Monday, July 30, 2007

Thoughts on the LDP Take on the Upper House Election Results Plus Some Odds And Ends

The prime minister stays on but cabinet heads roll, and the secretary-general falls on his sword. So, apparently, the LDP leadership has decided. They can make its stick too - for the time being - since the LDP has 306 seats out of 480 in the all-important Lower House, and there's no one else in the LDP poised to take over.

Prime Minister Abe and the LDP leadership claim that the electorate may have blamed the LDP for its political scandals and the public pension mess, but it did not repudiate his policies. Perhaps. But the public did not exactly endorse his emphasis on constitutional amendment and patriotism in education as priority issues. In fact, if you follow his trajectory since he first came to notice as a sub-cabinet member of the Koizumi administration, you will notice the following:

Mr. Abe made his name as an administration hardliner on the abductees issue. But the only reason the abductees became a top issue was because Prime Minister Koizumi decided to make it one. And the only occasions on which the Japanese government made any headway were when Prime Minister Koizumi twice flew to Pyongyang and essentially bribed the North Korean regime. Mr. Abe has delivered little on the abductees.

Mr. Abe (and the LDP) can take a breather only because the LDP has a comfortable Lower House majority on its own even without the help of the New Komeito. But the majority exists only because Mr. Koizumi bet the house in 2005 by dissolving the Lower House over Post Office privatization and won a landslide victory in the general election. And it was only with visible reluctance that Mr. Abe went along with the reform legislation. Accordingly, after he became prime minister, he made it a top political priority to allow back in the Lower House rebels who had managed to maintain their seats in the general election. But this led to his first serious setback in public opinion polls, from which he never managed to recover.

Another political decision has brought him nothing but grief as well. He chose his cabinet members mainly on the basis of their role in corralling support for the LDP presidency election and their personal relationships with him, giving short shrift to the wishes of party elders and faction leaders. But many of his ministers either became ensnared in a continuous stream of political financing scandals or committed one verbal gaffe after another. And at least one replacement for the failures kept both problems in the public eye, late into the electoral campaign. Although Mr. Abe was not personally implicated in the political financing scandals, they did touch him personally, as their frequency and his hands-off-the-tiller responses gave him an air of powerlessness.

(It is notable that Mr. Koizumi's most serious political troubles over a cabinet appointee's behavior came when he allowed political considerations to overrule practical concerns. Makiko Tanaka, the charismatic but undisciplined daughter of ex-Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, bungled her way through her brief tenure as foreign minister and caused a major setback for Mr. Koizumi in public opinion polls. She had been given her pick of cabinet appointments because her very public campaigning was directly responsible for pushing him over the top against the heavily favored ex-Prime Minister Hashimoto.)

However, the prime minister has not been totally without success in raising his esteem with the public. Although Mr. Abe was clearly Mr. Koizumi's handpicked successor, he has so far repudiated at least one part of his predecessor's legacy. He has not visited the Yasukuni Shrine since he became prime minister, even though his views on pre-1945 issues are clearly to the right of Mr. Koizumi's, This was the unstated quo pro quo for China's acceptance of his 2006 September visit, right after the installment of his cabinet. This raised his public approval to a historical high. It is also important to note that the only notable uptick in his popularity came when the Chinese prime minister (but not the more important head of state) paid a return visit in April.

Mr. Abe is in many ways the anti-Koizumi, yet he owed the prime minister's chair to his predecessor, and will continue to do so. The further, double irony is that where he has deviated from his legacy, he has faltered miserably, except where he has deviated from his own personal beliefs.

I can now tell you now that my favorite Japan analyst was off by just one seat on LDP returns.

The DPJ, JCP, DSP, and the New Party Japan have between them 122 seats out of 242. That's a simple majority. Not that the Communist Party will march in lockstep with the other opposition parties, and the other opposition parties do not exactly harbor unconditional love for the DPJ. But even if the ruling coalition brings in the People's Party and all the unaligned - an impossibility since, for one, some of the newly-elected unaligned ran with the official support of multiple opposition parties against LDP candidates – they will still have only 120 votes in the Upper House. The possibility that the ruling coalition can cobble together a working majority in the Upper House by bringing in the unaligned, micro-parties, and defectors is not there in the foreseeable future.

The New Komeito, the junior coalition partner, also took a beating, as it won only nine, a net loss of three. They did particularly badly in the three-seat districts, where the DPJ managed to take two seats in three of the four three-seat districts that the New Komeito contested. The third seat in all cases went to the LDP, leaving the New Komeito in the cold. This will be a persistent problem for the narrow-based New Komeito, if the voters continue to lock in on the two major parties in future elections. In this respect, it is notable that the JCP and DSP, the perennial opposition parties also suffered losses.

The Yomiuri estimates the proportion of the number of actual votes to the number of eligible voters at 58.64%, a modest rise from 56.57% in 2004. Public attention was significantly higher this time around according to polls, but it did not materialize as actual turnout. (Imagine if there had not been the growing awareness of the 2003 voting reform, which has made it much easier for voters to vote before the actual election day.) The election, it appears, was not so much won by the DPJ as lost by the LDP.

One Internet poll had Mr. Koizumi as the favored candidate to succeed Mr. Abe. Mr. Abe himself ran a close second.

I know the Ichiro Ozawa is not popular in many quarters and has potentially serious health problems (he did not show up in post-election celebrations due to exhaustion), but you can't argue with success.

Tomorrow, the US House of Representatives vote on the comfort women issue. Perhaps then we'll see how long the post-election buzz lasts in the foreign media.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

While Waiting for the Rain to Let Up I Find This, about the Art of Spin.

Robert Novak brings you this:

Karl Rove, President Bush's political lieutenant, told a closed-door meeting of 2008 Republican House candidates and their aides Tuesday that it was less the war in Iraq than corruption in Congress that caused their party's defeat in the 2006 elections.

Rove's clear advice to the candidates is to distance themselves from the culture of Washington. Specifically, Republican candidates are urged to make clear they have no connection with disgraced congressmen such as Duke Cunningham and Mark Foley.

In effect, Rove was rebutting the complaint inside the party that George W. Bush is responsible for Republican miseries by invading Iraq.

I wonder how John McCain, whose principled support of the war in Iraq has never been questioned, and Fred Thompson, the successful ex-lobbyist, would respond to that.

I Go forth to Choose Between the Return of the Lost Decade and the End of Democracy (Or Do I?)

Unlike most of the people who are kind enough to read my blog, I have the opportunity to vote for the LDP and put an end to democracy in Japan; the DPJ and push Japan right back into the political chaos and economic stagnation of the Lost Decade and please the North Koreans no end; or none of the above. Given these choices, can "none of the above" be too bad? We'll see.

The expected opposition victory - the morning voting, as well as the two-week pre-election day voting, is up and the weather is holding – or, rather, the coalition loss, is likely to leave a divided Diet, which will make it difficult for the Abe administration to achieve much legislation during the next regular Diet session, typically beginning in December and going through June. If the coalition wants to avoid this predicament, it will have to do more than just corral unaffiliated Upper House members, or even bring the New People's Party; it must reach into the ranks of the opposition parties and seek out potential defectors.

The likelihood of legislative deadlock has brought on speculation in many quarters, including a cabinet member, that the Lower House will have to be dissolved for a general election well before its term expires in 2009. Indeed, I have done so myself. But I have not been able to think through the consequences of the outcome. Have you?

Looking further ahead, political deadlock has the potential to become a recurrent problem, as the electorate decides every three years to reward or punish the parties in power through the Upper House election. Now U.S. Congress can muddle through Senate-House divisions (or even executive-legislative splits) by vote seeking across party lines on individual issues, but Japanese party discipline is strong.

Two things could change these long-term prospects: a serious and lasting deterioration in the fortunes of the DPJ, or a major realignment of the political parties. The former seems unlikely. Although the LDP has beaten back many challenges before (Mr. Ozawa is taking his third crack at it), the DPJ appears to have the lasting power that comes from a reasonable facsimile of the human resources (sizeable representation in the Diet seats, viable candidates, and a growing party machine) and policy diversity (which some people might call lack of principle) that has served the LDP so well. The latter seems more likely, particularly if the public tires of persistent deadlock and the media pick up on such public sentiment.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

This Article on the Upper House Election Is a Good Reminder of TIME "Magazine"'s Embrace of the Internet.

This article on the Upper House election, appearing just two calendar days (in real time a little less) before voting day, is a good reminder of TIME "magazine"'s embrace of the Internet. Yes, it's an AP wire, not self-generated content. It provides an excellent and timely overview for people who have nothing more than a passing interest in the Japanese political scene. It tells you that TIME, in contrast to the mostly weekly-content online Newsweek, is serious in its drive to be a day-by-day, consistent presence on your PCs. And a slew of professional blogs also draw in many, if sometimes maniacal, eyeballs to the TIME website on the cheap.

The fact that TIME relies on an AP wire also speaks to the resource limitations of the retail MSM. Only the wire services have the resources to build up the knowledge, expertise, and contacts to cover overseas issues with depth and accuracy. Which means that in-house correspondents will lean towards interview-rich, local-color pieces, the Pocari Sweat, Calpis meets Hiroshima oysters, Yubari melon stories....

That was not nice. So, to restore some balance, I'll point out a flaw in the AP article:

In the most punishing scandal, the pension records of 50 million benefit claims were discovered missing… The government has not said how much the lost claims are worth, but the Communist Party estimates it at $165 billion — a substantial chunk of the $1.25 trillion in total deposits.

That's a bad quote to end the pension riff on, since it gives the impression to the casual reader that the money is lost to the pensioners for good. In fact it is likely that the bulk, perhaps most, of the claims will ultimately reconciled, possibly even before much of the payment is due. But this is what happens when a correspondent is unable to work with the native language and must rely on assistants for veracity

My Favorite Japan Analyst Writes in on the Upper House Election

My favorite Japan analyst writes in on the Upper House election. Although I'm not going to put the exact number down here since it may be proprietary information, let's just say that it's very much in line with all the current 40 over-under speculation going on.

Which reminds me, let's just say I'm glad I'm not a real bookie; otherwise, thansk to my earlier 45 over-under offer, I'd be looking forward to a long, long summer vacation. With the fishes.

The turnout looks to be good. Interest is up, and the weekend weather forecasts have improved. This is bad news for the coalition, since the volatile unaligned electorate will break sharply towards the opposition this time.

Coalition candidates have made some headway into getting their supporters behind their candidates. But nothing seems to happening that lessens the public's desire to punish the LDP (though not to reward the opposition) this time around.

I don't see any way that the coalition can engineer a working majority any time soon. I suppose the prime minister can stay on nevertheless if he wishes though, by keeping Taro Aso, and shedding lightweights and lesser lights and replacing them with a more balanced group of middleweights and light heavyweights.. (I assume that the one true heavyweight, with his sense of political drama if nothing else, will continue to make himself scarce.)

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

LDP Jaws Start Wagging in Anticipation of an Upper House Election Debacle, Ex-PM Mori Steps in; Have We Heard This Story Before?

With LDP prospects looking dire and even its coalition partner New Komeito facing something of a reputation risk by association, LDP officials and Cabinet members have been chiming in on the fate of the prime minister in the event of a debacle in Upper House election next Sunday.

As early as June 21, Upper House LDP Secretary-General Yoichi Masuzoe (who is the Bay City Rollers to LDP Secretary-General Hidenao "Big" Nakagawa's Beatles), irate over the one-week extension to the regular Diet session that the Abe regime rammed through to gain time to enact his version of public service reform, said on national TV, "It depends on whether the prime minister can explain why [the Diet session] was extended. If not, we'll suffer an enormous loss. There's the danger that the Cabinet may resign and the administration disintegrate", and repeated his complaint even more forcefully with the press. Mr. Nakagawa did some damage control over this and other grumbling from Upper House incumbent candidates - you would be pissed off too if you were an incumbent and your party leader decided that the best way to win the election was to give your opponents an extra week to campaign without any of the restrictions that come into effect once the campaign officially starts, while you were stuck in Tokyo tending to official business that you weren't sure your constituents really cared about – saying, "there's no possibility that the prime minister will resign just because we fail to retain a majority, since an Upper House election is [merely] an occasion for mid-term evaluation."

Things heated up even more after the Diet recessed and the campaign began in earnest, what with new accusations of political financing irregularities (implicating two more Cabinet ministers and awful damage control pushing LDP/Abe poll numbers further down). Poised to take over if Mr. Abe falters according to some speculations (which I discount), Foreign Minister Aso, as if to deflect suspicion of grave robbery, weighed in on July 12 with his view that "an Upper House election has nothing to do with the election of an administration; it's not the Lower House election."

Things got really dicey as the coalition poll numbers continued to fall, as a sitting Cabinet member, Yoshimi Watanabe, last seen here on this blog, sallied forth on July 23 saying, "If [management of the parliamentary process] ultimately comes to a dead end and nothing can be done about it, it will result in a choice of regimes."

The next day, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki refuted this view, essentially reprising Mr. Aso's claim, saying, "Upper House lections have been deemed in principle not to be elections to choose regimes. So is this one. [Although there has been a case where a Cabinet resigned as the result of an Upper House election,] that was the decision of that administration." Shoichi "Little" Nakagawa also seconded these thoughts, stating that the election had nothing to do with nominating the prime minister.

Now I can understand Cabinet members and top LDP officials minimizing the consequences of the Upper House election. But it is definitely not music to the ears of Upper House members, who are being told that they don't matter, or to the public who are being asked to take it seriously and give up weekend travel plans (or go to the trouble of absentee voting) to vote in an inconsequential election. And all this defeatist talk is very depressing.

So it is no wonder that ex-Prime Minister and Mr. Abe's guardian Yoshiro Mori sought to dampen such LDP speculation, stating, "the prime minister is saying, "[we'll] do the [corroboration and notification [of the public pension records] properly." If it isn't done properly, the prime minister himself must resign. Isn't now the time to watch over the situation so that the work can go ahead quietly?" In the context of Japanese political parlance, you have heard Mr. Mori tell the LDP minions to shut up.

LDP jaws wag in disunion, Mr. Abe keeps his counsel, and Mr. Mori wades in to calm the waters. Have we heard this story before?

Has Someone Already Written the Book on Racial Balance in the Visual Media?

Has someone already written the book on racial balance in the visual media? Anybody? If no one has and you want to take a crack at it, the ad in frame 5 of 13 of the slideshow in this Slate article would be a good place to start.

It's a Volkswagen ad highlighting safety. The four young people in the auto are a black couple in front with the male in the driver's seat and a white male and Asian female in the back. The images are a perfectly pitched rendition of the racial and gender dynamics of the times. Compared to this, those ads with babies/children of every color in the appropriate proportions are a snap. (Just to be on the safe side, the ad avoids any romantic overtones, so the couples could just be friends for all the viewer knows.)

The first Die Hard (1988) managed to sustain such a balance over an entire movie, and threw in class conflict and geopolitics into the mix. Every death is painstakingly calibrated not to offend, while maximizing customer satisfaction, starting with Takagi, the Japanese business executive (the only decent character to die; remember, we're talking about 1988) and finishing up with Karl, the superhuman terrorist in the anticlimax, including a couple of arrogant (yes, black and white) FBI agents along the way.

And remember, that's Takagi, not Tad, not Dan, not any of those names Japanese businessmen routinely adopt to work with Americans, if you catch my drift.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Even More Upper House Election Trivia: This Time, Mr. Shiozaki (But That's Not My Point)

The latest Cabinet member to be implicated in the never-ending political financing scandal is Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki. The story itself is fairly run-of-the-mill, following what has now become a familiar pattern that ultimately winds up with the media deploring the lack of a satisfactory explanation; you can read the original story here if you can read Japanese. (Sorry, the English version did not carry it.) It was a very small article in the hard copy version as well, which should please conspiracy theorists.

But no, that's not what caught my attention; what struck me was the fact that the story was first carried by Akahata, or Red Flag, the Communist Party's official newspaper. And I know that because the Yomiuri article says so. (And so does Asahi, which I will do not link to unless it is absolutely material because Asashi links go dead too quickly to serve my purposes.)

You see, way, way back in the day, I used to joke that if you were afraid that a scandal would break out, you should leak it to the Akahata, since none of the mainstream newspapers would do follow up on an Akahata scoop. But that was then.

I Know that Life Can Imitate Art, but

When I wrote the latest description for this blog, Anyone can sell crap, we sell sh**, I was just having fun…

Never did I think that NYT would do anything like this.

Calvin, I know that there could be another Calvin Sims or two at NYT, but I can recognize that voice anywhere. What's going on at the NYT-Discovery Channel? Or is it just the NYT now? You make your Canadian colleague Norimitsu Ohnishi look like a flaming Japanese nationalist. You make Fox News look fair and balanced. Well, not really. But you see my point.

And Mr. Orr, I don't know you, but judging from this video, I think that you should stick to financial education.

SG, who sent alerted me to this link, is reminded of Beijing and Pyonyang. I think that it's more unreconstructed old-school Socialist Partythink.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Reuters Gets It about as Right as You Can in a Wire

If you have time to read only one article on the Upper House election, you can't do much better than this Reuters piece. No, it says little about the opposition, and I'm not quite convinced that "Foreign Minister Taro Aso, 66, who shares much of Abe's policy agenda and is known for his love of "manga" comics and for verbal gaffes, is widely seen as a frontrunner to replace Abe." And it relies heavily on two recent polls for material. Still, the writer appears to know what she's writing about, and it shows.

A couple of brief excerpts show how deftly she encapsulates Prime Minister Abe's dilemma

"The surveys by the Asahi and Sankei newspapers were the latest to forecast a loss for Abe's coalition after government bungling of pension records and a series of gaffes and scandals that led ministers to resign and one to commit suicide."

"Abe, 52, came to power last September pledging to boost Japan's security profile and rewrite the country's 1947 pacifist constitution.
Those changes would be welcome to the United States, Japan's closest security ally, but rank well below bread-and-butter issues such as pensions with most voters."

There are a couple of quotes in the article, but they both come from Professor Yasunori Sone, a well-regarded political scientist with excellent command of public trends and technical details.

Incidentally, there's some speculation about how the coalition can maintain a measure of control in the Upper House, so that it will be easier to use the Lower House supermajority to overrule UH simple-majority vetoes. That is, by registering as a joint Diet group in the UH, this would enable them to be the largest UH "party", which, by longstanding custom, would entitle them to occupy the UH presidency, chairmanships in the UH procedural committee, budget committee, and other venues important to maintaining and facilitating the flow of legislation and budget bills. There are many examples of such joint Diet groups consisting of opposition parties, sometimes in order to maintain parliamentary (Dietary?) privileges that are denied to small parties falling under a threshold.

I thought about that, but dismissed the possibility. The UH chairs are nowhere near as powerful their US counterparts in controlling the agenda over matters under their respective jurisdictions, and party discipline is almighty when it comes to individual voting. Thus, there is very little room to use your procedural control to pull away some UH Diet members from the opposition on individual issues. Also, such a naked play for power would play very badly in the public eye. Moreover, if it came to that, nothing would prevent the opposition from breaking longstanding tradition and getting behind a, say, DPJ candidate for the presidency and divvying up the rest of the prime UH chairmanships.

This is not discussed in the Reutersarticle, but since the UH-LH relationship is covered quite nicely in the article, I decided to mention it here.

More Upper House Trivia: ex-Gaijin Out on Election the Hustings

hustings: definition
pl.n. (used with a sing. or pl. verb)
1. a. A place where political campaign speeches are made:
a candidate out on the hustings in the farm belt.
b. The activities involved in political campaigning:
a veteran of the hustings.

There are three candidates among the Upper House proportional-seats candidates who have names that are recognizable as naturalized citizens, two on the DPJ list and one on the People's New Party.

The DPJ has the colorful incumbent マルテイ・ツルネン (Tsurunen Marutei), formerly Martti Turnunen of Finland (Finland and Japan like each other; we both fought Russia, and, by some accounts, belong to the same broad language group) on its list and hopeful 金ジョンオク (Kimu Jonoku), the katakana (one of the two Japanese alphabets) version of his given name Kim Jongok and dead giveaway that he was born a Korean. (Mr. Kim's choice when he became a naturalized Japanese citizen is one of several options that Koreans have when they make this choice. It is something I would like to elaborate one of these days.)

The PNP has the most colorful name in Pema Gyaurupo (Pema Gyalpo in its original roman alphabetical version), a scholar of Tibetan studies and the Dalai Lama's virtual ambassador in Japan. It also has Fujimori (like Pele, Magic, and Ichiro, the PNP obviously feels that Mr. Fujimori is big enough to go with one name), the ex-president of Peru. Technically, Fijimori does not qualify as a gaijin since he obtained Japanese citizenship at birth, but certainly deserves honorary mention, like Sadaharu Oh in Cooperstown.

What intrigues me is that none of these people adopted names that obscure their foreign origins (unlike Shokei Arai, the naturalized South Korean Lower House Diet member who took his life in the wake of a personal political scandal).

The Japanese national side in soccer, rugby, basketball, softball, volleyball, and American football, as well as individual sports like table tennis, all include or have included naturalized citizens as key members on their rosters. And the top two sumo wrestlers are Mongolians. Now politics may be a contact sport as well, but the outcome also turns on popular consent. In other words, two political parties led by savvy old-timers (DPJ - Ichiro Ozawa; PNP – Tamisuke Watanuki, Shizuka "bad cop" Kamei, and Yasuoki "good cop" Kamei) from the LDP of the good old days have decided that these names will help pull in votes at the national level. Against a background of the heavy celebrity politicking on the national stage, this is surely an encouraging commentary on civil society in Japan.

PS: Is there no statute of limitations on the photos candidates are allowed to submit for a publicly paid-for ad? One of the candidates on party X looks at least 20 years younger than she should. And she didn't look like that when I saw her back in the day. The image has the smooth and shiny, retouched smile that reminds me of North Korean propaganda photos. Anyone who has access to the newspaper inserts in the national dailies is free to write in with his/her guess on who I'm talking about. I do not erase any comments, anonymous or non-, other than surf-by spam, so your efforts, if any, will not go to naught. (Visual legerdemain for the candidates' photos, by the way, does not appear to be limited to women.)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

South Korean Public Vote on Their Part of the Cross-Straits Relationship with Their Airline (and Ferry) Tickets

A July 21 Yomiuri article that didn't even make it to its web site tells us that, between January-May this year, 1.03 million South Koreans visited Japan while 0.91 million Japanese visited South Korea. Think about it; South Korea has a little less than two-fifths of the number of people that Japan has, yet more Koreans are now visiting Japan than the other way around, despite the Han-ryu Korean-drama craze in Japan.

The article attributes the remarkable turn of events to the exchange rate, which puts the Won at a ten-year high against the Yen at 100 Won = 13.30 Yen (July 20). (There is, of course, no need longer any need to be reminded of the underlying prosperity of the South Korean economy.) Those are impressively pre-Asian numbers, and the article gives more facts and figures on tourism (in fact, there's even a small photo of a heavily Korean neighborhood in Shinjuku teeming with Korean tourists (and possibly even me, since I sometimes shop there for foodstuff that I cannot find elsewhere)) and, more broadly, trade. Within the nice array of solid information, anecdotes like the following indeed do illuminate:

A 28 year-old woman, a corporate employee who came to Japan from Seoul on a 4-day, 3-night trip, says of her choice of destination, "I vacillated between Hong Kong [and Tokyo], but I chose Tokyo because it would be cheaper to do shopping here." (my translation)

I'm not sure how the state-to-state relationship is doing right now, but the people-to-people one looks quite good. I'd like to know, though, what people on both ends of this exchange make of the effect of all this on the nation-to-nation relationship. Also, what they think about the per capita imbalance.

The Media Response to Foreign Minister Aso's "Alzheimer's" Comment Is Subdued. Is There a Conspiracy?

"In Japan one 60-kilogram bag of rice is sold for 16,000 yen, whereas in China, Japanese rice is sold for 1,300 yen per kilogram--equivalent to 78,000 yen per bag. Even a person with Alzheimer's can work out whether 78,000 yen or 16,000 yen is more expensive."

Despite the predictable cries from the opposition for his head, the JMSM response to Foreign Minister Aso's "Alzheimer's" comment has been subdued. Is there a conspiracy? No.

There are several reasons why Mr. Aso's comment is receiving less attention than previous gaffes from this foot-in-mouth disease-afflicted administration.

First of all, Mr. Aso and the LDP have the latest earthquake and the questions it has raised with nuclear safety to thank for. This matter has so far failed to take on partisan colors, except for cries of opportunism when Prime Minister Abe went to the disaster area. But seriously, what else could you expect? And the LDP can thank the gods he didn't pat the TEPCO man on the back, telling him he was doing a good job. Let's just say, we haven't seen many slow news days recently.

Yes, I do suspect that there is a measure of caution in the JMSM about possibly overplaying this verbal misstep in a way that eclipses the substantive issues only a couple of weeks before voting day. But I am sure that the JMSM (and not just the daily tabloids) would have jumped in with relish if he had, say, uttered anything that could have been even remotely linked with a potential nuclear weapons program. In fact, Mr. Aso's words revealed nothing about Mr. his views on rice, aging, or any other substantive issues. And that takes us to my main point.

You see, Mr. Aso is a guy, most of us men are guys (caution: do not open at work unless you are using a headphone), and there's a roughly equal number of women who are resigned to sharing life with one guy or other. (Husbands, boyfriends of course, but also dads, brothers, kids.) Unlike Hakuo Yanagisawa's painfully labored "breeding machine" metaphor or Defense Minister Kyuma's third-rail musings on the meaning of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Mr. Aso's words were the kind of things we say in casual, private conversation, things grownups do not want to show up in on YouTube. But, like it or not, that is the way we are; careless, sometimes, callous, no. Mr. Aso was being his guy self, and it is precisely this inimitable knack of keeping it real in public that sets this manga-loving foreign minister apart from the rest of his usually scripted peers (though the hawkish Shoichi Nakagawa also manages to leave the reservation frequently with his dyspeptic wit) and overall makes him such an effective public speaker.

In sum, I do not think that this will have any effect on voting behavior come July 29. (I know that this is just my thumb saying stuff that cannot be disproved.) However, it does serve as a potent reminder why people had such a hard time taking him seriously as a potential prime minister when he ran for the LDP presidency in 2006. That's an important thing to keep in mind in any post-Abe speculations. And that is the real takeaway from this latest uproar.

Cows, please accept my heartfelt apologies for my inappropriate comment in the third paragraph of this post (second paragraph of my own comments). You have my promise that such an incident will not be repeated in the future. I would also like to take this opportunity to inform you that no cows were used in the manufacture of this post or any other post or feature on this blog. In the interests of full disclosure, it is with the greatest of regret that I inform you that I did use some cow parts in preparing today's dinner. Yes, I cooked the dinner, but I did not shoot the cow, oh no.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The BBC Takes on Constitutional Amendment as an Upper House Election Issue

The BBC takes on constitutional amendment as an Upper House election issue, and in what is becoming a distressingly familiar turn of events, manages to get it wrong in so many ways.

Later this month Japanese politicians will be fighting an election that will decide the make-up of the upper house of parliament.… One issue that is attracting a fair amount of attention is his plan to reform the country's pacifist constitution.

What the article doesn't tell you is that the only reason that the issue is getting any attention is because Prime Minister Abe chose to make it one of his two signature issues of the campaign against the wishes of most of the party leadership. It didn't make political sense; constitutional amendment had been the least of concerns of the electorate, even before the public pension scandals broke out in full flush. Moreover, discussions over the substance of any amendments would only come much later in the political schedule, so why focus your campaign on the only parties that oppose amendment outright, the always marginal Communists and the all-but-gone Social Democrats? Even so, events have overtaken Mr. Abe's desires. The cumulative effect of all the scandals have made sure that constitutional amendment is an issue of little interest during the campaign.

The writer does go on to give you in a remarkably short narrative a good recap of the post-war history of Article 9 mostly through an interview of Professor Phil Deans (TUJ) But he goes on to make an important factual assertion on his own and gets it completely wrong:

It is only relatively recently, though, that the LDP has had a leader from the conservative wing of the party determined to press ahead with changing the constitution - and also enough MPs in parliament to give it a chance of getting passed.

One can only assume that the writer is talking about the Lower House, where the Prime Minister Koizumi-led LDP scored a historic victory in 2005 and now holds 306 seats. But in order to proceed to the simple majority referendum stage, you need a 2/3 supermajority in each of the two Houses. The Lower House has 480 seats, and 480*2/3=320. The writer cannot claim to have misspoken here and actually meant the LDP-New Komeito coalition, since the pacifist New Komeito is dead set against the kind of amendment that Mr. Abe wants.

The writer then gives us Mr. Abe's motives:

Mr. Abe appears to believe constitutional revision is one of the best hopes his party has of shoring up its vote.

If so, then Mr. Abe is one of the few people in the LDP who thought so, or so I believe. This is a debatable question, but is moot anyway, as we already saw. In any case, the writer ignores that likelihood that he was driven at least as much and perhaps significantly more by his personal convictions. Give him this, Mr. Abe seems to have at least some measure of the stubbornness of his most cherished convictions. The writer swallows the following quote from Professor Deans. I think Professor Deans is highly misleading:

"So partly this move towards constitutional revision … is Abe looking for a cause, something to believe in, looking for something to sell to the public. Reform of the constitution is his big ticket item."

The writer tries to add something on his own, again by way of interviews:

What is interesting when you ask people their views about constitutional revision is that how old they are tends to affect what they think about the issue.

Now this is a frequently repeated, plausible assertion that is supported by some surveys, if I remember correctly. But it is disingenuous to claim that it is something that you have come across by talking to people and give just two example as proof. The 70-something pacifist who wants to maintain the status quo can be easily refuted by the example of Hisahiko Okazaki, the 70-something realist/hawk and confidante to Mr. As I chronicled elsewhere, the human experience is much richer than the simple generational assertion the writer seems to make through the two examples.

The writer continues:

The reality is that changing the constitution in parliament, or the Diet as it is known, will not be easy even if the LDP were to strengthen its hold on the upper house in next month's elections.

So true. But isn't it a little silly to use this as a lead-in to an explanation about the procedural realities, when the only meaningful question is to what extent the LDP can minimize losses?

The writers finishes with several paragraphs on reaction from China and South Korea. He quotes Professor Masatoshi Honda (National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies) on this, but but the quote is rrelevant. Then, he finishes with the following:

So will China and South Korea trust Japan's leaders enough to get on with it? So far they have said little, but that is perhaps because it is only recently that Mr Abe has hinted at what exactly will be changed.

He has told reporters he will start by revising the constitution item by item, rather than amending it as a whole, and incorporate environmental rights into the document before tackling the preamble and the war-renouncing Article 9.

That cautious approach could blunt criticism from abroad in the early stages of any constitutional revision, but any change to Article 9 will no doubt attract a lot more attention.

But our neighbors know very well what Mr. Abe wants. Mr. Abe's piecemeal approach likely refers to a talk he gave on July 11 (for which no really good online source is available). But our neighbors, China in particular, have been uncommonly quiet for many months on this, in China's case possibly for a year or more, when all the talk seemed to center on Article 9. Thus, the reason for the seeming quiescence must be sought at least partly beyond Mr. Abe's "cautious approach" incongruously leading off with environmental rights (I have to see it to believe it; you can't make constitutional amendment an annual exercise). There is some self-evident truth to the writer's conclusion that "any change to Article 9 will no doubt attract a lot more attention", but if that's all that he'd wanted to say, he used up a lot of space, if not time, to do so.

Now it is one thing when a Steve Clemons or a Francis Fukuyama flies in to Tokyo, hangs out for a few days with English-language speakers, then picks up on a popular trope and writes it up as a right-wing surge (sorry, DT, I'll get on that piece one of these days), but its totally another when a Tokyo-based correspondent of a trusted international news service fails to "get it".

The key to understanding this lies in the extreme reliance on anecdotes. Now an anecdote can help illuminate and clarify a general point, but it can never prove it. Just because one of your classmates has a PS3, it does not mean, "I'm the only one that doesn't have a PS3 waaaaah!" But is the underlying logic here any different from that of a story filled with unsubstantiated anecdotes?

Of course it's easy to write a story using anecdotes. You go out there and interview a few people, then string up the choicest bits to fit your preconceived storyline, and, voila, you're finished for the day, no need to do research, no need to read primary sources, so your local staff can take the day off too. I expect better from the top-tier British media. Have the 24/7 demands of the Internet forced BBC to dumb down its standards? But if you can't trust reports on what you are familiar with, how can you rely on them about things you don't know?

Do You Think that Japanese Authorities and Utilities Could Get Away with Something Like This?

Do you think that the Japanese authorities and utilities could get away with something like this? No, not the longstanding neglect. (underinvestment in infrastructure seems to be a serious, widespread, chronic problem in the US. What will the old urban centers look like in twenty years?) I'm talking about this:

Consolidated Edison, the utility that operates the steam system, insisted its equipment is in good shape.

And this:

"I don't think there is any reason to worry," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in the aftermath of the blast, which killed one person and injured dozens, some seriously. "I think that you see that these pipes generally perform fine."


TEPCO, the utility that operates the Kashiwazaki nuclear power plant, insisted its equipment and safety system is in good shape.


"I don't think there is any reason to worry," Nuclear and Industrial Safety head Yasuhisa Komoda said in the aftermath of the earthquake, which spilled approximately 100 kg of low-radiation waste water into the ocean and overturned several barrels filled with other nuclear waste. "I think that you see that the equipment generally perform fine."

Does anyone doubt that many people at TEPCO as well as Mr. Komoda would be out of their jobs very quickly?

Although we may walk the walk in like manner in a global community, we clearly continue to talk the talk differently.

Corrections: My Bad - Asahi Was Correct, If Not Quite Right

Yesterday, I aired my suspicions towards Asahi here, but it appears they were correct and I was wrong with regard to the quotation. Apologies to everyone, albeit a qualified one with regard to Asahi. Media reports still leave sizable gaps in their approaches to the issue, and Asahi's is as problematic as any of them. I'll try to attack the matter head-on when I have the time.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

What the Japanese Media Make of the Iranian TV Broadcast of the Iranian-American Prisoners' Footage

The US media is awash with reports and op-eds about the airing on Iranian TV of the footage of the Iranian-American scholars imprisoned in Iraq. The issue has not gone totally unnoticed in the Japanese media. The Asahi headline reads: US Researchers, etc. Detained in Iran Reveal Democratization Schemes; Yomiuri chooses to go with: Iran National TV Shows Images of Detained Americans. Mainichi and Sankei do not have it on their web site yet.

Now "scheme" may be somewhat strong as a translation, but the original word "工作 kousaku" is used in this kind of context to connote activities by "agents and spies". Does this choice of words by Asahi mean that it agrees with the Iranian authorities, or does it mean that it has reached that conclusion independently on the basis of the following quote in the Asahi:

"[Haleh Isfandari] described the Wilson Center as a highway for antiestablishment people to come to the US. [She] said that there was an intent to influence and change decision-making in Iran."

This must be referring to the following words by Mrs. Isfandiari:

"The goal of the Iran program," she recounted, "was that, whenever a speaker comes from Iran and talks at an important place like the Wilson Center, some people come and listen. Who are these people? They are policymakers . . . people who are active in the U.S. government institutions, people who work in Congress, people who are in the intelligence agencies, people who are in the media, people who are in foundations, who are in universities, and people who are in research organizations." (from preceding WaPo link)

Or, to quote the NYT:

"But the purpose of inviting speakers from Iran," she said, "was to have a group of people listen to them. These people were American political decision makers, congressmen, intelligence figures, academics, researchers and journalists." She added, "And so the purpose was to create a network between the speaker and these people."

Oddly, neither WaPo nor NYT mentions a "highway" or "influence and change decision-making in Iran", though it would be silly to assume that the project has nothing of the sort in mind. But then, what state does not conduct this kind of first-track, second-track public diplomacy?

In any case, manufacturing a quote for Mrs. Isfandari, if that is indeed what happened at Asahi (I confess that I trust the two US newspapers more than the Japanese media in the use of quotation marks), as well as using a word full of negative connotations like "kousaku, leave me with the feeling that Asahi is delivering an anti-US editorial in the guise of straight news.

The Beijing TV Apology for a Cardboard/Meat-Filled Steamed Buns Dumpling Hoax Is Reassuring

The Beijing TV apology for a cardboard/meat-filled steamed buns dumpling hoax is reassuring, but not only for the obvious reasons.

The Yomiuri reports that according to a July 18 report on an online news service run by the Beijing municipal government, the July 11 Beijing TV report claiming that meat-filled steamed buns sold at Beijing stalls were using cardboard trash in place of pork had been a hoax. The municipal security bureau found that temporary workers working on "Transparency", a Beijing TV program, handed meat and cardboard to four people including migrant workers and filmed them mixing the cardboard and meat. Beijing TV apologized, stating that they "exerted an undesirable influence on society by making a false report due to the lack of supervision." The perpetrators of the hoax were summarily executed after a trial that lasted fifty minutes, which reminds you that temps are the first to go in China as well. (Okay, I exaggerated. A little. Say, does this Zheng Ziaoyu guy remind you of a certain Japanese politician or what?)

This is good news in so many ways: first, it allays domestic and global fears about China's food industry, which has been taking a beating of late. Second, it is reassuring to know that the dreaded security bureau is no longer watching over foreigners so that they do not go around humping Chinese women (seriously, I have a first-hand witnesses) and instead worry about more immediate concerns. Finally, and most importantly, nothing makes me feel more secure than to know that Beijing TV shares the same eyeballs-driven values that Japanese TV holds so dear. If this isn't what the East Community is all about, I don't know what is

Perhaps Everyone Who Comes to This Blog Also Goes to That One, Still…

I have to say, I haven't had time to look around at other people's blogs, but if you find any better mix of facts and speculation on the Upper House election aa well as the overall political background by a single individual than Observing Japan, let me know. For example, this July 14, seat-by-seat analysis (which I just noticed) requires a granular perspective of a real pro.

Addendum: Note that for the single-seat races, the July 18 Yomiuri called Iwate, Yamagata, Yamanashi, Mie, Shiga, Nara, Tokushima, and Okinawa Prefectures for the DPJ, and Gunma and Yamaguchi Prefectures for the LDP. (The rest were still tossups.) The ten calls are identical to the ones Japan Observer made in his post four days earlier. So the Western media could do worse than take his other 18 calls seriously as well.

How the Upper House Proportional Seats Are Allocated; Also, More Post-Electoral Speculation

The following explanation of the allocation of the Upper House proportional seats and the subsequent post-electoral speculation are my answers to email questions that I received. Since the questions came from a long-time resident of Japan well versed in the Japanese economy and politics, I thought that my answers could be of benefit to some of my other readers as well. (Confession: people who do not know me well will be surprised (dismayed?) at how much of what I blog on the Upper House election I am learning on the fly.)

I, as a Japanese adult in good standing with the law of the land, have two votes in this Upper House election, one for the local seats (Tokyo is a multi-seat district, and gets five seats) and another for the proportional seats. I can cast my proportional ballot in two different ways.

For the proportional seats, each political party fields a national list of candidates. I am free to award my one proportional vote to any party or, alternatively, to any one of the individual candidates on any one of the party lists. After the voting is over, all the proportional votes that the individual candidates has received are attributed to the respective parties that listed those candidates in addition to the votes that the parties has each received in its own right. Then, the proportional seats are allocated in proportion to the number of votes each party has received. Finally, the seats that a party has won are allocated first to the candidate on its list who received the most votes, next to the one with the second most votes, and so on until the number of proportional seats that the party has won has been reached. By way of illustration:

Imagine that Japan has twenty eligible voters and the Japanese Upper House has four proportional seats, two of which are up for election, and that two political parties, A and B, are contesting this election with two candidates each, A1 and A2, and B1 and B2, respectively. On voting day the twenty-person electorate breaks overwhelmingly for A1, a golf dad, who gets twelve votes, while A2, ex-METI policy wonk, receives only two, and Party A itself only one vote in its own name. Party B, doing slightly better than Party A, receives two votes in its own name. Alas, its candidates are not able to emulate this institutional success; although Zenda ex-president B1 manages to gain three votes, B2 fails to receive a single vote. The final tally:

A: 1+13+2=15; B: 2+3+0=5.

A gets both seats, which go to A1 and A2, and B none, since 15/2 > 5, although, individually, Party B nominally outpolled Party A two to one and B1 beat A2 individually three to two. Of course, in the real world, 96 seats are contested, half of them every three years, which are enough to ensure that iniquities like the example above, where 25% of the votes go to naught, do not occur. But even in that crude example, it is easy to see how celebrity candidates who appeal to sizable constituencies that are independent of the party base can benefit the party twice over by this institutionalized coattail effect. A very poor vote getter or two may well slide in ahead of other more popular candidates in other parties if some of his/her co-candidates do exceedingly well. Thus the scramble to recruit golf dads, ex-presidents, ex-thug motivational speakers, and other B-list celebrities.

I believe that the steak analogy holds not only for the individual candidates but also for the LDP if there is enough time between the breaking of the pension scandals and the election date for the public to get over it. To push the analogy, recover from the bad experience with the e.coli on all those rare Del Monicos and also feel that they've had enough of that sautéed salmon (which came with its own little salmonella scare anyway). If "steak" is too charitable, think, the devil you know? Familiarity breeds consent?

But how much, you ask? That, I have no idea. You could do worse than ask Gerry Curtis. In fact, you can do much better than read this blog; Professor Curtis wrote the book on Japanese politics. Literally. Many times over. I heard he's in town.

It's difficult to say where Mssrs. Abe and Ozawa will be six months from now; if they survive the immediate aftermath, they should still be around; I think that mid-January is a little too early in the Diet schedule for the situation to become untenable in the Upper House. As for the election itself, Mr. Ozawa is too unpopular within his own party to be able to eat his words and stay on in the event of an outright ruling coalition majority as the immediate outcome. I say this is so even in the likely event that the DPJ beats the LDP one-on-one. Otherwise, Mr. Ozawa can plausibly claim that the opposition has beaten the coalition and I think stay on (and will stay on; he bleeds politics), even if the coalition does manage to cobble together a working majority. As for Mr. Abe, I am increasingly coming around to the view that he will stick around unless the coalition loses very badly. Figures like 39, 40 have been bandied about, and 40 does look as good as any for what is purely a mass psychology threshold.

But what are the chances of a working majority in the Upper House? Ah, the 64-seat question. Assuming 45 LDP and 14 New Komeito seats as the base case scenario, the coalition needs five more seats to reach the magic number. One and possibly both of the two Upper House defectors from the opposition, who are not up for election this time around, is assumed to be available at the right price. One "unaffiliated" conservative candidate is an overwhelming favorite to win and is a sure bet to join the coalition if he does. At that point, the New People's Party should be able to put them over the top. But will the PNP cooperate? I have become more and more skeptical of this possibility, given all the pro-opposition moves that it has been making with regards to the individual elections. In any event, the LDP will try extremely hard to pry loose a couple of opposition members or three. I do think that this post-election period will be a particularly problematic occasion to defect to the ins, but here I am edging precariously close to the realm of pure speculation.

That's about it for now.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Why Prime Minister Abe Can Stay on Even if the Coalition Loses (if He Wants to)

Let's assume that the coalition loses badly enough that it cannot cobble together a working majority in the Upper House. The Diet convenes to let the Upper House elect its officers (including, presumably, a new president) and promptly goes into summer recess. At some point in September or thereabouts, the Diet convenes again, this time to consider an emergency budget to be submitted by the Cabinet. (No fiscal year has gone by without an emergency budget being submitted and passed within my memory.) The budget plan that the administration submits will include relief and reconstruction funds for the earthquake victims, so it will be difficult for the opposition to resist. In any case, the budget can be passed without the consent of the Upper House, so, at worst, it's some bad press. Unless there are pressing legislative concerns, the Diet can and will recess right then and there.

The same Constitutional rule applies to the main budget, which will be introduced at the next regular Diet session (usually convened in January), sometime in March. However, much new legislation will be needed to implement the budget, and that is where an Upper House deadlock will hurt. Yes, the coalition does have the Lower House supermajority to overrule the Upper House. But the Japanese media traditionally does not look kindly on a majority acting unilaterally against an opposition that has dug its heels in. More importantly, an opposition controlling procedures in the Upper House can make it extremely difficult for meaningful legislation to make it through the two Houses and back to the Lower House again, unless you are willing to extend the Diet session indefinitely. I don't think that the media will look kindly on such a prospect either.

Thus, at some point in early spring, the situation will likely become untenable for the administration, forcing the prime minister to dissolve the Lower House for a general election.

This is a scenario that can unfold regardless of who the prime minister is. So the question is, is the LDP better off with or without Mr. Abe in that situation? There is no obvious LDP leader that could run this near-caretaker administration and fight the general election better than Mr. Abe. So, it will be Mr. Abe's job to give up, if he so chooses.

Do I believe in what I'm saying? It is speculative in spots, but it is at least plausible. So there you are.

The MAFF Minister Un-Answers Questions: or, Reviving the Political Financing Scandal

In his first post-Geneva press briefing (by custom, all ministers give press briefing after the twice-weekly Cabinet meetings and are often forced to answer questions well outside their portfolio), MAFF Minister Norihiko Akagi stonewalled the press on disclosure of his political expenditures, stating that "it is important to treat the matter according to the law". The tabloids continued to eat him up (including two large mysterious patches of gauze showing up on his cheek and forehead), but Yomiuri buried it in page 33, the East Siberia of national news. (Example: Mainichi Reporter Charged with Assisting DUI… in case you need to know.)

So the Yomiuri has decided that this is yesterday's news. Indeed, the Akagi case is more of the same, and come to think of it, there's plenty of material out there on the election alone without rehashing all the issues all over again. Then there's earthquake, and the leaks at the nuclear power station…

Speaking of the earthquake, I did not have any problems with the Abe administration trying to make political capital out of the matter. Did you? You can't have your party leader doing a Putin (remember the Russian submarine going down while President Putin was taking a vacation?) and having the media all over you, so you might as well go the whole hog. (The Communist Party started a donation campaign (collecting money to send to the earthquake victims) in front of our local train station.) I did think it was a little tacky to claim that the prime minister was showing courage when he went in there despite the danger of aftershocks. It also did not do them any good to be seeing carping openly about a 12-hour delay before the report of the nuclear leak reached Cabinet headquarters. As if that were the main concern. Which it was, for the political people dealing with the media. Still.

Now there is one way to bring the political financing scandal back onto center stage. The DPJ can announce that, regardless of the new 50000 Yen per item disclosure threshold, it will disclose its finances to the DPJ proposal 10000 Yen limit. And it will do so retroactively, say, five years? Spring it on the DPJ one week before the vote, and you could have badly needed mo to put yourself over the top. Why not, you were willing to do it anyway, right? Just make sure Ichiro Ozawa doesn't spoil things by repeating his claim that he wanted disclosure down to the last Yen but the party wouldn't go along with it.

So, if you see that happening, remember, you read it here first.

The Yomiuri Features a Seat-by-Seat Rundown on the Upper House Election

The Yomiuri features a seat-by-seat rundown on the Upper House election (it's not available on its web site; let's what the Asahi does when it comes out with its own survey, as it must). Its conclusion is that the "ruling parties [are] likely to lose [its] seat majority" and (in the Japanese-language version) "the possibility is high that the number of seats that the LDP retain in the district and proportional representation elections may wind up in the lower half of the 40s unless it can turn back the winds that are blowing against it." This does not make my off-the-cuff over-under 45 call any less valid; elections tend to tighten up as the voting day draws near. I asked a veteran of many an election campaign about this phenomenon, and he came up with this analogy:

Let's say you're going to have dinner one month from now, and you're given a menu and asked what you want. There's steak, but there's all this other stuff, and you're not sure, you think you might have something else this time. Now, a month later, you actually walk into that restaurant, and they give you the menu and you see the steak and you wind up saying, oh, I'll have steak. (he's an American) You go with what you know.

Of the all-important 29 single-seat elections, the Yomiuri survey shows the DPJ ahead in eight and the LDP in only two, and the two parties running neck-and-neck in the other 19. The silver lining for the LDP is that the proportion of undecided voters among its supporters are generally (though not uniformly) substantially higher than the same proportion for the DPJ and its supporters. The LDP has a greater upside here; thus the caveat in the tentative conclusion in the Yomiuri article. So how strongly will its supporters want to punish the LDP? This question seems to be just as important as the non-aligned turnout and how that in going to break.

A look at the details yields some clues about post-election LDP maneuvering, most likely necessary, for a working majority. The Yomiuri survey lists seven unaffiliated candidates in six electoral districts who have excellent to reasonable chances of winning. Of the seven, only one is supported by the LDP while one other is a conservative candidate who failed to gain LDP authorization but is running anyway. The others are supported by the DPJ (plus in many cases the People's New Party as well; more on that later). Moreover, the conservative candidate is running neck and neck with the LDP incumbent and a DPJ-supported unaffiliated candidate, so a win by this unaffiliated conservative will be a wash at best for the LDP. It looks like there won't be many unaffiliated newly-minted Upper House members waiting for the LDP to come calling with its basket of goodies.

The PNP seems to have cast their lot with the DPJ if campaign alignments are any indication. The PNP is supporting the DPJ candidate in most of the electoral districts where it is not fielding its own candidates. More important to PNP fortunes, in single-seat Shimane Prefecture, the DPJ has gone all in for PNP candidate Akiko Kamei, the daughter of Lower House member Hisaoki Kamei (the other, gentler PNP Kamei). Ms. Kamei is gaining on the LDP incumbent, and could give the PNP a real coup in the district seat elections. Yes, politicians will change their minds about anything to get elected (see: Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney), but it is going to be difficult to forsake your allies so soon after the war. Moreover, the PNP set the bar high when it demanded a revision of the Post Office privatization package as the condition for cooperation with the LDP.

So, barring unforeseen major events (like another political scandal erupting), I expect that the LDP will edge back up. But given the slim pickings among the unaffiliated candidates and the intransigence on the part of the NPP, the overall picture still looks like a decidedly uphill battle for a working majority in the Upper House.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Guess Why I'm Not Going to Cash The TNI Check…

The check arrived today from The National Interest, and do you know what? I'm not going to cash it. But not because I'm going to frame it just yet, either. You see, I live in Japan, and the amount of the check is not even enough to cover the cost of having it cashed, then deposited in my bank account here. The BMW, which looked like this to me, now looks like this.

The moral of the story? Keep your McDay-Job, unless you've stumbled on to the next Harry Potter.

Just having a little fun, Nick. I'll write for you any time, okay?

Monday, July 16, 2007

TV Commercials for the Upper House Election

For your viewing pleasure:

LDP: If you understand but cannot read Japanese, go to bottom left of the web page. The thirty and fifteen second versions of the commercial are third and fourth from the bottom respectively. This commercial is very much Shinzo Abe's baby. It faithfully goes through all the main talking points about the good things the LDP has done for us (it wisely avoids the Constitution) and concludes with "Kaikaku ka Gyakkou ka (Reform or Reversal?)". Basically, it's a policy statement in 30 (15) seconds..

DPJ: The five July versions pick up on the "Seikatsu ga Daiichi (Our Daily Life Is the Most Important)"theme revealed to us in the June commercial, but this time around manage to avoid the preachy tone of most Japanese political commercials altogether in an understated series of real-life (looking) people telling us that taxes/caring for the elderly/education/public services/public pensions/public safety (but no more than two at a time;l you have only 15 seconds, which is about as long as most people will listen to unexpected political messages) are their concerns and that DPJ cares. The commercials also do a good job of hiding Ichiro Ozawa's main weakness, which is that he is a visibly uncomfortable public speaker. Kudos to my good friend (as well as of many of you readers) for finally convincing the DPJ leadership to do it his way. Alas, it no longer gives us such surprise nuggets of information such as that Naoto Kan and Yukio Hatoyama can actually talk with each other in front of a TV camera without their heads exploding (revealed to us in the making-of-the-movie version that is no longer available on the DPJ website).

New Komeito: A straightforward statement from the party leader telling you that the New Komeito is for the little guy.

New People's Party: Next to the karaoke image are the NPP commercials. The top one, a barebones version, features Tamio Watanuki and Sizuka Kamei, the oldest and ugliest pair of party leaders on the planet outside of Cuba singing karaoke against a stark prison-wall-textured background. It is also the most endearing of all the commercials. And I mean the LDP, DPJ, New Komeito, and NPN ones as well. The Wind in the Willows would still be doing Broadway if the two gentlemen had been cast as Mr. Toad and Mr. Badger. The bottom one, which features Mr. Watanuki telling a group of young slackers to shape up, is fun too. The commercials use the "teikou seiryoku (resisting forces)" label that Prime Minister slapped on them to great effect in the lead-up to his 2005 Lower House landslide victory. The obvious awareness of the paerty's core constituency and the lack of a sense of self-importance on the part of the devil-may-care leaders allows the technically clunky commercials to rise above the gaggle of political commercials, including even the finely pitched DPJ 15-second takes. The two stars achieve an artless charm usually reserved to children and animals.

New Party Nippon: This may be the tormented party leader CM of this campaign. A nondescript statement of what the party stands for by Yasuo Tanaka, the party leader, against a somewhat distracting background of floating word strips, is suddenly replaced by a huge hand winding up a small windup doll version of Mr. Yasuo, who then fast-forwards automaton-like through what must be the NPN talking points, only I am too disturbed to listen.

The Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party web sites do not have links to commercials. Should we read any meaning into this?

Update: Julián Ortega Martínez informs the blog that the Japan Communist Party does have TV commercials on its website. Gracias, Julián.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Youth Springs Eternal from the Japanese Communist Party and Other Tidbits from the List of Candidates

The following is for the convenience of people who have absorbed all the Upper House election material available online since July 12, when the campaign officially started, and is looking for something different. It may not be much, but I'm sure that you won't see it anywhere else.

The parties contesting the 48 proportional representation seats are at stake in the upcoming Upper House election are: LDP (incumbent candidates 12, all candidates 35, average age 54.7); DPJ (8, 35, 54.4); New Komeito (7, 17, 49.0); Japan Communist Party (3, 17, 46.0); Social Democratic Party (1, 9, 56.9); The People's New Party (0, 14, 62.6); Joseito (0, 12, 51.6); 9-Jo Net (0, 9, 59.0); Kyosei Shinto (0, 3, 54.7), New Party Nippon, and Ishin Seito Shinpu (0, 3, 57.2).

The LDP, DPJ, the New Komeito, and the JCP have the largest number of candidates, both in terms of incumbents and overall. As you can see, they also have English-language web pages. Of the remaining parties, the SDP has the only incumbent candidate; none of them has an English-language web page.

The average ages of the candidates for most of the parties are clustered around the mid-fifties. The People's New Party is also the oldest party, clocking in at 62.6. It is also fielding an extraordinary eight ex-Diet members among its 14 candidates, seven from the Lower House. No surprise here; the PNP is the larger of the two parties formed by the 2005 anti- Postal Service privatization exiles. It hopes that the grizzled veterans of elections past will bring in a substantial portion of the votes from their long-time supporters and allow some of them to get back in the game by way of the Upper House. The PNP is also fielding ex-President Fujimori as a candidate. Yes, the People's New Party is the Kokumin Shinto's official English translation.

The second-oldest group of candidates is the 9-Jo Net, which, as its name indicates, a pacifist party dedicated to maintaining Article 9 in its current form. Next comes the once-powerful SDP at barely under the Big 6-Oh, whose sole purpose for existence these days also seems to be keeping the flame for Article 9. Perhaps this is as good a sign as any that Article 9 is due for a facelift.

The JCP and New Komeito are the young outliers. Ideology and iron-fisted party discipline enable the JCP to constantly field a demographically optimal list of candidates. (Eight out of their 17 candidates are women, a ratio surpassed only by the eponymous Joseito, which has only female candidates, of whom five are or have been in the cosmetics distribution business.) New Komeito also boasts great party discipline, since most, if not all, of their candidates are Sokagakkai members who come up through the sect and party ranks.

But the JCP has only one candidate with a degree from the elite schools and one other from the local, semi-elite schools. I am surprised to see that has no candidates from Tokyo University, which has traditionally provided the JCP with its top leadership since the pre-WW II years. It also has only one doctor, and no lawyers, and no schoolteachers. Back in the Cold War era, these occupation groups provided the professionals who could run without fear of losing their livelihood while giving the JCP the social respectability and sense of normalcy that its history and international links it was otherwise denied. Perhaps the communist brand no longer attracts, nor repels.

Speaking of education, six of the 17 New Komeito candidates list the Soka University as the issuer of their final degree. (Another one has a Soka U. undergraduate degree.)

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Meanwhile on CNN, a Yasukuni Story Broke Out in the Last 24 Hours…

In fact, the Reuters wire makes a scrupulous effort to tell the fascinating story of Li Ying, a Chinese film director who is releasing a documentary on Yasukuni that he has been working on for the last ten years. The article is filled with nuances, some of them likely unintended, but here they are:

Mr. Li has been living in Japan for the last seventeen years. The Tienanmen Incident occurred in 1989. This does not look like a coincidence. The fact that the Reuters wire comes out of Beijing though, where Mr. Li is seeking a permit to broadcast the documentary, speaks to the passing of the years. The Reuters wire quotes Mr. Li, "I believe there will be no problem [in getting the permit]. …Wouldn't it be ridiculous if this film can be shown in Japan and South Korea, but not China? The best would be if we could show it in all three at once." That he even has to consider such a possibility reflects the enormous post-Koizumi, pre-Beijing 2008 changes in China's approach to its relationship with Japan. As well as how much further China still has to go before it can be a state that no longer systemically manipulates dissent.

In its reference to "the Nanjing Massacre, or Rape of Nanking," Reuters finds a way to avoid attention being diverted to another stage by giving a death-toll estimate of "about 142,000 people, according to Allied estimates> after the war."

I have a couple of quibbles:

The headline Chinese Director Opens Wounds with Yasukuni Shrine Film is misleading. The wound has never closed. And for some, it never will; for there is no answer that will satisfy all.

The wire says, "The film follows Japanese veterans who believe their nation doesn't honor its war dead enough, as well as young Japanese protesters beaten by worshippers at the shrine.

"'I make Yasukuni like a stage, and all these people reveal themselves upon it," explained Li."

But this trope excludes most of the people of Japan, who eschew this stage altogether. They must already have been a majority when he started filming ten years ago. And the future does not look good for the kind of people who beat up protesters. The right wing activists have seen their ranks thin over the years. (Have the end of the bubble economy and the onset of an aging society taken the wind out of their sails?) Would Mr. Li be able to secure the same footage today? The battle seems to be taking place more and more on the Internet and the media, rather than on the streets.

That's about it. Except:

According to the Reuters wire, "Li's film was made with assistance and funding from Japan and Korea, while post-production support came from the Beijing Film Academy and a private Chinese production house." Of course the Japanese support must have been from private sources. But where does the Beijing Film Academy get its money? Japan, like it or not, is a pluralistic democracy. It is important to keep that in mind in interpreting the meaning of actions and attributing responsibility for them, as well as determining the political boundaries of the doable.

I may be giving this some more thought. But this is where I'm at on this.

Media Watch 070714: Let's See What's Cooking on the BBC Front

1. Support for Japan PM "at New Low"

I don't see any reason to have quotation marks around "at New Low"; is that a Britishism? Other that that, nothing to find fault with in the article, I suppose. Two points:

1) The LDP is doing even worse than the Abe Cabinet, which may put some doubts into the minds of his intra-party rivals who might challenge him in the event of a likely post-election scramble to scrape together a working majority. In fact, I have been doing some thinking, and we could be seeing the Abe administration lasting at least into the early months of 2008, even if he fails to achieve it. I'll try to put my thoughts together later.

2) The latest Yomiuri poll (July 10-12) shows a jump in DPJ support since the last one (July 3-5). The percentage of people choosing DPJ candidates in the district (as opposed to proportionate) seats improved from 23% to 27% while LDP supporters fell from 24% to 22%. This latest shift is particularly evident in the townships and villages, which are traditional LDP strongholds, where the DPJ leapt from 15.4% to 29.8%. The last, small-town figures are particularly astonishing. I have been among those who feel that Ichiro Ozawa spending most of his time out of the media spotlight has been bad campaign tactics. But if the DPJ win big, he will be able to make a plausible claim that his strategy of roaming the countryside to wake up voters has been a great success.

2. Toilet Cash Mystery Grips Japan

It appears that someone has traveling around Japan, leaving money in men's toilets in government office buildings, together with nice letters of encouragement. As a former bureaucrat, I'm happy for this show of gratitude from this anonymous benefactor. The story also has cultural resonance; much, if not most, of Japan's greatest classic literature from Kojiki(the national creation epic, officially compiled, but retains its primeval power) to The Tosa Diaries (the first in a long line of great kana (as opposed to Chinese-language) diary literature) to The Tales of Genji (no explanation) to Oku no Hosomichi (the most famous of Matsuo Basho's haiku travelogues) to Tokaidouchu Hizakurige (the great Edo Era comic travelogue and spiritual ancestor of all those Hope-Crosby road movies) is mainly or significantly travel writing. The moralistic dimension of the money giver's act also evokes the travels, real and imagined, of Koubou Daishi, Gyouki Shounin, and other great religious figures. Surely this cultural resonance must have had a substantial role in steering our collective unconsciousness towards this story. Not that the story continued beyond the three to four day flurry of new revelations, as the local news bureaus, following HQ orders, made inquiries at all the town halls and the like. But grip the nation? That's O.J. Simpson, Lacey Peterson, Terry Schiavo. BBC is displaying mutton and selling dog meat.

3. Japanese Interest Rates on Hold

Not much to say here. Just this useless quote:

"But many analysts believe policymakers will act at their next meeting in August, after July's parliamentary elections are out of the way.

This does not mean an August hike is off the cards," said Sharada Selvanathan, currency strategist at BNP Paribas."

Really? In any case, if they do not raise the overnight lending rate, Mr. (Ms?) Selvanathan can always claim, "I didn't say they'd do it either." So what's the point?

4. Japan's Old-Fashioned Campaigning

This article tells the story of the incredibly detailed and restrictive electoral campaigning regulations and does it mainly through the freeze on Internet action during the official campaigning period. It does miss out, however, on the leakage through the political party home page. It seems the authorities are frowning on any alterations during the campaign period, but are in practice letting it slide. Both the LDP and DPJ are on the move, and Komeito and the Communist Party are following suit. The smaller parties likely will follow to the best of their abilities.

And off-topic, but since we are talking about the Internet:

5. China Firm Sues Google over Name

"[Beijing Guge Science and Technology Ltd. Co.] is suing Google Inc.'s China subsidiary for copying its name, saying the U.S. search engine's registered Chinese name is too similar to its own and has harmed its operations."

Apparently, the misdirected calls are wreaking havoc on its telephone service, and it just wants Google to stop using its name. But this is China, and a clue lies in something BBC left out when it lifted the news item from the Reuters wire service. To quote via The Boston Globe:

Tian[ Yunshan, a Beijing Guge official,] declined to comment on [its] operations or its products or services, saying it was "not convenient" to disclose such details.

Oh, inconvenient fact. This not being the US, Mr. Tian did not have to add the otherwise mandatory "It's not about the money" statement either. And the entire Beijing bureau was on its summer holidays, so it couldn't go and check Beijing Guge out. It's not as if BBC lacked space; it did add the following, totally out-of-context paragraph at the end:

"[Google] and other major IT firms such as Microsoft and Yahoo have been criticized for censoring themselves in order to enter the Chinese market."

And rightly so. But what's the point here? Then you realize that the BBC desk is savoring the irony. Fine. But to deliberately ignore what should be the main thrust of this story, which is the possibility that Beijing Guge is part of a much larger phenomenon in China, on the Internet, and indeed on any other economic frontier that have yet to cope adequately with property rights protection, and deliver an underhanded sermon against Google's choice of money over principle in the guise of straight reporting is not what BBC should be doing. Leave that to the editorials and op-eds.

Lot's of petty peeves? Maybe. But you do agree that the picture is not too encouraging, don't you?

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Upper House Election Kicks Off. Plus an Update on Mr. Fujimori.


But most damaging to Mr. Abe has been the revelation that over the years the government has lost pension records affecting about 50 million claims.

"Mr. Abe has pledged to shake up the Social Insurance Agency, the department responsible for the mistakes, and to sort out the mess by early next year, our correspondent [in Tokyo, Chris Hogg,] says.

"But it is not yet clear whether that would be enough to reassure angry voters.

"The ruling coalition has a majority in the lower house, and defeat in Upper House polls would not directly threaten the government.

But, analysts say, it would be an embarrassment to Mr. Abe and one that could force him from office."
BBC 07/07/12

The 2007 Upper House election began yesterday. As the BBC article dutifully lists, many bad things have happened that on their own might have denied the LDP-Komeito coalition a majority in the post-election Upper House. But the public pension scandal is like the cake under the icing. However, it is clear that a pledge for an early resolution of the issue has only added fuel to the fire because it has become clear that the actual accounts will take many more years to untangle. The article should have focused on the substance of the LDP response and public response to it. I suspect that Chris Hoggs is on vacation.

The BBC article also seems to assume that this is a straight, electoral win-loss situation. But the numbers game has now boiled down to this one question: Will Mr. Abe be able to cobble together a working majority in the Upper House? If he doesn't, his days are numbered; even if does not resign within the week. If he does, he will live to fight another day.

The numbers do not look good for him so far. The most recent polls show the Abe Cabinet and the LDP sliding and the lackluster DPJ edging forward. Ichiro Ozawa may be personally unpopular, but Mr. Abe isn't doing any better.

In a piece of Japan-LatAm news, on July 11, a Chilean judge rejected Peru's bid to extradite former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori. Mr. Fujimori remains under house arrest while the Peruvian government appeals the case to the Chilean Supreme Court (the Chilean Prosecutor's Office supports the Peruvian government), but this could have a major impact on the eventual outcome of the July Upper House election in Japan. Mr. Fujimori is a surprise candidate for the Kokumin Shinto, who, with four Upper House seats (two up for election in July) and powerful LDP roots, looks to be a key player in any post-election maneuverings. If Mr. Fujimori manages to free himself and return to Japan, then this removes a big source of embarrassment for Mr. Abe if he were to entice the Kokumin Shinto into joining the coalition.

Trivia: In another blast from the past, kicking off the campaign for Mr. Fujimori in his absence is… Devi Sukarno, the top Ginza hostess (think, (not-really) geisha in a dress) turned "First" Lady of Indonesia. For those of you unfamiliar with Japanese social history, she is an eclectic mixture of Grace Kelly, Imelda Marcos, Elizabeth Taylor, and Paris Hilton. Without the video.

My "Other Stuff" Goes to The Cryptic.

Public notice:

SP, bless his heart, told me last night, that he has been recommending my blog (among others) to his acquaintances. I assume that that is his serious side doing the recommending, and I am aware that some people take offence to some of my posts, like this.

So in order to avoid undue emotional distress on the part of any of my dear readers, I have decided to post all such material on the Cryptic blog.

Unless I change my mind.

Not Too Little, Not Too Much, Just the Right Amount of Wikipedia Attention the Formula for Success in Upper House Election?

For your convenience, I've done a Wikipedia survey of the twenty-five candidates running for the five Upper House seats in Tokyo.

The lack of a link means that there is no entry.

The description "public figure" means that the candidate is well-known independent of his/her political ambitions. The relevant Wikipedia entry reflects this.

Doctor Nakamatsu (Unaffiliated) Public figure. Bonus points for English language entry
Tetsuo Sawada (Unaffiliated) Bare-bones entry.
Tomoko Tamura (Japan Communist Party)
Hitomi Sugiura (Social Democrat Party) Public figure.
Toshiaki Kanda (Unaffiliated) Has Kanda News Network entry.
Sanzo Hosaka (LDP; incumbent) Bare-bones entry.
Yuko Tojo none. (Unaffiliated) But she has an English-language entry. This says more about Wikipedia than about Yasukuni.
Kisho Kurokawa (Symbiosis New Party) Public figure. Has English-language entry. A long one.
Hidenori Wago (New Party Freeway Club) Refuses to pay highway tolls.
Keiichiro Nakamura (Kokumin Shinto) Bare-bones entry.
Ryuhei Kawada (Unaffiliated) He has a life. Testament to real (in contrast to alternative) medicine. Close to Yasuo Tanaka, head of now-splintered Shinto Nihon.
Kikuo Suda none. (Organization for Halving the Number of Diet Members)
Kan Suzuki (DPJ; incumbent) Bare-bones entry.
Mitsuo Matayoshi (The World Economic Community Party) He is The One God. Also has English-language entry. What did you expect - he's God.
Nobuyuki Suzuki (The New Wind Capitol) Bare-bones entry. Blogs, apparently..
Natsuo Yamaguchi (Komeito; incumbent) Bare-bones entry.
Masako Ohkawara (DPJ) Bare-bones entry.
Mack Akasaka (Japan Smile Party) Does this convince you that he can solve every social problem from bullying to the suicide epidemic? I didn't think so.
Tamayo Marukawa (LDP) Public figure.
Testuo Arai (Unaffiliated)

As you can see, most of the candidates have Wikipedia entries. Going over them one by one, I see a pattern emerging. Clearly, if you don't have a Wikipedia entry, you lose. What is less obvious but just as true is that the one that have English-language entries also have no chance of winning. Is the latter fact related to the inflated reputations some Japanese politicians get in the English-language media? Should I stop blogging in English? Questions, questions.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

For This Pope, the Reformation Will Never Be Over

He took on heathens, Muslims and Jews. Now, it's the Protestants' (and Orthodox Christians') turn. You get the impression that he would have been mighty handy with the rack.

The Vatican spin doctors are used to it by now; Father Augustine Di Noia, under-secretary for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, went into action.

"The Church is not backtracking on ecumenical commitment," Di Noia told Vatican radio.

"But, as you know, it is fundamental to any kind of dialogue that the participants are clear about their own identity. That is, dialogue cannot be an occasion to accommodate or soften what you actually understand yourself to be."

Nothing can be further from the truth. Cardinal Ratzinger is defining the identities of the Orthodox Churches and the Protestant denominations, not the Catholic Church. Look:

A 16-page document, prepared by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Pope Benedict used to head, described Christian Orthodox churches as true churches, but suffering from a "wound" since they do not recognize the primacy of the Pope.

But the document said the "wound is still more profound" in the Protestant denominations -- a view likely to further complicate relations with Protestants.

"Despite the fact that this teaching has created no little distress ... it is nevertheless difficult to see how the title of 'Church' could possibly be attributed to them," it said.

The Vatican text, which restates the controversial document "Dominus Iesus" issued by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2000, said the Church wanted to stress this point because some Catholic theologians continued to misunderstand it.

Pope Benedict seems to have stopped growing in the 16th Century.

How Kim Jong Il Lost Japanese Fans: Say That Again?

Here is a generally competent TIME story about the decline of North Korean influence over Koreans who are permanent residents in Japan because of the persistent economic and moral decay of the North Korean regime. Unfortunately, the TIME copy editors have managed to make it sound like a story about Kim Jong Il (not totally off the mark) and the Japanese (completely wrong).

Oh well, to those people, I guess we all look alike.

What's amazing is that the headline is still there. Apparently, nobody has even bothered to point it out. As one who has been annoyed by the media's willingness to extensively rewrite an article then repost it without notice, perhaps I shouldn't complain. But the lack of interest is depressing.

By the way, I say "generally competent" because of the following explanation:

"[I]n the organization's heyday, South Korea was viewed among zainichi as little more than an American poodle."

That will come as a big surprise to the Mindan and its member zainichi. Mindan, established in 1946, is the anti-Communist, pro-South Korean doppelganger of the Chongyron. If you look at their website, you can see that the Mindan makes verifiable claims which show that it has always been a powerful social and economic force among the zainichi. Of course fortune has been much kinder to Mindan than to Chogyron in recent decades. The relative fortunes of the two, like everything else, mirror the relationship between the two Koreas themselves.

Incidentally, the fact that Bryan Walsh uses the word zainichi in its Japanese, not Korean, locution without hesitating may be an indication of the extent to which the Koreans in Japan have become assimilated. Their hearts still beat Korean, but their minds now work in Japanese.