Monday, November 26, 2012

The LDP Wins a Majority in the House of Representatives? Other Stuff Too

I’m sure that anyone who comes here also follows the Shisaku blog, so you’ve probably seen this already. Please do so if you haven’t before you continue.

Okay? Now then:

If the media polls are to be believed, the LDP should be coasting to victory with one-third to two-fifths of the popular vote producing what is likely to be a massive LDP-Komeito victory as they sweep through the House of Representatives single member districts, possibly even an LDP simple majority, while the DPJ comes in third behind Ishihara and Hashimoto’s JRP. The numbers have not moved meaningfully since the polls from the week before, which suggests that the commotion around the meeting of rather different minds regarding nuclear power (!), TPP(!), and the consumption tax hike(!) has done little to diminish the JRP allure (but may have halted its momentum). Barring an unforeseen game-changer—North Korea delivering the rest of the abductees, a Shinzo Abe (but not Hashimoto) sex scandal are possible, but not plausible, candidates—public perception of the main players appears to be coagulating into a not-too-enthusiastic vote for both Abe and the LDP, which will produce disproportionately large electoral returns for it because of the electoral system. And Japan will wind up with a government that will be hard put to claim a popular mandate, much less a working majority in the House of Counselors.

And Governor Kada is making an announcement tomorrow, not today. In the meantime, I’ve looked around at media reports some, and it appears that she is serious about jumpstarting a new party. But my money is still on Kawamura’s attempt at bandwaggonning to end in failure. I have nothing against Kawamura personally, who seems a forgiving, inclusive, bonobo type of human being. And I like that. And Kada is not your typical academic. She has a political family background that indicates that she will not shy away from an alliance with Kawamura or Ozawa if she believed that it would further her political aims. But unless I’m missing something, that same expertise should be telling her not to hitch her cart to a couple of old nags headed for the…

BTW here’s one thing going on that I don’t understand. Negotiations for the Noda-Abe, head-to-head debate—the other opposition parties are complaining because the pair have a mutual interest in keeping the Ishihara-Hashimoto coalition out of the spotlight—are stalling because they cannot come to terms with the platform for the debate. Not for long, most likely, unless Noda and the DPJ forget to remember that beggars can’t be choosers.

Governor Kada as Leader of the “Other” Third Force Movement? Doesn’t Pass the Smell Test for Me

If media reports are to be believed, Takashi Kawamura appears to be on the verge of merging his Genzei Nippon, a ragtag collection of local and/or unloved B- and C-list Diet members with Ichiro Ozawa and his People’s Life First in a last-ditch effort to remain relevant as a Third Force movement. They are uniting under an anti-consumption tax hike, anti-nuclear, and anti-TPP platform. Ozawa has serious credibility problems that have further diminished the electability of mostly vulnerable candidates, and Kawamura has more recently engaged in a furious speed dating spree, only to strike out completely—the only positive, if you can call it that, being a catch from the DPJ reversing his re-defection when Hashimoto refused to take him in. They are reportedly trying to rope in the Green Wind, yet another group of DPJ defectors who refused to join Ozawa and are able to pass the smell test. The Green Wind leader is on the record that “collaboration is necessary” Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Anonymous sources say that Kawamura is sounding out Yukiko Kada, the (sort of) anti-nuclear governor of Shiga Prefecture, to head the new prospective party and is about to make some kind of announcement later today. She doesn’t have to run for the House of Representatives herself. Essentially, they think that they need a disinfectant. Now this is a story that we’ve heard before, and this is obviously Kawamura or someone very close to him—not Kada—who is doing the leaking. I’m not saying this is in Texas straw hat territory, but I’d say there’s much more than a glimmer of “counting your raccoon dog pelts before you’ve caught them” look to this.

My instant scratch-it ticket says: Kada politely refuses, and Kawamura strikes out again. May come back later in the day with the outcome, plus the broader picture. FYI I'm mildly surprised that the post-merger Hashimoto-Ishihara alliance has maintained its place in the Yomiuri poll, not at all surprised that half the responders have not given any preferences.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Who Are the “中华民族/Chinese Nation”?

These are some preliminary thoughts from my efforts to understand why Xi Jinping referred to the “/Chinese nation” and not to “中国/Chinese” “国民/people” in his first public statement after the November takeover. I’m sure this is well-trodden territory for China specialists, and these are really baby steps. I’ll be thankful for any leads, online or hardcopy, in Japanese or English.

People have taken note of the fact that the new Chinese Communist Party leader and head of state Xi Jinping made repeated references to the “Chinese nation” and simply “nation”—five and nine times respectively for a total of 14—in his “full remarks to the press.” at the 18th CCP National Congress. By comparison, his predecessor Hu Jintao mentioned the “Chinese nation” just once in his farewell report. Why was this notable? Because the word used for the “nation” is , which is far more commonly used for ethnic groups. Now, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) officially recognizes 55 ethnic groups, but Xi used that Chinese term just once in that sense if the Japanese version is to be believed, and otherwise referred to them as 各族, and in both cases were translated into English as “ethnic groups”*.

And what is this “Chinese nation”? In Xi’s own words, “ [it] is a great nation. Throughout five thousand years and more of evolution as a civilization, the Chinese nation has made indelible contribution to the progress of human civilization. In modern times, however, China endured untold hardships and sufferings, and its very survival hung in the balance. Countless Chinese patriots rose up one after another and fought for the renewal of the Chinese nation, but all ended in failure.” And so on. It is essentially the people who have taken part in the 5000 years old-and-counting sinic civilization.

This cannot be a pleasing thought to the Uighurs, Tibetans and the rest of the other “nations” certainly don’t appreciate that** since it’s essentially the Han “nation” lording it over the rest.***. Their rulers may have pledged allegiance to the sovereignty of the hegemons of the Zhongyuan back in the day—heck, the Mongols actually ruled the place for almost a hundred years and the Jurchids did the same for 267—but that was before nationalism became the norm and ripped up empires old and new.

This may have been less of a problem back in the day when all that those local rulers had to do was to pledge allegiance to the Chinese emperor, adopt the Chinese calendar, and send regular tributes to the Chinese emperor (and receive equal value in return). Other than that, they were mostly left alone. This was a good deal for the rulers and their entourages. There was a cost, sure, but you got legitimacy in return, and swag to boot. As for the plebes, I’m sure that they hardly noticed. So the Ming Dynasty and its Han emperors were replaced by the Qing Dynasty and its Jurchik emperors; same old, same old.

Now this is where the West came in, trying to do what it did to empires everywhere. And now that there was a convenient local model available in Japan, two existential struggles were going on at the same time: one, the Chinese empire’s resistance against the Western imperialists; and the other, the Han nation’s rebellion against the Jurchik rulers. Xi’s narrative conflates the two, for who were those “Chinese patriots” but the patriots of the Han nation? And what else can he do but to do so to maintain the myth of the Chinese nation; to do otherwise would require acknowledging the national identities of the other 55 officially recognized “ethnic groups.” Indeed, the demographics are moving in the opposite direction. The ethnic provinces and regions are fast becoming the domain of the Han nation.

* The care with which the terms “nation” and “ethnic groups” are distinguished suggests that the single instance of the use of 民族 in the Japanese translation for “ethnic groups” was a translation error. This is somewhat beside the point so I’m not going to the trouble of wading through the Chinese home page to figure it out on my own. But simply out of curiosity, I’d like to hear from anyone who has a good working knowledge of written Chinese on that point.
** If you don’t believe me, get to know a non-Han taxi driver or restaurant manager, anyone, really, who doesn’t have a public career to worry about.
*** If you don’t believe me, look at the Congress photos, where they made all the other “ethnic groups” dress up in their ethnic fineries.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Guess What, More Talk about an “Increasingly Isolated” Japan

Is it my imagination or is it always Japan that’s being “isolated,” an “outcast of Asia” when something upsets its relations with China and South Korea? I can understand—though I dispute—the logic behind that talk when it comes to China, but South Korea has a population 1/3rd the size of Japan and an economy even smaller by comparison and it lives next to North Korea, which may or may not implode/explode within our lifetimes. Please? The irony is that people doing China are far more willing to talk about how China’s neighbors are increasingly upset about its behavior. Guess what, the respective markets for the chatter are dictating the vocabulary, language, logic, and narrative.

To those wags out there, rest assured, I am not going to defend Japanese denialists on the Nanking Massacre and I’ll be very disappointed if (unexpectedly) Abe does a Hatoyama and blows his political wad on value issues before he nails the bread and butter stuff. But please, don’t let your take on history issues—and yes, I mean you—blind you to the realities on the ground. Your students deserve better. Tell you what, disappoint me—yes, you—and I might even eats me a Texas straw hat, I might.

Wen Jiabao, as Statesman in Despair: A Fable in the True Sense of the Word?

As any Japanese who managed to stay awake during the compulsory—seriously, no kidding—Classic Chinese Literature classes in high school will remember, Qu Yuan is revered by the Chinese public as the father of Chinese poetry and an exemplary patriot who lived in the kingdom of Chu (circa 1030–223 BCE) during the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE). He was banished from the royal court and later killed himself in despair when he saw that his country Chu was rotting from the inside. Fast forward to 2012, and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, having abdicated his No.3! seat in the CCP Politburo Standing Committee, is retiring from the prime minister’s office in next spring’s government shuffle and the following account surfaces in a Yomiuri Shimbun report from Shenyang. (It’s my translation; it’ll have to do.) Did you read it? Okay, let’s go on.

I think it’s a little fishy. It just doesn’t pass the smell test. It’s hard to believe that anyone who’s waded through the thickets of Chinese officialdom to be prime minister of China for nine years and counting, even in the post-Mao era, would offer such a devastating evaluation of contemporary China and wallow self-pityingly in that shopworn Qu Yuan cliché while talking to Chinese expats. Most likely, it’s just a rumor, magnified in the telling, that reached the attention of some Chinese media outlet in Shenyang. No doubt, denials will be forthcoming if the story has legs. In the meantime, the expression of popular discontent through a legend that has survived and thrived through the millennia and a communist regime, and the typecasting of Wen as statesman in despair, were too good for me to take a pass. Also that such a story could go to print in the post-Hu era. So I’m passing it along to you.

(Seiichiro Takeuchi; Shenyang)
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao,who will retire next spring, while visiting Bangkok from [Nov.] 20, addressed local Chinese merchants and others and said, “I will retire in a few months. I hope that people will forget about me.”
The Chinese media reported this on the 22nd.
Mr. Wen stated that “global respect cannot be gained by economic development and powerful science and technology alone.” He also raised challenged such as “promoting the construction of a democratic legal framework”, “realizing a just society”, and “securing the freedom and rights of the people”, and said that “many things were left undone”.
Mr. Wen, who has been criticized that he has not fulfilled his responsibility to explain suspicions reported by The New York Times in the United States that his family had amassed massive assets, quoted the words of Qu Yuan, a poet in Chu during the Warring States Period, that he “will have no regrets if he dies again and again to seek the truth” and “shall remain faithful and honest even unto death if it is necessary to prove one’s innocence.” It appears that he borrowed words from a poem of the “Patriotic Poet,” who committed suicide in despair because the King of Chu would not heed his repeated council to indirectly plead his own innocence.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Why the DPJ and LDP Keep Posting Crappy Documents. Plus, the Blank Margins

First, the crappy documents. I think I now know why the DPJ and LDP keep posting crappy PDF documents around election time—the few occasions that people might actually read them. And no, I’m not talking about the contents.

Imagine that you and a bunch of fellow party members are in a smallish conference room, taking in a trial screening of material for your election campaign. There’s an election platform mockup on the computer screen, courtesy of your party’s PR agency. Only it’s not your usual 15-20 inch laptop screen, it’s a 45 -inch version that your party could afford well before no one but the very wealthy could because it had the multibillion-yen government subsidy to play with. The 45-inch resolution makes the document a perfect fit, no zooming out necessary. And the letters do not look so densely bunched together.

But if you and your fellow party members ever bothered to take another look at the document on your home computer screen (or Heaven forbid tried to download it on your smartphone), you might notice, right? And if we the voters were actually reading those documents before casting our votes, someone might be annoyed, and complain, right?

I rest my case.

Now, the blank LDP margins. I just realized that Facebook homepages have blank margins, too. Well, the one on the left anyway. The one on the right appears to be there for potential “sponsors.” I see this ad for “Mature Dating” in the right-hand margin of Shinzo Abe’s Facebook page. Do they know something that I don’t know? About Abe? About me?

But that just raises more questions. Does the LDP leadership know that its ad agency might have swiped the idea from Facebook? Is that why the words “intellectual property (知的所有権)” and “creativity (創造)” never appear on the election platform? Does Facebook have a copyright on that layout? Will Facebook sue?

In the meantime, think about taking out an ad on the LDP website. The margin on the right, as pure as the driven snow, is waiting for you, Mature Dating Sponsor.

A Few More Words on the LDP Documents

In all fairness, the DPJ manifestos suffered from the same formatting flaw. In fact, the layout is so similar—fraternal twins, I’d say—that I suspect that the two parties have the same technical team at the same PR agency. I’ll be sorry if that means that we’re not going to see this election’s version of the LDP anime short-shorts attacking Hatoyama. I’ll be even sorrier if this tells something about the choice that we’re about to make..

Too Big, or Too Small? Make Up Your Mind, LDP

The LDP website has a new fresh look, very white, with lots of little dabs of green, all of it giving it a bottled-water, air-freshener, hygienic-products commercial look. In fact, it’s so white that it leaves two wide blanks at the margins in the default 100% zoom setting on my Chrome browser*. Anyone who intends to vote for the LDP must be hoping that it’s doing it as a deliberate, aesthetic decision and not because it ran out of content.

Counterbalancing the understatement of the home page are the full policy platform** and its summary in PDF format—which spill off screen at the margins, forcing me to zoom out to 90%、 or scroll sideways to read each line, which really isn’t an alternative. Is the message here: We’re really thinking big? Or is it: Rats! We should get a refund  from Dentsu/Hakuhodo/Whoeverdidthewebsite?

Some red breaks into the new-look home page in its headline features frame when Shinzo Abe, Shigeru Ishiba, or the LDP slides in. The public appears to be represented by the color green. You’re green, we’re green, but our leaders are red hot, it seems. And a dark, gray monotone reiterating the LDP call for “an independent constitution” reminds us that it was a sad, sad day when the GHQ foisted that linguistically-challenged*** contraption on us.

We also know that Abe’s people like mah-jong. Proof? The platform documents feature the word Ikki-tsūkan, (一気通貫), which is a rough mah-jong equivalent of, say, a high pair or low treys, depending on how you achieve it. Is this Showa-retro? Except there are lots and lots of katakana words, which is probably not good for old people, who are, after all, the LDP’s core demographic.

I’ll actually be reading the documents later in the day. Wish me luck.

* Am I the only person that stopped using Firefox when it no longer featured the old Chrome toolbar? Why won’t Mozilla develop its own online browser? It was a great opportunity to take over the itinerant browsing market. Instead, I owe my soul to the company store, so to speak.
** should we stop calling them manifestos? The DPJ kind of gave it a bad name, and it always reminded me of Lenin and Stalin anyway.
*** That’s at least one thing that everyone, from left to right, can agree on.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Springtime for East Asia?

Nov. 19: In South Korea, Ahn Cholsu, who will be a slight favorite in the upcoming presidential election if the two main opposition parties can unite behind him, wants to improve relations with Japan, claiming that his graduate research in Japan gives him a better understanding of the South Korean neighbor than the other candidates have. He wants to do the ROK-Japan FTA before the ROK-Japan-PRC trilateral.

Nov. 20China, South Korea, and Japan agree to launch negotiations for the China-Japan-ROK trilateral FTA.

Nov. 20: Russia raises its representation at the Japan-Russia Intergovernmental Committee on Trade and Economic Issues from cabinet minister with an economic portfolio to Igor Shuvalov, a First Deputy Prime Minister.

Why are they all of a sudden ing the “Outcast of Asia”*, “isolated from its neighbors**”? It’s not hard to give plausible, even probable, reasons, particularly for Russia. Still, it’s happening all so suddenly that you can’t quite shake the feeling that there’s some cosmic practical joke being played on Japan-as-Carrie (no, not Kyary).

** I am quoting a Korea specialist with, you guessed it, Korean in-laws.
*** Too many specialists to keep track of.

Goshi Hosono Obviously Knows How Horror Movies Are Supposed to End

By now, the false ending has become such a staple of horror movies that you’ll be shocked if the monster/villain doesn’t rise up again when the good guys are hugging and/or kissing each other. And remember, Hatoyama has been there, done that. In 2010, he expressed his intention not to run again for a Diet seat when he left the prime minister’s office, only to change his mind not too long after. Now, today (Nov. 21), the day after telling his Hokkaido supporters that he wouldn’t be running again because he wasn’t willing to support a pro-TPP campaign platform, he is paying a visit to Prime Minister Noda for purposes unknown. Goshi Hosono, the smooth-talking head of the DPJ Policy Research Council, had the following to say about that according to Sankei Shimbun:

His words: If the media reports are true, I suppose that he chose honorable voluntary retirement.
What may have been going through his mind: I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

His words: Since it is a very serious decision on the eve of the election, Mr. Hatoyama is surely going to talk with the prime minister after making a firm decision.
What may have been going through his mind: If Hatoyama thinks that Noda is going to let him talk him into talking him out of retirement, he’s nuts… wait!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

BOJ Governor Hits Back; Ball in Abe’s Court

No one will mistake Shinzo Abe, LDP President and odds-on favorite to become the next prime minister of Japan before the year is out, with an economist. Or even a financial analyst. Armed with a law degree from a safety school for the well-to-do, his main political interests mark him as a values conservative. He had never demonstrated much interest in economic policy in any of his high profile assignments, including his previous one-year venture as head of government. So, when he came out forcefully proposing a BOJ that underwrites construction JGBs*, punted for a 2-3% inflation target, and talked about amending the Bank of Japan Act to better coordinate fiscal and monetary policy, my first thought was, Who’s feeding him those lines? My money is on Abe’s buddy Yasuhisa Shiozaki, a former BOJ official who most likely has his eyes on the MOF portfolio.

Well, we may get to know sooner rather than later, since Dr. Masaaki Shirakawa, the midl-mannered BOJ governor, in an unusually blunt retort (at least online), that issuing construction JBGs “backed by the authority to print money could eliminate constraints (on expanding fiscal expenditures)”, that 2-3% inflation target was “unrealistic” and “could negatively impact fiscal reconstruction and the real economy” pair, and that he “fervently hoped that the independence of the BOJ would be respected.” Abe needs some cover fire.

Abe has been looking pumped, and he should be. New-found health—his tummy woes finally behind him, he’s cast off the funereal air that served him so well when he stood beside immediate family members of the abductees as a deputy chief cabinet secretary ten years ago—an unexpected come-from-behind victory in the October LDP presidential race, the LDP lead in the polls, and the bump/dip that his comments generated in the stock/currency market would boost anyone’s confidence. But Abe has always tended to talk too much. And, unlike, say, Prime Minister Koizumi, he’s not good at confining himself to talking points and repeating them over and over again. But he’s not Krugman. Or Obama. Or Oprah. He’s not a great explainer, nor does he exude convincing warmth. Toru Hashimoto routinely backs off from his policy stands, apologizes for indiscretions, and emerges unscathed, the tumbler mayor to Reagan’s Teflon president. Abe has no such Get-Out-of-Jail-Free pass.

I suspect that Abe is going to have walk back his statements a tad. And that improves the chances of Dr. Shirakawa being reappointed when his term expires in April—which I would personally welcome, since I made that call for a modest fee a month ago.

* “Construction national bond” is a term used for any JB that covers an expenditure that does not have to be written off during the same fiscal year. Some of it, such as a capital injection into a state corporation, has nothing to do with actual construction.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Azumi the Enforcer? Who’d a Thunk

Has ex-PM Yukio Hatoyama been doing anything but peeing inside the DPJ tent all year or what? I also thought that Jun Azumi’s appointment as Minister of Finance was a huge reach.

Fast forward. On Sunday, Azumi, now the DPJ’s Acting Director-General—de facto No.2, as DG Azuma Koshiishi, House of Councillors, is the new Mr. Irrelevant going into the House of Representatives election—kicked serious Hatoyama butt with the following statement on national TV:

“Anyone who wants to run as an official candidate from our party must keep our party’s promises no matter who he is.”

And that means the consumption tax hike and TPP, family ranch in Hokkaido or not. My guess is that Hatoyama will fall into line… until the next time that the bladdermouth springs a leak.

Way to go in the meantime though, Azumi. Maybe Noda did know what he was doing after all. (Of course there’s the matter of the other, less fortunate assignments including Ms. Tanaka, whose antics had been well-documented beforehand…)

How Can Guo Hui, Jimmy Wu, and Gordon Xiao Speak Ill of China?

The wiseguy answer, of course, is: Because they can. But why? Guo Hui can talk openly about his desire to quit the country because the sons and daughters of princelings are routinely securing green cards and permanent residences and citizenships in English-speaking countries, which fact the Chinese public is well aware of? Jimmy Wu and Gordon Xiao can talk openly about government corruption because the political leadership is talking about the corrosive effects of endemic corruption, which fact—the talk and the corruption—the Chinese public is well aware of?

Your guess is as good as mine. But the fact that the educated private sector upper middle class can talk openly about these matters and how they affect their hopes and fears about their future says that the markers are shifting in mainland China.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Ishihara Has Seen the Future and Its Name Is Hashimoto, But What of It?

Or so he thinks. Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s Japan Restoration Party (JRP) is “absorbing” now former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara’s Party of the Sun (PTS) today. PTS had announced a merger with Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura’s Genzei Nippon two days ago (15th), but that appears to have been put on ice at Hashimoto’s insistence. This is probably a temporary hitch; Hashimoto has always been clear that he would not collaborate for collaboration’s sake. Ishihara has reportedly accepted the PTS policy platform, and Kawamura will have to do likewise before Hashimoto gives his consent. Kawamura is a politics-first guy and the flotsam and jetsam that he’s gathered around him would like nothing better than to duck under the big tent; I’m pretty confident that he’ll come around in time to coordinate candidates for the House of Representatives election on December 16. Which is the point of it all, isn’t it?

That leaves Your Party out in the rain. It must be galling to Yoshimi Watanabe and his YP cohorts. Hashimoto lifted their small-government, pro-market agenda, Koizumi-alumni advisors and all and is going national, even as the original vehicle treads water. They’ve been around only three years, so it’s not as if there’s a lot of history behind it, but can they lay their egos to rest and subordinate themselves to a nationwide coalition? I’ll believe it when I see it.

If they all come together, though, the product will be a pretty formidable spectacle, with the ability to field candidates nationwide. If they can get through the weeks leading up to election day without its many parts speaking out every which way and squabbling amongst themselves, they will certainly be a formidable force at the polls. There’ll be a lot of talk about the policy differences between them, but the DPJ was cobbled together out of even more disparate parts, and the LDP is divided over, say, nuclear power and the TPP when you look under the covers.

I don’t think that the Third Force movements, largely or wholly united under the JRP banner, will cooperate with a post-election LDP-Komeito or (significantly less likely) DPJ-PNP regime. They’ll support any efforts that work in favor of their policy agenda and oppose anything that doesn’t. There’s no need to compromise; indeed compromise is dangerous when you’re trying to present an alternative to the status quo and not just an improvement.

This means that the two major coalitions will have to work with each other, because another bout of gridlock is the last thing that they can afford. They have to look good doing it, too, because the public will have another suitor at its doorsteps. That’s not easy to do when you’re the opposition, because whatever makes you look good is likely to make the incumbent regime good too.

Isn’t It a Bummer When You’re Not on That Mailing List?

(Scene from my childhood)             
Five or six Osaka girls, the closest thing to a clique in my sixth-grade class, smart, relatively well-to-do, arrive at the graduation ceremonies in matching dresses made for this special occasion—all except one, who is noticeably miffed and spends the day acting chummy with a girl who could have been a part of this group but was not because she was a last-year transfer and had not had enough time to fully integrate.*

* A few weeks ago, I received a xxth anniversary invitation for Elementary School XX class of 19XX reunion. The prettiest girl in the clique and the transfer girl—my next-door neighbor, incidentally—were on the organizing team. But no, I’m not going;I'm otherwise occupied. And it was that long ago, and now, that far away.

(Scene from my adulthood)
A former METI official and Diet member arrives late at a retirement party for a top METI official. Now this was just after the Recruit scandal, when the founder and CEO of the company shelled out lucrative purchasing rights—well below what the market would actually bear, as was typically the case in those days—for the Recruit IPO to a who’s-who list of LDP politicians, temporarily deflecting into their political trajectories and arguably toppling the Takeshita cabinet, broke and the first thing out of his mouth after the usual pleasantries is that no, he didn’t receive an offer and the most embarrassing about the whole affair is that he has to say this to his constituency because it reveals that he wasn’t important enough to be placed on the A-list.**

** Those were the days before it became fashionable for METI officials to seek political careers. Asked to run to replace a retiring high school alumnus, he had declined the first time around, but caved when the high school alumni leadership came calling again and told him that everyone else had refused and that it was his duty to run for reasons which I won’t go into here.

(Scene from Afghanistan)
So I can imagine how embarrassing it must be when you’re a journalist/analyst covering Afghanistan and Taliban accidentally CCs everybody on its mailing list and you’re not on it.***

*** Not so good if you’re a mole for the Taliban.

Friday, November 16, 2012

More DPJ Deserters? Meh

I can’t see more than another handful or two—ceiling ten?—of DPJ members of the House of Representatives jumping ship between now and the election, all of them professing opposition to TPP. (What else?). Where are they going to go? The Third force movements are now lining up behind TPP (Your Party: “Are you stupid or what?” Hashimoto: “Are you wimps or what?” Ishihara: “America, Schmerica, I need to cut a deal with Hashimoto.” Kawamura: “How high, sir?”), and they may not want to be seen as some kind of refugee boats. Post-dissolution defectors do not want to join the Ozawa team, even if his acquittal has been upheld on appeal; those people will be pretty toxic as far as media coverage is concerned. (Okay, some of them could join up anyway. Still, I think that that ship left a long time ago and I don’t think rats can swim that far.) And cobbling together a party or two of five just so they can take out zombie insurance? Good luck. Note that Eriko Fukuda had a place to land, the Green Wind and its five members.

Maybe I’m just projecting my hopes and fears; it’s just that the spectacle of HORs scrambling to keep their heads above water reminds me of how they dealt with rats when I was a small, very small child. And that’s a very depressing thought. In any case, this is very hunchy, but I needed to make the call so I’d have something to measure the actual turn of events against.

Pre-New Year Election Takes Care of One Problem

I previously mentioned in passing that DPJ refusal to give would-be defectors their leave could cause serious legal problems for them and the parties that would take them in. I thought that the resultant political bigamy could be a real problem, since there was a chance that the snap election would be held after January 1, the benchmark date for the Diet member headcount, whichthat determines the distribution of one half of the government subsidy for political parties. Well, the question became moot for the House of Representatives (HOR) since the Dietthat House is being dissolved today. The HORs lose their jobs instantly, which means that Article 4, paragraph (2) of the DPJ Bylaws no longer applies, freeing each and every one of them to leave the DPJ by simply filing a slip of paper, just giving the reason for his/her resignation.

No, Article 6 of the Organization Rules, which dictates the resignation procedure for non-Diet members, does not require a departing ex-loved one to tell the truth.

And What of the Next Election?

I think that Noda stanched the bleeding with his surprise move to dissolve the diet on his own terms. Caught off-guard, Abe scrambled, leaving viewers with the impression of voluble indecisiveness. He has been looking healthier and animated since his cure, but his tendency to over-explain, exposing himself to greater risk of damaging errors and out-of-context quotes, such as happened with Norimitsu Onishi’s “comfort women” article back in the day, remains intact. Abe also has been tacking towards support for TPP negotiations*, but Noda got there first, and more securely to boot. Abe will be minding his words on China, which will severely limit his ability to play the national security card. I still don’t think Noda and the DPJ has much of a chance retaining power—Koizumi for all practical purposes used the Post Office rebels to push the DPJ off center stage; deep-sixing the LDP and the Third Force movements is a very different task. But it’s better than nothing, which is what he would have wound up with if he’d dithered and backed into the snap election to ever diminishing public support. Additional defections certainly hurt though; let’s see how many actually leave.

The Third Force movement will rise as high as an eventual alliance allows them to. Noda’s November surprise actually helps bring the parties together. Since they have little time to continue preparations for running fully national campaigns, they may have no choice but to split up turf and support each other’s single-member district candidates in their respective strongholds. They could actually wind up better off that way. Of course all the maneuvering not to mention the outsized egos involved may wind up making the movements even more unwieldy and divisive than the post-1998 merger DPJ. Ozawa is the odd man out. He’ll try to leverage whatever he has left to navigate his way around the post-election landscape, but I agree with the conventional wisdom that he is a spent force.

In any case, barring a massive post-election realignment, it remains highly likely that 1) either the DPJ-PNP or LDP-Komeito will have a plurality but not a majority in the House of Councilors (HOC); while 2) the Third Force movements will work with an uncompromising eye towards the 2013 HOC election, when half the seats** will be up for grabs, and beyond. In the meantime, the most likely outcome is that the coalition winding up with the fewer seats in the House of Representatives will throw its votes to the other in the second-round run-off for the prime minister’s office. After that, the two sides will be on their best behavior through the upcoming 2012 regular Diet session for tax and social security reform and Diet downsizing, as well as other legislation and approvals for BOJ, FTC and other appointments, while remaining on alert for any errors and weaknesses on the other side to capitalize on. They both need to show that they are constructive and have the nation’s best interests at heart, and their policy positions on major issues are not that far apart. Even nuclear power is not a matter of pure pro- and con-. Besides, the Third Movement forces are unlikely to be willing coalition partners and more trouble than they’re worth if they are. They will see no value in compromising their policy positions to accommodate a minority government.

Speaking of Third Force movements, Hashimoto and your Party always favored TPP negotiations—it helps when you share the same METI and MOF alumni as advisors—and Ishihara has dropped his opposition, most surely in order to join hands with Hashimoto. There’s Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura, but he’s less equal than the others, and should come around anyway if that’s the cost of hitching his wagon to a Hashimoto-Ishihara alliance.

* see, for instance, Yomiuri.
** The HOC is all but sure to be downsized as part of the reform process through the 2013 and 2016 elections.

Meandering around the New Chinese Leadership and Beyond

 Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang are 59 and 57 respectively. First, the other five members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), all male, are all 64 or older. They will all have to retire in 2017 under current rules, which do not allow reappointment to the Politburo of anyone 68 or older. Hu Jintao made it directly from the currently 205-member Central Committee to the PBSC at the 14th Congress and was elevated to the CCP Chairmanship (and Chinese Presidency) at the 16th Congress, but all other PBSC members appointed at the 16th, 17th, and 18th Congresses first became Politburo members before their next promotion. Second, only two women made the 25-member (including the 7 PBSC members) Politburo and they are 67 and 62. One will be gone in 2017, the other in 2022 under current rules. Put these two sets of facts together—the loosely used buzzwords currently in vogue among financial types and their minders appear to be “data points”—and it’s a good bet that the next pair of top leaders will be two male Politburo members 52 or younger who will be promoted to the PBSC at the 19th Congress. Only two men fit this description: Sun Zhengcai and Hu Chunhua, both 49. All the others are scattered between 67 and the mid-fifties.

Sun is an agricultural scientist by training—unlike Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, Xi and Li, he actually served as a cabinet minister, for agriculture—while Hu majored in literature and the Chinese language and appears to have made his mark as a propagandist. Both, like the four current and immediately preceding leaders, appear to have lived all their lives in China, way too late for training or education in the Soviet Union and a little too early for Western schools.*

Of course things could change. It’s not against the laws of physics to bump someone up from the Central Committee directly to the Standing Committee at the 19th Congress, then appoint that person party president or prime minister at the 20th. And there’s no Chinese law—not that this would be a problem if you catch my drift—that says that person cannot be a woman. They might decide to appoint a one-term president or prime minister, which would make the Standing Committee members between 53 and 57 also selectable. The retirement age may be raised. Scandals happen, and people die. And political cataclysm may blow the best laid succession plans to smithereens. These are all unlikely turn of events. But stranger things have happened, not least in China. So I’m going to stay tuned.

* Actually, I assume that an Ivy League diploma is still a negative for political advancement unless you intend to make your mark as a technocrat, a route that probably has a bamboo ceiling.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Another Thing about Noda’s Play

The DPJ was always going to be better off pushing the downsizing beyond the upcoming election because that would give more room for its SMD losers to come back via the regional proportional vote. Noda appears to have foisted the bulk of the blame for the delay on the LDP and its eagerness for an early snap election.


Noda Will Dissolve the House of Representatives on Friday

Today, during the party leaders’ Diet debate, Prime Minister Noda stated his willingness to dissolve the House of Representatives on the 16th,which would set the stage for a general election no later than December 24, if Shinzo Abe, the President of the LDP, would give his promise that the LDP would fully cooperate in reducing the number of Diet members* in the next regular Diet session.** The LDP leadership later convened and gave its blessing through Shigeru Ishiba, the Secretary-General, while Abe confirmed it in a speech that he gave later in the day. Any question of backtracking became moot when the Noda administration and the DPJ, LDP and Komeito met in the evening and agreed to hold the election on December 16.

At first glance, it looks like the kind of Hail Mary pass that only someone with skin in the game (or butt in the crack, pick your idiom) could draw up and about as good as it gets, given the circumstances. Noda was following the DPJ down the polls and facing serious dissent in his party. He needed to reverse the momentum, and the only tools at his disposal were a snap election...or resignation in favor of a more election-friendly face, most likely—but not quite surely—Goshi Hosono. But for the snap election to work in the DPJ’s favor, he needed a hook to reverse the momentum. TPP could be used as a wedge issue against the LDP, but it promised to be a divisive issue within the DPJ as well. And yesterday, the DPJ executive committee had come out against an early snap election, a typically human response that would bring temporary relief at the expense of greater pain in the long-run. But in downsizing the Diet membership, he had a populist issue that the rank-and-file could ill afford to oppose…in principle. By issuing the challenge in the Diet, he was also staring down the DPJ dissidents. His announcement and the subsequent maneuvering also rips media attention away from the Third Force Movements, who will also encounter difficulties as they have to split up the national turf and line up solvent and presentable candidates, all in the next three weeks***.

Will it work? Who knows? But Noda is certainly giving it his best effort. I have a new respect for the man and his political judgment.

* Yomiuri erroneously reports that Noda also included the five-up, five-down in his demand for a pledge. Jun Azumi, the DPJ Deputy DG talked up efforts to get it done by the 16th but had the wits not to make it a precondition of the snap election. There’s some chatter around the unconstitutionality of the current configuration, the latest quack-quacking coming from the HOR President. I think that I’ve addressed the issued to everyone’s satisfaction earlier on this blog. Suffice to say that a multi-partisan pledge will further assuage the conscience of the courts when they allow the results of the “unconstitutional” election to stand.
** A regular Diet session is customarily summoned in early January and usually runs into June or July.
*** The election will be formally launched on December 4.

A Truncated Commentary on the Party of the Sun

The Japan Renaissance Party  Sunrise Party (Tachiagare Nippon - literally "Stand Up Japan!")* renamed itself 太陽の党, literally “Party of the Sun. ” The gathering of mostly sexa- and septuagenarians did it to honor its new octogenerian leader Shintaro Ishihara. The name is a takeoff on the title of Ishihara’s famous award-winning 1955 novel 太陽の季節, literally “Season of the Sun”. Now, the book never appears to have been translated into English, so those who wanted to know a little more about the book but cannot read Japanese must have looked it up on Wikipedia, only to find a curious inscription in the list of adaptations:

“Shouji Ch**ko Man no Kisetsu, a 2011 eroge

Literally, “Season of Paper Screen D**k Man, a computer game with sexual content from 2011”. At that point, you will have no idea where this is coming from, so let me explain: The title is a reference to the protagonist of Ishihara’s novel, who stuck his d**k through a paper screen. I can do no more to enlighten you on the details of the screen-busting scene—or anything else in the book for that matter since I never read it and I never saw the 1956 movie adaptation—but the idea of the scene has been with me as a cultural icon of I know not what for as long as I can remember. I’m not the only one who has the notion rattling around in his head either, since every writer referring to the name of Ishihara’s new used-vehicle appears to feel obligated to refer also to the book and its screen-ripping scene—and little else of the novel, although the book wound up overshadowing everything else that he subsequently wrote, except maybe the nationalist screed The Japan that Can Say No, coauthored with Sony founder Akio Morita in 1991.

There are too many angles to this story to do justice to them with my limited writing skills, so I’m going to stop right here. Sorry about that. And you also have my apologies if I’ve ruined your Japanese paper screen experience forever. Just. Don’t. Think. About. It.

* Thanks to Michael Cucek.

ADD: Comment from W. David Marx:

I've read an old English translation published under the title Season of Violence. Not a bad book for something written by a 23 year old.

Also this:

Thanks, David.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Fix Is (Almost) In on a Snap Election?

The media are now reporting that the DPJ/Noda administration and LDP-Komeito have officially cut a deal to authorize the issue of deficit bonds to meet the revenue shortfall in the annual regular budgets through FY2015, which also happens to be the year that the second phase of the consumption tax hike is supposed to kick in. The DPJ/Noda administration has already telegraphed its willingness to go the minimalist, five-up, five-down route with the House of Representatives to bypass the constitution question road bump and leave the reduction of the regional proportional seats for another occasion. The LDP is now willing to nominate members for the tax and social security reform commission, the third item on Prime Minister Noda’s legacy Make-a-Wish list. The two sides have even thrown in a kicker and decided to account for (in a half-assed way) the effects of disinflation on public pension payments, whose postponement is costing the national treasury an extra trillion yen per year. All this before Prime Minister discloses a snap election schedule, but all that stands between the Diet and an early call for a snap election is DPJ Secretary-General Azuma Koshiishi if the media and their reading of Noda words between the lines are to be believed.

So what gives? Why is everyone suddenly acting so reasonable and accommodating? Because if they all play hardball and let the Japanese treasury go off the fiscal cliff, they would be running the danger of being dragged off with it themselves, that’s why. Toru Hashimoto, and now Shintaro Ishihara, along with Your Party and the Nagoya/Aichi folks, are encountering their own problems getting their Third Force acts together, but at a minimum, they would be well-positioned to cash in on voter dissatisfaction. A quick snap election works in favor of established parties since it will also make the task of lining up credible candidates difficult for the Third Force movements.

I’ll be personally gratified if the election occurs by the end of the year as some media outlets are intimating that Noda intends to do so—I did make a call for two climaxes, one near the year’s end and another around the turn of the fiscal year, and got paid for doing it—but I’ll only believe it when I really see it, since DPJ members who do not see any chance of getting reelected in any case will try to postpone the day of reckoning as long as possible, a desire that Koshiishi appears to be doing his utmost to accommodate. Moreover, the DPJ has a significant pecuniary interest in postponing the matter until the year’s end because the 2013 subsidy for political parties will be calculated on the basis of the turn of events up to New Year’s Day.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Ichiro Ozawa’s Acquittal Upheld; Now What?

Today (Nov. 12), the Tokyo High Court rejected the special prosecutors’ appeal and upheld Ichiro Ozawa’s acquittal of charges of violating the Political Funds Control Act. This did not come as a surprise since legal experts had tended to expect that outcome, particularly after the prosecutors had not been able to secure a review of the evidence by the High Court. The prosecutors had already shown some reluctance in deciding to seek to overturn the initial verdict; it is likely that they will decline to pursue the case further in the Supreme Court. Notwithstanding the likelihood of this contingency, there had been relatively little mainstream media speculation* of any role for Ozawa in the ongoing efforts to present a Third Force alternative to the status quo or in the post-election political landscape, where neither a LDP-Komeito coalition government nor an unlikely continuation of the current ruling coalition between the DPJ and the People’s New Party PNP will command a majority in the HOC, a situation that is unlikely to change after the 2013 HOC election barring more thoroughgoing political realignment.

Looking at the numbers alone, this does not make sense. Ichiro Ozawa’s People’s Life First (LF) has 49 Diet members in its fold, 37 in the House of Representatives (HOR) and 12 in the House of Councilors (HOC). Many of the nine members of the Kizuna Party, who bolted the DPJ before Ozawa to escape supporters’ wrath at the tax hike, are believed to be associated with him. (Ozawa himself had his hand virtually forced by the followers who were poised to leave the ship without him.) Even without the five, the LF has the third largest contingency in the Diet, behind the DPJ and LDP, and dwarfs the other upstarts and, in HOR, Komeito as well.

However, there’s a major downside for any would-be collaborators, including Toru Hashimoto and Shintaro Ishihara, the two people who are emerging as the key figures in the immediate future of the Third Force movement. It is a downside so big that it has kept the mainstream media from spending much time on Ozawa’s post-acquittal prospects. Or so I think. Let me explain.

First, joining forces with Ozawa carries the taint of the old-school politics from which first the DPJ and now the Third Force movements are trying to dissociate from. Just defending an association with Ozawa will be a time-consuming negative and a drag on political momentum. For the acquittal will not reward Ozawa with a fully clean bill of health. The court of first instance made it obvious that it was merely giving him the benefit of the doubt regarding his understanding and knowledge of the nature of the inscription in question. Moreover, the mysterious maneuvers around the funding of the nine-figure real estate transaction will continue to resonate with the broader doubts around his financial and real estate holdings as well as the massive political funds, part of it coming from the proto-DPJ, squirreled away and folded into his personal fiefdom prior to the 1998 merger. Ozawa can bring the matter to political closure if he successfully defends himself in testimony before the appropriate Diet committee, an act that he has steadfastly refused to do and is unlikely to do any time soon.

Second, the sheer magnitude of the Ozawa team acts as a deterrent in itself. His minions easily outnumber the collective membership of the upstarts, who would not want to be at a numerical disadvantage going into the HOR election. At a minimum, most if not all of Ozawa’s HOR members will have to be accommodated in any coordination to maximize the elective value of the votes that the various Third Force movements can muster in the single-seat districts.

Third, and this is a related point, Ozawa has shown a repeated knack for dominating his political space—until he winds up wrecking it over the long- or not so long-run. Hashimoto and Ishihara, two of the most dominant and openly combative personalities on the Japanese political scene should have enough time cohabiting, if ever. Adding Ozawa to the mix comes across as preposterous. Plus, Ishihara has expressed his unwillingness to work with Ozawa on multiple occasions. Your Party will also flinch at an association with Ozawa.

Finally, it is unclear how much mojo Ozawa will retain post-election. His forces range from the few members of his entourage that have stuck with him through the years to the horde of vulnerable newbies fleeing what they saw as a ship sinking under the weight of the consumption tax hike legislation and the fallout from the Fukushima-daiichi accident. If conventional wisdom prevails, their HOR numbers—and their power to help elect a prime minister and pass budgets and legislation—will be greatly diminished. And the remainder will show little of the kind of policy spark that can draw media attention in the way that the new guard in the DPJ did in the years leading up to the 2009 takeover.

Of course there will be a minor flood of media reports over the first few workdays, and another, smaller burst when the public prosecutor formally folds (or, improbably, files an appeal with the Supreme Court). However, but I expect the excitement to die quickly, leaving the Third Force and the mainstream media to relegate Ozawa and his followers to the margins of the political story through the year’s end and the coming year.**

Sidebar: Some people, I’m sure, will revive anti-Ozawa conspiracy theories. First, the indictment: No way, in my view. Too many people, including two private lawyers who have no personal reasons to bear the brunt of the burden of the conspiracy, have to be in on the lowdown to make it work. That’s the same basic flaw of most conspiracy theories. Second, the media: Yes, sort of, but what there is, Ozawa has all but asked for it. I think it is true that the mainstream media and much of the tabloids/weeklies world do not like Ozawa, and I am sure that this affects how they report (or not) stories around him. But there are the facts. The money trail is odd, one that Yukio Edano for one in the DPJ had talked about openly even before the legal dam broke; likewise are his real estate transactions using political funds. On a less unsavory front, his penchant for setting up new political parties then wrecking them and shedding allies along the way, is well-chronicled. And when it comes to doing something with all this smoke, well, a little bit of public communications i.e. massaging/messaging the media could come in handy. Instead, Ozawa has been one of the most uncommunicative public figures on the Japanese political landscape, willing to open up only under his own terms, only on the subject of his choice, and if at all possible only before a uniformly favorable audience. This is not surprising for a man who lacks facility with words, clams up in the face of verbal challenges, and has stated a dislike for the staple of politicians: pumping-the-flesh, good old-fashioned election campaigning. It is surprising for a man who continues to seek elective office. The media is not likely to give its subjects the benefit of the doubt; Ozawa practically ensures that. It’s more bias than conspiracy. I suspect many of you already knew this story; it still bears mentioning, I think, on the occasion of what is likely to be his ultimate release from the criminal courts, but not the court of public opinion.

* The metropolitan tabloids, “sports” sheets, and weekly magazines, which cannot get enough of facts, factoids, and often lurid speculation around Ozawa, are another matter. However, their readership and, apparently, influence on TV political reports are significantly smaller.
** This is not to deny the possibility of the LF playing a PNP/SDP-like role if the numbers add up just so.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Japanese Citizens Can Run the Beijing Marathon after All

Yesterday (Nov. 10), the Japanese media (Kyodo and Yomiuri) reported that the Japanese citizens could not register for the Beijing International Marathon (BIM) with the hosts citing “security” reasons. The Japanese Embassy duly registered a protest, and the hosts lifted the ban, all in a day’s work.

The ban was obviously related to the Senkaku situation. But how?

It’s an international sports event; a ban makes them look—unsportsmanlike. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which “sanctioned and approved the BIM” according to the official BIM website, would not been pleased to hear of the ban, and likely would have imposed a penalty.

Nor is the original act the norm. Japanese skaters entered (and won both singles events at) the Beijing leg of the 2012–13 ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating last week. However, that was an indoor crowd, spectators with tickets and invitees. Outdoor spectators on the streets are another matter, and even a small number of protesters could cause a highly visible and embarrassing ruckus or worse. So the hosts made a call. But with the story gaining media attention, someone, possibly higher up the China’s political hierarchy, apparently decided that avoiding further embarrassment was worth taking the unknown risk of failures in crowd control.

More generally, the Chinese executors of the get-tough policy on Diaoyu must have to play much of it by ear, with a sharp eye for self-preservation. There must be lessons here for the Japanese authorities to figure out on the Senkaku Islands, I just don’t have any good ideas around that.

Sidebar: I suspect that this is indicative of how the situation is being handled over there. There must be broad general orders that sanction inconveniencing the Japanese presence in mainland China, but the details have to be delegated along the political food chain, ultimately reaching the actual executor. This means that execution will vary from situation to situation, institution to institution, and even individual to individual. (We saw this unevenness last year in what individual custom houses were doing to trade with Japan in rare earth and other merchandise.) Given the human propensity to take credit and avoid blame, the executors will be guided in the details by his survival instincts and his reading of the prevailing political mood.

Whose Ethnic Garb at the Chinese Party Congress?

Punk rocker and Eurasia Group analyst Damien Ma moonlights as a blogger for The Atlantic website. He’s being uncommonly productive there recently, what with the Chinese Party Congress in progress. He’s made it so far to the pageantry of the first day. There, he writes:

For every major Communist Party occasion, most of all the congress, several set pieces must be present: podium wrapped in flowers, minorities in their ethnic garb, sprinkling of female delegates, sleeping octogenarians, and bored leaders. The congress' opening ceremony did not disappoint on any of these fronts.

And neither did the rest of his post. But what’s this about “minorities in their ethnic garb”? Ah, there it is. But don’t the Han people have their own “ethnic garb”? I ask Damien, and it appears that the Han don’t need to be represented because they’re not a minority. Wait, didn’t the British Empire used to trot out overseas subjects in the ceremonial dress of their origin on festive occasions?

China may recognize 56 ethnic groups, but the Han are obviously more equal than the others. And you can be sure that Beijing is not consulting the other 55 in dealing with their Diaoyu question.

It’s also funny how the financial crisis has made the world all but forget Tibetans and the Uighurs and whomever else that may be refusing to submit, but that’s another story.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Mazie K. Hirono Would Not Have Been Elected Senator If She Were Not an Asian-American

And no, not because this was Hawaii, though that certainly must have helped, but because she’s by all accounts a self-described “non-practicing Buddhist.” And if you think I’m wrong, imagine a White politician trying to get away with being a “non-practicing Buddhist.” Let’s push this further and try “non-practicing Christian.” But I’m guessing that a “secular Jew” is acceptable. I’m also guessing that I know what “non-practicing” really stands for. And I’m guessing that the United States will see a woman become President well before any of these “non-practicing” people do.*

Such were the thoughts that this post on the Noahpinion blog (and some wine) touched off.

* Senator Hirono, of course, is not eligible for the Presidency since she is an immigrant. This is another one of the non-democratic anachronisms in the US Constitution.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

A Few Thoughts around the US Election

1.    Obama or Romney?
In the past, the Japanese political and business establishment would have been saddened by Romney’s defeat. The perception there is that Republican administrations tend to treat Japan more gently, both in style and substance. And the Noda administration and big business here must have welcomed comments from Glen Hubbard, a prominent economic advisor to Romney and a probable candidate for a key assignment in the event of his victory, in Nikkei Shimbun that a Romney administration would support Japan’s participation in the TPP negotiations. This time around, though, China has been the one that has been getting the short shrift from the Democrats with the Obama administration’s abandonment of a G2 perspective and adoption of an Asian “pivot,” broadly regarded and largely welcomed in the region as a counterbalance to an increasingly aggressive projection of Chinese power. So, although the Romney campaign had been pushing a very forceful line against China, “four more years” must not have seemed to be a bad consolation prize. At least that must be why there was little to no debate here over the relative merits of the two presidential candidates for Japan, or any display of the by now familiar anguish over the Japan “passing” in the foreign policy debate. On the latter point, maybe we’ve become so used to being sidelined that we don’t notice, but that’s too depressing an idea, and unnecessary at this point to ponder when there’s a more plausible explanation.

2.    Value of a Vote
The electoral college system came under criticism as the possibility that the popular and electoral votes might go their separate ways, which actually happened in 2000 then almost repeated in 2004, was extinguished for good for practical purposes only when the networks called Ohio for Obama with just three more states out of the 50 remaining to be called. Another, less serious charge is that the electoral college system forces presidential campaigns to focus on at most ten or so “swing” states while taking the rest of the US more or less for granted. This cannot be a healthy state of affairs, or so the story goes. What’s funny, though, is that similar complaints are not being made about the Senate, where each Wisconsin vote is currently worth about 66 Californian votes. That makes the most recent 2.30 (House of Representatives, 2009) and 5.00 (House of Councilors, 2010) that the Japanese Supreme Court has condemned look…absolutely “constitutional,” yet the people in California and New York appear to be too stoned to complain. Could it be that John Q. Public just doesn’t care, and that the only reason that the electoral college is part of the national debate is because it’s another fish to fry when the US media dishes out stories on election night? I mean, who wants that extra attention in the form of ever-more negative campaigning, robo-calls and the like.

3.    Mandate, Shmandate
And what’s all this talk about a “mandate”? Depending on whom you talklisten to, President Obama got a mandate because he won the popular vote and smashed Romney in the electoral college tally, in the process producing a near-sweep of the “swing” states; or, he didn’t get a mandate because he ran against a weak candidate and still failed to convince nearly half the US voters who actually voted. Well, Bush only became president because he won a 5-to-4 vote in the Supreme Court, but he still got his tax cut…because the Republicans owned both chambers and managed to get enough Democratic Senators to cross the aisle, sometimes with timely advice from their donors and lobbies, to cross the aisle to surmount considerable procedural obstacles (particularly in the Senate). Obama will have more difficulties in getting any legislation passed because the Republicans own the House of Representatives. (It’s more complicated than that, but let’s leave it there for now.) The “fiscal cliff” will be avoided though, not because Obama has received a mandate but because both the Democrats and the Republicans will be held responsible if the US government goes over the edge, which will not be a good thing for incumbents come 2014. Same thing with the Japanese “twisted” Diet and the Japanese “cliff”—which BTW MOF has been GPSing away every few months as if it were a hot-road mirage. “Mandate” is the language of pundits and is of little utility for explication purposes and even less for forecasting, and it’s a good thing that we don’t resort to anything similar in our public discourse.

4.    Nate Silver
Nate silver has been the undisputed forecasting star of the media coverage, making Roger Federer at his career peak look like an also-ran. I’d wondered how arithmetically possible it was to give even a small number of, say, 7 to 3 odds and wind up making a near-perfect call on the outcome at state level unless his model was terribly wrong. Stupid me, I hadn’t realized that Silver would be refreshing his numbers right up to the point that they closed the ballot box, so the calls would grow shorter and shorter (or is it longer and longer?) for a candidate who, like Obama in this election, enjoyed a clear last-minute polling trend in his favor. Two thoughts flow from this: First, pundit forecasts tend to become less relevant as the day of the election approaches, but that is also when they get the most air time. It is no surprise, then, that many of them are directing plenty of visceral anger and scorn towards him (while selectively citing polls where convenient), or simply ignoring him altogether. Thankfully, there aren’t nearly enough detailed, much less daily, and publicly available polls in Japan, which allows arithmetically challenged people like me to concoct stories around what little is around. Second, Silver’s model can only be validated if the calls that he—more accurately, his model—makes along the timeline are also accurate, and it should not be difficult for a capable statistician to figure out ways to gauge this. This is important because people will be making business-investment decisions along this timeline, decisions that will be affected by the outcome of the election. Again, the dearth of useful Japanese polls means that we won’t be seeing any Nate Silver-like figures here for a long time, if ever.