Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy Holidays


As for my year’s end retrospective, you can find it here.

Re: Is This Chinese Gamesmanship over Taiwan or What?

Having gone over the media references to Prime Minister Fukuda’s comments with regard to Taiwan, I find them less revealing than I had thought. However, I believe that they are still notable enough for a post of their own. Excerpts and their translations are given below.

I looked at the conservative Sankei’s take on the mistranslation of Prime Minister Fukuda’s carefully rendered comment on Taiwan independence. But how did the others treat it? The leftish Asahi just skipped the matter altogether and went straight to Prime Minister Wen’s reiteration of Prime Minister Fukuda’s “non-support” for the referendum. Usually slightly to Asahi’s right, Mainichi, in giving the story near-equal billing with the gas fields, also ignored Mr. Wen’s translation and noted Mr. Fukuda’s “non-support” for independence. The point of the story was that in Mainichi’s view, Mr. Fukuda had gone somewhat beyond the current Japanese position, if only in nuance. Mainichi also put a totally different spin in contrast to Sankei on the meaning of Mr. Fukuda’s cryptic comment to the effect that he “may have said more than what [he] was questioned by the reporters”. The nationalist but also very pro-China Yomiuri seems to have thought the matter unworthy of mention in its online summaries. (The mistranslation appears to have escaped its notice as well.)

The foreign media does not appear to have noticed their pulses quicken with regard to Japan-on-Taiwan, but the BBC predictably bit the Chinese line. Xinghua, the Chinese state newswire, appears to have gotten it right.

These are online versions of the news. In Japan at least, they are more often than not condensed from the hardcopy versions, and many hardcopy items are passed over altogether. That being said, the Japanese coverage of the incident does appear to reflect the policy preferences of the dailies with regard to China. Even Mr. Fukuda’s comments wound up being parsed in completely different directions, consonant, I add, with the inclinations of the respective journals.

If the mistranslation was intentional, it has served its purpose as far as BBC is concerned. The fact that Xinghua did not repeat the mistake does not sway the conclusion over Chinese intent one way or other; the Chinese authorities are not so stupid as to push their luck that far, after Mr. Fukuda had taken pains to reiterate the official position.

On other matters, the matter of Taiwan, which is scheduled to hold a referendum in March next year on the merits of joining the UN under the name of Taiwan, was taken up and, according to Prime Minister Wen, Prime Minister Fukuda demonstrated the position of not supporting the referendum. (このほか、来年3月に台湾名義での国連加盟の是非を問う住民投票を予定している台湾の問題も取り上げられ、温首相によると、福田首相は住民投票を支持しない立場を示したという。
from ”Quatum Leap in Mutual Relations” Next Year, Japan-China Summit, Gas Field Talks to Be Continued(来年は「関係飛躍」 日中首脳会談 ガス田は協議継続)”Asahi, 27 December 28.

”I may have said more than what I was questioned by the reporters”, Prime Minister Fukuda said at the joint press conference. It was after he had stated clearly that he did not support Taiwan independence and furthermore that he did “not want tension to increase between the two shores (of China and Taiwan) with regard to the referendum in Taiwan”. Prime Minister Wen, who was sitting beside him, nodded strongly and adopted a satisfied expression.

Concerning Prime Minister Fukuda’s words, Japanese diplomatic sources admitted, while stating that “the government’s fundamental position remained unchanged”, that they went a little deeper.

In a public forum, such being this [press] conference, Prime Minister Wen, while preceding his remarks with the words “I would like to supplement that on one point”, did not forget to introduce that fact that Prime Minister Fukuda also “expressed his position that he definitely did not support” the referendum during the Prime Ministers’ meeting.

China’s tactics are to tighten the “web” around Taiwanese supporters of independence by having the heads of major countries that have influence over Taiwan to express their opposition. Therefore, it is highly significant that it was able to draw out “non-support” from the Prime Minister of Japan, which independence supporters look to [for sustenance].

… 「記者さんから質問を受けた以上のことを申し上げたかもしれない」。福田首相は共同記者会見で述べた。台湾独立を支持しないと明言し、さらに「台湾の住民投票をめぐって、(中台)両岸に緊張が高まるようなことは望んでいない」と言い切った後のことだ。隣に座る温首相は深くうなずき、満足そうな表情 を浮かべた。





from “Japan-China Summit: China Flexible Stance on Gas Fields; Non-Support for Taiwan Independence, Japan Firmly ‘Cooperative’ (日中首脳会談:中国「ガス田」柔軟姿勢 台湾独立不支持、日本「協調」強く)”Mainichi, 2007 December 29.

Taiwan does not come up in the Yomiuri online articles. It escaped my notice in the hardcopy version as well. Sankei, as I mentioned here, devoted an entire article and a commentary to the controversy. They are too long to translate here, but the basic message is that you can’t trust the Chinese.

Mr Fukuda also reiterated Japan's opposition to Taiwanese independence and voiced his opposition to Taiwan's plans to hold a referendum on UN membership.
from “China and Japan PMs hail progress”BBC, 2007 December 28

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said on Friday that Japan does not support Taiwan authorities' attempts to seek UN membership by "referendum" and moves that may change the status quo of the cross-Strait relationship.
Fukuda said that Japan would give no support to the claims of "one China, one Taiwan", "Taiwan independence" or Taiwan authorities' attempts to join the United Nations and to seek UN membership through a "referendum".

from ”Japan PM states four 'no's on Taiwan issue”, Xinghua by way of China Daily, 2007 December 29.

Yoshirō Mori Prime Minister: Mission Incomplete

You’ve heard about these people at their children’s games, haven’t you, pleading with the coaches, haranguing the referees, fighting other parents, embarrassing themselves and their kids? And you’ve wondered, haven’t you: what makes them do that?

If news reports are to be believed, ex-Prime Minister Yoshirō Mori has been at it again, pushing a Cabinet remake. Most recently, he had served as the middleman for Tsuneo Watanabe’s efforts to craft a Grand Coalition by engineering a meeting between Yasuo Fukuda, Prime Minister, and Ichirō Ozawa, DPJ leader and political mastermind. A few months before that, he had made sure that LDP faction leaders, as well as his own faction, would be united behind Mr. Fukuda as successor to the failed Shinzō Abe. This in turn was redemption of a rain check of sorts, for he had failed to convince Mr. Abe, who went on to take the Premiership by near-acclaim, to bide his time and let Mr. Fukuda follow Junichirō Koizumi. These and other lesser things Mr. Mori has been able to do through as their big brother in the Seiwakai/Seiwa Seisaku Kenkai, the faction that he once headed and has produced the last four Prime Ministers, beginning with Mr. Mori himself.

Mr. Mori is a very successful man by most accounts. Inheriting his faction from Hiroshi Mitsuzuka (who stepped in as faction leader after the untimely death of Shintarō Abe (Shinzō’s dad), who had received the nod from Fukuda Takeo (Yasuo’s dad), who in turn… but you get the idea) in 1998, he became Prime Minister in 2000. Although his highly unpopular reign lasted little more than a year, he was followed by his faction surrogate Mr. Koizumi, who rode a successful grassroots campaign to an upset victory in 2001. He then retook control of the faction and successfully grew it, until it is now the largest in the LDP.

So here we have an ex-Prime Minister whose brief reign was cut short, not by death or illness or election disaster, but by sheer unpopularity, a miasma of a thousand gaffes and mishaps that seemed to settle on him whenever the media turned their eyes and ears on the bumbling public figure; a still healthy 70 year old, whose entire life had demonstrated a consumptive love of the political game that appeared to be matched only by his disinterest in, or inaptitude for, statecraft. It is no wonder, then, given the lack of finality to his own turn at the pinnacle and no longer allowed to play for himself, that he continues to seek to mold the game to his liking.

There is no way for an outsider to determine the extent of influence that Mr. Mori retains within his faction, but Mr. Koizumi has been enjoying his semiretirement, Mr. Abe is in no position to claim the faction for his own any time soon (it never was his), and the brief leadership of Nobutaka Machimura, seen by many as a stop-gap compromise choice, has been interrupted by his current tenure as Chief Cabinet Secretary. Thus, his power base secure for the foreseeable future, expect more of the same from Mr. Mori. So stay tuned.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

You Are a Prime Minister, Mr. Fukuda (plus, Japanese politics intermezzo)

I posted on the joint conference of the two Prime Ministers with regard to Taiwan here. I should have done more of my Media Watch before I did so, because I’ve found some more fascinating stuff that is revealing of several aspects of the media. But I need time to write it up properly. In the meantime, a few words on the real implications of the meeting of the Prime Ministers:

The Taiwan mistranslation aside, the joint press conference with Prime Minister Wen came off swimmingly, concluding the substantive part of Prime Minister Fukuda’s visit. It is trivial that it showed that little if anything will come of Mr. Fukuda’s visit that cannot happen without it; it is the symbolism (or, to less kindly eyes, the photo-op) that counts. Mr. Fukuda is China’s favorite, and it was evident. There must be some grumbling back home (this Sankei commentary is a mere foreboding of things to come in the nationalist weeklies and monthlies), but the majority of the Japanese public should welcome this turn of events.

Mr. Fukuda is going to take the China visit and the settlement of the cirrhosis law suits as his otoshidama, enjoy the New Year’s Holidays, then do the refueling resumption bill override thing when the Diet resumes. He will, if the latest reports are to be believed*, use this momentum to revamp the Cabinet that he mostly inherited from Prime Minister Abe. The real purpose, in my view, will be to clear the Cabinet and the sub-Cabinet appointee list of Finance Minister Fukushirō Nukaga and any other suspects before the Yamada Yōkō slush fund scandal really blows up, if it does. Mr. Fukuda probably wants to rid himself of some loose cannons as well. A total makeover is the Japanese way, to do it without pointing fingers.

But going back to China, what did the Chinese get out of it all, aside from setting the table for President Hu Jintao’s visit? The hint lies in the game of catch that the two Prime Ministers played the day after.

I am surprised that people do not take note of the fact that China has two major pieces while Japan has only one**. Now the distinction between heads of government, e.g. our Prime Minister, and heads of state, e.g. a president, is usually trivial with no meaning beyond diplomatic protocol***. However, that protocol takes on great importance between states that share a complicated and ambiguous history that continues to cast a shadow on mutual relations and regional geopolitics, and on the respective domestic scenes as well. For the Chinese authorities in particular, the matter abuts on the very legitimacy on which they base their claims of the popular mandate. It is within this context, then, that the symbolism of Mr. Fukuda’s meeting and press conference with Mr. Wen (and not Mr. Hu) played out. Likewise, the game of catch.

Message? Mr. Fukuda, you are Mr. Wen’s counterpart.

Perhaps if the Prime Minister had tossed a rugby ball at the President during the banquet, Japanese nationalists at home would be happier now.

* It makes sense, and all the mainstream dailies are reporting it. The only caveat here is that 28 December-4 January (extending to 7 January this time) usually are very slow news days, particularly for reporters on the political beat. Mr. Fukuda may have just put up a trial balloon and as an added fillip did the reporters a favor by throwing some fresh meat to his media entourage that accompanied him to this photo-op during the year’s end holidays.

** I’m leaving the Emperor out of consideration because he is even more of a figurehead than any symbolic head of state.

*** Seating arrangements during G-B Summit photo-ops are one thing that immediate comes to mind.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Is This Chinese Gamesmanship over Taiwan or What?

The Chinese will never stop pushing the envelope, even during the best of times. Their gamesmanship was evident as a Chinese submarine “accidentally” wandered into Japanese waters in 2004, when bilateral relations were approaching a nadir, and it surfaced again during the press conference following Prime Minister Fukuda’s talks with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

Sankei depicts Mr. Fukuda catching the Chinese interpreter trying a fast one here, as he translated Mr. Wen’s explanation of Mr. Fukuda’s reiteration of the Japanese policy to “not support Taiwan’s independence ” as “oppose Taiwan’s independence”. Mr. Fukuda’s years of service as aide to his Prime Minister father, Diet member in his own right, and Chief Cabinet Secretary surely stood him in good stead as he used the subsequent Q&A to reiterate the official Japanese position.

This is no trivial matter. As the status quo appears set to continue indefinitely, words gain ever more significance. Particularly for pro-China Mr. Fukuda, a misstep here could have incited a rebellion by LDP conservatives.

Anyone who thinks that this was merely a case of something getting lost in translation should recall this incident involving a few lines Mr. Wen skipped on a speech being broadcast live back to China.

I think that South Koreans are more in-your-face and will let you know in no uncertain terms when they want something from you. But I’m ready to be corrected.

The Education Ministry Caves to Okinawa Pressure on Textbooks

Norimitsu Ohnishi lets the facts tell the story here, as Okinawa strips away the government’s stock response to complaints on Japanese textbooks. Luckily for the Fukuda administration, Chinese authorities are in no mood to press the point.

Mr. Ohnishi ends this piece with the following:

“The Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, a group of nationalist scholars that, along with politicians like Mr. Abe, led a campaign to rid textbooks of references to wartime crimes committed by the Japanese military, condemned the ministry’s decision. On its Web site, the group said that the ministry “had succumbed to political pressure [emphasis mine] and approved one-sided historical descriptions.”

Mr. Ohnishi has wisely decided that the irony speaks for itself.

Re: Did Asahi Find a New Way to Be Nice to China?

The following is actually a response to Janne’s comment on my preceding post. I put it here because the comment box will not allow font tags.


Let me explain.

The name of a Japanese citizen must be registered at birth at his legal domicile, usually that of his parent or married parents. The name can be written in kanji, katakana, hirakana, or any combination thereof. Moreover, the kanji used for a name do not have to correspond to any accepted pronunciations thereof. For example, you could use “春雪”, the kanji for “Spring Snow”, for “Sakurako*”, or “Child of the Cherry”, and the authorities would accept it without batting a metaphorical eyelash.

My post concerns a different issue, namely, the representation of foreign names in Japanese. By convention, katakana, the now-secondary Japanese alphabet is usually employed. But this is complicated when it comes to Chinese and Korean names, since both cultures have also used kanji, i.e. Chinese characters, exclusively**.

In Japan, by tradition, both Chinese and Korean names were pronounced in conformity with the original, Chinese-derived form of pronunciation and, if necessary, written in hirakana, not katakana like the rest of the gaijin. Thus, 金大中, or Kim Dae-jung, the former South Korean President was pronounced kin dai-chū and written in hirakana, when necessary, as きん・だいちゅう. Note the similarity in pronunciation. Some Koreans who were permanent residents in Japan were not satisfied with this situation, and there was a lawsuit to challenge this custom that ultimately went to the Supreme Court. The lawsuit was unsuccessful, but sometime after the incident, the Japanese and Korean authorities appear to have worked out a compromise. Now, the ex-president is kimu dejun, or キム・デジュン, in katakana. Because of the unfamiliarity of the Korean pronunciation, the katakana rendition is usually given in parenthesis.

Incidentally, "legal domicile" is something of a mistranslation since you choose any place in Japan as your legal domicile, including the location of the Imperial Grounds in Tokyo. I assume that the same holds true in South Korea, where some of their citizens have registered their domiciles on an island that they like to call Dokto, whose proper name is, as all reasonable people will agree, Takeshima.

* Actually 桜子, A rare but real name. A beautiful one, too.

** This is no longer the case in the Koreas, where some people now have given names (but not family names) written solely in Hangul script.

Did Asahi Find a New Way to Be Nice to China?

読売 胡錦濤国家主席   盧武鉉(ノ・ムヒョン)大統領
朝日 胡錦濤(フー・チンタオ)国家主席  盧武鉉(ノ・ムヒョン)大統領
毎日 胡錦濤国家主席   盧武鉉(ノムヒョン)大統領
産経 胡錦濤国家主席   盧武鉉大統領 but 李明博(イ・ミョンバク)

For those of you who can’t read Japanese, I’ve written the names of Chinese President Hu Jintao and South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun, with their titles, as they appear in Yomiuri, Asahi, Mainichi, and Sankei. For President Roh, all four dailies give an approximation of the Korean pronunciation in katakana, the alternative Japanese alphabet*, in parentheses. However, Asahi is the only one that does so for President Hu with an approximation of the Chinese pronunciation.

If memory serves me correctly, the three dailies in agreement are following the government policy of reciprocity**. All three nations use kanji***, but pronounce them differently. South Korea and Japan agreed to recognize the pronunciation in the respective original languages of the kanji-rendered names, while no such agreement was made between Japan and China. Thus, Chinese names are spelled out in kana, if necessary, according to the Japanese pronunciation of the kaniji, while the Chinese read Japanese names as if they were regular Chinese names. There are no doubt historical and practical reasons for this state of affairs, but it is my understanding that this is where things stand.

Asahi, I believe not too many years ago, broke ranks on China. I’m sure that if 2 Channeru had been around at the time, its denizens would have given it anonymous hell for it.

* Sankei, in the limited archives available free of charge, does not provide the phonetic pronunciation for President Roh, but does do so for President-elect Lee Myung-bak. This is most likely attributable to an assumption on the part of Sankei that the reader is familiar with the proper pronunciation of Mr. Roh’s name, though I’ll reserve judgment on that until I know how the South Korean media actually treats Japanese names. Mainichi gives a slightly different rendering, which Asahi also uses inconsistently; but this is trivial.

** If you look around the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, you will see that MOFA does the same.

*** North Korea has virtually eliminated kanji over the years. South Korea has, more recently, also discouraged their use, but has not gone as far as the North.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Media Reaction to Bhutto Assassination

So many professional thinkers are covering the story, and what emerges is that nobody has any idea what is going to happen but they think that the election should go ahead. I can’t agree more. On the other hand, I have no idea if it can be done.

A few obvious points, though: Al Qaeda and homegrown fundamentalist militants are not going to take over Pakistan, and the nuclear arsenal is safe. So talk of chaos and the like is merely a reflection of the confusion in the pundits’ minds. Christopher Hitchens avoids that nonsense and writes an obituary for Benazir Bhutto.

Few people write well in rage, and Mr. Hitchens is one of them. Then there’s Camille Paglia.

How to Write; Chapter 2. Christopher Hitchens on the Bush Administration’s North Korea Policy under Chris Hill

You don’t have to be an atheist to enjoy Christopher Hitchens’ anger in all its spluttering, grandiloquent magnificence. In fact, Evangelical Christians will no doubt welcome this typical broadside against the Bush administration’s accommodation of the North Korean regime (although they may read his depiction of Kim Jong Il as “the other ‘Lord’—the deranged godhead who claims to be a fresh incarnation of his beloved father and to own North Korea and all the people in it” and stop to wonder if Mr. Hitchens isn’t slipping them a different agenda on the sly). In fact, you don’t even have to agree with him to appreciate it.

Where Nicholas Eberstadt holds out (in my view) false hope, Mr. Hitchens does what he does best.

Dog Eats BBC Homework on Japanese Prime Minister’s Trip to China

The trip comes amid signs of a diplomatic thaw, following decades of rivalry and historical tensions.
In recent months a Chinese warship dropped anchor in Tokyo Bay for the first time since World War II.

- from Japanese PM to Boost China Ties, 27 December 2007, BBC

A friend of mine in Washington agrees that “most of the time [wire services] do a good job since they do it on the fly (my italics).” The idea that wire services don’t have the time to get it wrong never occurred to me when I posted this, but he’s a correspondent who goes through reams of news wire reports every day and goes to the press briefings themselves, so he should know what he’s talking about. My idea was that a wire service correspondent cannot afford to push a particular agenda or indulge himself in a theme of his choice because the retail media, who are the wire services’ main clients, span the whole range from left to right and cover every point in between. It should also help that a typical local wire service bureau is more heavily staffed than those of its retail media counterparts. But the explanations are not mutually exclusive, and I think that they all make sense.

To get back to Prime Minister Fukuda’s trip, the above quote ignores the long history of some downs but plenty of ups since 1972, when Kakuei Tanaka, Prime Minister at the time, was feted in Beijing by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai and gives the impression that the diplomatic “thaw” began only a few months ago. The BBC writer who cobbled the article together as well as his Asia-Pacific copy editor must think that history began with Junichirō Koizumi.

If its Shanghai correspondent gave some of the political background on the Chinese side as a significant reason for the most recent turnaround that began with Prime Minister Abe on the Japanese side, it’s totally missing in the article. At the broadest level, the mutual-love hate relationship will endure because of the Communist Party’s need to balance legitimacy and stability requirements in its educational propaganda on the Chinese side and the fear of an ascendant China against a perception of domestic decline on the Japanese side*

I have a menagerie of other peeves**, but they are trivial.

* Think Japan-U.S. relations in the 80s and early 90s.

** Peeves make good pets. They are house-trained, and don’t have to be fed. Be careful though. They can breed prolifically, and are very difficult to give away. They also bite friend and foe alike.

ADD: Said correspondent just wrote in, agreeing that "we're hitting two angles on the same thing." That was quick. There was more in his email. He may want to blog it one of these days.(same day, 12:12 PM)

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Again, a Wire Service Mostly Gets It Right, on Prime Minister Fukuda’s Trip to China

It may be just me, But I think that, on average, the wire services do a much better job of reporting what is actually going on in Japan than most* English-language news outlets. This AP piece on Prime Minister Fukuda’s trip is no exception. There are no dramatic revelations or penetrating insights, but the article covers all the bases with remarkable balance and accuracy. One quibble:

Developing those [East China Sea] gas fields is a top priority for Japan.

Say who? The AP correspondent has obviously not seen a map.

Also, the article lacks any sense of the background to Prime Minister Abe’s trip. As the article stands, the visit lacks the broader political context. But perhaps that is too much to ask of a wire service.

* I say “most” because I have great respect for Economist. I haven’t been reading it very much in recent years, so I can’t say for certain that this is still true.

How to Write; Chapter 1. Mr. Eberstadt’s Korean Sleight-of-Hand

I would like nothing better than to go to some place warm, sit in the shade under a tree, and wait for people to stop by so that I could talk with them all day long, until the sun came down. But circumstances dictate otherwise. So, for the time being, this blog is my tree.

I’ve been blogging for over a year now, and I’ve come to realize how difficult it is to express my thoughts in ways that accurately reflect the varying degrees of uncertainty with regard to the material on which they are founded. I’ve noticed that one of the tools that writers use to get around this predicament is the all purpose “may”, a word that can be applied equally to events of vastly different probabilities. More often than not, a writer cannot be sure how unsure he is, and sometimes he should just drop the matter altogether. At a minimum, he should be honest about his uncertainties.

Another not uncommon way of fudging the conclusion is by way of what I shall call the That Is the Question Ending. Imagine Hamlet delivering that soliloquy and the curtain dropping right there and then. A typical op-ed using TITQE begins and ends the like this: “X is at a crossroads… the choice is X’s to make.” Sometimes, the crossroads itself is such a revelation that it justifies an article on its own. At other times, the non-ending is the manifestation of the writer’s inability or lack of courage to make the call.

But far more often, a polemicist prefers to bend the facts to fit his conclusion, and he has many items in his tool kit. Outright lying is all too common, but other, more subtle methods are also widely employed. Creative interpretation of the facts (Hillary accuses Obama of harboring presidential ambitions since pre-school; Al Gore claims he invented the Internet) is very effective. Mislabeling (whales are the lungs of the ocean) is another.

Pure sleight-of –hand can be lethal in the hands of an adept. This WaPo op-ed by Nicholas Eberstadt is a good example. This trick is particularly insidious because, if executed properly, it will be difficult to catch even when you think you know the subject.

Mr. Eberstadt’s argument looks like a perfectly reasonable argument that calls on the Bush administration to return to a harder line against North Korea in concert with the incoming Lee Myung-bak regime in South Korea. Who knows, maybe he’s right. But the argument hinges on a South Korean public that will accept the kind of measures that Mr. Eberstadt and the men who populated the first-term Bush administration used to push. And here is where the trick comes in:

The landslide vote, to be sure, was in large measure a rebuke of President Roh Moo-hyun's inept handling of the economy and polarizing domestic policies. Yet, taken together, the candidates who opposed the "Peace and Prosperity" policy (originally dubbed "Sunshine") toward North Korea in last Wednesday's election received more than 63 percent of the vote -- compared with 35 percent for all those who approved of it. Why the widespread discontent with "sunshine"?

First, he admits to the obvious, incontrovertible fact that Mr. Roh lost because of policy failure on the domestic front. It is also true, as the second sentence says, that “Peace and Prosperity” policy opponents polled 63% of the vote. So, isn’t it natural to ask, as the third sentence does, why the South Korean electorate is dissatisfied with a soft-sell approach to North Korea?

But wait, where does Mr. Eberstadt say that in rejecting Mr. Roh’s favored candidate, the South Korean electorate rejected the “Sunshine” policy? Actually, he doesn’t. He has slipped this unstated premise into the narrative by sleight-of-hand.

I know that this is deliberate and not mere faulty thinking. Look closely, and there are two, telltale signs. First, note the use of the qualitative “large measure” to gauge the impact. Is two-thirds large? Of course. But one-third? Without resorting to outright lying, he has diminished the impression of the impact by the use of this qualitative word that maintains its substantiality while shedding the sense of enormity, the overwhelming nature of the cause for rejection.

Second, and more obviously, he shifts terminology at each step, from the “Peace and Prosperity” policy to “Sunshine” to “sunshine”. This too is deliberate. You see, he starts by insinuating the rejection of President Roh’s policy, then moves on to the rejection of President Kim Dae-jung’s policy, and finally arrives at the rejection of the generic “sunshine” approach. Note that he manages to drop the word “policy” along the way, a word that implies a set of measures which could be accepted singly or collectively, or modified. This is important, for the notion that the South Korean electorate rejected the soft-sell approach in every guise is vital to an argument essentially in favor of a return to pre-Six Party level demands on North Korea.

Now this is not the place to argue whether or not such a reversal is in order. But in avoiding an argument on the facts, Mr. Eberstadt implicitly acknowledges that if anything does happen, the changes will still fall far short of his desires. And in that, at least, he is correct, because if Mr. Roh’s trip to North Korea in October failed to save his favored candidate, he did succeed in vaulting his dismal approval rate over the 50% mark. The South Korean electorate did not reject President Kim’s “Sunshine” policy, much less a soft-sell approach in general; President-elect Lee Myun-bak is not going to blot out the “sunshine”.

This trick is surely one of many different illusions that advocates, both explicit and implicit, use to undermine reason. If I come up with other examples that catch my attention, I may post them.

As a coda, I’ll indulge in some speculation. Why did Mr. Eberstadt write this op-ed in the first place? Part of it must be that birds are born to sing, and this happens to be the only song that it knows. But he must feel secure, with good reason, that the soft-sell approach will achieve unsatisfactory results (at least from the perspective of his back-to-the-future approach, which, luckily for him, will never be tested). Thus, he thinks that he will be able to continue pleasing his constituency by criticizing whatever policy that any administration adopts and the outcome thereof from the vantage point of an untested hypothesis. In that at least, he will be right.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Two Stories about India in the Global Society

Sometimes the blog feels an urge to live up to its name. I offer you the following:

The Letter Writer should be a TV serial. Or at least the title of a novel. Maybe it already is. In any case, the NYT delivers a charming commentary on the effects of globalization through the story of G.P. Sawant, his family, and his profession, in Mumbai, India. The narrative is not without anguish, for it begins with Mr. Sawant’s pro bono work for prostitutes. That thread, a story of poverty and illiteracy, is not followed through though, leaving you to wonder how far down has the new economy trickled down in India.

BBC reports a clash of civilizations in this story from Hertfordshire, England, about a sick cow. Beyond the obvious clash between Hindu worshippers and the selectively zoophiliac Anglo-Saxons and, more broadly, between religion and the public interest (although there are no public health or hygienic issues mentioned in the article), the incident reveals an immense gap in the respective cultures of life and death. Nothing illustrates this better than the following passage:

In a statement the RSPCA said: "We knew the cow has been suffering from painful and infected sores, her limbs had become wasted and her breathing difficult.

Three separate vets, including from the Royal College of Vets, from Defra and an independent vet, have all agreed that the animal was suffering and should be immediately euthanised."

Does this sound reasonable? If so, substitute “doctor” for “vet” and “old woman” for “cow” and “animal”. Why does one make sense to you and the other not? Well, one good answer is in Genesis 1.28

Those Fukuda Hugging Pandas and an Apology on the Home Front Help the Prime Minister End the Year on a Moderately Upbeat Note

No, that’s not an insult. It’s a description of the all-out welcome that the Chinese authorities are putting on for the Japanese Prime Minister when he flies there tomorrow (27 December). The host of the welcome dinner has been upgraded from Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to President Hu Jintao (Mr. Wen will host a breakfast instead), and Mr. Fukuda’s speech at Beijing University will be broadcast live all over China.

The Japanese media see this as a Chinese endorsement of the openly pro-China Prime Minister. True, but more specifically, the Chinese authorities realize that if the Fukuda administration collapses, the LDP is not going to let him call a snap election. Instead, the LDP will turn to someone else in its ranks, and the Chinese authorities see Mr. Asō and his minions stalking the outback.

The Chinese are not known for their subtlety; for good or bad, they pour it on. Still, it appears highly unlikely that they will come forth on a meaningful agreement on the East China gas fields. That, if it ever happens, will be reserved for President Hu’s Tokyo visit in the spring.

Mr. Fukuda has preceded his trip with what appears to have been a constructive and at times emotional get-together with six representatives and lawyers of the plaintiffs in the blood-transfusion-induced type C liver cirrhosis law suits, where he offered an apology, promised accommodative legislation, and asked to meet them again next year. Mr. Fukuda, unlike so many politicians, has not allowed public life to coarsen the emotions. There’s a downside to that as well, but for now, it is serving him well. There are still a few details to attend to, and one of them is the scope of responsibility that the state will admit to, a major point of contention*, but having passed the emotional hurdle, the administration, the ruling coalition and the plaintiffs and their lawyers should be able to work out a compromise**.

And on that note, Mr. Fukuda should be able to enjoy a moderately happy New Year’s Day.

* This is an issue that crops up in so many areas, most prominently visible to foreign observers on the history issues. The type C cirrhosis case shows that beyond the political and financial constraints lie legitimate concerns of law. In this case, much of what appears to be political tone-deafness is actually the product of institutional requirements of a constitutional society. And that is why Diet members, and not the Cabinet, will submit the legislation.

** If news reports are any indication, the DPJ is making itself look like something of a sourpuss in the event. It is refusing to talk to the coalition before the legislation is submitted, let alone take part in its drafting. This recalcitrance is understandable, given that Naoto Kan and his colleagues have been on this case for years on the side of the plaintiffs. Still, it should have done more to partake of some of the sense of relief among the plaintiffs.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas

To you all. And just in case you haven't see it, here you are.

Prime Minister Fukuda’s Trip to China Official

Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura in his press briefing* after the Friday Cabinet meeting made it official; the Diet willing, Prime Minister Fukuda will travel to China between 27-30 December. That’s a four day visit. The purpose? To “conduct a frank** exchange of opinions on prospects for Japan-China relations, issues of concern such as resource development in the East China Sea, problems such as the denuclearization of North Korea, and counter climate-change measures, these issues concerning the region as a whole, international society as a whole.” This does not sound like a Chief Cabinet Secretary who is harboring hopes of brokering a deal on the off-shore gas fields during Mr. Fukuda’s visit. It looks increasingly like Foreign Minister Kōmura oversold his earlier trip to the press in indicating that the two Foreign Ministers had agreed on 1 December to solve the problem by Mr. Fukuda’s visit to China and the other Chinese principals were on board.

If you’re wondering why the Chinese leadership is willing to entertain visitors at that time of year, remember that China lives under the Lunar Calendar and its New Year’s Holidays won’t be rolling around for some time. This time of the year is not a big deal for them. In fact, it’s the government of Japan and its bureaucrats that are being more accommodating, since half the nation goes on leave this weekend, and the rest officially shuts down on the 28th.

* It’s available here, in case you want to read the real thing.

** “Frank”and “candid” are fighting words in diplomatese, but the Japanese analog “率直” does not necessarily connote negativity.

Girls, Salarymen, and Gourmet Emporium Customers: My Tokyo Triptych

Tokyo Story and the Harajuku Saṃsāra

You only have to watch macho movie stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tommy lee Jones do commercials here to realize that, as Ryūnosuke Akutagawa I think once said, “In Japan, everything becomes kawaii”, and Goth as fashion is no exception. But then, how often do you see those Goth-Loli girls? If your favorite haunts are my kind of haunts, then it could be a very long day before you sight a single one. However, if Harajuku is your thing, then you’ll be able to rustle up any number of post-pubescent Goth-Lolis for whatever legal purpose you may have in mind, including material for a WaPo article (with a little assistance from the local help). In fact, the two girls in the WaPophoto could have come straight out of the Golden Age of Harajuku fashion, when Takenoko-zoku and rockers reigned supreme. For that is the real Harajuku story - its thirty-year reign as the cultural center for teenage Saitama.

But Harajuku is not the only place with its own, distinctive style. Ginza, for example, is older and old, understated yet fashionable. At the other end of trendiness is Ueno, where you get that Showa feeling all over again. In fact, if you rounded up a dozen women each at random from, say, Harajuku, Ginza, Ueno, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Roppongi, and Odaiba, Mrs. Trendspotter should be able to match each set with its place of origin.

It is notable that the older spots line the circular, Yamanote Line. In fact, Tokyo is an urban wheel with intermeshing spokes spinning at warp speed, a kaleidoscope of cultural delights with a big Imperial vacuum in the middle. This structure lies at the heart of Tokyo’s pull, in Japan and beyond*. And that is the bigger, Tokyo story behind the Harajuku story.

3G Mobile: Better than Porn

On a slow news day, break glass, pull out Japanese salaryman on commuter train reading a porno comic book or hea nudo weekly. That must have been the first item in the old emergency manual for gaijin correspondents, with Pokari Sweat running a distant second. But next time, look around and see. Not too many of them around, are there? And the tabloid dailies don’t seem to be doing so well either, are they? Instead, the salarymen are… yes, they’re communing, just like the other riders, with their cell phones.

As what must be another consequence of our national love affair with the cell phone, fewer people are nodding off on trains. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why those salarymen are sneaking naps on the massage chairs at Bic Camera.

Older and Old: The Case for Gourmet Emporiums

Every department store near the train station has a basement floor full of expensive goodies, as well as others not-so-expensive but still a notch above those available at your neighborhood supermarket; not that the supermarket doesn’t have an increasingly expanding gourmet section of its own as well. So what kind of consumers are behind the growth of this nakashoku (literally “eating in the middle”) market, somewhere between eating in and eating out, where many if not most of the kitchen chores are outsourced?

Working women do make up a large portion of the clientele, predominantly older women, between dates, and willing and able to trade a little extra money for that little extra time. But there are also the old women - and old men as well - with no more children to cook for, and/or no live-in daughter-in-law to cook for you, and what’s the point of doing the chores day in, day out, for tired old hubby - assuming that he’s still around.

The gourmet emporium supports the childless-household society in much the same way that the combini maintains the single-freeter society.

And on that cheery note**, Happy Holidays to you all.

* According to a Henshū Techō article in today’s (24 December) hardcopy Yomiuri, Tokyo was the runaway favorite in a recent survey conducted by a Taiwanese travel agency that asked the Taiwanese where they wanted to spend their Christmas and New Year’s holidays, far outpacing second-place Hokkaidō, in turn followed by Hong Kong, New York, Paris, and Sydney, in that order. (Ōsaka came in ninth.) Okay, Tokyo is much closer to Taipei than New York or Paris. Still.

** Hey, I could have written about how they are trying to bribe us with our money, and moreover are looking to us to cue them on every major decision that they make, instead of making up their own minds, like we are paying them handsomely to do. But it’s the happy season.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Goth-Loli Girls, Massage Chairs, and a Gourmet Emporium: No It’s Not a Pasolini Pastiche

As the “Japan Is Weird” genre goes, this one is pretty tame. So let’s see if it works as a piece of straight reporting.

“With about 35 million people, greater Tokyo is by far the world's most populous metro area.”

I have a little trouble envisioning all of Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba, andIbaragi as Metropolitan Tokyo, but maybe it’s just me, so I’ll let this go. And Goth-Loli*, salarymen catching naps on massage chairs on display, and single urban commuters frequenting gourmet emporiums are all real.

But how does this “triptych of miniatures” “sharpen the focus”? Of what? And how do the “small stop-frames” “suggest the larger rhythms of life in the planet's preeminent urban space”? What do they serve to show, other than that Goth-Loli girls are polite, that salarymen take naps, and that it’s not fun to cook for one? Give us some perspective. How many Goth-Loli girls are there in Japan? How many electronic massage chairs are on display in metropolitan Tokyo? How many people actually shop at these gourmet emporiums? Out of “about 35 million people”?

This is not serious journalism; they’re impressionist sketches, means without an end, words without a song.

* “Goth-Lolita” doesn’t quite capture the flavor of the genre. “Goth” invokes a fashion style, but “Lolita” does not, does it? And the girl on the right does not quite look like a Goth-Loli, does she?

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Will Prime Minister Fukuda Invite the South Korean President-Elect to the Hokkaidō Summit?

Conspicuously missing from the list of potential collaborators in Foreign Minister Asō and MOFA’s “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” (Blue Book 2007, Chapter 1) was South Korea, our nearest* democratic neighbor, which also happens to live side by side with one of the most freedom- and prosperity-challenged states on the planet. To put this omission in perspective, take note that even China was listed as a state that this “concept… should also be shared” with.

Sounds had been emanating that MOFA would be dropping the concept under Prime Minister Fukuda and Foreign Minister Kōmura, though it would by no means turn to supporting totalitarianism and poverty. Then I noticed this, and liked it. Now, this article, again from the Yomiuri, reports that Mr. Fukuda will invite the newly elected President of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak to the G-8 Summit to be held next July in Hokkaidō.

This will not be an exclusive invitation, but part of an outreach to an assembly of Asian nations. (China and India of course, and who else? It’s a protocol nightmare*.) Still, there must be some significance to the fact that such intent was revealed in a meeting of the Prime Minister with the heads of the Japan-ROK, ROK-Japan Cooperation Committee**. The relationship bears watching.

In passing, I note that the Japanese chairman of the Committee is the famously nationalist ex-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone***. This may be mystifying to Western analysts unfamiliar with this neck of the woods. But it should come as no surprise to those of you who are familiar with the Asian thread in the Japanese historical narrative. Make no mistake, many powerful forces in Japan deal with history in their respective ways, some of which go against the grain of the accepted lore in the other empires but play quite nicely in this neighborhood.

* I need not remind you of the self-evident truth that the Northern Territories are an inalienable part of the Japanese territories, in case you are thinking, well, Russia is a democracy of sorts; it certainly has been prospering of late.

** Then again, this could be seen as a return of sorts to a previous Japanese approach to the G-8 Summit, most conspicuous under Prime Minister Hashimoto if I remember correctly, to seek to “represent” Asia. But I believe that this time around, we are a more humble nation.

*** That, and the fact that this appears to be a Yomiuri exclusive, makes me wonder if there are higher powers, i.e. Tsuneo Watanabe, at work.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Why I Know that the DPJ Is Not Serious about the War on Terror

You can be for it, or against it, but what if you ignore it completely? Can you still claim the public’s mandate?

Foreign policy and self-defense was the DPJ’s next-to-last item in its policy manifest. There’s nothing wrong with that, except it has 21 lines on Iraq but absolutely nothing on the War on Terror or Afghanistan itself, when it knew that the counterterrorism bill would be up for renewal.

Public mandate, or slavishly tracking the public polls? I report, you decide.

The DPJ Underwhelms Nation by Producing Its Own Anti Terrorism Bill

DPJ policy wonks are decent people and as such lack a quality essential to a successful political career - the ability to believe your own lies. So one of the most painful things to watch had been a DPJ representative trying to pretend that the DPJ was serious about helping out in Afghanistan and was working on a bill but that didn’t matter either way because the DPJ had definitely put forth a firm proposal of its own and besides everything was the LDP’s fault anyway without giving the impression that the DPJ was hopelessly divided on the issue and was reduced to using it purely as a tool in the political game. The introduction of its bill, at this late point in the game under the instigation of party leader Ichirō Ozawa, merely reinforces that impression.

I’m not surprised. After all, Mr. Hatoyama had even referred to prospective shifts in public opinion as the determinant of DPJ decisions on this issue*.

I might have something more to say about the bill when it goes up on the DPJ website. But in the meantime, it looks highly unlikely to me that the bill will have solved any of the objections that were raised against the ideas floated by the DPJ.

Incidentally, all this should have little effect on the Fukuda-Ozawa debate when they face off next month**. The only change will be the addition of a DPJ text, not much of a talking point when you think about it.

* Another demonstration of the DPJ’s lack of dissembling skills.
** The two leaders do not thrive in a public debate format. They are like basketball teams without a good half-court game. Mr. Fukuda collects baskets on putbacks and stolen inbound passes, while Mr. Ozawa relies on two-hand set shots and free throws.

They Will Bribe Us with Our Money: A Brief Case for a Grand Coalition

I noted very briefly here, near the end, that there was a case to be made for a grand coalition. In my reply to a comment from t, I wrote the following:

“The downside of a piecemeal approach to collaboration across the aisle is that the two sides can easily wind up competing to bribe us with our money*. Case in point: Most recently, the LDP has reportedly shifted its position on agriculture subsidies to accomodate small-lot and over-65farmers, both of which categories are currently ineligible. A grand coalition makes it easier to share all the credit and the blame within a broad range of measures in a comprehensive policy package. At least that's my idea.

*I should trademark this.

I gave a little thought to expanding this, taking in such incidents as the waffling on both sides on the gasoline tax. I may well do so one of these days, but I’m bringing the essence to your attention, in case you might want to do it yourself.

BTW, if anyone has information on subprime loans and their securitization that is good enough to do some hard thinking with, please put it here as a comment. Thanks.

The Defense Minister Weighs in on UFOs?

My Global Friends are worried that the Japanese government does not have a defense policy for UFOs. Well, it won’t be that way for long, since our Minister of Defense, the otakuesque Shigeru Ishiba, is looking into the matter, according to the English version of the Yomiuri. Good for him. What the Yomiuri is hiding from Ambassador Shieffer and the rest of the now Japanese-hand-less Bush administration is that Toshihiro Nikai, Chairman of the LDP General Council, wants to put a stop to it, and is telling the government to lay off the aliens*.

* The two-faced Yomiuri has no qualms about telling its Japanese readers. Clearly, our government wants to shirk its mutual defense responsibilities and hide the fact from its allies. Now don’t you wish you still had Michael Green in the White House to give the real dope to President Bush? (That’s a rhetorical question, okay, You-Know-Who-You-Are?)

But what do you mean, Mr. Nikai, “There are many other important things to do in politics”? Isn’t saving the planet important enough for you? Or are you tired of hugging all those pandas? What next, a monument to Ming the Merciless in every prefecture?

Of course the Fukuda Cabinet has not crumpled under all the political pressure and collectively gone bonkers. After each of the twice-weekly Cabinet meetings, the Ministers brief their respective kisha clubs, the gaggle of reporters assigned by the media**. At some point, someone brings the matter up; asks a silly question, gets a silly answer. And generates a Japan-is-weird story.

Mr. Nikai was complaining to the wrong people, if anything.

** The Prime Minister handles his assigned reporters on the fly under the more informal in-the-corridors burasagari format.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Will Going to the South Korean Inaugural Be a First for a Japanese Prime Minister?

I don’t know, but this is definitely a plus. It is the kind of thing Yasuo Fukuda likes to do, and does so well. It’s not China, it's not even the U.S.; South Koreans will appreciate that.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Parallels between Mr. Fukuda and Mr. Abe in the Polls; Stargazing; and Lots of Footnotes on North Korea, Refueling Resumption Bill, Etc.

The Abe Cabinet’s public poll numbers* had slipped steadily since its inauguration in 2006 September until opposition outnumbered support for the first time in 2007 February. However, as the political financing scandal epidemic more or less subsided** and the ruling coalition managed to pass the budget and enact much of its legislative agenda, the Abe Cabinet’s numbers recovered in April and appeared to stabilize there. But then, the DPJ finally broke through with the 50 Million mislaid public pension accounts. The Abe Cabinet’s numbers took a huge hit, from which they never recovered. True, the DPJ’s numbers did not rise in similarly dramatic fashion, but the LDP’s numbers fell, and that’s what mattered. The pension accounts scandal devastated the ruling coalition in the July Upper House election and mortally wounded the Abe Cabinet (on life support, then clinically dead, for the last two months of its existence). Does the story sound familiar?

Some of the 15-16 December poll numbers in the latest Kyōdō Tsūshin wire service report can only be interpreted in light of the initial rage at the cavalier way in which the Prime Minister and his Chief Cabinet Secretary (charged jointly with the Health, Labor and Welfare Minister to clean up the management mess at the Social Insurance Agency) tried to brush off the latest revelations***. As the anger subsides and if nothing more occurs to further erode trust, the Fukuda Cabinet will recover a good portion of the support it dropped. But a sense of betrayal will linger in the public’s mind, bringing a new fragility to the Fukuda Cabinet. All innocence has been lost; with it, much of Mr. Fukuda’s margin of error.

What, then, are the factors that will have a major effect on the Fukuda administration’s fate?

You can forget about his 27-2829 December trip to China. There will be no surprises; the dispute over the East China Sea gas fields will be resolved, if ever, on the occasion of President Hu Jintao’s visit to Japan next spring****. If there is no solution available on that occasion, then Mr. Fukuda should be polite, but firm in rejecting Chinese claims.

ADD: On the other hand, if they do decide to settle it, there's no reason why they can't do it on this occasion. If they do, it will certainly be a nice feather in the Prime Minister's cap. Chinese leaders tend to gift tributaries... (20 December)

On North Korea, no meaningful progress will be made on the abductees, in the sense that no new information will surface from the North Korean side*****. This is unlikely to be a problem for Mr. Fukuda unless the Bush administration decides to take North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which in turn is unlikely to happen unless North Korea comes clean on its uranium enrichment program and its plutonium and plutonium bomb stockpiles******.

You can forget about the refueling resumption bill, too, which will be adopted by a supermajority override on 12 January or thereabouts. What the Kyōdō Tsūshin poll says is that the public is angry at the Prime Minister and his Ministers’ handling of the pension accounts revelations and is taking it out on the refueling bill*******. It’s not about the bill itself. In fact, pushing the bill to its ultimate conclusion will not damage Mr. Fukuda in the public eye; to the contrary, it will be somewhat helpful, as a show of decisiveness.

National security brings me to the uglier face of the defense controversy: the Moriya and Co. scandals. I’ve said before that the coalition can weather the scandal if it is limited to Yamada Yōkō but that all bets are off if indictments spread to other businesses. I should have qualified that by saying that criminal proceedings against LDP members would cause problems commensurate with the number and statuses of such politicians. I think that the Fukuda administration can even weather the singular implication of Fukushirō Nukaga, his Finance Minister. But for that, he needs to act decisively in the face of a variety of contingencies. ********.

I had thought that the tax bill would be a major theater of contention on the chess board. Now, I am not quite so sure. There is open dissent in the DPJ on the most important and problematic item among the time-limited tax measures: the ten-year old “temporary” supercharge on the gasoline tax. Specifically, it has been revealed that some road-construction-happy DPJ Diet members are circulating an open letter opposing the DPJ pledge to eliminate the supercharge and to put the remainder in the general budget, and threatening to vote against a DPJ bill to that effect. But even if the threats prove hollow and the wayward DPJ road tribe toes the party line, it is my belief that the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of both sides coming to a compromise. It is important for the Fukuda administration not to lose its nerve as the deadline approaches.

So, as far as the major issues that come to my mind are concerned, Mr. Fukuda should be able to make his way to the Hokkaidō Summit. That alone should firm up support for his Cabinet. But this will more likely than not require a certain firmness and decisiveness - a ruthlessness, actually - that his predecessor Mr. Abe was not able to muster. Can he? That is essentially the point that Tobias raises here. So, will he or won’t he? Only God knows. And if another good friend (of mine, not Mr. Fukuda) Shisaku is God, then Mr. Fukuda is as good as dead.

* AKyōdō Tsūshin report is recovered here. The graph can be compared with the one in this report on the Fukuda Cabinet. The blue and red lines trace support and opposition respectively.

** It helped that some of the negative press spilled over to the DPJ side, most notably on party leader Ichirō Ozawa and his less-than transparent real estate transactions and other political financing mysteries.

*** I posted on it here, in case anyone needs a reminder. No? Oh well.

**** My best guess is a joint development agreement that covers areas beyond both edges of the disputed waters. That way, neither side compromises its position on the dispute, while allowing development of resources that should be commercially viable only for the Chinese market. If it happens, you read it here first.

***** The Japanese side is demanding the following:

1) Account for all the abductees.
2) Return remaining survivors.
3) Punish the people responsible.

Barring regime change, it is hard to imagine these demands being fulfilled. If the North Korean claims are true, then the Japanese side is demanding that the other side prove a negative. To do so to with any measure of satisfaction, the North Korean side would have to offer a degree of transparency and access that the North Korean regime cannot provide. If, as is likely, they are lying, they still face the accounting issue. Besides, there is no way that they can admit the truth now, since they would then have to proceed to the third Japanese demand, which in turn would raise the transparency and access issue all over again.

These are non-negotiable. Agreeing to anything that does not hold out hope for fulfillment of these demands means that you are grabbing the third rail with your bare hands. So you can see why the American authorities can’t get a coherent answer when they ask the Japanese administration to tell them what it means by “progress” with regard to the prospective delisting of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.

****** In the unlikely event that North Korean side does declare its nuclear stockpile, I’m sure that the Bush administration will move to delist North Korea. The Japanese authorities will acknowledge the matter gracefully; they have no choice. It will be useful to remind the Japanese public that Japanese sanctions against North Korea were first linked to the abductees issue (to the best of my knowledge) in 2006 October, when restrictions were tightened in response to the North Korean nuclear test. Thus, if there is meaningful progress toward actual destruction of the stockpile (as opposed to mere declaration), Japan will be rightfully expected to begin rolling back those sanctions. But that is a bridge that will not be reached in the foreseeable future.

******* It is instructive that the Yomiuri poll, taken only a week before the Kyōdō Tsūshin poll, showed only a slight decline in support numbers for the refueling resumption bill. Some of the support must be casual and more a vote of overall confidence than an expression of a preference for that particular policy objective. I would rephrase this accordingly if I were to write it now.

******** Specifically, Mr. Fukuda needs a color-coded contingency plan with a clear red line beyond which he will dismiss Mr. Nukaga.

When It Comes to UFOs, Partisanship Ends at the Atmosphere’s Edge

Under the Diet Law, Article 74, a member of a House of the Diet may, with the approval of the presiding officer of the House, put a question in written form to the Cabinet. Article 75 states that “[t]he Cabinet must answer [the] question within seven days from the day of receipt of the concise statement. If an answer cannot be made within the period, the Cabinet is required to state clearly the reason, and the time by which an answer can be given.”

When the Cabinet receives an Article 74 question, the responsibility for drafting the answer is assigned to the Ministry or Agency that has jurisdiction over the subject matter. In practice, this may require several Ministries and Agencies to labor over different parts of the draft. When the separate parts of the draft answer are completed, they are put together and passed around the other Ministries and Agencies for approval. The draft is also reviewed by the Cabinet Legislation Bureau to make sure that the answer is consistent with the law of the land. Finally, the answer is submitted by the Minister (or Ministers) with jurisdiction to the full Cabinet for approval.

Although this particular question submitted by Councilor Ryūji Yamane (DPJ, Saitama Prefecture) on 10 December “with Regard to Unidentified Flying Objects” and transmitted to the Cabinet on 12 December flew under the radar of the entire mainstream media until Asahi and Sankei, two national dailies, took note that on 18 December the Cabinet adopted an answer, you can be sure that the issue received every bit of attention that it deserved and that the answer was imbued with the full authority of the administration. Although the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology was entrusted with the draft, I have been assured that the Ministry of Defense went over every jot, iota, scintilla and smidgen to make sure that our missile defense system would not be compromised. So nothing would please me more than to tell you that the Cabinet spoke with one voice, with full confidence that “the existence [of UFOs] has not been confirmed*”.

Alas, it was not meant to be. For according to this report from the Asahi, Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura claims that the Cabinet is wrong. “The government’s answer is extremely pro forma. Personally, I believe that there must be such things.” “Otherwise, those [Nazca lines] can’t be explained.” The Prime Minister merely said, “I haven’t confirmed* it yet”.

I’m sure - well, hopeful - that they’re kidding, and that Mr. Machimura is only faking insubordination. After all, we know what happened when those two normally well-grounded minds tried to wing it with the latest pension accounts revelations.

* In Japanese, “identify” and “confirm” are the same word 確認(kakunin).

Monday, December 17, 2007

Sudden Drop in the Polls Convinces Prime Minister Fukuda to Apologize after All

The evening Yomiuri reported that Prime Minister Fukuda had made up his mind to apologizing for having to break the LDP/Abe campaign promise to go after every last public pension account owner and pay them. Plunging opinion polls will do wonders for your conscience. On the other hand, Mr. Fukuda’s performance seems to have left something to be desired in terms of showing true contrition. It’s not his style, I know… still.

Looking back, I can believe the sometimes insensitive Heath, Labor and Welfare Minister Yōichi Masuzoe making this kind of public communication blunder. Why, though, did Mr. Fukuda and worldly, astute Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura make this god-awful gaffe? Some of it must have been due to a sense of loyalty to Shinzō Abe, hapless Prime Minister and co-member of the Machimura faction. But a previous press conference by Mr. Masuzoe, where blaming the election campaign seemed to work, appears to have lulled the authorities into a false sense of security*.

Barring further bad tidings, Mr. Fukuda’s poll numbers will edge up again. But his likeability quotient has dropped, and his margin of error has narrowed. In the short run, though, this will make him even more determined to push the refueling resumption bill with a supermajority override, and even more unlikely to call a snap election. However, he will be more reluctant to push the opposition on other major issues.

Why? First, LDP hardliners will push for his resignation if he does not push the refueling bill. Second, nothing helps to discourage Mr. Fukuda from dissolving the Lower House more than prospects of losing more seats. Finally, his capacity to make the public feel that the DPJ is being unreasonable and disingenuous in any public confrontation has been diminished.

* I hope to have more on that later.

The LDP Kicks Tax Reform Down the Road, Easing Pressure on the Next Diet Session

I’ve been saying for some time that the regular session is the real deal and the time-limited tax measures will be the main battlegrounds. Here’s why.

During the regular Diet session, which typically begins in mid-January, the Japanese Cabinet submits most tax measures in the form of an omnibus bill to the Lower House, after the usual housekeeping matters have been taken care of and the Prime Minister and other members of his Cabinet have delivered their policy statement speeches and subjected themselves to questioning in the plenary. This year, the Diet opened on 25 January. The omnibus tax bill was submitted to the Lower House on 20 February and was adopted and forwarded to the Upper House on 6 March. For technical and parliamentary reasons*, this process is extremely difficult to accelerate. This alone means that the coalition cannot use the Lower House supermajority to override a hypothetical Upper House veto until late April or early May, a month after time-limited tax measures - consisting mostly of tax deductions, tax credits and lower tax rates - expire at the end of this fiscal year.

That would mean that for a month or more, real estate, stock and a large array of other transactions may have to be conducted while there is substantial uncertainty about their taxation consequences. For starters, many major transactions, such as the purchase of new housing, may have to be deferred and the financial markets could be in for some turbulence, depending on the depth and scope of the disagreements between the coalition and the opposition.

However, the 31 March expiration of the “temporarily” gasoline tax rates would have even more serious effects. First, unlike tax benefits, the extra gasoline tax must be collected from the consumer, at the pump. But because of the anonymous nature of the transactions, it would be impossible to work out an arrangement acceptable to both vendor and buyer that is contingent on the outcome of the omnibus tax bill. So, giving up the extra gasoline tax revenue during the hiatus appears to be the only workable solution.

However, this temporary boon to car users may cause another long delay. Because of technical reasons, the omnibus bill will have to be redrafted to avoid imposing the higher tax retroactively on gasoline sold during the hiatus. But that means that the supermajority cannot be applied, since it will no longer be the same bill that had passed the Lower House. More specifically, unless a duly amended omnibus bill can be passed in the Upper House with the acquiescence of at least some elements of the opposition and readopted in the Lower House, the coalition, at worst, would have to submit an amended omnibus bill in the Lower House** that eliminates this retroactivity, have it adopted there, send it to the Upper House, wait 60 days, then do the supermajority thing in the Lower House. The coalition could draft the omnibus bill in the first place to avoid such an outcome, but that in turn would give the opposition an incentive to refuse cooperation with the overall business of the Diet, this time with the blessing of substantial segments of the press. In this case, the coalition will look like the ones who are being unreasonable.

But does this mean that the DPJ has the LDP up a certain proverbial creek without a paddle? Not quite. Even if some elements of the media turn out to be sympathetic to at least parts of the DPJ agenda, holding the entire tax package ransom at virtual gunpoint without due cause will create serious responsibility issues for the DPJ as well. This is not the refueling resumption bill; you play around with the public’s wallets at own risk. It can hurt you more than it hurts them.

However, the LDP must also tread with care. It so happens that there is a substantial constituency against the extension of the elevated gasoline tax rate***, which the DPJ is keen to exploit. If the LDP mishandles public communications, it could end up as the one being blamed for any trouble that ensues. I suspect that the Ministry of Finance (as well as Prime Minister Fukuda) wants to use this as a legislative ju-jitsu trick, to keep the LDP road tribe from clawing back more of the revenue from the general budget to build even more roads and other related infrastructure. (Look, do you guys want to risk losing it all?)

I don’t have a good handle on how exactly this will work out. My hunch is that the two sides will work out a compromise, if only because of the enormous uncertainties surrounding the potential political risk, including where and on whom the consequences are likely to fall. But this does appear to be the issue that most bears watching to see how (and if) the “twisted” Diet works. And it’s hard enough to come to an agreement when the one most politically controversial item that you have happens to be the legally most complicated one. No wonder, then, that the LDP decided to kick tax reform down the road when it agreed on next year’s tax package.

* Drafting a legislative bill and submitting it to the Diet is incredibly difficult and time-consuming work, and an omnibus tax bill is no exception. The bureaucrats really do need that time, and the drafting team’s game clock can really start ticking only after the LDP has spoken. The Diet has long-established rituals and procedures, which you meddle with at your peril. Remember, that was one of the objections that the LDP raised against the DPJ bid to summon Fukushirō Nukaga and Akio Kyūma for sworn testimony. In 2005, the Diet opened on 20 January, and the omnibus bill was submitted on 16 February and passed on 2 March.

** By custom, a legislative item that has been rejected may not be taken up again in the same Diet session. This does not appear to have the force of law, but the coalition should be reluctant to break this long-established custom.

*** Urban car owners as well as businesses apparently do not appreciate the “temporary” measure.

Thanks, MTC, for the corrections to the footnotes.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

How Empires Deal with History: The European Parliament Gives Me the Opportunity to Revisit the Comfort Women Issue

Once upon a time, I suggested that I would revisit the comfort women issue more fully than I had up till then. I’ve taken this occasion to put my tentative conclusions and the conclusions only in the form of a conjecture. A fuller treatment at this point would require my reasoning behind each assertion as well as many qualifiers and modifiers.

In an event that even wire services overlooked but the Japanese media dutifully recorded, the European Parliament in its plenary meeting on 13 December passed a resolution closely mirroring the U.S., Canadian and Dutch resolutions. The European Parliament apparently does not need a quorum, since out of the 785 EU MPs, only 54 voted in support while 3 abstained. Regardless, the Yomiuri is alarmed at the possibility of a chain reaction, and has decided to strike back with an editorial calling on the government to “review the Kōno Statement”, which according to the editorial, “suggested that Japanese officials systematically and coercively recruited women to be comfort women.” The editorial further states that “there is not one single document or a shred of evidence that substantiates this”. Knowing Japan hands will likely chide the Yomiuri for rising to the bait and advise it to let yet another non-binding resolution lie.

I for one would fully agree with any public efforts to revisit the entire issue. If such a thing is done, though, I believe that the picture of what most likely occurred over those years will disappoint many people, including the denialists as well as the people pushing the resolutions. It will also displease the Korean public. In fact, I am surprised to find nothing out there from my admittedly intermittent and usually accidental visitations to the issue that resembles what I have come to see as the probable. Since I do not feel the urge to expend my own resources to do the substantial spadework required to provide proper documentation, I offer it here as Okumura’s Conjecture. If anybody is interested in putting up real money to explore it more fully, I’ll be happy to spend some of my time on it. As things stand, the only thing that the denialists obtain is overseas opprobrium, while those who claim to be seeking reconciliation merely achieve revenge as proxy.

The comfort women from Korea and Taiwan were recruited in more or less the same way as the Japanese comfort women, with due adjustments for the greater poverty of those two colonies* as well as the lower status of Koreans and Taiwanese in the Japanese empire. Their treatment once in situ also reflected such status. The business was mostly a private sector affair dominated by Japanese operators but with substantial local involvement. Some of the women did receive financial rewards - if not emotional satisfaction or job security - far exceeding that of a general in the imperial army, but many, if not most, saw conditions quite different from those advertised, never for the better. Some, at times with the complicity of immediate family members, were totally ignorant of what would be in store for them. And speaking of advertisement, most comfort women did not of themselves find placement through newspaper ads.

As the Japanese military moved out beyond Manchuria**, it foraged for supplies***, including women. Beyond whatever contingent that it managed to bring along and locally available local supply, it gang-pressed unwilling women into sexual service****. The overall scope and relative proportion of the latter will never be known. The level and nature of this coercion, even its existence, varied widely from place to place, and also as result of the outlook of local commanding officers. It did this in mainland China, the Dutch Indies, the Philippines and Singapore. It is possible that it did this in other locations as well. The Dutch women were released because the Germans interceded. In any case, the military - local commanders and officers as well as Central Command -was a branch of government just as much as, say, the Emperor’s Privy Council.

The human condition of the comfort women as well as their ultimate fate also varied with time and place. The outlook of local commanding officers had a major effect. As the situation worsened for the Japanese military, the women also suffered. Under extreme conditions, they were treated at best no better than other civilians.

As I’ve said before, I see no reason to retract the Kōno Statement. If - it is an enormous if - the Cabinet decides to issue an apology over and beyond the Prime Ministers’ letters, or the Diet decides to adopt a resolution (passes a motion?) of its own, I think that one or the other will come up with something that I can support. But leaving the political practicalities aside (the resolutions have made a meaningful domestic dialogue impossible for the time being), any such action will have to follow the fullest possible search for the truth. And the truth should lie more or less in the above conjecture.

I believe that the reason that such a scenario fails to be adequately explored is because the public debate is dominated by the two extremes, one dominant in Japan and the other in the West and South Korea. The two ends focus on material that supports their conjectures to the neglect of other evidence direct and circumstantial, historical analogues both Japanese and non-, and other known facts and circumstances as well as common sense that speaks otherwise. Though I have no reason to doubt their sincerity, the truth may be too complicated and unpleasant for these people to handle. But my views, needless to repeat, are mere conjecture. I stand ready to be proven wrong.

Finally, to those legislatures that purport to pass moral judgment on the Japanese government, I will heed your words if and when you destroy your own glass houses. Otherwise I have no regard for your actions, which you believe, falsely, to be costless.

* I use the term “colonies” rather loosely here. In legal terms, imperial Japan in Korea and Taiwan went beyond what the old European empires did. Think Hitler and Sudetenland, only if there had been no ethnic Germans there.

** The origins and the fate of the comfort women from Manchuria should have been similar to those of the Korean, Taiwanese and Japanese comfort women, but I cannot pull any material on them from my memory, so I refrain from including them in the main body of my conjecture.

*** Logistics was never a strong point of the Japanese military.

**** There must have been a large number of women who were raped but were never subsequently conscripted as comfort women. That is a related but different issue.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Is Chris Hogg an Idiot?

What’s this? Seriously:

The opposition's refusal to compromise is causing Mr. Fukuda severe problems.

While deliberations continue, it is hard for him to get anything else through the Diet or indeed to leave Japan on trips he wants to make to China and to Europe.

Look, Mr. Fukuda doesn’t have anything more to get through this Diet session “while deliberations continue."

As for delaying his trips to China and Europe, assuming that it is true, that would be the least of Mr. Fukuda’s problems.

As for my question, I report, you decide.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Do You Know What the No.5 Kanji Is in This Year's Countdown?

The Kanji Nōryoku Kentei Kyōkai (literally, Kanji (Chinese Character) Skills Testing Association - my translation) is a public interest entity whose objective is to promote literacy. Specifically, it conducts tests to determine your kanji skills. Perhaps appropriately, its website does not have any English-language information*.

A successful result is a good thing to have on your resume, and a lot of people (our analog of spelling bee contestants and crossword puzzle lovers) take the test just for fun. The number of people taking the test has grown rapidly, from 1,675,959 (pass 686,388; fail 989,571) in FY2000 to 2,640,812 (pass 1,359,368; fail 1,281,444) in FY2006. But it is this time of the year that the rest of us less diligent Japanese also take notice of the association, when it announces the kanjiof the year**, which it determines by a five-week public poll conducted mainly through FAX and email.

The announcement itself takes place at Kiyomizudera, the illustrious Buddhist temple in Kyoto, in front of its usual crowd of worshipers and tourists. The highlight comes when the venerable head monk of Kiyomizudera ceremoniously reveals the kanji of the year by taking brush to a huge paper screen and writing with flourish.

Yesterday (12 December), the ceremonies took place, and the kanji of the year turned out to be: , or fake***. The head monk was furious, saying, “This is particularly shameful, and my sadness and anger knows no bounds…” In fact, he would have been further incensed if he had had to write the kanji in the next three spots: No.2 , or lie; No3. or food (no, this had nothing to do with Tokyo Michelin and everything to do with the endless string of food processing and retail businesses that systematically faked source and quality of ingredients, production and consume-by dates, and what have you); and no.4 or doubt (no explanation necessary here).

The head monk would have been somewhat mollified, though, by no.5: .

Yes, apologize.

* Even more appropriately, the association is located not in Tokyo, but in Kyōto, the old imperial capitol. The website also has little information on the association itself, which means that it does not receive any government funds.

** This looks like as good a source as any for background information on this year’s choice.

*** No.1 received 18.8% of the votes. By comparison, Nos. 2 through 10 only received 2.69% to 1.33% each. Click through from here.

Why the Public Pension Accounting Scandal Blew Up Again on Tuesday

If you are a Japan politics otaku, you will remember that it was the revelations over the 50 million public pension accounts that had not been traced to their owners that really pushed the LDP over the cliff in the July Upper House election, the cake under the icing, if you will, of all those lesser scandals and misstatements. When Prime Minister Abe went over and above what his administration was promising (consolidation of all accounts by computer by March, the end of the Japanese fiscal year) and vowed to go after every last account and restore it to its rightful owner, most people thought he was overreaching. When Yōichi Masuzoe, a social welfare expert and one of the smartest Diet members in the LDP, assumed the Health, Labor and Welfare portfolio in the post-election Cabinet, he surely knew that it would be impossible to fulfill Mr. Abe’s campaign promise. Yet when Yasuo Fukuda took over as Prime Minister in September, choosing to keep on most of Mr. Abe’s Cabinet members and other political appointees including MHLW Minister Masuzoe, neither individual did anything to back away from Mr. Abe campaign promise*. On 31 October, a Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare committee consisting of independent experts and other notables issued a report that included ballpark figures that gave a fairly good idea of the causes and magnitude of the hardcore, intractable cases. Yet Mr. Masuzoe waited and chose this point in time to officially own up to the fact that millions of accounts not only would remain unattributed by the March deadline but might never be restored to their rightful owners.

All this predictably caused a furor, and the opposition is on the attack, most notably with calls for a censure motion against Mr. Masuzoe, and Diet testimonies by Prime Minister Fukuda, Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura, and of course Mr. Masuzoe**. Clearly, the opposition hopes to have a field day during the expected month-long extension of the extraordinary Diet session into mid-January. And that, in my view, is exactly why the announcement was made on Tuesday.

It has been clear for some time that this Diet session will be re-extended, the Upper House will vote it down, the Lower House will override it by a supermajority vote, the Upper House will pass a censure motion against the Fukuda administration/Prime Minister Fukuda, Prime Minister Fukuda will not call a snap election, and life will go on. Now there will be several other bills remaining on the agenda at the current 15 December recess date, but the ruling coalition has no intention of forcing them through during the re-extension, much less allowing the opposition to enact its own agenda items. Thus, activities during the extension had promised to be mostly, if not exclusively, about the refueling bill and the opposition’s efforts to link them to the Ministry of Defense scandals. This meant that there would be a lot of Diet members in both Houses sitting on their hands with little to do but wait to vote in the plenaries. Given such prospects, what more could a hungry opposition have asked for, if not another juicy chunk of the ruling coalition to sink their teeth into?

Normally, of course, that would be a political disaster for the Fukuda administration. However, in the case of the pension accounts scandal, it was bound to blow up anyway in March, during the regular Diet session, the real deal, when the budget and the budget-related bills, particularly the time-limited special tax measures, would be facing crunch time. Unlike the refueling activities, the public pension accounts are a domestic issue, a money issue, fruits of our real blood, sweat and tears***. At a minimum, it would have a disastrous effect on the legislative agenda****. Secondly, the aura of haplessness that would be cast on the Fukuda administration by the accretion of successive scandals would be compounded by the fact that, with time, the problem would become less and less Mr. Abe’s and more and more Mr. Fukuda’s. These two elements are enough to convince me that the Fukuda administration and LDP strategists decided that it would be better to take their lumps now, than to wait for the regular Diet session.
Then why this particular moment? Over the previous couple of weeks, the LDP had finally managed to win over skittish coalition partner New Kōmeitō to re-extending the extraordinary Diet session. It achieved this by assuring them that Prime Minister Fukuda would not call a snap election even if the opposition passed a censure motion in the Upper House after the coalition supermajority in the Lower House overrode an Upper House rejection of the refueling resumption bill. With that final piece of the puzzle in place, the time to clear the air had finally come.

This is not to say that the ruling coalition is not taking a hit. I would be surprised if Fukuda administration’s poll numbers do not take a dip. I would only be mildly surprised if Mr. Masuzoe (unfairly, if prudently, in my view) is forced to resign. However, the coalition is putting the blame on a desperate Prime Minister Abe making a campaign promise that could not be kept. That, together with best efforts by the authorities and a full, clear accounting of the limits of the ongoing efforts to identify the account owners, will be enough to keep the scandal from derailing Mr. Fukuda’s desire to hold the next Lower House general election at his convenience, sometime after the next G8 Summit in Hokkaidō in 2008 July and the end of the current four-year Lower House tenure in 2009 September*****.

* When questioned, Mr. Masuzoe would come close to repudiating it, but would pull back, citing the need and his will to fulfill a political promise.

** There is a public communications angle to this, and it’s clear that the Fukuda regime bungled some aspects of it. Specifically, poor public communications efforts by the Mr. Masuzoe and the Chief Cabinet Secretary appeared to compound the problem. This was not been one of Mr. Fukuda’s shining moments either, but he appears to have escaped the brunt of the initial media assault, mostly because of the way they timed Mr. Masuzoe’s press conference. But more broadly, I think that they should have done more spadework, so that they could ease into the new narrative when the official revelations were made. I’ll try to address this as part of a separate post on the scandal.

*** In a way, Ichirō Ozawa’s decision to force a showdown on the refueling extension was a strategic error that is somewhat analogous to Mr. Abe’s highlighting constitutional amendment and patriotism in education. None of them were hot-button issues with the vast majority of the Japanese public. The two men overestimated the quality, if not the numbers, of the support that their proposals received.

**** Note that the public pension accounts scandal is handled by the Health, Labor and Welfare Committees in the two Houses, about as far as possible in terms of jurisdiction as you can get from defense issues. Thus, pulling it back to a re-extended extraordinary Diet session means that the opposition will have a hard time using the former to mess up the schedule on other work that must be done.

***** It is possible that the reluctance in some opposition quarters to force a re-extension (e.g. People’s New Party co-leader Tamisuke Watanuki) or even to oppose the measure in the first place (e.g. DPJ deputy leader Seiji Maehara) helped to force the LDP’s hand as well. Without a Diet in session as a platform to press the pension accounts issue, the opposition would have had no choice but to wait for the regular session to be opened. Conversely, the opposition could be wishing that they could save the pension accounts for the regular session.

I stay away from these unverifiable conspiracy-type conjectures, which are usually no more than selective facts strung together with charming plausibilities. But in this case, the circumstantial evidence was too strong for me to resist. I am nevertheless more ready than usual to be proved the fool.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

With This, Let's Hope I Stop Talking about the Refueling Bill for a Couple of Months

The latest Yomiuri poll (8-9 December) shows little change on the refueling resumption bill. Support dropped from the last Yomiuri poll’s 51% to 47.5% while opposition edged up from 40% to 41.1%*. This, after all the bad press that the Ministry of Defense and the defense establishment have been receiving, reaffirms my long-standing belief: the frontlines hardened a long time ago and resumption enjoys a strong plurality or a modest majority in an electorate that does not see this as a defining issue. The New Komeitō has been assured that Prime Minister Fukuda will not call a snap vote in the case of a censure vote - after all, Prime Minister sent troops to Iraq against the wishes of the majority of the Japanese public and the DPJH did squat; compared to that, this one is a cakewalk - and Taku Yamazaki has predictably eaten his words calling for a 2/3rds majority public support as a prerequisite.**

It is also important to realize that support for the Fukuda Cabinet (52.2% to 52.5%) and the LDP (34.3% to 35.3%) has held steady***. So the coast is clear for a ho-hum supermajority override. In the meantime, the coalition will keep reminding the public why we need to do it, just so support won’t slip further. Because, let’s face it, it’s so easy to forget.

Some LDP members may dread the thought of facing the same situation a year from now. If you want to play the guessing game though, first deal with what you know. And what you know is that there is going to be a presidential election on 4 November 2004, the resumption act will lapse, barring new legislation, on 15 January 2009 or thereabouts****, and Inauguration Day falls on 20 January 2009. The Japanese administration***** will have ample to time go over the issue with a rather junior level transition team member to determine what to do.

It is that kind of issue.

What then, are the real defining issues in the regular Diet session, which should be summoned in the bottom half of January? Will you let me pick two? Why, the time-limited tax measures (where the two sides will play yet another chicken game, this time for real money) and the public pension system (both the emotive 50 million missing records, of which more than 10 million will not be identifiable, and the chronic but ultimately more serious solvency issue), of course.

* Support for the DPJ has slipped from 22.5% to 17.1%. Did I overestimate core support for the DPJ? In any case, the DPJ must create an aura of competence. Otherwise, barring a macroeconomic catastrophe, it will never crack the force shield. By the way, I’ve been fascinated by the twist between the clear support for the operations, the much smaller plurality support for the bill (44.7% for, 42.6% against) and what is now a very slight plurality against an override (42.5% for, 43.9% against). The one group of people that this does not give aid and comfort to are the advocates of a censure vote.

** Mr. Yamazaki keeps making these preposterous statements that he has no way of backing up (remember ex-Prime Minister Koizumi Gearing up for a third trip to China?) Seriously, what does he put in the tea that he serves his faction members?

*** Unless the DPJ loses nerve and cuts a deal on the refueling bill that let’s everyone pull down the shutters and go home for the New Year’s Holidays; hey, stranger things have happened.

**** You’d have to be a huge risk-lover to bet against a Prime Minister Fukuda.