Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Message from Yokosuka: None of the Above

Recent local elections have tended to reinforce the dominant message from the public opinion polls: the Japanese electorate doesn’t like the LDP. The Sunday mayoral election in Yokosuka confirmed a less prominent but equally potent finding in the polls: the powerful pull of none of the above. The 64 year-old incumbent had everything going for him: the LDP and DPJ both supported him—likewise the New Komeito—and local-boy-made-good Koizumi campaigned hard for him. The winner? Yuto Yoshida, a 33 year-old municipal assemblyman. The Communist-Social Democrat candidate, with less than 2% of the votes, was not a factor. There does not seem to have been any single outstanding issue except the evils of incumbency.

Yoshida has a good chance of joining the ranks of the mayors and governors—Governor Hashimoto in Osaka and Mayor Nakata in Yokohama for starters—recent past and present to whom the Japanese electorate will look to for national leadership if it finds a DPJ-led administration lacking in inspiration. In which case the mainstream media is sure to pile on.

Incidentally, this is very bad news for Koizumi’s son, who wants to take over his father’s seat.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Of Factions, Faction Leaders…and the SSJ Forum

As part of a new wrinkle for this blog, I am answering some questions from Mark about LDP factions, the DPJ, and political leaders. Now, I’m aware that there are at least two people (and probably a few more) who read this blog and happen to be far more competent to answer them. Message to those people: Please feel free to embarrass me.
The other day, the Japan Times wrote an interesting article on the factional politics in Japan. The article discussed the origins of the current factions. But I would like to know more about the evolution of the policies, thinking, and philosophies of the factions.

My take is that ideology was of only secondary interest to the factions in the first place, except perhaps Ikeda’s group, and has diminished dramatically in importance even from those modest beginnings. (That’s my excuse for not knowing much about the subject.)

According to the article, the Ibuki faction used to belong to Nakasone. How would you compare the thinking of Bunmei Ibuki to Yasuhiro Nakasone? The article also notes that Yukio Hatoyama and Ichiro Ozawa came from the Tanaka faction. The media often compares Ozawa to Tanaka. How does the thinking of Kakuei Tanaka differ from that of Ichiro Ozawa and Yukio Hatoyama?

The occasional, politically incorrect statements aside, Ibuki is far more intelligent and thoughtful than many people out there give him credit for. He also shares some of Nakasone’s nationalist leanings. But beyond that, I know little about his political philosophy or his policy preferences. But I’m not really embarrassed about that. For Ibuki has nothing of Nakasone’s vision, drive, or ambition, the last of which is symbolized by his unkempt, graying hair. This is not accidental in my view; given the drastically altered role of LDP factions, Ibuki is more the amicable manager of an intramural flag football team, where Nakasone was the head coach of an NCAA Division I varsity football team. More caretaker than leader, faction leaders have severely limited influence over their nominal subordinates, and if they harbor Prime Ministerial ambitions, they are no more than marginally advantaged over the others. In sum, Ibuki as faction leader is more comparable to his generational peers; likewise Nakasone.

It’s all about winning for Ozawa, winning big, winning it all. In that respect, he is Tanaka’s true disciple. His old school ways with money matters also reminds us of Tanaka. Where he differs most from Tanaka is a certain joylessness, an aversion to the spotlight and the winner’s podium. Tanaka’s political philosophy, if you can call it that, appears to have been: Make everyone rich, make my constituency rich, and make myself really, really rich. Ozawa comes across as someone who is even less interested in the substance of domestic policy. Making everyone rich also colored his interests, what there was of it, in foreign policy; he harbored none of Ozawa’s resentment of Japan’s second-class status in its relationship with the U.S. or desire to project the Japanese military in the near and far abroad.

I have no thoughts about Yukio Hatoyama other than that he’s a dutiful conciliator with few if any enemies but even less charisma. But then, given the quality of the enemy… Oh, he’s a foreign policy dove by inclination, which probably suits the majority of DPJ members and supporters just fine.

Apparently, the Aso faction and the Koga faction will merge. The article says Ikeda and Miyazawa used to lead the Koga faction. How would you compare the philosophies of Aso and Koga to Ikeda, Miyazawa, and Yoshida?

Koga is closer to the Ikeda-Miyazawa(-Koichi Kato) lineage of true, post-WW II doves, while Aso is much, much closer to the nationalist-conservative wing that includes such luminaries as Shinzo Abe and Shoichi Nakagawa. Perhaps that’s what made it easier for Koga to merge/swallow Sadakazu Tangachi’s group. But, as you can see from the fact that Aso inherited his 20-band of parliamentary warriors from Yohei “Kohno Statement” Kohno, love transcends ideology.

The two ends of the ideological spectrum of the rich-nation, weak-army values underlying the Yoshida Doctrine were: a genuine aversion to the profligate expansionism of the inter-war decades; and the sense that Japan was biding its time until it could emerge glorious once again as a Great Power in its own right. Koga, who lost his father to the war, and Aso, descended from a pre-war magnate whose children married up in socially, are the metaphor for the two poles. As for Ikeda and Miyazawa, they can loosely be included in the aversion school.

But seriously, are they going to merge? Finally? Well, Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni got married, so why not, eh?

Also, I would like you to comment a little on the inter-faction politics. In a separate article, the Asahi Shimbun interviewed Yasuhiro Nakasone. The interviewer made the point that Tanaka had a great deal of power over Nakasone. But he didn't mention the specific issues in which Tanaka manipulated Nakasone. Could you help me out here? Furthermore, both Nakasone and the interviewer thought the relationship between Yukio Hatoyama and Ichiro Ozawa might be similar to the relationship between Nakasone and Tanaka. But the article didn't say how the relationship was similar. Do you have any idea on what the those similarities might be? Lastly, the interviewer said that Ozawa would probably have a harder time influencing Hatoyama than Tanaka had with Nakasone. He did not say why that might be the case. Do you have any idea on why that might be true?

I’m not aware of any substantive issue on which Tanaka forced his views on Nakasone (except, likely, where his personal interests and those of his supporters and constituency lay). I suspect for Tanaka that it was mostly about rewarding his allies with cabinet posts and other political appointments. In that sense and that sense only, I think that Ozawa will wind up reminding all of us of Tanaka, although he displays little of Tanaka’s visceral need for personal gratification.

Nakasone, of course, served at the pleasure of Tanaka. It is also clear that Hatoyama would not have won without Ozawa’s support. (Indeed, he may not even have run without it.) But Tanaka could pull the rug out from under Nakasone any time he chose to, because he had the troops and the control over political funds for it. That Ozawa cannot do, partly because (for now) there are at least as many people in the PDJ who hate him as those who love him, partly because the bulk of the DPJ money consists of government subsidies, which Ozawa is no longer in a position to control, and partly because the competition with the LDP takes the decision out of any kingmakers’ hands and into those of public opinion (including the media).

Did that work for you, Mark? Incidentally, I’ve begun subscribing to the SSJ Forum. The Japan-U.S. Discussion Forum has many distinguished commenters, but I had a somewhat unpleasant experience there, and the talk there can get pretty cranky, so I haven’t gone there for quite some time now. SSJ Forum appears to be a youthful, nimble alternative.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Taro Aso Speaks Out on the Merits of Heirloom Turkeys

I try not to shoot fish in a barrel; it’s too cruel. On the other hand, I’m too busy/bored to…oh, what the hell…

One-third of LDP Diet members have inherited their seats from close relatives (mostly dads). This proportion is sure to rise after the upcoming Lower House election, as vulnerable first-term Koizumi Kids bear the brunt of the voters’ ire. The “merely” one–fifth heirloom DPJ has promised to bar heirloom turkeys from swooping in after the upcoming election, and the more fearful LDP folks are making similar noises. So leave it to our Prime Minister to weigh in on behalf of his fellow Tokyo courtiers holding sway over their distant fiefdoms:
”A frog’s offspring are frogs, as they say. It is important to grow up looking at your parents’ backside. One becomes a farmer, a carpenter, a plasterer, following in one’s father’s footsteps. That should be properly evaluated.”
Let’s see:
Exhibit A: Shinzo Abe
Exhibit B: Yasuo Fukuda
Exhibit C: Taro Aso
I rest my case.

Sorry, MTC, for stealing what’s obviously your kind of material. In the meantime, let’s all watch our own backsides in the upcoming election, so we don’t…but let’s not go there.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Couple of Reponses

I just can’t seem to get back to regular blogging, but I’ve responded to a couple of comments, here on Japan, its Northeast Asia neighbors and the United States; and here, on Japan and Ukraine of all things. I’ll try to resume in a couple of days. In the meantime, if you have any questions, I’ll do my best to take them on. That’s actually easier.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Back to Blogging

Back to blogging after a hard week’s work. First, some long past due responses to comments on this post.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Starch, Lily Corms, and Potatoes Revisited

Actually, just a few new comments from “William” and yours truly on this week-old post. I think that you will enjoy them—if you have any interest in 8th Century Japanese poetry in general and Otomo no Yakamochi in particular. Or more generally, language.

They took up so much of my time that, what with the rest of my life what it is, I won’t be able to finish my reply to Matt’s new comment here today. Later.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Is Japan a Client State of the United States? And What of It?

The following is my response to a comment from Matt Dioguardi, with whom I had other enjoyable disagreements in the past, on this post. The blog rejected it as being too long—it only accepts up to 4,096 characters—so I’m posting it here as a separate post.
Matt: Always good to hear from you, although—because?—we hold very different views on many things. I think that the notion that major policy changes will not occur in Japan until something happens to drastically alter the U.S.-Japan relationship is certainly a defensible one, but unless properly defined and qualified, it throws out most of severely limits the notion of “major” on the economic front. Moreover, I don’t read anything that McCormack writes since I made it half way through a talk that he gave on North Korea and concluded that he was nuts; we can agree to disagree here. That said, let’s see if I have anything meaningful to say on the points that you raise.

“Japan exports to America, and reinvests in American Treasury bonds.”

Rephrase it “America borrows from Japan and uses the money to buy things from Japan”, and you begin to wonder which one is really the client. Actually, both statements put a highly simplified, anthropomorphic gloss on what is a complex phenomenon with a very large number of actors driven by many factors from both within and outside of the relationship. Moreover, there are so many policy decisions that must be made that have no direct bearing on the relationship (although many if not all of them are bound to affect our external balance in ways that produces changes in our foreign currency reserves) and yet are so momentous.

Incidentally, defined more precisely, there is a conscious choice that the Japanese government could make that would drastically alter the situation that is described in your statement. Namely, the Japanese government could decide not hold currency reserves and leave everything to market forces. Now, to engage in my own anthropomorphism, “Japan” still could run a trade surplus and “reinvest” the proceeds in American Treasury bonds, but this is one road that few countries running trade surpluses if any will ever take.

“Japan keeps a fairly vague stance (with meaningless rumblings of nationalism), while America does the heavy lifting diplomatically for Japan.”

This is a sweeping statement that could be said of every liberal democracy that does not have a) a nuclear arsenal; b) the capacity to project a serious military force beyond its borders (conduct major landing operations, dispatch multiple aircraft carrier fleets); and c) a permanent seat with veto powers on the UN Security Council. Also note that Japan is a regional power. It has played a meaningful role in Asian (defined as east of Bangladesh) politics that has usually but not always been consonant with the interests and values of the government or the majority of the public of the United States. The Middle East is just not our bailiwick, though events there do seriously affect our economy. But then, do France and the U.K. do any “heavy lifting”? Or to put it another way, do their opinions matter to the governments and increasingly the public of Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia and other states in the region? The United States is the sole global superpower; as such, “America does the heavy lifting [militarily and almost ipso facto] diplomatically for all of us. There is some change afoot, which does not bode well for the rest of us, but there things stand for the moment. There are paradigms and paradigms; that fact that one cannot—should not?—be changed of our own volition does not render all other meaningless. Or is that not the point of your rhetorical flourish?

Note also that for both statements, you could insert “China” in place of “Jaan” and still end up with coherent, defensible statements. So would McCormack consider China to be a “client state” of the United States? Are we all “client states”? Just askin’.

“There's a speech on-line where Abe praises Japan's new two party system, and indirectly the growing opposition. Strange, if he were really ideologically driven, who cares about how many parties there are? Oh, well, gee, America has a two party system, so that must be good.”

Let’s face it, Abe, is only saying the right thing. Anything else would sound pretty gauche. Of course he is not the only one who is calling for a two-party system. The LDP has had a nice 55-year run, but it has gone stale and many serious problems are piling up that cannot all be blamed on the bureaucracy—I think that the idea is, If the bureaucracy is at fault, then what were you guys in the Diet doing on our munificent payroll?—there’s a widely held public desire for an alternative. It’s more a vote against a mono-party system than a vote for a two-party system. Also, note that the United States is not the only two-party democracy on this planet. In fact, at first glance, nations lacking serious social/cultural/ethnic divides and/or powerful regional rivalries tend to drift towards political systems with one or two dominant parties and a smattering of smaller, special-interest or ideology-driven parties. Even the United States has a socialist Senator. So no, nobody wants it just because America has one. If that were the case, it would happened long ago, when U.S. influence was much stronger here.

“We won't see seismic changes in Japan until the relationship with America seriously stumbles and/or collapses.”

I am unable to address this point unless I know what you mean by “seismic.” I have very limited power to think about economic and political matters in purely metaphorical terms.

”Say if the dollar suddenly dropped to about 40 yen to the dollar. That would make Japanese politics very lively over night.”

Hard to argue with that statement.

“Until something happens, well, not much is gonna happen. Of course, you knew that, didn't you?”

No, I don’t, honestly. I don’t know until it actually doesn’t happen. The political inertia is pretty strong though, that I’ll certainly agree to. Is that somehow a side effect of being a “client state”? I know that there are political commentators and academics who will write reams of stuff from such perspectives. Some are entertaining, a few can even be insightful, but it’s not my cup of tea. I prefer sturdy, fact-based logic.

There you are, Matt

Monday, June 08, 2009


No, it’s not a Jumanji sequel, it’s short for Komazawa Joshi Dai(gaku), a women’s college. It’s a relatively new thing, certainly post-WW II, but we have this thing where we turn every foreign word and phrase from MacDonald’s to Mister Donuts to celebrities into three syllable words—ma-ku-do, mi-su-do and se-re-bu respectively. I think it’s our version of the acronym; you know, NATO, NORAD, WTO WTF…

Advice for a Mass Media Blogger and His Firm

If I were advising your firm, I would call for a dual-identity system that superficially resembles the TIME blogs. You firm should establish franchises into which the lot of you will be drafted according to your current assignments. You will switch franchises as you are reassigned on your day job. Alternatively, your firm could adopt the pro tour system and allow you to play the various events (Asia, Environment, Technology, Finance, etc. etc.) as you see fit. Either way, you avoid the professional journalist’s dilemma: How do you maintain a steady stream of content against the demands of your day job? Asian Exile has resolved that by basically giving up on his blog. I suggest a collective solution that nevertheless allows you to maintain your individual identities. You could even get fans of individual bloggers to open themselves up to new areas of interest as they follow you around the corporate blogosphere.

Expecting Low Voter Turnout in Upcoming General Election

In the first decades of the 1955 System, voter turnout hovered in the low 70s to the high 60s. It gradually declined, falling to the low 60s, high 50s, and the Koizumi years brought no exceptions. I expect the upcoming Lower House general election to follow suit. The vast number of undecideds this close to the event (as well as the high number of people who reject Yukio Hatayama even before he’s had a chance) is a measure of the lack of public enthusiasm for the DPJ. No matter; the rumored campaign slogan for the DPJ—Regime Change (政権交代)—can only reinforce the impression that the Japanese electorate is so fed up that it will accept change for change’s sake, and that the DPJ is well aware of this fact. It’s let the bear catch the hindmost.

I expect to wait another election cycle or two before I see a real paradigm shift in the Japanese body politic at the policy end.

Do You Know Tadamori Oshima?

I shared a most informative afternoon with a foreign correspondent today. I was supposed to sing for my lunch and I did, but I got as good as I gave. I also got a half bottle of nice red wine, so today, I’ll dispense with my usual fact-checking and just do a run-through of the thoughts that I had…while I sleep off the alcohol in bits and pieces.
Tadamori Oshima is one of those unsung LDP lifers, a competent 60-something who toils in the trenches on party chores and is rewarded with the less glamorous cabinet assignments in between. As Diet Affairs Committee Chairman, he goes up every day against his opposition counterpart Kenji Yamaoka, the closest thing to a lifer that the DPJ has, with whom he obviously shares a mutual, if grudging, admiration. And he’s earning it, as First Mate on a sinking ship.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

An Apology to Tinter and a Correction

Most of the stuff I’ve been working on this weekend has been work-related material so I can post them here. Instead, let me note that Tinter, in a comment to this post gives a very persuasive explanation of why the British MP expenses scandal unfolded the way it did—specifically, why Prime Minister Brown could not respond anywhere near decisively as his Tory nemesis David Cameron. In the process, Tinter most properly chastises me for denigrating his beloved Liberal Democrats—no, not this one, that one.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

For Want of Better Things to Do, I Talk about a Northeast Asia Security Forum (Not)

Intergovernmental forums lacking legislative, executive, or judicial functions show a distressing tendency to devolve into talk fests that produce ineffectual announcements and thick reports that only lead to more announcements, studies and, if they are particularly productive, more intergovernmental forums. Their subjects range far and wide, but the one common feature of such a venue is its staying power. Lacking true governmental functions, it is rapidly mined out of any value that it ever possessed. But once established, it is hard to kill off, so the principals keep showing up, if only for appearance’s sake, like a relationship that has long lost its magic. Thus it is that the world is littered with secretariats bearing acronyms—too frequently sponsored by the letters U and N—that only enter the layperson’s consciousness when a google search turns up an obscure document therefrom or a reference thereto.

That is why I am very skeptical about any suggestions of a Northeast Asia security forum growing out of the Six-Party Talks. For starters, what the hell are they going to even talk about? China’s military buildup? Territorial and quasi-territorial issues? Taiwan-China? North Korea? (Come to think of it, are we going to include North Korea at all?) Some people believe that talk is its own reward. But how can we talk about China’s military without India—assuming that China acquiesces to being subjected to plurilateral scrutiny? How does, for example, bringing Russia and the United States (or even South Korea) into the picture on the Japan-China give-and-take on the East China Seas gas fields help? The Senkaku Islnds? As for Taiwan, the day China is willing to talk about its relations with its “province” in an international forum is the day the sun rises from the west. As for North Korea…well, what about it?

Some people no doubt want to see it as a confidence-building measure. But if there is any danger that it will deteriorate into a talk show where the principals show up only because they can’t quite come around to kicking the relationship and whose main headline value sometimes comes from the skits those principals perform or the funny clothes that they wear for the group photos, then the governments should think twice and more before they set us on such a course.

Friday, June 05, 2009

The Hatoyama Caper in Perspective

There’s really not much to write about Japanese politics these days. The Hatoyama caper (I’ve written a brief explanation at the bottom of this post) would have been a major political story if it had occurred last year, when the Aso administration and the LDP still had a good chance of retaining a Lower House majority. Now, it’s a mere side show. If this were chess, the LDP would be a queen down; losing a bishop would be the least of its worries.

That being said, I am sure that this incident—off-beat appointee causes incident; hands-off Prime Minister allows matters to fester; situation blows up, leaving egg on Prime Minister’s face—will be recorded in the post mortem as symptomatic of Taro Aso’s personal failings. Most recently, one of his Upper House friends that he appointed as one of three Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretaries—the most important sub-cabinet political appointments available—lost his job after he used an official JR pass on a sleep-over golfing trip with a married woman*. Aso’s behavior followed more or less the same pattern then. In fact, he initially pretended to accept the DCCS’s claims of “health reasons” for his resignation. More broadly, I’ve talked before about how his bureaucratic appointments were not paying off. (Yes, I still owe LB (or was it T. Greer?) an explanation about that.) Aso is just not a good judge of talent, nor does he have the ruthlessness to chop heads when they do not measure up.

But is this merely a personal problem? I also believe, as I briefly referred to at the end of this post, is that it will be remembered as a common thread that ran through the last three, short-lived, administrations of the post-1955 LDP era. It all seems to spell the end of an era, showing up as the writing on the wall.

* Let’s call it: Woodgate! DCCS Yoshitada Konoike, not coincidentally, had already been reprimanded early in the year for giving the same woman a key to his Tokyo apartment provided by the Diet.

Kunio Hatoyama is a well-travelled politician, having migrated from the New Liberal Club to the LDP (the mighty Takeshita faction) to the New Frontier Party (Ozawa et al) to the Democratic Party (with his brother Yukio), and back to the LDP again, where he now resides. There have been a couple of stints in between as an independent. He is definitely one who marches to his own drum. In his latest incarnation as Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications, he has gone after Japan Post, currently on the road to privatization, and its CEO Yoshifumi Nishikawa for a bundled real estate sale to ORIX, whose chairman had been Prime Minister Koizumi’s private-sector point man on his privatization drive, as well as the partial demolition of its Taisho-era Tokyo headquarters. (It’s actually a drab, unimaginative specimen of mostly historic value.) He has vowed that he will not authorize Nishikawa’s reappointment as CEO. This has pitted him against Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano, who will exercise the government’s right as the sole shareholder to appoint the CEO, as well the Prime Minister himself, who is reportedly in favor of reappointment. The majority of the LDP probably also supports reappointment, if only to avoid offending big business—which offered up Nishikawa for the job in the first place and is generally in favor of the Koizumi reform process.

I expect a face-saving resolution that keeps Nishikawa on while allowing Hatoyama to claim partial victory by requiring Japan Post to amend its ways. But that’s just me sayin’.

Containing Novel Influenza (A/H1N1): A Success Story Buried under the Rubble

A rare success story for the beleaguered Aso administration has been its response to the Novel Influenza (A/H1N1). When the news of the virus broke, the authorities quickly set up border checkpoints (it helps that entry points are limited, Japan being an archipelago) and bought time with them while they geared up the domestic response mechanism. When they detected the first domestic human-to-human transmission cases, they quickly wound down border control operations and turned the resource savings over to domestic containment tasks. In the meantime, they did a good job at keeping the public well-informed, giving the latter the public to drop their facemasks almost as quickly as they had put them on*. The trickle of new cases continues (4 June, 15 newly confirmed), but it’s a non-story now—which is probably a problem for Aso. Success in this case is a process leading to normalcy. There are few tangible “kills” to highlight, so the story fades out of the headlines.

Don’t feel too sorry for the Aso administration though; there are big elements of luck to this. For one, there is no doubt that the experience both national and international from the SARS and bird flu outbreaks aided the Japanese authorities enormously in setting up the necessary framework, then forming and executing effective plans to contain the virus. They had in effect dress rehearsals. Moreover, the relative mildness of the symptoms helped maintain public order; there was less urgency, and available resources could be stretched more easily.

This leads me to wonder: How prepared is Japan—any nation, actually—to face an onslaught of a more lethal strain of the virus returning later in the year, which is exactly what happened in 1918 with the Spanish flu? Even if the number of cases will turn out be as limited as they have been in the current outbreak, they will require far more resources for isolation and treatment. They are likely to force more and longer closures of schools and other establishments where they are discovered. The impact will go beyond the pathological, as economic activities world-round take a major hit.

Of course the chances of a lethal mutation are as good as one that works in reverse, making the virus more benign. And nothing guarantees that the virus will come back either. That being said, under the bad-case scenario, a serious flu epidemic will be one of the earliest major political tests, if not the earliest, that the post-election government will face. The danger for a DPJ-led administration is that, coming in to confront large parts of the bureaucracy—the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare with it its national pension system troubles has been a particularly popular target of DPJ criticism—it may have difficulties changing gear so that it can take control of the situation, lest it works the other way around.

* The facemask is part our national costume. We’ll whip them out at the slightest sign of a cold, much the way we unfurl our umbrellas at the slightest hint of rain.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The MP Expenses Scandal in the U.K. Highlights the Difficulty of Cutting Losses

The fallout from the British scandal over improper expenses claimed by MPs* provides lessons in how not to manage risk.

The cash value of improperly claimed expenses appears to be quite modest. The amount returned so far by the MPs on improper expense claims as related by this NYT report—$500,000 from 50 MPs, incurred between 2004-2008 as far as I can gather from the lists at the Daily Telegraph MPs’ expenses portal—averages out to about $10,000 per MP, that is, $2,000 per year, or $167 per month. (That’s peanuts compared to the Y5,000,000 that Toshikatsu Matsuoka claimed in 2005 alone for alkali ion water and other unmentionables at his tiny two-room office provided by the Diet. Hint: it does not have a sink.) Yet the British public is furious, offending MPs are being forced to retire, and incumbents are expected to suffer across the board in the upcoming general election.

But that’s not all. A cursory look at the lists of PMs at the Telegraph portal shows that Labor Party MPs had been no more complicit than their Tory counterparts. Bu the Labor Party has fallen behind the puny Liberal Democratic Party in the public polls and is sure to lose badly in the upcoming European Parliamentary and local elections. It is also expected to be thrown out in the next general election regardless of who winds up leading the Labor Party. Sure, the Tories have been discredited as well. But they only have to outrun the other side when the hungry bear comes a-chasing.

So what went wrong?

It takes no leap of the imagination to see that the issue was magnified beyond anything its numbers—the MPs and the money—would have warranted if those MPs and their protective colleagues had not pursued every legal and political means available in what turned out to be a futile, five-year bid to avoid disclosure. In the process, they also forfeited any excuse that that their expense claims had been made in good faith, if poor judgment. The global economic crisis and the hardships that it has caused, unfolding just as the parliamentary turmoil lurched through its end game, merely provided an unsightly backdrop to the spectacle of MPs feeding from the public trough. The entire political class had been dealt a blow.

Turning to the Labor Party, once the dam broke, the Prime Minister tried to wave it off as a trifle. This turned out to be a big mistake. David Cameron as leader of the Tories managed to get ahead of the curve, forcing the offenders to step down when the general election comes around. Although the Prime Minister soon followed suit, it was too late; he’d lost the race when the hungry bear came charging.

So, misunderestimate the problem and hope it will blow away, protecting your friends until they’re beyond salvation: That’s a scenario that has been played out too many times over in Japanese politics, not least by Prime Minister Aso and his two immediate predecessors as they dithered over political crises precipitated by wayward cabinet ministers and sub-cabinet appointees. And you know how they’ve turned out**.

* For those of you who want a quick overview of the whole affair, there’s this Wikipedia entry.

** To be fair, even Prime Minister Koizumi had his share of mishaps. He almost allowed Makiko Tanaka threatened to ruin his administration almost as soon as it had gotten underway by letting the woefully unprepared Foreign Minister to run amok. In his defense, Tanaka had much of the public behind her in her feud with the MOFA diplomats.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Of Starch, Lily Corms, and Potatoes Are Memories Made

This post is dedicated to the day I spent with my then high-school classmate on Ponpon-yama, where the katakuri lilies were in full bloom, looking for eggs of the Japanese Luehdorfia on wild ginger plants.

One of the most charming poems in the first imperially-commissioned anthology—the 8th-Century Manyoshu— a tanka penned by Ōtomo no Yakamochi, one of the greatest and most innovative poets in Japanese history:
Mono no fu no/ yaso-otome-ra ga/ kumimagou/ terai no ue no/ katakago no hana.
A bustling throng of young women drawing water from the temple well, where bloom the katakuri lilies. (my translation)
I regret that I do not have the literary skills to give you any sense of how Yakamochi deftly uses grammatical features of the Japanese language and the 5-7-5, 7-7 syllabic structure of the tanka (as well as its literary conventions) to create an visual and aural tableau of fleeting, timeless, beauty. It’s been so many years since I first came across the poem, but I can never remember it without seeing the dappled sunlight falling on the girls and the flowers and the well, hearing the chatter and splashing—all of it implied, in the best tradition of Japanese poetry. The sensations that come back to me are as vivid and real as any of my best (and worst) memories from my real life.

So what caused me to relive my memories of the katakuri lily? The fact that the katakuri-ko, a starch so convenient in making Chinese dishes (it soaks up the liquid escaping from the meat and vegetable and wraps it around the latter as a savory sauce of your preferred texture) and tatsuta-age, the Japanese-style fried chicken—it works for fish too—that retains its deliciousness long after it has cooled, is no longer produced for general consumption from the katakuri lily corm. Instead, the katakuri-ko sold in stores today consists solely of potato starch.

Of which I was reminded of when I read the news report to which I refer to in this post.

What Aso Can Do to Turn It Around

A look at two last-minute reversals of fortune that saved LDP administrations from devastating election losses gives us some idea of what Prime Minister Aso is up against.

(Case 1: The 2005 Koizumi Theater Election)

It’s all too easy to forget that by 2005, a lousy economy and an ascendant DPJ had the LDP-led administration on the ropes. The Upper House election loss to the DPJ the year before hadn’t helped either. Thus, when Prime Minister Koizumi expelled Lower House members who had voted against Post Office privatization from the LDO and called a snap election, most experts predicted yet another devastating LDP defeat. Instead, Koizumi ran as the candidate standing up to vested interests and led the LDP to a resounding victory that ensured a Lower House supermajority for the ruling coalition.

Moral of the story: It helps to be the good guys.

Strategic advice for Aso: Cast yourself as the antiestablishment candidate. The problem here, of course, is that Aso is the establishment candidate. He has made it clear that he only reluctantly went along with Post Office privatization. He has defanged the initiative pushed by Prime Minister Fukuda (fils) to take gasoline tax money away from the road construction tribe, and quickly backed off from proposals to shake up the social safety net bureaucracy. In fact, he has shown none of the flair and stubbornness that Koizumi drew on as he bucked his party and the opinion polls to victory.

(Case 2: The 1980 Double Election)

In 1978, Masayoshi Ohira succeeded Takeo Fukuda as Prime Minister by wresting the LDP Presidency away from the latter in a bitterly fought election. This was the beginning of a feud between the two and their supporters that saw a devastating general election the following year that took away the LDP’s majority in the Lower House, the subsequent LDP election between the two mortal rivals that Ohira barely won, and the 1980 Lower House vote of no-confidence against the Ohira Cabinet that unexpectedly passed when Fukuda’s allies in the LDP decided to sit it out. The civil war ended only when Ohira died of a heart attack during the subsequent election campaign for the snap election that Ohira called. Ohira’s death not only united the LDP but also managed drew a huge sympathy vote, resulting in landslide victories in both Houses*. It also brought to power new Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki, one of the less effective prime ministers of the post-WW II era.

Moral of the story: Mourning becomes the LDP.

Strategic advice for Aso: Die. This doomsday option, though, has some obvious shortcomings of its own.

* Ohira timed the snap Lower House election to coincide with the Upper House election scheduled to be held every three years.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

If The Economist Can Be a Newspaper…

I rest my case.

The real question of course is: What does the U.K. have against potatoes? Tortillas (corn) VAT-free, Kappa Ebisen (wheat) VAT-free, but Pringles (potatoes) not? Is this by any chance a British/Irish thing?

Hatoyama’s Seoul Train Proof “I” in “Winning” Doesn’t Count

Sixty or so members out of the ninety-five on the losing side of the DPJ leadership election, including Katsuya Okada himself, held a party on the day after. This sparked media hopes for a friends-of-Okada alliance in the making. Maybe, maybe not; the new party leader Yukio Hatoyama’s call on South Korean President Lee Myung-bak says not.

The key members of Hatoyama’s South Korea entourage are Seiji Maehara and Akihisa Nagashima. Ex-party leader Maehara, you may recall, is a pro-U.S. member of the bipartisan defense tribe, and Nagashima is even further to the right where national security is concerned. Thus, Hatoyama would have had a hard time picking better companions in paying respects to President Lee, the conservative Kim Jong Il nemesis who has done much to repair strained relations with South Korea’s Western allies. More significant from a domestic perspective, Maehara was one of the principals of the anti-Ozawa movement that supported Okada in the DPJ election, and Nagashima one of his closer allies.

Teamwork may be essential to winning, but the Hatoyama-Maehara(-Nagashima) package tour shows that it works the other way around too.