Monday, April 02, 2018

Womenomics and Stagnant Wages Pushing Japanese Women into the Workforce? Think Again.


I don’t have the time to do justice to opinion pieces but from what I gather from the headlines, Noah Smith appears to have given up on critiquing Japan’s political and social scene and mostly focused on being an advocate for the Japanese economy. Probably a wise career move. But his latest eye-catching headline “Abenomics Looks a Lot Like Reaganomics”caught my attention, and I have this to say.

Dr. Smith attributes the rise in the participation of women in the workforce to Prime Minister Abe’s “Womenomics” and stagnant wages. But Dr. Smith’s graph shows that Japan’s female labor force participation rate on the rise in 2013, effectively the first year of the Abe administration. What were the “Womenomics” policies in place off the bat that made this happen? As for stagnant wages, that’s a decades-old problem. What has made it so relevant during the Abe administration years?

There is something missing from this narrative: the recovery from the 2008-2009 financial crisis and the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake Disaster playing out against the background of a declining working-age population and the current, synchronized well-being of the global economy. In short, it is far more sensible to see the rise in the labor force participation rate of Japanese women as a reflection of the rise in the demand for flexible, non-regular (temp, part-time, etc.) labor in a virtually full-employment environment. In other words, good old-fashioned, supply-and-demand at work rather than any policy initiatives whose specifics Dr. Smith would have a hard time identifying.

But then, what do I know? I’m not an economist.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Do You Think the Moritomo Affair Has Driven a Wedge between Abe and Aso? Think Again


Aso criticized the media for prioritizing Moritomo over TPP, got criticized himself, and the lefty media is playing it up and the righty media is playing it down. I don’t think Aso will step down over this, but this does give me a hook to address the speculation that the whole affair has driven a wedge between Abe and Aso, who is supposed to be pissed off at Abe for causing this issue in his bailiwick and mishandling it, according to this story line. Maybe. But most people familiar with the political process would be surprised if he were.

Politicians and their underlings call in on the bureaucracy about individual projects all the time. Sometimes, they just have questions. Other times, they exert pressure. And no one should be surprised. It’s what politicians do. Every inhabited spot on this planet. Every time in human history. And the bureaucracy copes. Do the political appointees in the Japanese Government mind? I don’t think so. After all, they and their underlings are doing the same with the bureaucracy outside of their jurisdiction as appointees, just as they did before and will be doing long after their administrative tenures become distant memories. And you can be sure that they never bother to notify their political colleagues about the stuff they do under the latter’s jurisdiction unless they’re desperate for an extra push—which will come at considerable political cost. And even if they care, it would usually be futile for the political appointees to try to keep up with the interventions anyway because (a) there are simply too many of them and (b) the bureaucracy will be desperate to hide it all from the transitory political appointees because they don’t need the complication.

And even if I were completely wrong, it would be odd for Aso to turn on some who has stood behind him through multiple gaffes of his own through the years. In any case, Aso appeared to be retaining his anger at the media even as he apologized.

I rest my case.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

What Will Happen to Aso, Abe as the Result of the Latest Twists in the Morimoto Case?

Memo, whacked out early evening on March 11 (Sun) in response to query from journalist. I wonder how much of this will hold up.

So, this Moritomo scandal. Where is it going. Aso likely to be toppled? What would that mean for the administration and Abe’s re-election hopes? Could this spell the end for the Teflon PM?

Things look grim for Finance Minister Aso. More likely than not, he will resign, in which case some time will be gained to push the Abe administration’s legislative agenda (though the key work-rule amendment will be pushed back anyway). Beyond this Diet session, the most important political consequences will be that first, Shinzo Abe will be unlikely to win a third term as LDP president and remain prime minister. Second, the headwind against Abe’s bid for constitutional amendment becomes stronger. Perceived as a lame duck prime minister, I doubt that he will be able to bring it to a national referendum. Let’s fill in some details.
Mr. Aso’s comments on Friday were crafted to deny responsibility for the promotion of Mr. Sagawa, who had been the head of the bureau in charge of the initial lease and sale of the land in question, to the Director-General post at the National Tax Agency. This was necessary because anything less would have immediately created irresistible pressure to resign himself. Aso had almost certainly been unaware of the doctoring of the document—in fact, I suspect that he was only casually aware of the case until it surfaced in the media—but a Japanese leader is expected to fall on his/her sword if the occasion warrants. And I think that it does in this case, where there is a very good chance that someone in the bureaucracy will be subject to criminal charges for an action that will be hard to explain away as being nothing other than politically motivated.
But Aso’s resistance goes beyond his personal interests. For if he resigns, the Abe cabinet itself will be in danger, together with much of the momentum for its policy agenda. Unlike the other ministers that resigned from the second Abe administration, Aso is a political whale, the head of a major faction, a former prime minister! given the extralegal title of deputy prime mister, and holding down the still most-important Finance Ministry portfolio  since the beginning of Abe’s return to power. Political whales are no longer what they used to be, but his resignation would be a much greater damage than that of the relatively junior cabinet ministers that we have seen.
Moreover, Abe and his wife were personally involved in the project that created that entire controversy that wound up spawning the doctored document. The degree of their involvement is open to question, but the other cases merely cast doubt on his judgment of character and capability. This case had already implied the abuse of political power, of favoritism and kowtowing. Now, the stench of fraud and criminality is threatening the corridors of power. Pretty tame by current Brazilian or even White House standards, but with a suicide adding spice to the story, the buck is unlikely to stop at MOF and the MOF minister.
I do not believe that Abe will resign. He is a stubborn man. He has a way of standing firmly behind causes that appear to most disinterested observers as hopeless let alone his own political fate. And I do not think that the rest of the LDP is sufficiently independent to make an overt move to push him out. He should be able to serve out his second term.
But he no longer looks like someone that current LDP Diet members, particularly those in their first or second terms and those who squeak through by the regional proportional safety-net as well as prospective candidates will be inclined to fight elections under, even if the opposition remains divided. Thus, I do not think that he will have the votes to prevail in a 2020 LDP leadership election, and I think that this will become more obvious as the event draws near. As a virtual lame-duck prime minister, he will lose so much of his political capital that he will have extreme difficulty in bring constitutional amendment to a vote in the Diet, let alone the national plebiscite. If he even enters into that state of mind, the end of the Abe administration should come more quickly, possibly even before the next Upper House election in 2019.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Nintendo Photo: When It All Began



The following is the bare-bones background for an installment column I will be launching on the website of a thinktank in April.



Omake Books website, at https://omakebooks.com/fr/?fc=module&module=prestablog&controller=blog&id=142, has a photo of the original home office of the playing card manufacturer that became the gaming giant Nintendo, taken, it is widely believed, around its establishment in 1889, when it began manufacturing traditional Japanese playing cards, the 花札(hanafuda) and most likely other forms of the かるた(caruta), derived from the Portuguese word carta. I argue that it is more likely to have been taken around 1902, when the firm began manufacturing paying cards.



Evidence:

1) Five signboards, from left to right.

A) Upper left: The hiragana , obviously the last character in かるた, and other indiscernible writing are visible.

B) Lower left: A small signboard depicting the Nintendo playing card hallmark –Napoleon Buonaparte.

C) Middle left: A weather-beaten, traditional signboard with illegible inscription in small letters (vertical) and かるた(caruta) in large letters (horizontal, from right to left).

D) Middle right: A small, triangular, weather-beaten signboard with the Marufuku ( in a circle) logo, かるた製造元 (playing card manufacturer; vertical), and 任天堂 (right to left) on it.

E) Right: An outsized, white signboard with MARUFUKU NINTENDO CARD CO. (left to right) and?印欧米輸出向 (for exports to ?, India(?), Europe and America; right to left) on top; Marufuku ( in a circle) logo, かるた製造元 (playing card manufacturer; right to left), and Marufuku ( in a circle) logo; and 山内任天堂 (Yamauchi Nintendo; right to left).

2. The Bicycle

The bicycle is an old make, with what appears to be a primitive stand.

3. The Building

A traditional Kyoto building to which Western-style cast-iron grilling has apparently been added.



1E) is the giveaway. Nintendo started manufacturing the four-suit playing cards in 1902; an early example from 1903 survives in the United States. It is unthinkable that the English name and the announcement of its overseas business could have long, if at all, predated this turn of events. 1)E) and likely A) and B) must have been added to the visibly older, traditional B) and C), more appropriate for the initial domestic hanafuda business.



The stand is not conclusive. I thought it was a kickstand, a feature that early bicycles did not have. However, I realized on second thought that it could be an independent stand, which surely must have been available from the very early days of the bicycle. The building is even more inconclusive. Mr. Yamauchi purchased an existing house and adapted it to his purpose.



Could the photo be of a much later provenance? Possibly, but it is likely to have been taken at some milestone moment. The street has been cleared, the camera (and the bicycle) has been carefully positioned; a quiet pride permeates the scene. Launching its export operations would have been the perfect moment to take a photo to include in its sales brochure, or whatever Nintendo printed up to project its corporate image and pitch its products.