Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Price Is Right?—The Ambassador’s Residence

I noted here that the British also did not appreciate the idea of receiving an Obama bagman as ambassador. Two friends, PS and PS (really), have sent me articles from Slate and Bloomberg with more on fundraisers being nominated to choice locations. Bloomberg has been kind enough to give us the amount of money they raised:
The Vatican, almost but not quite priceless, goes for $1,000 to a theology professor*.
The order makes sense, though the prices come across as incredible steals. For example, for the capacious Tokyo residence in the heart of the city, the monthly rent alone should come to more than $500,000. Maybe the housing market is in even worse shape than is commonly reported.

The bargain sale must be disappointing Obama’s most ardent supporters and amusing Republicans across the board. It probably did not come as a surprise, however, to people who have looked at both Obama's history of playing the political game while avoiding the seamiest parts of it and the passive, harmless, role of modern-day ambassadors in allied countries and other benign outposts.

Seriously, when do you think Michelin is going to start awarding stars to embassies? I’m sure presidential campaign donors would appreciate it.

* Okay, that was a low blow.

Friday, May 29, 2009

LDP and DPJ—Peas in a Pod? So? I Think the Electorate Wants to Let’s See How the DPJ Does.

This was intended to be a post elaborating something I said here in response to the third comment from LB. However, while I was away from my blog for a couple of days, I found that LB had returned with yet another fascinating (and very long) comment addressing that and other matters. I don’t know if I have the time today to deal with that and other comments that have come my way during that time, but I promise I’ll get to them, and take note of it when I do.

Regarding the DPJ, I think everyone including the DPJ themselves needs to see how (and with whom) it governs before a major realignment becomes a realistic option. It is becoming clearer that the erstwhile anti-Ozawa forces in the DPJ led by Seiji Masehara and Yoshihiko Noda are coalescing and Katsuya Okada is being drawn into their circle as a leader. But they are also intent on winning the Lower House election for the DPJ and will join a Hatoyama administration, if and when it happens, with enthusiasm and do their best to make it work. As policy wonks, they probably can’t help it anyway. The more serious governance issues are likely to be caused by the DPJ’s coalition partners formal and informal, the People’s New Party and the Social Democratic Party respectively. The PNP reportedly wants a massive, three-year public works spending program and a rollback of Post Office reform—wishes, if granted in full, would turn the calendar back to the pre-Koizumi era. The SDP, given its leftist leanings—the moderates defected to what is now DPJ some time ago—are likely to push an anti-business, anti-market agenda. On the foreign policy front, the DPJ may have problems of its own with the United States if it pushes too hard against the status quo in Japan and the near abroad, a course of action which the SDP will endorse and then some. So Upper House help from LDP defectors (or the New Komeito) may be a welcome alternative here. Not that I can point to any specific scenario that places the DPJ at such a juncture, but I think that the possibility is there.

In this respect, it’s also important to note that there’ are good reasons why the distinction between the two major parties blurs on close inspection. The Japanese electorate—and here I am speaking in the collective to simplify my story—likes universal healthcare and public pensions, for which it is more or less resigned to eventually paying more taxes. It also does not want the government to own and run businesses. In other words, we the Japanese voters are social democrats. On the foreign policy front, the Japanese public fears North Korea and is vaguely apprehensive of China but cares only marginally about any turn of events beyond the near abroad. Thus, we the Japanese voters support the Japan-U.S. alliance but give only lukewarm support to a limited, non-combat overseas role for Japanese troops. No Japanese administration can last long while ignoring any one of these desires of the Japanese electorate. Not even a (Shoichi) Nakagawa administration can escape—yes, I can see clearly now—the Yoshida Doctrine. And a DPJ-led administration is no exception.

Having said that, there are a couple of reasons why I believe that having two major parties matter. Within the confines of the national consensus, there are still important choices that Japan as a nation needs to be make, or have the choice made for them by the changing circumstances. It’s a good thing in principle to be in a position to make those choices through the electoral process than through the informal, vested interests-based process that prevails under a virtual one-party rule or the ad hoc deal-making that goes on within the cacophony of a badly splintered legislative body.

Just as important is accountability. The electorate deserves an alternative when the incumbent is not up to the job. Now, if we needed more evidence that the Aso administration is not exactly the A-Team, it has just laid a new one with the Prime Minister’s flip-flop on idea of splitting the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare*. It’s actually three administrations in a row. I think the public needs a break, in more ways than one.

* In a nutshell, Tsuneo Watanabe, the Yomiuri head and major-league dealmaker (he almost brokered a coalition deal between then Prime Minister Fukuda and DPJ leader Ozawa), put forth the idea in an advisory group for the Prime Minister, and Aso liked the idea and told Cabinet Ministers to look into it, but backed off in the face of opposition from his own party including the popular MHLW Minister Masuzoe—all this happening in the space of two weeks and in full public view. The idea itself is not without merit, but the problems vexing MHLW predate its creation in 2001 from the Health and Welfare Ministry and the Labor Ministry. One more Minister will do little to fix all the management and solvency issues of the public pension system, to give prominent example.

ADD: The notion of taking kindergartens away from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and putting them together with MHLW’s daycare centers and putting them under one of the two new Ministries also got shot down in the bargain.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Random Shots regarding the Rapid Fire from North Korea

Another nuclear test. That, and more missile launches. They are coming fast and furious.

North Korea poses the prototypical dilemma: talk, and demands escalate; ignore, and actions escalate. At bottom, the North Korean authorities cannot survive democracy, unification or non-. In that, they resemble the Tamil Tigers. As long as China (far less importantly Russia) does not isolate them, they can maintain their nuclear weapons and missile programs. In that, they resemble Israel with its West Bank settlements.

I defer to the experts regarding explanations of North Korean behavior both long-term and in the immediate instance. They all more or less look plausible to me. Barring a Chinese handcuff on North Korea, though, they mostly point to one conclusion: Short of a peace treaty with United States, there’s little reason to believe that North Korea will irrevocably give up its nuclear weapons program. Even that elusive peace treaty thing looks like a dubitable proposition to me; openness of any kind will destabilize the regime there and I don’t think the authorities can tolerate that. They could want the very best for their people, but self-interest will always win out.

By the way, China must be doing a lot of legitimate business with North Korea. Otherwise, we would be hearing more—hell, something—about North Korea’s needs-based activities in the counterfeiting and drug trafficking fields, wouldn’t we?

So what is Japan going to do, other than the inevitable, more UN resolution-based sanctions from a rapidly dwindling table of possible measures? Well, LDP hawks are pushing for the inclusion of preemptive striking power in the new National Defense Program Guidelines which will be released by the end of the year. Leaving aside for the moment the increasing likelihood that very different people will holding the reins of Japanese government by then, their proposal begs the question: preempt what? Unless there’s a way to locate and conduct pinpoint attacks on most if not all of 200 or so Rodongs or the relevant command centers, we’d have to obliterate most of North Korea to “preempt” a nuclear attack. What’s undeniably within our powers in principle does not appear to be feasible in reality.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Are We Looking at the Right Coalition Partner for the DPJ?

The DPJ-Shin-Ryokufukai-People’s New Party (PNP)-Nihon Shinto (NSP) coalition forms a Registered Upper House Association (considered a single party for parliamentary purposes, it’s a more formal version of the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the United States) holding 118 of the 242 seats in the Upper House. Since two of the remaining 224 seats belong to the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the House, who leave their respective parties—in this case No.1 DPJ and No.2 LDP—and the Chairman casts the tiebreaking vote, the DPJ-led coalition needs two more seats to reach the 120 threshold to ensure passage of legislative bills without a supermajority in the Lower House.

As a practical matter, if the Japan Communist Party (JCP) decides to take its seven Upper House seats off the table and abstain, the DPJ-led coalition will have more than enough votes to pass the relevant legislative bill. Then there are the independents. So it’s not as simple as that. Suffice to say, though, that the DPJ-led coalition needs the cooperation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), with its five votes, to ensure that it will be able to secure an Upper House majority without the cooperation of the JCP. Thus, the SDP will demand its pound of flesh in return for the loan of its votes, pushing domestic and foreign policy further to the left than its numbers on their own could ever justify.

The formal Upper House coalition as it is currently constituted without the SDP has its own problems. The PNP is a throwback to the pre-Koizumi LDP. It is reportedly pushing for a three-year, 50-trillion, public-works payout (financed perhaps by maintaining the gasoline surcharge), as well as a much-publicized bid for a return to the pre-privatization Post Office system. But these demands threaten to throw a wrench and much of the rest of the kit and caboodle into the DPJ’s reformist plans. This is obviously where the best-laid plans and rumors regarding Hidenao Nakagawa’s plans for a breakout rom the LDP to form a new centrist-progressive party come from.

Now some of reformist Nakagawa’s ideas—cut unnecessary expenditures, for example—dovetail nicely with the DPJ’s. But the hypothetical Nakagawa’s hypothetical startup-deck party will have its own newly formed political agenda, and some of the particulars are bound to conflict with the DPJ’s. Compromising its principles from the outset is an uncomfortable position to be for a new political party to be in. And this is where the New Komeito, with its 20! Upper House votes, comes in.

Komeito stands up for the little guy, and has a decidedly pacifist outlook. Otherwise, its political agenda is quite flexible, as evidenced by its political meanderings between the LDP and its opponents. In fact, the DPJ’s annual multitrillion-Yen outlay for child support checks to households with under-aged children could be considered a permanent, more refined version of the 2 trillion helicopter money that the New Komeito forced the Aso administration to cough up. And with regard to the DPJ’s generally more conciliatory approach towards China and the Koreas on history and other thorny bilateral issues, Komeito arguably has more in common with it than with the LDP’s more hard-line position. The DPJ’s reluctance—however tactical—to project the Japanese military except under the strictest of UN controls also appeals to the New Komeito, which has been forced to grudgingly go along with the LDP on such matters.

As we have seen here, the New Komeito is at least as natural an ally of the DPJ as a Nakagawa-led LDP breakout could be. And it’s not as if the Gakkai-Komei complex hasn’t flip-flopped between the LDP and an anti-LDP coalition before. Which begs the question: Why, then, is no one talking about the possibilities? Two names: Ichiro Ozawa, and Daisaku Ikeda, the lifetime head of Sokagakkai (an extremely powerful laic organization in the Nichiren Buddhist sect) and the power behind the New Komeito throne. The animosity between the two run deep, and is a clear hindrance to the New Komeito breaking out and joining a DPJ-led coalition.

That being said, there are no laws of physics that preclude a DPJ-New Komeito coalition. The idea deserves more attention than the media has been devoting to it, as Japan’s body politic approaches the Lower House general election.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bad Polls, More Downside Risk for the Ruling Coalition

Poll results as a whole continue to vary widely between each other, while the newspaper polls reflect their respective political outlooks and the TV polls are particularly volatile. All that being said, if you look at how the numbers have moved as the Nishimatsu scandal broke over DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa’s head and led to his replacement by Yukio Hatoyama, it’s safe to say—knock on wood—the following:
1) The DPJ has closed in on the LDP with regard to bedrock support; the 10% or so lead that the LDP held after the Kozumi administration appears to have dissipated altogether.

2) The switch from Ozawa to Hatoyama has restored much of the DPJ lead among the “floaters”—one-third or so of the electorate—who are going to end up determining the outcome of the Lower House general election.
The LDP gave its best shot on the economy, as it put forth its latest economic stimulus package to mixed reviews. Its game plan going forward appears to consist of bashing the DPJ over a) the unrealistic cost-cutting assumptions as the basis of its four-year plan and b) the lack of a short-term plan of its own. Beyond this, there seems to be little more that the LDP can do except hope against hope for a miraculous third quarter economic recovery; that, and wait for a serious DPJ mistake or two—possible but highly unlikely, given that the DPJ as the opposition won’t have to worry about wayward cabinet members and other high-profile political appointees.

Worse for the ruling coalition, it continues to be distracted by side issues. Kunio Hatoyama, the Internal Affairs and Communications Minister, has been attacking the Post Office at every turn, scoring some political points for himself at the expense of the rest of the LDP and Koizumian reformists in particular. Prime Minister Aso jumped at a proposal to re-divide the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, but the MIAC Minister—Yoichi Masuzoe, the one bright spot in the Aso Cabinet—has come forth with a request for more staff as a condition for going along with it. And that’s not to mention the bullet the Aso administration dodged when Ozawa’s resignation and subsequent race to succeed him pushed the sacking of a Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary for sexual escapades at the expense of public coffers—which Aso foolishly tried to brush off as resignation for “health reasons”—to the media sidelines.

On the DPJ side, there is lingering worry that Ichiro Ozawa’s daily press briefings as he stalks the provinces may cause some grief. I doubt it. The press can only ask the same question—Will you explain yourself regarding the Nishimatsu money—so many times and get the same answer—I’ve explained it already and everything is legal—every time before the editors stop printing it. In fact, that’s what it’s beginning to look like already. The issue will resurface from time to time as Ozawa’s political aide’s prosecution for political financing irregularities moves forward (or fresh allegations are raised*), but the most eye-catching event—the verdict—is not coming down before the general election—assuming that the Public Prosecutors Office decides to bring the case to a trial before the election in the first place.

All this of course has little to do with what the DPJ is going to do after it catches the milk truck. I’ll get back to that if I have something meaningful to add to what I’ve said before. Otherwise, I’ll continue to focus my meanderings on the chase.

* A 24 May Mainichi report relates how the Ozawa team dunned 5 million Yen from major zenecon Kumagai-Gumi from 1996-2000 under a scheme remarkably similar to the Nishimatsu arrangement. No, the report has nothing to say about the LDP side of the picture.

Visa Exemption to Resume for Mexicans

A brief follow-up to this post: In case you were wondering, here is the MOFA notice announcing the resumption of the visa requirement waiver for Mexicans as of 22 May. With the growing number of cases of contagion within Japan, the thrust of the effort to contain the H1Ni virus has shifted to the domestic front. The resumption of the visa waivers is part of the transition.

We Are Not Alone: Ambassador to-Be to London Louis Susman, Another Obama Bagman Extraordinaire

And the British media “are in a tizzy”.

I’ve been reading and hearing from a variety of sources that the Japanese authorities were not pleased to hear that a last-minute switch resulted in Jon Roos’ secondment to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, so I’m happy for the peace of mind of those people to know that we are not the only ones who have been pissed off. What’s a little weird is the fact that Susman’s name has already been in the hat for months. Didn’t that give the British enough time to get over it?

Beyond the surprise element—no one wants to be blindsided—what a government official that I talked to said made the most sense to me. He agreed that the Roos nomination was a sign of U.S. satisfaction with Japan as a trusted ally and that it was not unreasonable to assume that Japan should be happy that Tokyo is seen as a posh reward on a par with London, Paris, and Rome. However, the Japanese side is not as happy with the U.S. treatment of Japanese concerns, most notably the abduction issue—thus, in his view, the dissatisfaction with what was being seen in some quarters as a manifestation of benign neglect. We agreed that it was likely that the Japanese side would eventually be happy that an ambassador with real leverage with the President and his staff—after all, Schieffer is just a friend, and Nye is just an academic—would be in town.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Meaning of Roh Moo-Hyun

Roh Moo-hyun, with his suicide leap, has become South Korea’s most recent and arguably most spectacular post-presidential flameout. For every South Korean President since Chun Doo-hwan (1980-1988) and Roh Tae-woo (1988-1993), the military generals who eased South Korea into its contemporary democratic era, and/or their families and familiars have been subjected to criminal prosecution. In fact, Roh Moo-hyung’s death makes you wonder if all this isn’t part of the local political culture—the South Korean equivalent of the multi-million-dollar Presidential library that ex-Presidents hit on their campaign contributors for and the six-figure fees they charge for giving pep talk to Moonie conventions and other less reputable audiences, doesn’t it? (Japanese Prime Ministers mainly but not exclusively opt for a more modest goal—bequeathing their Diet seats to their offspring.)

Yes, but.

Actually, Chun through Roh 2 are the analog of the one-off warlords who are destined to give way to a more permanent regime in exchange for a moment of historical glory as short-lived difference-makers. They and their successors (up to Roh 2) remind more me of bridesmaids Nobunaga Oda and Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who briefly held sway at the end of the Sengoku Jidai, or War-States Period, only to pave the way to three centuries of uninterrupted rule by the Tokugawa Dynasty. Korean (and, more so, Chinese) history must be replete with such precedents. From this perspective, Roh’s suicide should be seen as the latest manifestation of the search by the Korean body politic for an enduring protocol of succession as a constitutional democracy.

Kissinger on China North Korea

Now, if Japan, China, Russia, the United States together cannot convince or -- a country of the size of North Korea by creating enough pressure, what is the sense of talking about an international system at all? And I believe that China and we and Japan should be able to bring about the denuclearization of North Korea.

[I] f we cannot deal with a country that has no natural resources that others want, no significant trade, totally dependent on its neighbors for supplies, then what is the sense of talking of an international system?
That’s Kissinger, on the Fox News channel. I’m sure he understands perfectly well why it’s not happening. (That, or he’s really, really gone off his rocker.) But what does he mean by “international system”?

ADD* (25 May): Kissinger asserts that “China and we and Japan should be able to bring about the denuclearization of North Korea”. Perhaps, but if so, he, as an expert and practitioner of international relations, should not be throwing up his hands over “the international system” like some petulant blogger and instead should be telling us something the rest of the world has not been able to figure out so far. After all, if a key component—in this case China—in pursuit of its interests fails to put the squeeze on the transgressor—in this case North Korea—then the “system” will obviously not achieve its goal. And it’s pretty obvious that China has what it perceives as quite sensible reasons from a national interest perspective to take its current tack.

* ZI’s comment reminded me that I failed to explain my criticism of Kissinger’s comments in my original post. This addendum is intended to rectify that omission.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Now It’s the Ozawas’ Turn with the Family Jewels

Yesterday, I considered the implications on Junichiro Koizumi’s son of a idea brewing in the LDP to deny official candidate status to heirloom politicians beginning with the upcoming Lower House general election—the idea clearly being to upstage the DPJ, which won’t implement a ban on heirloom candidates during this election, claiming that it’s too late to find replacements. My take was that such a turn of events would actually benefit Mini-K. There is a very good chance that the Ozawa family will face a similar situation in the general election after that. Ozawa is 66, and has health problems and three sons (to Koizumi’s two). What is he supposed to do?

It is important to remember that there are a number of single-seat districts where the DPJ has yet to put up candidates. It is supporting candidates from the New People’s Party and the Social Democratic Party in some of them, while it has not found viable candidates in others. The exceptions to these are Ozawa’s own Iwate 4th District and a few other districts that have been purposely left open to Ozawa’s choice as part of campaign tactics. Most notably, stage whispers let on that he might challenge Akira Ota, the New Komeito leader, in the latter’s Tokyo 11th District. The New Komeito would likely have to divert campaign resources that could have been expended more usefully elsewhere, just so its leader can avoid the embarrassment of its leader losing and having to slip in through the regional proportionate district backdoor.

Of course such a turn of events would leave the Iwate 4th District without an official DPJ candidate and with little time left for a novice to step in, declare him/herself, go through the vetting process and campaign successfully…unless, of course, one of Ozawa’s three sons steps in with the Ozawa kaban (money), kanban (name recognition), and jiban (readymade constituency and political machine) . There’s the heirloom stigma, but the favorite, favored son could make a big show of foregoing official DPJ support. It won’t fool anybody, but it can serve as a fig leaf. Ozawa himself will run the risk of losing to Ota and not winning enough votes relative to Ota to return to the Lower House as a proportional-district Representative, but that danger should be small if not insignificant.

All this sounds fine and dandy, but there’s a catch. As I said, this won’t fool anybody even if Mini-Ozawa runs as an “independent” and the media will feast on the double rake-off. I’m not sure that it will be a significant story throughout the campaign, but it is sure to harm the DPJ more than the LDP. Koizumi is a spent force, whereas Ozawa is the mind, if not the face, of the DPJ. Just as significantly, the DPJ can’t win by being “no worse than the LDP”.

There’s really no way of knowing what Ozawa will do or, if he decides to take to, how Yukio Hatoyama, the new party leader will respond. Thus, the uneasy slumber of the catfish under the Diet Building has yet to reach its conclusion.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Less Than Meets the Eye to LDP (Almost) Proposal to Deny Official Candidate Status to Heirloom TurkeysCandidates

Going one better on the DPJ, the LDP is moving to deny official candidate status to sons and daughters of retiring Diet members this Lower House general election. This measure, if enacted—it’s not yet a done deal—will affect two candidates, Hideo Usui and Shinjiro Koizumi, son of Junichiro “I will destroy the LDP” Kiozumi, the “reformist” Prime Minister. Now, I know nothing about the Usuis, but I am sure that this will enhance Mini-K’s chances of getting elected on the Kanagawa 11th District ballot.

Mini-K is a twenty-something about whom little is known except his parentage, his good looks, and a brief stay at CSIS, a Washington think tank. He is facing a challenge from a DPJ candidate that is about as far from him as is humanly possible. His “challenger” rose from modest upbringings—he is the son of a truck driver—to become a successful lawyer (note that becoming a lawyer in Japan requires a considerable amount of intelligence and an inhuman degree of time and effort) and has now decided to turn his gifts to making the world a better place for his fellow man. (And if I may say so, the photo on his official web site looks very different from other photos of him taken under less staged circumstances. To put it another way, the official photo looks about as natural as…well, if you’re interested in this subject, I suggest you read this.) Add to this the anti-LDP winds blowing through the nation, and it was no sure thing that Mini-K would be the first past the stile on his first try. Thus, the underdog sales pitch that the denial of official recognition will give him should be a welcome blast of tailwind.

To be sure, there are a couple of downsides to the loss of the LDP seal of approval. First, he won’t have access to LDP campaign funds. But he’ll still be much better off with his dad’s leftover money (yes, the Koizumis can pass it on, tax-free I believe, though I’ll have to check if you insist) and political machine.

…which brings me to my final point. Political allegiance at the local level is more personal than institutional, especially where it involves long-serving Diet Members. It is for nothing that the LDP is sometimes called the 自分党 (Me Party), not the 自民党 (LDP). If anything, the denial of official status will only make the Koizumi political machine work harder for the favorite son. And when he is elected, all will be forgiven as far as the LDP is concerned.

Mini-K does run another, more significant risk. If he loses to the DPJ candidate, he cannot sneak back in by way of a parallel, regional proportional candidacy. But let’s face it; if this guy has long-term political ambitions, he is much better off losing this election to fight another day (when an official LDP candidacy will be all but assured) than sneaking in through the back door. At least that’s how I see it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Some Thoughts on Ozawa, “Old-School” and the DPJ Policy Agenda

LB’s comment here got me to thinking: What exactly do I mean by old-school? That led me to more thinking about Ozawa and the DPJ agenda. I decided to put my response up as a separate post—as a prelude of sorts to a more scenario-based examination of the post-electoral prospects for a breakaway by LDP dissidents.

First of all, Ozawa’s way with money (if at least some of the allegations appearing in the mainstream media are to believed) and relative disinterest in policy except as the means to electoral power certainly does make him something of a throwback. However, I was using the term “old school” shorthand for a desire to turn the clock back to the pre-Koizumi years, where the construction industry, the post office network and other conservative strongholds provided the money and muscle in return for public funds and protection from competition, while the Self-Defense Forces stayed put on the archipelago. (The reality was of course more complex, but this is close enough of a caricature to serve our purposes here.) The Ozawa DPJ has been making some concessions to these demands, though only in part to accommodate the PNP and the Social Democrats. However, I believe that there is still enough substance in its policy agenda as well as enough distance from traditionally powerful vested interests to distinguish the DPJ from both wings of the status quo from the pre-Koizumi era.

Now Ozawa may not have much interest in the DPJ policy agenda beyond its electoral implications, but he is not ideologically or temperamentally wedded to what I refer to here as old school either. Thus, he is not per se an obstacle to a reformist administration. The old Socialist wing and the labor unions will stake out their own claim, but it’s not as if they have anywhere else to go if they don’t get everything they want. And their intraparty power should be significantly diluted by a DPJ victory in the Lower House election.

Having said that, the Upper House breakdown will give the PNP and the Social Democrats disproportionately strong leverage over a DPJ administration. This is where the potential for a group of LDP dissident to join a more or less reformist DPJ administration comes in. I’m trying to work out a range of election scenarios against which such a turn of events can be projected. It’s going to take time though, and no one’s paying me to do it, so it won’t materialize in the next couple of days.

Meet John V. Roos, U.S. Ambassador-to-Be in Tokyo

My negative powers of prediction have worked their magic again; I have hexed Joseph Nye, and John V. Roos, a Silicon Valley lawyer and major Obama fundraiser, has been tapped as Ambassador to Japan. According to the Asahi, the decision was precipitated by Jon Huntsman’s nomination as Ambassador to China (the balance!), the switch from Nye coming at the last minute.

The Asahi says that the Obama administration is tracing the “Schieffer” pattern in prioritizing the personal relationship over experience. Not so. That was certainly the case with Schieffer, a native Texan like Bush, though a Democrat from Texas. But Roos was an early supporter of and fundraiser for Obama; I’m sure the two hit it off, but the decision itself is very much political. In that sense, it’s actually the “close ally” treatment that places like London, Paris and (likely) Rome are used to getting, where major donors/fundraisers are routinely awarded extended vacations. Again, we are reminded of the difference between partnership and relationship.

Not that there’s any reason to believe that Roos will be less effective. In fact, I think he’ll be a great hit here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The DPJ: Whose Party Is It Anyway?

Ichiro Ozawa is already strongly positioned in the Upper House wing of the DPJ by virtue of the 2007 election victory over the LDP-New Komeito coalition. Add to that his likely dominance over the Lower House as the result of the upcoming general election and the post-election DPJ will have a Dark Overlord that will rival if not eclipse Kakuei Tanaka, Ozawa’s mentor and role model, at the peak of his political power. Let me explain.

As the Koizumi Kids phenomenon shows, rookie Diet members tend to gravitate toward the leadership under which they are elected. Similarly, Ozawa’s group swelled its ranks when the DPJ took 60 out of 121 seats up for grabs in the 2007 Upper House election. Although lingering resentment towards Katsuya Okada over his past expressions of desire for Upper House reform played a major role in delivering the bulk of the Upper House vote to Hatoyama, Ozawa’s influence over their ranks must also have figured substantially in the outcome. The upcoming Lower House election is likely to have an even more dramatic effect on Ozawa’s power, since all 480 seats will be up for election—unlike the Upper House, which turns over only half its members every three years. The 2007 election produced a net gain of 28 DPJ Diet members. But in the upcoming election, a simple majority—something well within the DPJ’s reach—will produce a net gain of 128 DPJ Diet members.

Significantly, Ozawa has exercised near-dictatorial powers in selecting, monitoring, and even coaching the candidates; in the process overshadowing the customary role of the Director-General—Hatoyama!—who is supposed to manage party operations on a day-to-day basis. If anything, his “demotion” to Senior Acting President will enhance his influence over the candidates, since he will not be distracted by anything as trivial as the need to show up for Diet sessions and respond to pesky reporters and instead will be able to devote his full attention to the electoral process—over which he explicitly retains full control*. Thus it is likely that Ozawa will emerge from the upcoming election with behind-the-scenes political might whose likes we have not seen since his mentor Kakuei Tanaka.

All this does not necessarily bode ill for a Hatoyama administration. Remember that Yasuhiro Nakasone, who led one of the most long-serving and effective post-WW II administrations, was also widely regarded as a Tanaka hand puppet when he became Prime Minister. And there is another eerie, if oddly hopeful, parallel in the relative disinterest in statecraft, a trait shared by the two on the part of both Dark Overlords. We are likely to see whether or not the conciliatory and inclusive Yukio Hatoyama has the vision and determination to likewise measure up to his distant predecessor.

* This begs the question: What is the new Director-General—Okada!—supposed to do?

As a final point, the shadow of the Overlord is obviously not helpful to the DPJ as far as the overall outcome of the election is concerned. I believe that this increases the likelihood of a need for a coalition partner beyond or in lieu of its more or less formal odd-bedfellows alliance with the People’s New Party (old-school-LDP) and the Social Democrats (old school Socialists), while simultaneously complicating any outreach to the LDP reformist wing—the source of the most likely candidates for a post-election breakaway. I’ll try to take this matter up in some detail in another post.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Election Bump for DPJ

Mainichi scores again with a 16-17 May poll. The table says:
1. Who is the more appropriate Prime Minister? Aso 21%, Hatoyama 34.
2. Do you have positive expectations for Hatayama? Yes 49%, no 49%
3. Your estimation of the DPJ? Went down 17%, went up 13%, unchanged 68%.
4. Who do you want to win the Lower House election? LDP 29% (34%), DPJ 56% (45%)
5. Do you support the Aso Cabinet? Yes 24%(27%), no 58% (52%)
*12-13 May poll in parentheses
Hatoyama was supposed to be the less popular candidate of the two, and surely was. But the exposure, the show of unity and determination, and the certainty now that the handover has been made have created a minor euphoria. though some of that is bound to wear off, it is now clearly the DPJ’s race to lose.

Why There Is a Eurovision Song Contest

…and why, with a little more justification than with the League of Nations and the International Criminal Court, the United States is sitting this one out: The winner by 1.6 kilometres: Fairytale (one word), by Alexander Rybak, Norway.

Need I say more?

ADD: I am pleasantly surprised to learn that I can understand Norwegian. Every single word. There must be something in the adulterated water tonight.

The Meaning of the Leadership Vacuum in the Embassies

President Obama has announced Jon Huntsman’s nomination as Ambassador to China. In the United States, it is justifiably regarded as a political coup of the first order. He is a moderate Republican governor of a socially conservative state (Utah), accentuating the inclusiveness of the Obama administration at the expense of the ever-shrinking moderate wing of the GOP. Many people also believe that he is uniquely suited to his new role (pending Senate confirmation) because he is fluent in Mandarin from his Mormon missionary work in Taiwan—no off-color comments about a “new missionary position” please; this is a serious blog—and it certainly doesn’t hurt that China and Taiwan are on excellent terms these days. What has received less, indeed little, attention is the very fact that the United States has been without an ambassador in Beijing for four months since Clark Randt resigned on January 20.

China is not alone. Thomas Schieffer resigned on the same day as Ambassador to Japan, where my formidably negative powers of prediction have produced yet another turnaround and we are waiting once again for Joseph Nye to make up his mind, or so I’ve been told. Now, there’s been a wholesale delay of political appointees in the Obama administration, so ambassadors in principle are the least of its worries. But how can the most important bilateral relationship and the most important bilateral partnership have been without U.S. Ambassadors for four months without anybody noticing?

In fact, it is the strategic importance of the relationship/partnership from national security and economic viewpoints—increasingly convergent in these turbulent times—itself that is the cause of this benign neglect. For the major issues are too important to be left to the discretion of the embassies, yet there are no raging controversies that require micromanagement at the local level. Place this fact against the historical background where progress in telecommunications and air transport have already rendered much of traditional diplomacy obsolete, and you have a situation that can easily tolerate a leadership vacuum in both embassies as long as the various departments are properly staffed.

Not that any warm body will do, though, since there’s the symbolic value. That means, however, that the authorities must come up with someone with sufficient gravitas and the patience to serve out a largely ceremonial role in admittedly pleasant quarters—unless something erupts and there’s a need for high-profile, in situ damage control. That’s not easy.

And no, I didn’t post this just because I wanted to write “new missionary position”. You don’t think I’m that juvenile, do you?

My Latest Thoughts on the DPJ Election

Woke up in the middle of the night (do not ask why), couldn’t resist looking at my email. Which led to an online look at the media’s reaction to the DPJ election. Basically, it boils down to: What the heck is Hatoyama going to do with Ozawa? My immediate reaction to that goes here, in my response to Ross’ comment.

I think I need a life. And sleep. Good night. If you like me, pray for the Celtics. And if you hate me, well, you know what to do.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Hatoyama Beats Okada 124-95 (One Abstention, One Invalid Vote)

As so often has been the case, I failed to call it. Having said that…

It’s a secret ballot so we can’t know for sure, but based on the surveys that the mainstream media conducted in the lead-up to the vote, Hatoyama appears to have won thanks to a big lead in the Upper House vote. Okada seems to have at least held his own in the Lower House, whose members were more mindful of the upcoming election than their Upper House counterparts, only half of whom will face the public next year. Hatoyama likely held onto all of his group’s 30 votes as well as most of Ozawa’s 50 votes, so that was a huge head start against his independent opponent. Media surveys indicate that farther away from Ozawa’s group they were the less they preferred Hatoyama.

The question, of course, is: Will the sockpuppet (傀儡政権) trope stick? The media typically gives a new leader a grace period during which it says only nice things. (Remember when the chairman of Sharp, in deep trouble at the time, elevated a board member who was a journalist with no business experience to the chairman’s position and placed his own son, who had been placed on a special fast track, as president/CEO and the media hummed long to the company tune?) This may last only few days, but it’s important in Hatoyama’s case, because this is his best chance to establish himself as the real face of the DPJ. The polls will give him and the DPJ some momentum; it’s up to him to keep the snowball rolling.

Can Hatoyama do it? I noticed that he was a better speaker than I’d remembered. He has a better way with words than Okada. He also looked visibly animated during the DPJ election proceeding, as he no longer had to speak on behalf of the Ozawa DPJ. Speaking of whom, Ozawa must play his part by making himself scarce—something he has little trouble managing to do. In fact, this is the most important part of the DPJ electoral scenario.

This was a most civil election held between two highly civil candidates. It was definitely not politics as usual. The prospects of an imminent takeover must also have helped.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

DPJ Election Update: Okada Rising

I suppose Junichiro Koizumi’s upset victory over Ryutaro Hashimoto in the 2001 LDP presidential race started it all, but whenever the LDP is about to elect a new president, mainstream dailies dial up the deputy heads of prefectural party chapters—the heads are usually Diet members, so their views do not necessarily reflect the wishes of the local chapter rank-and-file—to ask whom they favor and print the prefecture-by-prefecture results. The influence of the rank-and-file LDP party members has reached the point where a considerable number of Diet members will at least take the local votes into consideration when casting their own votes. Now, after electing it three previous leaders elected by acclaim, DPJ, with its Hatoyama-Okada showdown, is undergoing the same treatment.

The DPJ locals are clearly less used to flexing their muscle through media exposure, and none of the polls reflect the views of more than a third of the prefectural chapters. (Off the top of my head, I’d say that two-thirds or more of the LDP chapter deputy heads will let us know whom they favor.) Moreover, the results are wildly uneven, even though they all appear to have contacted the same person in each of the 47 chapters. Still, for your benefit:
Asahi: Okada 9, Hatoyama 8
Yomiuri: Okada 13, Hatoyama 4
Sankei: Okada 9, Hatoyama 3
Mainichi: Okada 8, Hatoyama 3 (overlooked; added 15 May)
Iffy as the figures look, it seems that Okada is ahead with regard to the deputy heads who are not afraid to speak up. The online Mainichi online does not have a tally. However, just as important if not more so to the Lower House members (as well as other candidates) who must face an election in the coming months, Mainichi conducted an unscheduled national public opinion poll, in which Okada led the field with 25% to Hatoyama’s 13%. (Naoto Kan, Seiji Maehara and Akira Nagatsuma came in third, fourth and fifth with 12%, 8%, and 5% respectively.) Even the photos accompanying the Mainichi report—glum Hatoyama and radiant Okada—can’t resist editorializing, it seems.

Perhaps it was with this in mind that Tastuo Kawabata reportedly threw his support to Katsuya Okada this morning (14 May). This must be devastating to Hatoyama. On good terms with both Ozawa and Okada, Kawabata represents the 20 or so Diet members from former Democratic Socialists on the DPJ leadership council as one of the seven Deputy Presidents (outranked by three Honorary Advisors, the President, and two Acting Presidents but nominally outranking Hatoyama, the Secretary-General). There is no indication that he can actually carry the old DS vote, but he did make his announcement at the group’s morning get-together. Meanwhile, Naoto Kan’s group, in keeping with its leader’s arm’s-length approach to Ozawa, has released its members to vote their conscience. This has the looks of a surge for Okada. The question is: Are two days enough time for him to catch up?

Some worry that a split along faction boundaries—80 from Ozawa and Hatoyama’s groups vs. 50 from Maehara and Noda’s, while the rest scramble to balance the imperatives of their personal ties against those of their electoral prospects—will create a rift, particularly if Ozawa (and his closest associates) see a Hatoyama loss as a personal rejection. I don’t think that will happen, not to the extent that it will be a drag in the Lower House election. It’s the recriminations that will come if they lose or fail to form a stable working majority that the DPJ must be afraid of. All the more desirable it is then, to heed public opinion (even if it is to a great extent a media construct), as well as position itself to welcome post-election LDP splittists—the latter factor also favoring Okada.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Sankei Says Hatoyama Ahead; I Say Deuces Wild

According to the headline of this Sankei report, it’s Mr. Hatoyama in the Lead, Meets Mr. Kan and Asks for Support.

Maybe, maybe not.

Now, as I’ve related here, if Hatoyama adds most if not all of Ozawa’s 50 votes to his own 30, he has 80 or so out o f the 221 Diet members eligible to vote for party president. That is surely very doable. Then, if he can add the bulk of the 20 ex-Socialists—more favorably disposed to old-school LDP alumnus Ozawa than Okada and his new school allies—to this total, all he needs to do is corral a goodly portion of Kan’s 30 votes to put himself over the top.

Not so fast. The same Sankei notes that the three DPJ Diet members from Okayama Prefecture have decided to poll 3,000 local DPJ members to determine whom to vote for. Other media reports claim that other prefectural chapters are trying to follow suit.

Now, if you’ve been wondering, where have I heard this story before, you are not alone. For it was the local voting in the 2001 LDP Presidential primaries that compelled its Diet members to ditch overwhelming favorite and former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and throw their support behind once-fringe candidate Junichiro Koizumi. More recently in 2007, Taro Aso put the scare into Yasuo Fukuda in the local voting and paved the way for his succession the following year.

Ozawa has done his browbeating best to cut out the local yokels and to force the election on a Saturday, just four days after his resignation—precisely to forestall an uprising from the provinces. He knows that Okada has been spending almost every week of the last four years “trampling on the sewer coverings” and wading the rice paddies, talking (and listening) to Taro Q. Citizen, well before he began his own chiho jungyo. But that only diminishes Hatoyama in the media’s collective mind. The media has already been casting the two-horse race as a battle between Hatoyama the Ozawa Sockpuppet vs. Okada the Klutz. So guess who is going to win a media poll?

Okada has two days to put the scare into the local chapters. The race is wide open.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I’ve Responded to (Most of) Your Comments

Helped by a nice hot bath that has done wonders for my sprained hand (and a liberal dose of adulterated water), I have now responded to all the comments that I have received in the last two days. Except one.

I do my best to respond to all comments, but this latest one is beyond the pale even for me. So I leave it to you to decide who’s the grown-up. Hey, maybe I’ll think differently about this when I’m sober. Then again, probably not.

Hatoyama Backing into the Picture in the DPJ Succession

Not much more to say, but I thought a brief follow-up was warranted since it looks like Yukio Hatoyama may be throwing his hat in the ring after all.

The odds for Yukio Hatoyama standing for the election to succeed Ichiro Ozawa as DPJ leader are improving with every moment that he doesn’t say no. So it may be useful to look at an interesting chart on the second page of today’s morning Yomiuri. The chart gives the group-by-group numbers for the DPJ’s 221 MPs as well as the relationship between the groups. With the caveat that some MPs belong to more than one group, here’s what it says:

A. (Ichiro) Ozawa Group 50
B. (Yukio) Hatoyama Group 30
C. (Naoto) Kan Group 30
D. (Seiji) Maehara Group 30
E. Ex-Socialists 20
F. Ex-Democratic Socialists 20
G. Yoshihiko Noda Group 20
H. Independents (Okada et al) 25

They add up to 225, not many more than the 221 MPs that the DPJ actually has, and they are approximate figures. So let’s assume that they do provide an accurate picture of the relative strengths of the respective groups.

Next, the relationships:

A ♥ B&E.
B ♥ F.
A definitely does not ♥D&G.
A lukewarm C.

Now Hatoyama made a good show of supporting Ozawa. So if Ozawa was the kind of person who put a lot of stock in such personal service, he could conceivably put 50+20 votes to Hatoyama’s disposal. Hatoyama in turn would bring 30+20 votes on his own. That’s 120 votes, more than an outright majority of the DPJ MPs. But will Ozawa oblige? All he cares about is winning, and Hatoyama’s late-life association with Ozawa is a definite negative.

Neither Hatoyama with his humorless, beady-eyed carping nor Okada with his Clark-Kent looks and demeanor to match comes across as the second coming of Barack Obama. That being said, they’re definitely an upgrade on the ghostly presence of their predecessor-to-be as far as electoral campaigning is concerned, and the other wannabies (Maehara and Noda) appear to be unacceptable to the pro-Ozawa crowd. So it comes down after all to a showdown between Hatoyama and Okada, assuming Hatoyama actually stands.

No matter. The important thing, to repeat, is that the DPJ is set for a Lower House victory with a leader (whichever) who will be a far more palatable partner for a post-election LDP breakaway group that would assure an Upper House majority without bringing one or more of the mini-parties on board. This is more important than the identity of the eventual winner. And we only have to wait until Saturday at most to know.

I’ve been hitting the sauce early today after a hard day’s work, and it’s time to get to work on dinner. I promise to get back to your comments tomorrow.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Ozawa Resigns, Clearing the Way for DPJ Victory

Ichiro Ozawa held a press conference at 5:00PM today to announce that he would be resigning as DPJ President, opening the way for a scandal-free successor to lead his party in the next Lower House election. He gave no indication as to whom he would favor as his successor, but made it clear that he was not leaving politics and would be seeing to it that the DPJ would be running the election his way. He did not say if he would be contesting his Iwate seat, or any other (say, as rumored, New Komeito leader Hiroaki Ota’s Tokyo 12th District) for that matter, but that is trivial.

Two names, Katsuya Okada and Yukio Hatoyama, both former DPJ leaders, have been put forth as favorites to succeed Ozawa. Right now, my money is on Okada, and not just because he’s class of ’76 METI. He’s seen as a clean—if boring policy-wonk—presence, a welcome change from Ozawa. And as I have mentioned before, he has spent the two years crisscrossing the nation earning street cred with the local-rank-and-file, a very important thing for the long-term health of the DPJ, currently over-reliant on labor union muscle. I’m sure Ozawa prefers Hatoyama, another scandal-free figure who has until fairly late in the game served him as attack dog non pariel. Moreover, Hatoyama basically bankrolled the pre-merger DPJ and is on good terms with every group in the current DPJ. However, he has repeatedly averred that he would be going down with the captain if that turns out to be the case, and it’s difficult right now to see the overly serious Hatoyama going back on his words. Of course all this could change if the DPJ decides on an election, rather than a white-smoke-from-the-chimney consensus process. But that’s trivial. The important thing is that this removes the greatest obstacle for independents/floaters to voting for the DPJ.

One other important political implication is that this makes it easier for a post-electoral LDP breakaway group to join a DPJ-led coalition. This has policy implications as well, since it means that the DPJ may not need the Social Democrats (old-school socialists) or the People’s New Party (who want to turn the clock back on Post Office reform as well as public works expenditures) to hold a stable majority in the Upper House. I’ll see if I have more to say on this point, as well as the time to do so. In the meantime, for those of you who can read Japanese, this is the text of Ozawa’s Sherman speech, and this is the press Q&A.

Sorry, folks. I don’t think I’ll have the time today to respond to the comments on earlier posts. (Gotta take care of dinner.) I’ll get back to you as soon as I can, okay?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Chilean Presidential Candidate Will Attract Japanese Attention

Marco Enríquez-Ominami is a Chilean actor-turned-politician who has left the ruling Socialist Party to run as an independent candidate in the 2009 presidential election. In doing so, he has gone against the wishes of his adoptive father Carlos Ominami, a Senator from the Socialist Party. Senator Ominami is the grandson of a Japanese immigrant and son of Carlos Ominami Daza, an Air Force Colonel who was tortured by the military junta and subsequently spent the dictatorship years in exile in Belgium. There’s little to no chance of an Enríquez-Ominami victory, but he’s not exactly a fringe candidate either. (He is expected to tilt the election in favor of the opposition candidate.) Add to that his matinee idol looks and his Japanese connection, and I bet the Japanese media will give him his quinze minutos.

If they notice.

I understand and respect Enríquez-Ominami’s decision to honor both fathers by keeping their surnames as a professional actor. Having said that, I have a question for my Latin American (particularly Chilean, if any) readers here: Does the unusual name Ominami add a touch of the exotic? Or is it like any other name in a land of immigrants?

In Brazil, my guess is that an Ominami would be tagged as part Indio. That is a rare name, even in Japan.

Colonel Ominami was known as “El Chino”, the same nickname bestowed on Peru’s ex-President Fujimori. That’s not unusual; many American kids in the early sixties thought Japan was part of China.

Speaking of Fujimori, I never understood what all the fuss over Japan refusing to hand him over to the Peruvian authorities was about? Japan and Peru do not have an extradition treaty between them, and Fujimori was/is a Japanese citizen. The most the Japanese authorities could have done was to arrest and try him for crimes under the Japanese Criminal Code—say, kidnapping and murder. Did the Peruvian authorities try that?

Saturday, May 09, 2009

A Public Service Notice on the N1H1 Influenza Virus for People Who Are Thinking of Buying a Mask…

This essay by Patrick Smith, one of my favorite writers, brings a welcome perspective to the issue. If only our political leaders could speak with this degree of sanity.

To American conservatives: Yes, it’s Salon, but that doesn’t mean Smith doesn’t make sense.

A “Yes, But” to the Japanese Ranking for the “Mothers’ Index”

Asahi Shinbun claims that U.S.-based NGO Save the Children ranks Japan 34th out of 158 countries in a ranking of the “best places to be a mother”. Actually, according to the STC report, Japan probably did worse; it ranked 34th among 43 “more developed countries”. So you wonder where Japan would rank if “less developed countries” such as Israel, South Korea and Singapore were taken into account in evaluating Japan. It is even more embarrassing when you consider that the 34 “more developed countries” includes such paragons of development as Albania, Belarus (which outranks Japan), Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia.

The “Mothers’ Index”, fittingly, turns out to be a composite of a “Women’s Index” and a “Children’s Index”, and it is in the former that Japan fails, where it ranks 36th, in contrast to the latter, where it holds down 8th place. A look at the data shows that what’s dragging Japan down is “ratio of estimated female to male earned income (42nd place, barely beating out Austria for the booby prize)” and “participation of women in national government (% seats held by women) (40th place, in a tie with Malta and barely ahead of Ukraine and Albania)”.

Fair enough. The barriers to women in the Japanese workplace are well documented and leave much room for improvement. More to the point of the survey, the extremely low birth rate here tells us that something is amiss where it comes to accommodating the sometimes conflicting needs of the contemporary woman and motherhood. Indeed, there are also so many things that Japan as a society can do to help women (and men) who have children. However, there’s something about the data that tells us that the survey is not all that it’s cracked up to be.

For that, first, let’s turn to “lifetime risk of maternal mortality”. According to the survey, Japan ranks 14th at 1 death per 11,600 women—not bad but not so great. But when Ireland clocks in at 1 per 47,600, nearly twice as good as second-place Bosnia and Herzegovina (which ranks 8th from the bottom in terms of infant mortality) at 1 per 29,000, you know that there’s something seriously wrong about the data behind the rankings. There’s something fishy about “educational status” too. For example, the “expected years of formal schooling for females” in Australia is 21 years, in contrast to Japan’s, at 15. My arithmetic may be a little off, but it looks like the average Sheila earns a PhD while her counterpart Yamato Nadeshiko only manages a junior college degree. Something is fishy here. The “percent (sic) of women using modern contraception”, where Japan ranks a mediocre 23rd is also open to question as well. The pill has been available as a contraceptive by prescription in Japan since 1998. Couldn’t the results have more to do with historical legacy—the widespread use of condoms in Japan for instance—than the current socio-economic status of women?

Finally, with all due respect to white folks, lumping all those East and Central European countries into the “more developed countries” category while leaving everybody else including all of East Asia in the “less developed” and “least developed” categories seems a little.1960s, don’t you think?

This highlights a problem for global comparisons in general; the data are just not mutually compatible, as I’ve demonstrated before. Yet the analysts are tasked, so they put it all together, winding up with a mishmash of apples and oranges. Another point: Did the Asahi reporter actually read the STC report? Just askin’.

Faceoff against Aso Shouldn’t Hurt Ozawa

Ichiro Ozawa has finally consented to face off on May 13 against Prime Minister Aso in the Diet session party-leader debate—launched nine years ago as (it is widely believed) an Ozawa initiative—that he had done his utmost to avoid even before his most recent political troubles began.

Frankly, I’m surprised that it took Ozawa so long to come around. He may be no great debater, but Aso isn’t one either. Nor is Aso an effective attack dog; he’s more of a friendly-banter, small-talk guy, cast in the same mold as George W. Bush. More important, the debate is brief (45 minutes according to Wikipedia and should in principle be focused on policy issues, of which there are plenty. Thus, a concentrated personal attack on Ozawa can damage public perception of Aso’s leadership. More seriously, it will backfire on the LDP, whose own far more extensive reliance on corporate money provides plenty of material for a counterattack. If it comes to that Ozawa could even decide to play to the crowds by throwing in a DPJ proposal to ban all corporate funds, though he personally dislikes the idea. Although I do not believe that the principals will avoid discussing political financing altogether—that would be bad for Ozawa as well—it should be a relatively minor factor in the debate.

This will give Ozawa and his DPJ allies and associates some ammunition to claim that he is not hiding himself and moreover has yet again publicly addressed the issue. It obviously will not slake the media’s thirst for political blood, but it will go some ways in quieting—though certainly not silencing—less friendly elements in the DPJ. That in turn means less material for the media’s Ozawa deathwatch.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Fareed Zakaria Plays to the Crowd

In his Newsweek essay entitled “Change We Can’t Believe in”, Fareed Zakaria casts a skeptical eye at Pakistan’s newfound seriousness in fighting militant Islam on the home front. He points to the Pakistani military and intelligence forces’ longstanding relationship with the Islamists as part of its geopolitical strategy that pitted it against India and a USSR-controlled Afghanistan. He gives kudos to a $15 billion Biden-Lugar aid bill that encourages the development of civil society, believing that it will encourage “more cooperation with its neighbors”. But he ends the essay with the following:
“Perhaps…the strategy of the past six decades has suddenly changed. But I recall what Warren Buffett once called the four most dangerous words in investing: ‘This time it's different.’”
Zakaria appears to take a different tack in his guest appearance on The Daily show. Maybe it’s just me, but he appears to give the impression that the Pakistanis have finally seen the light on the dangers of radical Islam within its own borders. Moreover, he at best only hints at the Pakistani military and intelligence forces’ longstanding relationship with the Islamists as part of its geopolitical strategy that pitted it against India and a USSR-controlled Afghanistan, instead focusing on an army’s reluctance to fight at all. Meanwhile, he contrasts the Obama administration’s emphasis on the dangers in Pakistan favorably against the Bush administration’s singular focus on Afghanistan.

The Newsweek essay adopts what is at best a skeptical tone, emphasizing the historical weight of what to Western eyes comes across as a sinister, symbiotic relationship. The U.S. effort that is given the most play is a bipartisan bill. The Daily Show by contrast emphasizes the turnaround, and highlights the Obama administration at the expense of the Bush administration.

Molding the message to the audience is nothing new; you only have to remember Jesus’ parables to understand that. Still, when you do that at the expense of leaving a very different impression of the long-term prospects of the recent turnaround in Pakistan, you are no longer being an intellectual, or even an advocate; you have become an entertainer.

State of the Nation: Aso, LDP on Mini Roll While DPJ Flounders

Spring and the new fiscal year have brought Prime Minister Aso and the LDP-Komeito coalition good tidings. April did begin somewhat inauspiciously with front-to-back coverage of the flap over a false missile alert—the North Korean authorities wound up launching the Taepodong 2 one day later, on a Sunday morning—but it did them little harm, since the tracking system itself worked flawlessly and the SAC-3s and Patriot 3s never were tested. The fact that the mid-range ballistic missile is never going to be targeted at Japan also must have had a lot to with the fact that the whole incident blew by with little fallout on the domestic political scene.

But after that mini-setback that never really was, things have been looking up for the Aso administration. The official response to the swine flu epidemic has been generally good from a political point of view. The coordination between the national authorities and local governments (and immigration services) appears to have proceeded with few hitches**, and rapid disclosure of suspected cases—all turning up negative—has helped keep the media off their backs. The SARS experience must be serving them well. An actual outbreak—not just an isolated case—will change all this if they mishandle it, but so far so good. Thus, the DPJ has found little to slam the Aso administration here.

Just as important, the economy has shown some signs of bottoming out, with industrial production showing a modest uptick in March, with promises of a couple of more months of better times (compared to what, cynics will say, but any good news is welcome these days), and the stock market has been holding. The rise in industrial production has nothing to do with the latest stimulus package now in the hands of the Diet and everything to do with the precipitous inventory drawdown coming to an end, but the media is not going to deny the authorities some credit for the first two stimulus packages, which most importantly directly provided badly-needed financing to the business sector. The stock market (and ultimately the economy itself) continues to rise and fall with the U.S. market and the dollar-yen exchange rate, both matters that are out of the government’s hands. But so far, the FY2009 economy has been raising (I’m not ready to say “floating”) the Aso administration’s boat.

It has also helped Aso that the DPJ’s economic program has received little public attention. The media hasn’t been helpful, but that’s at least partly because there’s nobody around to sell it. The policy wonks who work on this sort of thing are generally not close to party leader Ozawa in the best of times; these days, many of them must be sticking pins in effigy dolls to hasten an outcome that should be increasingly inevitable**.

This of course brings us to the DPJ’s real problem. The only thing the media care about as far as the DPJ is concerned is what’s up with Ozawa, and, with few exceptions, that’s all they’re going to report. So the damage to the DPJ—to its credit and the LDP’s likely worry, public support for the DPJ has held up much better than it has for Ozawa personally—becomes greater with every day that passes without change. Unfortunately for the DPJ, the beleaguered Ozawa has reverted to type, retreating into a shell and digging in his heels at the same time. Yet the other leaders cannot force his hand because there’s a good chance that he’ll call forth his men and pocket his money and once again sunder a party that he helped create.

And that’s where things stand, as the Japanese political scene begins to awaken from the slumber and the overseas junkets of Golden Week (the short version***).

* A potential dustup between Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Yoichi Maszoe and Yokohama Mayor Hiroshi Nakata was avoided when Nakata brushed off unwarranted accusations of unpreparedness from the impetuous Masuzoe with minimum fuss. Incidentally, the coolly competent and still youthful Nakata should be at the head of the line or thereabouts when you make a list of local politicians who could play major roles in a national realignment of party politics. (And no, conservative nationalists will not rally around Shintaro Ishihara, only partly because he won’t indulge them.)

There were reported cases of doctors refusing to treat fever outpatients, but that seems to have been the result of a misunderstanding of an official notice to refer suspected cases to designated treatment centers. A few days have gone by without any further reports of such incidents.

** According to this Sankei report, the outside experts commission hasn’t been acting so kindly with regard to Ozawa either, as what I posted here also indicates. It’s Sankei, who wants Ozwa’s hide badly, reporting, but it does dovetail with my take on the commission.

*** Some people are taking this Thursday and Friday off too, stretching it out to a 26 April-10 May string of 15 uninterrupted holidays. And who says we Japanese work too hard?

There’s some talk of a cabinet reshuffle to spice things up before going into a Lower House election. That’s the one thing I’m very skeptical about. Every major makeover in recent years seems to come with shakedown problems, as political finance issues and gaffes force apologies and even resignations from newly-minted Ministers. The Aso administration finally got its act together after it ditched Shoichi Nakagawa and, tellingly, added the Finance Ministry to Economy Czar Kaoru Yosano’s portfolio instead of taking on a new Finance Minister. I think that the LDP will ditch Aso before he falls into such dire straits that he sees no harm in making that gamble.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Off the Media Radar

What happened to the mullahs? What about the Iranian connection? Why don’t we hear about the North Korean counterfeiting operations anymore? Meanwhile, in Japan, the Nikai investigation has dropped out of the media coverage on the Nishimatsu scandal.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Online NYT Edit Trips Up Saletan on Japanese Response to Swine Flu

The usually reliable William Saletan writes in “First They Came for Mexicans” Slate (5 May 2009):
…Japan began denying visas to Mexicans on arrival.
“Denying visas…on arrival” doesn’t make sense; you’re supposed to obtain visas before you come. In fact, what happened was that Japan temporarily suspended the waiver of visa requirements. Given the disproportionately high incidence of reported cases in Mexico—just imagine the likely extent of unreported cases—it is not unreasonable to resume visa requirements; air flights between Mexico and Japan continue.

I think this was an honest mistake on Saletan’s part, not carelessness. Note that the NYT report that he links to in order to back up his claim makes no mention of Japan at all. The writers of the NYT must have excised the (likely slightly incorrect) reference to Japanese action after they found out that they were wrong. Even newspapers sometimes alter their online articles without any notice; this must have been one of such cases.

Online sources are tricky, and there’s not too much the sources themselves can do about it.

As of this post, Saletan has not corrected his report, though that is not my point here.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Japan’s Surprise Economy Boost?

Well, that’s what the TIME article’s headline, copied almost verbatim from a BBC report—not most reliable of news outlets, as everyone who has been kind enough to follow my blog knows—that it links to. All that the TIME report itself says is:
Industrial output in Japan rose in March for the first time in six months, according to government figures.

The larger-than-expected increase is seen as a sign the country's plunge in production and exports may be nearing an end.
Now industrial production for March registered a 1.6% rise. So I guess my question is, if industrial production ended up in a 0.9% rise—the average of private sector forecasts—would that have meant that Japan’s “plunge in production and exports” would have no chance of “nearing an end”? Or would the same sentence have read:
The expected increase is seen as a sign the country's plunge in production and exports may be nearing an end.
I would not be carping if the reports had not used the words “surprise” and “may”.

Actually, if the BBC reporter had talked to real human beings (or read Japanese newspapers), they would have known that Japanese manufacturers would be coming out of the precipitous inventory adjustment downswing sometime during the spring anyway. So the issue is not the March uptick, much less its size, but whether an upward trajectory can be sustained.

Are the Yakuza an Easy Mark or What?

Japanese electoral politics has been boiled down to one thing—the Ozawa deathwatch. All else, barring unforeseen events, has become trivialized. In the meantime…
According to a couple of media reports, on July 7 last year, the day of the Japanese Star Festival Tanabata, a heartless plumber and four of his meanie drinking pals ganged up on a senior official in the yakuza group Kyokuto-kai and a couple of his assistants who were peacefully working a food stall at—where else?—a Tanabata Festival. Armed with a fake 8-inch sword, a cooking knife, and two police batons, the amateur gang of five took only two hours to convince the yakuza to hand over 800,000 yen in sales and sign a note promising to pay another 500,00 yen. They believed that a yakuza would never file a complaint with the police and continued harassing him, issuing threats of harm to his family. The pressure apparently got so great that the yakuza did go to the police later in the month. Today, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Agency announced that it had finally cracked the case and arrested the five men.

It took almost ten months, but justice has come, once again, to the rescue of the weak and downtrodden. Hooray.

Friday, May 01, 2009

More Thoughts around the Taepodong Launch (and a Notice)

”The last time North Korea tested such a missile, in 1998, it sent a shock wave around the world, but especially to the United States and Japan, both of which North Korea regards as archenemies. They recognized immediately that a missile of this type makes no sense as a weapon unless it is intended for delivery of a nuclear warhead.”
Ashton B. Carter and William J. Perry, “If Necessary, Strike and Destroy”, The Washington Post (22 June 2006)

The North Korean perfection of a long-range nuclear missile capability against the United States, Japan, or the Republic of Korea would pose an imminent threat to the vital interests of our country.
Philip Zelikow, “Be ready to strike and destroy North Korea's missile test”, Foreign Policy (22 February 2009)

The first op-ed, by a former Defense Secretary (Perry) and an Assistant Defense Secretary (Carter) in the Clinton Administration, came on the eve of the first launch of the Taepodong 2 and called on the Bush administration to conduct a preemptive strike if the North Korean authorities continued preparations. We know how that turned out. Zelikow, a career diplomat and counselor to Secretary of State Rice at the time (2005-2007), had opposed a preemptive strike at the time, by his own account arguing:
“(1) attainment of a long-range or intercontinental missile capability would require more tests, so this one did not place North Korea at the threshold of an operational capability; and (2) given point #1, it was better to use the test to draw a ‘red line’ with support from the international community.”
Zelikow believed that the conditions had been satisfied and urged the newly-minted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to draw a red line. We know how that turned out as well, less than two months later.

Note that both op-eds assume that the Taepodong is a threat to Japan in the same way that it is a threat to the United States (though Carter and Perry are somewhat less explicit on that point). This is odd, since the long-range nuclear missile capability that a Taepodong 2 with a nuclear warhead poses makes sense only as a means to reach U.S. targets. Instead, it is the 200 or so land-mobile midrange Rodongs that pose an imminent danger to Japanese security.

The long-range Taepodong’s deployment may affect U.S. strategic thinking regarding retaliation under the mutual security treaty in the event of a North Korean missile attack on Japan. This is by no means trivial even if it is merely a matter of perception, since this could affect the deterrence value of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the emergence of a North Korean threat to its 50 states will change the balance of U.S. concerns between counter-proliferation and deterrence—the second rising in relative importance—and align them more closely to Japan’s.

I’m not sure where this is leading to, so I’ll leave it at that for now.

In the meantime, let me go back to the op-eds that started this train of thoughts and ask: Where did this implicit assumption by top officials that there is no discernable distinction between U.S. and Japanese interests regarding the Taepodong come from?

I think it all goes back to the late 1990s, when the Japanese government was still reluctant to sign on to the expensive and experimental missile defense system that the United States had been urging Japan to adopt. But it all changed in 1998, when North Korea flew Taepodong 1 over Japan. This was not in itself out of the ordinary if you believed that North Korea’s claim that it was a satellite launch and North Korea had observed, instead of neglected, the proper protocols regarding such an event. Of course no one believed North Korea’s claim and North Korea dispensed with the niceties. So the launch caused great public consternation in Japan and became a material factor in the Japanese government’s decision to sign on to the U.S. program (which Secretary Gates is now trying to pare back under the Obama administration). In other words, it was the Japanese public that bought into the notion that the Taepodon was a threat to Japan. The writers of the op-ed, with nothing else to go by, have unthinkingly accepted this Japanese conventional wisdom.

But this begs yet another question: Why did the Japanese authorities also buy into this idea and agree to purchase a missile defense system that, if you agree with Keiichiro Asao, does not address the main Japanese concern—the hundreds of land-mobile Rodongs whose main targets are on Japanese territory—but was instead actually geared toward the relatively small number of the more expensive and cumbersome long-range missiles that nations such as North Korea and Iran might launch against the United States. But here again, I am at a loss; I can do some speculating, but I don’t have enough dots to connect to make it anything more than a list of possibilities.

Sorry, my explanation regarding the significance of the three sets of bureaucratic appointments by Prime Minister Aso within the context of the broader relationship between politics and the bureaucracy is still on the backburners. If it turns out to be too long and complicated to deal with on a blog, I’ll put together the main points of my argument and post that.