Thursday, February 28, 2008

Briefly: Defense Minister Looks Doomed

Before I go back to the rest of my life: Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba appears to be near the end of the line after irregular conduct in information gathering as well as public communications delays have been exposed with regard to the February 19 collision between the Aegis destroyer Atago and the fishing boat that left the two-man crew of the smaller vessel missing in the winter waters off Tokyo Bay.

The accident, together with the subsequent missteps in crisis management, has strengthened an already well-entrenched public perception of an incompetent, even corrupt, defense establishment. Although the English-language media has focused on the rape cases with US military personnel in Okinawa as suspects, the accident has totally dominated the headlines in the Japanese media. Resignation of the straight-talking, well-respected, national security wonk Mr. Ishiba will be particularly damaging, since people had expected that he if anyone would be able to clean up the mess. Now, he has become part of the problem.

Losing Mr. Ishiba will be particularly damaging to Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, since he was one of only two replacements that Mr. Fukuda made when he inherited near-intact a one-month old Cabinet from his predecessor Shinzō Abe.

Discussions of a general, permanent replacement for the current law authorizing JSDF operations in Iraq (set to expire in 2009 January) are already being put on hold. Work on the realignment of US and Japanese forces will be further delayed (though to be sure, it’s already been more than a ten-year wait and so far it’s been mostly plans but little physical movement).

The opposition is with good reason using this in the political game. A resignation gives them further ammunition in their use of the accident to use up the clock so that the budget (as well as the budget-related legislation) does not make it out of the Lower House by the end of this month. That would virtually guarantee that the budget will not go into effect by the beginning of the next fiscal year, on April 1. This is not nearly as inconvenient as some people might think (it’s happened before and there are laws that ensure that the business of government does not come to a stop). However, the delay in the deliberation of budget-related bills including the all-important gasoline tax surcharge extension will have real-world implications that will certainly be distressful to the ruling coalition, as well as the Fukuda administration specifically. The less time that there is, the more inclined the LDP will be to make concessions and the less willing the DPJ will be to oblige.

The Fukuda administration will not fall because of this entire affair, but I doubt that it can survive another blow of a similar magnitude. At that point, I believe that the LDP will trot out the next horse so that the coalition can survive the next Lower House election.

Recently, there has been some talk by Junichirō Koizumi on some major issues. I suspect that Mr. Koizumi himself will be a major issue fairly soon, if that isn’t happening already.

On this last point, Mr. Koizumi’s two sequels have been definitely underwhelming, and maybe it’s just me, but I think that the affable and entertaining Tarō Asō has a lightweight feel that makes him a miscast. But Mr. Koizumi won’t want to do Superman 4; it would have to be a Spiderman. Could saving his gasoline tax/road construction reform be enough of an incentive to lure him back? After all, putting the money into the general budget and shrinking public works was his idea in the first place. It’s really anyone’s guess, and perhaps he doesn’t know himself.

No, The West Wing Imitated Life

The other day, the resident Eurasia Group analyst offered to lend me the full DVD set of The West Wing, saying that the story line mirrored the current US primaries, featuring a minority candidate (Hispanic in TWW) going up against a formidable establishment candidate (Vice President in TWW), with a maverick, straight-talk Republican presidential on the other side.

Now today (February 26, US time), Slate V came up with a video entitled Life Imitates “The West Wing”. Actually… well, you can see for yourself and make up your mind.

The EG analyst covers US politics, among other things.

Kosovo Redux

Here’s the substance of the answer, slightly edited, to a question that I received from an analyst. It’s for anyone else who found my previous post on this issue to be of any interest.

I would not say that Japan is taking an “overly”-cautious attitude toward the Kosovo question. After all, the overall direction is clear. We will in principle recognize Kosovo, and that should please the US and the Islam Nation (not that the Islamic states notice, though I'm sure that they would if we said no to an independent Kosovo). However, there are no public discussions of the real reasons for our tag-along approach; it's not a compelling issue for us. So I’m really guessing here. Having said that...

China surely has Taiwan in mind in its opposition to Kosovo independence, but I don't think that the matter is important enough to China that Japan would feel compelled to defer to its wishes if they are to maintain the current amicable relationship. The China-Taiwan relationship is overwhelmingly determined by local factors and is not going to be materially affected by the eventual fate of Kosovo. Russia, in contrast, is the state that has the geopolitical interest in Kosovo and the broader counter-status quo posture that make this a compelling issue for it. To put it another way, it is my view that Japan would take the same approach if Russia were the only permanent UNSC member opposing Kosovo independence, while Japan would afford more immediate recognition if China were the only one doing so. Of course China would have to accept it if Russia decided to drop its veto on UN accession for Kosovo, so the last scenario would never happen.

The one possibility that I did not consider in my previous post is the possibility that Greece and other EU member countries withholding recognition (but, crucially, not opposing EU takeover from KFORS) will one day reconsider. What will Japan do then? But that will be some time in coming, certainly not in time for Japan to have to face the question before Medvedev comes to the Hokkaido Summit. I don't call the shots here, so don't blame me if the authorities say, hell with Putin, to hell with Medvedev, let's recognize Kosovo ASAP. But I would definitely bet against it.

In the meantime, Japan should be providing humanitarian and other forms of assistance that will not offend the Russians.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Obama Rejects, and Denounces Farrakhan...

I noticed that the Clinton-Obama debate was available online on the MSNBC website, so I caught the last twenty minutes or so live. To the extent that I managed to see it, I thought that it was a draw, in the sense that nothing happened that changed the trajectory of the race. The impression I got was that Hillary Clinton would outscore Mr. Obama, albeit narrowly, on a paper test on any subject that presidential candidates could conceivably be asked about. On the other hand, if I had to go into a situation about which I knew nothing and had the choice of a partner, I would choose Mr. Obama hands down.

The signature moment for me was when Mr. Obama was asked about the support that Louis Farrakhan had given him, given Mr. Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic comments. This question was doubly loaded, because it also ever so slightly brought race into play. Mr. Obama strongly “denounce[d]” Mr. Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism but seemed to equivocate, to not explicitly reject his support, in a lengthy explanation of his position and relationship with Jews and Israel, and went back and forth with Tim Russert on it. Now, Mrs. Clinton, obviously sensing an opening, chimed in with a somewhat longish explanation of what a “principled” position on Israel that she took during her first US Senate campaign rejecting the support of the Independence Party, which had taken, according to Mrs. Clinton’s explanation, strongly anti-Semitic positionsand suggested that denouncement was not enough - imagine, a pro-Israel position in a New York election. Mr. Obama seemed to quibble further, contending that he didn’t see a real difference between “rejection” and “denouncing”; then, suddenly, turned it around and said that he would both “reject and denounce”.

You know, Mr. Obama could have been winging it all along, hoping for Tim Russert to get him off the hook, and had managed to save himself just in the nick of time by way of Mrs. Clinton’s timely (for him) intervention. As for Mrs. Clinton, she could have just sat there and let Mr. Russert put the shoe on the other foot for a change.

However, I doubt it. I think that Mr. Obama, as the poker player that he is, had been waiting for Mrs. Clinton to come in, with something, then took all the time in the world to find then script his ju-jitsupunch line while Mrs. Clinton was telling her obscure story about the Independence Party of the State of New York. He is that good.

Mr. Obama got game. History tells us that such people can do a lot of good, or a lot of bad, or both.

ADD: I saw the rest of the debate. (It’s on the MSNBC website now). Mr. Obama looked awkward while he dithered on accepting/opting out of public campaign financing. But overall, I didn’t see anything near enough to make me change my mind.

Oh, and I think that Mrs. Clinton’s commitment to children is heartfelt, true. And is there any other major public figure so conflicted between her two halves, the heart and the mind?

The One Question Polls Never Ask

I’ve often touched on the high correlation between the results of newspaper polls and their ideological orientations. But the newspapers claim that the samples are randomly selected. So what’s going on?

It is important to remember that Japanese households with fixed phone lines generally subscribe to one of the four major newspapers. Moreover, the deliverymen (or -women) personally make the rounds each month to collect the subscription fees and every six or twelve months to renew the subscriptions, leaving boxes of detergents and other freebies as tokens of their appreciation. This engenders strong brand loyalty. A household tends to stick with one newspaper.

So, if people receive phone calls from any of the major newspapers and are asked to waste their time answering questions with regard to their political preferences - remember, they’re (presumably) not getting any tangible benefits from this - they should be strongly inclined to respond to the ones that they subscribe to.

If that line of reasoning is correct, a disproportionately number of the people who give answers to any of the four major newspapers must be subscribing to that particular newspaper. Their views, of course, are rooted in their worldview and understanding of the facts, which are in turn influenced over a course of many years, often decades, by the news editorials and op-eds to which they have been exposed.

It would be easy to test this conjecture. All that the newspapers would have to do when taking polls would be to ask the following question:

What newspaper, if any, do you subscribe to?

Of course the newspapers will never do that. But one corollary of my conjecture is that non-newspaper polls will be more reflective of the public mind. We may have Yomiuri loyalty, we may have Yomiuri Giants loyalty, but we don’t have Nippon TV loyalty. And we certainly do not have wire service loyalty. That means that TV/wire service should be able to attract an ideologically more even distributed set of samples. So it is reasonable to think that the numbers in TV and wire service poll numbers would fall somewhere between Asahi and Yomiuri poll numbers and would be more consonant with election results. This is testable. I’m sure that a good statistician could check this out. Does anyone out there want to work with me on this?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Lee Myung-bak Puts Marker on Kurdistan; Japan Missing?

China is viewed with some alarm and, yes, some envy for its forays into places where angels fear to tread. But it is the South Korean businesses that have the better-established reputation for risk-taking on the cutting edge of emerging and frontier markets. (Also a reputation for being quick to cut their losses, but some of that may be envy.) Their footprints stretch from Central Asia to sub-Sahara Africa, and the Kurdistan Autonomous Region in Iraq is no exception. In fact, Korean businesses have gone in to cut oil deals with the Kurdistan Regional Government even though the national oil bill to determine control over oil fields, contracts and revenue continues to be stalled in the Iraqi Parliament in a tug-of-war between the Kurds and the central government.

On February 14, South Korean efforts were rewarded when Nechervan Idris Barzani, the KRG Prime Minister and nephew of Masoud Barzani, met President-Elect Lee Myung-bak in Seoul, where the two sides celebrated an oil development deal. For later that day, according to the FT, a “consortium led by Korea National Oil Corp. on Thursday signed a memorandum of understanding with the Kurdish Prime Minister allowing the Korean group to develop energy projects in the Kurdish Autonomous Region.” The consortium includes SK Energy, South Korea’s largest oil refinery. According to this report, the Iraqi oil Ministry had earlier this year halted SK Energy’s oil exports “in response to what it [said] were illegal oil exploration deals with the Kurdish regional government.”

So South Korea’s state-owned oil corporation join in cutting a deal with the KRG in defiance of Iraq’s central government, to which South Korea’s President-Elect gives his blessing and is rewarded with a not-quite state visit. It probably helped that South Korea has, as Mr. Barzani duly noted, troops on the ground in KAR, in the Erbil City neighborhood.

Absent from news reports with regard to Mr. Barzani’s visit was any mention of Roh Moo-hyung, who still had ten days left in his tenure as President. But it is even more notable that Mr. Barzani did not bother to stop over in Tokyo. I used to wonder, early on, why Japan was not sending its troops to Kurdistan. After all, the Kurds asked for them, and it would have been safer than Samawa, where the non-combat Self-Defense Forces eventually went. Now, it’s too late, in more ways than one.

If No One Builds in Pyongyang, Will It Still Be “Groundbreaking”?

Trivial? Perhaps…

The online version of the Washington Post carried this post-arrival story* in a follow-up to this print-version, page A02 report and this page A08 report, both pre-arrival, and pushed it on the online front page as of February 25 (EST)as

“N.Y. Philharmonic Begins Groundbreaking Visit”.

To correspondent Blaine Harden’s credit (or the Section A copy writer’s), the article itself carries a less ambitious headline:

N.Y. Philharmonic Arrives in North Korea Closed Country to Broadcast Concert on State Television.

Now the event does have the full backing of the Bush administration. To quote from the A08 report, "‘[The North Koreans] are alleging that we have a hostile policy and that's why they need nuclear weapons. The presence of the New York Philharmonic argues against that,’ Hill told the Los Angeles Times editorial board last week. ‘I don't see any downside to this.’" So Mr. Hill’s point is that the visit takes an excuse out of Kim Jong Il’s hands? So on February 27, after the NY Phil leaves, Hu Jintao and Lee Myung-bak are going to call Kim Jong Il and tell him, “See, America likes you,” and Dear Leader is going to lean back in his easy chair, smack his forehead, and say, “Dang, you’re right, I’m wrong. I’ll make a full declaration of our nuclear program, including our plutonium stockpile and nuclear warheads ASAP”?

Mr. Hill, of course, has been racing the clock and pulling out all stops to conclude the Second Phase Actions of the Six-Party deal. Anything that might help keep the ball in play is, in his eyes, a plus. But my view is that this trip is essentially a small, domestic propaganda coup for Kim Jong Il but will have little or no effect outside North Korean borders. For the sake of security in East Asia, I hope that he’s right, and I’m wrong. But in the meantime, it’s Maazel Tov for Kim Jong Il.

In the meantime, I have a few questions about the NY Phil playing the two national anthems in Pyongyang. Did it play The Star Spangled Banner and Kimi ga Yo (the Japanese anthem) in 2004 when it came to Japan? The South Korean anthem in Seoul?

And what are we to make of this controversy, where “North Korea has balked at South Korea playing its national anthem or raising its flag at a World Cup soccer qualifier in Pyongyang next month [March 26], claiming a neutral flag and traditional folk song should be used”? Granted, “[t]o promote unity at friendly sport events between the two Koreas in recent years, the sides have displayed a flag depicting a united Korea in blue and substituted the traditional folk song "Arirang" for their national anthems.” But this is an official FIFA event.

According to this report, South Korea’s Unification Ministry, in one of its last acts under President Roh, approved a list of 102 people to attend the Pyongyang concert. 72 of them are from MBC, a broadcasting station in Seoul. When will they trek to stand in Pyongyang for their own national anthem?

* Please note that WaPo has a later, very different report with a different title covering more or less the same subject on this URL now. This is the second time that I have seen this happen on WaPo and one of the reasons why I copy most articles for the record.

Read This Book: Dream Angus

Alexander McCall Smith weaves stories of love and dreams around a Celtic myth, and a name. McCall Smith shifts effortlessly between the past, where gods and men live amongst and with one another, and the present, where love and dreams still work their magic, even when you think they don’t. The two threads come together at the end, with no shopworn tricks like magic realism.

Read. It is very, very short, and is thus doubly recommended.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Cost of Atago-Fishing Boat Collision: 5.2 Percentage Points for Fukuda Administration, 3.6 Percentage Points for Coalition

My thanks to Observing Japan for leading me to the somewhat misleadingly named Hōdō 2001 polls. Its February 14 and February 21 polls give near-perfect before-after pictures of public opinion with regard to the February 19 collision.

According to the two polls, support for the Fukuda administration fell from 32.3% to 27.8%. Support (i.e. the party the responder wants to vote for in the upcoming Lower House election) for the coalition parties fell from 26.8% (LDP 22.2%; New Kōmeitō 4.6%) to 24.2% (LDP 20.6%;New Kōmeitō 3.6%), while the DPJ rose from 24.6% to 30.0%. But is it too early for the DPJ to rejoice? After all “undecided” still holds a healthy lead at 40.8% (down slightly from 42.0%). Perhaps.

Still, a look at the 2007 July 17 poll, taken just two weeks before the Upper House election, yields the following voting preference numbers: Abe administration 29.4%; coalition 23.8% (LDP 17.8%; New Kōmeitō 6.0%), DPJ 25.8% and 43.6% remained undecided. The first post-election poll, taken on August 2, says that support for the Abe administration had fallen to 23.6%, while stated voting preferences for the next Lower House election (the upcoming one) were given for the first time, at: coalition 21.1% (LDP 16.8%; New Kōmeitō 4.2%) and DPJ 34.0%, with 35.8% undecided.

I would be careful in using these numbers; at a minimum, support for the smaller parties appears to be too volatile. Besides, the Tokyo neighborhood is hardly representative of Japan as a whole, as Observing Japan is careful to point out. Still, it’s safe to say that the Atago has managed to push the Fukuda administration into late-Abe territorial waters. So do not expect a snap election any time soon. I’d also like to think that the DPJ has been gaining by hitting hard on the spending side of the gasoline tax issue, but that’s a bit of a stretch.

Hōdō 2001 airs on Sundays at 7:30AM. It’s similar to Sunday Project and has its own aging media figure Kenichi Takemura as host. It’s not unusual for guests to ride limos from one studio to another to put in multiple appearances in these Sunday morning programs for the benefit us nothing-better-to-dos. My guess is that, Sunday Project has slightly better guests. In any case, there’s only so much time you want to devote to these programs; that’s why I’d failed to look into this particular poll.

In fact, the only individual who appears to have come out ahead is Shigeru Ishiba. The very latest opinion poll has the public running two to one in favorite of him staying put to right things at the Defense Ministry. The Japanese public is very forgiving of standup guys.

National: The Political Impact of the Collision off Tokyo Bay; Multi-1,000,000,000,000 Settlement in Store on Gasoline Taxes?

I’ll return to my regular programming when I think that I have a better handle on things here, beyond the facts. In the meantime, here are a couple of memos on things that have interested me of late:

The Atago-Fishing Boat Collision and the Defense Minister

Over here, the collision between the Aegis destroyer Atago and the fishing vessel that left the latter’s two-man crew unaccounted for in the winter waters off Tokyo Bay has almost complete obscured the Okinawa rape story (alleged: I now think that there is a reasonable chance that the US Marine will be facing lesser charges; and yes, stories, but you know what sells ads?). Most importantly, it forced Prime Minister Fukuda’s hand, and, in a twist of irony, actually reinforced the position of Shigeru Ishiba, the Defense Minster*. Not nearly as good for Mr. Fukuda himself though. The accident has further undermined public confidence in his administration. And there isn’t a quick fix in sight.

The 1,000,000,000,000 Yen Giveaway - for Starters?

The ruling coalition is begging the DPJ to come to terms on a settlement for the gasoline taxes. Yesterday, on Sunday Project, Kaoru Yosano, LDP Mr. Fix-It and go-between with regard to the enigmatic DPJ chief Ichirō Ozawa, matter-of-factly lopped 10,000,000,000,000 yen off the 10-Year, 59,000,000,000,000 yen road building program by reminding viewers that public works are being reduced 3% annually in the first place so it adds up to only 49,000,000,000,000 yen. When the incredulous Sōichiro Tawara, the 2,000 year-old host, asked why then they were claiming 59,000,000,000,000, Mr. Yosano answered, “They’re probably saying that to make people feel happy for the time being.” At least that’s what I remember him saying**. In Japanese. I may be off a 1,000,000,000,000 or two.

Now fiscal conservative Mr. Yosano, strictly speaking, is speaking only for himself. But it’s important to remember that the LDP itself is committed to putting the gasoline tax revenue into the general budget under the Koizumi reform. It was always a work in progress, and the process had threatened to crawl to a near-halt under an all-out assault from the road tribe and its supporters. But as Mr. Yosano’s remarkable comment shows, the LDP itself is divided on this issue. Meanwhile, the DPJ has wisely shifted the emphasis away from cheaper gasoline to waste in government.

I’m still still convinced that a compromise will be reached by March 31. But I now believe that it will contain more substance than a simple timeout.

And, yes, it’s a lot of trouble typing twelve zeroes over and over. But it’s fun.

* I hope to have more time later to elaborate on this point.

**Shisaku-san (that’ll have to do until I find out what the non-honorific form of address is in *********ian) should have the video.

Sports: Two Round Balls, Here and There

Japanese soccer teams (and their fans) keep cleaning up on Fair Play Awards. Now if only they could trade up…

But wait, the women’s team won both. Granted, it’s an East Asia (de facto) four-nation tournament. Still, it counts. And the Urawa Reds won both in the Asia Championship League (yes, there is such a thing). Let's hope that this is a trend.

The Celtics have hit a rough patch. Even on the road, they have shown that they can handle second, third-tier teams. But the Best of the West are on another level. I hope that this is only a temporary hitch, as everyone readjusts to life with Kevin Garnett.

The Americas: Hillary Clinton’s Valedictory; John McCain’s Uncharacteristic Silence

Valedictory: Word of the Weekend

It looked like every other media report and commentary had the same take on Hillary Clinton’s final words at the Thursday primary debate face-off. Namely, that it was:

1) her finest moment in the campaign; and

2) “valedictory”.

It also turned out to be a typical Clinton moment, since Mrs. Clinton:

1) had more or less borrowed her best lines from Bill Clinton and John Edwards; and

2) almost immediately switched to attack mode, here.

Now “desperate and whiny” is going a little too far, and there may have been more context to the clip, but it does have a rambling, unscripted grimness that Mrs. Clinton’s formidable intellect and self-control rarely, if ever, allows to emerge in public. Maybe she was just tired and cranky. Or it’s one of those inevitable hitches in breaking in a new campaign style, the John-Edwards-2.0, Angry-Populist model. Which reminds me once again, Mrs. Clinton is an excellent study. But she’s a grind. She’s reactive, and unimaginative. Other things being equal, genius trumps grind. And she’s losing to a genius.

Honesty in Public Life: John McCain’s Case

Read this. I was struck by Mr. McCain’s behavior too.

Circumstances often force us to be less than truthful. (Which brings me to my favorite fantasy about truth in advertising, namely: What if all advertisements had to be literally true? I mean, does Tiger Woods really drive that dinky van? Does Donovan McNabb’s mom really feed him Chunky Chicken to him and his Eagles teammates? What if they had to? And could you sue for damages because those pills didn’t actually let you whack that golf ball 274.33 meters? But I digress.) And lying, if only by the more acceptable means of exaggeration or changing your mind without a change of heart, is endemic in politics. But one of the many reasons that people are attracted to McCain is that he has difficulty in doing this (while Mitt Romney repels so many people because of the ease with which he changes his position on so many issues which are for many people matters of deep personal, ethical and (in the US) religious conviction). Mr. McCain is not quite the straight talker that he claims to be, but he is palpably uncomfortable when he knowingly compromises himself. To put it bluntly, he’s a lousy liar. Now the sexual insinuations that the NYT article wrapped around Mr.. McCain’s well-chronicled relationships with lobbyists have a tabloidy feel, for which the NYT has been appropriately criticized. But continuing in that sleazy vein, it’s hard not to notice that the lobbyist in question looks remarkably like a younger version of Mr. McCain’s current wife.

Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have good reasons not to go there. But journalists will have no such compunctions in questioning the candidate, and Mr. McCain’s vicious temper is well known. So I expect to see more of this as the campaign progresses, if only as a cattle prod. After all, the underlying story about the relationship between Mr. McCain and lobbyists is very real.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Beware of the Ekxdvft Toolbar

At some point within the last 24 hours, my computer was infected by the Ekxdvft toolbar. Possibly as a side effect, when I rebooted my computer, I had to log in as a new user, which meant among other things that I had to work with a new desktop. I rebooted a couple of times to no avail. (Memo to self: Never again use the desktop as parking space for unfinished documents.) I had been using the Google toolbar for all my browsing for some time, so at least I didn’t lose any bookmarks of significance.

I wound up using the SmithfraudFix freeware off this website. This and other websites had detailed instructions for removing the files manually. If you know your way around computer software, it’s probably safer. However, I am strictly WYSIWYG as these things go, so I took my chance with the freeware. The toolbar is gone; I only hope that this incarnation of yours truly will be back the next time I reboot.

SmithfraudFix worked for me; that does not mean that it will work for you. But I’m posting this, just in case you have the same problem and are even less capable around computers than I am. Oh, and since I had to use a new desktop every time I rebooted, I saved the freeware into a file of its own in the hard disk and copied it to the desktop after I rebooted.

I hope you never have to go through this, but in case you do, I’ll be happy if this will be of help.

I couldn’t boot in Safe Mode according to the webpage popup instructions. If you have the same problem and your computer, like mine with its generic Windows Vista OS, does not come with a hardcopy manual, just kill it before it boots up properly, then reboot. The computer will ask you what mode you want to boot it in.

Recently, I’ve become ever more reluctant to support the death penalty. Having said that, I must confess that I would not be too unhappy to learn that whoever wrote the code for the Ekxdvft toolbar dies a gruesome death.

Friday, February 22, 2008

What Are We Going to Do with the Aegis Destroyers If North Korea Eliminates Its Nuclear Weapons Program?

This is still a highly hypothetical question, at least for me, since my suspicion that the North Korean regime is not going to give up its nuclear weapons program in the foreseeable future is beginning to turn into conviction. Still, if there is a chance that Condoleezza Rice and Chris Hill prove themselves a visionary strategist and a top-shelf negotiator respectively and not two functionaries hoping to run out the clock by keeping the overall negotiations on life support*, this is as good a time as any to ask.

The North Korean nuclear weapons program and missile tests pushed a reluctant Japanese government into adopting what was then a highly experimental ballistic missile defense system that encompassed its Aegis destroyers. Accordingly, the justification for the introduction has consistently been the potential nuclear threat from North Korea.

Indeed, the Japanese government has taken pains to assure the Chinese government that the system will not be employed in the case of a military conflict between China and Taiwan. China has apparently chosen not to make this a political issue. In fact, the system - indeed the US national missile defense system itself - could not provide defense against the kind of massive attack that China, with its extensive nuclear arsenal, would undertake if it chose to conduct nuclear warfare against Japan. Similar assurances have not settled Russian complaints against US plans to deploy its defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, but the Russian opposition is fueled more by geopolitical frustrations and ambitions than direct security concerns. In any case, my admittedly feeble research capacities have turned nothing by way of Russian complaints against the Japanese system. Take North Korea out of the picture, and Japan ends up with a defense system without a potential threat.

Four Kongō-type Aegis destroyers are currently being refitted, one after another, with the ballistic missile defense system. But this is a process that will take up to FY 2010. I have been unable to locate any definite plans to refit the newer Atago and its sister ship, the Atago-type Aegis destroyer Ashigara (scheduled launch 2008 March). Given budgetary constraints, refitting the pair will surely be even further off in the future.

It is better to be safe than sorry, and I have always said that any clear and present danger from North Korea’s nuclear weapons (assuming that they manage to procure a viable delivery system by them) will come in the chaos during the endgame on the Korean Peninsula. That appears to be further off in the future than in it looked the mid-90s, when hopes of an imminent North Korean collapse likely encouraged the US to be somewhat less than forthcoming than it could have been on its commitments under the 1994 Agreed Framework. (North Korea was far from blameless, but that’s another story.) Nevertheless, it would be wise for the Japanese authorities to keep a very close eye on developments in North Korea when it determines year-to-year expenditures on the ballistic missile defense program. It might, just might, save a lot of money down the line.

* I replaced the link to a Chris Hill briefing with the blog post on DPRK Studies, where I found it. The DPRK item itself is somewhat incidental to this post, but is an interesting piece of information in its own right on the last rites of the Roh regime.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Did You Know Christopher Walken Is Running for President?

Look here for Christopher Walken's 2008 campaign.

You don’t believe it? You think it’s some kind of a joke?

Me? I think it’s obvious.

ADD (February 22): It dawned on me that this post makes no sense to people who have not seen Mr. Walken in one of his figures-of-authority roles that he plays so well. My bad. I should have posted it on the Cryptic blog. Needless to say, it is in no way intended as a commentary on the substance of the primary race.

The Thomas Website and Party-Line Voting, Sloth in the Mainstream Media

I came across the Thomas website by way of The Daily Dish. For an instant, I wished that we had similar resources in Japan. The thought faded almost immediately though, as I remembered that party-line voting and the relative lack of significant Diet member-sponsored made such a database near-worthless in comparison to the US. However, It would be useful have a compilation of up-to-date membership in these caucuses, partisan and non-, that are cropping up all over the place. They usually do not have websites, and even the hard-copy dailies usually publish only the names of the main instigators.

By the way, the Andrew Sullivan post is a great indictment of the mainstream media. Unfortunately, so much of the work of the media consists of latching on to a piece of conventional wisdom and dressing it up with anecdotes and other illustrative (but infrequently illuminating) odds and ends. From trope to meme, with no substance in between.

Mr. Sullivan is exercising false modesty when he says, “I'm just an amateur. I have a full-time job doing something else,” though. He’s a professional writer blogging for a commercial enterprise. Still, this is a good corrective and could catch on, first on other blogs, and from there, make it onto the mainstream media. This interaction is becoming increasingly common, and it’s a good thing.

Yomiuri Polls Worrying for LDP; Even More So for Mr. Fukuda

Yomiuri Polls Worrying for LDP; Even More So for Mr. Fukuda

The latest Yomiuri polls are out, and it shows the ruling coalition, LDP and Prime Minister Fukuda all slipping.

Mr. Fukuda fares poorly, with his support numbers dropping from 45.1%in January to 38.7% in the February 16-17 polls. Non-support jumped from 41.6% to 50.8%, overtaking support for the first time during his reign.

68.8% think that he does not demonstrate leadership within the Cabinet and towards the coalition parties (while only 24.9% think he does). 69.5% think that his beliefs and strongly-held views are unclear (13.7%). 80.0% think that he fails to explain his policies to the public sufficiently (13.7%) 74.9% think that he does not have a clear attitude towards undertaking reform (74.9%). Basically, the public sees the mild-mannered, conciliatory Prime Minister as a wuss, an anti-Koizumi if you will.

The LDP is suffering as well, as its support has slipped from 35.5% to 32.6%. The DPJ has improved slightly, from 16.9% to 20.1%, but obviously has a way to go before it can overtake the LDP. It is notable that only 41.4% think that the DPJ has been doing a good job during this Diet session while 53.2% think that it hasn’t.

Support for an LDP (6.7%) or LDP/New-Kōmeitō coalition government (22.0%) adds up to only 28.7%. The saving grace for the ruling coalition is that a DPJ (5.2%) or DPJ-led coalition government (17.5%) fares even worse, with 22.7%. A Grand Coalition has 19.0% support, while 17.2% prefer a reorganization of the existing political parties. Add the 0.1% opting for “others”, and you have a total of 37.2% calling for a third way.

On more specific issues, 74.9% think that Mr. Fukuda is not dealing appropriately with recent changes in the state of the economy, while only 19.3% think that he is. 62.2% favor the abolition of the gasoline tax surcharge for road construction purposes*, while 29.4% think that it should be extended. Curiously, the public is almost evenly divided between those who think that the Upper House should vote on the bill by the end of March (45.2%) and those who don’t (452%). Moreover, 60.4% think that the two sides should seek a compromise (while 30.3% oppose that.)

The (Yomiuri) poll finds a public that is dissatisfied with the LDP/LDP-New Kōmeitō, but is even less enamored with the DPJ. The public wants what I’ll call constructive engagement. The will not look kindly on any side that goes for a mini-max solution.

This leads to two, admittedly tentative conclusions. First, the public does not have an appetite for a snap election. If the DPJ try to force a snap election at all costs, it will suffer a public backlash. Second, the public will look most favorably on a gasoline tax compromise that falls somewhere between an outright cutoff and an unconditional extension. The DPJ cannot stand pat and hope that the public will support it. Conversely, the LDP road tribe (the New Kōmeitō and DPJ roadies too, for that matter) cannot hope to keep continuing to tear down the Koizumi reforms**. All this is something that will clearly be in the minds of both sides as the March 31 deadline approaches.

One more thing. Mr. Fukuda is showing some chronic shortcomings. He is seen as lacking in leadership and decisiveness in these times of growing uncertainty and insecurity, and a poor communicator as well. This is a perception that is not tied to a single incident, and is therefore difficult to correct. If his predicament continues - and there is no reason to believe that he can change his personality, his operation mode, at 71 - he will increasingly be seen as a liability as a front man for the ruling coalition. I now think that an internal coup, or half-willing abdication, to be followed by a snap election under a new Prime Minister is no longer a farfetched conjecture.

* The questionnaire pointedly does not ask about an extension as general budget revenue source.

** Needless to say, this makes imminent sense for the public interest.

No. I don’t think that Mr. Fukuda is hearing Mr. Koizumi’s footsteps at all. But then, I have a knack for saying stuff, only to have the opposite happen.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Why Is Hillary Clinton Trying to Seat the Florida and Michigan Delegates?

If Hillary Clinton has enough committed delegates, pledged and super-, to win going into the Democratic convention, she’s already won. She doesn’t need the Florida and Michigan delegates, and they will be seated without protest in a happy family reunion, as it were. On the other hand, if she thinks that she doesn’t have enough votes to prevail, she will have to force a vote to enfranchise the F-M delegates. She’ll win that floor vote only if enough uncommitted super-delegates plus John Edwards’ 26 pledged delegates vote with her committed delegates to enfranchise them. But that would mean that she doesn’t need the F-M votes in the first place, since she commands majority support without them. Of course she could theoretically force the convention to seat the F-M delegates by court order, but then she would have no chance of winning the runoff against John McCain. And even that far-fetched scenario assumes that such an action wouldn’t touch off a massive defection of super-delegates to Mr. Obama that would throw the nomination his way in the first place.

So there doesn’t seem to be any remotely plausible scenario under which the F-M votes can actually affect the outcome in Mrs. Clinton’s favor. In fact, her quest for their enfranchisement seems to be undermining her credibility as a presidential candidate. It’s worse than cheating; it’s stupid. It doesn’t make sense. Or does it?

If I remember correctly, the Clinton team began talking about this just before the January 29 Florida primaries. My guess was that it intended to influence the Florida voters, so that it could play it up as a Clinton victory and build momentum going into Super (Duper) Tuesday on February 5. I have no idea whether or not it had any impact. But the long-term implications are clear, and it does not bode well for Mrs. Clinton.

Unfortunately for her candidacy, there is no way that her team can back away from it without further compromising her integrity. She made a bet with little upside and significant downside, and lost. It’s yet another manifestation of the lack of imagination and the reactivity that have dogged her increasingly beleaguered campaign.

The only serious error here is that I:

a) didn’t bother to look into his pre-law school work as a community organizer and therefore failed completely to anticipate his skills as a manager (this kind of talk seems to be surfacing more often now); and

b) weaseled out when I wrote that “there are the guys, like Barack Obama, who can make grown-up men lose it.” I should, of course, have written, “…. make grown men pee in their pants.” I hope he doesn’t misuse this knack. For example, he doesn’t really mean everything he says about trade issues, does he?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

What the Procedural Agreement on Consent for Appointments Means

As a procedural agreement*, it is quite modest in scope. For one thing, the agreement only covers a total of eight positions in four institutions, including the Bank of Japan. This leaves a total of approximately 200 positions in 31 other institutions that require the consent of each of the two Houses outside the purview of this agreement**.

I assume that the two sides consider the nominations for the other 31 institutions to be uneventful. And that should usually be the case, as long as the administration stays away from bureaucrats without specific technical expertise or possible appearance of conflicts of interest. But appointments to, say, NHK, the state-owned broadcasting corporation, will usually be fraught with more controversy than to the Board of Audit, one of the four institutions that fall under the procedural agreement.

Needless to say, the agreement covers only the nomination procedures, and does not change in any way how the two full Houses will treat the nominations if and when they come to the floor. It will be highly damaging to the administration to nominate someone, only to face rejection for understandable cause - say, a non-criminal but still embarrassing personal scandal. Thus, all candidates for the four institutions, will be weighed and vetted with care, and feelers sent out to the opposition before the process officially unfolds, just like those for the other 31 institutions.

But such worries are reserved for the future. As far as the hypothetical nomination of Toshirō Mutō as BOJ Governor is concerned, it’s in the bag. In fact, the entire process appears to have unfolded with the unstated purpose of engineering the nomination without causing serious harm to any of the parties concerned.

Official discount rates and money supply, in the current instance at least, have little, if any, of the kind of public resonance that gasoline taxes/road expenditures (waste! corruption!) or JSDF soldiers in Iraq (our boys in danger! Article 9!). All the while, economic actors had clamored for certainty, increasingly with Mr. Mutō in mind. It became increasingly clear that there was no political upside to an outright rejection reminiscent of the “eternal opposition” of the LDP v. Socialist years.

Not that the DPJ was alone in looking for a graceful climb-down. The ruling coalition could not hope to stare the DPJ down and hope that public opinion would force it to cave. So once the issue came down to procedures, it had to give in to every reasonable opposition demand, lest the coalition itself come to be perceived as the cause of undue delay.

If this affair, in retrospect, has the look of a pre-season match, the two sides play for keeps when the gasoline taxes and the rest of the revenue package reach the Upper House. Here, the Fukuda administration is losing traction with the public. If this continues - and there seems to be little of substance waiting in relief over the coming weeks*** - it will only help the opposition make, and achieve, bolder demands before it allows the fiscal package to pass/be voted on in the Upper House.

* Mainichi as of this writing, had almost as much information as Yomiuri. The Mainichi archives also appear to have the longest shelf life of the Big Four. I’m beginning to feel more left-centrist now.

** The Japanese Wikipedia has the full list of the 35 institutions.

*** Hu Jintao’s visit has been in the sights ever since Shinzō Abe went to Beijing. Thus it should provide a momentary bump at most.

Monday, February 18, 2008

On the Sports Scene in the JMSM…

Cosplay rules the Tokyo Marathon, while third-place Miki Andō is the people’s choice in the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships. The bootylicious Ms. Andō (imagine Tonya Harding, albeit more Japanesy, without the crowbar) in jet-black short shorts and fishnet tights from the exhibition skate-offs is prominently featured in the photo accompanying the article, which currently ranks no.1 in popularity on the Sankei website. Plenty of other short shorts/ fishnet tights photos are also plastered on the webpage*. Maio Asada may have won the real event, but she barely rates mention in the article and just one two-shot portrait, with Ms. Andō, naturally. Daisuké Takahashi, the Japanese winner of the men’s program, fares even worse.

Japanese media groups routinely stage sports and other events and promote them through their commercial outlets. The Yomiuri sports pages, for example, reads like a Yomiuri Giants fanzine. The media can be a harsh taskmaster as well. The rapid deterioration of the Yomiuri-to-Kawasaki-to-Tokyo Verdy soccer team is directly traceable to the Yomiuri family’s decision to drop the team when the J-League did not allow them to use it as a promotional vehicle for their commercial interests.

The Fuji-Sankei Group is no exception. In this particular case, Fuji TV, the crown jewels of the Fuji-Sankei multimedia group, held Japanese broadcasting rights to the Four Continents 2008, staged in Seoul, South Korea. Yomiuri did cover the competition itself, but ignored the exhibition altogether as a non-event, which, for them, it was exactly that.

* The (mostly) Andō photos are currently ranked nos.1 through 9 among the most popular images on the Sankei website.

Seriously, I can’t help repeating: Sankei has hands-down the most reader-friendly media website in Japan. In fact, with all the accompanying visual bells and whistles, it’s better than its hardcopy version. I don’t understand how this is driving revenue, though I suppose fourth-place Sankei has less to lose. Still, I’d like to see how Asahi, Yomiuri and Mainichi respond (or not). They’d better hurry up; are they trying to make a Japaneo-con out of me or what?

Naoto Kan Takes Hit on Roads; Sheds Light on Local/National Government Tug-of-War

Nato Kan has a quicksilver intelligence and an economic yet nagging delivery that makes him one of the most effective snipers on the TV screen. But where I really admire him is that he can take hits as well. He is rarely if ever flustered, which enables him to play away games without fear.

That’s a good thing, because Mr. Kan is sometimes literally playing away, as he has spent much of his time this month talking about the gasoline tax surcharge and road expenditures to local government leaders and their constituents. Local government heads, of course, mostly favor an extension, and he is getting an earful over the DPJ demands that the surcharge be abolished.

But many of them are also telling him something else. They want to see the money put into the general budget revenues, just as the DPJ insists (and as it had already implied in its policy manifest*). This is partly a reflection of public perception that much of the road money is being wasted. But it also strikes at the core issue of the tug-of-war between the national and local governments, namely, fiscal freedom.

Prime Minister Koizumi’s “Trinity” Reform of local government financing; i.e. elimination and reduction of national-to-local government subsidies, transfer of tax revenue sources, and review of the general revenue transfers; had left many prefectures and municipalities deeply unsatisfied. For one thing, local governments, already under severe fiscal stress, were being asked to join the national government in taking a haircut. But just as distressing to them was the fact that the subsidy-tax revenue source tradeoff did not represent a clean break from national prioritization and control. The subsidies - usually provided as a determinate fraction, usually 1/4 to 3/4, of the targeted expenditure - were mainly reduced, not eliminated altogether, enabling the national government to maintain control.

There were other issues, such as the fact that the reform it tended to shift distribution in favor of better-off areas, dividing the regions themselves. But redressing the haircut and reducing central command and control continue as the two key issues that unite the local governments in opposition to the national government. So this is the background against which the governors and mayors are pressing their claims against those who will listen, including Mr. Kan and his DPJ colleagues.

The DPJ had already in a sense tried to address their concerns with its promise that the national government would take the entire 2.6 trillion/yr hit. But they do not trust the DPJ to be able to package the elimination of the surcharge with painless revenue transfer (nor do they believe that the national roads don’t matter to their well-being). They realize that, other things being the same, their best chance to maintain their share of funds while also keeping those national roads coming lies in maintain the surcharge. However, they would also like to have more discretion in using those funds. One way to do that would be to give the local government its share of what is now the road money, which is what putting the money into general budget would make possible.

Personally, I do not think that putting money into the hands of local government necessarily decreases the chances for waste and corruption. However, the national government has not been doing a good job of exercising self-restraint on this front, notwithstanding the claims Naoki Inosé makes on behalf of the Koizumi road reform. At a minimum, it will be a useful exercise in political accountability to put the matter into the hands of local governments. It would also be politically expedient for a party whose financial well-being and political machine are not yet inextricably intertwined with the special interests to champion their cause. It should not be difficult to formulate a proposal that goes a great way in accommodating their demands either. The only political snag is the DPJ’s insistence that the surcharge be dropped, at least immediately, something that was never in its policy manifest in the first place.

The DPJ actually seems to be heading, perhaps unintentionally, in that direction. In the last few weeks, they have been moving away from the “cheap gasoline” narrative and towards the “waste and corruption” attack mode. It is but a short leap from there to “power to the prefectures and municipalities”.

Any set of changes will require an extensive review of the practical consequences (including, of course, smoothing out the effects of any reductions between (relative) winners and losers), as well as the legislative and bureaucratic measures that need to implement them. Moreover, the LDP must be brought into a discussion along these lines in time to make the switch. So, it is likely that little more than broad outlines can be worked out before the March 31 deadline for a deal.

This is perfectly compatible, of course, with a mid-term extension while the deal is worked out in detail. In fact, it almost demands it. It’s also good political tactics, since taking the initiative and shifting in this direction would take away the most important constituency that the LDP has on the surcharge and road expenditures.

In real life, things almost never work out the way these scenarios play out in your head. But is there anything else out there that would be good point from where the two House Chairmen can work their conciliation magic?

More generally, the DPJ should also recognize the broader tug-of-war and use it as an integral part of the strategic background to its fight to topple the ruling coalition. A political platform firmly grounded on the needs and wants of the locals will minimize shifts in party policy as the result of leadership turnover, and will also yield benefits in the trench battles. The locals matter. In this respect, the national, bipartisan, political wing of the Sentaku movement, scheduled to make its official debut on February 20 bears watching. I hope to work “the locals” angle when I have a better handle on the issue.

* I addressed this point here, among other places.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Oh Those Fingerprinting Copycats…

The EU proposal calls them biometric data, but that’s what it means. There is no schedule for its introduction and, for now, it’s merely a proposal. Still, it’s clear that terrorism is taking its toll globally. Also, can you imagine a nation like China going in this direction? For domestic purposes?

Japan Consistently Bucks US on the Palestinian Question. Will It Distance Itself Elsewhere in the Middle East and Beyond?

The Jewish Virtual Library provides a list of US vetoes of UN Security Council resolutions critical of Israel between 1972-2006. According to this list, the US has always been alone in casting vetoes*. Although from time to time, other UNSC members have abstained, Japan, in all but one case, voted for the resolutions. Japan has been an elected UNSC member in 71- 72, 75-76, 81-82, 87-88, 92-93, 97-98 and 2005-06. In1983-present, the years for which the list gives the names of the abstaining members for each resolution, the US did receive some support of sorts between 1984-88 and 2001-2006, when an assortment of mainly Western European nations** would abstain when the US exercised its veto. However, Japan abstained only once, in 2006, on a draft resolution calling for Israel to halt its Gaza operations, where it joined three other abstaining UNSC members***.

Much of this Japanese accommodation of the Arab position on the Palestinian Question is surely attributable to its heavy reliance on Middle East oil. But there is also our history, or lack of it to consider. Japan’s involvement in the politics of the Middle East is quite recent, since its imperialist ambitions never extended to the Middle East. In fact, as the enemy of Russia and later the West European empires, Japan appears to have enjoyed a favorable, if somewhat vaguely informed, reputation with the Moslem nations in the Middle East. True, imperial Japan was one of the four powers in the 1920 San Remo Conference that, among other things, gave the UK the Mandate for Palestine and reaffirmed the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which stated that the UK government viewed “with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” and that it would “use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object”. In any case, post-WW II Japan was obviously not in a position to take a stand in the 1947 UN partition of Palestine. Shielded by the Yoshida Doctrine and the Peace Constitution, Japan has been at most a passive actor in the geopolitics of the region.

So far, the Japanese stand on the Palestinian Question has had little by way of consequences. Domestically, the issue rarely registers on the political scene. The US has never made an issue of it as far as I am aware, and neither has Israel, with which Japan also has a sound, if somewhat distant, relationship. More importantly, this particular US-Japan rift has never spread to other issues in the Middle East. Most recently, Japan has docilely followed the US lead there in putting boots and boats in Iraq and Afghanistan and, far more painful with regard to national security, forfeited most of its exploration rights to the Azadegan oil fields in Iran in keeping with the wishes of the US.

We have already seen the DPJ intransigence on the Japanese presence on the Iraqi and terrorism fronts. DPJ leaders have also been taking a hard line on the US military presence on Japanese territory. This maneuvering is in part the consequence of the political game being played between the DPJ and the LDP-New Kōmeitō coalition. As such, it faces dissent within the DPJ itself. But even mere political posturing can interact with the underlying situation to create a momentum of its own, and national security should be no exception. I suspect that the broader debate will become a feature of the Japanese political scene sooner rather than later. In a thoroughgoing review of Japan’s national security, the Middle East would surely come right after the near abroad.

The dissonance within the DPJ (and to a lesser extent the LDP as well, if you listen carefully) with regard to national security is but one of the many fault lines within the two major parties (and between the LDP and New Kōmeitō. Other contentious examples are: the history issues, imperial succession, gasoline taxes (and road-related expenditures) and human rights protection legislation. These and other contradictions, to resuscitate stock Marxist terminology, have led many observers and some participants themselves to expect/hope for a major realignment of the political parties along ideologically more coherent lines. I have been moving away from that line of thinking. The fault lines are too many to allow political actors to coalesce around two to three distinct groups sharing an across-the-board policy manifest without serious reserves. Instead, I think that some relaxation of the party-line voting will become visible along the line as the Diet works its way through possibly two more Upper House elections before the Upper House/Lower House split is resolved****.

* I assume that no other UNSC permanent member has cast a veto during this period.

** The return of UK abstention precedes 9.11 and coincides with Tony Blair’s appointment as Prime Minister.

*** It replaced Peru, which was the fourth abstaining member in an earlier draft resolution.

**** I think that it is telling that Naoto Kan only demanded that the proportional-district Diet members give up their seats if they were going to vote in favor of the extension of the gasoline tax surcharge.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Will Japan Recognize an Independent Kosovo?

Asahi certainly seemed to think Japan would indeed recognize an independent Kosovo pretty soon, when it ran a report on February 6 under the headline “Japan Considers Early Recognition of Independent Kosovo Following Europe and US (日本、独立コソボ承認へ 欧米に続き早期を検討). Otherwise, the Japanese media has been silent on the Japanese position.

According to the Asahi, the Japanese government feels that Boris Tadic’s victory in the Serbian presidential election raises hopes that a peaceful settlement is within sight. Perhaps; in which case Kosovo would have “(a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.”* But Mr. Foreign Minister Masahiko Kōmura added an important caveat in his February 10 press conference:

Japan will consider the requirements for national recognition from a legal perspective in order to recognize Kosovo's independence, and make a judgment after observing how international society receives the issue.

Now I’ve always assumed that EU members and the US would quickly recognize an independent Kosovo, if only to keep the matter from boiling over into open violence and even civil war. In fact, Europe is dangling a possible EU membership as the carrot to the largely Moslem ethnic Albanians of Kosovo. No doubt the Middle East will also follow suit in recognizing the Moslem breakout from the Orthodox-Christian Serbia.

However, Russia will be none too happy. The Asahi article gives Bosnia and Herzegovina as a precedent of sorts for the Japanese authorities. But Bosnia and Herzegovina’s independence was conclusively settled by the 1995 Dayton Agreement, to which both Serbia and Russia signed off. Russia is no longer that shambling, eager-to-please, impoverished relic of the Soviet era under an erratic President Yeltsin. It also remains to be seen whether Mr. Tadic will be able to use his slim 50.5% edge over ultranationalist Tomislav Nikolic’s 47.9% to give up sovereignty over Kosovo in exchange for a fast-track ride on the express to the EU.

What does it matter to Japan? Well, imagine that Kosovo leaves Serbia without an agreement with Serbia and Russia. If Japan endorses the break any time soon, President Putin will be none too pleased to see Prime Minister Fukuda in Moscow during the Japanese Golden Week. The issue could linger further and be yet another cause of conflict between Russia and the West at the G-8 Summit in Hokkaidō, a dispute that Prime Minister Fukuda, as host, will be hard put to mediate as a mere bystander. Just as serious in the context of domestic politics, Japanese recognition of an independent Kosovo in the face of Russian opposition should seriously compromise Japanese efforts to paper over the Russian refusal to hand over anything beyond the two small islands - if even that - out of the four that comprise the Northern Territories.

I suspect that Japanese recognition in effect will be very slow in coming.

* Convention on Rights and Duties of States (inter-American); December 26, 1933; Article 1.

Our New York Philharmonic Visit against Your Presidential Inauguration, Says North Korea

Go to the New York Philharmonic website and look up its Asia 2008, “a five-city, eleven-concert tour, February 11–24, 2008, the first under the aegis of Global Sponsor Credit Suisse. The Orchestra begins in the south, with return visits to Taipei, Kaohsiung, and Hong Kong, and will make its debut in Shanghai before concluding the tour in performances in Beijing.” So it’s actually “The Chinas 2008”*.

But where’s Pyongyang? You know, the North Korean invitation, issued and accepted in balmier times, before the Six-Party Agreement, Second Phase, year-end deadline? But a mouseover at the NY Phil calendar tells you that on February 26 the orchestra is “On tour: Korea, 6:00 PM”. Click through, and you reach this, where you finally learn the details of the Pyongyang concert.

It could be mere coincidence that the event is being staged on the very day after South Korean President-Elect Kim Myung-bak’s inauguration ceremonies on February 25? After all, the Pyongyang date has been scheduled most conveniently, right after the Asia 2008 tour.

I doubt it. It is even more convenient for Kim Jong Il and the rest of the North Korean leadership to be able to beat the drums and issue the fanfare We Matter, right on the heels of the South Korean event. And no doubt about it, they will flood their domestic news outlets with reports not only on the concert itself but of the orchestra’s arrival, procession and whatever else by way of encouraging tidbits that they can squeeze out of the timely trip.

These grandmasters of spin never leave such matters to chance, for it is by stringing together these little tactical victories that they maintain their self-delusionary visions of strategic victory. It is, literally, a matter of life and death.

* Of course they couldn’t call it that, and they had to make it short and snappy; thus, Asia 2008. Compare to Japan Korea 2006. These people are mindful of the politics, since they have to mind the sensibilities of all sorts of donors and subscribers.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Up on The National Interest

Here. Yes, I already posted it on my blog, but TNI kindly accepted it anyway. Okay, it’s not exactly what I was looking for on St. Valentine’s Day, but I really can’t complain, can I?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

But Are They War Crimes? - The Gitmo Trials

Anticipating international criticism over plans to seek the death penalty for accused September 11, 2001, terrorists, the State Department is advising U.S. diplomats to point out that Nazis were executed after their war crime trials.
CNN, 2008 February 13

Since the War Tribunals, the US military has rarely imposed the death penalty*. In fact, it last carried out a death sentence in 1961, when it hanged a certain John A. Bennett, Pvt. 1st. Class. His crime? Rape, and attempted murder, of an 11-year-old Austrian girl. No, there were no fatalities. In fact, the girl and her parents wrote letters to President Kennedy asking him to spare Bennettt's life.

What media reports on the new Gitmo trials do not tell you is that Private Bennett was an African-American.

ADD (February 14): The huge dissonance between the title and the substance is intentional, but I realize now that it is very confusing. My intent was to place the politicization of the military criminal procedure system (the Gitmo suspects in a constitutional limbo between the military and the civilian, Private Bennett falling in the societal abyss between the Jim Crow and post-Civil Rights Act worlds) as the backdrop to the many doors that the small historical footnote in the articles on the Gitmo trials opened. But it obviously does not work too well, as ross’s comment shows.

I still have a lot to learn about this craft. My only excuse: I’m new at writing for myself.

In Case Anybody’s Still Worried about the BOJ Succession…

Sankei has the best online reproduction of its hard copy version, and it’s doing this as part of its partnership deal with MSN. I can’t help loving Sankei. I can’t help loving Microsoft. So sue me.

Seriously, one of the good things that Sankei does is to reproduce the Chief Cabinet Secretary’s press briefings in full. Here’s my translation of an excerpt from the February 8 briefing:

Q: In a speech Mr. Tanigaki, [LDP] Policy Research Council Chairman, gave today in Tokyo, he said with regard to the candidacy for BOJ Governor that the ability to communicate to the market was important and that Deputy Governor Mutō had the requisite qualifications. Deputy Governor Mutō, his name has been coming up before; do you think that he is sufficiently qualified?

A. I will not talk about individual names.

Q. How about the BOJ’s personnel decision process next week and beyond (ed. The briefing took place on Friday)?

A. I’m not saying anything.

And that was the end of it. Smart move**; the leaks coming out of the LDP side must have been at the roots of all the commotion in the first place. Expect the LDP to keep a lid on it until the Diet vetting process goes forward. In the meantime, the DPJ seems to be holding up their end of the implicit bargain and eager to calm the waters. Today’s hardcopy Yomiuri has a page four report of a couple of press briefings by DPJ Leaders with a headline (Mr. Ozawa Leaves Door Open to Accepting Mr. Mutō (subtitle Ruling Parties Give Full Negotiating Mandate to Diet Affairs Committee Chairman) almost identical to that of the February 9 article. Here are the translations of the quotes*:

Mr. Ozawa: With regard to the consent for the appointment, it is to be decided yes or no in a meeting of the (party) leaders in Diet matters. (The report interprets this as the intent to make the final determination in the DPJ meeting of Diet member leaders, including Mr. Ozawa, the Secretary-General (Yukio Hatoyama) and the Diet Affairs Committee Chairman (Kenji Yamaoka))

Separation of fiscal and financial [policies] is one line of thought. On the other hand, [the government] has bonds worth 1000 trillion yen outstanding, so (fiscal policy) has a very close relationship with financial policy. There are opinions to the effect that [the issue] should not be determined solely by the logic of separation of fiscal and financial [policies].”
(The report interprets this as opening the door to the acceptance of Mr. Mutō’s promotion.)

Kenji Hirata; LDP Upper House Secretary-General: It is arrogant to say that this person won’t do before the government has said, “Please accept this person.” (The report interprets this as a criticism of Mr. Sengoku’s negative comment in Seoul with regard to Mr. Mutō.)

The article goes on to say that Kazumori Ōshima and Mr. Yamaoka, the Diet Affairs Committee Chairmen of the LDP and DPJ respectively, will hammer out the procedures for the Diet process.

So both sides are playing it cool. Expect little of note in the media, until the Diet hearings and the subsequent consent. Nobody has lost, except perhaps the Ozawa-unfriendly Mr. Sentani. All in all, a good deal for the markets.

* Keep in mind that newspaper quotes are not always verbatim renditions. In this case, however, I don’t think that there is any undue paraphrasing.

** Mr. Machimura has other reasons to mind his words. He has a surprisingly sharp tongue, and it has been getting him into trouble from time to time. Yesterday, he had to apologize in the Diet for insinuating in the Lower House Budget Committee that Mr. Ozawa had acted improperly with regard to party funds when he merged his Liberal Party into the old DPJ in 2003. He also asked that the offending comments be deleted. Permission granted. The controversy itself is discussed in this previous post.

Completely off-topic: Speaking of a quiet media, there’s been a deafening silence around the Defense Ministry scandals during this Diet session. Perhaps I was right and the LDP did luck out when it blew open during the previous extraordinary session. Let’s see if the DPJ decides to revive it (or, more significantly, something happens that compels it to do so) as April 1 approaches and it’s crunch time for the budget and the budget-related legislation. I removed this paragraph inadvertently when I was correcting some typos after I had posted it. I noticed it when I added the subsequent paragraph, so I am restoring it now.

ADD: Taking the matter up at the party leadership as a matter of logic takes the decision away from Mr. Sengoku, contrary to what Mr. Ozawa had stated initially.

ADD 2: Here’s my translation of an excerpt from the February 12 Chief Cabinet Secretary briefing:

Q. Will the BOJ appointments be submitted to the Diet this week? Also, there are news reports that a proposal to appoint (Toshirō) Muto as Governor and former BOJ board member Masaaki Shirakawa as Deputy Governor, so what are the facts?

A. That news report has no foundation in facts. In any case, the honorable Takeo Nishioka, Chairman of the Upper House Rules and Administration Committee, has said that if BOJ appointments are reported, that will be considered prior leaking by the government and [the appointments] shall not be given confirmation. Since these conditions or rules, shall we say, exist, I am sorry, but with regard to the issue of the BOJ Governor, regardless of what kind of question you may put forth, I definitely will not answer them.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Russian Bomber Invades Japanese Airspace; Gets Me Thinking about the Alliance

Reported here by BBC, I was mystified by the Russian action. After all, Tupolev 95s have been plying their trade since the Korean War. They don’t suddenly wander into Japanese airspace 650km (400 miles) south of Tokyo by mistake, do they?

The timing was particularly odd, given the relative calm that prevails over Japan-Russia relations (in contrast to Russia’s increasingly contentious relations with the US and Russia). In fact, the two governments are reportedly working on a Golden Week visit by Prime Minister Fukuda to pay his respects to President Putin, just before the latter makes the switch to Prime Minister himself, while remaining as the real focal point of the public mandate and political power.

Japan, of course, wants access to Russia’s natural resources, as well as the swelling pocketbooks of the Russian people eager for all the luxury autos and other assorted gadgets that the Toyotas and the Panasonics can sell. Russia. The Japanese government also holds out hope, or at least continues to make gestures that it does, that the Northern Territories will be returned under more favorable terms than the two smallest islands only*, i.e. the only settlement acceptable to Russia now**.

On the Russian side, it’s a buyer’s market. However, Japan is a useful hedge against China. Make no mistake, notwithstanding developments such as the settlement of border disputes and the far more recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Russia has never stopped seeing China as its Far East strategic threat. Contrasts in demographics (Russia, a shrinking 142 million; China, a more stable 1.3 billion) and economic profiles (Russia, resource-based economy; China, industrial economy) ensure that the fear will be around for the foreseeable future. Russia wouldn’t mind a larger Japanese footprint in Siberia, and beyond for that matter. If Russia can manage to loosen Japan-US ties in the bargain, all for the better.

Well, yesterday, EST, CNN gave us the answer. It turns out that the Tu-95 was part of a bomber squadron on its way to buzz the USS Nimitz and otherwise annoy the Americans***. It’s payback for Kosovo, it’s payback for Ukraine, Georgia, NATO expansion, IMF receivership, Jeffery Sachs… Note that Japan has a peripheral role at most with regard to perhaps a couple of these and other post-Cold War grievances.

Russia has little by way of strategic quarrels with Japan. The blip on the Japanese radar turned out to be a passing shadow cast by the geopolitical struggle that Russia, with a reinvigorated economy, has chosen to resume against an insensitive (or so it sees, not totally without justification) and aggressive (likewise) West.

Most calls for a thorough review of Japan’s national security, i.e. the Japan-US relationship, focus on China and, in a more acute sense, North Korea. After the Far East, the debate leaps half way across the globe to the Indian Ocean and the Middle East. But Japan already distances itself from the US where the Palestine Question is concerned. The broader context for this is, of course, the Middle East and its fossil fuels. But the national interests of the two allies appear to be almost as dissonant where Russia is concerned.

It is time for Japanese policymakers to think hard about Russia as well. It is at least easier to contemplate than Japan’s place in the dispute over the Iranian nuclear program.

* Tarō Asō, regarded (correctly, if somewhat broadly) as a nationalist, famously suggested that Japan could take a settlement that gave back half of the land mass of the four islands. When he was Foreign Minister. And there was remarkably little outcry, all things considered. He did qualify his off-hand statement, but it did bring into question the seriousness with which even the more hawkish wing of the LDP was willing to press the issue.

** There was a brief period during the Yeltsin regime when the Russian government appeared to indicate a willingness to go beyond its interpretation of the 1956 Joint Statement. But Vladimir Putin came to power and oil prices went skyrocketed; the moment had passed.

*** Have you ever wondered why they aren’t called United Statists? USians? Just askin’.

The DPJ’s actions concerning national security issues have been disappointing. It appears to be driven mostly by electoral objectives. As a result, it ends up walking and talking like the old Socialist Party., the permanent opposition. It is most evident in Yukio Hatoyama’s response to the alleged rape of an Okinawa schoolgirl by a US Marine stationed there. He says in essence that Japan must seek a relationship on an equal footing and, for that, US military bases must leave. There appears to be no timeline, no context to his demand, such that it is. Not that the government, or the LDP for that matter, is exercising its imagination. But there are the constraints of being in charge of the status quo. If the DPJ refuses to think strategically, that is, if it continues to play the political game with anything beyond the letter of its policy manifest, it will have no recourse but to let its checks bounce left and right when it finally comes to power.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Testing 1, 2, 3

This is a test to see if posts can be backdated.

Good Guy Nicholas Kristof Gets It Wrong on Female Political Leaders

Nicholas Kristof’s heart is always in the right place, but his mind is usually slightly off center.

In this well-meaning op-ed, he compares what he considers to be the relative lack of success (actually his perception thereof; but I’ll come to that later) by modern, elected female heads of government and state in comparison to historical female leaders, who in his view were disproportionately successful compared to their male colleagues. He brings up what he calls his “pet theory” to explain this, and uses a study of Indian village council leaders to back it up.

But the Indian study shows that the female leaders were more successful than the men, and that the problem lay with the lower perception of female, relative to male, performance. It also shows that the bias disappeared over time with familiarity. If the Indian study is true, the female leaders of democracy should be successful from square one but the perception thereof should be low, but such perception should improve over time.

Once in power, the female leaders in South Asia that Mr. Kristof gives as examples have tended to stay around for a long time; or have taken turns in power as rivals, mother and daughter, or both. However, it is hard to dispute that they also tended to have mixed records when it comes to results. Of course the story is different if you think that staying in power is the measure of success, but that’s not the point of the Indian study, and it’s not what he has in mind either.

Another flaw in his reasoning is that his examples are anecdotal and merely illustrate, a flaw that appears to be congenital to journalists. Unless you draw on comparable groups of leaders, there’s no way that you can make a meaningful argument about the relative success of female versus male, modern versus historical. Just think, how many successful male leaders in South Asia can Mr. Kristof name? How many successful Third World leaders from the sixties to the eighties, never mind the gender?

Besides, how can he call Indira Gandhi “mediocre”?* She had serious flaws and made many mistakes. But she enjoyed military success against Pakistan, maintained as much of the international prestige that Nehru had enjoyed as the times would allow, and bowed to democratic principles when the chips were down. How many of her male contemporaries could have made those claims? Her economic policies were a failure. But again, that was the legacy of Nehru as well as the common flaw of so many Third World leaders, all but a few male.

Mr. Kristof writes best when he writes straight from the heart. His op-eds on Darfur, for example, are moving. It’s when he starts thinking that he has problems. There is definitely a double standard when it comes to female politicians. But it is a line that he fails to illuminate.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Headline from Japan-China Finance-Ministers Bilateral

The following is an actual headline from the Sunday Sankei, which you remember has a special place in its heart for poisoned Chinese dumplings:

“Chinese Dumplings”: Agreement on Investigation and Preventing Recurrence - Japan-China Financial Ministers Meeting
(「ギョーザ」 究明と再発防止で一致 日中財務相会談)

The following is a translation of an excerpt from the official interpreter's memo. (Trust me.)

Listen, Xie Xuren, give us a break on the East China gas fields, and I’ll tell you what we really said about you at the G-8…

ADD (February 11): Whoa, Yomiuri has more or less the same headline:

Japan-China Finance Ministers Meeting: Agree to Cooperation in Solving the Case of the Chinese Dumplings


Here are two guys sitting on the two biggest (and growing) piless of US Treasury Bonds on the planet, the global financial market is tanking; and all they have to talk about are the poisoned Chinese dumplings?

Bank of Japan Governor Succession as Good as Done

Ichirō Ozawa was in Chiba City, where some comments he made during a press briefing had the media playing a guessing game. Namely, did Mr. Ozawa give the nod, however tentative, to Toshirō Mutō, the Fukuda administration’s choice as the successor to Toshihiko Fukui, the next Governor of the Bank of Japan? The Governor must receive the approval of both House of the Diet, but the ruling coalition does not command a majority in the Upper House. Since the Communists and Social Democrats will never vote in favor of the government’s candidate and there is no supermajority override available, the Fukuda administration needs the DPJ’s consent in order to make the appointment.

Mr. Fukui’s term ends on March 19, but a reappointment was never in the cards after he nearly lost his job in 2006 due to his investment in the Murakami Fund. The dip in the global stock market and the concomitant economic uncertainties triggered by the subprime loans crisis has lent an added urgency to the swift resolution of the succession.

By all accounts, Mr. Mutō is a fine candidate for the assignment. He has kept his nose clean as Deputy Governor since his appointment in 2003, and is generally well-regarded in most quarters. In fact, the only serious DPJ objection against Mr. Mutō is that he is a former Administrative Vice-Minister of Finance. For the DPJ regards his promotion as a violation of “”zaisei-kinyū bunri no gensoku (the principle of separation of fiscal and financial [policies])”.

This was the situation under which the press popped the question to Mr. Ozawa, and the media recorded more or less the same words. However, they chose to spin it in different directions. And for once, they do not arrange themselves along ideological lines, or according to their proximity to the administration. Look at the headlines:

Asahi: BOJ Governor Appointment Decision “Blank Sheet”, Will Respect Decision of Party Subcommittee(日銀総裁人事「白紙」、党小委の判断尊重 民主・小沢氏)

Mainichi: BPJ Governor: Does Not Disavow Mr. Mutō (日銀総裁:武藤氏の昇格否定せず…民主党・小沢代表)

Yomiuri: DPJ Chief Ozawa Leaves Door Open to Mr. Mutō’s Promotion to BOJ Governor (民主党の小沢代表、武藤氏の日銀総裁昇格に含み)
Sankei: “Completely a Blank Sheet” Mr. Ozawa on BOJ Governor Appointment (「まったくの白紙」 日銀総裁人事で小沢氏)

Actually, it’s a done deal, even if they don’t realize it yet. There’s little more than a month to go, so it’s too late to come up with an alternative. No serious bank is going to cough up its successful president at short notice to assume the top spot at BOJ. The best it could do would be to offer its chairman - largely a ceremonial post - or a vice-president who is slated to be on the way out anyway. That is not a good message to be sent to the market. And that’s assuming that he passes the rigorous vetting process. That leaves Kazumasa Iwata, the other deputy governor. Now Dr. Iwata is a fine economist and appears to favor an expansionary monetary policy, so it’s plausible. But he’s a lifelong academic, though he did spend his first 14 years after university as a government economist**. Mr. Mutō is the guy that the establishment wants, and the DPJ has little to gain and much to lose in terms of political credibility by pressing this case without a publicly compelling reason; a surprise nomination at this point is a highly remote possibility at most.

* The former Economic Planning Agency. The best and brightest at the EPA tended to leave as soon as they could land a tenured (associate) professorship at a prestigious university. Dr. Iwata landed in Tokyo University. He did return to his old haunts (now merged into the Cabinet Office) in 2001 to take charge of state-of-the-economy and economic-policy analyses until he was appointed to his current job in 2003.

(Pre-post ADD) I often let something that I’ve written lie until the next day. Some of them never get posted, saving me a lot of embarrassment. This was another one that I put away as a draft yesterday, and what do you know, the media reports from Seoul tell me that Yoshihito Sengoku, former DPJ Policy Research Council Chairman, pushed back on Mr. Mutō’s putative appointment, crfiticizing the BOJ, saying, “Are there (other) central banks buying 1.2 trillion yen worth of state bonds every month?”* With regard to Mr. Mutō, he said that “if you evaluate (the financial policy taken in the five-years under Governor Fukui), logic does not lead to elevating [Mr. Mutō] to Governor.”* By this logic, Dr. Iwata, or any other of the current board members for that matter, would be inappropriate.

Mr. Sengoku is not just any other DPJ Diet member. He is the head of the DPJ subcommittee that vets candidates for appointments subject to Diet approval, and Mr. Ozawa was clearly referring to that subcommittee when he stated that the decision would be made in the appropriate department. Moreover, Mr. Sengoku hails from the old Socialist Party, and does not see eye to eye with Mr. Ozawa. Could he use the vetting process to force Mr. Ozawa away from any thoughts of collaborating with the Fukuda administration?

But does this change the overall trajectory? Should I rewrite my narrative above the line? Not at all. There have been a string of news reports over the past week suggesting that the LDP was in the process of putting the final touches on Mr. Mutō’s candidacy and that Mr. Ozawa was opening the door to Mr. Mutō’s acceptance. The media had no choice but to pop the question; and Mr. Sengoku had no choice but to answer negatively, if only to preserve his prerogative. Mr. Sengoku may or may not be ill-disposed to Mr. Mutō, and he may or may not wish to undermine Mr. Ozawa**. His critique of Mr. Fukui’s steerage is a common, if not accepted uncritically, one. However, a wholesale disqualification of banking officials associated with Mr. Fukui’s steerage would paralyze the BOJ. I do not believe that Mr. Sengoku can take his statement to its ultimate conclusion. He will extract his pound of flesh when he cross-examines Mr. Mutō. But the potential reception of the financial market and the resultant damage to the DPJ’s reputation will be such that the usually reasonable Mr. Sengoku will acquiesce with time to spare before the March 19 deadline.

* The quotes have been reconstructed from Asahi , Yomiuri (hard copy only), and Sankei articles.

** In fact, he was in Seoul as part of a multiparty delegation to South Korea led by two left-center LDP leaders, Taku Yamazaki and Kōichi Katō. According to the Yomiuri, some people in the DPJ take the trip as a sign that Mr. Sengoku may be plotting against Mr. Ozawa. Whatever the truth of the matter may be, you don’t go on a bipartisan junket and use the occasion to undermine the LDP on the BOJ appointment.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Meaning of Habatsu

There must be hundreds of books written about the LDP, all of which surely have something to say about the habatsu, the party factions, for which it is justly famous. This post is for people who are too busy to read any of them, written by someone who is too lazy to.

You have been forewarned.

The 1993-94 electoral reforms that put first-past-the-post, single seat districts at the heart of the Lower House electoral system have steadily eroded the power of habastsu, the political factions in the LDP. The state subsidies to political parties, also part of the 1993-94 reforms, loosened the faction leaders’ financial grip over the rank-and-file. So are we going to see, as some people expect, a shift from the faction politics based on personal loyalty toward more policy- and ideology-consistent alliances, eventually leading to a realignment of the major parties? Not so fast.

Once upon a time, factions as a rule served as the vehicle for the political ambitions of their chiefs. No longer. The three most recent Prime Ministers have not been faction chiefs*, and the future does not look too promising for faction chiefs either. Of the current nine chiefs, only Sadakazu Tanigaki and Tarō Asō have run for the presidency of the LDP and by extension the Prime Ministership**, and Mr. Tanigaki will merge his micro-faction into the larger Koga faction later this year and give up his top faction role at least partly to enhance his chances for the top LDP job (but more on that later). And Nobutaka Machimura is the only other faction leader that has a credible shot at the LDP Presidency. In fact, faction leaders are increasingly looking like the political version of the stereotypical salaryman-manager presidents of Japanese companies.

The deterioration of the factions has been evident in the behavior of the individual Diet members. More LDP Diet members elect to stay out of factions and work as free agents. And the ones that remain are increasingly able to marching to their own music, as some of them openly defy the wishes of their respective faction leadership to vote for the party presidential candidate of their own choosing. The power of the faction leaders to punish the deviants is limited. I’ve already mentioned the money angle; and the party leadership has wrested much of the control over the selection of party candidates for Diet seats, and Junichirō Koizumi showed that a Prime Minister could get away with disregarding the wishes of faction chiefs and the imperatives of seniority in picking Cabinet members.

But the trend appears to have peaked with the election of 83 new Diet members, the so-called Koizumi Kids, in the 2005 election, the vast majority coming in as independents. Since then their ranks have been steadily depleted by defection, as it were, to one faction or other, until today, only 23 Lower House rookies remain as independent operators.

It’s not just rookies either. Nobuteru Ishihara, the hawkish son of Shintarō Ishihara and friend of Shinzō Abe, with two Cabinet appointments and a Big Three party post under his belt at the callow age of 50, fell in line under Taku Yamazaki, the Mother of All Doves, only last December. Kunio Hatoyama, of the Hatoyama clan, a 10-term Lower House member currently on his third (or fourth, depending on how you count) Cabinet appointment, joined the Tsushima faction, also last year. So what gives?

In fact, there are still some very good reasons for factions to prevail.

One good reason: Because it’s there. That’s the way they’ve conducted business. Old habits are hard to break. Institutional change, the informal ones at least, comes slowly. In the meantime, they’re a saving on transaction costs. Example: Imagine you’re a Prime Minister and you or your trusted deputies have to figure out how to choose all those political appointees - the Senior Vice-Ministers and Vice Ministers. You can’t expect to know (in the case of the Lower House) all the third- and second-termers well enough to make the right appointments. Over the long-run, administrations may stop treating these jobs as virtual internships and use them to better immediate effect, relegating, not incidentally, the rest of the rank-and-file Diet members to pure backbenchers. Until that happens though - I think it will be a long time in coming, if ever - the Prime Minister and his closest associates must have some viable means of allocating those posts.

Rookies have very good reasons of their own to join factions. A faction is a ready-made network to plug into, a good place to learn the ropes, find mentors, receive introductions***. There’s far less money available compared to the old days, but unless you are independently very wealthy, every million yen in political funds counts. And when a rookie’s first crack at reelection comes around, it’s good to have some nationally recognized figures come around to put in a good word with your constituents. And the bigger the faction, the greater the firepower; and vice versa. So I do not think that it is a coincidence that the Machimura faction has grown over its long hold on the Prime Minister’s seat to become the largest faction in the LDP. Tsutomu Takebe, who ran the party organization under Prime Minister Koizumi, has tried to keep the flame of independence alive by providing venues for training newbies. At least in the short-run, he is fighting a rearguard action.

As for better-established members, they will have accumulated a substantial amount of political capital within their factions. It doesn’t make political sense to throw that away and start anew as independents. Thus, once a faction member, (usually) always a member. Mr. Hatoyama is not really an exception to this rule. He has been in and out of the LDP, coming back again to stay in 2000. He joined the Tsushima faction, where he started out his political career when it was the almighty Tanaka faction****.

For those harboring ambitions for the top office, faction membership is highly helpful, perhaps essential. To file to run for the LDP Presidency, you need the signatures of at least 20 Diet members. A convenient place to start would be the member of your faction, where the smallest micro-faction has more than a baker’s dozen as a starter’s pack. A large faction would be even more convenient for aspirants. Mr. Tanigaki and Makoto Koga, the head of much larger Koga faction, have a natural affinity as foreign policy and history issue doves. But the Koga faction’s lack of a proximate candidate for the Prime Minister’s job must have figured just as importantly in the equation.

Kaoru Yasano, the affable policy wonk and behind-the-scenes operator, has seen much success as a troubleshooter and behind-the-scenes mediator. Most recently, he has been whispered as a potential successor to Prime Minister Koizumi, or replacement for Prime Minister Abe, but nothing really came of a that. Mr. Ishihara must have had this precedent in addition to his own experience in mind***** when he decided to fall in with his ideological and operational opposite, Mr. Yamazaki. It is telling that the Yamazaki faction had no viable for Prime Minister.

Policies and ideologies cut across faction lines; Mr. Ishihara alone is proof of that. However, Diet members do not fall into neat groups holding common positions on all or most of the important issues of the day******. This neccessitates the proliferation of an endless string of semi-permanent caucuses, many of them cutting across party lines. At the other end, no single issue is sufficiently powerful and divisive enough to force a realignment that severs permanently the communal relationships and the practical conveniences of the factions.

Thus, for the foreseeable future, factions should continue to thrive in the LDP. An important corollary of this conjecture is that a political realignment of the two major parties is not in the cards either.

Okay… not quite good enough, but I think I got it out of my system. And life is so short…

* Koizumi Junichirō, Shinzō Abe and Yasuo Fukuda all hailed from the Seiwakai. Mr. Koizumi was nominally the faction head while Yoshirō Mori, the faction head took him turn before him as Prime Minister.

** Yōhei Kōno, the current President of the Lower House, is the only LDP President in its 53-year history never to serve as Prime Minister.

*** This must have been particularly important for the Koizumi kids, since so many of them had little or no political experience or ties to their local political communities.

**** Mr. Hatoyama surely still harbors ambitions to be Prime Minister. Still only 59-years old, he is a 10-term Diet member with a pedigree better than Mr. Fukuda’s and at least as good as Mr. Abe’s. He displayed his ambitions when he tried but failed to stand for the election of the LDP President in 2006. I suspect that this experience was a strong motivation to go to the Tsushima faction, which conveniently does not have ready Prime Minister candidate. Tsushima faction member Fukushirō Nukaga has been seen my many as a potential candidate, but when he tried to stand in 2007, he had to give up because he could not even secure the support of his own faction.

***** I suspect that similar considerations entered into Mr. Hatoyama’s decision, but I couldn’t be sure about it, so I put it in footnote****.

****** To give an example, too many Western commentators regularly refer to Mr. Koizumi as a right-wing politician, a nationalist, because he antagonized the Chinese by insisting on going to Yasukuni Shrine, and also supported President Bush on the war in Iraq. To realize that those people slide beyond shaggy conventional wisdom into the realm of urban legend, you only have to look at his position on the Class A War Criminals and other hot-button history issues, as well as his support for MOF in holding the line against defense spending. And I haven’t even talked about the imperial succession. And North Korea. I’ll try to expand this point into a full post one of these days.