Saturday, January 31, 2009

Thomas Friedman Never Lets the Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story and Other Nasty Thoughts

A couple of weeks ago, AB sent me this article by Matt Taibbi. In the course of the brief exchange, I learned that AB and I had both bought The World Is Flat and were unable to finish it. The following is an edited, expanded version of one of my emails.

I see Friedman as essentially a trendspotter. He becomes infatuated with something that is already widely assumed among the people closest to the action and tips it over to the arena of conventional wisdom. He makes up with energy (by way of repetition, within in his book and through his columns) what he lacks in writing skills... and integrity. I really didn't like The World Is Flat, but not because I foresaw the economic crisis. Beyond his bombastic, crude writing style, I can't trust him because he won't let the facts get in the way of a good anecdote. In TWIF, he gives two versions of how he broached the idea for the title to his wife. (The editor missed it. Or did he/she?) Worse from a literary point of view, he gives his characters bad, long-winded dialog for mouthbreathers straight out of 1940-50s SF, where the writer sacrifices all sense of narrative and drama with explanations on the pseudoscience behind the story.

Besides, the world wasn’t becoming flatter—not until the financial crisis broke, that is. I mean, imagine the competitive disadvantage of living at the edge of a “flat world”. The transportation costs to bring your wares to the market would be daunting. In fact, a flat world is a variable, maximum-transaction cost world, which is what gave Columbus the one great idea of his life (which was to carry what had long been understood among navigators to its ultimate conclusion). The correct starting point is a sphere, which equalizes transaction costs at every point in the world. Which sphere, as you may have guessed, is shrinking. Or was, until the financial crisis broke. The title of the book then, should have been The Incredible Shrinking Sphere. Which would not have sold the book, since that’s a story that was beaten to death in the 20th Century. So how did he come up with the title? That’s an easy one. It’s an ill-thought out play on the phrase “level playing field”. Suggestion for Friedman: A post mortem of a worst case scenario could be entitled The World Finally Became Flat.

So how to account for Freidman’s success? Always respect the talk show/lunch host. That’s an ideology-free piece of advice—works for Friedman, works for Bill Kristol. (Can you imagine Glen Greenwald appearing on The Daily Show?) I’m tempted to call it whoring, but I don’t want to offend a certain prudish blogger.

I have had the last installment of my Norimitsu Onishi novela in the can for several days, but I’m tired of beating up a squirrel. So why not pee on a big, fat rhino with a little help from cheap whiskey?

Friday, January 30, 2009

Why Norimitsu Onishi’s Report Japan’s Outcasts Still Wait for Acceptance Is Wrong, and Why It Matters: Interlude

Martin J. Frid pointed me to the Wikipedia entry on Norimitsu Onishi which in turn led me to one of Onishi’s articles entitled “Japan and China: National Character Writ Large”. As you may be able to guess from the title, the article displays his usual aversion to his idea of Japan (I can live with that) and disregard (ignorance?) for facts in preparing his brief (I can’t live with that). However, the piece, written in his second year as Tokyo bureau chief, diminished my anger towards and increased my empathy for the man. But first, a summary of the article, in his own words:
Of all languages in the world, Japanese is the only one that has an entirely different set of written characters to express foreign words and names. Just seeing these characters automatically tells the Japanese that they are dealing with something or someone non-Japanese. What's more, the names of foreign citizens of Japanese ancestry are also written in this set of characters, indicating that while they may have Japanese names, they are not, well, really Japanese.

By contrast, in Chinese, no such distinction is made. There, non-Chinese names are depicted, sometimes with great difficulty, entirely in Chinese characters. Foreigners are, in effect, made Chinese.

At bottom, the differences reflect each country's diverging worldview. In Japan, the rigid division between the inside and outside in the language underscores this country's enduring ambivalence toward the non-Japanese. While today's Japanese travel overseas with an ease and confidence that would have been unimaginable only two generations ago, they remain uneasy about foreign things and people coming here. Safer to label them clearly as foreign.

In the United States, parents' freedom to name their children may be absolute. Here the government and the media set the boundaries of names and the way they are written, thereby also setting the boundaries of Japanese identity.

In the media, the names of George Bush and Saddam Hussein are written in the characters reserved for foreign names. But so are the names of people of Japanese ancestry, like Alberto Fujimori, Peru's deposed president, or Kazuo Ishiguro, the author of ''Remains of the Day,'' who left Japan at the age of 5 and is a British citizen. Their names could be written in kanji, but are instead written in katakana, in an established custom indicating that they are not truly Japanese.

The distinctions are sometimes difficult to draw, as they touch upon the difficult question of who is Japanese, or, rather, when does someone stop being Japanese. The media have no set criteria. Are the criteria citizenship, blood, mastery of the Japanese language or customs? Or, in this island nation where leaving Japan has always meant leaving the village, does one start becoming non-Japanese the minute one steps off Japanese soil? There is a strong argument to be made for that. Children of Japanese business families stationed overseas for a few years invariably encounter problems returning here. Schoolmates often pick on them and call them gaijin, meaning foreigner or outsider.

When Japanese first began writing down their own language, they used Chinese characters whose pronunciation most resembled those of the Japanese words. (Actually, it was somewhat more complicated than that, but let’s leave it at that for the moment.) The characters used to depict the Japanese words in the Manyo era would lose many strokes and flourishes until they evolved into two sets of alphabets: the katakana and the hirakana. The stiff, unbending, “masculine” katakana was the alphabet of official record and academia—almost always as a complement to the vastly more exalted Chinese characters—while the “feminine” hirakana was the preferred means of expression for the womenfolk, the vernacular, and indigenous literature. Thus it must have been that noble names would be registered in official records in Chinese characters only, while those of the common folk would tend to be registered by a mixture of Chinese characters and katakana (but not, if it could be helped, hirakana). Vestiges of this tradition lived on in pre-WW II legislation and regulations that survived defeat and US occupation as a mixture of Chinese characters and katakana. By contrast, Meiji era authors aspiring to high literature (which came to be known as jun-bungaku or “pure literature” as opposed to taishu-bungaku, or “popular literature”, all of which in a turn of events that even I have to admit has a distinctly Japanese flavor spawned the category chukan-bungaku, or “intermediate literature”) used the effeminate hirakana even as they increasingly began to write in a new, evolving vernacular. Throughout all this, Chinese characters continued—continues—in use if nothing else as a visual aid to enable groups of letters to stand out and distinguish themselves as individual words.

It is within this context that foreign words and names were incorporated into Japanese writing. Rendering them in Chinese characters was out of the question, since even Onishi admits that this is done in Chinese “sometimes with great difficulty.” So the choice of katana within the context of a hirakana-based text was all but inevitable. This had nothing to do with any kind of Japanese ethos that Onishi intimates; it was the logical outcome of the ancient legacy where Japan was using three sets of letters when the Black Ships arrived. The katakana served as a surrogate for kanji, nothing more.

Be that as it may, this raises the Onishi question: How should the names of foreigners with Japanese-origin names—not necessarily ethnic Japanese—be written in Japanese? Using the original Chinese characters is not as easy you would imagine; even the most commonly used surname can have several different renderings in Chinese characters and it is not a given that every individual will know which one applies in his case. As for the given name, a second-generation Japanese-foreigner may not have a Japanese rendering of it at all. The simplest, uniform rule then is to treat them as any other foreigner, that is, render them in katakana. And that is what the media and official sources, in principle, have done. This arrangement that has everything to do with the peculiarity of having two alphabets in addition to the Chinese characters (in contrast to Koreans, who have only one alphabet) and little to do with Onishi’s insinuations.

What remains is a small number of borderline cases, i.e. what to do with naturalized Japanese citizens, individuals who have given up Japanese citizenship, and the rare individual who are revealed to have retained Japanese citizenship after becoming a public figure in Japan. The first case is the easiest: upon naturalization, the new Japanese citizen needs to assume a name that can be rendered in one or more of the three character sets. And this is the one moment in a Japanese citizen’s life that he can adopt the name of one’s desires, be it a close approximation of one’s original name, or something altogether different with few legal restrictions. (I don’t see any legal barriers to a newly Japanese male renaming himself Tsuchiya Anna, for instance. Or Hoshino Aki. And did I tell you about the time that I ran into a very pregnant Jun Okumura?) With the second and third cases, my sense is that the media tends to use whatever script that was being used when that person first became a public figure. Thus, the name of a star figure skater who subsequently gives up Japanese citizenship will continue to be rendered in the characters that comprised that person’s original Japanese name (unless that person has adopted a different name), while someone like Alberto Fujimori, whose Japanese citizenship became known only after he sought asylum, will continue to have his name rendered in katakana. By the same token, “Norimitsu Onishi” woujld be rendered in the katakana alphabet. All this has nothing to do with Onishi’s personal angst.

So why has Onishi produced this crapulous piece of not-even-pop linguistics that cops the fig leaf of journalism? The answer appears to lie in the following personal confession hiding behind a set of questions. For it must be his deep sense of alienation as the oddest of gaijin; an individual who looks like a native, talks like a native—I understand that he speaks excellent Japanese—yet finds that the similarities only serve to accentuate the distance between the North American essence that permeates every fiber of his being. One feels that it would have been much easier on his psyche if he had been White. No, Onishi is not a fuckwad, or even a wuckfad. He is in his own way sincere and true to his essence. He is the one who left the village. This does not excuse his journalistic transgressions, in the same way that the character flaws of Nixon’s (or Carter’s for that matter), but it does help in understanding him and humanizing his errors—much in the same way that I hope mine will be understood, if not forgiven, by those who know me well.

There are many other notable errors in Onishi’s report, but there’s only so much pro bono work I can do.

Finally, it is useful to confuse you further by taking note of the fact that the pronunciation of Chinese names are given in hirakana, while those of Korean names are given in katakana.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Escorting Japanese Vessels and the Like Only OK after All

I have been criticizing the Aso administration on its decision to use Maritime Self-Defense escort vessels to the waters off Somalia to protect Japanese interests only. It turns out that with a few exceptions—most notably the United States, but also the U.K., Denmark and Germany—nations have focused their efforts on escorting their national flag vessels and other ships of interest, just as Japan intends to do. Each day, hundreds of merchant ships enter the treacherous waters, so there’s no way to protect all of them. The other powers have been consulted by the Japanese authorities, and they’re cool with it.

There’s some speculation about unprotected vessels tagging along with the escorted “fleet”. If what I’ve learned is any indication, they would be smart to do so. No pirates have attacked a ship near a naval vessel, and for good reason.

I may have more to say if the rest of what I learned does not turn out to be proprieteary material.

Hindu Come, Hindu Go

“…We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers…”
Barack Obama, Inaugural Address, 20 January

“…and America is a country of Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-believers…”
Barack Obama, Al Arabia interview, 27 January

“…America is a country of Muslims, Jews, Christians, the highly syncretistic hovering somewhere between somewhat superstitious and mildly religious, and non-believers…”
Barack Obama, on his official visit to Japan
Normal blogging to resume later.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Why Norimitsu Onishi’s Report Japan’s Outcasts Still Wait for Acceptance Is Wrong, and Why It Matters: Fourth Installment

Before we proceed to the conclusion of this series, Let’s take a look at what Norimitsu Onishi the journalist may consider to be the most important point:

It is now time to take up head on the central issues, or at least the justification, for Norimitsu Onishi’s report:

a) Is it easier for a burakumin to be a Japanese Prime Minister than a black man to be the President of the United States?; and
b) Will Japan have a burakumin Prime Minister in the foreseeable future?

My answers are: a) yes; and b) no.

With regard to the first question, note that it is inherently easier to overcome social prejudice in a parliamentary system than a presidential one. In the former, the primary source of approval that you need to reach the top is the jury of your peers, the parliamentarians that you get to know and interact on a daily, you-and-I, often intimate basis. Look at the Prime Ministers who to the layman’s eyes looked then and look now appear to be mediocrities at best. But a presidential aspirant must gain the approval of a much larger, far more diffuse constituency with whom he/she has at best an impersonal, sporadic, relationship generated and sustained by a faithless media. As such, it is essentially a beauty contest, an area—particularly where electoral campaigns are concerned—where the most superficial distinctions such as pedigree, color of skin, and place of birth can hold inordinate sway, where the only thing the electorate “gets” may be what they see, no more, no less.

It is instructive to note that an increasingly large number of African-Americans are being appointed to key administration posts that require Senate confirmation—in sharp contrast to their conspicuous absence in the Senate itself. (There are comparatively more African-American Representatives—a tribute to the powerful effect of gerrymandering.) Collateral proof lies in Hiromu Nonaka’s rise to a insider position of power in the LDP despite the lack of policy-making accomplishments. Where people can be seen as individuals in their own right, they can bridge the gap between “the other” and “us”. There is some truth behind the old joke, “some of my best friends are Jews”.

Let’s now take up the second question, i.e. the Prime Ministerial prospects of the burakumin. I have already shown how the core prejudices against these people have taken a steady drop-off over the years. Why then, am I so pessimistic about a burakumin becoming Prime Minister any time soon? The same reason that it is unlikely that the United States will see a Polish-American President—demographics.

I have not been unable to find the last national survey in 1993, but it is extensively cited in this 1998 report from the head of the pro-Communist (and generally considered the most stand-up) activist group Zenkairen that states that the dowa-related population had dwindled to less than 900,000, or about 0.7% of the total Japanese population at the time of the survey. True, much of this attrition was the result of people moving out of the dowa areas (though it is only fair to note that not all the people in the areas were/are burakumin). So let’s make a very generous assumption (or a cruel one, depending on your point of view) that twice that number of people, or somewhat less than one out of every 60 Japanese, are self-identified as being of burakumin origin. To counterbalance that assumption, let’s give into our hopes and assume that future Japanese Prime Ministers will last an average of three years, or the equivalent of one LDP Presidency term. If you can accept all that, then there is less than a fifty-fifty chance of a burakumin becoming a Prime Minister in this century by reason of pure demographics. That is about as good a chance of a Polish-American, taking 3% of the U.S. population, becoming U.S. President, assuming an average tenure of 6 1/2 years, or one and a half terms per President.

All this conjecture begs an inconvenient question: How many of these “burakumin” will consider themselves/be considered as such, as they intermarry and move in and (mostly (out) of the dowa areas? And will we even know, even if we have such a one? Could the burakumin be morphing from an imagined community to an imaginary one as it loses cultural and geographical roots?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Why Norimitsu Onishi’s Report Japan’s Outcasts Still Wait for Acceptance Is Wrong, and Why It Matters: Third Installment

Let’s now turn to the current situation of the buraku people themselves. What is their plight that is being “ignored” by the national media? Let’s see if there’s anything that has escaped the scrutiny of the professional media.

Oddly, Onishi himself all but admits that there have been significant changes:
“Families and companies widely checked birthplaces to ferret out buraku among potential hires or marriage partners until a generation ago. The practice has greatly declined, (emphasis mine) though, especially among the young.”
Note, though, that it is typically the parents and matchmakers and not the potential marriage partners themselves who do the research. If the practice has declined among the young, then the real change in social attitudes is likely to have happened in the preceding generation. Two personal anecdotes that he gives us, a 39-year-old woman’s memories of the discrimination from the grandfather of her schoolmate during her high school days and a 76-year-old woman’s fear that the new people moving into the old buraku neighborhood would find out about her burakumin roots, reinforce this impression. Elsewhere in the report, Onishi offers up unseemly vulgarities from two politicians: one, a 82-year-old retiree; the other, the 68-year-old Aso himself. Can it be a coincidence, though, that he has come up with a nonagenarian (centenarian?), octogenarian, septuagenarian and a sexagenarian as prime examples of prejudice and its victims?

How much discrimination remains then? According toZenkoku Buraku Kaihou Undou Rengoukai, not much— the pro-Communist anti-discrimination movement that disbanded in 2004, claiming that discrimination for practical purposes had all but ceased. But how could they have known, given that the most recent national survey dates back to 1993? Actually, government assistance to dowa areas continue at the local government level. Shimane Prefecture, for example, conducted a survey in 2005 (with an astonishing 88.4% response from the sampled group), whose findings can be found in condensed form here in a report by the academic who has reportedly been the driving force behind the survey. Unsurprisingly, the academic finds evidence of persistent discrimination everywhere; a closer look at the numbers tells a different story. Bear with me and I’ll show you.

Now what is the most important element in defining discrimination or lack thereof? I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of anything more important than the social acceptance of intergroup marriages, and the 2005 Shimane survey shows that only 30.8% of married couples in Shimane’s dowa areas consists of couples with one spouse each from a dowa area and a non-dowa area—substantially lower than the 36.6% national average in the 1993 national survey. However, this picture changes dramatically when it is broken down demographically; this same percentage rises to 70.1%, 74.8% and 83.9% respectively for the 30-34, 25-29 and 25-and under age groups. The percentage of people experiencing discrimination with regard to marriage sheds further light on the situation, peaking for the 40-44 group at 14.07% and tapering off at the two extremes at 0.08% (15-19) and 2.34% (20-24) and 3.89% (80-85) and 1.46% (85-). It is safe to guess that the older generations experienced little discrimination because they married within the community but that the younger generations have been experiencing less and less discrimination despite the fact that they have increasingly been marrying out. As for underperforming the national average, the likely cause is the fact that the provinces, of which Shimane is decidedly one, are aging more rapidly compared to the metropoles, increasing the proportion of the aging more insular intra-area couples within the demographics.

Is there discrimination? Yes. But does it approach anything near the dimensions of the interracial problems in the West? Likely not.

What then to make of the significantly lower average wage, higher percentage of people on welfare, and lower rate of people receiving higher education in the dowa areas compared to the prefectural average? The academic claims discrimination. Really? Isn’t that is a bit like blaming the plight of the poor white in the Appalachians on discrimination? There is a real socioeconomic problem here, but the problem ahouldo have little to do with the Japanese people’s purported failure to come to terms with the past or even to talk about it.

And to think that all this information, not to mention most of what I have used in the preceding installments, is readily available on the Internet.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

LDP Appears to Have Contained Dissent until After the Lower House Election

The New Komeito income tax rebate proposal that wound up turning into a 12 thousand yen per head, 2 trillion yen handout will surely go down in LDP history as one of its all-time public relations fiascos. The botched rollout of the Late-Term Elderly Medical Care Insurance system probably did more than any other single event to damage the Fukuda administration, but much of the blame for that in my view should go to the bureaucracy, but the handout was almost purely a political hack job. Sankei has a nice on-line post mortem in Japanese.

Given the lukewarm to frigid response from the experts, the handout may not have been a political panacea under the best of circumstances. But it’s not as if the Japanese public sat down, looked at the proposal and ran it through an economic model and 70% of them decided that it was an unsound idea either. It was the miasma generated by a waffling Prime Minister amidst all the political posturing and leaks that encouraged the negativity and made the public so receptive to it, while putting a decisive stamp of incompetence on the Aso administration.

So where do things go from here? The supplementary budget authorizing the handout and other expenditures passed the Lower House on 13 January and went to the Upper House. The Japanese Constitution all but guarantees that the budget will become effective within 30 days, so that part is a done deal. But budgets typically need legislation to secure the funds required to meet the expenditures; this supplementary budget is no exception*. On 19 January, the Aso Cabinet submitted a legislative bill that would authorize the government to a) issue long-term bonds and b) dig up buried treasures—transfer reserves from the Fiscal Investment and Loan Program Special Account to the General Account—in order to finance the handout and other expenditures. This bill requires a Lower House supermajority revote, after the Upper House opposition votes it down or refuses to vote for 60 days after receiving the bill from the Lower House. But dissatisfaction and fear is so strong among the LDP rank-and-file that there is talk of enough members—16 or more— breaking ranks to vote against the legislative bill to deny the Aso administration a supermajority.

Several scenarios are possible if such a thing comes to pass, but I do not see any plausible sequence that would not lead to an early snap election. In every case, the Aso administration would come to an end with the legislative failure. However, it is still highly unlikely that such a thing will come to pass. I noted before that the LDP had closed ranks after it resumed in the new year, and gave my take on the reasons why. In any case, the moment for a Lower House rebellion over the handout passed with the 19 January vote. Even Yoshimi Watanabe, who subsequently left the LDP of his own accord, merely abstained from the budget bill vote. He was joined by Kenta Matsunami, who got off with a mild scolding, a fact which may encourage a few other Lower House members to follow suit in the revote, but it is unlikely that they will breech the 50-abstention threshold required to deny a supermajority**.

Another potential tipping point arrived in the form of the internecine battle over Prime Minister Aso’s insistence on putting FY2011 as the target year for raising the consumption tax rate in drafting the FY 2009 tax bill, which, like any other legislative bill, would almost certainly require a Lower House supermajority. There was a dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin quality to the argument, since no one in the LDP is willing to do so until the Japanese economy is out of the woods as far as the current recession is concerned. In the event, they came up with compromise language that tied a consumption tax hike to economic recovery as well as radical administrative and fiscal reform, a piece of rhetorical artistry that even the DPJ would find hard to reject on principle. In any case, the wording doesn’t matter; the important thing is that potential dissenters are on board, including, apparently, Hidenao Nakagawa. I now believe that this takes the issue out of play as far as splitting the LDP before the Lower House election is concerned, although, as in the case of the handout, I would not rule out a smattering of abstentions.
* Supplementary budget bills are more often than not accompanied by taxation bills. This second supplementary budget bill is not, because the original tax rebate proposal was altered to a cash handout independent of the tax system.

** 1 nay=3 abstentions—if my arithmetic is any better than Fareed Zakaria’s.

Since we’re talking about fiscal matters…

…Someone at a seminar asked why the Japanese government couldn’t its foreign currency reserves to prop up the Japanese economy. The speaker didn’t address the point directly, and I know that some of you reading this were there. Here’s my answer:

Japan finances its foreign currency reserves with short-term (1year and under) yen bonds. Think of our foreign currency reserves as a huge carry-trade operation. Using the short-term money to finance infrastructure investments would be risky; spending it on handouts for instance would be disastrous. In contrast, the reserves in petro-states can be used as political slush funds because they consist mainly of excess oil revenue.

Why Norimitsu Onishi’s Report Japan’s Outcasts Still Wait for Acceptance Is Wrong, and Why It Matters: Second Installment

Norimitsu Onishi claims that “[t]he topic of the buraku remains Japan’s biggest taboo, rarely entering private conversations and virtually ignored by the media.” Really?

True, it’s been almost thirty years since I talked to anyone about the dowa mondai at any length, and that was in the course of my work in the Small and Medium Enterprise Agency days. Also true that media outlets rarely take up the matter these days. Most recently, subsidies to dowa areas did come up during Osaka Governor Hashimoto’s negotiation with the prefectural assembly, where he told the assemblymen that he knew the issue well since he’d grown up there. The rambunctious Governor’s casual coming-out passed without further notice, so you could arguably claim this as an example where the topic was “virtually ignored by the media”. But is the reason for all this, as Onishi appears to intimate, “Japan’s obsession with its past and its inability to overcome it”? Or could there be other, more significant factors at work?

But first, let’s look a brief look at the past.

Question its motives if you will, but it was actually the Meiji government that set the ball rolling, as it went up against longstanding custom and tried to enforce the legal and social emancipation of the burakumin against entrenched, sometimes fierce, resistance. One of the pre-WW II heroes in Japanese history books is the Suiheisha, or the Leveling Society, which fought for burakumin> rights. At least one pre-war novel, Hakai (The Broken Commandment), became a bestseller (and twice made into film after WW II, but that’s another story). I do not know how the post-Meiji Restoration, pre-WW II Japanese media dealt with all this, but I do know that they were a lively bunch, so much so that their reporting looks splendiferously tabloidy to our contemporary eyes. Add the Imperial Household’s sympathies for the burakumin and other disadvantaged groups to the mix, and it is hard to believe that the media at the time would have ignored the issue altogether.

WW II brought an end to this era as everything was subsumed into the war effort. But efforts resumed at the prefectural after the war and as things began to settle down. In 1961, the national government got into the act again, as it set up an advisory council to the Prime Minister to look at the issue and suggest ways to improve the lot of the buraku people. Legislation came much later, in 1969, but three national antidiscrimination organizations—one pro-Communist, one pro-Socialist and one conservative—kept vigilance, resorting often to civil disobedience that could edge over into eventually-ritualized violence. Then and later, the reporting may have been flawed (I hope to speak to this point later), but it was there. It stretches our credulity to insinuate a longstanding social taboo and media silence.

But why the current lack of attention? I’ll come to that later. And on that note, I am going to call it a day.

In passing, I note that the post-war years saw yet another buraku cultural phenomenon, Hashi no Nai Kawa (River without a Bridge), a seven-volume series of novels that has sold to date a total of 8 million copies—there are seven volumes—and made into film twice. Do we have a culture of remakes? Seriously…

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Why Norimitsu Onishi’s Report Japan’s Outcasts Still Wait for Acceptance Is Wrong, and Why It Matters: First Installment

People who know me know that I rarely swear except in jest. And extreme anger. (And just because it’s fun.) Moreover, I carefully weigh and measure everything that I write and take personal responsibility for each and every word. Having said all that, I have a confession to make: I had been a little tipsy so early in the evening when I posed the question: On the Occasion of Barack Obama’s Inauguration, Should I Be Calling Norimitsu Onishi a Fuckwad? Now that I’ve had a chance to sober up, I’d like to apologize for my foulmouthed ways, follow Jon Stewart’s example, and change it as follows: On the Occasion of Barack Obama’s Inauguration, Should I Be Calling Norimitsu Onishi a Wuckfad?

Now that I have got that confession out of the way, I’d like to explain what’s so wrong about Onishi’s report Japan’s Outcasts Still Wait for Acceptance. However, this will be a sizeable task, so I’ve decided to do it in multiple posts. I will hopefully be able to tie them all together in a concluding—conclusive—post. Here, my friends, enemies, and neutral parties, is the first installment.

In 2001, Hiromu Nonaka, possibly the top powerbroker in the Hashimoto faction, the largest such group in the LDP at the time, sought to enter the race for the LDP Presidency. Every LDP President but one (Yohei Kono) has served as Prime Minister. Thus, a Nonaka victory would have been a landmark event for Japan; for Nonaka was a self-declared member of the buraku people, descendants of the social outcast classes whose discrimination went back more than a thousand years. Nonaka would have been the first known member of the long-suffering underclass to become Prime Minister of Japan. But it was not to be, for Nonaka gave up his quest almost before it began. Onishi in his article uses quotes from Taro Aso, his former colleague and now DPJ Diet member Yasuoki Kamei and Nonaka himself to suggest that it was the opposition from his colleagues to his outcast status and his fear of the negative fallout on his family that forced him to give up his quest. As usual, he never comes out and says it outright, although the caption to the accompanying photos “Mr. Nonaka rose to chief cabinet secretary, but as a descendant of a class of outcasts further advancement was blocked” is far less coy. But the implication is clear. An artful piece of work, again, as usual. But in the telling, he left out some crucial facts, basic assumptions about Japanese politics, that cast doubt on his understanding of or intentions regarding the reason for Nonaka’s withdrawal.

Nonaka had received three Cabinet postings p-rior to his failed quest: Chief Cabinet Secretary, Minister of Internal Affairs, and the Chairman of the National Public Safety Commission. This track record is crucial to understanding what must have been Nonaka’s standing in the LDP and his image in the public eye. Now Onishi sees great significance in his assignment as the Chief Cabinet Secretary, which he claims to be “the government’s No. 2 official”. But few things can be further from the truth. That’s like putting Rahm Emanuel ahead of Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Tim Geithner in the pecking order. Moreover, Onishi fails to mention Nonaka’s earlier Cabinet assignments. The latter is also at best a grievous omission.

Let’s take the Chief Cabinet Secretary assignment first. LDP Prime Ministers typically will have served in one of two (or three) high-profile Cabinet positions before he is deemed fit to serve as Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance or Minister of Foreign Affairs. (In a pinch, the Ministry formerly known as MITI would have served in the days before the luster of Japan’s post-WW II resurgence wore off.) The Chief Cabinet Secretary has often been a plum assignment, but a junior one nonetheless, an opportunity for the appointee to display and hone his skills as a political operative and collect political chits before—this is important—progressing to more senior Cabinet and party posts. True, in more recent years, the LDP has put forth a couple of Prime Ministers whose administrative experience consisted mostly of Cabinet Secretary assignments— but we know how those Abe and Fukuda experiments turned out.

Nonaka’s other, earlier, Cabinet postings also tell a story. It is notable, if not out of the ordinary at all, that he fulfilled them simultaneously. In fact, it had been customary for a single Cabinet Minister to serve in both capacities, that is, right up until the final months of the ill-fated Mori administration—which Nonaka sought to replace in 2001. For the typical Home Ministry appointee was a long-serving, inoffensive, party hack or the nominee of a junior coalition partner. As for the National Public Safety Commission, it is still hard today to say what it really does—more so for non-Japanese speakers, since uniquely among Japanese bureaucracies headed by Cabinet Ministers, it has no English-language web pages—beyond that fact that it is nominally in charge of the police force. The Japanese police force uncomfortably saddles the local and national bureaucratic divide—a legacy of the occupation years—which fact no doubt figured in the double assignment for so many years.

In any case, all this did not add up to an auspicious beginning for someone with aspirations for the highest reaches of constitutional powers. In fact, it was a career path that was more conducive to following the footsteps of the top inside political operators—at best the likes of Masaharu Gotoda, at worst Shin Kanemaru. And that was the public perception, to the extent that there was one, of Hiromu Nonaka, more a kingmaker than a king. It may have been Nonaka’s added misfortune that the embattled incumbent Mori had also been regarded as an over-promoted ward-heeler with little taste or aptitude for real statecraft. In any case, Nonaka had not followed the typical career path for a future Prime Minister, and he was not yet head of his own faction when such things had still mattered, had not been anointed as Hashimoto’s successor, and still had rivals within his own faction, let alone the other factions and the local party rank-and-file. Simply put, there is a highly plausible explanation of Nonaka’s failure independent of his burakumin background.

But what of Aso’s statement, “Are we really going to let those people take over the leadership of Japan?” Now before I go on, I want you to note that I am quite willing to accept that he said such a thing, if not exactly in those words as translated into English. Onishi cites a highly credible witness and the thought if not the words are plausible for someone of Aso’s generation and background. (I’ll try to return to this point as part of a later installment.)

Aso reportedly made that statement in a meeting of the Kono mini-faction, which he was still years from inheriting from the eponymous Yohei Kono (who you likely remember as the issuer of the Kono Statement and less likely as the only LDP President to date who has not served as Prime Minister). In the event, Aso did stand for the 2001 LDP Presidential election, where he received a grand total of 31 votes as Junichiro Koizumi surprised everyone by trouncing the heavily favored Hashimoto 298 to 155. But is it not a little too much to conclude that the words of a secondary figure in his own mini-faction influenced decisively the choice of the candidate in what was still the largest faction in the LDP?

I do not claim to have proven that Nonaka’s failure had nothing to with his burakumin background. But I do believe that I have lined up and explained some easily available facts that have been omitted in Onishi’s narrative—facts that would have pushed it to the very edges of falsehood by omission as far as the interpretation of Nonaka’s failure is concerned.

Onishi also fails to give a plausible explanation of Nonaka’s rise within the LDP. But here, I have no good explanation either. I think that this place is as good as any to end my first installment.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Caroline Kennedy Follow-up

The anonymous comment on this December post (should I be flattered that there’s someone whose interest extends back into my archives?) misses the obvious point that Caroline Kennedy vaulted to the top of the heap—most notably ahead of even Cuomo—mainly on the basis of name recognition. The dynastic impulse exists everywhere—it's not the genes by the way, unless you are speaking in terms of evolutionary psychology—and it’s undoubtedly stronger in Japan, but so do countercurrents. For example, I understand that there is a strong movement in the DPJ to forbid its Diet members from passing on their electoral districts.

Incidentally, I was surprised that Kennedy pulled out. Even if, as some reports suggest, she didn’t have a chance, she should have stayed in, then accepted defeat gracefully. I thought that the public relations gauntlet that she was running served as a quasi-primary of sorts and would legitimate her ascension, assuming that Governor Paterson wound up selecting her. As it is, she just looks naïve, confused, and ill-served by her advisers.

JP Morgan Pulls Fast One

I’ll respond to the most recent comments, both kind and unkind (you’ll be surprised to see how someone will go back into the archives to leave an inane—the commenter is anonymous, go figure—comment) , as soon as possible. And I’ll get around to Onishi’s misleading report on the burakumin issue as well. In the meantime, adapted from my email response to a JP Morgan effort to make its competitors look even worse than they are and itself to look better—and what better reminder that “better” is a comparative—if only by comparison.

JP “We’re Outperforming the Competition” Morgan has produced a chart that illustrates the fall in market caps for JP Morgan and its banking competitors. The chart exaggerates the value destruction because the change in market value is proportional to diameter, not area. The greater the destruction, the greater the distortion. A bar chart would have been more appropriate.

JP Morgan obviously did this to exaggerate its edge over its competitors. But the image would be arresting, even without the trompe l'oeil, when, for example, RBS and Barclays barely outperforms Madoff, and Citigroup is not far behind. Or ahead. Whatever.

What I'd now like to see is some sort of comparison between the price tags for the now-quaint private-sector bailouts and their current values. I know that's hard to do since they can come with conditional rights (ex. Morgan Guarantee to MFUG).

Thursday, January 22, 2009

On the Occasion of Barack Obama’s Inauguration, Should I Be Calling Norimitsu Onishi a Fuckwad?

Sorry, I haven’t had the time to go over it in detail; those of you who are interested, please stay tuned.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Money and Ideology Draw Five Diet Members Together

Last November, five Diet members—Hiroyuki Arai, Hideo Watanabe, Yasuhiro Oe, Shinpei Matsushita and Shingo Nishimura got together and formed the Kaikaku Kurabu, or Reform Club. Hiroyuki Arai is an Upper House Diet member who left the LDP in opposition to the 2006 Post Office and joined forces with novelist and former Nagano governor Yasuo Tanaka to form micro-party New Party Nippon. The party fell apart the following year, leaving Arai as an independent. He has regularly voted with the LDP even after his self-imposed exile. Hideo Watanabe and Yasuhiro Oe are Upper House members who left/were kicked out of the DPJ over political differences. Shinpei Matsushita is an Upper House member elected as an independent but has close ties to the LDP. Shingo Nishimura is the lone Lower House member. He was expelled from the DPJ in 2005 when he was arrested for renting out his attorney’s license for cash. He received a suspended sentence two years later. He is expected to run for reelection in the upcoming Lower House election.

One thread that runs through this motley crew seems to be a conservative-nationalist outlook. Nishimura is particularly devoted to the cause—Wikipedia says that he rented out his good offices to a former right-wing activist—and is hosting a talk by Ret. General Toshio Tamogami later this month at the Memorial Hall of Constitutional Politics (憲政記念館). (Pay at the gate if you are curious.) But what really binds this otherwise motley crew appears to be: money.

As you can deduce from this previous post, as independents, none of these five Diet members would have seen a single yen of public money under the Political Party Subsidization Act. By creating the Reform Club before the beginning of the new calendar year, they met the minimum five-member threshold for half of the money. (The Reform Club is not eligible for the other half, which is distributed on the basis of the proportion of votes received by the party in the last two Upper House elections and the last Lower House election.)

The Reform Club’s prospects for keeping any subsidies beyond this calendar year are very dim, given that the Osaka 17th District is unlikely to send back to the Lower House a convicted felon and disbarred attorney who had lost the single-seat election but squeaked through on the proportional ticket. Its proprietors must be hoping that they will be able to hitch their wagons to a larger party to form a joint political entity in the post-election tussle. Watanabe and Oe in particular are not likely to make it back on their own when

In writing this, I noticed that the disincentive for leaving a subsidy-eligible party decreases as the end of the calendar year approaches, as the money from each new tranche is distributed among its many purposes, including (presumably) disbursements to individual Diet Members.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Thank You, Ken, for the Bloggerrific Evening

Ken Worsley at Japan Economy News & Blog put together a great event for us bloggers, friends, significant others, and the readers who make our efforts worthwhile. I also got to move several bloggers to my “I’ve met” list. I take this opportunity to note that two of them were featured in Andrew Leonard’s fine Salon column. Congrats. Japan-heavy, English-language blogs rarely receive notice in the mainstream media. It couldn’t have happened to two nicer people.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Statistics that Aren’t Even Lies? It Could Be Even Worse

Nobody knows for sure who coined the phrase popularized by Mark Twain “lies, damn lies, and statistics”, but some figures are so bad they aren’t even statistics. In the comments on this post, I looked behind a comparative UNDP table of the ratio of urban and rural populations by nation at the underlying definitions used by the Japanese and U.S. governments, and I think that I’ve shown that the table is utterly useless. It is not to be hoped for that this table is not being referenced as fact by myriad of derivative sources and used as the basis for UNDP and other UN policy recommendations, nor that such things do not happen with regularity. I stand ready to be corrected. (And sometimes am. One reader politely pointed out a fundamental misstep in my original post.)

I spent too much time on making my point not to draw attention to it and be finished with posting for the day. Besides, I think that it serves as an independent reminder of the dangers of relying on poorly sourced facts and figures.

Friday, January 16, 2009

If I Didn’t Know Better, I’d Think the Aso Administration Was Preparing to Step Away from the 2-Trillion Yen Giveaway

The Fiscal System Council gives advice to the Finance Minister on the fiscal system and related matters. The Council consists of thirty full members as well as the hundreds of lesser worthies who populate its five sub-councils. Once a year, usually in January, the thirty wise men and women usually get together in a plenary session with the Finance Minister and his senior subordinates, take care of housekeeping matters, and let loose with whatever they have on their minds. Since there are no specific items on the agenda, no issues put forth by the MOF Minister for advice—what really counts are the twice-s-year (what else?) proposals the Fiscal System Sub-council issues—the plenary session usually passes with scant notice. Not so this year…

On 15 January, the Fiscal System Council met for their annual plenary session, where, as all the dailies reported (surely on page one) that the council members mostly agreed that the 2-trillion yen giveaway that the New Komeito forced on the Aso administration would be ineffective and that other more useful ways should be found to spend the money. We know this from the press conference by Taizo Nishimuro, the Council Chairman and former head of Toshiba, after the meeting. His statement (including who said what at the plenary session) as well as a summary of the proceedings should be available on the MOF website as soon as they’re ready.

MOF Minister Shoichi Nakagawa did his best to brush it off, claiming that nothing had been decided (true), that he hadn’t received any orders (true again). The Chief Cabinet Secretary stated that it was only the doing of three, four of the Council members. We’ll know if that’s true after MOF updates its website. In the meantime, I have to wonder, is this really happening without the blessing of the MOF bureaucracy and Keidanren?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

DPJ Maximum 276 Seats and Related Lower House Election Thoughts

It’s simple, actually. All DPJ candidates must stand for election in one of the 300 single-seat districts to be eligible for a place in the DPJ list for proportional districts. This is a clever tactical move that is currently unavailable to the LDP because of carryover issues from the old multiple-seat district days. It also cannot contest candidates in 23 districts, where it will “recommend” allied micro-party and independent candidate. It will also stay away from the home district of Yoshimi Watanabe, the LDP dropout (not outcast, a relevant point, which we’ll come to that later). This leaves a maximum of 276 candidates that the DPJ can field, effectively placing a ceiling on the maximum number of seats it can win.

It is highly unlikely that it will contest all 276, since it is not going to contest a district where it does not have viable candidate—I believe that it was unlikely to have challenged Watanabe anyway. The DPJ currently has 262 recognized candidates, 239 of whom have formal status and 23 who are scheduled. It is likely to add a few more—Ichiro Ozawa, for one, who has not made up his mind where to run—but given the lateness of the moment, I would be very surprised to be seeing the DPJ closing in on the 276 limit between now and the eventual cutoff date for the election.

One practical outcome of this limit is that no matter what the outcome, the DPJ will not have a supermajority (300 out of 480) in the Lower House. Since it does not have simple majority in the Upper House, it will need coalition partners to govern effectively regardless of whatever mandate it will be able to claim from the election.

Now assume that the DPJ manages to elect all 276 of its candidates. A difficult feat perhaps, but not absolutely impossible, depending on the voting for the proportional district seats. Remember that the LDP’s 2005 landslide victory produced such anomalies in the proportional district races as an LDP employee (allegedly) agreeing to serve only after being reassured that he could get his job back if he lost his seat in the next election, the Socialists gaining a seat because the LDP had not fielded enough candidates to fill all the seats that the voting had entitled it to, and, for comic relief, Taizo Sugimura.

A DPJ sweep of such magnitude should siphon off protest votes from the rest of the opposition as well, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that they and other independents do manage to maintain the total number of their seats at the current level of 31 including Watanabe, and throw in the one unfilled seat, just to make the numbers add up.

Now subtract these numbers 276 and 32 from 480. This leaves 172 seats for the LDP-New Komeito coalition. Now assume that the New Komeito manages albeit to maintain all 31 of its seats despite the unpopularity of the coalition regime, just for the sake of argument. This leaves 141 seats for the LDP.

Yes, 141 seats—the absolute, rock-bottom, minimum, worst-case scenario for the LDP. There is likely to be some post-election movement of independents, but the number should serve as a benchmark. All this, of course, assumes that the pre-election LDP stays together, about which I’ll try to post later. I’ll argue that there are two magic numbers for LDP dissent, not one as is commonly assumed.

Have you seen Norimitsu Onishi’s NYT offering on the LDP and its declining fortunes, including Watanabe’s defection? You can tell his heart’s not in it. It’s obvious he just can’t wait to go back to his poignant vignettes.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Dana Goodyear ♥ Cell-Phone Novels

An acquaintance sent me a link to Dana Goodyear’s December piece on the Japanese profusion of keitai shosetsu, or cell-phone novels. Here’s my riff on it.
In the classic iteration, the novels, written by and for young women, purport to be autobiographical and revolve around true love, or, rather, the obstacles to it that have always stood at the core of romantic fiction: pregnancy, miscarriage, abortion, rape, rivals and triangles, incurable disease. The novels are set in the provinces—the undifferentiated swaths of rice fields, chain stores, and fast-food restaurants that are everywhere Tokyo is not—and the characters tend to be middle and lower middle class. Specifically, they are Yankees, a term with obscure linguistic origins (having something to do with nineteen-fifties America and greaser style) which connotes rebellious truants—the boys on motorcycles, the girls in jersey dresses, with bleached hair and rhinestone-encrusted mobile phones. The stories are like folktales, perhaps not literally true but full of telling ethnographic detail.
Dana Goodyear’s I ♥ Novels is par for the course for The New Yorker, which I suppose isn’t bad at all. It’s well researched, and there’s an intimacy to the interviews that goes beyond the merely illustrative. Goodyear doesn’t overanalyze. A few quibbles:

I have problems with her depiction of the milieu of the typical keitai shosetsu as “rural” and “rustic”. In fact, I looked at descriptions of five keitai shosetsus. They all had urban or unidentifiable settings. True, none of them were obviously located in Tokyo, but… Inaka=country may be “provincial”, but not necessarily “rustic”. People forget that even in the most “rustic” prefectures, only a small fraction of the population actually engages in agriculture. Japan is a profoundly urban nation.

Then why the purportedly non-Tokyo setting? (In one of the five that I looked at, the action appears to take place in Osaka and Kishiwada, a satellite community with a population of 200 thousand.) I think that it’s mainly a plot device that forces separation, with the older boyfriend (or brother—incest appears to be a popular subtheme) going off to college or work in the big city. And how often haven’t we heard that? You can see that a lot in American novels and TV dramas too. Another, not necessarily mutually exclusive explanation is the one’s own transition to an unfamiliar, impersonal milieu and the estrangement often triggers the creative instincts. In fact, modern Japanese high literature has been constructed on that fertile mixture of rapture, rejection, disillusionment and longing.

And Yankees? “Lower and lower middle classes”, sure (though you wonder who’s left), but the fashion she depicts (and more importantly the lives of the heroines from what I gather) has a much broader appeal to Japanese youths than what we understand as the Yankeee lifestyle (itself an evolving, sometimes hard-to-define subject).

Goodyear appears to link the profusion of a cell-phone culture to a personal computer deficit. But an online report based on a 2006 World Bank survey of 28 countries (likely OECD members) puts Japan in 12th place, behind the Swiss, Anglos, Teutons, and South Koreans, but ahead of Latin countries including otherwise well-off people such as the French and the Italians, as well as Austria, Belgium and Ireland, three other high-income nations. I suppose this tells us that Catholics, compared to Protestants, have a life. But I digress: my point is that there’s nothing here to suggest that there’s a link between a cell-phone culture and purported computer use. In fact, my guess is that the typically youthful cell-phone addicts are the very kind of people who are inclined to access the Internet on regular PCs. Then why the mass cell-phone addiction? Two words: commuter trains; they’ve been replacing weekly magazines and tabloids and more reputable dailies.

Unrelated to the main theme of the essay, but an important assertion nevertheless:
Mone’s withholding is consistent with the ethos of the Japanese Internet, which is dominated by false names and forged identities.
Perhaps. And I’ve laid out my thoughts before on the corrosive effects of anonymity. But I should note that almost all of the comments on the American political, sports, and other blogs that I’m aware of are also pseudonymous.

Finally, what does the future hold for keitai shosetsu? To repeat a sentence from the initial quote:
In the classic iteration, the novels, written by and for young women, purport to be autobiographical and revolve around true love, or, rather, the obstacles to it that have always stood at the core of romantic fiction: pregnancy, miscarriage, abortion, rape, rivals and triangles, incurable disease.
And “incest” too. Add war, subtract abortion, and you might as well be describing Homer, the Greek and Jacobian tragedies, Shakespeare, Kabuki, the Arabian Nights… Oh yes, and mistaken identities and lookalikes too. And The Tales of Genji was in form and function the soap opera of the day. So don’t write off the keitai shosetsu just yet. High culture is nothing but pop culture that has acquired historical context.

ADD. 15 January: I correct myself in the comments regarding my temporary lapse of judgment on the distinction between anonymity and pseudonyms.

Leonard Pitts, On Flying While Muslim

Leonard Pitts shows humor works best in cold fury. It helps to write well, which goes along way to explain why he has a column while I only have a blog. My only conceit here is that I seem to be the only person who has noticed that the airline did not apologize to the Muslims.

Beginning of the End for LDP to Come after Election, Not Before; Other Speculations about the LDP’s Immediate Future

I believe that, barring an unforeseen collapse, the DPJ will emerge from the Lower House general election as the number one party in both Houses. It has won more proportional Lower House seats than the LDP before—in 2003 when a more popular Prime Minister (Koizumi) was in power. This time, it is fielding more single-seat candidates and its leadership appears to be exercising much greater quality control over the aspirants. Moreover, the Communist Party is abandoning its practice of contesting every single-seat district, which bring more dissatisfied voters into play for the DPJ. But it remains to be seen whether the DPJ can surpass the LDP-New Komeito coalition and perhaps even gain an outright majority.

All this will complicate the possible post-election combinations under the current party configurations not to mention the multiple divergences arising from realignments large and small that I am unable to narrow down the range of immediate post-election scenarios in any meaningful way. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to keep posting on matters that I think are guessable. And the first of that is the title of this post. More specifically, barring an unforeseen DPJ catastrophe, few LDP Diet members will follow Yoshimi Watanabe’s example and walk out of the LDP before the election. Instead, defections will occur after the election, mostly if not completely within the Koizumi-reform wing.

First, on the lack of overt support for Yoshimi Watanabe. Watanabe is known as something of a policy wonk and his outspoken style plays well with the media, but has never been considered a leader even in comparison to his somewhat power-shy 50-something cohorts. He may be in the right place, but is surely the wrong man at the wrong time.

Speaking of timing, the battle lines have hardened over the past week. Koichi Kato and Taku Yamazaki, two LDP heavyweights seen cavorting with the likes of DPJ co-deputies Naoto Kan and NPP co-leader Shizuka Kamei, have been backtracking lately. In fact, Yamazaki has come out strongly against Watanabe’s one-man rebellion. Hidenao Nakagawa is the remaining wild card, but he hasn’t said that he will vote against government tax legislation that commits to a consumption tax increase three years down the line. Never say never, but my money is on abstention, which will earn him a wrist slap at most. (Unless of course, a highly unlikely massive defection denies the Aso administration the supermajority in the all but inevitable Lower House revote.) This turn of events has convinced me that there will be no serious break before the election. Which begs the question: Why?

There is one important factor that dictates against premature self-ejection: money.

It is useful to remember in this case that the most vulnerable segment of the LDP Diet Lower House members, the first-termers, often deeply in debt, who have not had the time build up the financial and institutional support system of their seniors, are even more heavily handicapped by the fact that, courtesy of Prime Minister Koizumi, a larger than usual portion of their ranks are non-heirloom adventurers. Perhaps things would be different if they had an experienced and well-endowed leader. But their most prominent champion, Junichiro Koizumi, is leaving the building, acting out of character by bequeathing his seat to his (by available reports) least talented son; Hidenao Nakagawa, the remaining dog with the biggest bite, has all but ruled out a pre-electoral break for himself..

The Political Party Subsidization Act has helped opposition parties put their finances on a more solid footing, but it also helps the LDP’s non-heirloom newbies, who must build their electoral and fundraising machines while paying back the debt they racked up getting elected. This conspires with the technicalities of the subsidization scheme to dictate against a breakout between now and the next election.

Let’s explore the technicalities to some detail. Half of the subsidy in any given calendar year is allocated on the basis of the number of seats that each party holds as of 1 January that year, and another 1/4th is allocated on the basis of the results of the most recent Lower House general election. In other words, this year, approximately 3/4th of the money is being allocated on the basis of the LDP’s 2005 landslide victory in the Lower House when then-Prime Minister Koizumi basically campaigned against the LDP while running on behalf of it. The money is disbursed in equal amounts in April, July, October and December. That means that leaving the LDP before the April disbursement—and all signs are pointing to an election in the new fiscal year (April 1-), not before—will impose a substantial financial penalty on the defector. This will become less of a problem after the election, when financial needs subside for the moment.

What about Kan’s warning that LDP defectors will be less welcome after the election? If the DPJ wins an outright majority, sure. But if it needs their cooperation to form an effective majority, their leverage will be enhanced enormously. The “after the election” argument cuts both ways.

JThe potential conflict with DPJ candidates will also be a serious issue. DPJ leaders are letting it be known that the DPJ may be willing to have some of their candidates step down to give pre-election rebels a better chance of winning. But they are talking about people who have put a hold on their careers, suspended their private lives and often gone into debt to finance their campaigns. It will be a chore to convince them to abandon their ambitions. Besides, the negative press from such a Machiavellian move is likely to further disillusion the public with the Ozawa DPJ. I’ll believe it when someone in the DPJ is actually willing to put their weight behind the idea. The DPJ is not fielding a candidate against Watanabe, but a challenge would have been futile in the first place against an heirloom candidate with great electoral strength.

Of course all this would mean little if leaving the LDP would greatly increase your electoral prospects. But there is no assurance that the DPJ brand with it diminished luster would be much help to an opportunistic defector. There is no reason to believe that staying in the LDP and vowing reform from within is any worse as election tactics. Moreover, you must always be mindful of the possibility of losing anyway. Being a loser without strong institutional backing does not exactly enhance your chances for a rematch.

Finally, why the reformist wing? First of all, the LDP reformists are closer to the DPJ than the rest of the LDP Diet members are in their openness to drastic changes in the domestic status quo. Post Office privatization, which reformists continue to favor, is the one major exception, but the DPJ’s current position is very much the result of a marriage of convenience with the micro-parties. It will be easier for the DPJ to find common cause with reformist breakaways than to reconcile the proto-LDP views of the People’s New Party and the old-left protest instincts of the Social Democrats with its own policy agenda.

Second, the reformists are heavily weighted towards electorally vulnerable first-term Diet members, i.e. the Koizumi Children. It is likely that their numbers will be diminished after the election, further limiting their clout within the LDP. That is when the incentive to make a break reaches its peak.

What happens next? My best guess at this point is that the most vulnerable candidates with the greatest distance from the Aso administration policy-wise, i.e. junior reformists, and their leaders, i.e. Nakagawa, Tsutomu Takebe and their like, will play a hedging game by running a loyal opposition campaign against the LDP status quo, and take their chances post-election. It is quite possible that l will be amending this outlook as events unfold, even to the point of eating post-election crow. But I thought it important to stake out my position on this now, since it could be tested empirically against the actual events that unfold over the coming months.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Ozawa’s Power Move Likely to Force Few Pre-election LDP Defections

Regarding cooperation in the [upcoming Lower House] election with LDP forces showing movement toward leaving the party or political realignment, Mr. Ozawa laid out as conditions that [they must ]“first leave the [LDP] and must be people with whom we can share the same political philosophy and political stance”. DPJ leaders are taking the position that “even in an electoral districts where we already have a candidate, official or unofficial, there can be a switch if the LDP candidate [who has defected] has a greater chance of being elected”.
That’s an excerpt from a 12 January Yomiuri report. But media joytoy and LDP renegade Yoshimi Watanabe’s pending defection (13 January according to news reports) notwithstanding, the battle lines have hardened over the last week or so. The short-term realignment in my view will be post-election, not pre-, and relatively minor. (During the weekend, I worked on a post that gave my reasons why. I haven’t been able to put in the time to do it to my satisfaction. Tomorrow, maybe.)

So, this latest, typically Ozawa ploy should have little effect. In the meantime, people who have put their careers on hold (or in some cases must have left their day job) and dipped into their savings (or even gone into debt) to stand for the DPJ must be going into WTF mode. That’s another reason why the DPJ and Ozawa bandwagon fails to gain momentum (in the just-released Yomiuri and Sankei-FNN polls) even as the Aso-LDP ship continues its relentless slide down the political drain.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Barack Hussein Obama, the First Masuo-san President

“In the end, I’ll do whatever,” she said. “I might fuss a little, but I’ll be there.”

Yes, that’s what they always say.
In what otherwise could only be the premise for a situation comedy (does First Mother-in-Law work?), the President-elect’s mother-in-law is moving in to the White House.

This may appear odd to Americans, to whom in-law jokes are the mainstay of their cultural heritage. (Though perhaps not to Americans of African origin.) But it is a custom with deep historical roots in Japan, where the live-in male spouse is known these days as Masuo-san, a reference to the eponymous husband of Sazae-san (hands-down the most popular post-war comic strip character in Japan).

This phenomenon may very well be a modern-era manifestation of the Japanese civilization’s deep matriarchic roots. To push this speculation even further, the now-waning custom of parents (or parent) without male offspring formally adopting the husband of a daughter could be the result of the subsequent assimilation of patriarchic customs.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Does Any Other Country Obsess about Its Next Ambassador from the United States?

Chuck Hagel is reportedly the current frontrunner to Replace Ambassador Schieffer in Tokyo but Joseph Nye is still in the running. Of course you’d know nothing about that unless you followed the Japanese media. Other than the top Ambassador to the U.N.—currently a Cabinet-level post—there’s little to no speculation in the U.S. media on U.S. ambassadorships as a part of the transition. Is there any other nation in the world where this is going on? After all, ambassadors haven’t been making any important decisions since the advent of the telephone, have they?

In any case, Chuck Hagel would not quite be the status symbol embodied by a true national figure, he is nevertheless the Magic Republican, a decent mainstream conservative Senator who broke with President Bush on the war in Iraq—think Roger Maris instead of Mickey Mantle, but not Billy Martin either. I think that the message would be more or less the same regardless of which one (or any other meaningful candidate) winds up in Tokyo.

Incidentally, this dialogue continues.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Personal, Personalized, Impersonal

This was awful. But how different would the letter be from the spam that arrives in your mailbox, virtual or real, even if the contractor hadn’t made the “printing error”?

Further Thoughts on Japan’s Role Afghanistan- and Otherwise

Robert Dujarric has some interesting advice to the Obama administration regarding Japan and more broadly Afghanistan in general in his comments to the previous post. I responded with some broad thoughts on what Japan could/should/wouldn’t do in the region and more broadly with regard to what I’ve been loosely referring to as the global infrastructure. Please go back to the comments if you’re interested.

Incidentally, Yomiuri says that there’s some reluctance on the part of Joseph Nye over the Tokyo posting, claiming that he wants a bigger portfolio. We’re not good enough for ya, huh? Seriously, the takeaway is that, whatever the outcome, the offer’s significance as a symbol of the continuity and bipartisanship with regard to the alliance and its importance remains unchanged.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Joseph Nye, Ambassador to Japan, Not Good News for the Ozawa DPJ

According to an Asahidispatch from Washington, Joseph “Soft Power” Nye will replace John Thomas “Tom” Shieffer as ambassador to Japan. The article repeats earlier media reports that Japan hand Kurt Campbell will be joining the State Department as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs.

In the short run, these appointments should make the Japanese foreign policy establishment happy. Nye has been paired with Republican Richard Armitage—remember the Armitage-Nye Report*—and Campbell with Republican Michael Green, so we’re talking about the importance of the Alliance and bipartisanship and continuity as far as the United States’ relations with Japan is concerned.

On the other hand, we’re not getting a Mansfield or Mondale or even a Foley—statesmen at the end of their political careers, symbols of the unchanging, highly asymmetrical bilateral relationship, Japan’s security blankets if you will. And Nye is certainly not one of those super-fundraisers who are assigned to countries where, short of turning into a serial murderer, an ambassador could do little harm to U.S. interests.

The global infrastructure needs repair, and the United States is not in a position to go it alone. And Obama is less inclined to want to try to do so. Most of all, this will put under severe stress the fantasy of a foreign and national security policy that the Ozawa DPJ is has been putting forth in fits and starts under severe stress.

And to think that the Japanese establishment had overwhelmingly favored a McCain administration and that the DPJ had been reaching out to the Democrats.

ADD: * Should we now call it the Nye Report?

What to Do with the Two Trillion; Also, Poll-Gazing as Political Strategy

Janne in Osaka has an interesting proposal in a comment to this post aimed at rich people who are uncomfortable at the thought of accepting their share of the 2 trillion yen giveaway—namely, “set up a fund, and invite anyone who doesn't need the giveaway to completely voluntarily donate it to the fund. The fund, in turn, would give out the money to the most homeless and recently unemployed dispatch workers.” That certainly would take care of one problem. In fact, why don’t I set up such a fund myself, solicit funds from the rich, and if can get people who don’t want to give their money to give me their passwords so that I could… I could kill two birds with one stone, is what I could, if you know what I’m sayin’.

Now Ichiro Ozawa, always looking for ways to make the LDP look even worse, thinks that he has an even better idea. Yesterday (January 7), according to a Yomiuri hardcopy report, he instructed Masayuki Naoshima, the head of the DPJ Policy Research Council (and member of the Upper House, where the DPJ holds a big plurality), to come up with better ways to spend the 2 trillion. Fine, but this begs the question: Why spend the money in the first place? After all, Ozawa would not have issued the order if the LDP hadn’t decided to put the government even deeper into debt with the giveaway, right? And what about the rest of the package? What exactly are the DPJ’s plans, and how do they add up?

In fact, the DPJ has been mostly reactive since the 2007 victory in the Upper House election. Its initiatives both domestic and international have for the most part taken the form of opposition to unpopular policy initiatives from the coalition, or been compelled by the need to keep the opposition micro-parties onside. Sometimes, as with boots on the ground Afghanistan, the DPJ has looked downright silly if not dangerous. That some of those coalition proposals have been seriously flawed in the eyes of the media and the public and that all too many of them have been seriously mishandled by the coalition and/or the incumbent administration has certainly helped the DPJ. Still, there’s only so much confidence that the media and the public will place in a game plan that relies on the enemy’s weak, fumbling offense.

The financial meltdown/economic crisis is a good case in point. Last October, a DPJ policy team came up with a pretty neat rescue package, but the party leadership never made a serious move to push it forward. As for the broader economic crisis, it put forward a November plan that for the most part fast-forwarded the first year phase of its 2007 manifesto as subsequently enhanced. Then yesterday, Ozawa had a brainstorm and decided to focus on the 2 trillion. Now that may turn out to be an effective way to turn up the spotlight on the fumbling, bumbling ways of the coalition and the Aso administration, but it also accentuates the DPJ’s reliance on guerilla warfare tactics when a demoralized, disillusioned public longs leadership and vision. But then, why bother fighting a real war if you can manage to win by not losing? Besides, that may be the best way to keep the fractious DPJ troops from going their own ways.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Why the Yen Is Killing Japan Inc.?

Not. Selling dog meat with a sheep’s head again, I see. Pretty shameless.

The Emperor’s Words Are Like Sweat; Where His Prime Minister Is Concerned…

Confucius say: The Emperor’s words Are Like Sweat. An emperor’s words are by definition faultless; like sweat, once they leave the body of the emperor, they cannot be taken back, Pokari Sweat nothwithstanding. A few centuries later, a lesser figure during the Western Han Dynasty gave posterity yet another popular phrase: Order in the morning, amend in the evening. They both warn against the damage effects of the kind of waffling that Prime Minister Aso has done over the 2 trillion yen giveaway. The very same day that his deputy told the coalition worthies assembled around the Prime Minister that the rich could accept the 12,000 yen gifts in good conscience, indeed, it was their duty to do so, which thought prompted me to give Mr. Hosoda some spending tips, the Prime Minister had yet another change of heart and decided that it was okay after all (though he still isn’t telling up whether he’ll actually take the money himself). In fact, I suspect that Mr. Hosoda’s statement had been set up precisely with the objective of easing the way for the Prime Minister to back off his earlier stance.

This is the latest and most prominent example of the Mr. Aso’s unbearably light way with words, beginning in his administration with his dithering over the timing of the Lower House election. Indeed, the agonizing twists and turns that the giveaway has taken only shows us why it took long for him to arrive, only after the LDP had exhausted its other options. Yet, even as the Aso administration flounders, there is no one around for the other members of the ruling coalition to turn to, let alone able or willing to step up him/herself.

It is the little things as much as the story arc behind them—the waffling, in this case, as much as the 2 trillion—that has been so damaging to the Aso administration and the LDP. If the LDP has any hopes of coming out ahead in the next Lower House election, it will do its best to be decisive, to be firm and unwavering. With little to lose, I expect it to try just that; it will dig itself into the trenches, less outreach towards the opposition, more confrontational tactics.

Kazumori Ooshima, the veteran LDP Lower House whip, made it known today that the coalition would force the second supplementary budget and associated legislation through the Lower House on Friday. The coalition has opened fire. Or so I think. But even if my assessment of the LDP battle plans is correct, can the Prime Minister lead the charge? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

To Take or Not to Take: the 12,000 Yen Giveaway

Cabinet members and the LDP and New Komeito leadership hold regular liaison meetings. At the latest such session today, Hiroyuki Hosoda, the LDP Secretary-General (deputy to Prime Minister Aso, who, following tradition, doubles as LDP President) insisted that Diet members take the 12,000 yen offered to each resident in Japan as part of the second-tranche economic stimulus package put forth by the Aso administration and spend it all. The thrust of Hosoda’s argument appears to be that Diet members are morally obligated to spend the money in order to goose the economy.

Now that would be sound advice, except that the Prime Minister himself has gone on the record to promise that he would not take the money and suggest that wealthy people who took the money were:
さもしい, as in (selfish; self‐seeking; mean; 《fml》 self‐interested
さもしい根性 《fml》 a mean mind; 《fml》 one's baser self
さもしい心から 《fml》 from base [sordid] motives
さもしいことをする stoop so low 《as to do
The giveaway itself is a sensitive subject in the first place for the Prime Minister, who had reluctantly acceded to the New Komeito’s demand for an income tax refund that has since mutated into the 12,000-yen per-head, 2 trillion-yen, money-from-the-skies scheme. It is particularly painful for the Prime Minister because the giveaway has not been popular with the voters. Just as important, he (and the LDP) mishandled the issue in ways big and small before the relevant parties settled on its final form. The whole affair is credited with much of the blame in the Prime Minister’s plummeting fortunes, and rightfully so. Can anything better symbolize the plight of the beleaguered Prime Minister than the sight of his own second-in-command openly contradicting him in front of Cabinet Ministers and party bigwigs?

But the Prime Minister does have a point. A Diet member makes so much money compared to the average Jun that it’s hard to show that the 12,000 yen has been recycled back to the Japanese economy in the form of more consumption.

However, there is an easy way for the wealthy people to prove that they have actually spent an extra 12,000 yen: buy something with that money that you would never, ever dream of buying. Rich people will still have all the money that they need to keep buying whatever they were going to buy anyway. And this is where your humble blogger can be of help to the Secretary-General. You see, Hiroyuki Hosoda is a fellow METI alumnus, so I think I know him a little better than you my dear readers, and in a better position to suggest some things for purchase that he would never be buying on his own. Namely:
this, 4,879 Yen (including tax); and
this, 1,260 Yen(ditto)
They add up to 6,139 Yen, more than half the necessary expenditures. I’m sure my senpai can come up with other stuff that he doesn’t need. Just in case, though, I have a suggestion that covers most of the rest of the money for the consummate conservative pol:
here, 1896 Yen;
here, 1812 Yen; and
here, 2065Yen;
for a total of 5773 Yen.
Add them up, and it comes to 11,912 Yen. I know, I know, the Secretary-General is still 78 Yen short. To which I say, let my senpai keep at least that much; you never know how much longer he’ll have a job.

Actually, I had a suggestion for another, small item that would let him clear the 12,000 bar with a little room to spare. But he’s a healthy 64; you never know, he might need it for himself?

Airline Issues “Apology” to American Muslims


We sincerely regret that the passengers on flight 175 did not have a positive travel experience on January 1, 2009.

While ultimately this issue proved to be a misunderstanding, the steps taken were necessary.

Alert passengers reported to the flight crew what they believed were inappropriate comments allegedly made by one of the passengers onboard, and the flight crew notified the federal air marshals that were assigned to the flight…After deplaning the remaining passengers and performing a sweep of the aircraft and rescreening all passengers, crew, checked and carry-on baggage, the flight departed two hours late without the nine passengers who were detained for questioning.

We regret that the issue escalated to the heightened security level it did on New Year’s Day, but we trust everyone understands that the security and the safety of our passengers is paramount and cannot be compromised.

We apologize to all of the passengers – to the nine who had to undergo extensive interviews from the authorities and to the 95 who ultimately made the flight. Nobody on Flight 175 reached their destination on time on New Year’s Day, and we regret it.
And with this letter from AirTran, CNN claims “AirTran apologizes to Muslim family removed from plane”? And wait, there’s more to it:
One family member, Kashif Irfan, said Friday he was "very appreciative and surprised" by AirTran's apology. "It's a very generous gesture," he said.
“[A]ppreciative”? “[G]enerous”? No multimillion-dollar law suit? No wonder AirTran isn’t apologizing for kicking them off the flight. They weren’t real Americans.

Now this Arab guy, he gets it. And he’s only a resident.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Damn If He Doesn’t, Damn If He Does—Big Nakagawa on Taro Aso; Plus, Nakagawa Stakes out Claim as Reformist Leader

December 12, When the FY2009 LDP-New Komeito Guideline for Tax Law Amendments ignored Prime Minister Aso’s wishes and failed to explicitly state the timing of the consumption tax hike:

“When the people responsible within the chain of command for laying down policy ignore the Prime Minister’s instructions, that’s like shooting [him] in the back with a rifle. The Prime Minister’s war staff fails to do the nemawashi so that there will be absolutely no wavering from his instructions. Cebinet members and party officials must protect the authority of the Prime Minister.”
So was Nakagawa supporting Aso or what? In case anyone wondered, fast forward to:
Jaunary 4, When Prime Minister Aso stated in his first press conference of the year that, in fighting the next Lower House election, he would emphasize the need to raise the consumption tax rate after the economy recovers:

“This is not the time to talk about a tax hike. To talk about a tax hike while there are expectations of negative growth raises prospects of another drop into the depths of economic recession.”
That figures. But that’s just for starters. Hidenao Nakagawa has emerged out of his self-imposed purgatory (where he had spent the past year in penitence for the 2007 Upper House election debacle) and is on the move. On New Year’s Day, he laid out his policy platform, which builds on the Koizumi-Takenaka reforms and is supported, I assume, by the economic and bureaucratic expertise of Yoichi Takahashi, once MOF elite and one of Takenaka’s closest and most important associates. Nakagawa is in effect staking out his claim to the mantle of the LDP reformist wing in anticipation of a post-election realignment, aware that no one among the 50- and 40-somethings has managed to break out as the leader of the pack.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Fast Food Nation Japan and other Michelin Thoughts

Ikuhiro Fukuda, a professor at Waseda University, also had some interesting things to say with regard to Michelin in the Yomiuri a couple of weeks ago. He notes that the Michelin restaurant guides for France also list (relatively) inexpensive unrated restaurants but the Tokyo version is limited to rated restaurants. Further on, he points out that in choosing Japanese restaurants, Michelin has essentially turned a blind eye to decor and service, something unthinkable in France. Specifically, he points out that the three-star sushi place is basically a twelve-seat bar that shares a toilet with the other establishments in the building. More important, in his own words:
This owes its origins to the distinct history that does not see the like in Europe, namely that sushi and other Japanese cuisine featured in Michelin such as soba and eel had their origins in the food stalls of the Edo Era, that is, fast food in contemporary terms. “Fast and tasty”, something that is quite normal for us Japanese, are concepts that hard to reconcile in Europe.
Note that I had merely noticed the fast-food origins of Japanese cuisine, where Fukuda traces them to the Edo Era. More broadly, hasn’t much of Japanese culture has historically been driven by the urban middle class, culinary culture being no exception?

Speaking of Michelin, I mentioned the other day that there were no Chinese restaurants in New York Times top ten list of new restaurants in New York. I also noted previously that Michelin Tokyo 2008 had one two-star Chinese restaurant and four one-star Chinese restaurants. Yesterday, NYT profiled the first Chinese restaurant to earn three stars. It’s in the first Michelin Hong Kong edition, launched on 2008 December 2 (my birthday; and for those of you who didn’t know, it’s never too late…).

Car Burning in France: Ripe for Research

The title of the CNN report, France's New Year's Tradition: Car-Burning, says it all. There can’t be too many better examples of social epidemics.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Sending Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force Ships to Somali Waters without Enabling Legislation Is a Mistake

I must be missing something, because I don’t understand why the Aso administration continues to pursue the possibility of sending Maritime Self-Defense Force ships to protect Japanese ships against attacks from Somalia-based pirates under existing legal authority. Not waiting for legislation that would confer broader authority on the JSDF to patrol the waters alongside the U.S. Navy and other forces is a blunder that I believe could lead to resentment and a loss of face. But then, what do I know? Anyway, here’s what I think.

Under existing law, the JMSDF can conduct maritime security operations, i.e. policing activities, beyond Japanese territorial waters only with regard to a crime or threat thereof that violates Japanese sovereignty or consists wholly or in part of an attack on a Japanese national. This effectively limits the JMSDF’s role against the pirates to protecting 1) vessels registered in Japan, 2) vessels operating under Japanese control, and 3) vessels with Japanese nationals on board. According to Sankei reports, 2,300 such vessels pass through Somali offshore waters. Because of limited resources—at the peak of the refueling operations in the Indian Ocean, the JMSDF was likely stretched to the limits of its capabilities with four refueling fleets including one escort ship each (“escort ship”, if I remember correctly, is the Japanese euphemism for “destroyer”) in operation simultaneously; only one fleet is currently on site—the government consensus appears to be that only ships registered in Japan can be protected. The JMSDF, like anyone else under Japanese jurisdiction,, can defend 4) vessels that do not fall into categories 1)-3) under the Japanese Criminal Code rules for self-defense (including third persons) and averting present danger. But unlike with regard to 1)-3), it cannot give pursuit. In all cases, it cannot conduct stop and search activities, which rules out any meaningful role in normal patrolling activities. (An editorial in the conservative Sankei suggests boarding vessels under the pretext of confirming whether Japanese nationals are on board, but that seems to be rather farfetched and legally dubious.)

So the JMSDF will be able to escort through the troubled waters only as many Japanese vessels as the escort ships that it dispatches. Any more Japanese vessels, and the Japanese government will face the uncomfortable task of choosing which vessels to protect, leaving the rest to the good offices of the American, Chinese, Iranian, and other navies, which do not face the same restrictions. But that’s nothing compared to the embarrassment of not being able to join the other navies in normal patrolling activities, instead acting as an overqualified bodyguard for narrowly–defined Japanese interests.

The idea could be that since an escort vessel will take many weeks to reach its destination, not to mention the time to be equipped for the voyage, there will be enough time to enact legislation that allows the government to reassign the vessel to a more appropriate role. In fact, I hope that’s what the authorities have in mind and are preparing for.

The conservative Sankei has been following this issue closely. Here are the most relevant links if you are interested and can read Japanese.

海自艦が日本籍船を護送 ソマリア海賊対策で政府方針
ソマリア海賊対策で調査団派遣へ 政府
「日本から護衛艦派遣」 ソマリア沖 麻生首相は「海上警備行動」を明言
ソマリア海自派遣検討加速を指示 首相
【主張】ソマリア海賊 海自の抑止力に期待する
ソマリア沖海賊、刑法で摘発へ 海自艦同乗の海保活用

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Two Japanese Restaurants in NYT Top Ten New Restaurants List…So What of It?

The New York Times food critic weighs in on the top ten new restaurants in New York—he probably means Manhattan—and a sushi restaurant tops the list. There’s an Asian-Japanese-sushi restaurant (what, tuna roll shabu-shabu dipped in tom yum goong soup?)—in sixth place. There are four French restaurants (including one French-New American), two New American (one of them the French-American), and three Italian. No Chinese, no Indian, no Russian, no Arabic, and nothing from the rest of Europe. Is Japanese cuisine one of the Big Three as far as gustatory civilization is concerned? Or is it that you can simply charge more for Japanese food? I would love to have Frank Bruni’s expense account—I mean, see it.

As if to prove my point, NYT’s list of “some of the best inexpensive places reviewed in the Dining section [last] year” includes Spanish, Mexican, Druse, and even a couple of American restaurants without the obscurant adjective New, although Japanese fast food—a couple of soba shops and even a ramen diner—also made the list. And yes, four out of the fourteen listed in the report are located in Brooklyn.

Note though, that the Japanese menu is heavily weighted towards sushi and soba (read the individual listings and it’ll be even more obvious) two fast food genres (yes, sushi is essentially an expensive fast food) that vie with a myriad of likeminded competitors for our attention in Japan. Moreover, although there are regional differences, the udon, originally a Chinese import (but then, what isn’t?) has a larger national following than the soba, and the ramen noodle (a more recent variation on Chinese cuisine) easily eclipses both in the popular mind and media attention. Japanese food has been branded as health food, and America—Manhattan at least—has chosen accordingly.