Thursday, November 29, 2007

How Empires Deal with History

Do you know what this reminded me of? To quote:

The stated aim of Sunday's rally was to call on the British government to pay compensation to the descendants of ethnic Indians taken to Malaysia as indentured labourers in the 19th Century.

The same BBC reported the following day that another Commonwealth state voted unanimously to condemn Japan over the comfort women issue.

Finance Minister Nukaga Seems to Be in the Clear and the Refueling Bill Continues on Course for a Supermajority Override

When even the Asahi says (English translation available tomorrow) that forcing Fukushirō Nukaga, the LDP “defense tribe” member and current Finance Minister, to testify under oath in the Upper House is a bad idea, well then, it is a bad idea. The lack of a plausible motive for dissembling about a dinner in honor of James Auer should have set off warning signs in the minds of DPJ leaders. Now, Mr. Nukaga has provided a relatively secure alibi for his presence elsewhere during the said dinner, as well as five of the eight people (not including a hypothetical Mr. Nukaga) corroborating his absence. As if that were not enough, Takemasa Moriya, who gave two extraordinary Yomiuri interviews for a total of seven hours on the 14th and 24th, stated:

“I kept saying, ‘(My memories) may be wrong,’ ‘I don’t want to cause inconvenience.’ But since they insisted, ‘Talk’… (Finance Minister Nukaga, etc. [ed. Akio Kyūma])) said, ‘I didn’t go’, I then became worried that I could have been mistaken.

The public had been led to believe that the DPJ had corroborating testimony on its side. Now, it turns out that what it had all along was a seating diagram and other bits of information coaxed out of Mr. Moriya himself, whose memory appears to be a few megabytes short of my PC. This is not on the order of the fake email that took down then DPJ leader Seiji Maehara, but it will be an embarrassment at best for the DPJ.

One plausible explanation for the DPJ’s continued insistence that Mr. Nukaga be called to testify on 3 December (it claims to want to question Mr. Moriya separately as part of the UH committee proceedings, in jail after he is arrested later today) is that they want to delay deliberations on the refueling bill as much as possible, partly to force the LDP to extend the current Diet session for another 30 days or so, partly because they want as much time as possible to get their own act together on their own ineffectual proposal. I have been surprised that the DPJ does not appear to be going after the allegations of potential influence peddling by Mr. Nukaga coming from Nobumasa Ōta. Perhaps it has good reasons to avoid its 2004 UH candidate Mr. Ōta, whom they pointedly did not endorse for a second try this year. I am also mystified as to why they are not throwing all their resources at attacking the overall procurement process, given the spread of corruption charges beyond the Defense Facilities Administration Agency scandals (2006) that left the MOD itself relatively untouched. Perhaps the DPJ does have something up its sleeve to spring on the unsuspecting LDP - say give names of LDP politicians who were on the take list at Yamada Yōkō and could be shown to have reciprocated with pressure on the bureaucracy - in which case they’re doing a very good job of hiding it*. Barring such surprises though, insisting on questioning Mr. Nukaga is a losing proposition, from which only LDP intransigence that would allow the DPJ to claim they are being forced to give it up so that the business of statecraft can go on can give them a face-saving out.

But so far, this is a mere sideshow blown up to unwarranted proportions. The broader issue of military procurement reform is in the capable hands of Nobutaka Machimura Chief Cabinet Secretary, though the formidable defense otaku and Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba will surely play a major role in the process. The DPJ needs to play a critical, but constructive, role here if it is to be seen as the reasonable, responsible party capable of taking the reins from the ruling coalition.

As for the main event politically, that is, the refueling bill, my assessment here remains unchanged, that a supermajority override and a motion of some kind, more specifically a censure vote, is a done deal; unless, of course, the opposition loses its nerve and forgoes the motion. After all, there will be few, if any, better occasions for the Fukuda administration to test the waters of supermajority override than a measure that has a modest majority or a sizable plurality (depending on which poll you believe) of support among a relatively informed and also relatively indifferent public. That way, you can avoid any risk of setting off an unforeseen catastrophe that would - admittedly in the most implausible of circumstances - force the Prime Minister to call a snap election** that the ruling coalition is sure to lose. And pulled off successfully, like most things, it will be easier the second time around and beyond.

*There’s potential blowback at Ichiro Ozawa, who received from Yamada Yōkō (and has now returned) almost three times as much political funds than Mr. Nukaga did. This is reminiscent of the political financing reporting controversy, which, among other things, revealed a string Mr. Ozawa’s real estate acquisitions with political funds, as well as a resurrection of the mysterious transfer of funds to Mr. Ozawa’s political coffers just before his Liberal Party was merged into the DPJ (2003), as I posted here. Having someone who embodies the old-school LDP at the helm has a downside.

**There is some talk from the LDP, some of them in positions of responsibility, about an early snap election following a censure motion. I have no access to those people, but I think that they are blowing smoke. The public will not like being asked for a new four-year mandate on the basis of a difference of opinion on a matter as esoteric and other-worldly as “right thing to do” around the Afghan war zone, so the chances of losing the two-thirds majority will be even higher. Mr. Ozawa would exit the scene, since there is little chance of the DPJ winning more seats than the LDP (the new, lower bar of success for the DPJ), but that would be a mixed blessing, and far from the clear upside that the LDP needs to justify taking a plunge.

Then what is the purpose of all the talk? Some of it could be genuine fear that public opinion might turn against them if they exercise the supermajority. But I doubt it, given the peripheral nature of the issue to the real concerns of the public. More importantly, I believe that there are at least a couple of matters motivating the party leadership to do it:

1) Keep the coalition members, most notably New Kōmeitō, in line. There is nothing an incumbent likes less than an early election, and the NK is particularly wary of going to the Sōkagakkai so soon after the September Upper House election, moreover after an override vote on an issue that does not have the full-hearted support of its rank-and-file.

2) Keep the DPJ on its toes. That helps in several ways, like tempting the DPJ to overplay its hand, which it is doing on the Auer-dinner, he-said, he-said trivia.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Bingo! I’d Rather Be Wrong Too

From Doonesbury.

I hadn’t read it for so long, I didn’t know that it had gone color.

Have a Beef with Sidewalk Cyclists? That’s Easy, OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!

Not quite. But almost as satisfying, you can make an on-the-spot, citizen’s arrest. You see, under Japanese traffic law, a bicycle is considered a (light) vehicle and as such may not be ridden on the sidewalk. So the next time you’re on the sidewalk and a bicycle rider comes bearing down on you, ringing his bell to get you out of the way, you can grab the guy by the wrist, wrestle him down to the ground, and hold him there until the cops arrive. Yes, the provision is rarely enforced on its own, but for the police, it is sufficient grounds for stopping and questioning you about yourself and the bike before letting you off with an admonishment. Among other things, this means that unban cyclists in Japan are advised to have their IDs on hand. Specifically, gaijin sidewalk cyclists caught out without their IDs can be charged on that infraction, much in the way that NBA basketball players are caught with driving offenses and charged with drug and illegal arms possession.

The citizen’s arrest can be useful on other occasions as well. For example, did you know that under the Misdemeanors Act, Article 1, item 20, you can be detained for up to 29 days or fined between 1000 and 9,999 yen if you “wantonly expose buttocks, thighs and other parts of the body at a place where they would be visible to the public eye in a manner that raises a feeling of disgust among the public”? So, the next time you happen to wander upon the beach and you come across, say, Hoshino Aki in a thong bikini, you can grab the girl by… whatever you can get your hands on, wrestle her down to the ground, and hold her there until the cops arrive. But remember, it’s the “feeling of disgust” that counts. So, if you’re a gaijin, here are the magic Japanese words, rendered phonetically, to keep repeating out loud while you have Hoshino Aki pinned underneath you, just to be sure that the cops don’t haul off the wrong person:

Wa-ta-shi wa ken-o no jō wo mo-yo-o-shi-te-i-ru
(A feeling of disgust has arisen in me).

Trust me.

DPJ Hopes Finance Minister Nukaga Comes Through for Them

Prime Minister wannabe Fukushirō Nukaga is a former Defense Minister (when MOD was still the Self-Defense Agency) and member in good standing of the Japanese defense community. He is now Minister of Finance, a diminished but still powerful portfolio, in the Fukuda Cabinet. He also plays golf, and eats out. All this has brought him – merely allegedly in one case – into the company of Yamada Yōkō and the people embroiled in the MOD scandals. The thinking of the DPJ is that if they can bring this Cabinet member down, they will be able to sink the refueling bill, the Fukuda Cabinet, and the LDP in a snap election forced by an Upper House censure vote.

Mr. Nukaga entered the picture when Takemasa Moriya, the now-disgraced former MOD Administrative Vice-Minister, testified in the Diet under oath that he went to a dinner held for James Auer, a former military intelligence officer, Pentagon official and prominent Japan hand, and that Mr. Nukaga (and the hospitalized ex-MOD Minister Fumio Kyuma) was there as well as Motonobu Miyazaki (CEO of Yamada Yōkō split-off Nihon Mirise), the main character of this saga and now criminal suspect. Mr. Nukaga, Mr. Miyazaki, and, most importantly, Mr. Auer have all denied attending the said dinner*. By his own account, Mr. Nukaga has known Mr. Miyazaki for several years, once received him in his Diet office, and once played golf with him (and paid 20,000 yen out of his own pocket) at a golf club affiliated with Yamada Yōkō.

Between 2002 and 2007, Mr. Nukaga sold 2.2 million yen worth of fund raising party tickets to Yamada Yōkō, all of which he returned after the scandals broke. He has denied receiving any political funds in the form of donations. He also received 200,000 yen as part of the invitation to the wedding of the daughter of the Yamada Yōkō owner – he has not been personally implicated in the scandal – and sent in his stead his wife, who gave the same amount as a wedding gift.

These Yamada Yōkō/Miyazaki related revelations have created considerable embarrassment for Mr. Nukaga. However, all of them, to the extent admitted by Mr. Nukaga, as well as the alleged dinner honoring Mr. Auer, are par for the course for a politician of Mr. Nukaga’s background. It is only with hindsight that they have become a matter of interest for the DPJ and the media. Likewise his links to the Japan-U.S. Center for Peace and Cultural Exchange and its executive director Naoki Akiyama (again, golf). So far, the DPJ has turned up more smoke and mirrors than smoking gun.

More troublesome for the Finance Minister is the latest allegation, this time coming from Nobumasa Ōta, a former JSDA fast-track official. According to Mr. Ōta, in 2003, when he was the head of the Sendai branch of the Defense Facilities Administration Agency, Mr. Nukaga applied pressure through Mr. Moriya to include a Sendai construction company in the list of eligible bidders at the branch. Mr. Ōta’s background lends a measure of instant credibility to his charge. Even if his allegations are true, they would still likely fall short of a criminal indictment** of a sitting Cabinet Minister and defense establishment member, a turn of events that would be as good or better than what I believed to be the minimum necessary for stopping the OEF-MIO refueling resumption bill. However, it will not require a criminal indictment to force Mr. Nukaga’s resignation and discredit the LDP and the Fukuda administration, which, for electoral and internal reasons, is vastly more beneficial to the DPJ than taking down the refueling bill. Influence peddling is something that anyone can understand and rally against.

But what are the chances of Mr. Ōta’s charges sticking? In my view slim, not least because everybody, including the official who allegedly told Mr. Ōta of the pressure through Mr. Moriya, are denying that it ever happened. So, unless Mr. Ōta or the DPJ comes up with independent corroborating information, the matter will remain a case of he hearsays/they say. In which case, Mr. Nukaga and the Fukuda administration will weather this attack – if not without being a little diminished, since there is no way that Mr. Ōta will retract his allegations.***. Still, the issue bears watching, because the DPJ may just have something up its sleeve.

*It is somewhat mystifying to me that the DPJ continues to bark up this particular tree. I see no plausible reason for these people to need to lie about this particular allegation. Is someone leading the DPJ, once again, on a wild goose chase? What does Seji Maehara think?

** You are warned that I’m writing this down without doing the usual fact-checking. Specifically, I’d have to hit the casebooks to be sure that Mr. Nukaga’s alleged action does not constitute an exercise of his authority as Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary at the time. There are also statute of limitation considerations that turn on the existence of specific quid pro quo for the alleged action, which in turn entails questions of fact that I can only speculate about.

*** Mr. Ōta does have some substantial downside, including, most importantly in the eyes of the public, the fact that he ran for an Upper House seat in 2004 (but not 2007) as a DPJ candidate. The LDP will play on that and other matters around Mr. Ōta. A smear campaign? The pox-on-all-houses tabloid media will do that for them. But this will definitely not hurt Mr. Ōta’s career as a freewheeling talking head and blogger extraordinaire and indefatigable chatroom operator.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Laptop Goes Missing with Taxpayer Personal Information. Sound Familiar?

Actually, This Is Not about Japan. But I thought my first reaction to this post was funny enough to want to know how you felt. The missing laptop had me fooled.

Tokyo Michelin Revisited

Talk about synchronicity; YH has been kind enough to email what looks like digital images of the handout sheets at the Michelin announcement. Here’s a breakdown by genre:

Three stars: 3 Japanese, 2 Japanese sushi, 2 French contemporary, 1 French.

Two stars: 10 Japanese, 3 Japanese sushi, 2 Japanese fugu (poisonous blowfish), 1 Japanese contemporary, 2 French, 4 French contemporary, 1 Italian contemporary, 1 Chinese, 1 Spanish contemporary

One star: 39 Japanese, 10 Japanese sushi, 5 Japanese tempura, 5 Japanese teppanyaki, 3 Japanese soba kaiseki, 2 Japanese fugu, 2 Japanese contemporary, 1 japanese contemporaine, 1 Japanese unagi (Japanese and European eels), 2 steakhouse, 21 French, 14 French contemporary, 5 Italian contemporary, 2 Italian, 4 Chinese , 1 Spanish contemporary

Totals: 52 Japanese, 15 Japanese sushi, 5 Japanese tempura, 5 Japanese teppanyaki, 4 Japanese fugu, 3 Japanese soba kaiseki, 3 Japanese contemporary, 1 Japanese contemporaine, 1 Japanese unagi; 24 French, 20 French contemporary; 2 Italian, 6 Italian contemporary; 5 Chinese; 2 Spanish contemporary; 2 steakhouse

It is predominantly Japanese. Moreover, some of the Japanese cuisine is broken down into 6 subgenres plus the two update versions (no, I don’t know the difference between contemporary and contemporaine; neither does spell-check). The subgenres are all one-trick ponies of one kind or another, like their less-regarded (or less-favored by gaijin tourists) cohorts: the Japanese ramen, Japanese curry, Japanese tonkatsu, soba noodles, udon noodles, etc. It is notable that many, perhaps most, of these subgenres are foreign imports that have been assimilated to one degree or another*.

In the past, the landscape was dotted with diners of varying quality that featured many or most of these items, including, of course, traditional Japanese cuisine, the massive, top-floor diners in department stores sitting at the top of the hierarchy. But most have disappeared, or drastically shrunk in size and menu variety.

Non-European ethnic cuisine is missing completely, unless you put Chinese cuisine into that genre. (In fact, the lack of distinction between the Chinese regional cuisines in the Michelins is distressing. Dalian and Wuhan, say, are at least as different from each other as Athens and Paris. If nothing else, you want to know what you’re getting into when you enter a Szechuan restaurant.) Even the long-familiar, near-ubiquitous Korean cuisine is missing. All this, I assume, as well as inclusion of the teppanyaki, is in keeping with the Michelin readership, that is, mainly Western tourists.

*In the 1960s, a popular phrase enumerating the three things children loved was “Kyojin, Taihō, tamagoyaki”, or “the (Yomiuri) Giants, Taihō, and fried eggs”. It is notable that, only partly by coincidence, all three have foreign connections. Baseball is, of course, an American import. Not only that, the Giants team itself was a highly successful Yomiuri Shinbun attempt to import the professional sports business model to Japanese baseball, which had been dominated by amateur college and middle-school teams (and Asahi and Mainichi Shinbuns). The frying pan, as well as the regular consumption of eggs, is a Western import. And everybody was aware that the majestic Taihō, the legendary sumo grand champion, got much of his exceedingly good looks from his Russian father.

Also notable is the fact that these were actually boys’ favorites. There was no equivalent phrase for girls either. The phrase is also an example of the way we Japanese like to think in threes. Are the Chinese more binary? Discuss.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

My Restaurants Are Better than Yours. (Eat That, New York!)

“Stars represent only what is on the plate. They do not take into consideration interior decoration, service quality or table settings.”
- Caveat in all Michelin City Guides

Dear New York:

Did you know that Michelin is launching a Guide to me this Thursday?

I thought so. Then obviously you are not yet aware that I am getting eight three-star restaurants, 25 two-stars, and 117 one-stars. Yes, count them - 150 in all. And you have, let’s see, hmm, three, six, and 33, respectively, for a total of 42. Oh , very nice.

But frankly, for a city that prides itself on its diversity and thrives on the tourist trade, you have a rather narrow view of what’s good for the palate. I mean, your list is dominated by American and contemporary American (what’s the difference, big boy, truffles or non- on your hamburgers?), but don’t look for any Hispanic cuisine, or soul food, right? And the list is supplemented by a lot of French and some Italian restaurants, so it’s very much Europe, white, Romance-language Europe. Though speaking of Europe, there’s one Greek and one (what the…) Austrian. There are no Chinese, Korean, Arab, or Hispanic restaurants. You do have one Indian restaurant (the Asian kind), and three Japanese restaurants (hooray). A closer look, however, reveals your Japanese restaurants to be sushi spots. Now sushi is cool, but that’s the equivalent of listing three steakhouses and nothing else, no?

Sadly, my list does not appear to include any ramen joints, curry shops, or tonkatsu-ya (breaded, deep-fried pork chop restaurants), giving the lie to the claim that Michelin stars “do not take into consideration interior decoration, service quality or table settings”. And true, the three- and two-star restaurants, which are in the pre-publishing news reports, are predominantly Japanese and French. But the two-stars do include one Chinese and one Spanish (bueno!), as well as one Italian, so I’m looking forward to seeing the full list when the Guide comes out on 22 November.

In the meantime, don’t get down on yourself, okay? And if anybody from your neighborhood, so to speak, is coming here, let him/her know that the proprietor of this blog will be happy to show him/her around any of these places. No, he has not been to any single one of them. But that’s not a problem at all, because he can compare them with any number of other places that he has been to. And remember, he’ll “sing for lunch”; imagine what he’d do for a free dinner at any one of these three-star outfits. Even if it’s not a ramen joint.

NeenerBest regards,

ADD: And Paris, c’est la guerre, baby.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The LDP and DPJ: Political Life under the National Consensus

The following is one part of my end of an exchange with my Japan guru, edited and supplemented to make it a stand-alone post. Thanks, RS.

I am increasingly convinced that the LDP is a heterogeneous political party that works within a relatively narrow range of policy options that still appears to be circumscribed by what came to be known as the Yoshida Doctrine. In other words, be nice to your neighbors, minimize external engagement on military issues, and support the market economy, with due respect for a proper balance of vested interests. Anyone who attempts to overstep such confines braves antagonizing public sentiment and must quickly pull back to more comfortable quarters. Look at how much Prime Minister Abe had to scale back his constitutional ambitions, even as he managed to push the long-missing, procedural referendum bill through the Diet. The DPJ has become what it is by emulating this formula, including its heterogeneity, most recently under its most formidable proponent, Ichiro Ozawa.

So, whichever of the two major parties prevails over the next six years (the minimum election cycle, barring the unlikely event of a DPJ implosion, for the LDP-New Kōmeitō coalition to regain the Upper House), or even in the unlikely event of a return to the fractious turbulence of the 1990s, the practical outcome for the nation will be far less than the sea change or the fossilization that are the hopes and fears of some segments of the Japunditry and other assorted Japan hands. Statecraft follows the popular mandate, whatever the political game dictates.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

A note on Prime Minister Fukuda’s redeye shuttle to the U.S.

On the surface, it looks like a return to the good old days, where the first item on the new Prime Minister’s diplomatic agenda would be the tributary visit to the President of the United States. Shinzo Abe famously bucked tradition (with President Bush’s blessing, no doubt) with his junket through Beijing and Seoul for what turned out to be the apogee of his short, elliptical reign, but Mr. Fukuda has managed to choose the most awkward of political times domestically, in the midst of a raging Defense Ministry scandal that has caused serious (though by no means fatal) damage to efforts to extent MIO refueling operations, to revive the time-honored tradition. And to what specific end beyond the customary assurance?

For one, the ruling coalition has used the visit as a not insignificant prop in flipping the refueling bill to the Upper House. A saving of a few days, only to be lost as the Diet dawdles in his absence? Perhaps. Still, it helped to remind the Japanese public that the issue continues to be an important item in the political quid pro quo of the asymmetrical military alliance. It would also reinforce the resolve of any members of the ruling coalition flinching at the blowback from the MOD scandal. (At a minimum, Mssrs. Moriya and Miyazaki will be found guilty, Yamada Yoko and Nihon Mirise will both lose the business, and, hopefully, the procurement system will be reformed, with potential problems for U.S. firms under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.)

But what happens when the night meets the morning sun, when President Bush must consider the de-listing of North Korea from the roster of state supporters of terrorism? De-listing without meaningful progress on the abductees would be a huge political embarrassment for Mr. Fukuda. But the Bush administration cannot keep playing a good-cop, bad-cop routine with the Japan forever. And a modus vivendi between the Bush administration and Kim Jong Il including the de facto recognition of the not-quite-ready-for-primetime germs of a nuclear arsenal in suspended animation for North Korea (a regime underwritten - it is becoming increasingly obvious - financially and economically by South Korea and China) looks at least as likely to me as when I first began thinking about outcomes that would have North Korea keeping the fruits of its nuclear weapons program, though not the program itself. And de-listing without full normalization should be an integral part of such an understanding.

This will be papered over during the meeting, but will come back to haunt as North Korea inches forward with a view to maximizing returns on minimal efforts. The never-ending delay of Japanese action on the necessities of U.S. troops realignment will also be given perfunctory attention, and will not matter much in the next year or so. Economic issues will hardly figure at all, with U.S. beef, perhaps, a visible but minor sideshow.

ADD: “[T] he good old days, where the first item on the new Prime Minister’s diplomatic agenda would be the tributary visit to the President of the United States.”

Really? Maybe I’ve embarrassed myself here. But it sure seemed that way, so I wrote it without the usual fact checking.

I’m not quite sure why this original version of Carole King’s early work haunts me so. What is it about the artless, awkward, faintly off-key Shirelles, lumpy look and all, that draws me in? I know that it began fairly late in my life, and it gets worse as the years go by. Perhaps it reminds me of my own artless, awkward, faintly off-key adolescence, and how far I have come, or gone. Was I alone, though, as much as I had believed then? Who was I unknowingly united with in our bumbling solitudes? Do I know you now?

Bullying in Japan on the Rise?

A quick note on a depressing piece of news from TIME. Depressing, yes, because of the seriousness of the issue, but also because it reveals the depths to which the Japan desk has to stoop these days to be noticed. To wit:

(TOKYO) — The number of bullying cases reported in schools across Japan has risen sharply after officials broadened the term's definition following a series of student suicides linked to bullying.

A total of 124,898 cases of bullying were reported at elementary, junior high and high schools in the year ending in March 2007, up from 20,143 cases a year earlier, the ministry said.

A ministry official attributed the sharp rise to the wider definition of bullying and to the inclusion of private and national government-run schools in the total. Previous surveys only included schools run by local governments.

That’s like saying the chimpanzee population is on the rise if you include humans in the count. I don’t think that my 5th Grade elementary school teacher would have let me get away with that. I think that she would have wondered whether the authorities were hiding something and told me to go and ask the Ministry of Education, Sports, Culture, Science and Technology to come up with the corresponding data for FY2006 (2006 Apr. – 2007 Mar.), or the portion of the FY2006 data under FY2005 reporting requirements. In fact, in one area where there was continuity (i.e. the statistic already included national and private schools), the number of suicides rose dramatically from 103 (down, by the way from 126 in FY2004) to 171. But that’s about as profound as you can get from the data available here and here. To go beyond that, you have to actually do some searching, ask questions, demand answers.

To ask that a wire service do that may be a little too much. But somebody slapped that headline on that article, and TIME allowed it to go on its web site.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

More Words of Wisdom from Our Justice Minister

Kunio Hatoyama, Justice Minister and LDP member in good standing, got together yesterday with his older brother Yukio Hatoyama, the DPJ Director-General, to confirm plans to jointly set up the “Hatoyama Yūai Juku”(Hatoyama Private School of Comradeship). The school is intended to nurture future leaders by inculcating them with the ideals of “comradeship” as espoused by their grandfather and former Prime Minister Ichirō Hatoyama (1883-1959). It is not limited to political wannabies. Think, Boy Scouts for grownups.

Asked by reporters if they talked about a Grand Coalition (yes, that’s what they asked Yukio and Kunio Hatoyama), Kunio Hatoyama denied this and went on to explain:

“My brother and I are uniting on the basic of comradeship. It means that even if our opinions differ over the refueling operations, we are going to collaborate from the basic philosophical level.”

In other words, he is saying that they are two likeminded people, working together where the future of our nation is stake, agreeing to differ on specific issues: the two brothers look very much like a metaphor for what the public called for when it rejected the notion of a Grand Coalition. We want more of the same, but we also want choice.

No, I will not call this the wisdom of fools. That would be too… mean-spirited.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sōkagakkai Members Lie and Other Odds and Ends from the Latest Public Opinion Polls

Yomiuri releases its latest public opinion poll (taken 10-11 November) and the headline is: Majority favor refueling mission for first time(English version); 給油継続「賛成」51%、の過半数…読売調査Japanese version. I’ll get to that later, but what caught my eye was this:

Q. Which party do you support now? Name one.

A. … New Kōmeitō: 2.7% …

Now the NK regularly pulls in 8 million votes, give or take a few hundred thousand. That’s about 8% of the adult population, and there can’t be that many non-Sōkagakkai members who vote for the NK and vice versa. (Why vote NK when you can vote for the real thing?) So there must be a lot of Sōkagakkaimembers lying about their choices or disproportionately refusing to respond. For the poll, as usual, 3,000 randomly sampled eligible voters (60.33% response rate; par for the course) were interviewed directly. It appears that many people still do not want to reveal their affiliation with that lay Nichiren sect.

Turning to the big picture, the support numbers for the LDP (34.3%, down from 37.8%), DPJ (22.5%, up from 18.0%), and No Preference (36.0%) (as well as the 60.3% response rate) reaffirm the basic electoral framework: support base among active voters for the LDP hovering around the mid-thirties and the DPJ around the low twenties, with the swing vote in the mid-thirties. Put the real NK supporters on top of the LDP base, and you can see that the DPJ has a huge task ahead if it is to topple the ruling coalition in any Lower House election. Since the DPJ party platform is more a matter of not being the LDP than the result of any meaningful ideological distinctions (which is why it manages to swing wildly on, for example, national security issues without falling apart), another massive leadership failure of Abe administration proportions is needed to pull off it off. It is no wonder that Ichiro Ozawa has scaled back DPJ ambitions for the next Lower House election to what he calls the “third best strategy”, i.e. winning more seats than the LDP.

Support for the Fukuda Cabinet has dropped from 59.1% to 52.2%. This is in marked contrast to the FNN-Sankei poll (10,11 November; headlined内閣支持率41・1%に急落 世論調査 Cabinet Support Rate Suddenly Drops to 41.1% - note the contrast with the Yomiuri headline), where it registered an even more precipitous fall from 55.3% to 41.1%. I have no way of proving it, but I think that this difference has everything to do with Yomiuri’s strong support for the Grand Coalition (though it could not thoroughly convince the public that it was a good thing) and Sankei’s more skeptical approach to the issue and its generally more hawkish views (in contrast to those of Prime Minister Fukuda himself). Sampling may be random, but the response definitely is not, and the media doing the polling is responsible for that.

On the OEF-MIO refueling resumption bill, despite the controversy over allegations that the fuel oil was diverted to the Iraqi War, not to mention the ongoing scandal at the Ministry of Defense over bribery/procurement suspicions, both polls recorded small gains for the ruling coalition, giving majority support (Yomiuri 50.6%, Sankei 51.8%) for resumption, though substantial opposition remained (Yomiuri 40.3%, Sankei 38.1%). I believe that this confirms my earlier assumptions that the electorate has more or less collectively made up its mind on the issue, and that talk from the LDP for a 60%/two-thirds majority for a supermajority override vote and the DPJ that a Lower House override vote plus an upper House censure motion equals snap election is just that: talk.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The North Korean Ambassador that Soichiro Tawara Interviewed Was Wearing a Nice Polo Brand Tie

Thirty years ago, not long after the First Oil Crisis, North Korea, like most other non-oil-producing Third World countries, was running out of money. In fact, it was stiffing creditors left and right, and the only people getting paid were vendors of essential industrial inputs… as well as luxury items like Rolex watches and V.S.O.P Cognacs.

The Leader changes, but the perks remain the same.

That was the first thing that came to mind as I watched the North Korean Ambassador in charge of normalizing relations with Japan bluster his way through a highly inconclusive interview. That he gave the interview itself came across as something of a surprise, as well as the willingness of the North Korean authorities to allow the Sunday Project camera crew to tape the Pyongyang cityscape as the background to Soichiro Tawara’s visit to the ambassador.

It could, of course, have been a fake. Speaking of which, what happened to the counterfeit bills and cigarettes and drug smuggling and such?

Media Talk about a Snap Election Should Die Down Any Minute… If It Hasn’t Already

And, like the also-ran Kyojingun/Giants in the off-season (the best free agents can look to the majors for more money, as well as added perks to ease the transition), there's little more that the Yomiuri can do to flog that half-dead horse of a Grand Coalition. The time for the big-time political game has passed, and both sides are nursing a variety of hurts; they will now play the statecraft game with the political financing (reporting) reform and other items of lesser import.

I believe even more strongly now that the refueling extension bill supermajority override and a subsequent Upper House motion of some kind are a done deal. The JASDF will continue to provide logistic support in Iraq. That is that, and the Japanese public will move on. Prime Minister Fukuda will walk through the next Summit in July, and possibly well beyond, barring catastrophic events - stuff happens, eventually; the DPJ needs to be patient.

What are the prospects for a sh**-fan collision though? For one, the Ministry of Defense needs a serious makeover; the MOD must bring closure to the scandals that revolve around the procurement system. That’s not an easy thing to do, but the good news for the Fukuda Cabinet (and for Japan) is that Defense Minister Ishiba has personally wanted to do it for years. A further silver lining for the administration is that everybody, including people at the dreaded Special Investigation Department at the Public Prosecutors Agency, seems to be talking their heads off, so there’s not likely to be much more in the way of surprise revelations to further deepen the crisis. (If criminal charges are brought against businesses other than the Yamada Yōkō group and Nihon Mirise, all bets are off.)

There’s also what looks at first glance like a delectable target of a Justice Minister who appears to suffer from serious self-awareness deficiencies. Unfortunately for the DPJ, expectations for a Japanese Justice Minister are low. In Japan, the Justice Ministry is where you park a long-serving, nondescript backbencher, the representative of a very junior coalition partner, or someone you need to do a favor on behalf of, and forget about him/her until the next Cabinet reshuffle. The Public Prosecutors Agency, nominally under the Justice Minister’s control, is actually a semi-autonomous institution that will quickly help you lose your Cabinet job if you intervene to exercise your political prerogatives. Instead, my guess is that any decision of serious import that require political determination is run quietly through the Chief Cabinet Secretary and the administrative Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary. Authoritative legal opinions are issued by the highest Japanese bureaucrat, the Director-General of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau. So the U.S. SecretaryAttorney-General the Justice Minister is not. I don’t know what more Kunio Hatoyama can do before he loses his job. But it will be an implosion, not an explosion.

Yōichi Masuzoe, the Health, Labor and Welfare Minister, looks like a better target. Mr. Masuzoe, for all his media-attracting eloquence and formidable intelligence, does not have the executive experience nor appear to have a predilection for high-profile turnaround jobs, and is showing this. He may yet grow into the role; he still seems to be gyrating between belligerent arrogance and abject humility. Still, he - as well as the ruling coalition - will take some serious hits in March when the promissory notes that then Prime Minister Abe guaranteed on the 50,000,000 misfiled public pension accounts come due.

But I don't expect the real fireworks to start until well past St. Valentine’s Day, when the Diet must also deal with taxes and major tax-related issues such as the funding of the public pension system, as well as a myriad of major legislative initiatives.

ADD: Thank you, MTC, for the correction.

This post looks in essence like an earlier one of mine. Perhaps it is an unconscious excuse to write about the tragic-comic Justice Minister(s). For Mr. Hatoyama is a fascinating case of a legacy Diet member, possibly the most blue-blooded and glitteriest of all at that, going astray.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

How Many People Would Notice if No Laws Are Passed During This Diet Session?

If the current extraordinary Diet session, instead of being extended for 35 days, had lapsed today, the amendment to the law that expands assistance to victims of disasters would have been the only piece of legislation achieved, and yet another of my predictions, that the ruling coalition would wind up exercising the supermajority override vote on the new OEF-MIO refueling bill, would have failed to come true. But otherwise, would the Japanese national well-being be measurably affected for better or worse?

Yes, the media would be greatly concerned and would trot out an endless array of political commentators and other public figures to condemn the waste of public money and neglect of the public good and propose all manners of remedies, and intersperse them with interviews of the common folk dutifully expressing their displeasure at the political tomfoolery. But who other than the special interests involved (here I am not passing judgment on the validity of the respective claims on legislative attention and the public coffers), as well as alliance minders, would not be able then to afford to forget the matter, at least until the Diet resumes in the next regular session, sometime in January? And how many of those special interests would actually be worse off as the result of neglect? After all, there are many shades of desirability and necessity.

In fact, there appear to be few legislative needs that must be taken care of now. If no other laws are passed in the now customary long autumn session, many will be disappointed, some will be elated, but the net impact on the national well-being will be negligible. The LDP and DPJ are dithering in no small part because they can afford to. They are like two stags circling each other hoping that the other will lose nerve and back off. On the other hand, they have been working out compromises on a number of issues minor and not so minor - here, I am thinking of the reform of the political financing reporting system – and several of them appear ensured to end up in actual legislation, while the refueling renewal bill is highly likely to be the subject of the first supermajority override in Japanese history.

Yet there had been a lot of noise about the Diet being in session for a whole month without passing a single law (till yesterday) - a noise so loud, in fact, that a couple of old men (whom every news outlet tabloid and non- except the Yomiuri group named as Yomiuri's power behind the throne Tsuneo Watanabe and former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori) convinced two other old men to get together to agree to a Grand Coalition or whatever they agreed to do but could not. And indeed there is nothing inherently wrong with the two majority parties uniting to form a single government, or a newspaper editorializing in favor of such an arrangement. (Japan got along quite comfortably for quite a while after the two conservative parties got together in 1955 to form an enduring absolute majority.)

However, when a newspaper not only advocates the political arrangement as such, but also uses its regular reporting to effect such an outcome, and more seriously actively works behind the scenes to push the agenda, then the newspaper itself becomes the news. And not to report such behind-the-scenes action is a form of self-censorship; not the way that the fourth estate is expected to function in a democracy.

Some would bring out a variation of the post-modern argument that there is no "objective viewpoint", while others would use examples such as anti-evolutionists and flat-earthers to endorse the media taking "a stand". And there is some plausibility to the statement that "once you know which way they're leaning it's easy to "tweak" the articles accordingly when reading them". However, these arguments cannot be conducted in the abstract; neither evolution theory nor creationism, for example, provides a valid analogy for a stand one way or other on the far-more debatable refueling operations. And the "tweaking" claim is hard to sustain when the media outlet in question is weeding out inconvenient facts and dressing up the remainder in the guise of straight reporting. Unless you follow the matter with particular attention or are blessed with omniscience, all too often, the best that you can do is to read the editorial, shrug, and say, "Well, Asahi/Yomiuri is saying that because…"

As Shisaku points out here, the bias becomes even more disguised (and selective) when it is filtered through the English-language media. But it is there at the source, which fact should be taken note of, particularly when the matter is of no little import. (Perhaps I should be writing this in Japanese.)

Going back to the mode of interaction between the two major parties, the real test awaits in the regular Diet session that will convene in January and run into the summer months. If nothing is done then, much time-limited legislation, including many temporary tax credits and deductions, will expire and the public will express its very real displeasure. The current extraordinary session is better regarded as the testing grounds for means of cooperation and competition, and even outright confrontation, and the gauging of the public response thereto.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

More on LDP-DPJ Collaboration, re Political Financing Reporting Requirements

When I wrote this post, I stupidly forgot (BWI, likely) about the legislative proposals to tighten political financing reporting requirements. Here, the two sides are working furiously not to look bad in the public eye, which means that they have to come up with a compromise. The LDP does not want total disclosure, the more presentable excuse being that it would be too costly and time-consuming. I'm surprised that no one on the DPJ side appears to be making the point that, in reporting, all the receipts and accounting books could simply be digitally photographed (if not already available in some digital format), posted on a secure site, and made available for anyone to download. The original documents can be referenced when there is doubt.

Note that the agreement in principle to report every expenditure item down to the last yen follows Ichiro Ozawa's original proposal, which the DPJ itself had vetoed back then.

Media as Advocate: The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force Refueling Operations

Here, I wrote how the major newspaper editorials broke* on the Fukuda administration's new JMSDF refueling bill. Now it is my belief, based on an admittedly small sample**, that few Japanese voters bother to read editorials. What then, accounts for the fact that Yomiuri random-sample opinion polls consistently show higher support (say, 5-10 percentage points) for the ruling coalition than Asahi polls? The answer is simple: The media uses the reporting, consciously or unconsciously, to advocate. For example:

On 6 November, the DPJ produced its counterproposal to the Fukuda administration's refueling bill, and the English translations of the reports came out today. The headlines read:

Yomiuri DPJ flexible on refueling bill

Asahi Minshuto: Refueling must have U.N. OK

In other words, Yomiuri and Asahi attend the same press conference and read the same press release, but Yomiuri comes up with a favorable reading for the Fukuda administration while Asahi shows us a DPJ that is sticking to its guns. Here, Yomiuri is the one that appears to be editorializing. To claim as Yomiuri's does that "saying that if the United Nations adopts a resolution authorizing multinational antiterrorism operations in the Indian Ocean, Japan would then consider whether it should take part in the activities" is anything but a reiteration of Mr. Ozawa's original position is a little far fetched. Parsing that as a demonstration of "flexibility" requires a stretch of the imagination and more than a dollop (what the heck is a dollop?) of hope.

This continued. The following day (7 November), Masayoshi Teraoka, the Defense Director of the Maritimes Staff who had realized that JMSDF's Tokiwa had transferred 800,000 gallons, not 200,000 gallons as announced, to the US Forces, testified (not under oath) in the Lower House. The headlines? Here is Yomiuri:

給油量訂正問題、寺岡元課長は未報告認める (Refueling Volume Correction Problem, Former Director Teraoka Admits Not Reporting [Error]) (no English version available)

It follows this up today (8 November) in a much smaller article tucked away on page 4 that adds a potentially crucial point with:

給油量問題、元海幕防衛課長は上司に相談…参考人質疑 (Refueling Volume Problem, Former Maritime Staff self-Defense Director Consulted Superiors… from Testimony Q&A) (no English version available yet)***.

Asahi came forward on 7 November on the former director's testimony with all those points and more in:

元課長「給油量誤り、幹部に相談」 守屋氏認識の可能性 (Former Director "Refueling Volume Mistaken, Consulted High Officials"****, Possibility Mr. Mori Knew)

Note that not only did Asahi put the former director's superiors/high officials in the breaking (7 November) story, it injected a bit of speculation, albeit a not unreasonable conjecture, into the headline. The article itself says, "He revealed that, at the time, after being pointed out by reporters after Tōru Ishikawa, Chairman of the JSDF Joint Staff Committee, announced the erroneous refueling volume that the refueling volume was too small, he had consulted with Takemasa Moriya, then Defense bureau Director-General, and other high officials at the Self-Defense Agency." (translated from: 当時、誤った給油量を石川亨統合幕僚会議議長が発表した後に記者から給油量が少ないとの指摘を受け、守屋武昌防衛局長ら当時の防衛庁幹部と相談していたことを明らかにした。) Now unless Asahi is outright lying, I think that it is fair to infer, as Asahi did, that it is plausible, even likely, that the Mr. Moriya and his colleagues had understood the possibility of an error****. This possibility does not translate into certain knowledge, or even willful ignorance. On the other hand, Yomiuri did not even mention this exchange. Moreover, Asashi attached the photo of Mr. Teraoka in the Diet after his testimony to the article. Yomiuri did not, and explicitly stated in its 7 November article that the head of the special committee that called him in had requested the media to refrain from taking his picture in the Diet.

Today (8 November), Asahi continues at top of its web page (at a minimum the equivalent of the print version front page) with:

元課長「中間報告、内局*****への調査不十分」 給油量問題 (Former Director, "Interim Report, Investigation of Bureaucracy (naikyoku) Insufficient"****, re Refueling Volume Problem)

Note the contrast with the laconic, bare-bones Yomiuri report on the same day.

It is hard not to assume that this difference is connected to the editorial decision on the part of the respective newspapers to oppose or support the resumption of the refueling operations. It is also hard not to think that with this steady advocacy, Yomiuri readers will tend more and more to support extension while Asahi will increase their mistrust of the administration's intentions. In other words, it is through the articles that the media conducts a usually subtle form of advocacy. Journalism cannot completely free itself from this. Editorial decisions must be made about the relative importance of facts and incidents as they are put together as articles, sections, and entire editions. This will inevitably be informed by the individual and collective judgment of the reporters and editors. Still, it is my view that a thorough, comparative survey will reveal that the media too often slips into advocacy without informing public that they are no longer engaging in straight reporting. This, of course, is not limited to the Japanese media.

Finally, as a kind of sidebar, I'm sure that no media organization hides its identity when it conducts polls. Although the selection of the telephone numbers (or households) may be random, I'm also sure that willingness to answer questions would be higher if, say, the newspaper conducting the poll is the one the responder subscribes to. In this respect, it would be interesting to see a poll that shows the correlation between newspaper subscription and opinion. In fact, I'm sure somebody must be doing it.

* MTC kindly points out in the comments that Asahi had already come out against the return of the JSDF refueling vessels.

**True confessions: I never read editorials until I started blogging. Even today, I usually look at them to see if I can work them into a narrative.

*** The print version is headlined differently: 給油量訂正問題 石破氏らに報告 元防衛課長> (Refueling Volume Correction Problem, Reported to Mr. Ishiba, etc. Self-defense Director) (no English version available yet).

**** Note that Asahi plays fast and loose with quotation marks. The Teraoka quotes are not direct quotes, but are summaries of or could even be inferences from his words. But it is not alone. Shisaku takes note of this widespread, annoying journalistic conventionhere. No reputable U.S. media outlet to my knowledge does this.

***** In the article itself, Mr. Teraoka is reported to have been referring to 内局(同省制服組), or bureaucracy (uniformed officials of the Ministry), a clarification , if true, that would exclude bureaucrats like Mr. Moriya, which is the whole point of the DPJ investigation, which Asahi wholeheartedly supports.

I can play this game too. For example, change the next-to-last sentence in the first paragraph like this:

What then, accounts for the fact that Asahi random-sample opinion polls consistently show higher opposition (say, 5-10 percentage points) for the ruling coalition than Yomiuri polls?

Don't you think that the switch casts a (very) slightly unfavorable light on Asahi, in contrast to the original version, which gives you the feeling that it's the Yomiuri that is pushing an agenda? In fact, I'm sure do it all the time, without even thinking.

LDP and DPJ Collaborate to Raise Minimum Wage; Other Legislation in the Pipeline

Even as the Fukuda-Ozawa Grand-Coalition Summit (engineered by ex-Prime Minister Mori and Yomiuri Pharaoh Watanabe, though Yomiuri subscribers will never read about that) fell through and Ichiro Ozawa did his now-you-see-me, now-you-don't act, and I went on about the DPJ's need to look reasonable and responsible, the LDP and DPJ continued work on a number of legislative initiatives, one of which on 6 November produced an agreement to amend the Minimum Wage Act. Other bills, including one that expands housing assistance for victims of disasters, are in the works.

Nobody wants to be the spoiler. The ruling coalition and the DPJ will continue their bipartisan efforts on the little things, and the budget will take care of itself. (The Lower House prevails automatically.) The JMSDF refueling bill is the only sure candidate for a supermajority override as of now.

What, then, will be the real test of the ability of the two sides to work together? The tax bill for one, particularly the time-limited measures that come due next fiscal year.

The DPJ has more to prove, and consequently the narrower margin of error. Trust Mr. Ozawa and the rest of the DPJ leadership to give up all thoughts of an early snap election.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Ichiro Ozawa: Jason or Jesus?

Let's see, there's the LDP (1969-93, where in 1991 a 49 year old Ichiro Ozawa declined the party presidency and also had his first angina attack, foreshadowing in true theatrical fashion the rest of his career), the Japan Renewal Party (1993-94), the New Frontier Party (1994-98), the Liberal Party (1998-2003), the DPJ (2003-), and now DPJ 2. That's six. Now Jason Vorhees has made it to eleven with Jason vs. Freddy, and shows no sign of letting up, while Jesus by all widely accepted accounts has made only one Resurrection. So I guess Mr. Ozawa belongs somewhere between Heaven and Hell, like us mere mortals.

I wish I could say that I'd purposely used the drama metaphor in this post and left Mr. Ozawa out of the post-climax - a la Holmes at Reichenbach Falls - in the anticipation of yet another sequel. In fact, I had thought – if I'd given the matter any thought at all - that it went without saying that Mr. Ozawa was finally finished as a political leader. My only solace is that all I have to do as an update is add the following line to the end of that post, now that Mr. Ozawa is back:

Mr. Ozawa's return, if anything, will make it even more imperative for the doubly embarrassed DPJ to look responsible and reasonable.

The fear of defection was palpable among the other party leaders, as was their alpha-doglessness.

Monday, November 05, 2007


Please ignore the preceding post, and several subsequent ones. They are copies of posts that I am deleting because they have been taken over by blog spammers. I have reported them to Blogspot, but nothing has been done to eliminate them. Blogspot should take measures to enable bloggers to block selectively, but in the meantime, this is the best that I can do.

ADD: Please ignore above. Problem solved; as noted in the comments.

As a Great Admirer of the Prime Minister, I'd Like to Help Him Out Financially

Saturday, October 27, 2007

As a Great Admirer of the Prime Minister, I'd Like to Help Him Out Financially

The Cabinet members (and their spouses) have declared their assets and shown the world how much they are worth. A typical article will tell you that the assets of a typical Cabinet Minister average out to 116.95 million yen, just enough to make one a millionaire at current exchange rates. Yes, the average Cabinet Minister is better off than the average me, but I do not begrudge him/her his/her good fortune. After all, I want successful people minding our nation’s business, not some freeter who might be tempted to dip into the public coffers to pay the rent.

But some Cabinet members are not so well off. For example, Yasuo Fukuda, our Prime Minister, is worth only 72.11 million yen. Not bad, but still, he's the Prime, not Subprime, Minister. Moreover, he seems to have a liquidity problem. And, though I’m no rich man, I think that I can help him out. Specifically, he has 3 million yen in time deposits, while carrying 38 million yen in debts. I can tell you, this is bad. Fortunately, he owns a house and the land under it, which together are worth 23.76 million yen. I’ll buy that piece of real estate from him. In fact, because Mr. Fukuda is such a nice man, I’ll pay double, no, triple price. That’s 71.28 million yen. He can pay off that loan, and have plenty left over to make the down payment on that retirement home in Karuizawa, to go along with that golf club membership he has at the Karuizawa Country Club. And I’ll rent it back to him cheap, when he leaves office and has to move out of that Official Residence. Which could come sooner, rather than later.

Incidentally, Mr. Fukuda’s residence is located in Setagaya Ward, which readers in Japan will recognize as one of the better locations in Metropolitan Tokyo. The land is valued at 3.76 million yen, the house (most likely a condominium) at a somewhat more realistic 17.77 million.

The assets of State Ministers, etc. and their spouses and children under their care shall be disclosed when they assume and leave their positions.
Article 1, paragraph 4; Norms for State Ministers, Senior Vice Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries (Cabinet Resolution 06 January 2001 as amended by Cabinet Resolutions 24 October 2006 and 26 December 2006)

Since the law requires Diet members to follow more or less the same disclosure rules, this has the effect of capturing non-Diet member Ministers, such as Hiroko Ota, the State Minister for Economic and Fiscal Policy.

The listed values for real estate are the values used in assessing local fixed asset taxes. Golf club memberships and shareholdings are disclosed, but not by value. On-demand bank deposits are not subject to disclosure. Asahi makes something of an issue of the lack of transparency on yet another, more substantive point.

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The Man Who Would Not Wait, and What Comes after

If the art of drama lies in surprising the audience, only to leave it saying, of course how else could it have been, then Ichiro Ozawa is a true genius of the political theater. Once again, he has fulfilled the hopes and fears of every friend and foe, as well as the expectations of bystanders, in grasping for the Holy Grail and, falling short, exiting stage left - leaving everything around him, not least of all his ambitions, in shambles. His parting soliloquy (surely Naoto Kan and Yukio Hatoyama's crocodile tears will fail to convince him to turn back) was vintage Ozawa in all his haughty splendor, heaping scorn on his amateurish colleagues and pouring invective on the lying, scheming press. All this with an air of post facto inevitability that few, if anyone else, could conjure.

The DPJ will survive; the old left and the new right have nowhere else to go. With time, the old guard will grow old and pass away, and the rest will learn to live with their differences, as the LDP has done for years.

The LDP gains some short-term momentum. This should serve the Fukuda administration well in dealing with the refueling extension bill, as the fear of a censure motion leading to a forced snap election (a fear that I never understood) recedes. The Prime Minister has also been spared of the worst effects of party dissent at compromising the overseas projection of the JSDF and, more important, giving up a substantial portion of the Cabinet posts.

My guess is that the DPJ will keep slamming the LDP and the Ministry of Defense on the outstanding discrepancies and corruption issues, but will go to an Upper House vote on the refueling bill in time to allow the ruling coalition to use the Lower House supermajority override. The Upper House will subsequently pass a censure motion (or a less strident resolution), and everyone will see where the chips fall before deciding the course of action in the next general Diet session when it is convened in mid to late January. On another significant matter in the current session, there will be further negotiations on the political financing reform bill to beef up reporting requirements. The results should be such that the DPJ will be able to claim a modest victory.

In the regular Diet session, I expect the DPJ to try to show its responsible side by coordinating with the ruling coalition on some issues, daring it to use the override on others. There will be more challenges, including public pension reform, than not. However, it will very rarely, if ever, use up the maximum 60 days in the Upper House without a vote to force an automatic revote or retraction. It will not be looking forward to an early snap election. Realistically, the people there must be looking at least a couple of general elections ahead for a realistic chance at gaining the upper hand in the Lower House. It must look responsible and reasonable, and wait for something really bad to happen. In the meantime, it must hold itself together, and I think it can.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Do You Know What It's Like to Be Poor, Old, and Lonely in Japan?

But enough about me. Instead, let's talk about Norimitsu Onishi, the New York Times correspondent who has been tracking the travails and agonies of an aging society here (78 year old Okinawan pastor protests whitewash of government role in WW II mass suicide), here (52 year old losing his welfare benefits and starving to death), here (61-year old royal talks of his battle with cancer and alcoholism, family woes, and the stress of life in the troubled extended imperial family), and here (prisons adapting to aging prisoners). That's four of the eight articles he published in the past four weeks. And another story - on sumo - centers on the brutal hazing death of a 17 year old and the rebellious Yokozuna Asashōryū (and a deranged middle-aged woman who tried to crawl onto the sumo ring as a gratuitous throw-in), but "rural areas [emptying] out of young people" weighs heavily in the background.

It is not hard to see in these chronicles a society whose time has passed, where traditions wither and personal ties fade away, where only loneliness and, ultimately, death prevail; an aging nation resigned to its bleak fate. Perhaps appropriately, the characters are all men (unless you count the mad woman); where a newly-widowed Japanese woman often gain a new lease on life, widowers and bachelors run the risk of an early death.

But contrast this desolate vision with this story (Washington Post) of a 64 year old ex-cab driver, happily homeless in downtown Tokyo, homeless that is, until his pension kicks in when he turns 65. For here is a society that may lack the hands-on activism of the soup kitchens of Manhattan, but offers gentle tolerance and understated charity. It is notable that in Mr. Onishi's story on the aged prisoners, the special care and consideration that they receive in the prison system is ultimately used to illuminate a society that is unwilling to accept ex-convicts. (Has Mr. Onishi bothered to compare recidivism rates across age groups and countries?)

In the last few years, the Japanese economy has taken a turn for the better, and it shows. The stories you hear from new graduates and college seniors have changed dramatically. No one knows if Japan is finally emerging from the long Employment Ice Age (就職氷河期), or is merely passing through an Indian Summer of sorts before it enters inexorably into that long, painful slide into the night. Still, it is clear that there is another side to the Japanese story that does not fit into Mr. Onishi's anecdotal narrative. Is there an agenda, or is it temperament? I can only guess.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

So That's Why Mr. Fukuda and Mr. Ozawa Took So Long. Here Are Some Thoughts about the Political Implications

I'd wondered why Yasuo Fukuda and Ichiro Ozawa were taking so long. It turns out that they had plenty to talk about. For the Prime Minister Fukuda went well beyond offers of a vague promise to work together and the "refueling extension in exchange for favorable consideration of permanent legislation for overseas projection of the Sself-Defense Force" deal of my daydreams, and actually proposed an LDP+New Komeitō+DPJ Grand Coalition. Even more surprisingly - and this is surely why they huddled all afternoon and into the early evening - Mr. Ozawa agreed to take the Grand Coalition proposal back to the DPJ leadership for consideration, and it was only after his colleagues overwhelmingly rejected it in what must have been a tempestuous meeting that he phoned Mr. Fukuda and informed him that the proposal could not be accepted. Mr. Ozawa, according to Yomikuri, also had been favorably disposed to a temporary extension of the refueling activities while a more permanent, overall solution for the JSDF would be worked out.

That Mr. Fukuda broached a Grand Coalition - if not its timing - is understandable, given his collaborative instincts and his administration's need to get things done. What is far more surprising was Mr. Ozawa's willingness to consider it. Did he allow his genius for the political game to be overwhelmed by his love of statecraft? Did the awareness of mortality that comes from his well-advertised health problems attract him to an ill-advised deal? Or is he at heart still the rightful heir of the 1955 status quo? These and other questions will be mulled over and over again, as biographers and historians revisit this chapter in Ichiro Ozawa's many-storied life.

The major dailies have lined up more or less predictably, from get a room now now at Yomiuri to cut a deal on the policies first at Sankei to what a dumb idea at Mainichi to how dare they collude to rob the public of an opportunity for regime change at Asahi. But the media lineup mirrors their respective positions on the refueling operations and preferences for regime change, and little else, which highlights the following point:

On the policy front, overseas deployment of the JSDF including the suspended refueling operations appeared to have been the main, if not sole, subject of the Fukuda-Ozawa talks. The JSDF package was also at the heart of the political game for a Grand Coalition. Domestic policy concerns such as fiscal reform and the funding of the public pension system appear to have figured in the abstract only, in the sense that the public would be the ones to suffer from the legislative deadlock a the result of a political standoff.

This in turn is a reflection of the political reality that the policy divide between the LDP and DPJ owes more to tactical considerations than to genuine differences in political, social and economic philosophies. In fact, the internal policy differences and the resultant tensions in each party (more so in the DPJ due to its ideologically and politically disparate origins) are far wider, relatively speaking, than the gap between the two parties.

Such internal contradictions, to borrow an old Marxist term, fed by the internal discordance that has been exacerbated by the Grand Coalition proposal within each party, the ruling coalition, and the opposition respectively, will lead some to renew speculations over a Grand Realignment along more ideologically compatible lines. And a tradition of strong party discipline (unlike the US; witness the fate of LDP Post Office privatization rebels) that continues to cause discomfort for dissidents will lend force to such calls.

But I have come to believe that such a turn of events is highly unlikely. Japanese politicians are like those old edge-notched cards; you shake out a different set for every different hole, and it is hard to find two sets of holes sufficient to gather all or most of the cards into two more or less neat piles. And without willing subjection to coherent, discrete, and distinctive sets of policy objectives and the means to achieve them that go beyond the politically expedient, incumbency and vested interests in the status quo will prevail.

This argument, if true, means that the Japanese electorate does not have a substantive policy choice. This is not necessarily a bad thing; if the policy parameters within which the political game is being played are appropriate to the circumstances, Japan could do much worse than to evolve a two-party system whose real purpose would be to keep the actors honest by the threat of removal from power. On the other hand, if perceptions shift and a consensus emerges that the conditions are such that radical changes to the status quo are required but on not much more, then public demand, if nothing else, will cause a reshuffling of the deck. Looking at the talks and the response thereto, my sense is that, despite the dissonance revealed and uncertainty caused by this unexpected overture and response, Japanese politics is still on course towards a status-quo bipolarity.

If you wanted to know what Asahi really wanted, you only had to read today's editorial. See the following paragraph:


The two parties had just recently collided this summer in the Upper House election, where the LDP-New Komeitō coalition lost, and the DPJ had leaped forward to become the largest party in the Upper House. Regime change would finally be at stake with the soon-to-come dissolution of the Lower House and [subsequent] general election. That is surely what most Japanese citizens had been thinking.
(my translation; the Asahi version should be available by tomorrow.)

Friday, November 02, 2007

You Drink Our Calpis and We'll Eat Your McWrap

The Golden Arch launched McWrap today. For some reason, the page is entitled: WrapSLYME

The gaijin cachet that transforms hopeless dork into irresistible hunk has been chronicled here by The Asian Exile. But this phenomenon is not limited to men. It extends to all sorts of consumer products and services, not the least of which is the fast food industry.

Take Krispy Kreme: Now as doughnuts go, I think that KK is fine. In fact, I thought it was much better than Dunkin' Donuts, or even (I am ashamed to admit) most of the donuts sold at New York delis. Not only did they come warm to the touch, but managed to maintain their chewiness longer than their scientifically less sophisticated competitors.

But donuts is donuts, and it never fails to amaze me when, almost a year after it opened, I walk past the Shinjuku Krispy Kreme and rain or shine; weekdays, weekends; morning, noon, or night; always I see that one-hour-plus waiting line folding over itself again and again like a small intestine until it spills over onto the JR Higashi Nihon overpass nearby.

And it's not just Krispy Kreme. Maybe it was just New York, but I remember inner city McDonalds, Burger Kings, and Wendys as down-scale, often depressing, once even alarming, places, and not the brightly-lit shops full of high school students, moms with kids, and salarymen in a hurry that we see in Japan.

So I guess my question is: can White Castle be far behind?

Of course it works the other way around as well. The basic Yoshinoya beef bowl debuted in New York at roughly twice the Japanese price (this was before the mad cow disease scare), and you had to get used to paying $10 and more for non-gourmet udon and ramen. And much of Japan cool is actually Japan kitsch.

The Self-Defense Force Moves Out of the Indian Ocean (including the Persian Gulf) and Yomiuri and Sankei Weigh in

The Antiterrorism Act authorizing the OEF-MIO refueling activities expired on November 1 and the JSDF ships and planes are leaving the theater of operations. Yomiuri and Sankei have weighed in with editorials. Predictably, they call on the ruling coalition to exercise the supermajority override if need be. Only slightly less surprising, Asahi and Mainichi are silent. FYI, the somewhat leftish Tokyo Shinbun of the Chunichi Shinbun group (yes, the media sponsor of the Japan Series champion Chunichi Dragons) says it should be put on hold until "the lesson have been learned [from all the scandals and incidents]".

Will the other two come off the fence when the chips are down? My current thinking is, Asahi and possibly Mainichi will call for "caution (慎重)" as the act looms, and "regret it (遺憾である)" post facto while reiterating their criticism of the MOD/JSDF. But it doesn't look like the DPJ will get enough media backing to use an Upper House censure vote to force the Fukuda administration to call a snap election, And the public surely will not see it as a vital issue on which it feels compelled to weigh in. I'm leaning towards the view that the LDP is setting a trap of sorts for the DPJ.

(note) The Fukuda-Ozawa bilateral may have been designed in part to further just such an agenda. As Shisaku notes in this persuasive post, the meetings are driving a wedge between the DPJ and the rest of the opposition. And the microparties do not want to go into an election being fought between the two behemoths (plus the dependable LDP sidekick New Komeitō).

I hate to be prescriptive - after all, this is a blog; no one who actually makes the decisions is reading it - but I think that the DPJ should let it come to a vote in the Upper House, have the ruling coalition override it in the Lower House, and pass a non-censure resolution deploring the dictatorship of the majority in the Upper House. They should cut a side deal to give positive consideration (前向きに検討する) to new, permanent legislation for overseas JSDF operations. That way, Mr. Ozawa can save face and everyone can table the matter until the expiration date for operations in Iraq roll around, by which time many things can have happened.

Incidentally, the DPJ is catching plenty of fire for not producing its own legislative proposal for operations in Afghanistan, and not all of it is coming from the LDP; similar criticism has been leveled at other DPJ proposals. This is justified where the dithering is the result of internal dissent, or lack of seriousness. But there is another, better reason why the DPJ cannot easily come up with its own bills.

Drafting a legislative bill is very time-consuming, labor-intensive work. An enormous amount of digging out the necessary facts and using them to put together a coherent set of measures is necessary before you can begin drafting the bill. And the drafting itself requires an incredible amount of double-, triple-, …-checking to make sure that the bill fits seamlessly into the existing body of Japanese law. Thus, it is difficult to draft any substantial bill without the full cooperation of the bureaucracy. So there's a good reason why the Cabinet winds up submitting most bills.

With ISAF, of course, a quick survey of available information will show you that there is no way that the JSDF can fit into PRT operations without a babysitter a la Samawa. That's a luxury that ISAF cannot afford in Afghanistan. So that was a non-starter from the beginning.