Association of Japan:

“What should be done to prevent the release of highly concentrated radiation into the sea? If they are incapable of making that decision, the entire Cabinet should resign.”

Tarutoko Shinji, who has run for the DPJ presidency, left no doubt about his intentions despite the circumlocutory language:

“I have an extremely strong feeling that (this government) will not benefit the people in these circumstances.”

The revolt is close to the boiling point. Speaking to party members about the elections, DPJ Secretary-General Okada Katsuya admitted that the leadership’s lack of ability was an acceptable subject for criticism and apologized. Someone shouted from the floor:

“How long are you going to sit there?” (i.e. stay in your current position)

Okada: “Who spoke just now? Raise your hand and say that.”

No one did just then, but that didn’t last long.

Mr. Kan refuses to step down from a job he’s coveted his entire adult life, which has finally led to bipartisan cooperation. Executives from the two major parties are discussing ways to yank him down. JNN reported that senior members of the DPJ and LDP met to devise a strategy for dumping him.

One meeting was attended by Mr. Kan’s predecessor Hatoyama Yukio, Mr. Hatoyama’s chief cabinet secretary Hirano Hirofumi, current LDP Secretary-General Ishihara Nobuteru, and former LDP Secretary-General Ibuki Bunmei. The LDP is planning to submit a no-confidence motion in the lower house and a censure motion in the upper house, and it is becoming increasingly likely that some in the DPJ will vote for them. The meeting was to determine the timing of the submissions. Mr. Hatoyama thinks it’s too early, but Mr. Hirano said the limits of cooperation have been reached.

Ozawa Ichiro ally Yamaoka Kenji, one of the DPJ party vice-presidents, met with New Komeito Secretary-General Inoue Yoshihisa to discuss avenues of cooperation for removing Mr. Kan and governing post-Kan. Others attending included Hatoyama associate Nakayama Yoshikatsu and former Foreign Minister Tanaka Makiko. Mr. Yamaoka said the situation demanded the creation of a new coalition. Ms. Tanaka, still as blunt as her father after all these years, simply said, “This administration is really bad.”

That brings up the destroyer-of-worlds Ozawa Ichiro, who ostensibly controls the largest single bloc in the party. Not only does he agree that something must be done, he now seems ready to do something about it himself.

Last September Mr. Kan defeated Mr. Ozawa in an election for the post of party president and tried to use that as a wedge to drive him from the party. Now the shoe is on the proverbial other foot. Speaking with uncharacteristic urgency on an Internet TV program, Mr. Ozawa criticized the government’s response to Fukushima:

“We have no idea who (within the government) is responsible, nor what it is they’re supposed to do. This makes less sense than when everything was left to the bureaucrats.”

Speaking to 20 younger Diet members at a party at his home, he said:

“I won’t be forming a (new) party. We are the real DPJ. They are the ones who changed, so shouldn’t they be the ones to leave?”

Depending on the report, Mr. Ozawa is either mulling the possibility of calling for a recall vote within the party or supporting a no-confidence motion in the lower house. The media thinks there are roughly 90 people in Ozawa’s group in the lower house, and 80 DPJ votes are needed to pass that motion. Some wonder if the threat of a no-confidence motion is one way to force Mr. Kan to step down. Mr. Ozawa himself noted that the motion’s passage would require a new lower house election, and there are no suitable places to vote in some parts of the Tohoku region after the destruction.

A further complication is that Sengoku Yoshito is reported to be working behind the scenes in the DPJ to unseat the prime minister and replace him with Okada Katsuya, just as party members are calling for Mr. Okada’s head to pay for the election results. Though Mr. Sengoku served as Kan Naoto’s chief cabinet secretary until an upper house censure forced him to resign, he seems to share everyone else’s low opinion of Mr. Kan’s competence. Indeed, some theorized the reason the prime minister kept his phone call to the LDP chief a secret is that he didn’t want Mr. Sengoku to know.

Popular will

After the DPJ became the largest party in the upper house in the 2007 elections, they tried to force the LDP government to dissolve the lower house and call for new elections. They had a logical reason: The results for the upper house were the most recent expression of popular will.

Once in government, however, that logic has slipped the collective DPJ mind. Though they lost seats in the upper house last year and have performed poorly in local elections since then, culminating in the balloting on the 10th, they aren’t interested in the most recent expression of popular will now. Said Okada Katsuya at a post-election news conference:

“They were local elections. If someone calls for resignations because of them, it would be a mistake.”

He tried to put lipstick on the pig at a meeting of party committee chairmen:

“Even though a defeat is a defeat, we should create standards for counting official recognition and recommendations.”

In other words, the results wouldn’t look so bad if the successful campaigns of non-DPJ pols the party recommended were added to their victory total. That excuse quickly evaporated; one commentator noted: “Changing the method of calculating victories doesn’t change the fact that this was a defeat.”

Asked at a news conference about the possibility that the election performance would cause the prime minister to step down, Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio answered:

“The prime minister was given his duties based on the rule of democracy. The true path is the have the Cabinet exert every effort to fulfill those duties.”

Doesn’t that first sentence make you wish dunking stools could be brought back as a means to discipline the political class?

The agenda

Since Kan Naoto’s continued presence is detrimental to his party and the DPJ government, and he is the primary obstacle to discussions about legislation and policy between the ruling and opposition parties, people wonder why he’s staying put.

Here’s one possibility: The leftist elements of the DPJ realize this will be their last chance in government for the foreseeable future and want to make hay before the downpour. Last Wednesday, the DPJ’s project team to examine the establishment of a human rights commission held its first meeting with former Education Minister (and labor union activist) Kawabata Tatsuo as chairman. The Canadian experience with commissions of this sort indicates they are vermin magnets more likely to infringe human rights than to uphold them, but the rest of the world gave up on trying to understand the logic of the left long ago.

Mr. Kawabata and the DPJ want to establish a similar commission affiliated with the Cabinet Office. His team intends to reach a consensus within the party by early May and submit legislation to the current session of the Diet. That will be difficult; some proposals circulating in the party have included giving the commission the authority to search premises and seize documents without a court order. Some in the DPJ don’t care for the whole idea to begin with, and they’re well aware of the potential abuses of the right to free speech.

Explained Mr. Kawabata:

“We can’t put this off for a moment. We achieved a change in government, so I want to take this major step.”

Last month, Sengoku Yoshito told a meeting:

“It is an obligation of the DPJ government to establish this.”

By obligation, he means the establishment of a commission was hidden in the small print of the 2009 party manifesto, though even the DPJ knows that or similar planks in the platform weren’t the reason the electorate voted for them. It’s unlikely that most of the electorate were even aware of them.

One would think the Kan Cabinet has more pressing matters at hand to deal with, but that’s not how the thought process works in his wing of the party.

Speaking of Mr. Kawabata, by the way, more than JPY one million in political funds from his office were once found to have been paid to cabaret clubs for undisclosed reasons. He said it was all legal and didn’t want to discuss it. He also didn’t want to discuss irregularities with his office expenses similar to those that caused problems for later-stage LDP Cabinet ministers.

How lucky for Japan to have a clean party in government for a change!

Up next

And speaking of luck, last week’s events suggest the Kan Cabinet will be lucky to make it through the current Diet session, much less the rest of the year. That will call into question the DPJ government’s continued existence absent a lower house election. But then, a lower house election would highlight what might be a terminal illness.

They’ve never been particularly coherent, but their behavior is increasingly erratic. Discussing the DPJ’s electile dysfunction at a news conference last week, Okada Katsuya seemed oddly detached:

“Because we’re the ruling party, I wanted us to be more aggressive.”

This is the man with direct responsibility for the party’s election campaigns speaking.

The DPJ has been having trouble finding people willing to run as party candidates in elections, and they were incapable of fielding an official candidate in the Tokyo Metro District governor’s election. Now they’ve decided not to run an official candidate for the lower house by-election in Aichi’s District #6 to replace Ishida Yoshihiro, who resigned to run for mayor of Nagoya. (He lost.) Candidacy declarations were made on the 12th for the election to be held on the 24th, coinciding with the second round of sub-national elections. Five people declared, including people from the LDP and Tax Reduction Japan. None were from the DPJ.

It is telling that party executives said they decided not to run a candidate because of persistent criticism of the government and their recent dismal electoral performance.

In other words, the ruling party of government is not defending a seat it holds in a prefecture that is traditionally one of their strongholds because they know people don’t like them.

Commented Ishihara Nobuteru:

“That’s extremely unusual. It’s a by-election to replace a DPJ MP who ran for mayor. I thought the DPJ would be the first to decide on a candidate to defend their seat.”

Japan’s Democratic Party was incapable of winning national elections until they allowed Ozawa Ichiro to join and teach them. He’s no longer willing to serve as tutor, however–earlier this year, the DPJ suspended Mr. Ozawa from party activities because of his legal difficulties. Their clumsy bungling once in office put them behind the electoral eight ball even with Mr. Ozawa on side, but now he’s outside the tent pissing in, to use former US President Lyndon Johnson’s phrase. Maybe there’s something to the karma idea after all.

The real question is not how long the Kan Cabinet survives, but how long the Democratic Party of Japan survives in its present form.

Which one of these characters reminds you of Kan Naoto?

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The revolution in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, March 3, 2011

In short, the central power had taken to playing the part of an indefatigable mentor and keeping the nation in quasi-paternal tutelage.
– Alexis de Tocqueville on France’s pre-revolutionary Bourbon governments

Today we are in the midst of a cultural U-turn away from a Hamiltonian meritocratic-elitist, centralized-power society to a more Jeffersonian Main Street focus, with state and local governments as the primary powerbrokers.
– Salena Zito

This is a citizens’ revolution
– Kawamura Takashi

THE REVOLUTION that’s been smoldering for years at the grassroots level in Japan like a smoky mound of autumn leaves has finally blossomed into flame. Ever decorous, the Japanese are not heaving crates of tea into Tokyo Bay, nor have they stormed the Imperial Palace or the Diet Building. This civil war is being conducted with civility.

Yet after the votes were counted the so-called Triple Election held last month in the city of Nagoya and Aichi Prefecture, they were just as surely carrying the heads of the politicos on stakes through the streets as if they had used the French National Razor to detach and dump them in straw-lined baskets.

The editorialists of the Asahi Shimbun wrote that they were surprised by the results, but if they’re serious, it suggests a level of obtuseness remarkable even for an out-of-touch establishment. In every national election since 2005, the voters of this country have spelled out their preferences so clearly only a political illiterate could fail to have read the writing on the wall. Koizumi Jun’ichiro used the votes of local Liberal Democratic Party members to storm into office in 2001 on pledges of privatization, reform, and ending the collusion between the bureaucracy and his own party. He began with public approval ratings in the 80s and ended five years and five months later at 70%, one year after winning a two-thirds supermajority in the lower house in a 2005 election called specifically for a verdict on his plan to privatize Japan Post. After the LDP reverted to its wicked old ways, the voters finally took a flyer on the opposition Democratic Party and their promises of a bright new political order. But it was only a matter of weeks before the DPJ exposed themselves as sheep in wolves’ clothing, and now it’s their turn to be torched.

It’s easy to see why national politics causes Japanese observers to be distressed and the inexpert foreign journalists to be dismissive–when they bother to pay attention. The political class has been neutered in domestic affairs by a bureaucracy that actively competes for power, and in foreign affairs by the United States, which still treats the country as its fiefdom three generations after the end of the war. This arrested development is compounded by a Westminster system of government not conducive to developing executive abilities. The result is that governance is nominally in the hands of people whose only expertise is waging an ever-shifting and amorphous battle for political advantage through plots hatched in the private rooms of expensive traditional Japanese restaurants

The difference at the subnational level, however, is as stark as the contrast between the mud and the clouds, as the expression has it, and it’s no longer hidden. Here’s an excerpt from a roundtable discussion published last month by Gendai Business Online. Three of the participants were former Finance Ministry official and now professor/journalist Takahashi Yoichi, professor/blogger Ikeda Nobuo, and newspaper editor Hasegawa Yukihiro.

Takahashi: In an election now, parties other than the DPJ and LDP, such as Your Party, for example, would take votes. But that will be difficult unless they crush the big parties in some way.

Hasegawa: I want to point out one mechanism for smashing them: The revolt at the local level. (What’s happening in) Nagoya, Akune, or Osaka is at bottom the same. The frustration felt by the average citizen, the frustration at the public sector—that’s become a (form of) energy, and the impulse to destroy the current system is the backdrop to it.

Ikeda: The things being done by Nagoya Mayor Kawamura (Takashi) are rather disjointed, but I strongly sense the frustration at the regional level and the people’s expectations for them. That even someone like Hashimoto Toru (the governor of the Osaka Metro District), a strange person who has become so prominent, can be so enthusiastically supported, shows just how fed up the people are with the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy.

It’s become very difficult for one government to govern 130 million people. There are 300 million people in the United States, and while the federal government has a certain amount of authority, local governments have a lot of power. We’ve reached the limit for (the ability of) Kasumigaseki to completely rule 130 million people, as in Japan. To use what Mr. Hashimoto said as an example, it’s the Big Business Disease. It’s gotten so big that the mechanism is no longer mobile.

Ikeda: From the perspective of a person in the Kansai region, the center of culture is the Kansai. They probably wonder why Kasumigaseki has to have a say in everything. With that power, it would be interesting if they were to do something like declare their independence.

That discussion appeared days before the elections in Nagoya and Aichi, after which the more perceptive editorialists at the Mainichi Shimbun wrote: You could feel the earth move.

The election

The rumpled, folksy, and ambitious Kawamura Takashi resigned after five terms in the lower house of the Diet to become a candidate in the Nagoya mayoralty election of 2009. Mr. Kawamura was primed to channel the intense dissatisfaction with local government that has been building for years, predating the Tea Party movement in the United States. In addition to the universal arrogance and avoidance of accountability by the politicians, it was fueled by oversized legislatures, slush fund scandals, and research fund expense accounts spent on personal entertainment rather than the study of issues. Within the past decade the public has forced local legislators throughout the country to provide receipts for the use of their research fund allowances, and everyone saw how quickly and drastically expenditures declined—often by as much as 70%-80% compared to years when no receipts were required.

Kawamura Takashi on election night

Mr. Kawamura ran on a platform that he dubbed a citizen revolution. He won with a record number of votes in Nagoya elections by promising a permanent 10% reduction in local taxes and the formation of volunteer citizens’ groups with elected members, called neighborhood councils. These groups would have a say in determining the allocation of city funds in their districts. To this he later added halving the annual city council salaries of JPY 16 million (roughly $US 195,000)—a substantial amount individually as well as in the aggregate, considering that Nagoya, a city of 2.26 million, has 75 city council members. In contrast, the slightly larger city of Chicago has 50 aldermen, and the similar-sized city of Houston has to make do with 14 (soon to be 16). The mayor made a point of stating that politicians should be the first to suffer in bad economic times. He also went first—cutting his own salary to JPY eight million from more than 27.5 million.

The events that played out in Nagoya for more than a year contain enough drama for a film script, though the movie is a familiar one throughout Japan. The city council was not about to line up behind the new mayor’s program, but passed the tax cut only after a newly formed citizens’ group threatened a petition drive to recall them. When the group lost its focus a few months later, the council rescinded the permanent tax cut and limited it to one year. Mr. Kawamura reintroduced legislation to make the reduction permanent, but the council rejected it by a vote of 73-1, claiming they had already discussed the issue enough.

That’s when the cold war turned hot. The mayor launched a petition campaign to recall the city council against almost impossible odds—the signatures of one-third of Nagoya’s voters were required in one month—but defied expectations by succeeding after more unanticipated drama. When the recall election was officially announced, he resigned and declared his candidacy for reelection, in effect taking his case directly to the voters. Both elections were to be held on the same day as the regularly scheduled election for the governor of Aichi Prefecture, where Nagoya is located.

Employing savvy political instincts, Mr. Kawamura convinced the most popular local politician of the opposition LDP, Omura Hideaki, to resign his lower house Diet seat and run for governor. Mr. Omura was a former Agriculture Ministry bureaucrat who rose quickly in the party ranks after turning to politics, earning an appointment as deputy minister of Health, Labor, and Welfare. His campaign was based on another idea that is gathering momentum in Japan. That is a form of devolution and regionalism that involves the reorganization of territorial political units at the subnational level into larger entities with more authority. A large body of opinion nationwide favors the provision of greater power to the regions through the restructuring of the prefectural system into a province/state system. Mr. Omura calls his idea the Chukyo-to Concept, which would create a larger entity unifying Nagoya and Aichi with the neighboring prefectures of Mie and Gifu.

It’s important to know that both Nagoya and Aichi are a stronghold of the ruling Democratic Party. The area is the home of Toyota, and labor unions have a strong political influence. Aichi has 15 directly-elected seats in the Diet, and the DPJ won them all in their 2009 landslide. Mr. Omura lost his single-district seat in that election, but was returned to the Diet through proportional representation.

Both major parties recognized the Kawamura/Omura campaign as an existential threat. The DPJ was the more desperate of the two; their standard bearers have been pummeled in local elections throughout the country for the past year, and they were desperate for a victory before local elections are held throughout the country in April. The new allies ran on a program of tax reduction, while the DPJ at the national level is trying to convince people that a significant tax increase and record high budgets will be the salvation of the country.

Omura Hideaki on election night

Meanwhile, the LDP asked Mr. Omura to leave the party when he declared his candidacy and ran an officially sanctioned party candidate against him. The DPJ liked their chances in the governor’s race because their organization in Aichi, based on the Toyota unions, is the second largest local prefectural organization in the country after Tokyo. They also expected the two LDP candidates to split the vote.

The DPJ backed Ishida Shigehiro for Nagoya mayor, and he also received the official endorsement of the ruling party’s coalition partners, the People’s New Party, and their former coalition partners, the Social Democrats. He also had the unofficial support of the LDP.

The results of the Triple Election were obvious an hour after the polls closed, all the more remarkable because votes in Japan are counted by hand. Kawamura Takashi was reelected mayor with 73% of the vote in a field of four. He received three times as many votes as the runner-up. Exit polls showed he was the choice of 78% of DPJ supporters, compared to 21.1% for the official DPJ candidate. He also received votes from 78.9% of the independents, significant in a country where the most reliable poll suggests more than half of the electorate are non-aligned.

Omura Hideaki took a skoche under 50% of the vote for governor in field of five, but his was the second-highest total ever in absolute numbers. The DPJ was correct in assuming that the two LDP candidates would split the party’s vote, but that made the results even more difficult to digest—the official LDP candidate finished second, while the DPJ candidate finished third. In fact, exit polls showed that 46.1% of the LDP supporters backed their party’s designated candidate compared to 42.8% for the apostate Mr. Omura. In contrast, 53.9% of the DPJ supporters crossed party lines to vote for him, while only 27.7% stayed with the ticket. New Komeito, which is still informally allied with the LDP at the national level, backed Mr. Omura.

Finally, in a straight up or down vote, 71% of the voters chose to support the mayor and recall the city council. Nagoya is what is known as a specially designated city, which means it has authority similar to that of a prefecture. It was the first time the electorate of a specially designated city recalled their city council. The new election will be held on March 13, and already Mayor Kawamura has formed a local party to back his own slate of candidates.

The dismal swamp of local politics

Aikawa Toshihide, a journalist who specializes in local government, explains in Diamond Online why serious reform is required to resuscitate what is all too often government in name only at the subnational level:

“In Japan, the system of centralized authority in which the national government (the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy) butts into everything and controls all the money has long been the norm. It has therefore become customary for the chief municipal officers, employees, and legislators of local governments to conduct their work while looking in the direction of the national government (the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy), and not the people. Local government exists in form only, and the conduct of governmental affairs under national guidance is unchallenged. The tripartite structure of the executives, employees, and legislators has left the people behind.”

The executives and the legislatures of local governments are elected separately, unlike the parliamentary system used at the national level. Thus the ideal is for the two branches to operate in a system of checks and balances, such as the national government in the United States. In practice, however, Mr. Aikawa notes that the result more often is collusion between the two branches.

That’s illustrated by an Asahi Shimbun questionnaire survey conducted this January of 1,797 prefectural and municipal legislatures. The response rate was 100%. They found that in the four years from January 2007 to the present, 50% of the legislatures neither amended nor rejected a bill submitted by the executive. Further, 91% of the legislatures submitted no legislation of their own. Finally, 84% of the legislatures do not reveal the votes of individual legislators on bills. One-third of the legislatures fell into what the newspaper called the three noes category—they answered no to all three questions.

During the period surveyed, the executives submitted on average 414 bills to legislatures, and 82% of the legislatures either rejected or amended three or fewer of the bills.

Former Diet member and Yokohama Mayor Nakada Hiroshi speaks from experience:

“Most people probably look at the Diet and get the impression that discussion gets nowhere. When local chief municipal officers and legislatures have competing agendas, the stalemate in the assembly is 10 times worse. Conditions are now such that our only chance to pursue reform is for the executives to charge head first into the legislatures, as Mr. Kawamura has done.”

While Mr. Nakada does believe the system of checks and balances is important, he thinks the problem of the legislatures is greater than being unable to see the forest for the trees:

“It’s as if they’re talking about the shape of the knots and criticizing the way branches are cut.”

Yokohama has 92 city council members, the most of any Japanese city, and Mr. Nakada thinks that number could be slashed to 10. He also thinks that to conduct city business, there should be an increase in staff, a larger budget for research expenses, and a shift to the Westminster system for local governments of a certain size. Most municipal assemblies in Japan convene only four months out of the year.

Nagoya, meanwhile, has 75 city council delegates from 16 municipal election districts with from two to seven delegates representing each district. Winning elections requires a political organization and party support, so there are few independents. Many of the council members have emerged from labor unions or political families, while some were former aides to Diet MPs, a practice not uncommon in Japan. The key to remaining in office is party loyalty.

That explains a very low pre-Kawamura voting rate for elections in Nagoya and Aichi–usually near 40%. The turnout for the 2005 mayoralty election was 27.5%, while that for City Council in 2009, when Mr. Kawamura was at the top of the ticket, was still less than 40%. Post-Kawamura, the turnout for all those elections has been greater than 50%.

The Kawamura philosophy

Into this stagnant backwater stepped Kawamura Takashi, promising at first a tax cut and greater citizen control over budget expenditures, and then upping the ante to halving the salaries and eliminating the pensions of City Council members. He is no more an opportunist than any other professional politician, because his political objectives do have a philosophical foundation. He thinks people should be engaged in politics with a volunteer spirit, and he does not hide his disdain for the professionals who turn it into a life-long occupation:

“Legislators and government officials are public servants. I want to stress that as the starting point for politics.”

As for the remuneration received by the political class:

“Taxpayers really have to struggle. It is truly unacceptable for the people who live off of taxes to enjoy a luxurious lifestyle.”

As the Tea Partiers in the United States look to their national history for inspiration, Mr. Kawamura intends to revive an even older idea in Japan:

“I want to have a citizens’ revolution of the type created by Oda Nobunaga, who enabled the everyday person to engage in commerce through the policy of rakuichi rakuza.”

The latter term is usually translated as “free markets and open guilds”. It refers to the 16th century policy of eliminating market taxes and the monopolistic privileges of trade associations. That policy was implemented by regional warlords, or daimyo, to concentrate authority in castle towns and attract merchants and craftsmen to increase wealth and production.

The first recorded instance of the elimination of market taxes occurred in 1549 in what is now Shiga Prefecture. The first example of eliminating trade association monopolies, which had a greater impact, occurred in 1576 in what is now Fukui Prefecture. These measures were most closely associated with Oda Nobunaga, but they were continued and extended nationwide by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his successors. There were inconsistencies in application, as with any human endeavor, but the result was the creation of a market economy centered on castle towns rather than noble houses and religious establishments due to the granting of patronage.

Mr. Kawamura also wants to cut the municipal corporate tax to attract people and companies to Nagoya. He explained his reasoning in an interview in the 4 June 2010 edition of the weekly Shukan Asahi:

“Tax cuts are necessary because reform alone means that the leftover money is just redistributed within the government. Cutting taxes is the only way to make government more efficient. Lower taxes means that the budget will have to be cut, and that includes privatization of public services.”

He points out that city council members work only 80 days a year, and claims the tax revenue loss will amount to only 1.4% of the total budget. For this work, they receive a nominal salary of JPY 16 million, though others say the total is closer to JPY 35 million when all the benefits are added. Political parties also give each member five million more.

One City Council member claims that her take-home pay amounts to only JPY 390,000 a month after the deductions for income tax and contributions to three separate pensions. Legislators in other local governments have similar complaints, though none as extreme as hers (and she doesn’t explain why a third pension specifically for legislators is required). She complains that the salary Mr. Kawamura has in mind would be better suited for legislatures that meet in the evening, as in some European cities. Now there’s an idea!

On the ground

The disgruntled in the political class sometimes complain about voters that fail to grasp issues in the way they should be understood, but it would difficult to make that claim in Nagoya/Aichi. That battle was engaged for more than a year, so it should be obvious from the election results that the people want what Mr. Kawamura is offering. As support for the first Democratic Party government plummeted nationwide, falling from 70% to less than 20% in eight months–and faster and lower than that for the successor government of Kan Naoto–the mayor’s approval rating stood at 63.6% after six months in office and 61% after a year.

One reason is his demonstrated mastery of retail politics. In addition to cutting his own salary to the level he wants the council members to receive, the mayor gave up his official automobile and leases a minicar for JPY 14,700 a month. When traveling outside the city, he books a regular or reserved ticket on trains. He’s also more accessible than most Japanese politicians, showing up unannounced to civic events. After he attended a traditional festival last year and circulated among the crowd, one of the organizers marveled that it was the first time one of the mayors showed up in the 15 years he had been involved with the event.

He’s also found more ways to save money besides tax and salary cuts and the elimination of the JPY 42.2 million pension for council members. Slush funds are endemic at the subnational level of Japanese government, and the usual practice is for companies doing business with local government to submit phony bills. A percentage of the money used to pay those bills is funneled back to the government, and recent exposes have uncovered the use of those funds by civil servants for all sorts of fun and games, including drinking parties and softball team uniforms. The investigation into the Nagoya slush funds had been closed, but Mayor Kawamura reopened it in August 2009 and dug up JPY 39 million more.

After City Council backtracked and converted the permanent tax cut into a one-year only measure, Mr. Kawamura resubmitted legislation for the permanent cut the following month:

“Limiting it to one year is not a tax reduction, it’s a benefit payment…Many people say that tax reduction is “Kawamura Populism”, but that isn’t so. It is tax reduction that is politics.”

City Council Chairman Yokoi Toshiaki retorted that the city had floated JPY 45 billion in bonds to cover the revenue shortfall, and that council members’ were already the lowest of the nation’s five largest cities. The council rejected the bill 73-1.

At that point the combatants stopped taking prisoners. The mayor’s response was to create a political group called Tax Reduction Japan. They began to circulate petitions to recall City Council in August. It was surely no coincidence that the same month, the DPJ, LDP, and New Komeito council members concluded it would be a good idea to reduce their own salaries to JPY 13.93 million from 16.33 million.

Few thought the petition drive would succeed. The law required 366,124 valid signatures to be collected in one month. The legal definition of a signature for a petition in Japan includes a voter’s full name, address, date of birth, and seal. The list of signatures is disclosed to the public, which might cause some voters who support specific delegates to refrain from signing. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications reports that 59 petitions have been filed to recall legislatures, which resulted in 33 referendums and 28 actual recalls. No recall election had ever been held in cities with more than 200,000 voters.

Declared an LDP member of the Nagoya City Council:

“They can’t possibly collect that many signatures. The local media is saying the same thing. They’ll just self-destruct.”

Had he read the poll numbers, he might have held his tongue. When the drive started, the mayor was supported by 83% of DPJ backers and 67% of independents.

Morokuma Shushin, the leader of the DPJ caucus in the Nagoya City Council asked the party to revoke its endorsement of the mayor:

“We’ve put up with one thing after another, but the mayor’s anti-party act was the last straw.”

The mayor fired back:

“What anti-party act? The DPJ’s council caucus was the one responsible for the anti-party act. I’ve been working to achieve the campaign promises that the party endorsed, but they joined with the LDP and New Komeito to oppose them. This is an impossible situation, so recall is the only option.”

Okamoto Yoshihiro, the leader of the LDP caucus, stepped up the rhetoric:

“I’ve consistently called for cooperation, but that’s not longer possible in this situation. The mayor’s methods are violent, and I’m concerned.”

Down and dirty

His concern was not misplaced. The petition drive ignited a fire among the city’s voters, and the group submitted 465,000 signatures early in October, well more than the amount required. The establishment was so concerned, in fact, they tried to prevent the election from happening. It took the Election Commission six weeks to review all the signatures, and they threw out more than 100,000 because they maintained the strict rules for collectors weren’t followed. Those rules require that signatures be collected by either an official representative of a group or a person named a delegate by a representative. Of the signatures submitted, roughly 110,000 did not have the name of a designated delegate as the collector, which meant they had to have been collected by a representative. The Election Commission decided it wasn’t possible for one person to successfully fish for that many signatures. They declared the signatures invalid, which meant that the petition no longer had the amount required.

Supporters of the recall immediately called foul and questioned the commission’s impartiality. Nagoya has 16 separate district commissions, one for each election district, and one commission overseeing the entire city. The City Council approves all the members, and the commission for the city has four members. Three of them are former City Council delegates, one each from the DPJ, the LDP, and New Komeito. (The fourth is a retired school principal who isn’t a politician.) They receive a salary of roughly JPY 35,000 a month and are required to attend a biweekly meeting.

The people who circulated the petitions insisted it was indeed possible for one person to collect that many signatures, as they set up stations at sites with heavy pedestrian traffic and often received more than 2,000 a day. Staffers in the Election Commission office itself told the media those signatures wouldn’t have been ruled invalid in the past, and the school principal, the only non-politician among the commissioners, agreed. The other three commissioners, led by the chairman—the New Komeito veteran—initially held firm. They even floated the possibility of asking each of the signers to identify the person who collected their signature—a time-consuming process that would permit other disqualification techniques–but after an appeal was filed, the signatures were ruled valid on 15 December.

Meanwhile, in mid-September the governor of Aichi announced he would not be a candidate for reelection. On 6 December Mr. Omura told a news conference he would resign his Diet seat and run on the Kawamura platform. Two days later, the LDP asked him to leave the party. The recall election was formally declared on 17 December. On 21 January Mr. Kawamura delivered his coup de théâtre by resigning with more than two years left in his term and declaring he would be a candidate to replace himself, thus setting up the Triple Election to be a popular referendum on his policies.

Nationalizing the election

Nagoya and Aichi became the political equivalent of California during the Gold Rush. The two major national parties dispatched their heaviest hitters to campaign for their own candidates against the Kawamura-Omura team. DPJ Secretary-General Okada Katsuya, a native of neighboring Mie, visited frequently, though his presence had the opposite of the effect intended. Commented a DPJ MP from Aichi:

“More than half of Mr. Kawamura’s supporters are DPJ supporters. Every time Mr. Okada criticized Kawamura, they moved farther from the DPJ. The national party issued an order forbidding people from supporting him and kept party MPs from attending a function for him on the 24th. Not only that, but at the national level, Prime Minister Kan is calling for a tax increase. We can’t wage a campaign that way.”

The DPJ also sent three Cabinet ministers, to little effect: the photogenic Ren Ho, Justice Minister and former upper house president Eda Satsuki, and then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito. The appearance of Mr. Sengoku, however, was a typical error in party judgment. First, he is the symbol of the government’s mishandling of the incident in the Senkaku Islands with China. Second, it came as no surprise that a man of the left whose behavior was an insult to parliamentary courtesy every time he opened his mouth in the Diet would be the one to compare Mr. Kawamura to Adolph Hitler. Godwin’s Law is just as applicable in Japan as it is elsewhere, however. The public failed to see how a direct appeal to the people by resigning and running again and getting more votes than the other candidates made Mr. Kawamura Hitlerian.

Dropping by from the opposition LDP was party head Tanigaki Sadakazu, MP Kono Taro, a high-profile member who is the Minister of Reform in the party’s Shadow Cabinet, and former Koizumi ally Katayama Satsuki.

The Osaka Ishin no Kai campaign in Nagoya

The election also attracted allies to the cause. The shoot-from-the-lip and wildly popular enfant terrible Hashimoto Toru, governor of the Osaka Metro District, led a group of 100 people to Nagoya to campaign for Mr. Kawamura. Mr. Hashimoto, perhaps the most visible politician outside of Tokyo supporting regionalism, was returning a favor. The Nagoya mayor visited Osaka in April to campaign for Hashimoto backers in the Metro District’s legislative election.

The blowback

The DPJ was appalled by the result. Internal Affairs Minister Katayama Yoshihiro was the point man leading the party’s attack squad:

“To resign as mayor and run again in the subsequent election just to create interest is perverse.”


“The idea of forming a ruling party that agrees with everything the executive submits is different from the system envisaged (with checks and balances). There are undeniable concerns it could lead to dictatorial politics.”

He had plenty of ideas about what he would have done instead:

“Mr. Kawamura climbed out of the ring, joined the spectators, and criticized the people in the ring. If it were me, I would have persuaded the City Council instead of working for its recall”


“If I were the head of a local government, I would do everything in my power to reform government to direct the savings into reducing the enormous debt that local governments carry. Reducing taxes in spite of this debt is dubious from the perspective of long-term fiscal operations.”

He also suggested in a roundabout way that the popular movement was really a contagious disease.

The chairman of the DPJ’s Election Campaign Committee, Ishii Hajime, took a different tack:

“It was an election in one area, and rather than a battle between parties was something that occurred in Nagoya, a unique place. The result is not a decisive blow…it was a bit like a typhoon that’s hard to understand…it was a wonderful performance in the Kawamura Theater.”

The new DPJ Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio tried to a leaf from the failed Obama playbook:

“We haven’t sufficiently communicated to the public what we’ve done since the Hatoyama administration.”

He refused further comment on the matter.

The losers in the race were just as bitter. After seeing the results, Yokoi Toshiaki said he would accept the people’s verdict, but refused to say any more: “I am no longer a council member.” He had worked in the campaign asking people not to sign the recall petition. Mr. Yokoi left with this parting shot:

“Can we call it democracy when a mayor has the authority to make final decisions?”

The losing DPJ mayoralty candidate, Ishida Yoshihiro, cried at his post election news conference and claimed he had been made to play the heel for the city council.

Others with less directly at stake had a clearer picture of what had happened. Here’s Shimoji Mikio, the secretary-general of the People’s New Party, part of the ruling national coalition:

“This result is more serious than simply being defeated in an election. We share the harsh recognition that it is a rejection of the coalition government of the DPJ and the PNP, and that we should rework our strategy.”

Even more to the point was Osaka Mayor Hiramatsu Kunio:

“It calls into question the raison d’être of the existing political parties.”

Your Party

Of more interest than the sour grapes of the DPJ and the LDP deadheads, however, is the approach of Your Party. These reformers would seem to be soulmates of Mr. Kawamura and Mr. Omura, as their platform is based on cutting government expenditures and devolution. The party was formed and is led by the outspoken LDP renegade Watanabe Yoshimi and the cool and cerebral Eda Kenji. Mr. Watanabe was initially interested in forming an alliance with Osaka Gov. Hashimoto in 2009. Mr. Eda, however, counseled against it. The governor is unpredictable, follows his own agenda, and does not fit the image of sober responsibility the party wants to present.

Mr. Watanabe actively supported the Nagoya recall, however, and visited several times to help collect signatures in the petition drive. He dropped broad hints that if the recall were successful, his party would run candidates in the City Council election allied with Mr. Kawamura. He also made it clear that he hoped they would support the Your Party candidate for Aichi governor, Yakushiji Michiyo. Ms. Yakushiji ran on a platform of cutting the governor’s and delegates’ salaries by 30%, bonuses by 50%, and personnel expenses by 20%, and the party leader visited Aichi seven times to campaign for her. She did not, however, support the call for a tax reduction.

Once Mr. Kawamura recruited Mr. Omura of the LDP to run for governor, however, Your Party has been less enthusiastic. Mr. Eda had always kept his distance; he thought it was irresponsible to call for a tax cut while ignoring the city’s debt and its reliance on subsidies from the national government to meet its budget. After the election, Mr. Watanabe said he thought the Kawamura-Omura alliance would be short-lived, as they came from different political backgrounds.

Kawahara the man

What of the man who pulled off what the media immediately dubbed a hat trick? He’s a natural politician with a knack for connecting directly with the people. Mr. Kawahara campaigned in Nagoya on a bicycle wearing the cap of the local Chunichi Dragons baseball team to cover his perpetually unkempt hair. City officials say he’s appeared at public events three times as often as his predecessors. He understands instinctively the advice former Alabama Gov. George Wallace gave Jesse Jackson when the latter ran for president in 1988: “You’ve got to keep the grass down where the goats can get at it.”

Before turning to politics, Mr. Kawamura worked in the family business, a small enterprise dealing with used paper. He has attributed his ideas about public finance to the experience gained in a business sector where price competition is fierce.

He’s also a regionalist who makes a point of using the Nagoya dialect in public interviews, though that’s not what he calls it. He asked the quasi-public national broadcaster NHK to replace the word “dialect” with the word “language” when referring to Japan’s many regional linguistic variations. “It’s discrimination against the regions and a mistake to call a region’s language a dialect. The language of Tokyo is not the standard language (標準語), it is the language of common use(共通語). They should call it the Nagoya language instead of the Nagoya dialect.”

He cites his approach as the reason for his success:

“People have at a minimum understood that I’m working from a citizens’ perspective. The awareness of the citizens is steadily changing. I think it’s important in itself that they’ve become more interested in municipal government.”

The mayor has been a reformer from the start of his career, winning election to the Diet as a member of Hosokawa Morihiro’s New Party. Mr. Hosokawa later became prime minister in the early 90s at the head of an eight party coalition that was the first non-LDP government since 1955. After the New Party folded, Mr. Kawamura finally came to ground in the DPJ. His popularity transcends party, however, as he easily kept his seat in the 2005 Koizumi LDP landslide. He’s always had designs on the executive branch, becoming something of a joke in DPJ circles by his attempts to run for party president. He tried to become a candidate in three separate DPJ elections, but couldn’t round up the minimum of 20 members needed for a formal recommendation.

He says he’s still interested in becoming prime minister, though the Asahi Shimbun is openly skeptical of that claim—he’d have to resign again and run for the Diet—but it might be for the best that he’ll probably never get the job. In an international context, his views on other issues would overshadow his vision for domestic affairs. For example, he was a member of a committee to verify the facts of the comfort woman issue and the Nanjing massacre. He “tends to deny”, as it some have it, the responsibility of the Japanese government.

His name appeared on the full page ad in the 14 June 2007 edition of the Washington Post protesting the US lower house resolution about the comfort women and demanded its withdrawal. In 2006, as a member of the opposition, he submitted a formal request to the government to reinvestigate and verify the “so-called Nanjing Massacre”. He asked the government to rectify its views about the grounds for the assertion in school textbooks that Japanese troops killed citizens and prisoners. His position is diametrically opposed to the sleep-on-a-bed-of-nails types in the left wing of his party.

In answer to a question in the Nagoya City Council on 15 September 2009, he said “It (Nanjing) occurred during the general conduct of hostilities. I have a sense that a mistaken impression was conveyed (by the government). The government must properly verify and correct that impression for the sake of Japanese-Sino friendship.” His stand was all the more remarkable because Nagoya and Nanjing have a formal sister city relationship that almost ruptured because of his views.

He is opposes voting rights for permanent residents and supports amending Article 9 of the Constitution, the so-called Peace Clause. Yet unlike most people in that philosophical camp, he was opposed to the adoption of the law for the national anthem and flag in the late 90s.

The future

When asked by the media what happens next, Mr. Kawamura said: “The operation for the Normandy Landing starts now.” His Tax Reduction Japan group hopes to run about 40 candidates for the 75 seats at stake in the City Council election. He also plans to campaign for them, which bothers some people who think it’s improper behavior for an elected official to play politics on the public’s time. One has to admit that sense of indignation is a refreshing contrast to the American attitude, to cite one example. Few complain when the President gasses up Air Force One and flies around the country to stump for his favored candidates in local elections.

Mr. Omura wanted to step right up and start cutting taxes, but Mr. Kawamura says the timing of the City Council election and the start of a new fiscal year will prevent real action until 2012. The Aichi governor now agrees, saying that the earliest his administration will be able to get that measure through the prefectural council is December, with the reduction to take effect in 2012.

The Nagoya mayor might have to spend more time promoting his idea of local committees with elected citizen volunteers to review tax expenditures. So far, only 8.7% of the electorate has voted in these elections, leading one observer to suggest that the program is suffering from incomplete combustion. Others point to the greater citizen interest in the recent elections, and think the past year has been the first step in a process that will flower over the long term as more people realize just how much political power they have.

There are signs that’s already happening. The city recently held a seminar for potential City Council candidates to explain the election procedures, and 150 people showed up to listen. Four years ago, 98 attended.

Mr. Kawamura wants to create alliances with other like-minded chief execs of the type he’s already formed with Osaka Gov. Hashimoto. The latter was so excited by Mr. Kawahara’s victory that he immediately proposed a 30% cut in the salaries of Osaka Metro District legislators. Some local opponents who still don’t understand the concept of popular will derided this as an imitative performance. One Metro District delegate from New Komeito said he wanted to oppose the measure but couldn’t because of the upcoming election in April.

The mayor also told the Asahi Shimbun he was looking for suitable candidates to support for governor in neighboring Mie Prefecture and a by-election for the lower house Diet seat in Aichi district #6.


This was already a national movement before the Nagoya/Aichi elections. Five municipal executive officers in Saitama Prefecture, including the mayor of Saitama City, have formed a group called Saitama Kaientai also calling for devolution and smaller government. A group of city council members in Matsuyama created the Matsuyama Ishin no Kai. The leader says they’ll hold off on formally making it a political party until they see what happens with legislation at the national level designed to facilitate greater local autonomy. The Kyoto Party was formed in that Metro District last August on the principles of shrinking the legislature and the delegates’ benefits, and reducing bond issues by 10% a year to eliminate them entirely in 10 years. They’re upset that the Kyoto City Council unanimously rejected a bill on 31 January to eliminate some seats. The Chiiki Seito Iwate is taking devolution a step further, asking that Iwate Prefecture cede authority to individual municipalities.

The Japanese public nationwide does appreciate the potential abuses of local parties. A Yomiuri Shimbun poll taken at the end of January found that 53% of the respondents were opposed to parties created by local executives, with 31% in favor. However, 64% of the respondents also said that local legislatures did not reflect the will of the people, and 57% said they were not functioning as a check on the executive branch.

In Tokyo, the DPJ-led national government last week proposed eliminating the JPY 6,000 yen per diem allowance for special officers of both houses of the diet when it is in session, such as the vice-president of both chambers. Their idea has been approved by the other parties. This is seen as a concession to the results of the Nagoya/Aichi election and to the nationwide local elections next month.

That will be much too little, much too late for the Kan administration, however. The DPJ party organization of Aichi adopted a resolution asking Mr. Kan to get lost. Everyone in the country knows DPJ party affiliation will be the fast track to oblivion in those elections if Mr. Kan is still in office. They’re already having problems finding people willing to run as DPJ candidates. Party Secretary-General Okada Katsuya was recently rejected by the man he wooed to run for governor of Mie—Mr. Okada’s home prefecture, which shares a border with Aichi.

Unpleasant omens

The Triple Election’s revelation that lower taxes, devolution, and smaller government are a winning formula in Japan has also generated some ominous developments.

Lower house MP and Former Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Haraguchi Kazuhiro convened a new policy group in the Diet dedicated to more regional autonomy and ties with local chief executives. He filed the papers to create a group called the Nihon Ishin no Kai, intending it to become a political organization of local government chief executives and legislators modeled after Mr. Hashimoto’s group in Osaka. He also blatantly ripped off their name, which in turn was a deliberate imitation of the Meiji Ishin (known in English as the Meiji restoration), a period in Japanese history that connotes national rebirth and renewal. At the same time, Mr. Haraguchi created the Saga Ishin no Kai for his home prefecture. He told reporters: “The central government’s doctrine of fiscal supremacy must not be permitted to place the onus of deficits on the regions.”

Nothing good will come of this

This is ominous because nobody thinks Mr. Haraguchi is clever enough to have come up with the idea on his own. He is seen as a cat’s paw for the Shiva of Japanese politics, Ozawa Ichiro, the destroyer of worlds who will not go gently into that good night. One of Mr. Ozawa’s journalistic mouthpieces, Itagaki Eiken, is now conveying the threat that Mr. Ozawa might convince his allies to vote for a no-confidence motion against Kan Naoto within the next month or so. The passage of such a motion would require a new lower house election. The Ozawa strategy seems to be to co-opt the popular movement in Japan by reinventing himself as a tax-cutting proponent of small government and ride that pony to control of the government. He is well known for his Japanese-language pun that the advantage of campaign promises is that they can be replastered.

The Japanese are taking this threat seriously, even though Mr. Ozawa personally voted to pass the DPJ budget this week. (Sixteen legislators associated with him were absent for the roll call, however.) Mr. Haraguchi is a metrosexual of the type he’s always preferred to use as a front man (cf. Hosokawa Morihiro and Hatoyama Yukio) to offset his own charmless personality and unpopularity with the public.

The most unsettling omen, however, may be that Kawamura Takashi took Mr. Omura to Tokyo to pay a courtesy call on Mr. Ozawa the day after the Nagoya/Aichi election. It has since emerged that Ozawa ally and lower house MP Matsuki Shizuhiro was a frequent visitor to Nagoya during the campaign to help Mr. Kawamura with strategy. An Ozawa-Kawamura alliance is not what the people of Nagoya voted for—indeed, more than half of the public wants Mr. Ozawa out of the Diet altogether. If Mr. Kawamura or Mr. Hashimoto of Osaka were to openly join hands with Ozawa Ichiro, it would seriously dent their popularity. (The Nagoya mayor is already pushing it–his political group has endorsed 10 candidates in the Tokyo municipal elections, all of whom are associated with Mr. Ozawa.) Further, the only guaranteed accomplishment of a government in which Mr. Ozawa has a prominent role would be another year of political turmoil followed by an ugly demise. Rule without the consent of the governed is not a winning proposition in Japan either.

It’s also starting to look as if an alliance with Ozawa Ichiro isn’t a winning proposition even in his local power base. In the election for mayor last month in Rikuzentakata, Iwate—Mr. Ozawa’s home prefecture—the candidate backed by Mr. Ozawa lost, though Mr. Ozawa personally campaigned for him

A revolution whose time has come

The current leaders of this revolution may reveal themselves to be flawed vessels, but the people will no longer allow their voice to be ignored. Theirs is a genuinely spontaneous and popular movement driven by years of anger and disgust at the politicians’ performance and a growing understanding that elections have consequences. If the electorate is betrayed by one champion, they have already shown they will discard him and find another. The voters ditched the LDP when they turned their back on reform, and they’ve done the same with the DPJ when they found out that party wasn’t what it claimed to be. What they demand now is real governmental reform, devolution, and lower taxes, and they are no longer in the mood to settle for less.

There is no clearer proof than the election last month in Akune, Kagoshima. We’ve seen before that circumstances in Akune were remarkably similar to those in Nagoya. Upset that administrative expenses ate up most of the city’s budget, Mayor Takehara Shin’ichi wanted to put City Council on a per diem allowance and reduce other public expenditures. The people backed him through two elections, until he unwisely chose ignore the council and act as a dictator. He created so much turmoil they finally recalled him and voted him out of office by a narrow margin. Had he followed Mr. Kawamura’s strategy of simultaneous elections, however, he might still be in office today. Mr. Takehara’s backers finally succeeded in bringing council recall to a vote last month, and the voters chose to throw out them out too. The referendum on recall passed with 55% approval, four percentage points higher than the margin by which Mr. Takehara was defeated. He and his supporters plan to run nine candidates in the new election next month for 16 seats. One reason the recall succeeded is that the new mayor restored the council members’ salaries and took them off the per diem allowance initiated by former Mayor Takehara.

Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come, and the idea whose time has arrived in Japan is the revolt against the elitist political class in government and the bureaucracy, and the support of decentralization and smaller government. In all of those elections, the voters were lectured for months about the reasons they shouldn’t support the insurgents, but the voters chose to ignore the advice.

We live in an age of revolution. Two leaders have been toppled in the Middle East, a third is about to go, and none of the rest sleep soundly at night. Americans have been marching in the streets for nearly a year, and they continue to do so after the pivotal election of November. There is even talk of a jasmine revolution in China, which has so upset leaders in that country that they’ve forbidden foreign journalists to cover demonstrations in Shanghai and Beijing that haven’t happened yet.

What emerges from any of those revolutions is unlikely to be better than what they had before they started. Democracy in the Middle East will mean the choice of governments that are no one’s definition of liberal. The stark ethnocentric nationalism of the Chinese ensures that country will not be a positive force in international relations regardless of the leadership, perhaps for decades. And there is nothing at all liberal about the illiberal ugliness of the American “liberals”, as we’ve seen from their behavior in Congress last year and at the state level in Wisconsin and Indiana right now. The American left will never change.

In Japan, however, the electorate has now taken matters out of the politicians’ hands and set the parameters for debate. Theirs is now the national political agenda. They are beginning to realize that they have the handle and the politicians have the blade. When their revolution comes to fruition, it is likely to be the most successful, and the most peaceful, of our age.


* The Asahi Shimbun ran an English-language article worth reading about the possibility that the inevitable earthquake of a political realignment might occur before the cherries finish blooming. Though it is informative, it still requires several grains of salt to digest. The Asahi is a newspaper of the left, so holding up conservative boogeymen for their readers is one element in their narrative. It remains to be seen how many MPs will willingly follow the toxic Ozawa Ichiro or the fossilized Kamei Shizuka, either from the LDP or the DPJ. Your Party might have made a wise choice in keeping their distance from Mr. Kawamura, and they would stand to benefit from the public’s revulsion with an Ozawa New Party.

(Update: A few hours after writing the above I read Itagaki Eiken’s latest blog post, and perhaps the Asahi wasn’t exaggerating after all. He’s threatening a government of Ozawa Ichiro, Kamei Shizuka, and Hiranuma Takeo, with the support of Ishihara Shintaro. That’s not conservative, that’s Pleistoscene. He also says that Mr. Haraguchi is a “jewel” to be shown the ropes and saved for later. Jayzus whippin’ goldfishes! Uglier still, all but Mr. Ishihara are Diet members, so they might be able to arrange it without a general election. That would be an old coot coup d’etat within the Diet, and it just might bring people out on the streets.)

* Lower house member Sato Yuko, once an aide to Kawamura Takashi before she ran for and won a Diet seat, told the DPJ on the 3rd she will leave the party to join the mayor’s local group. She gave several reasons for her decision, one of them being Prime Minister Kan’s lack of leadership. Unfortunately, she also cited the DPJ’s suspension of Ozawa Ichiro’s party privileges.

* One has to wonder about the IQ and job qualifications of some people in the news media. The vernacular Nishinippon Shimbun thought the voters in Akune who chose to recall the City Council were “confused”. One of the headline writers among the boys and girls who play newspaper at the Japan Times topped off the Kyodo feed on the Akune election with the declaration that the voters were “wishy-washy”. It should be obvious even to those of less than median intelligence and an attention span longer than the average TV commercial that the voters in the city know what they want and aren’t afraid to express it.

* Last month, 65 local governments told the Kan administration they will not financially contribute to the national government’s child allowance scheme. That’s an expensive and ill-advised bit of pork whose liability the DPJ wants to partially shift to local governments because the country can’t afford it. In other words, the regions are no longer lying down for the central government.

* Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio became the first member of the Kan government to hold an open news conference whose participation was not limited to the kisha club reporters. This is being hailed as the beginning of the end of the kisha club system, a back-scratching affair in which the government was allowed to partially control the news flow by allowing some media outlets a partial monopoly. While that was a positive step, it also comes about 30 years too late—no one in the Internet age thinks limiting the flow of news to the professional journalists’ guild will result in significantly greater openness. There has always been a de facto samizdat press in Japanese weekly magazines, and no one in the Anglosphere pretends any longer that the supposedly mainstream media is either open or evenhanded.

This is the Year of the Rabbit in the Oriental zodiac, but it will be the Year of Political Fireworks in Japan. Nobody does fireworks better than the Japanese.

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Bait and switch

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 19, 2009

NOW THAT the Japanese electorate has unwittingly jumped from the frying pan into the fire by selecting the country’s Democratic Party to lead a government, people are starting to get scorched. Everyone knew before the election that the DPJ’s principal talents were obstructionism and harangues more suited for postgraduate seminars and smoky union halls than a legislature, but people held their noses and voted for them anyway. Entropy had finally had its way with the Liberal Democratic Party, and that party’s mudboat wing stepped up to the challenge by committing the de facto equivalent of hara-kiri.

By trying to implement a platform whose individual provisions never polled all that well and won’t work well at all, the new government is making manifest its shallowness, petit authoritarianism, and disregard of anything outside its self-interest.

From the Mainichi Shimbun

The vernacular edition of the newspaper carried a story that described a chilly conversation last week between Sengoku Yoshito, the Minister of State for Administrative Reform, and Nagatsuma Akira, the Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare.

Mr. Sengoku initiated the conversation about the JPY 12.4 billion-program for one-time payments of JPY 36,000 to parents of children aged 3-5. That program was started by the Aso Administration at the behest of its New Komeito coalition partners. The payments were supposed to have been made by the end of the year.

The Mainichi quoted Mr. Sengoku as telling Mr. Nagatsuma:

“The special child support allowance was begun by New Komeito, so it has to be cut”.

He also said this was a “Cabinet decision”, though why Mr. Nagatsuma—a Cabinet member—was not present when the decision was made was not explained.

The program was a likely candidate for the axe anyway, because it was adopted to please the former government’s junior coalition partner and to deflect attention from the DPJ’s more extensive child subsidy proposal before the election. That alone doesn’t explain the antagonism, however.

What does? Despite sharing a similar political outlook, the DPJ has shown no interest in bringing New Komeito into their ruling coalition. Indeed, they’ve gone out of their way to harass them in the Diet. They’d rather try to reconcile the irreconcilable paleo-old guard of the PNP and the viperous left of the Social Democrats and govern as if they were in a four-legged race.

That’s because the DPJ’s Shadow Shogun, Ozawa Ichiro, has detested New Komeito for years. If the Mainichi report that this was a Cabinet decision is true, now we know who’s making decisions for the Cabinet.

For an insight into the inscrutability of Japanese politics, by the way, Mr. Sengoku is considered to be an Ozawa opponent within the party.

In the end, the Government canceled the program and held a press conference to “apologize to the people and local governments.”

No one was mollified.

From the Asahi Shimbun

The Aichi Prefecture Mayors’ Conference was held last week in Nagoya, their first meeting since the new government took office. All but one of the prefecture’s 35 mayors attended. The mayors passed a resolution asking the Government to assume full financial liability for the DPJ’s own child allowance proposal, as per their political platform, instead of sticking local governments and the private sector with part of the bill. Some participants complained that the DPJ’s ineptitude is causing turmoil in local government.

Said Inuyama Mayor Tanaka Yukinori (affiliated with the opposition LDP):

“The ministers just jump the gun with these statements, without specifying what is wasteful and what was wrong about the previous expenditures.”

Here’s Toyota Mayor Suzuki Kohei on the work his his city already performed for the Aso Administration policy:

“Our efforts wound up being a waste of time and money. (Some municipalities had to hire temporary employees.) When (the Government) says, ‘We’re a new administration,’ some local governments think that’s an insufficient reason or explanation.”

The sentiments were echoed by Aichi Gov. Kanda Masaaki, a guest at the meeting:

“There is uneasiness and turmoil in the communities. I’m going to do everything I can to hold local conferences to convey our concerns to the government.”

From the Nihonkai Shimbun

Tottori Gov. Hirai Shinji was even more scathing. At a press conference on the 15th, he said:

“The people ordered kabayaki (grilled eel), but they were served up something already eaten alive by a viper.”

In reference to the new Government’s inability to deal with the Finance Ministry bureaucrats, Mr. Hirai noted:

“Whenever the Finance Ministry says anything, they just swallow it whole and keep putting it on the tab of local government. Nothing at all has changed. In fact, it’s gotten worse.”

It might be that local governments could be a more effective check than the nominal opposition party, the LDP, which seems to be missing in action at the national level.

Then again, the Hatoyama Administration isn’t in the mood to listen, regardless of the number of conferences Aichi Gov. Kanda holds.

On television

On the 18th, Deputy Finance Minister Noda Yoshihiko reiterated that the Government is still considering having local governments and businesses cough up some of the money for their child allowance scheme.

Bait-and-switch, inflexibility, and policies that smack of Mussolini-style corporative fascism are no way to run a government, son.

Let’s reduce reliance on the bureaucracy by expanding it!

Back to Sengoku Yoshito, the Minister for Administrative Reform, who also appeared on TV on the 18th touting his latest reform idea. He wants to reorganize Mr. Nagatsuma’s MHLW:

“Its jurisdiction is so broad in scope that the problems arising there every day come up nowhere else.”

The Aso Administration was also interested in reorganizing the ministry last May, but, as with the Aso Administration itself, nothing came of it.

His proposal would seem to be hypocritical for a party that co-opted local reformers by promising to disassociate from the bureaucracy, and then changed its tune to disassociating from a reliance on the bureaucracy once they took office.

Instead, he suggests creating three new Cabinet ministries, each with a name that only the left could dream up:

  • The Ministry of Children and Families
  • The Ministry of Education and Employment
  • The Ministry of Social Insurance

The LDP had the capital idea of privatizing the Social Insurance Agency, but the agency itself torpedoed that plan by leaking the news of the colossal, decade-long foul-up of pension records. (All the more reason to privatize, is it not?) Then-DPJ-head Ozawa Ichiro said it should be merged with the National Tax Agency.

But now the DPJ is the party in power. Now they want to make it into a ministry of its own.

The idea behind coupling education with employment was that the Education Ministry, which also includes culture, sports, science, technology, and God knows what-all, was another candidate for reorganization. Mr. Sengoku did not explain why there was a need to end one Rube Goldberg bureaucracy just to create another. Nor was any justification provided for the existence of full-fledged Cabinet ministries focusing on labor, children, or families; it was as if no justification were needed.

In other words, Mr. Sengoku’s idea of governmental reform is to create three useless ministries where one existed and none are needed. Yes, let’s not rely on bureaucrats any more. As if that weren’t enough, he also said he was going to think of other ways to efficiently reorganize the central government.

Well, what sort of administrative reform can one expect from a former labor lawyer who was first elected to the Diet as a member of the Socialist Party? Did anyone really think he was going to consider central government downsizing?

Here’s another one on the inscrutability of Japanese politics: Mr. Sengoku is affiliated with the DPJ’s Maehara-Edano group/faction, which is considered to be on the Right within the party.


People outside of Japan are starting to draw conclusions about the new government, particularly those in financial circles.

Phill Tomlinson thinks stagflation will continue:

Many Keynesian economists are still baffled by Japan. Over the years, policy after policy has been proposed by their school of thought, all of which involve some form of government action, but time and time again they all seem to fail. The classic Keynesian rebuttal whenever these policies fail is “Well, the authorities didn’t do enough”. Just like they apparently didn’t do enough during the Great Depression.


The reason why they never recovered to their previous highs was exactly what the Government did, they took over and tried the command economy approach. Roads to nowhere, propping up banks that were insolvent, not allowing private enterprise to take over the means of production. Rather than money going into the private sector, Japanese savings that were accrued during their economic miracle were funneled into Government bonds, wasteful Government consumption. It was quite simply a classic stagflation that is still ongoing.

That was published on the same day it was reported the Government would try to prop up debt-ridden Japan Airlines by putting its ownership in the hands of a quasi-public corporation without having it go through bankruptcy.

Meet the new boss.

Even worse than the old boss.

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Matsuri da! (104): Signs of spring in Toyohashi

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, March 8, 2009

PEOPLE THE WORLD OVER have rituals and customs to celebrate the arrival of spring, the season when the flowers bloom, the chicks hatch, and a young man’s fancy turns to you-know-what. Japan of course is no exception, but instead of maypole dancing or binge drinking in Ft. Lauderdale, the Japanese have traditionally heralded the annual rising of the sap with a cornucopia of Shinto festivals.


One of those is the Oni Matsuri (Ogre Festival), which was held on 10 and 11 February by the Akumi Kanbe Shinto shrine in Toyohashi, Aichi. Yes, February does seem a little early, but we’re talking the lunar calendar here.

It is one of those events the Japanese refer to as a kisai, or unusual festival, which means that they consider it a bit offbeat even by their standards. Then again, they’re used to the odd goings-on—the festival is more than 1,000 years old and has been designated an important intangible cultural treasure of the nation. It is offered in supplication for a bountiful harvest and protection from illness and disaster.

The festival itself is a reenactment of an old myth in which a divinity is fond of playing practical jokes on the people. That divinity is confronted by another in a battle, and the joker eventually repents the error of his ways. Instead of divinities, the parts in the Toyohashi festival are played by an ogre and a tengu (a goblin of sorts).

The initial events occur on the night of 10 February, when there is a performance of the iwato-no-mai, or dance of the (opening of the) rock cave. This is one of the kagura, or ceremonial dances to please the divinities, and is also based on mythology. The performers are about 50 local junior high school students dressed as blue ogres, and who dance to the accompaniment of flutes and drums. When the performance is finished, they and some shrine parishioners toss out tankiri ame, a type of boiled confection, to the crowd while emitting loud growls. They also sprinkle white powder over the crowd, which is supposed to protect them from bad fortune.

The main event with the red demon and the tengu follows the next day, and their confrontation is described as bantering. Before that, however, some Shinto events are conducted in the shrine, and then there is a performance of the dengaku, a dance in celebration of the harvest. During one of the scenes, the red demon, whose big thrill is spoiling the grain harvest, appears at the shrine and leaps about comically. He is confronted by the tengu, representing the god of military arts, and challenges him to a battle, but the tengu finally drives the demon out of the shrine grounds. Overjoyed by his victory, the tengu also performs a kagura.

The red demon sees the error of his ways and repents. To atone for his transgressions, he sweeps through the town handing out more tankiri ame. Meanwhile, back the shrine, a group of young people shout “a-ka-i” (red) and dump so much white powder on the onlookers that it hangs in the air like smoke from a fire.

The whole scene doesn’t sound like much more than a 1,000-year-old comic sketch, but 60,000 people show up every year to see the performance and get covered by the powder. The more powder that clings to you, the better the protection will be.

Maybe in Toyohashi, powder in the air is a sign that spring is in the air!

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Matsuri da! (89): You art what you eat!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 24, 2008

THE INTRODUCTION OF WET PADDY rice cultivation some 2,000 years ago defined the Japanese nation. Growing rice was once considered a religious act, in which the spirit of the rice plant was invoked. It required labor-intensive farming, advanced water control systems, and the combined effort of the greater community. That created the environment in which the traditional extended family system evolved.

Until modern times, the rice crop was the standard used for managing land and levying taxes. The word for cooked rice itself is synonymous with a meal; the other foods served with it, even expensive beefsteak, are considered o-kazu, or side dishes.

Children in the region where I live are sent on field trips at least once during their school career to plant rice by hand. Dressed in gym class t-shirts and shorts, they slosh around in the wet rice paddy in bare feet to find out first hand how to place the seedlings in the mud to make sure they don’t fall over. What better way to understand the work required to put their daily bowl of rice on the table?

The Daijosai, sometimes translated as the Great Food Offering Ritual, is the third of three ceremonies through which a new tenno (emperor) ascends the throne. The preparations include an ancient divination technique to select consecrated paddies for growing the rice to be used. It is cultivated using ritual procedures, and when harvested is sent by special minister to the ceremony site. The tenno offers this rice to the sun goddess Amaterasu and other divinities before eating it himself to partake in spiritual communion with them.

“You are what you eat” is a concept as old as humankind and has been incorporated in religious worship throughout the world. The Catholics believe in the concept of transubstantiation, in which the bread and wine of the Eucharist are changed into the body and blood of Jesus. Believers partake of this on Sunday mornings, after confessing their sins on Saturday.

And that’s how the Japanese came to believe that the tenno was a living god.

June is the month for planting rice in Japan, and the start of the season is celebrated by hundreds of rice-planting festivals everywhere in the country.

One is the Yukisaiden Otaue Matsuri held on the 1st in Okazaki, Aichi, shown in the first photo below. The first festival was for planting the rice used in the Daijosai of the Taisho tenno, the current tenno’s grandfather. The song, dance, tools, and clothing used in the ceremony have been designated intangible folk cultural treasures of the city

Members of a local preservation society and sixth-graders in primary school trooped into the fields to plant 2,500 rice stalks by the traditional method as they sang a local rice-planting song. Girls or young women are usually the ones to do the ceremonial planting, and the language even has a special word for them: saotome.

All the rice planted was of the same Banzai variety used in the Daijosai 90 years ago. The rice was derived from the leftovers a local farmer discovered in his farmhouse in 2005.

Sometimes the planters work to a song or musical accompaniment. The 23 saotome in the Suwa Taisha Shinto shrine festival in Suwa, Nagano, however, plant the seedlings on signals from a foreman. These saotome are in their teens and 20s and were selected to represent each district served by the shrine. The harvested rice will be offered at the Niinamesai, the Shinto harvest festival, in November.

All 33 saotome in the festival held in Goshogawara, Aomori, on the 16th were high school seniors. A local high school conducts the festival every year, rather than a Shinto shrine. The girls wear clothing made by predecessors who did the planting 10 years ago. It looks like comfort was their primary consideration.

It required 55 saotome from local junior high and high schools for the Taga Taisha shrine festival in Taga-cho, Shiga, however. The girls received the rice plants at the shrine and proceeded to the paddy. After they arrived, miko, or shrine maidens, ritually purified the paddy with hot water. Only 32 of the girls did the planting, while the rest performed the dances and songs. The rice will be harvested in September at the Nuibosai ceremony and offered for consecration in November at the Niinamesai.

Meanwhile, it took only five saotome to do the planting in Maeda Toshiharu’s 200-square-meter paddy in Torahime-cho, Shiga, but the rice will still be sent to the tenno as an offering. Here the miko performed the ceremonial dance and the first ceremonial plowing before the high school girls did the dirty work.

The festival of the Tsumakirishima shrine down south in Miyakonojo, Miyazaki, was held on the 7th with 12-grade girls serving as the saotome. This event started sometime during the Edo period (1603-1868), but stopped in 1940 because of World War II. The older folks in Miyakonojo remembered how much they enjoyed it, however, so they decided to start it up again in 1989. It’s been an annual event ever since.

Here they use a special variety of red rice. Not all rice is brown—there are 1,500 varieties in Japan, and some of them come in different colors. It’s a veritable rainbow coalition of cereal diversity. There are even varieties of black rice, which my wife and I add to the genmai (brown rice) we eat for dinner. We mix it because the black rice is gummy and sticky and not ideal for eating by itself. I tried it once, and it didn’t work out well. Cleaning the rice cooker afterward wasn’t so appealing, either.

One saotome said the festival was a lot of fun because she enjoyed the sensation of her bare feet squishing in the warm mud. I wonder if that was the girl smiling for the camera. Hi there!

Miyakonojo’s festival was suspended during the war and didn’t get restarted until almost 50 years later, but the Hikamianego Shinto shrine in Nagoya has kept theirs going since 1933 without a break. Legend has it that this shrine was established in 195 and moved to its present location in 690. Note that those dates have only three digits.

The 10 saotome working in the shrine’s sacred paddy aren’t schoolgirls, but flesh-and-blood farming folk or employees of the local agricultural cooperative. The report says they sing a planting song as they work. They do resemble a chorus line, come to think of it.

The festival of the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine in Kyoto is well known throughout the country for being photogenic, even though it is relatively recent—it started in 1948. It was held on the 10th, with girls performing the o-tamai (rice paddy dance) as both men and women handled the planting.

The rice will be harvested in another Nuibosai festival and offered to the divinities. Reports say the festival mood is solemn. Those folks up on the wall do look like a serious bunch, don’t they? That’s the o-temai the girls are doing.

The local farmers also play an important role in the Nitta Shrine festival in Satsumasendai, Kagoshima, as they swing bamboo sticks called yakko in a ritual to drive away the insects. Here the planting is done by 24 men and women, this year in the rain, as they sing a rice planting song.

Singing in the rain! Whistling while they work! Swatting insects with bamboo sticks!

The Tashibunosho district of Bungotakada, Oita, looks remarkably like a farming village in the Japanese middle ages. Their planting festival was held on the 8th by the Usa Jingu shrine. It started with a Shinto ceremony and was followed by 150 planters taking care of business, with the paddy’s owner and students from Beppu University helping the saotome.

They start planting when Buddhist priests from the Fuki-ji temple give them the high sign by blowing on conch shells. This is an example of ecumenism Japanese style—many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples once shared the same facilities, and the Usa Jingu and Fuki-ji were a combined operation as far back as the 12th century.

This one’s not such a solemn affair. It starts with a comical sketch of a cow dummy and a herder in the paddy. The cow gets stuck in the mud and falls over, and later runs amok to avoid the work. Perhaps she didn’t care for her bare hooves squishing in the mud.

The miko do all the work at the 300-year-old festival of the Yutoku Inari shrine in Kashima, Saga. They serve as the saotome to plant the rice, perform the o-taue dance, and provide the musical accompaniment with clappers and flute. Maybe they ought to think about organizing a union.

This rice is also harvested at a Nuibosai festival, and some of it will be made into sake for the Niinamesai.

The high school girls are back as the saotome in Mitoyo, Kagawa, for the festival conducted by the Hokohachiman-gu shrine. This event is nearly 100 years old, and the rice will be used for a December Niinamesai. They alternate the use of private paddies, and this year’s field was chosen as the lucky one for the first time in nearly 50 years. Crop rotation with a long lead time makes it easy on the local farmers.

Instead of an o-temai, they perform a lion dance, or shishimai, to the accompaniment of taiko drums

You can be serious and still have fun, as this event held last Saturday demonstrates. The planting in Himeji, Hyogo, was not part of an old Shinto ritual. It was to create rice paddy art using eight rice varieties with different colors. Viewing the paddy from above after the rice plants grow will reveal a picture of the Himeji Castle. The 1.6-hectare rice paddy covers nearly as much ground as the castle itself.

About 100,000 rice plants were used for the planting, which took three days to finish. On the first day, 340 people turned out and used a diagram to plant the different strains in just the right spots. Pointillism in agriculture.

The castle is slated to undergo major repairs this fall. The chairman of the organizing committee said they conducted the event not only to promote tourism, but also to reeducate area residents about food and farming.

The paddy castle magic will be best seen in mid-July, and the prime view is from Mt. Shosha, which has a convenient ropeway for carrying people to the summit.

Is this another take on “you art what you eat”? Or is it art you can eat?

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Matsuri da! (88): Well, it almost looks like a Christmas tree!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 10, 2008

THE USE OF CANDLES to decorate Christmas trees is said to date from the early 16th century, when Martin Luther placed them on a small tree for his children to represent the stars at night. (The candles were placed inside of small holders—the man didn’t want to burn his house down!)

The custom spread throughout Germany, then to England, and from there to the U.S. Electric lights were eventually used to replace the candles on the modern Christmas tree, but here’s a custom in Japan, albeit in the spring, that maintains the lit candle and tree motif.

The decoration in the photo is called a yamazao chochin, which translates literally as mountain-pole-lantern, and yes, the candles inside each one of those lanterns is lit. (Except for a few at the top, which seem to have fallen victim to the wind, but let’s not be ungenerous.)

It was set up last month at the Yasaka Shinto shrine in Nagoya’s Nishi Ward during the annual Chochin Festival. Hung from the pole-mountain are 880 lanterns. That number was borrowed from the number 88, which is an important milestone among birthday celebrations in Japan. (The word for it is beiju, which is a combination of the characters for rice and long life.)

Naturally, the festival is held in supplication for a long life, but the parishioners also ask for a good harvest–of rice, or any other crop–while they’re at it.

The pole itself is about 20 meters high, and there are five levels of lanterns. The bottom level spreads out for about 10 meters horizontally. Each of the levels, you’ll notice, is in the shape of an octagon. The yamazao chochin just stands there during the day, but at 6:30 in the evening, the lanterns are lowered to light the candles inside and then raised again.

The origins of the shrine in the area date from 1185, but the building at the present location was erected in 1702, when this particular festival also became popular.

It’s a lot of work lighting all those candles (and keeping them from blowing out), but shrine sources say that’s not the worst of it. The number of households around the shrine is dwindling, as are the number of local artisans with the skills to make those lanterns, so it’s becoming more difficult to keep the festival going each year.

Let’s hope they don’t go all modern on us and switch to electric light instead!

Incidentally, this isn’t even the biggest or the most-well known of Nagoya’s lantern festivals. That one, the Dai Chochin Matsuri (Great Lantern Festival) is a really big show, as they used to say, with lanterns that themselves are 10 meters high. That’s held at the end of August in Isshiki, just outside Nagoya, so we’ll talk more about that one later.

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Matsuri da! (73): Climbing up the greasy pole!

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, February 24, 2008

IF ANYONE STILL HARBORED ANY DOUBTS about the richness of the Japanese imagination when it comes to festival rites, the Kinekosa Festival held jointly by seven Shinto shrines in Nagoya should dispel them. More than 1,000 years old, the festival is held to drive away evil spirits and pray for the prosperity of one’s descendants, peace, and a good harvest. The festival date is January 17 according to the lunar calendar, which fell on February 23rd this year.

The main event does involve loincloth-clad men getting dunked in cold water in the middle of winter, which is a common occurrence in Japanese festivals, but the Kinekosa Festival has a fascinating twist—or perhaps bend is the more accurate word. Ten men, all 42 years old, and two boys stick a 10-meter long bamboo pole into the river. Then, one of group skinnies up the pole. The direction in which the pole falls predicts the fortune for that part of Nagoya in the year ahead.

This year, the climb was complicated by strong winds, but that wasn’t enough to put a damper on the proceedings. Luck was with them, as the pole fell to the southeast, the best possible direction for good fortune.

This site is all in Japanese, but that won’t stop you from looking at the photographs and a three-minute video of the event. Click on the arrow just as if it were YouTube. If you have the sound turned on, you can hear the wind blowing into the mike. Watching the pole climber take his good old time getting set, I could imagine the other participants thinking to themselves, “Let’s get a move on!”

But they probably didn’t. Part of their preparations for the event included three consecutive early-morning cold water baths for purification!

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Matsuri da! (72): Ridding the world of evil with fire

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, February 23, 2008

SPRING CLEANING FOR MOST PEOPLE involves washing the windows and cleaning the house to get ready for warm weather. For some people, however, spring cleaning is a time to drive away the demons for spiritual renewal—and they’ve been reenacting the ritual for more than 900 years.

That’s what happens at the Takisan-ji Oni Matsuri, or the Demon Festival of the Takisan Buddhist temple, which was held in Okazaki, Aichi, on the 16th. The festival is held close to 7 February, which was the old lunar New Year. Apart from the spectacle, the festival is also noteworthy for two reasons. First, it is held at a Buddhist temple–unlike most Japanese festivals, which are associated with Shinto shrines. And second, it was started by one of the first shoguns, Minamoto no Yoritomo.

That was early in the Kamakura period (1185—1333), when he had established what is now known as the Kamakura Shogunate. He offered prayers in supplication for peace and a bountiful harvest. That later evolved into ceremonies in which large torches are used to expel demons.

This is not a game played with matchsticks. The ceremonies date from a time when people believed in evil and demons, and knew that strong measures were required to keep them away. In this case, it means noise, movement, and a lot of fire. Contemporary humankind may have evolved into an affable domesticated herd, but the intensity of a more primitive—and more compelling–version of ourselves survives here.

Several ceremonies are conducted as part of the overall event, but the one that attracts the most interest is the Fire Festival. The temple lights are extinguished and three demons wearing masks representing a grandfather, grandmother, and grandchild enter the corridor of the main hall. The role of the grandfather is played by a 42-year-old man, the grandmother by a 25-year-old man, and the grandchild by a 12-year-old boy.

Then, about 50 men clad in white appear. They are all born in one of the years that corresponds to the current year of the Chinese zodiac, which this year is the Year of the Rat. Clutching 2.5 meter-long torches, they swing them about wildly while performing a frenzied dance in the darkness to drive out the evil spirits. They have inherited the spirit of their ancestors, for whom failure in this enterprise was not an option.

The sheer length of traditions that have been maintained in Japan is a constant source of wonder. Minamoto no Yoritomo ruled during the final years of the 12th century. He was a contemporary of Richard the Lion-Hearted. Takisan-ji was already a venerable institution when he started the festival–the building’s foundations date to the latter half of the 7th century. The story goes that a priest who had been living as a hermit in the mountains nearby built the temple on the orders of the Emperor Tenmu, who reigned from 673 to 686 AD.

Though Minamoto-no-Yoritomo might be unfamiliar as a name to people outside of Japan, the image of the man himself is not. Here’s a link to his picture; reproductions of this scroll are sold as wall decorations in the West.

And here’s what he wrought: someone captured this year’s festival on YouTube, which you can see here. Both the images and the sound are slightly blurred, but that only serves to emphasize just how powerful the effect of either witnessing or taking part in this festival must be.

Thanks to Ponta for the link!

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