Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Questions (Only) about the Future of the Liberal Democratic Party; and an Unrelated Notice

With little happening on the domestic front by way of headline-grabbing events and there being only so many ways to say that the economy is tanking, the media have turned its attention to pre-mortems of the LDP as we know it. There’s so much chatter from potential instigators—old-guard liberals Koichi Kato and Taku Yamazaki; pro-market reformists Hidenao Nakagawa, Yuriko Koike, Yasuhisa Shiozaki and Yoshimi Watanabe; and even conservative camel-nose Takeo Hiranuma come to mind—that it’s hard to shake the impression that it’s a matter of when, not whether, it will happen and what form it will take. Specifically, will the beginning of the end come before the Lower House election or after? Will it come as a series of small-bore defections, or one big bang? Will the process annihilate the LDP, or will it leave a smaller but more coherent political force in its wake? Will the realignment bug infect the DPJ, with its even greater potential for fractiousness held in bay only by prospects of the spoils of victory, as well as the rest of the opposition? Most important, What policy decisions will be made in the course of these events—or the lack thereof in the unlikely event that little of import happens—and how will they affect the course of the Japanese economy and its components as well as Japan’s relations with its allies, neighbors and the rest of the world?

So many questions, but no answers and few meaningful thoughts, at least from me. I hope to the find the coming months more informative for this blog. In the meantime, the kind people at Trans-Pacific Radio requests that I post the following message regarding an upcoming real-world blogfest. (Blog-con? Blorgy?) I have some scheduling problems for the Saturday event, but I’ll do my best to be there myself. For those of you who will not be in the Kanto area, wish you could be there. Happy holidays.
A gathering for bloggers and blog enthusiasts is being planned in Tokyo for the evening of January 17, and we would like to extend the invitation to any and all visitors who may wish to come. Bloggers from Observing Japan, Shisaku, Global Talk 21, Mutant Frog, Coming Anarchy, Trans-Pacific Radio and more will be amongst the crowd.

All of us are hoping to meet with other bloggers and readers for an evening of food an drink. If you would like to attend, please send an email to before January 8th. Please let us know how many folks you would like to bring along with you. Although we have a place in mind for the get-together, we will wait to see what the final numbers are like before confirming. We expect that the gathering will be held in either Shibuya or Shinjuku. After we have confirmed the numbers and location, we will send you an email letting you know exactly where and when (probably about 6pm) we will be meeting up on the 17th.

We hope to see you all on the 17th of January!

This is a New One

Yesterday, I received a message from “Gmail Customer Care” stating that my email account would be shut down unless I confirmed my intent to continue to use my account by logging in with information including my password. It got through my spam filter and has an official-looking layout and all so I thought that I’d mention it here. Not that I think anyone who reads my blog would be taken in by such a fishing attempt…

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Japan Provokes North Korea Threat to Resuscitate Yongbyon Reactors? Think Again.

If you read only this Reuters report, you might think that Japan’s refusal to provide heavy fuel oil under the 2007 October 3 Six-Parties Agreement is to blame for North Korea’s threat to stop dismantling its core nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. Not true. All the five powers had decided to suspend fuel shipments after the December Six-Party talks because North Korea would not agree to a verification protocol, as this State Department briefing notes (it is more carefully laid out in this VOA report), although Russia and China appears to have later denied agreeing to such a thing. Reuters obviously failed to factcheck the Kyodo wire report on which the report was based. Besides, the tab for the “Japanese” portion of the fuel aid was going to be picked up by Australia, with the understanding that Japan would shoulder a proportionately larger share of the burden further down the line.

Then why is North Korea blaming Japan weeks after the deed? If you could read the original Kyodo wire, you would find that the whole thing stemmed from a somewhat misleading press briefing that Yoshihiro Kawakami, a hardcore pro-North Korea parliamentarian gave in Beijing after talks with an North Korean Embassy official there. Kawakami essentially did the proverbial “awakening the sleeping baby”. As an enterprising Asahi reporter in Tokyo later found out by asking Kawakami himself, the North Korean official had told him that “it doesn’t matter if (Japan’s share of the assistance) is [coming from] another country, but if it doesn’t happen, (the disabling operation) will be to that extent suspended. ((日本の分の支援は)別の国でも構わないが、できなければ(無能力化作業は)その分だけ中断される。)”

Of course the North Korean official would have badmouthed the official Japanese line; he was talking to a sympathetic Japanese Diet member, who could be expected to follow suit. But even that Kawakami took note of the fact and duly reported that it was the fuel oil (or its equivalent) that counted, not the name on the CARE package. As an aside to this post but a matter very significant for the security situation in the region, I note that the North Korean official indicated a proportional suspension of disablement, not a reversal thereof. This may have been a slip of the tongue by the official (unlikely) or misunderstanding by Kawakami (possible), but if true, it would be signal from the North Korean side that, for the time being, a freeze of the status quo—North Korea retains strategic ambiguity regarding its nuclear capacity but makes no overt move to enhance it—that I predicted more than a year ago is in store, at least until President-Elect Obama has settled in and is ready to deal with the issue, not a sure thing during the first years of his administration.

The New York Times actually gets a lot of the facts right in its December 29 editorial, although it predictably manages to misrepresent the Japanese position on fuel aid. To quote:
Japan was already reneging on its commitment to supply fuel aid, and Australia, which had stepped into the breach, announced that it would withhold its contribution.
This is a gross misrepresentation of the Japanese position and shows a lack of understanding of the October 3 Six-Parties Agreement, which states:
The DPRK and Japan agreed to make “sincere efforts” to normalize their relations.
Although it requires heavy reading between the lines, this essentially meant that Japan would give North Korea upwards of a trillion yen if the latter came clean on the abductees. Like it or not, for Japan, this is part and parcel of its rights and obligations under the Six Parties Agreement. From the Japanese perspective, it is North Korea who has reneged. I know that Americans think that Japan is nuts for insisting on putting the abduction issue on the Six Parties agenda, and I have been critical of the Japanese government and media on this matter. But it’s a whole nuther thing to ignore it as a fact of life like the NYT editorial does.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Hilzoy Does a Factcheck on WaPo

Here, on the Washington Monthly blog, Hilzoy takes a look at an article on the legal treatment of incest and rape in Mexico and finds it badly wrong in a way that sensationalizes the issue. Good to know that I am not alone.

They can’t claim simple negligence; it’s Spanish, for God’s sake.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

For Those of You Who Miss WaiWai

A reminder from someone whose name rhymes with Brett Hull (and who wishes he could score half as often) that although WaiWai may be dead, its spirit lives on in the Tokyo Reporter, here. Well, at least a part of it, as the link’s tag, Japanese-smut-portal tells us.

Actually, the online media outlet overall appears to be much broader in scope, somewhere between the pure-tabloid weeklies and the more legitimate, if boring, weekly offerings from the mainstream media. For those of you don’t want to go directly to Japanese-smut-portal, here’s the main Tokyo Reporter portal.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Tokyo Confidential Is Officially Dead(?)

Tokyo Confidential, the Japan Times column that “summarizes articles appearing in vernacular tabloids”, had been caught up in the Mainichi’s WaiWai controversy. I argued at the time that Tokyo Confidential and WaiWai were very different animals and that the former would be safe from serious repercussions. So I was surprised to hear from PS that TC had been suspended pending “editorial review”. Much later, last Sunday, PS gave me information from an unimpeachable source stating that the Sunday JT would be carrying a notice that the Tokyo Confidential would be discontinued and that the notice would include an apology to the magazines for their unauthorized use. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the notice on the otherwise content-rich online JT, but I’ll take it on faith that it appeared on the realpaper version.

So much for my powers of prediction.

Now, the original source also claimed that some magazines were willing to let JT use summaries of their material but they attached such onerous conditions that JT decided that it wouldn’t be worth the trouble. So my reasoning behind my optimism, that is, the distinction between the two features, still appears to stand. It would be interesting to know just what those conditions were, though, since there must be a level of paraphrasing and even direct quotes that would have enabled JT to clear the fair use threshold, with or without permission. Note that a not insignificant portion of international news in the mainstream dailies is generated by trawling the websites of CNN, NYT, WaPo, ad nauseum.

Here’s something that might shed some light on the weekly magazines’ concerns. You may be aware that Sankei’s Japanese-only website continues to carry many reports that would have belonged solidly in the now-defunct TC or even WaiWai, but nobody to the best of my knowledge is raising a ruckus. But Sankei, the relatively recent online affiliate of MNS, is an anomaly. The Sankei website is uncommonly rich in regard to content, including (from my perspective) verbatim reports of the Prime Minister’s press briefings, official and unofficial, in full. It also stands in stark contrast to the other dailies for its generosity regarding access to its archives. Asahi is at the other extreme, maltreating even its paid subscribers. Tabloids and weeklies guard their contents even more jealously. All this lends credence to the original source’s explanation for the TC’s demise. Still, it would be interesting to know just what those conditions were.

Friday, December 26, 2008

”No Buffer, No Resiliency”? Maybe. But What Does That Have to Do with the Current Economic Crisis?

On his blog for The Atlantic, James Fallows appears to be supporting “the argument that today's lean, hyper-efficient, ‘just in time’ economy was magnifying the effects of today's economic collapse.” Sounds plausible, but how does it stack up against statements from sages such as Alan Greenspan—okay, bad example—suggesting that lean production practices had the effect of smoothing out economic cycles? Let’s give the blame-lean-production theory a closer look, using the auto industry as an example.

Let’s say that a financial crisis leads to a credit crunch that deprives a cash-starved, lean-production auto company of adequate financing to maintain its production, distribution and sales operations. This process is repeated up and down the supply chain, causing overall auto production to plummet. The idea behind Fallows’ argument I suppose is that if this auto company (and its suppliers as well as its distribution chain) had maintained stocks of parts and components, it could continue producing autos even without financing until… until something happened to reduce the growing piles of unshipped autos on the company yard and docks and unsold autos on the dealer lots? And how does allowing that to happen ameliorate, rather than compound, the difficulties for the auto company? The current financial crisis, which has nothing to do with lean production, precipitated an economic downturn, which has nothing to do with lean production, that has lead to a dramatic fall in auto demand, which has nothing to do with lean production. The financial crisis exacerbates the precarious financial situation of the Detroit Three, which is connected to lean production only to the extent that they may have lagged behind their foreign competitors in adopting the practice.

The potential flaw in lean production lies in its logistics, not economics. Supply chains can indeed be disrupted, sometimes with dire consequences. That is why, for example, states and energy producers hold large, expensive, but immediately accessible reserve stocks. That is why manufacturers maintain multiple sources. Both these needs, of course, are balanced against costs. Auto companies are in less of a spot than providers of products whose supplies must not allowed to be disrupted, though they did encounter serious problems when the Niigata Earthquake damaged the production facilities of the major supplier for a vital component. Even then, the industry as a whole coped remarkably well, with what wound up being a mere blip in production—nobody noticed anything unusual at the retail level.

On a final note, the assertion that “’Just-In-Time,’ is based upon ... a wholly unjustified wager that the economy and its supporting systems will always remain stable and never experience disruption” and that it has anything meaningful to do with the current economic difficulties just doesn’t hold water; the whole thing is a straw man that was set up to justify an unfounded argument. Nobody is making such assumptions save the author of the essay for which Fallows uncharacteristically fell without bothering to match it up against reality.

ADD: I urge those of you who usually don’t read the comments to click to see what Janne has to say. I hope that my response is as interesting.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Blue, Bluer, Bluest Christmas

Are you one of those sad sacks who got nothing but lumps of coal in your stocking? Well, you can console yourself with the thought that, as bad as it is, you could be worse off. For example, you could be:

Uriel, the alleged gang member;

Cynthia, the misguided investment banker; or, worst of all,

Issac Robert Toussie, the...... real estate developer.

Meli kalikimaka, y'all!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Sanctioning a General, Hazing, and Other Matters

I placed a comment on the Shisaku blog regarding sanctions (or lack thereof) on General Tamogami, the hazing deaths in a sumo stable and the Maritime Self-Defense Force, and other matters. Since it’s a pretty long one and some thought went into writing it, I’ll let it double as my post of the day and spend the rest of the day celebrating the good fortune of being a longtime Celtics fan.

I do have something more to say about Ret. General Tamogami, but it’s fairly trivial. Rather, one of these days, I’ll try to write up my thoughts on an aspect of the intellectual comportment of Prime Minister Aso before it becomes irrelevant. But not today. Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

TIMETakes on Renewable Energy in Japan, Shows How Mainstream Media Fails Us

From TIME, December 22, by Coco Masters, A Japanese Town That Kicked the Oil Habit:
In resource-poor Japan, which imports 90% of its fuel, Kuzumaki is a marvel of energy self-sufficiency. Signs of the town's comprehensive focus on environmental sustainability are visible from its mountaintops to the pens of the dairy cows that once were the bedrock of local commerce. Atop Mt. Kamisodegawa, the 12 wind turbines, each 305 feet (93 m) tall, have the capacity to convert mountain gusts into 21,000 KW of electricity — more than enough to meet the needs of the town's residents. The excess is sold to neighboring communities.

Of course, the wind doesn't always blow. At Kuzumaki Highland Farm, 200 dairy cows share the power load. Their manure is processed into fertilizer and methane gas, the latter used as fuel for an electrical generator at the town's biomass facility. Nearby, a three-year project sponsored by Japan's Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry's New Energy Development Organization (NEDO) uses wood chips from larch trees to create gas that powers the farm's milk and cheese operations. The bark of other trees is also made into pellets for heating stoves used throughout the community. A local winery, for instance, has two such stoves, and Kuzumaki pays residents up to 50,000 yen ($490) toward the cost of installing one. All told, clean energy generated 161% of Kuzumaki's electricity last year.
Wait, so is “gas that powers the farm's milk and cheese operations” being used to generate electricity? The “heating stoves” that burn tree-bark pellets? Masters thinks so, or doesn’t know how to write. Further on in the article, Masters is pessimistic about wind, sun, and bio because “[i]nvestment in the town's projects — paid for by local tax revenues, private investors and the prefectural and central governments — totals $50 million. That's about $6,000 per resident, an amount that would pay the electricity bill for an average Tokyo family of four for more than seven years.” If this really meant that a family of four can recoup its investment in seven-eight years, it would make all the sense in the world to invest in these energy sources at once. Besides, that $50 million investment is producing 161% of Kumazaki’s electricity requirements, which provides for 14,500 people, not just the 9,000 Kumazaki residents? And wouldn’t that make the investment more like $3,450, which should be recoverable in four-five years?

Of course it doesn’t work like that, since there are such things as running costs. In fact, these numbers only make sense within a broader range of data that Masters appears to be totally ignorant of. This is symptomatic of the entire article, where Masters belches forth a scattershot array of disconnected factoids that fail to make a meaningful connection to our energy future.

The entire article is nothing more than preconceptions and anecdotes loosely strung together. And that’s par course for the course where mainstream reporting on Japan is concerned. At this rate, all we’ll be left with will be the wire services.

ADD (December 24): In fact, what I thought was Masters’ greatest error appears to be… but let me explain. Note that the $6,000 investment is per resident while the “average Tokyo household” that the it is debited to has four members. So I was off by a factor of four? Stupid me? Not so fast. The $50 million total investment most likely includes non-electricity items (heating stoves?), and the average (2005) has only 2.94 members. So wouldn’t all that make the investment recoverable in twelve-fifteen years, not a great bargain, but not that unreasonable as a long-term investment, particularly given the prospects for energy prices. It all depends on maintenance and other running costs and the life expectancy of the fixed investments. We also don’t know what the economies of scale will look like if these projects could be replicated on an industrial scale or alternatively mass produced. But such speculation only brings up the next question: Why haven’t the authorities been able to give this all an effective nudge by judiciously applied subsidies?

Going through these questions one by one, fact-checking, consulting experts, etc., is what we expect professional journalists to do. Failing to do so sends this article to the limbo where reports that aren’t even wrong are condemned.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

At Least Our Emperor Comes Out to Give the Answers Himself

A Kennedy spokesman drafted seven written answers to the eight questions submitted by Politico to the 51-year-old attorney, author and electoral novice.
Well, as an heirloom celebrity, this blog supposes she’s inherited the right to refer to herself in the third person.

I’llThis blog’ll believe Kotaro Koizumi will be elected to the Lower House if Caroline Kennedy is appointed to the Senate. I think This blog thinks it's a bad idea for Governor Paterson though.

ADD: Incidentally, the TIME headline reads: Caroline Kennedy Takes Questions. No, TIME, she doesn’t.

They Say Every Shark Has Its Suckerfish

Or they should. Anyhow, at least Madoff worked his ass off doing his grift. But this Jacob Merkin? Basically, he passed his clients’ money along to Madoff and skimmed off 1.5% for doing nothing. In fact, he does not appear to be the only one doing so. Amazing how easily trust can be exploited.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Re the Donkey-to-DPJ Suck-Up (Not)

I finally got around to reading the hardcopy Yomiuri, and waddya know, it has a story headlined “U.S. Democratic Party Approaches DPJ”.

A couple of interesting points. First, the Yomiuri does not mention John Kerry at all; instead, James Kelly, President Bush’s political appointee to the East Asia and Pacific portfolio in the State Department. (Before that, he was…president of the Pacific Forum, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in Honolulu. Big surprise, right?) So, what are the odds that Sankei got the name wrong? Second, and vastly more important, Yomiuri being Yomiuri, the focus of the story is the worry expressed by Nye over the DPJ’s insistence on pulling out of the JMSDF refueling activities in the Indian Ocean and opposition to relocating the US Marines air station in Futenma to Ginowan. To quote:
If [the DPJ] suddenly throws those things at the Obama administration, it will not be received as an intent to maintain the U.S.-Japan alliance.”
The Nye Team (what else to call it, in the absence of Kerry?) came to issue a warning. That, dear readers, is the real story.

DPJ Leaders and National Security Figures from US Democratic Party Hold Talks with an Eye on Administration Transitions

That is the headline for this Sankei report. According to the article, Naoto Kan, Yukio Hatoyama, Katsuya Okada, Seiji Maehara—the DPJ’s four ex-leaders—and other DPJ members met national security figures from the Democratic Party yesterday at a hotel in Tokyo. Hatoyama even held a press conference, where he explained, “We received a valuable piece of indication that it is important to deepen exchanges between the U.S> Democratic Party and the DPJ.”

So who were these Democratic figures? Senator John Kerry okay, Joseph Nye okay, though he did support Hillary Clinton throughout the primaries, John Hamre wait, is this the same John Hamre that Robert Gates, the low-key Republican, brought in to chair the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee when he became Defense Secretary?, and Michael Green hey, he’s a Republican, who served in the Bush White House and most recently worked for John McCain’s presidential campaign

The common thread running through these men, or at least the last three, is the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the determinedly non-partisan go-to think tank for the Washington establishment. Nye is a trustee, Hamre is the president, and Green is the Japan Chair. Green played a significant role in putting together the Nye-Armitage Reports, the first of which served as a bipartisan roadmap for the United States’ strategic relations with Japan under George Bush and Junichiro Koizumi. The same three could have served at least as well as an emissary for John McCain.

So where does Kerry fit into this picture? Well, we are talking about a Democratic administration, and he didn’t get a cabinet post, so why not? Actually, there’s a personal link here. During the 2004 presidential campaign, then-DPJ party leader Okada pointedly visited John Kerry but not Bush, professing a DPJ affinity with its U.S. namesake, with the war in Iraq, always unpopular in Japan, hovering in the background. Which reminds us, doesn’t it, that friend-of-Bush Tom Shieffer’s days are numbered either way?

In fact, a deeper look into the overall picture reveals that the meeting was merely an episode, albeit a significant one, of a greater effort by the unchanging, bipartisan foreign policy and national security establishment in Washington to use the opportunity of a staged event in its bipartisan political program—the U.S.-Japan Strategic Leadership Program for Japanese Diet Members—to reaffirm its interlocutory prerogatives as the United States goes through its own political transition. Indeed the LDP Prime Minister Aso himself delivered the words of greetings at the reception for the event. The meeting with DPJ members held on the side of the event was decidedly not the D-to-D hugfest of Hatoyama’s imagination. (Sankei to my surprise bit—didn’t have time to call Yoshihisa Komori in Washington I suppose—so you could say it worked.)

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Kimster Appears to Be Well Enough to Make the Rounds. But It’s Probably Not What You Think It Is

I say this picture is for real. Why? Because the picture says he has thermoregulatory problems. And his face looks visibly aged. I am now convinced that he did have a stroke, and that it shows. You may ask, don’t the North Koreans know how to photoshop the Dear Leader? Of course they do.

My guess is, the North Korean regime is preparing its subjects for the inevitable by uploading images of the beginning of the end of Kim Jong I

Is This Michael Lind an Idiot or What? And Some Thoughts on Barack Obama and His Christian Beliefs

The most shocking thing about the alliance between the Southern states and America's friendly but earnest economic rivals to destroy America's most important industry is the fact that so few people find it shocking.
Statements like that give liberalism a bad name. Maybe the Democratic left has gone berserk, what with Barack Obama’s s choice of Rick Warren to replace Jeremiah Wright as his favorite pastor.

Speaking of which, did you know that Obama is personally opposed to same-sex marriage and is uncomfortable with the idea of abortion? As Christians come, he is relatively conservative. He is much closer to George Bush than you imagine. Or is it the other way around?

South Korea’s Opposition Lawmakers Takes Sledgehammer to FTA and the Blog Waxes Nostalgic

Perhaps a sledgehammer is taking it a little bit too far, but it is not beyond living memory in Japan as well that lawmakers would routinely resort to brute force when they didn’t have the numbers. And we Japanese might have similarly adopted the post-dictatorship South Korea’s habit of criminally prosecuting the outgoing president and/or his family, friends and/or acquaintances had our prime ministers not always hailed from the same political party.

A democracy needs time to grow into its mores, manners, customs and morals, it seems. In the meantime, though, I cannot help avoid a sense of envy at the youthful recklessness with which the South Koreans pursue politics as a blood sport. But you know what I think of our current political leadership and their understudies.

Incidentally, Martin Fackler of designer vending machines fame is reporting this story out of Tokyo. Didn’t NYT have a Seoul Bureau? I’m going to start saving their articles that I refer to on my posts, just in case the Grey Lady decides to raise revenue by retreating behind a pay-to-play wall. Or heaven forbid, go six feet under, taking all its servers with it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Is It the End of AP as We Know It ?

I’d always had great respect for wire services. In my dealings with the foreign press in the early ‘90s, I found their writers to be civil and free of preconceptions and other agenda that some mainstream correspondents were guilty of in their search for the big score. But now, there’s this, as well as this and other complaints against its reports out of Washington. Yes, it’s the liberals who are complaining, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

Does it all boil down to money?

Is AP a Propaganda Machine for the Tamil Tigers?

Krishan Francis is the AP correspondent in Sri Lanka, and had been tagging every dispatch with the following lines:
The Tamil Tiger rebels have fought since 1983 to create an independent homeland for the country's ethnic minority Tamils.

More than 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.
Mos recently, Francis has switched to a new coda:
Authorities have vowed to crush the rebels and end their 25-year campaign for an independent state for ethnic minority Tamils.

More than 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.
Now there’s a very good case to be made that the political and social excesses of Sinhalese nationalists gave rise to Tamil dissent that has since mutated into the murderous insurgency that is the Tamil Tigers. But I wonder if Francis believes that the Tamil Tigers have the support of the Tamil public in Sri Lanka. Specifically, does Francis believe that the Tamil Tigers would win a fair in Tamil-majority regions in Sri Lanka? And if Francis believes that, can Francis explain why the Tamil Tigers don’t want a democratic resolution to the decades-long war of attrition? And if Francis can’t, why is AP allowing the use of Francis’s place of employment as a propaganda tool?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Why Totalitarianism Is Bad for Efficiency and Other Unspeakable Matters

Read this post on the Daily NK. It’s a reminder that as bad as the market economy can be, it could be worse.

Speaking of North Korea, did you know that a tenured academic gave a talk at an institution of education that should have known better than to give it a platform? It claimed that all the problems that the rest of the world has with North Korea would go away if only Japan sincerely apologized for its war crimes. At that point, I walked out, so I don’t know what more it had to say about North Korea—its main claim to fame is its eloquent defense of the Khmer Rouge back in the day, so go figure—but let me know if you were there. On second thought, don’t.

Then there’s the academic who claimed intimate knowledge of Barack Obama, then went on to vent its hate of the President-Elect. The funny thing was, the only facts it could come up with were a rehash of the two books that Obama had written. It also managed to slander the University of Michigan Law School on the occasion. Mind you, this is such a slimy character that it refused to speak on the record, although there was no such notice on the announcement of the event.

These two things are the best argument against tenure. Or allowing academics to speak out beyond their professed area of expertise.

Update on the LDP Dissenters; Plus, Why the DPJ Isn’t Winning

It’s looking increasingly difficult for the LDP to survive the upcoming general election in the Lower House and face the next general election—the next Upper House election takes place in 2010, but may be preceded by yet another Lower House election if the results of the upcoming one does not work out politically—in its current shape. Fifty-something would-be leaders are increasingly vocal in their opposition to the status quo; now, a couple of sexagenarian heavyweights, former top PM candidate Koichi Kato and eponymous faction leader Taku Yamazaki, are openly consorting with the enemy—Post Office exile Shizuka Kamei and DPJ number two/three Naoto Kan—all but endorsing realignment after the Lower House election. Hidenao Nakagawa, Junichiro Koizumi’s party deputy during the latter’s PR days, is another sexagenarian who is bucking the party’s tattered establishment. Other faction leaders—Bunmei Ibuki, Makoto Koga and Nobutaka Machimura—have put aside their differences to rail against the voices of the insurgency, and the still-influential ex-Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori has also lent his voice to the orthodoxy with angry calls for one for all and all for one. But

Now, for the sake of argument, a case could be made that the dissent is merely tactical; having distanced themselves from the embarrassing string of feckless PMs, the objectors may be hoping to first use that to their personal advantage in the Lower House election, then sweep in to take the reins of party power in the aftermath. After all, PM Koizumi successfully used that run-against-your-own-party trick on a massive scale in the 2005 Lower House general election. But that’s most unlikely. Either the LDP-New Komeito coalition maintains the majority, which leaves dissenters with the choice between remaining a minority voice in the status quo and breaking out to pursue realignment; or it is relegated to minority status, and bitter recriminations break out both ways. Either way, I think that they must pursue their complaints to their logical conclusion, which leads to the exit.

If there’s anything that gives hope to the ruling coalition, though, it’s the fact that even as the LDP is losing, the DPJ is not winning either. In fact, it’s quite possible that neither the ruling coalition nor the DPJ will be able to muster a majority, leaving the door open to a variety of coalitions, realignments, and other permutations that make the ultimate outcome of the next Lower House election the most difficult one to speculate about since the 1955 political big bang that created the LDP (and the now-almost defunct for all practical purposes Socialist Party).

Incidentally, I’ve tended to blame the unpopularity of the DPJ on the public antipathy towards its mostly unappealing leader Ichiro Ozawa. There’s that, but more fundamentally, it has failed to come up with a plausible alternative in the face of the financial meltdown that has mutated into a full-blown, global economic crisis. The lack of technocratic expertise on the part of Ozawa and his confidantes and the lack of ideological coherence on the part of the party as a whole are making it difficult for them show much flexibility beyond the items in the preprogrammed manifesto-plus or to push the agenda when it does, as in the case of its thoughtful if somewhat wonkish financial-sector stabilization package evidenced here as part of its November economic rescue kit. The DPJ is not creating separation between itself and the shopworn LDP, and it shows in the polls.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Woe Canada!

Dear sister of mine, This.Man.Must.Be.Stopped.
…the last was so awful that after failing out of the N.F.L. he ended up failing out of the Canadian Football League as well.
And to think, I bought his book...

A new Post on My Japanese-Language Blog

On Israel and the Islam World, Japan and China.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Dynasty: Across the U.S. Political Spectrum

Glen Greenwald at his righteous best. Of all the anger-driven journalists that I'm aware of, he's the only one that doesn't appear to manipulate it for commercial gain.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Even as LDP Loses DPJ Fails to Win…

Briefly; the rumbling and grumbling in the LDP only seems to grow as media poll after media poll recorded an breathtaking drop in support for the beleaguered Prime Minister, his Cabinet, and, to a lesser degree his party. Future prospects do not look too good for them either, Aso appears to have botched, possibly irreparably, the launch of his second-tranche stimulus package and the global economic woes will surely extend beyond the next year. Short of successfully repelling a major terrorist attack with his skeet rifle, there does not seem to be anything on the horizon that Aso can seize on to improve electoral fortunes before the expiration date arrives next September for the current batch of Lower House members.

All is not lost for the Ins, however. Even as the LDP appears to be slip-sliding away, the DPJ have not exactly been tearing ahead either. The fact of the matter is that somewhere in the neighborhood of 2/3rds of the responders to public opinion polls still do not support the DPJ, and skepticism about Ichiro Ozawa’s character and his ability and willingness to serve if elected remains strong. On the other hand, the likelihood is increasing that the DPJ doesn’t have to win a majority; that it only has to beat the LDP and look to batches of defector to emerge in the aftermath of the election to enable it to create a working majority. Defections in the other direction would be far less likely, and fewer even if they do occur.

So I guess my question is, will the LDP throw up another, prettier, face to replace Aso and fight the Lower House election before the novelty wears off? If so, how can they fit tranche II and the regular budget bill and the related legislative bills and the LDP presidential election into the political calendar? And the July Tokyo Prefectural Assembly election that has junior coalition partner New Komeito worried?

Dynasty: Heirloom Candidates as a Function of Party Discipline

This is a follow-up to a dialogue between Janne and me on this post. I thought it merited a posting on its own because it puts forth an idea about the reasons for the heirloom politicians and their relative prevalence that I think makes sense. Such thoughts are always followed in my case by an uh-oh, did I just reinvent the wheel again moment. Let me know if you know any work along my line of reasoning.
In democracies, where the power of the political parties over the electoral process (choice of candidates, campaign funding, etc.) is strong, politicians will be chosen on the basis of merit rather than heritage. Where the political parties are weak and individual start-up politicians are expected to act as political venture business, that is, do his own financing, marketing, sales, after-service, etc., then this places newly-minted challengers at a substantial disadvantage against established incumbents. That is not all. Many of the assets that a lifelong politician has amassed over the years such as contacts and fundraising networks and even a measure of personal loyalty (if the successor has worked closely with the incumbent over the years) can be passed on in the form of political goodwill to an anointed successor. This is particularly effective in the case of a close relative who shares the surname, since that individual can inherit the family brand intact as an heirloom candidate. (I prefer the word heirloom over alternatives such as heritage because it conjures the image of heirloom turkeys, providing me with a most pleasurable sensation when I think of politics.)

This could explain the difference between, say the U.K. and Germany on the one hand and the United States on the other, The much greater prevalence of heirloom politicians in Japan is likely to be attributable to reinforcement by the much stronger social pressure to keep up the family “business” in contrast to the American, sell-out-and-move-to-the-Keys mentality.

To be sure, you must do a far more comprehensive, country-by-country study. But I do think it’s a potentially powerful hypothesis. I’m sure, in fact, that scholars must have done this kind of comparative study already.

Shinseki Nomination Sends Message to Japan (and We Like It)

Nearly seventy years ago today, "a date which will live in infamy," our harbor was bombed in Hawaii, and our troops went off to war. And after that war was over, after we reclaimed a continent from a madman and beat back danger in the Pacific, those troops came home to a grateful nation – a nation that welcomed them with a GI Bill and a chance to live out in peace the dreams they had fought for, and so many died for, on the battlefield. We owe it to all our veterans to honor them as we honored our Greatest Generation – not just with words, but with deeds.
7 December 2008, from President-Elect Obama’s announcement of Gen. Eric Shinseki as Secretary of Veterans Affairs
Barack Obama chose the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy to announce his selection of the third-generation Japanese-American Eric Shinseki to head the Department of Veteran Affairs, an event that is being widely covered in the Japanese media for obvious reasons. The Japanese is taking note of the fact that Obama did not mention Japan (or Germany) by name, and interpreting the whole affair as a demonstration of his “forward-looking posture”, as we would say in Japanese. Note also that Obama uses the terms danger for Japan and madman for Germany. One is a faceless menace; the other, Hitler. This is in keeping with the United States’ original decision not to try the Emperor as a war criminal, and it would have been unthinkable to do otherwise. Still, it is reassuring to see the Obama team’s skill and knowing tact in action in the use of the appointment—normally a very minor cabinet post but with great political significance for the incoming administration—to also send Japan a positive message. This is particularly important when Obama’s election has raised specters—wrongly in my view—of the turbulent Clinton years among the Japanese political and business establishment.

The Obama team does have a highly capable set of Japan hands on board—perhaps it helps in this instance that Japan studies, unlike Russia studies for example, tend to attract liberals, hence Democrats and it shows here. The Japan hands are unlikely to hold high-profile posts like Richard Armitage and Michael Green did during the Bush administration—Japan is not a source of trouble—but I’m sure that they will continue to make their presence felt where such positive, reinforcing touches are concerned. Their services will be particularly useful to the Obama administration, given the growing turbulence on the Japanese political scene.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Taro Aso: Framed by His Own Hands?

Michael Reimer provides some interesting and illuminating information in his comments to this post on the recent prorogation of the Canadian Parliament. Seriously, did the person who read out the prorogation (I’m going to keep repeating this word until I get it out of my system) wear a tricorn hat, or a bicorn one?

An article to which Michael linked, The Framing of Dion (a good if not quite spectacular read if you are interested in Canadian politics), reminded me of the travails of the home front, where the ruling coalition is in deep trouble despite holding a supermajority in the more powerful Lower House. I think Aso has been framed, or rather mostly framed himself, as a rambling, bumbling figure that commands little respect from his own party members.

A leader with limited competence presiding over a party suffering from institutional fatigue meets the mother of economic crises; the planets appear to be aligned for the reordering of our corner of the political universe.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Dynasty: The Kennedys

Now, Edward Kennedy may pass the torch to Caroline Kennedy. Who next, David Eisenhower? I cannot believe my eyes. But Robert Kennedy Jr. may have popped the bubble with this:
Robert Kennedy said his extended family would come out en masse for her if she does get the appointment and has to run for election in 2010.

"If she runs, you will see more Kennedys than you have ever seen in your life," he said.
It’s at least as bad as Bill Clinton’s’ two for the price of one. But maybe I underestimate the Americans’ love of royalty and court intrigue.

Is This What Happens When Minority Governments Rule?

Whoa, Canada! Indeed.

Sentences I Like: Lev Grossman Reviews J.K. Rowling’s Latest Offering

Also [the heart] had gotten hairy. Rowling doesn't tell us the why of the hair, and no plot points turn on it; it's just there — one of those creepy, evocative details that participate in a logic deeper and stranger than that of plot and moral.
TIME, 5 December 2008
I know I can’t explain the unexplainable—the difference between art and artifice, I suspect—so succinctly.

Comment for Previous U.S. Auto Post

The blog refuses to let my comment go through. So here’s a response to Martin’s latest comment on this post:
Yes, the impact on the entire industry, including suppliers, is noted by US media, but I havn't been able to find anyone talking specifically about the effect on the other car manufacturers, including Nissan, Hyundai, VW etc. with plants in the US.

The "shift" is towards Asian and European cars, which are smaller, smarter (eg. more fuel efficient), but require a new way of thinking. The US is also going to need massive investments in public transportation, when the economy no longer can support the two-cars-per-family lifestyle. Instead of bailing out the Big 3, it would make sense to debate that. Obama is talking about "green jobs" and a new green deal, that has been noted here in Japan as well:
Martin: You can be sure that the Japanese automakers are doing their best to blend into the background and avoid becoming part of the story. They’ve always been careful to act humble while playing the part of the perfect guest for their host states. Now, an American lawyer who is aware of the political score recently suggested that “Japan”—I think that he was being purposely vague—could gain a lot of political points by helping out the Big Three. So I put the question to a friend who is deeply involved in the Japanese auto industry: If the Detroit Three could restructure its legacy costs and existing labor arrangements and commit to product lineups more befitting future market prospects, would Japanese manufacturers be willing to be take over one or more of them? The answer: The factories have to be looked over one by one; some of them won’t be worth the trouble.

Now, GM says that it is going to do all that, if the U.S. government helps out with the financing, including an unspecified amount in the form of preferred stock. If Congress authorizes something along those lines, the political implications—billions of dollars in public funds just so Japanese manufacturers can skim the cream off the top?—and the business considerations—who wants the U.S. government as a business partner and watchdog that will often fail to speak with one voice?—are such that takeovers, or any kind of capital injection for that matter, by non-D3 manufacturers will become pretty much unthinkable. I suspect that even the opportunities for deeper R&D cooperation in hybrids and other next-generation autos will become complicated if the U.S. government becomes involved as a major creditor-equity holder at the other end.

You raise the broader question of the need to reorient the overall transport system to meet environmental and energy-related challenges. Note that it is not just a matter of the public transport system and the overall infrastructure. At issue is the entire U.S. political geography that has evolved around the automobile and the airplane. How are you going to redo Los Angeles and its suburbs? Montana? Because of the enormity of the challenge, I do not think that America is going to “end its dependence” on Middle East oil in ten years or any time soon—ten years is surely sooner than soon where a 300 million-strong nation’s energy profile is concerned—and clean up the environment even if President-elect Obama were everything his staunchest supporters hoped he would be. And I do not think that the American public is ready either. There will be progress. But my guess is that it will be painfully incremental unless there are dramatic technological breakthroughs, or a willingness to rely on nuclear power to an extent that isn’t there yet in the specific.

Friday, December 05, 2008

The 50-Somethings Are Restless; But CanThey Make the Move?

First, it was Yasuhisa Shiozaki, Yoshimi Watanabe, and Toshimitsu Motegi fronting the “Association of Volunteer Diet Members Who Seek Rapid Realization of Policies (Sumiyaka na Seisaku Jitsugen wo Motomeru Giin no Kai)”—yes, something is lost in translation—being uppity and demanding that the Aso administration submit the second tranche of the economic stimulus package that Taro Aso had been telegraphing even before his elevation by the unexpected resignation of his predecessor as Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda. Even as faction leaders dumped on the dissenters, the loquacious rocker MHC Ichita Yamamoto reinforced their message. These men have continued to take potshots at the regime, the no-holds-barred Watanabe (sort of) daring the powers-that-be to kick him out of the party. Today, Nobuteru Ishhara added his voice to the fray, gaving a talk in which he claimed that “70 to 80% of LDP Diet member have doubts as to whether we can fight an election and stay in power under the Aso administration. We are looking into an abyss politically and economically.” The Prime Minister in his newly chastened soft-talk mode tried to laugh it off.

These men have much in common. They are all in their early to mid-fifties, charter members of the Policy New Breed (Seiasku Shinjinrui), who drew first blood in the 1998 Financial (Reform) Diet. They have had their share of glory over the next decade, but have chafed at the bit as their more powerful elders, dyed hair and all, flat out refuse to leave center stage. Now, there’s a real possibility that the brass ring will be grabbed away before they can even touch it by the DPJ, such are fortunes of the Aso administration and the LDP. No wonder then, that they are increasingly fearless of the consequences of the wrath of their betters.

Fighting an election under the current regime is a high-risk, low-return proposition for the LDP, but turning the reins over to his cohorts such as, say, Kaoru Yosano or Sdakazu Tanigaki does not appear to improve the odds much. There’s a good case to be made, then, for replacing the party leadership with the tail-end baby boomers if the LDP is to stay in power. But do the elders have the grace to yield, or more vitally the young ‘uns the gall to push them aside? To be continued.

Our Different Trumans

Americans, what do you think of when you see the name Harry Truman? Got it? Now, let me translate a recent Kyodo wire for you.
U.S. President Bush, Disapproval Rate Post-WW II High

U.S. President Bush’s “disapproval rate” reached 76%, the highest post-WW II level, according to a public opinion poll counduted by CNN TV and others and announced on [November] 10.

The highest up till now had been 67% recorded in 1952 by President Truman, who made the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, followed by 66% in 1974 for President Nixon, who resigned as the result of the Watergate Incident (ah, the magic word “incidents”, a translation into which some Western liberals read too much meaning where modern history is concerned). According to CNN, President Bush’s disapproval rate has climbed above 70% three times this year; his unpopularity is heads and shoulders above everyone else’s.
Is Kyodo expressing its disapproval of Truman when it juxtaposes Hiroshima/Nagasaki and Watergate. No, surely. But for better or worse, Truman is remembered as the guy who dropped the bomb on us. And not remembered in a nice way. We cannot help that, and we cannot help that it colors our view of history in a way that is different from yours, more generally a useful perspective as your thoughts cross borders.

Some Thoughts on Patrick Smith’s Takedown of Malcolm Gladwell

You’ve already heard me complain about articles in the general-purpose media that dress up unfounded, sometimes downright false, assertions with one-sided vignettes and quotes, expert and non- to sell a story. In fact, the media both good and bad always rely heavily on the anecdotal approach to reach the general public. This is not an ideal situation, but there is no way to get around this, short of rendering the news on any given subject inaccessible to all but the truly initiated. Thus, we rely on the journalists to get the underlying story correct even as they entertain, and on experts both pro and amateur to call them to task when they don’t.

In the past, the general public only became aware of the lie when the clamor from the experts became loud enough to past through the filter of the mass media. The Internet has changed this, as it unleashes, unites, massive hordes of online Mavens—to use a term popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller The Tipping Point—who gleefully expose the lie. Much of this activity takes place on blogs and in chat rooms, filtered by online debates and by what I’ll call super-Mavens, experts who play the role of arbitrators in the cyberspace market of ideas. From the consumer’s perspective, online magazines can be seen as filters that save the general public the time and effort of identifying these super-Mavens. From the experts’ point of view, they may not pay much, but keep plugging away, and more munificent deals for deadwood publications and personal appearances will (hopefully) come their way, analogous to what is happening in the indie music world with open-sourced outlets and gigs and recording deals.

And that is a long way of coming to my main point, which is the latest from Patrick Smith, an airline pilot by trade and most entertaining and informative writer of Ask the Pilot, as he takes down—politely, unlike this blog—that same Malcolm Gladwell for his claim that “[t]he single most important variable in determining whether a plane crashes is not the plane, it's not the maintenance, it's not the weather, it's the culture the pilot comes from”. I gather from what Smith says in his essay (I have to take it on faith that he’s not playing with the facts as well) that when Gladwell talks about “culture” as the cause of more accidents, he is talking about “hierarchical” cultures that he see in places like Columbia/Latin America and South Korea/Asia.

Gladwell’s mistake was that he did not bother to check the facts. He created a nice story involving culture, found some cases to fit the facts or labeled the facts to fit the story—does anyone have an operative definition of “hierarchical” cultures and a scale to measure them?—and just winged it the rest of the way. But a quick check of the facts by Smith shows that he was in essence just making it up.

Smith is careful not to knock Gladwell’s work entirely; he dispassionately stays within his competence; that is another measure of his particular value as a super-Maven. I myself am reading The Tipping Point now, for the second time. Galdwell clearly the knack of taking good, innovative thinking and making it easily accessible to the general public. Thomas Friedman is another such, if far less skilled, writer. But at the end of the day, they are journalists; it is hard for them sometimes to let such simple things as facts get in the way of the story. This is where super-Mavens such as Patrick Smith and the intellectual filters such as Salon (as long as you stay aware of its liberal leanings where political issues are concerned) come in for people e like me, who find more specialized publications such as Nature often above my head.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

As America Prepares to Rescue the “U.S.” Auto Industry…

Post-WW II Japan has the distinction of being the main target of U.S. attempts at protecting its manufacturers from the predations of their Japanese counterparts in four sectors: textiles, steel, automobiles, and semiconductors. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but off the top of my head:
Textiles: Some niche manufacturers remain, but most of the manufacturing has been outsourced.
Steel: Micro mills emerged to claw back U.S. share from Japanese manufacturers and away from U.S. blast furnaces.
Semiconductors: Intel became an industrial leader by moving out of commodity memories and dominating the microprocessor market.
I think there’s a lesson here somewhere for the U.S. Congress and the Obama Adminstration-Elect.

Fareed Zakaria Proof Not Every Indian Math Whizz

For the past two decades, for example, China has grown at approximately 9 percent a year and the United States at 3 percent. For the next few years, American growth will likely be 1 percent and China's, by the most conservative estimates, 5 percent. So, China was growing three times as fast as the United States but will now grow five times as fast, which only brings closer the date when the Chinese economy will equal in size that of the United States.
Fareed Zakaria,Wanted: A New Grand Strategy, TIME
What’s wrong with this logic?

Hint: If China were growing by 0.05% and the United States were growing by 0.01%, it would bring “closer the date when the Chinese economy will equal in size that of the United States.” NOT.

Next hint: 00005% vs. 00001%. NOT.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Ya Miss Bombay, Blame Thackeray (Yo)

When did Bombay become Mumbai?

Officially, in 1995. That year, the right-wing Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena won elections in the state of Maharashtra and presided over a coalition that took control of the state assembly. After the election, the party announced that the port city had been renamed after the Hindu goddess Mumbadevi, the city's patron deity. Federal agencies, local businesses, and newspapers were ordered to adopt the change.

Christopher Beam, on Slate
The name of the Shiv Sena leader at the time? Bal Thackeray.

ADD (December 4): The argument continues on The Daily Dish. Andrew Sullivan obviously trusted the wrong Christopher. By the way, Sullivan has this annoying habit of labeling them all "dissent". Some of them reflect mere differences in opinion, but others are corrections. I think you should acknowledge your mistake, particularly when you've gone ahead and said "the Dish will refer to Mumbai by its previous name.

Another Clinton, Junior Senator from New York?

One nutty op-ed in the Washington Post, and CNN headlines a post with: Bill Clinton mentioned for wife's Senate seat. Not that it’s likely, and if it did, guess what happens the first time “Senator” Bill Clinton second-guesses the administration or—heaven forbid—decides to vote against it? We’re not talking about a Mary Matalin-James Carville rerun. In fact, it’ll make the Bill Clinton Foundation look like small change. The very existence of the CNN headline is proof of what a bad idea it is.

Actually, what I really wanted to blog about was a different headline on the CNN website that had caught my eye at the same time. But I read the Clinton article first, and when I went back, the headline was gone. I know I wasn’t imagining things because I can find the headline in the description for the link to the CNN main page when I google it. Unfortunately, whatever article there was has disappeared from the CNN website altogether. If you are wondering, I was going to write about bikini waxing. Honest. The headline? Why Santa's sack is skimpy this year.

So I’m settling for Bill Clinton, the best available headliner. It was his fault anyway.

ADD: Wait, it is available, on CNN TV. My bad. But I won't watch it, lest it ruin the spell.

More Thoughts on the Immediate Future of the LDP

This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post and was inspired by the anonymous comment there.
I had imagined that it would take at least another couple of elections before the post-1955 LDP era ended for good. Now, I’m less sure. Where there’s a fatal external shock to an institution, the endgame tends to happen very quickly, and the DPJ is a greater shock than anything that has ever happened to the LDP. I am not ready to predict the demise of the LDP just yet, but it certainly looks like the LDP as we know it is spent. Here are some of the signs of the end of times:

First, party discipline is down. Diet members, even Cabinet Ministers, increasingly express their dissent with the Prime Minister even after the party and the Cabinet have made the decisions.

Second, the factions look spent. The heads are caretakers, not leaders, and few if any are Prime Minister candidates. I already wrote about Aso’s situation. Sadakazu Tanigaki no longer heads a faction and has dropped out of contention in any case. The habatsu have devolved into intramural pickup teams.

Third, the younger generation is not stepping up. And when I say younger, I’m willing to concede the entire demographics up to 60. Is that weird or what? Look around the rest of the world where they hold meaningful elections/have term limits to see how unusual that is; try to hang on beyond kanreki elsewhere and you’re more likely than not to get the bum’s rush. If the LDP were an NBA team, all its starters would be 35 or older.

Fourth, it’s losing its support base. The rural population is declining and not that rural anymore anyway. And what remains rural is old, older and oldest. The post office crowd and the construction industry, the most conspicuous foot soldiers and moneybags, have been alienated/diminished.

Fifth, the vote-DPJ alternative has replaced the vote-Socialist Party protest as the main expression of dissent. Finally, there’s real competition.

No doubt other people will come up with bigger, better lists. In any case, my point is that something must happen and happen soon with regard to something like the first four issues—reverse entropy if you will—or the fifth point will bury the LDP under the rubble of history, sooner, rather than later.

It’s an odd sensation, because the DPJ isn’t exactly capturing the Japanese public’s hearts and minds either. But perhaps it doesn’t really have to win. Too much inbreeding and parthenogenesis as well as excessive reliance on a declining food chain may have pushed the LDP beyond the threshold. Let’s hope that, whatever happens, there will be two men standing in the aftermath.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Can the LDP Recall Yet Another Prime Minister? Or Has It Reached the End of the Line?

In a little over two months since his inauguration, Prime Minister Aso has managed to achieve the unthinkable. He has slipped below DPJ chief and pretender to his throne, the unloved Ichiro Ozawa, in the public opinion poll taken on by conservative media group Sankei-FNN 31.5% to 32.5% in the choice between the two for the next Prime Minister. (That a full one-third is unwilling to take a punt on either one speaks volumes by itself, but that’s another story.) The public clearly sees this as a choice between the lesser of two evils; in the most desirable choice for Prime Minister, Ozawa at an anemic 11.4% failed yet to overtake the still-popular Junichiro Koizumi—despite announcing his retirement and leaving his seat (hopefully) to his son—with 11.5% of the votes, but did manage to beat out Aso at 8.8%. Needless to say, the approval rate for the Aso Cabinet has fallen to an end-of-the-line, Bushian, 27.5%, with 58.3% disapproving.

It is not difficult to identify the travails that are taking down the beleaguered Prime Minister so swiftly. They mostly revolve around the economy, both the policy and the political aspects.

On the policy side, the issues may be different, but the basic plotline is becoming depressingly familiar. The Prime Minister puts forth a proposal, then goes on to blurt out a series of poorly thought out ideas that tend to obscure, more than flesh out, whatever he may have intended in the first place. LDP leaders and not-so leaders chime in as the loyal internal opposition, adding to the confusion. By some natural law of self-organization, the ruling coalition appears to come to a conclusion. But that is not the end of it, as dissenting party members continue to pipe up.

The most god-awful goings-on have been seen around the tax credit that the New Komeito foisted on an unwilling LDP that has since metastasized into a publicly unpopular two trillion-yen giveaway using surplus funds from the Fiscal Investment and Loans Special Budget. The Prime Minister’s 1 trillion yen payoff to local governments in exchange for taking away their current share of the gasoline tax surcharge revenue—which now goes to build roads to somewhere—that would be merged into the general-purpose funds has also suffered similar, if less spectacular, twists and turns. In the process, the Prime Minister has looked shallow, distracted, indecisive, and diminished, a would-be-leader who has lost control of the operation, like a teacher who has lost his classroom.

All this has taken a toll on Aso in the political game. Most seriously, he has lost his nerve and taken an early snap election off the table. The best bet now is that it will happen no earlier than April and probably later. In the process, he has had to table his second tranche of the economic stimulus package, claiming in last week’s Aso-Ozawa faceoff that the first tranche was would be enough to tide small businesses over the year’s end financial crunch (plausible as an excuse if not completely reassuring) and that he couldn’t trust the DPJ to act swiftly (implausible as an explanation since a near-two month delay as the result of pushing the deliberation of the package to the beginning of the regular Diet session in early January would delay the adoption of the second tranche even further). Needless to say, everyone agreed that he lost the debate, not that easy to do in public against Ozawa.

Is a new LDP Prime Minster in the works then? Not quite. If once is a tragedy and twice is a farce, it hard to see a third act in the works. The public seems to sense this, as the last three Prime Ministers have consistently come in at a higher lower initial approval level than his predecessors (and as noted already gone downhill from there). And it’s been only a little over two months; at least the last two each lasted a year. It is more likely that the Aso administration will linger until the spring, with little hope of improving the ruling coalition’s electoral prospects.

So the question is, is this string of failed/failing administrations just bad luck for the LDP? Or are there greater forces at work?

The three Prime Ministers that the LDP has put forth have several things in common. They are all heirloom politicians. None of them has a track record of political leadership. Aso is the only faction leader among the three, and he only recently inherited, in his late sixties, from his predecessor Yohei Kono (he of the Kono Statement) a twenty-member remnant of a much larger group. As for the other two—Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda—they appeared to be fulfilling a family duty rather than a personal ambition. What makes the LDP throw up these people? Well, the factions themselves are becoming more of a clearing house for information and low-level political appointment in the ministries than a tight-knit launching pad for the political ambitions of their respective leaders for the ultimate prize. The faction leaders tend to be inoffensive caretaker types who can keep his peers’ egos from pushing them to take turns at whacking each other. This is not an environment that encourages new leaders to emerge.

Is the LDP ready to implode, as Ross wonders? Or is the LDP is like an old, moldy football, the air seeping out, the panels beginning to fall off as its frayed seams slowly rot away? Do not imagine that an LDP-New Komeito loss is a sure thing; there’s plenty of inertia, and the DPJ could do much, much more to assure us that it is ready. But it looks increasingly like an institution that is suffering from multiple structural failures.

More to come on this blog, hopefully,

Note: The poll was taken on November 29-30, right after the long-awaited party leaders’ debate the previous day which everyone (including me) agreed that Ozawa had won hands down, so there is likely to be some clawback by Aso. But not much, is my guess.