Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Takahashi Y.’

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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Ichigen Koji (4)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 23, 2011

– A person who has something to say about everything

“JPY 12 trillion in government bonds has already been issued this fiscal year. If we were to fully use the JPY 30 trillion framework for Bank of Japan bond purchases in this year’s budget, it would create a revenue source of JPY 18 trillion. This is not a fiscal liability. The funds could be quickly used for earthquake reconstruction and for dealing with the nuclear power plant disaster. I do not understand what the Kan administration and the Bank of Japan are thinking when they oppose it and offer such nonsensical reasons as confidence in the currency…

“Those who argue for a tax increase are very displeased when you talk about providing JPY 40 trillion in revenue by having the BOJ underwrite JPY 18 trillion in reconstruction bonds, and using JPY 10 trillion from the government debt consolidation fund, JPY 5 trillion from labor insurance, and other sources for the rest.”

– Takahashi Yoichi, author, university professor, and former Finance Ministry bureaucrat

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Letter bombs (18): Flybaits

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 19, 2011

A professional politician is a professionally dishonorable man. In order to get anywhere near high office he has to make so many compromises and submit to so many humiliations that he becomes indistinguishable from a streetwalker.
– H.L. Mencken

AN E-MAIL came from Peter in Toronto telling me of his blog about Japan. Peter wants to move to this country and reform it from the inside out by becoming a Japanese politician.

As the law stands now, Hong Kong-born Peter would have to become a naturalized citizen to run for public office here, but there is a precedent for him to follow. Martti Turunen was a Lutheran missionary who came to Japan from Finland in 1968. He divorced his Finnish wife two years later, married a Japanese woman in 1974, became a Japanese citizen in 1979, and moved to Kanagawa in 1981.

Six years after arriving in Japan, he ditched the missionary gig and started teaching English. He must have a taste for lathering hot air over groups of fidgeting listeners, because he ran for and won election to the municipal council of Yugawara-machi in 1992. Three years after that, he got really ambitious and ran for the Diet. Four tries later — three for the upper house, one for the lower — he finally hit the big time in 2002 when celebrity pol Ohashi Kyosen got tired of being a small fish in a large pond after just six months and resigned his upper house proportional representation seat. Mr. Turunen, whose Japanese name is Tsurunen Marutei, replaced him because he was the runner-up in the previous election.

Mr. Ohashi, by the way, is a specimen in his own right. He was a well-known master of ceremonies in the broadcast media, an operator of gift shops overseas with Japanese-speaking staff for Japanese tourists, and a showbiz racetrack tout. He was recruited to run for the Diet by Kan Naoto — you know him — and won a PR seat in 2001.

He proved to be the prickly type almost immediately, however. The 9/11 terrorist attacks in America occurred shortly after he took office. He was the only DPJ member to vote against the Diet resolution condemning the attacks because it was tantamount to “supporting America”. He tried to convince then-party leader Hatoyama Yukio that the DPJ should join Socialist International and come out of the closet as a left-wing party. He said the Japanese Democrats should position themselves as a “center-left” party, which reveals what the Anglosphere mass media means when they use that term to describe the current Japanese government. (That also gives us an idea about Mr. Kan’s eye for talent and his own political proclivities). Mr. Hatoyama deflected the suggestion, saying there was no consensus for it within the party. When Mr. Ohashi made his exit stage left, he complained that he didn’t realize the Democratic Party of Japan had become so undemocratic.

But let’s return to Mr. Turunen, though there’s little of consequence to say about him. He doesn’t seem to have done much in Nagata-cho for the past 10 years except sit there and (presumably) vote. From what I could dig up on the web, his political philosophy consists of growing and eating organic vegetables, recycling food waste, and using the suffix –san when addressing everyone, regardless of social status. He is so excited about “effective micro-organisms” he has 11 articles about them on his website. He favors giving Korean citizens born in Japan the right to vote. Instead of Lutheranism, he now proselytizes for the Church of Global Warming. He once described his outlook for the Japan Times:

“I don’t need to try to be Japanese or assimilate too much. I want to be accepted as a foreigner and still contribute to this society.”

That’s a curious attitude for someone who went to the trouble to become a naturalized citizen.

Therefore, being born a non-Japanese outside of Japan will not prevent one from becoming a politician in Japan. Judging from Mr. Turunen’s record, the absence of any recognizable ability, real-world accomplishments, or worthwhile insight isn’t a serious obstacle either. (Indeed, judging from his curriculum vitae, one doesn’t have to be a native English speaker or to have lived in the Anglosphere to operate an English language school in this country. Now that’s what I call the land of opportunity.)

The highlight of his career seems to have been the day he was sworn into office, an achievement he shares with Barack Obama, another politician with a variegated citizenship history. Considering that the voters of Kanagawa have chosen to award their PR votes to the DPJ for the past decade with people such as Mr. Ohashi and Mr. Turunen on the list, anyone has a plausible shot at a seat. That would confirm Margaret Thatcher’s advice to a young person who thought there wasn’t any room at the top for a person interested in a political career. “Nonsense,” said Mrs. Thatcher. “There’s plenty of room at the top.” Nature abhors a vacuum, even if it’s only dust filling the empty space.

The real problem with politics as a profession in any country isn’t that the chief job requirement is to have the character of a party balloon, either fresh and inflated or limp and slobber-filled. Rather, it is explicit in the Mencken observation quoted at the top of this post. Though his comment was in reference to American politicians almost a century ago, it applies to all of them, everywhere, in any age. Even Nikita Khrushchev noted that politicians were alike the world over: “They promise to build a bridge where there is no river.” Imagine what he might have said had he spent his career in a system that required he periodically lubricate the voters.

One Japanese politician who validates the universality of Mencken’s assertion is Matsubara Jin of the ruling DPJ, though as the Japanese would say, the choice of pols for that distinction from among any party is yoridorimidori; i.e., the options are multitudinous and varied. Mr. Matsubara appeared on Beat Takeshi’s Terebi Takkuru on Monday night. That’s a television program on which politicos, academics, commentators, and celebrities are invited every week to discuss current events and issues. Host Beat Takeshi, a comedian who also directs films under his original name of Kitano Takeshi, usually limits himself to the occasional interjection, leaving it to his guests to provide the polemical fireworks.

Over the past few weeks, the panelists have been discussing Kan Naoto’s plan to increase taxes to pay for the reconstruction of the Tohoku region. It’s gratifying that the program is providing plenty of airtime for opponents to make their case and fry the Finance Ministry in the process. (A discussion program on a major network bashing a left-of-center government and its representatives for that reason would be unthinkable in the United States.)

This week’s lineup of guests included a few members of the recently formed group of Diet members working to stymie a tax hike, which we discussed a few posts ago. In addition to Mr. Matsubara, others who appeared were Eda Kenji of Your Party and ex-Finance Ministry bureaucrat and current academic Takahashi Yoichi, both of whom I frequently quote here.

The discussion eventually flowed in the direction of the Kan Naoto proposal to cut national civil service salaries by 10% to help with the financing of the reconstruction. That’s when Mr. Matsubara lost the plot.

Even though he cites Margaret Thatcher as his primary political inspiration, Mr. Matsubara said that if the salaries of public sector employees were to be temporarily reduced, then private sector employees should be made to take home lighter pay envelopes too.

Had Mrs. Thatcher heard anyone say that in a policy debate, much less one of her admirers, she would have verbally filleted him and lined his giblets in a neat row on the cutting board before he could say Ginsu Knife. It took only a few seconds more for the rest of the panelists to hoot him down.

Now that’s a politician who has become indistinguishable from a streetwalker. Mrs. Thatcher saved England by walking into the union’s den with a stool and a whip. Meanwhile, both private and public sector unions are the backbone of organizational support for Mr. Matsubara’s DPJ. If his political ideals really are similar to Mrs. Thatcher’s, he’s sold them out for the salary and perks of a Diet seat. The price he pays is to be a party hack in public and a hypocrite in private.

A few years ago, I followed an Internet mailing list devoted to the discussion of music. One list member was a musician who wrote a minor hit song in the late 60s and led a band with a minor hit record in the early 70s. One day he told a story about a meeting he had with a record company executive in Los Angeles. They were joking around at lunch, and the musician mused, “You know, what I’d really like to do is become governor of (his home state).”

He said the executive turned serious and replied, “That can be arranged.”

I understand and appreciate Peter’s desire to make a difference through the political process, particularly because I once thought about doing the same thing myself. But I suspect it’s not possible to put oneself in a position to accomplish something in politics and still get to sleep at night, absent a narcissistic personality disorder or enormous alcohol consumption.

It’s long been the practice for show business or sports celebrities to make politics a temporary second career by running for an upper house seat. Both major parties actively recruit them for their name recognition. It’s not essential to already have a fully formed politicial philosophy; the point of the exercise is to be a safe vote doing their sponsor’s bidding once in office. The latest example was the Olympic gold medalist in judo, Tani Ryoko, whom Ozawa Ichiro recruited as a DPJ candidate for the 2009 upper house election. There’s more on the phenomenon in a previous post here.

Speaking of H.L. Mencken, here’s what he wrote about the public speaking abilities of then-President Warren Harding about 90 years ago:

“It reminds me of a string of wet sponges, it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of a dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble, it is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”

That’s such an apt characterization of Kan Naoto’s public speaking abilities it’s enough to make me wonder whether there’s something to that reincarnation idea after all.

Here’s a video credited to a Malaysian group called Fredo and the Flybaits. Does not the word flybait perfectly capture the essence of a politician?

In this video, however, the Flybaits don’t show up. It’s just a solo Fredo performance. (Freedo is a misspelling.) We should be so lucky with the other flybaits.

Wait for the Elvis impersonation!

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Paying through the nose

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 9, 2011

LAST WEEK, we had a post about the government’s plan to raise electricity rates nationwide to offset the compensation Tokyo Electric Power will have to pay as a result of the problems at the Fukushima nuclear plant after the earthquake/tsunami.

The post included the objections of several people that the public should not be forced to assume a liability that should properly be borne by the company’s owners, i.e., its stockholders. (Japanese law also requires the government to assume the liability if the total exceeds a certain amount.) Why, those people asked, should consumers make sacrifices to protect the investments of the utility’s stock and bond holders.

One of those cited in the post was former Ministry of Finance official Takahashi Yoichi, who is now a university professor. He also worked with Takenaka Heizo on the privatization of Japan Post in the Koizumi administration.

Not only does Mr. Takahashi object to the plan to raise rates, he calls for rates to be reduced through the adoption of smart grids and deregulation that would allow for the entry of other power producers in the industry. One of his arguments is that Japanese electricity rates are too high to begin with. To buttress that argument, he offered the following chart in an article on the Gendai Business website (in Japanese), which I swiped to use here.

The headline says that the chart is an international comparison of electric power rates for 2010, with Japanese rates as a baseline of 100. The blue bars are the rates for household use, and the red bars are the rates for commercial use. From left to right, the six countries are Japan, the United States, Great Britain, Germany, France, and South Korea. One caveat: He does not cite the source for his statistics, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.

In short, Japanese rates are already twice those of all rates in the United States and South Korea, and commercial rates in France. Only Germany’s household rates even approach Japanese levels. Mr. Takahashi says the scheme now under discussion in the Kantei could further boost rates as much as 20%.

The justification for the high rates in the past, according to Mr. Takahashi, was that that there are no blackouts in Japan. That justification is no longer valid after the rolling blackouts in Tokyo earlier this year.

A final note: One difficulty in keeping up with the debate on public issues in Japan is that important information tends to dribble out over a long period of time — often years — from a wide range of sources. Sometimes that information is provided deep in an article in a specialty publication, almost parenthetically.

That’s happening again. It turns out that foisting the costs of the compensation on the consumers would protect more than the big banks and other large institutional investors. Tokyo Electric Power has a relatively high number of individual investors. Mr. Takahashi passes along the rumor that among them are members of the Japanese Imperial family.

That would be most curious if it were true. Though they would never admit it in public, Kan Naoto and many others in the DPJ’s left wing are probably republicans in the British sense of the term.

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Putting peoples’ lives first

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 5, 2011

…(I)ncestuous relations between corporations and governments are fascistic. The problem comes when you claim that such arrangements are inherently right-wing.
– Jonah Goldberg

The type of businessmen who seek special advantages by government action (are the) actual war profiteers of all mixed economies.
– Ayn Rand

PEOPLE have been complaining since the 19th century about a type of government/corporate collusion that has come to be known as the socialization of risk and the privatization of profit.

Risk is inherent in any commercial enterprise, and profits are an enterprise’s reward for successfully avoiding or negating those risks. Too often, however, Big Business colludes with Big Government (of either party) to create ways to keep the profits for themselves while making the public pay for risks gone sour. “Too big to fail” is one of the most common, as well as the one of the most stupid, justifications.

Now here comes the Japanese version, proposed as a way to keep Tokyo Electric Power Co. afloat while it deals with what are likely to be enormous compensation payments resulting from the problems with the Fukushima power plant. We already know who’s going to get stuck with the tab.

Both the Yomiuri Shimbun and the Asahi Shimbun are reporting that either the Democratic Party of Japan, or the DPJ-led government — keeping track of the more than 20 bodies Prime Minister Kan created to deal with the earthquake/tsunami makes it difficult to pin down — is discussing a new mechanism that will allow Tokyo Electric Power to raise rates to defray the compensation costs for Fukushima. No one knows the final bill for that compensation, but one initial estimate suggests it could be JPY one trillion a year for four years.

If the nation’s other power companies are asked to contribute to the compensation, the mechanism will allow them to raise their rates, too. Of course, say the proponents, the government will monitor the rates to make sure the increase is not excessive — doesn’t that allay your concerns? — but the average household will be on the hook for several hundred yen more a month in utility bills.

Their excuse reasoning is that it will be difficult for Tokyo Electric to maintain its operations absent a raise in rates. Therefore, investors will dump their bonds, which therefore will roil the commercial bond market, which therefore could cause problems for Japanese government bonds.

In short: TEPCO and its shareholders, primarily the big financial institutions, have been the ones to make the profits. By rights, they should also be liable for the risk. But when a natural disaster, exacerbated by power company and government mismanagement, requires the people who made the profits to assume the risk — you know, the free market mechanism — they want to socialize that risk by having those with no responsibility for the problem pay for it.

Access the website of the Democratic Party of Japan and the first thing you see is their slogan: “Putting Peoples’ Lives First”.

More than a half-century ago, Alfred Jay Nock wrote: “Professional politicians…are known of all men to be pliant mountebanks when they are not time-serving scoundrels, and are usually both.” Still true after all these years.

It’s encouraging that several people unleashed a barrage at that trial balloon as soon as it hove into view. Kono Taro of the LDP, who claims (sometimes believably) to champion small government, asks why everyone else should pay to clean up the TEPCO mess just to keep stock prices stable for the banks.

Mr. Kono notes that the power companies already have a reserve fund of JPY 2.4 trillion for reprocessing, which is derived from user fees. He suggests dipping into that fund before anyone talks about rate increases. He further suggests that TEPCO should sell its assets (some of which are ownership stakes in affiliated companies) and apply the proceeds to the compensation.

He puts his finger on the problem that the DPJ promised to solve, but perpetuated instead:

“Bureaucrats from the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, and representatives of Tokyo Electric and the Federation of Electric Power Companies circulate through the Diet office building every day, buttonholing individual MPs and promoting their different agendas, (including) ‘Forcing Tokyo Electric to pay their claims could result in a financial crisis’.”

Are those quotes at the top of the post beginning to make sense?

Mr. Kono is one of those who offers another alternative: Spin off TEPCO’s atomic power division and split the parts of the company responsible for power generation and power transmission into separate entities. His version is a bit dodgy because he calls for the utility to be nationalized first, and then selling the individual units after it’s been split up. (His small government rhetoric does have some holes.) But he’s well aware that the LDP Diet members aligned with power company interests will also need to be squelched.

Earlier this week, Koga Shigeaki took that idea one step further on the Asahi TV program Morning Bird. Mr. Koga is a rara avis in Japan — a METI bureaucrat with an impressive resume in government service who favors radical civil service reforms to restrict the power of Kasumigaseki. Before raising rates, he argues, the utility should first make provisional compensation payments and limit cash outflow. Then, there should be a national debate about Tokyo Electric’s restructuring and the liability of stock and bond holders. (They are the company’s owners and creditors, after all.) He calls for the separation of the generation and transmission units as a way to shift to the use of smart grids.

The Japanese edition of the Wall Street Journal reports that Tokyo Electric earned JPY 1.34 trillion in consolidated net profit in FY 2010. Total consolidated assets stood at JPY 13.2039 trillion.

Takahashi Yoichi, formerly of the Finance Ministry and a reform bird of Mr. Koga’s feather, also argues that this is an excellent opportunity to separate the units and incorporate smart grids, with the proviso that the supply network be completely open. That would allow individual households and companies to generate and sell electricity, though large companies would still have to operate the grids. Mr. Takahashi uses the analogy of telephone company deregulation; the Internet might work as an analogy as well.

The LDP’s leading Koizumian, Nakagawa Hidenao, says that any trouble in the bond market could be forestalled by having the Bank of Japan buy either TEPCO or Japanese government bonds. He admits that solution is “non-traditional”, but he also says these are exceptional circumstances.

Finally, Yamaguchi Iwao at the Agora website points out that businesses account for 70% of Japanese power consumption and individual households 30%. Raising the rates will cause some companies to shift manufacturing overseas, or to incline them in that direction. Those who stay will be more likely to investigate ways to generate power on their own. That might be a good idea, but it also means that households will be forced to bear a large part of the liability.

So to sum up, the people with the most reactionary and hidebound approach to this problem, the ones who would use the power of government to protect the vested interests at the expense of the public, are the Democratic Party of Japan.

But then classical fascism has always been a phenomenon of the progressive left.

I’ve mentioned before the rumors that Mr. Kan pressured the executives of Tokyo Electric Power into cutting a deal: They start making substantial financial contributions to the DPJ, and he’ll make sure they don’t get in any serious trouble because of Fukushima.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see some behavior that would reveal those rumors to be groundless?

Also on the DPJ English-language website is a section that presents their political philosophy. One paragraph is titled Our Political Standpoint and includes the following:

“We stand for those who have been excluded by the structure of vested interests, those who work hard and pay taxes, and for people who strive for independence despite difficult circumstances. In other words, we represent citizens, taxpayers, and consumers.”

There’s yet another reason why the Japanese public no longer takes the DPJ seriously.

Those with long memories might remember that Koga Shigeaki was on the receiving end of the gangsterish threats of then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito last fall when the former testified in the Diet against the DPJ civil service reform proposals. Mr. Koga didn’t think they were real reforms at all. He’s due to publish a book on 20 May called 日本中枢の崩壊. I’m already standing in line at the bookstore.

For those interested in more detail about smart grids, here’s an explanation from the Center for Progress, which favors “progressive ideas for a strong, just, and free America”.

That’s my only problem with smart grids at this point. The people most excited by the idea are the people least likely to favor anything progressive with a lower-case P that would foster strength, justice, and freedom anywhere.

Les Routledge at this site understands the objections and insists that smart grids must be completely open, transparent, and competitive. Unfortunately, the first words out of his mouth about the advantages of smart grids are that they would be a more efficient way to ration supply.

With friends like these, the idea of free market competition for smart grids doesn’t need any enemies.

I never cared for hip-hop music until I saw this video of Neba Solo.

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