Saturday, May 31, 2008

No Self-Defense Airlift to China: A Few Observations

Howard French, writing for The New York Times yesterday (May 30), goes directly from Prime Minister Koizumi to Prime Minister Fukuda, skipping the Abe administration, when he comments on the ongoing transformation of the Japan-China relationship. Is it that hard to wrap their minds around a conservative Prime Minister doing a Nixon-Goes-to-China? Sorry to start with a digression, but didn’t Mr. French used to work here?

Mr. French might also have wanted to check in on the Japanese media before he filed his story. The May 30 morning editions—Japan Standard Time—were already reporting that the Japanese authorities were giving up on the idea of sending supplies on a Japanese Air Self-Defense Force transport plane in the face of Chinese reluctance and would instead likely charter a private-sector aircraft for the flight.

Media reports of what actually transpired vary slightly, but it appears that Chinese Defense Ministry officials talked to the Japanese Self-Defense Force attaché in Beijing on May 27 about receiving relief supplies through JASDF, and did not reject the use of JSADF aircraft when the attaché raised the question. In principle, there was nothing here to cause flags to be raised. Military aircraft is routinely used in international relief operations for obvious logistical and economic reasons. As subsequent reporting shows, the armed forces from United States and South Korea, as well as Russia, were already in the process of airlifting emergency supplies to China. However, when the Japanese media used Japanese government sources including the Chief Cabinet Secretary to carry stories focused, understandably, on the aircraft and the symbolism thereof, the Chinese Internet forums sprang into action. The reaction from the Chinese netizens was mixed, but my guess is that the negative substantially outweighed the positive. In the face of Chinese reluctance, the Fukuda administration had give up the idea by the end of the 29th.

Would the historical moment have come to pass if the Japanese authorities had handled it more discreetly? Of course we’ll never know for sure. One thing I am sure of though: When the Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel visits China in June, the Chinese authorities will carefully lay the groundwork for a very public welcome, reminding the Chinese public that China got the first crack in the exchange—that a Chinese missile-carrying destroyer docked in Tokyo last November.

Note also that the Chinese authorities never openly rejected or reacted negatively in any manner to the notion of a JASDF aircraft handling the transportation. Instead, they quietly made their concerns known and let the Japanese side shelve the idea. Elementary? Perhaps. But it is yet another clear example of the care with which they are managing the bilateral relationship from their end.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Steel Partners Kicks Out Aderans Board

Reuters reports that Steel Partners, the US hedge fund, leveraged its 26.7% stake in Aderans, the Japanese wigmaker, to block reappointment of seven board members, sparing only the two newly-appointed outside directors.

A few thoughts:

It has profited some from firms hiking their dividends, but it was slapped back last year when a Tokyo court backed the use of a "poison pill" anti-takeover defense by sauce maker Bull-Dog Sauce Co <2804.T> to thwart the fund's bid.

When will the media realize that Steel Partners actually made a killing on that bid? And isn’t that the point of it all?

ADD: Does the writer really think that it’s the dividends that Steel Partners are after?

Blocking the reappointment of board members will be seen as a landmark win for the fund.

It will be a “landmark win” for Steel Partners only if it cashes out with profits.

"This is in effect the first time where a fund and others have taken the lead and minority shareholders have pushed out management," said Nomura Securities strategist Kengo Nishiyama.

Since when is the largest shareholder a minority shareholder? Something got lost in translation.
My thanks to Janne for the correction.

Seriously, in a land where hair transplants have never really caught on, wigs are big, and Aderans is the bigwig of wigs. Still, it’s a big fish in a small pond. In fact, the four other companies mentioned as Steel Partners targets—brewer Sapporo Holdings Ltd, confectionery maker Ezaki Glico, false teeth maker Shofu Inc, and spice producer House Foods Corp—are more or less in the same fishpond*. Basically limited to the domestic market, they’re all small enough to catch, yet big enough to make the chase worthwhile.

Now if someone went after Hitachi, this would be a whale of a catch.

* Okay, Shofu Inc. is probably small fry, but you see my point.

ADD. 12 July 2008: I received a proposal for a linkage exchange from Legal Ace, a legal documentation firm. Legal Ace appears to be a legitimate business with a real-world office, and it is somewhat flattering to have this specific post called a "resource". So here goes:

Incorporation A corporation can limit your personal liability and protect your personal assets. Form a legal incorporation online easily and inexpensively.

McCain, Lieberman on U.S.-Japan Alliance

The title of John McCain and Joe Lieberman's special feature op-ed in the Yomiuri, PUTTING OUR ALLIES FIRST / U.S.-Japan ties bedrock of Asian peace, says it all. It’s hard for a Japanese not to like hearing that kind of talk, unless you happen to be a committed pacifist.

The dynamic duo does not call for a “League of Democracies” nor praise Japan’s “value-based diplomacy”, as John McCain did in his Foreign Affairs essay. The demands being made on China and by implication on the alliance have acquired a more restrained look as well. I think that this is partly a reflection of the limits on the extent to which the bilateral alliance can be invoked where China is concerned, particularly under the dovish Prime Minister Fukuda. Note that the Fukuda administration itself has quietly dropped the Abe administration’s high-minded but somewhat exclusionary “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity”, which Mr. McCain obviously had in mind when he praised Japan in his FA But it is also a tacit recognition of China as a status quo power, sharing common interests, if not always values. In contrast, Mr. McCain places the “League of Democracies” front and center in his most recent address to America’s European allies.

Otherwise, Mr. McCain and Mr. Lieberman basically repeat the same, sweet words of Mr. McCain’s FA essay. The formulation on North Korea is unchanged, and the unequivocal support for Japan’s bid for permanent membership in the UN Security Council is still there.

The co-writers also take the chance to come down strongly on the two Democratic candidates for their negative rhetoric on free trade agreements. This last one is actually a mixed blessing for the Japanese authorities as far as the bilateral relationship is concerned—think beef and other agricultural products—but a good thing, actually, for Japan.

All in all, a document more moderate and reassuring in tone than the FA essay. But what will a President McCain (and Vice President/Secretary of State Lieberman?) have to say when legislation authorizing JSADF operations in Iraq comes up for renewal under an LDP-Komeito coalition stripped of its supermajority override powers or possibly even a DPJ-led administration? Or when Japanese cooperation with US troops realignment must be maintained under those circumstances? These two issues are likely to be testing the alliance, the latter more seriously, in first year of a McCain presidency.

Perhaps it’s just an oversight. (That, or I have too much time on my hands.) But I wonder if I’m the only one that finds the following formulation a little odd:

With respect to North Korea, for example, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was right: We must bring both dialogue and pressure to bear on Pyongyang. We have the right framework in the six-party talks and the right tools in the U.N. Security Council resolution passed after North Korea's 2006 nuclear test, as well as the U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral coordination group. Now we must use those tools to press for the full, complete, and verifiable declaration, disablement and dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear weapons programs--goals already agreed upon by the six parties.

Future talks must also prioritize North Korea's ballistic missile programs, its abduction of Japanese citizens, and its human rights record. Whatever our other strategic priorities, these objectives are important to our allies, and thus they must be of importance to us. The president of the United States must never forget that hundreds of thousands of North Koreans languish in gulags, and that families in Japan and South Korea await the return of their loved ones, abducted by North Korea. We cannot turn our back on them.

I copied the two paragraphs from the Yomiuri op-ed, but the FA essay says the same thing. From the Japanese perspective, the abductees are part of the Six-Party Talks, unlike “North Korea’s ballistic missile programs… and its human rights record”, which rightfully should be priorities for “future talks”. I’m sure that there must be nothing intentional behind this formulation, but it is telling nonetheless.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Japanese Self-Defense Force Aircraft in China? They’re Laying It on Thick

The story’s on all the major daily websites so it must be true; Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura told the press today (May28) that China has asked Japan for help with regard to relief material and its means of transport, including from the Self-Defense Force. The Japanese authorities are working on it.

It is nice. What better way to remind the Chinese people that, no, we are not a military threat to China?

It’s also like being the class nerd and the varsity quarterback and the rest of the jocks have been tormenting you and all of a sudden he’s cozying up to you and telling his buddies to lay off of you. You think you know what’s going on—final exams coming up and he wants that scholarship from the local Big Ten school—but it’s still scary, because you don’t know when the world is going to flip once more and he stomps all over you again.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The More we Saw of Prime Minister Abe…

Correction (May 24, 17:28): I made a huge, huge mistake with this post. Somehow, I managed to misread Mr. Abe's comments on his website. In fact, he claims that Bunshun identified the wrong murder victim as the person Mr. Abe had in mind, and went to that victim's mother, took her comment, and wrote up the article. This undermines the fundamental premise of this post. My apologies to Mr. Abe. I'm leaving this here, though, since one of the worst kind of online experiences is coming back to an online source to find that it has been surreptitiously and substantively altered. That's intellectual fraud, a breach of online ethics. So my embarrassment needs no caching, as long as this bog exists.

Julián Ortega Martínez gives us an off-topic heads-up (see comments) on Shinzo Abe’s trip to Columbia. A show of solidarity for a democracy pushing back what was once a leftist guerilla movement but has long since deteriorated into a massive criminal operation? Good thing, even if you have to go to President Uribe’s website to find out about the visit. Heaven knows it’s being ignored by the Japanese media too. I looked at Mr. Abe’s website, and it isn’t there either. Could it be that he doesn’t think it’s a good idea to be too conspicuously out-of-town while the “twisted” Diet is in session?

Maybe, maybe not. For Mr. Abe’s website is somewhat unusual, even for a Seiwa-kai-related blog. Half the space on his home page is currently (May 23) taken up by an explanation of his complaint against a tabloid weekly over its treatment of his comments regarding crime victims’ rights—a decidedly proper subject of public discourse in its own right. Now he’s dead serious, but However, as far as his own complaint is concerned, as dead serious as he is about it, I don’t think that he would have a case in the courts; the way I see it, he’s splitting hairs as far as allegations of misrepresentations by the media go. More troubling, comparing the two sides of the story as scrupulously related in his commentary reminds me very much of his ill-fated efforts to parse the Kohno Statement on the comfort women.

The other major item on his home page happens to be an exposition on his reference to human rights in Tibet and Xinjiang-Uyghur. Over all, there’s little to no effort to proactively highlight his policy initiatives as well as his public activities. His latest “news” item dates back to January 7. My, the site does not have a blog.

And I used to wonder how he fell apart so quickly.

As you might have guessed, Mr. Abe's site does not have a blog.

May 24 edit in italics

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Sichuan Earthquake: Japan, Featured Guest

Yesterday (May 20), a 23-member medical from Japan showed up in Chengdu to help out with the relief work. The Chinese authorities had filed an official request the previous day. We seem to be the first in line, yet again. Meanwhile, the Japanese rescue team is returning home today, to glowing praise from Chinese authorities. According to the Sankei, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang praised the rescue team for “undertaking rescue operations with all their might, based on the noble spirit of humanitarianism and magnificent professionalism” and “express[ed China’s] respect and gratitude”*.

The Chinese authorities and their public communications outlets are trying really, really hard, and it seems to be working. This photo** showing the Japanese rescue team mourning for two victims whose body they retrieved in particular has touched the hearts of the denizens of Chinese Internet forums, the hotbed of grassroots nationalism and often virulent anti-Japanese sentiment. According to this Yomiuri report, the comments have been overwhelmingly in favor of the rescue team and by extension Japan; hateful comments are being shouted down, so to speak.

All this is good for the bilateral relationship. China is a status quo power whose overriding concern is social and political stability, so this is obviously not a passing fad. This is part and parcel of the bilateral efforts that began no later than in 2006, and flows directly from Hu Jintao’s recognition in Tokyo of Good Japan throughout the 60-odd post WW II years***. Still, the thoroughness of the exclusive charm offensive—Taiwan, perhaps; but would Russia and South Korea have even been asked if the Chinese authorities hadn’t decided to use the “vicinity and convenience” fig leaf?—and its effectiveness where their domestic constituency is concerned leave me a little uneasy. Perceptions that can be changed with what is, after all, nothing more than a set of small, symbolic gestures, can also be reversed in an instant.

Do you think that if a Japanese Prime Minister ever amassed enough political capital at home to make a pilgrimage to Nanjing, all theese little things, both positive and, yes, negative—Prime Minister Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni, for instance—would become part of the daily flow of things, to be taken in stride? And we will be allowed to tell our own histories, as many of them as there are?

* My translation of the Japanese Sankei quotes. The full English text of the press conference should be up on China’s Foreign Ministry website in a couple of days.

** The Xinhua website has many other photos regarding the earthquake, including two sets of images of the Japanese rescue team. There’s also one set for Russia. I cannot find the South Korean team. Taiwan may be camouflaged as “overseas Chinese”.

*** Note that Wen Jiabao “accidentally” skipped the following crucial passage while reading his 2007 April 12 speech to the Japanese Diet:

The people of China takes a positive view of the fact that the Japan took the path of peaceful development after the War.

The “accident” likely had something to do with the fact that the event was being telecast live to China. The leadership was not quite ready until Mr. Hu’s visit, as Professor Toshihiko Kinoshita reminded me yesterday in a different context.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Meandering from Opinion Polls to the State of the Economy

The latest Yomiuri poll (May 17-18) has come out, as the excitement whipped up by the Late-Term Elderly Medical Care Insurance rollout and the gasoline tax reinstatement has worn off and talk has turned to trimming some of its rougher edges or reverting to the old insurance system (the opposition); [ and divvying the gas money between roads and other objectives or simply getting rid of the surcharge and making up the difference for local governments from the national budget (the opposition)]. The results show a slow but steady slide in public esteem for the Fukuda administration and the LDP-Komeito coalition. The changes appear to be within or near the margin of error. But when all the numbers trend in the same direction, they’re harder to explain away.

If you really want to get a good view of the Fukuda/coalition dip-DPJ lift right after the gasoline tax surcharge reinstatement and the subsequent fallback, there’s no better place to go than the weekly Fuji TV polls and compare the numbers for the past four weeks. I hope you’re not a coalition fan though, because the DPJ has consistently been beating the LDP-DPJ numbers for some time. The silver lining if you are is that your trend-lines appear to have steadied since February despite taking more major hits in the form of the insurance rollout and the gasoline tax surcharge reinstatement.

Where diplomacy is concerned, the poll also confirms that Hu Jintao’s visit had little effect on the Japanese public—no surprise, what with no visible breakthrough on the East China Sea gas fields and the 2millon-dollar price tag on the giant panda “gifts (according to unofficial reports—neither side has actually mentioned it). Looking ahead, beyond the polls, there’s no downside for the Prime Minister in the July G-8 Summit in Hokkaido. On the other hand, there’s not much upside to what has become over the years something of a giant photo-op. (Are they going to dress up in kimonos? Better than the clown suits that Jiang Zeming gave his colleagues. ) The Fukuda administration and the ruling coalition should not expect anything more than a small, momentary blip in popularity. Be thankful, instead, that botching the LTEMCI rollout and reinstating the unpopular gas tax surcharge have done limited damage.

Which brings us to the real political issue—the fiscal reform package, coming to us this autumn. You know that I have grave doubts on this about both sides. Now Ross approaches this from a different angle. He believes that an LDP loss, any LDP loss, will break the stranglehold that vested interests have on policy making, and that Ichiro Ozawa knows this and is willing to do anything to make it happen. The trillion-yen price tags on the DPJ promises are worth it.

I dunno, Ross, here’s hoping: You’re right, I’m wrong.

PS: And yes, there is the economy. There’s precious little that the Fukuda administration can do on its own in the event of a serious economic downturn. And if it’s really serious about fiscal reform , it will come up with a big tax bill. But I don’t think that the Japanese public trusts the DPJ with economic management either.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Yet More on the Sichuan Earthquake and the Media

A bright spot in this tragedy is the free flow of information about the disaster. It's been hard to get here, but I hope it's harder to turn back.
—Peter M. Herford, Professor of Journalism, Shantou University; The Washington Post, 2008 May 17

The openness of the Chinese authorities to the media both foreign and domestic continues to be a story in itself. Peter Herford, a Western professor of journalism in China (a marvel in itself), writes an op-ed, where he credits the Internet. He also thinks that China has learned lessons from the Myanmar authorities’ response to the monks, as well as its own dealings with the outside world regarding the Tibetan uprising.

The Internet I can understand, but Tibet? Try this thought experiment: What if the earthquake had occurred first, followed by the Tibetan uprising? Would the Chinese authorities have responded any differently in either case? Here’s another one: What if an uprising broke out in the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region? Would the Chinese authorities treat the incident any differently from the Tibetan incident? The cyclone was a natural and human disaster for the Burmese and a media disaster for the junta, but the trajectories of the two nations over the last three decades are so different that it’s hard to imagine China, indeed any nation other than North Korea, finding any takeaways either way from the Myanmar authorities’ behavior.

Having said that, I do not think Mr. Herford’s hopes are groundless either. I’m going to keep an eye on this for the long-run.

The New York Times comes in today (May 18) with a more detailed story (and more interesting as a work of journalism, frankly) on how the media subplot unfolded on the domestic front. It contains many interesting facts and comments from the Chinese media, illustrating the sensitive give-and-take between the media and the authorities, including a Central Propaganda Department caught wrongfooted at the onset, then changing its mind and going with the flow. This is a dynamic process that will continue to have many twists and turns over the coming years.

CNN, May 16 is merely competent, but this one came earlier in the game. BBC has not done any of this meta-reporting yet. Surprisingly, the Financial Times has yet to consider it either. Expect FT, as well as The Economist, to chime in soon. If anyone knows any good media reports and blog posts on this, let me know.

Prefectural Chapters Don’t Want to Fight Next Election under Fukuda

Prime Minister Fukuda’s poll numbers continue to slip. Now, the LDP party faithful are also turning against its leader.

Asahi asked the prefectural chapters of the LDP and DPJ to see if they wanted to go into the next House of Representatives election under Yasuo Fukuda and Ichiro Ozawa respectively. In the LDP, only 12 chapters were willing to go with Mr. Fukuda, while 22 chapters wanted a replacement. By contrast, Mr. Ozawa had the support of 44 DPJ chapters.

And it looks even worse for Mr. Fukuda when you go into more detail. Of the ten prefectures with the largest populations, seven* want to go with someone new, while only two** want Mr. Fukuda to stay. (Tokyo, the most populous prefecture, chose neither of the two options.) Between No.11-20, it was six to two against him. Smaller, more rural prefectures are showing loyalty.

A Prime Minister used to have the choice between picking up his marbles and calling it a day, or dissolving the HR and calling a general election. But Mr. Fukuda is not a faction chief, so he has nothing to pick up. His options are limited.

* Osaka, Kanagawa, Aichi, Saitama, Hyogo, Fukuoka, Shizuoka
** Hokkaido, Chiba

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Jim Hoagland Swings and Misses Mightily on Hu's Visit

Glocom has kindly posted my commentary on Jim Hoagland’s op-ed on President’s Hu’s visit. Ross thinks that I’ve gone overboard with the “thousand years”, but what the hell, I had fun writing it; must be my mean, pedantic streak kicking in.

Speaking of Japan-China relations, does anybody else remember George Will’s take (click through to the WaPo op-ed) on Yasukuni that he harvested from a trip to Tokyo during the Koizumi administration>? Goes to show, some pundits’ fly-bys are better than others’. I do notice that there was a little more space between his views on South Korea and China than I realized at the time.

Some More Thoughts on China’s Stability

Sophie* makes the point in her comment to this post that it could happen to other urban centers such as Tokyo with devastating effect. Let me elaborate on my response there in this separate post, since the subject matter goes well beyond that particular post.

Sophie is right—the existence of many buildings that predate the progressive tightening of building codes, as well as irregularities exposed in the Great Kansai Earthquake and the Aneha architectural frauds, and, more broadly, uncertainties over the preparedness of the authorities give rise to potential for enormous loss and damage to life and property in the event. It is quite possible that this could lead to major political changes

But for the purposes of this blog, that is where the similarity between Japan and China, two states with large urban populations sprawled over tectonic danger zones, ends. In Japan, political change could range from the resignation of the Cabinet Ministers that have been found wanting to a wholesale change of the Cabinet including the Prime Minister, including a transfer of power to the opposition. However, these are at most changes in administrations, which do not significantly alter the constitutional regime that has been in place for the last six decades. This is because the rules and procedures for the transfer of political power in accordance with changes in the popular mandate have been accepted and at work for the last six decades.

Such is not the case for authoritarian China. The Chinese President may be selected by the National People’s Congress and the members of the National People’s Congress may be elected however indirectly by the Chinese electorate. But this entire political leadership is chosen for all practical purposes by the Communist Party, which for all practical purposes monopolizes political power whose link to the public’s mandate is pro forma and tenuous. This is fine when the President (and the Prime Minister) and partly by implication the Communist Party enjoy the favor of public opinion, as in the case of the current Hu-Wen administration. But if something goes seriously wrong and the leadership loses the trust of the Chinese public, changing the President is fraught with difficulties, since the leader of the administration is the leader of the political party, which is only nominally accountable to the electorate. And more drastic changes are constitutionally impossible, since no real opposition is allowed in the Congress, and the military is also under the control of the Communist Party.

This lack of accountability creates a hard but brittle form of political stability—a feature, actually, of all successful authoritarian regimes. The current Chinese administration, like all of its predecessors since 1978, is doing its best to satisfy the needs and wants of the Chinese people. In fact, its popularity, as well as that of the regime itself, lies in the phenomenal economic success that they have achieved and continue to achieve during this period. As a result, China, for all its social ills, currently enjoys an unforced stability that must be as the envy of most authoritarian regimes worldwide. But in keeping with its nature, the authorities will not hesitate to contain popular discontent by force commensurate with whatever gap between itself and whatever part of its constituency in question. That has been most visibly brought into focus in its response to the most recent Tibetan acts of dissent, where the forces of repression were evident in their full splendor—full splendor, that is, to the extent that the Chinese authorities allowed us to bear witness.

But ultimately, machineries of repression are human. Their collective will could be sapped by contagion of a deep and pervasive discontent among the general population. The need to augment repression to contain increasing unrest would only magnify the problem. A major exogenous event or set of events can create a spike in the extant disorder. A confluence of the two could occur that is serious enough to cause state power to snap, and the authoritarian regime to disintegrate.

In the case of China, a serious and prolonged downturn in the economy would undermine the very means by which the Communist regime maintains its hold on its constituency. Is that possible? The CEO of a major fund-of-funds that I had a chance to talk to yesterday believes that there is a not inconsequential chance for a serious and prolonged recession of global proportions as one of two possible scenarios for the next two or three years, and that China will be a significant part of this scenario. And the exogenous shock that escalates the disorder? A major earthquake directly hitting Beijing would certainly be a major event.

Any such scenarios would be highly speculative and individually unlikely. But the authoritarian nature of the Chinese regime will itself be a destabilizing factor at the extremes. The authorities there will surely use the experience of the Sichuan earthquake to prepare for the next big tremor. Hopefully, they will also take it as a stepping stone in its modulated shift towards a less authoritarian and, however speculative and distant, ultimately democratic regime. The victims deserve no less.

* I dimly recall that she had a website, but it’s not in her profile. If I’m not mistaken there, would she care to give us the link here?

Friday, May 16, 2008

For Chinese Authorities Sichuan Quake a Reminder of Even Bigger Political Risks

Siegfried Knittel writes to remind me that “[China] allow[s] only rescue teams from neighbour countries to work in the area.” I wasn’t aware of that, but he’s the professional journalist. Indeed the facts seem to be bearing this out so far, as China yesterday (May 15) decided to accept rescue and relief teams from Japan, Taiwan (not a separate country in the eyes of most member of the community of nations, but a significant neighbor nevertheless), and Russia.

Japan is widely believed to be the first to be accepted, and I agree with people who read political meaning into that. It’s certainly more effective public diplomacy than the two million-dollar (per year!) “gift” pandas.

But to go back, has Vietnam even offered? Is it “neighborly neighbors” only? And what about Australia, a most neighborly not-quite neighbor—whose initial offer had been politely declined, like all the others? An offer from the United States, and surely there must have been one, had not been accepted as of yesterday.

So there does seem to be political considerations in the process, though I’ll keep an open mind.

Instant alternative history here: Would it have helped if the teams had been accepted earlier? Perhaps. But as someone who was working in New York during 9.11, I can understand a decision by the Chinese authorities that the extra demands on their own resources from the reception, transportation, and coordination with the foreign teams with all their supplies outweighed the positives. Money and supplies on the other hand can be deposited or warehoused and disbursed over time as required. I’m sure that the national security angle was considered, given the presence of Tibetans and other ethnic minorities in the disaster area, but I’m accepting the technical reasons as the overriding concern unless I see evidence or explanations by experts to the contrary.

The real need appears have been more cranes, trucks, and other heavy equipment to clear out the wreckage and rescue trapped victims, as well as more access roads and airfields to move them in. These are things that the outside world could have done little about, even if they had been asked.

One last point: What would the situation have been if the earthquake had hit a really large urban center? To say that the urban skyline in China has changed dramatically since the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake would be a gross understatement. How quake-resistant/resilient are those high-rises and other new buildings that have been popping up like “bamboo shoots after the rain”? Would the PLA and security forces be enough to contain unrest in the event of a massive collapse, let alone deal with the rescue effort? Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao are very popular, but the extent of public discontent falling on the authorities in the wake of the Sichuan Earthquake would be dwarfed by one that levels a similar percentage of buildings. The logistics would be far easier for the relief and rescue efforts, but that would be an enormous challenge too.

I think that once thing settle down, the Chinese authorities are going to do a serious evaluation of the response to this natural disaster and begin preparing for the next big one. It will, if it occurs, be an existential challenge for the Communist regime.

Another Meta-Report on Chinese Transparency, from CNN

If you’re interested in this side issue, you’ve probably read this. Like the NYT report, it misses the political implications of the heavy spin from the authorities domestic media. The normally pro-China Yomiuri is showing much better journalistic instincts here.

My guess is, Western journalists can’t read anything that’s printed in Chinese (whereas Japanese reporters can). You sense that in some of the reporting on Japan as well.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

NYT Seconds My China-Bizarro China Assessment…oops?

The New York Times chimes in with A Rescue in China, Uncensored, a very favorable “news analysis” (NYT’s own words) on the Chinese government’s response to the earthquake and its public communications efforts, complete with a brief comparison with the Myanmar authorities.

I now have to rethink my own assessment a little, though. Today’s hardcopy Yomiuri carries an article that explains the heavy hand of the Chinese authorities behind the intensive domestic reporting. A near-translation of the passage carrying the salient facts follows:

On May 12, Li Zhangchun, fifth ranked member of the Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee [ed. more importantly, “Propaganda Chief”] chaired an emergency meeting and issued the guideline for reporting on the earthquake, namely: “Firmly maintain stability and solidarity and focus on positive reporting”. The following day, the government issued an emergency directive to the media, urging them to “guide (public opinion) in a positive direction”, communicate the Party and the government’s “considerateness” to the victims, and calm the public. According to a Chinese newspaper report, the major newspapers adopted a decision to emphasize the Party center and the government’s focus on the lives of the people, expeditious rescue operations, the military and police who do not shirk self-sacrifice, etc.

The Yomiuri’s own assessment is summed up by the article’s headline and subtitle: (headline) Stability Top Priority (subtitle) Chinese Government—Strict Control over Reporting.

Now we know why we’re getting so much footage and photos of a caring Prime Minister Wen from Shinhwa. Yes, all governments try to game the system, manipulate the press. You got to see a lot of President Bush after Hurricane Katrina (some of which he must have regretted). But in liberal democracies, the authorities can’t issue directives, and newspaper associations won’t oblige. The silver lining is that it’s being done openly, and we get to see it.

The foreign media still appear to be operating freely, though, and survivors are talking to them. The articles show growing despair and anger, and even some civil disobedience, including sporadic reports of locals assaulting and looting supply vehicles and fighting over water supplies. This contrasts strongly with Burma, where the BBC correspondent (native English speaker) must hide his identity to report. To the extent that information comes out (and it does), it’s an oversight. The Myanmar authorities’ indifference, incompetence and corruption conspire to produce evidence to refute their bland reassurances.

In sum, I think that NYT and I should have given more qualified descriptions of the situation in China.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

More Content Online than Hardcopy? Depends on Where You Are

A reminder: I'm now augmenting the daily column with one-liners available only on the Sun-Times' Web site. Go to and click on my column to learn how you can sign up for text-message updates.
—footnote in Richard Roeper column, Chicago Sun-Times, 2008 May 12

Very casually, one of my favorite columnists is reminding me that in this neck of the MSM woods, I can now get more information from the non-subscription web version than the pay-to-read hardcopy version. Maybe they should just sell the classified ads.

I don’t think that it’s just the Sun-Times either. But the picture is very different in Japan, where only a fraction appears on the websites, mostly in highly truncated form. And an archive’s lifespan is measured in weeks and months, not years. Sankei is the only Japanese MSM outlet going in the other direction, through its visually clunky but bounteous website in collaboration with MSN. You know, you should do a story about this. Yes, you. I know you’re reading this…

China and Bizarro China

Beyond the initial shock over the enormity of the blow and the growing horror at the rapidly rising death toll, what’s striking about the disaster in China’s Sichuan Province is the openness of it all. The media are augmenting their own on-the-spot reporting with Xinhwa wires and video, including raw footage from people who just happened to be there with cameras when the earthquake struck. One day after the quake, the Chinese authorities in Beijing held at least one detailed briefing for the foreign press. And the tragic, ever-increasing numbers are tumbling out, in town-by-town detail. Not that it would have been easy to pull down the shutters—Chengdu, the Sichuan capitol, and its environs are a popular tourists’ destination; at least one American tourist interviewed live from the CNN studio, likely by cell phone—but the fact that they did not, could not, shows that they are aware of the fact that China is embedded in the global community and are behaving accordingly.

That’s a good thing, and it’s not just about the rest of the world. The Chinese public is watching, too, and speaking out. When the Chinese media aired footage of the Olympic torch being passed along by happy runners with nary a nod to the unfolding tragedy, there was serious public outrage. And the authorities responded, promising downsized fanfare, as well as a minute of silence before the run each day. They know that the source of governance in a contemporary society plugged into the global community, their own Heavenly Mandate, lies on the acquiescence, if not the will, of the public. They are trying to pull this off without enfranchising their citizens, not an easy task. They’re doing a pretty good job so far.

Of course, for the victims of the earthquake, the media rollout is the least of it. But the on-the-ground efforts seem pretty solid too. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, a geological engineer by trade, has flown in to take direct command—he was a crack mining engineer before turning to full-time politics—and is swiftly marshaling massive resources, including the People’s Liberation Army, for rescue, recovery and, no doubt, future rebuilding efforts. They are not papering over shortages, they appreciate our offers for help, but please keep the medics and nurses and other people on hold for now, we have our hands full managing our own, and you will believe that, because they have been up front with everything else.

So you have the feeling that if China held a free national election after the Beijing Olympics, the Communist Party could run the table with the Hu-Wen tag team…… could they spare one of them for us…… In that one election. It’s what comes after that one, as well as what to do with all those party hacks, which will hold them back.

The Myanmar government in Burma is a different animal. Unprepared, ill-equipped, but most incriminating of all, disinterested by all accounts, they will also accept money and goods but not people. And things are returning to normal, thank you. But unlike China, they need the military transport planes, doctors and nurses, and aid workers to coordinate the rescue and relief efforts, to mention the obvious deficiencies that leap to mind. We think they’re saying that because they’ll look bad in comparison. If that’s true, that’s the good news; at least they care about what the Burmese public thinks.

Perhaps they’re just following the natural instincts of dictatorships to hide everything. Most everything else they do confirms that suspicion. But if so, they are doing an awful job. The Western media are carrying more on-the-spot pictures and video than you will be able to see and watch in a full day’s viewing—not that you will be able to, unless you are supremely indifferent to human suffering. The Myanmar government can minimize the damage and the death toll (it has), it can tell us that things are under control (it has), but the shield is riddled with cracks and holes. Corruption and incompetence must be conspiring to be totalitarianism’s own enemy and the media’s best friend—not quite a silver lining, but that’s how we get to know. Any of this openness as the disaster unfolds must be purely accidental.

Myanmar is Bizarro China.

Some Thoughts on Blogging

As you can easily figure out from its title, I started GlobalTalk 21 with the intent to put down my thoughts on international relations. In the beginning, I translated all my posts into Japanese; the need to make a living put an end to that very quickly. This did not really matter, since my posts over time began to revolve mainly around Japanese politics. After all, with 130 million Japanese and counting (down), there must be someone, somewhere who must be posting the same things that I’m saying on any particular post to a much wider Japanese readership than mine. But in English? And that is how it came to pass, or so I think. I’m trying to rebalance that by setting up a Japanese-language blog around US politics and other subjects that might be of interest to Japanese readers—I am realistic enough to know that few English speakers will come to me for bits of wisdom on US politics. Any subject, of course, could turn up in one, the other, or both blogs.

Also at the very beginning of this blog, I decided to blog under my own name. I did this, partly to brand myself, partly to assume responsibility for every word I would come to write. I also give my real name with any comments that I make on other people’s blogs. Moreover, I respond to every comment that I receive, friendly or hostile, self-identified or anonymous, and will continue to do so as long as I can. I owe that to the people who not only read my blog but take the time to comment.

Speaking of anonymity, I obviously have more respect for people who blog under their own names or some other permanent identity. They are putting their reputations at risk. Not that I cut them any more slack for that, as you can see from some of my counter-comments to a MTC, and he/she happens to be a good friend. Nevertheless, anonymity is not a part of the Internet Blovination that I find particularly attractive, as my dismissive posts and comments about the Japanese Internet forum 2 Channeru will testify. But all traffic is inherently good, and some intelligent, otherwise perfectly upright people do comment anonymously (although often more pungently, if you will, than people who disclose their identities). Unfortunately, there are people who say good things to you or about you, but act differently towards you under the cloak of anonymity. Even when I’m sure of their identities, I’ll tolerate them on a social/professional level—no man is an island—but it’s not a very pleasant fact of life.

080513I’m Not Sure What These Polls Are Trying to Tell Us about Our Political Parties and Their Leaders

Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda, Gordon Brown, Nicholas Sarkozy, Lee Myung-bak: What do these heads of state or government have in common? They all started their jobs with high opinion poll numbers that fell steeply, very early in their respective administrations.

Popularity Gap between Political Leaders and Their Parties

...remind myself not to start multiple drafts on single Word file...

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Which Numbers Will The Public Ride? The FNN Poll Revisited

FNN is notable among Japanese polls because it takes a survey every week, unlike other media outlets, which only take polls once a month and after any major political event that may turn out to be a tipping point. So, no daily tracking polls. Anyway…

Would you believe that the Japanese electorate intends to vote 32.6% to 20.2% in favor of the DPJ over the LDP-Komeito coalition in the next House of Representatives general election? Actually, you already knew that if you have been reading this blog; I reminded you, here. I also told you that None of the Above (actually, Undecided, a big difference—my bad) reigned supreme at 42.6%.


Would you believe that the LDP-Komeito coalition beats the DOJ and the rest of the opposition 57.2% to 26.2% (16.6% undecided) among the Japanese electorate when it comes to the choice of Prime Minister Fukuda’s successor?

So who are you going to believe? FNN, or… FNN? That’s right. I got the second set of numbers by adding up the percentages in support of coalition Diet members or any coalition figure and did the same for the opposition.

The Japanese electorate is clearly disillusioned with the institutional status quo. It yearns for leadership, but nobody even talks the talk. So the grass is bone-dry, begging for a Napoleon, a Lincoln, a Hitler, to set it on fire. And yet we get… a bunch of sixty-something LDP and DPJ demi-leaders, waiting for Yasuo Fukuda or Ichiro Ozawa to trip up?

What’s become of the children?

Monday, May 12, 2008

The New York Stephen Schwarzman Public Library? Why Not? And Why Stop at the Samsung Washington Monument?

I know it’s the American way, but it’s surprising to see how widespread the practice of pay-to-name has spread across to the four corners of that great nation and how it is now threatening one most public of New York public institutions.

Naming buildings, bridges, warships, and other colossal artifacts after famous men has been a traditional American practice. (In Mexico, they name them after generals, more often than not failed.) And wealthy Americans have always endowed public edifices and even entire institutions in exchange for leaving their names to posterity, instead of their unworthy, bickering children and battleaxe spouses. As for corporations, selling the brand is what separates the Cokes and Gillettes from the also-rans. So perhaps it should be no surprise that enterprising minds have combined the two and added corporate advertising to the mix to coax the newly-superrich and mega-companies to cough up their moneys to celebrate/vend themselves in perpetuity.

But eternity lasts only so long—only as long, Ozymandias, as the monument stands. And this is where I come to the rescue:

I, Jun (no middle name) Okumura, (dubiously) Esq., am hereby seeking investors to set up a for-profit institution to sell and trade naming rights for sovereign states and international institutions. At this exchange, the naming rights and their derivatives will be sold in perpetuity or for limited periods, just like prayers for your soul at the old Catholic Church or the typical Buddhist temple. The naming rights, of course, shall be exclusive, and protected by the good people at Blackwater and, if it becomes absolutely necessary, the WMD systems of our Great Leader .

Naming rights to UN institutions should fetch a particularly high premium—after all, do you ever hear of a UN institution being liquidated after it has served out its useful life?

As for sovereign states, the days of colonialism and gunboat diplomacy are over—if nothing else, states will multiply, not consolidate. Rest assured, the first cashed-strapped nation to sell its name shall remain standing, long after the Eiffel Tower and the George Washington Bridge (BTW commemorating two men who shamefully paid not a single penny for their not-quite immortalities) have returned to the lands and waters from whence they were raised. And that nation, you have my guarantee, will be named…

Yes, you guessed it, the Banana Republic of…

If I Still Had Any Doubts that the Fukuda Administration Was a Goner…

The May 8 Fuji TV weekly poll says it all: support for the Fukuda Cabinet further fell (if only within the margin of error) to 20.2% (from 22.2% in the May 1, post-gasoline tax hike poll). The same poll said that only 17.8% (15.4%) wanted to vote for an LDP candidate in the next House of Representatives election, while 32.6% (33.0%) chose the DPJ. None of the Above has slipped slightly, but is still clear of its two major rivals at 42.6% (45.4%).

The polls show that Hu Jintao’s visit did little to improve the Mr. Fukuda’s political fortunes. No wonder, since not-positives outnumbered positives by 59.8% to 26.0% on the Prime Minister’s policies toward China. Images of China’s harsh response to the demonstrations in Tibet and along the Olympics torch relay certainly did not help, nor did the inability to come up with something beyond still more words on the East China gas fields and the sputtering investigation into the source of the poisoned Chinese dumpling. It’s hard to see any major gains to be had from the largely ceremonial G-8 get-together in Hokkaido two months from now, nor any other foreign policy coups for that matter. If anything, the expiration of the law that authorizes JSDF operations in Iraq—opposed by a healthy majority of the Japanese public throughout its lifetime—in 2009 July will throw the next regular Diet into a frenzy if John McCain wins the U.S. Presidential race.

On the two touchstone issues, there is no doubt that the reinstated gasoline tax surcharge remains as unpopular as ever, though no new polling was done on the subject this time. But only 20.4% want the Late-Term Elderly Medical Care Insurance system be abolished; a full 71.0% seek improvements in its operation or its outright revision. Couple this with the persistent gap between the highly negative response to the reinstatement of the surcharge and the positive response when it is coupled with the turnover of the revenue to the general budget, and add the inability of the DPJ to pull in the great undecided to its side: I cannot escape the feeling that it is the sense of incompetence and indifference, as opposed to the policies themselves, that is the main cause of the precipitous fall in the support for the Fukuda administration and the LDP.

To gain a healthy majority, if not to maintain a supermajority, in the next HR general elections, the ruling coalition must regain the trust of the public on this front. It must play to win, not, mind you, not to lose. With no dramatic diplomatic coups in sight, the only viable candidate for that hallmark achievement appears to be a credible reform package of the entire fiscal profile, expenditures as well as taxes and debt, come fall. Mr. Fukuda, however, does not appear to have the intellectual breadth, his own or borrowed; support within the LDP to override all the entrenched vested interests; or the outreach to the public to go over the heads of fifth columns. Even now, his piecemeal approach to administrative and fiscal reform does not give the lie to this rather dismal evaluation.

In this negative phase of the political game, the deck is stacked in favored fo eh opposition, more specifically, the DPJ. Barring unforeseen circumstances, it is difficult for the DPJ to slip seriously—all it has to do is support popular causes and oppose unpopular ones. At this point, “Don’t play to win, play not to lose” seems to be highly viable election strategy for it.

Given this situation, it must be tempting to the LDP to string the public along with the Fukuda administration along as far as it can go, then dump it and go on to the next HR general election under the next “Most Popular” LDP Representative, full steam ahead, before the charm wears off the new Prime Minister.

The other option, of course, is the political Big Bang. There is any number of intra- and cross-party power breakfast, lunches, and dinners going on, which gives an air of credibility to rumors of a major realignment. But beyond sheer inertia, the main obstacle to such an outcome is the lack of political incentive on the part of the DPJ. The DPJ has healthy plurality in the House of Councilors. With a relatively small number of other opposition members on its side there, it will not need an HR supermajority to get its way, policy-wise. Thus, whatever the outcome of the next HR general election, I can understand some splintering but no obviously serious cracks, as a few Representatives here and there, from the major parties as well as micros and the covey of the unaligned court and are courted from the two major players.

All this will lead to an outcome that will leave an inconclusive, even more fluid political situation in place and, more troubling, the major policy issues unresolved. Let’s hope that I’m proven wrong, in a good way.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Do You Know What’s the Most Amazing Line in the Japan-China Joint Statement?

The Joint Statement between the Government of Japan and the Government of the People's Republic of China on Comprehensive Promotion of a "Mutually Beneficial Relationship Based on Common Strategic Interests says:

The Chinese side expressed its positive evaluation of Japan's consistent pursuit of the path of a peaceful country and Japan's contribution to the peace and stability of the world through peaceful means over more than sixty years since World War II.

Do you realize that this sixty-some-year period covers among other things 1950-53 and 1959-75? I’m not kidding; bureaucrats worry endlessly about these things. So you can bet Hu Jintao knew this when he signed on to the document. He must have said something like: Nobody remembers anything about logistics; if it makes them happy…

Gasoline Taxes Potpourri

For the first quarter of 2008, the average state gasoline tax is 28.6 cents per gallon, plus 18.4 cents per gallon federal tax making the total 47 cents per gallon. For diesel, the average state tax is 29.2 cents per gallon plus an additional 24.4 cents per gallon federal tax making the total 53.6 cents per gallon.
—from Motor Fuel Taxes, American Petroleum Institute

Let's do the conversion math. For gasoline, that’s a 4.86 cent/liter federal tax and a 7.56 cent/liter state tax for 12.42 cents in federal and state taxes per liter. For diesel oil, the respective figures are 6.45 cents, 7.71 cents, and 14.16 cents.

The so-called gasoline tax in Japan consists of a 5.2 yen/liter local road tax and 48.6 yen/liter volatile oil tax, for a total of 53.8 yen/liter. The “temporary” surcharge accounts for 24.3, 0.8, and 23.8 yen/liter, respectively. The light oil (i.e. diesel fuel) tax 32.1 yen/liter, of which 17.1 yen is the “temporary” surcharge.

There’s more:

You know, I think Americans would be shocked to learn that only about 60 percent of the gas tax money that they pay today actually goes into highway and bridge construction. Much of it goes in many, many other areas.
—2007 August 17; Mary Peters, U.S. Secretary of Transportation

By contrast, most of the Japanese gasoline tax money goes into the construction and maintenance of roads, including some very expensive bridges. Yes, the U.S. highway system may be going to pot. Yes, compensating Japanese landowners is expensive, and so is building against earthquakes. Still, I see a good prima facie case that Japanese roads can do without a lot of that money without risking pothole epidemics and collapsing bridges. In fact, as an American journalist said to me the other day, a few potholes here and there would have the salutary effects of showing that we weren’t overspending.

Last month, 42 of the 47 prefectural governors in Japan told Yomiuri that they wanted to maintain the surcharge, and none of the other five opposed it outright. With regard to putting the money into the general funds, only four governors supported it. On the other hand, only 11 opposed it outright. Most of them must be waiting to see how much of the money would continue to be shoveled back into their coffers and local economies before they break either way. The Tokyo governor is a strong supporter of the status quo; wealthy Tokyo has no problems in meeting the local copayment requirements for national road project and still have more than enough money to finance the rest of its own projects—roads or otherwise. Better then, to have the money spent on Tokyo roads rather than run the risk of the national government taking a bigger cut or shunting the money to the poorer prefectures. Those poorer prefectures on the other hand would benefit from string-free cash handouts as long as they didn’t lose money in the bargain.

These governors aren’t that far off from their constituents as the two-, three-to-one public opinion polls running against the maintenance of the status quo would seem to indicate. This Asahi poll shows that the 67% who supported putting the revenue into the general funds were split 44%-44% on the reinstatement of the surcharge in the event of the handover to the general funds. That’s 29% of the sample group, much higher than the 22% who support the reinstatement of the surcharge outright. Now there may be some overlap between the two numbers (I have no way of knowing unless I see the full survey results), but the results do suggest that the Japanese public by and large would support the retention of the surcharge if the government coupled it with a major overhaul of the road development program and its implementation process and a revision of the program’s place in the list of national priorities. Can the Fukuda administration and the ruling coalition do it this fall? I am increasingly skeptical.

If the Fukuda administration wants to put the road money in the general funds come fiscal year 2009, why doesn’t it just drop the 10-year extension of the pending special bill and use the money in the FY2008 road budget, which has already been passed?

Because the special bill is needed to extend special rates for subsidies that the national government doles out to local governments. Without it, the subsidy rates would revert to the lower “normal” rates, throwing local budgets out of whack.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Films: May 5 in Japan‐You Know What That Means…

I drafted the following at the beginning of Golden Week, intending to post it on Kodomo no Hi. I filled out the Yasukuni part, but completely forgot about the rest. Now, this reminds me that I did see The Red Balloon, another movie about the world of us little boys and our dreams, so many years ago:

It’s Kodomo no Hi! Let’s hope this movie arrives in time for next year’s Children’s Day.

Speaking of movies, Yasukuni is opening in theaters close to you. According to this Yomiuri report, it opened to a packed crowd (if, unsurprisingly for a documentary, in an 129-132-seat theater used for small-bore films), and no protesters were to be seen. Perhaps the private screening held for some right-wing leaders (no, not the one for the Diet members, in case you wondered) cleared the air, in the same way Western criticism of Shintaro Ishihara’s drama on the final days of Kamikaze pilots died down once the film opened.

Japanese-Language Blog

I started a Japanese-language blog.

I've been asked to give a talk on the US presidential election and its implications for Japan. In Japanese. So I need to do some research, thinking and writing in Japanese, and I decided to use a blog for that purpose. I know that at least some of you can read Japanese; feel free to comment in English if it's easier. I won't mind, that's for sure.

Of course I'll be writing about other things there too, I'm sure.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Yasukuni the Movie Plays to a Packed Theater

Yasukuni is coming to 23 theaters across the country, one of which may be close to you.

According to this Yomiuri report, the movie opened to a packed crowd in trendy Shibuya (if, unsurprisingly for a documentary, in an 129-132-seat theater used for small-bore films), and no protesters were to be seen. The Sankei reports that all the first-day tickets were quickly sold out, Perhaps the private screening held for some right-wing leaders (no, not the one for the Diet members, in case you wondered) cleared the air, in the same way Western criticism of Shintaro Ishihara’s drama on the final days of Kamikaze pilots died down once the film opened. Indeed, the tributes page features a couple of plugs (one a little iffy) from nationalist/right-wing figures*. The veteran journalist Soichiro Tawara also endorses it, giving it the ultimate mainstream imprimatur.

*… as well as well as a blurb from this Taiwanese “ero-terrrorist” blogger. No, seriously. She also posted on the movie on her own blog here. There is a serious, very reasonable dialogue going on there among the people commenting from all sides, totally unlike the crap you cannot see too little of that is found in the 2 Channel chat rooms.

Opinion Polls—Missing in Action

There’s an article in today’s hardcopy Yomiuri, page four, on the response from the Prime Minister regarding the most recent drop in the opinion polls. It’s very, very brief, so I’m going to translate it in its entirety.

Sudden Drop in Support “[I Accept It] with Great Seriousness”

On the night of [May] 2nd, Prime Minister stated regarding the sudden drop in support for the Fukuda Cabinet in all the media opinion polls, “I am accepting them with great seriousness.” He responded to a question from reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office. According to the Kyodo News survey (taken on May 1-2), support dropped into the teens, at 19.8%; with the Asahi Shinbun survey (taken on April 30-May 1) at 20% and the Nikkei, Inc. survey (same), they fell between 5-8% from their previous surveys.

So you tell me what’s wrong with this picture. Need a hint? Mainichi also took a May 1-2 poll, putting the Fukuda Cabinet at 18%.

Friday, May 02, 2008

What’s Up with US Military Criminal Suspects Now?

Nothing, really. Last week, CNN reports, the U.S. Military in Japan charged “Staff Sgt. Tyrone Luther Hadnott, 38,… with the rape of a child under 16, abusive sexual contact with a child, making a false official statement, adultery and kidnapping.*” Today, there’s aReuters report on a groping charge against a member of the US Air Force. And you know what? Life goes on, and the US military bases remain. Why?

Well, part of the reason may be that the crime rate for the US military and their dependents is noticeably lower than the Japanese population as a whole. That’s true for Okinawa, for sure. At least that’s what a Japanese website that linked to relevant crime statistics said. Rough, back-of-the-envelope calculations confirmed the website’s conclusions**. So I let the matter go, thinking that the issue would die down, until the next tabloid-worthy accusations. And here we are.

The low incidence of US military crimes in Japan is not that surprising. I’m sure that the average Okinawan is not any more criminally inclined than me, or the rest of the Japanese population. But US soldiers are by definition gainfully employed in a physically and psychologically demanding, highly regimented, workplace. Fulltime. Criminal records, until very recently, would have seriously hampered US citizens and citizenship-seeking residents in getting jobs in the US military. In other words, the US military tends to attract law-abiding men and women who are generally not in a situation to commit serious crimes. Moreover, there are no stressful battlefield situations in Okinawa to make you snap. Recidivism won’t be a problem either, unless US military personnel convicted of crimes are released back into the Okinawa population.

Then what was the meaning of all that attention to the military crime epidemic? Mainly because it was about Okinawa, where there’s a history that stretches back to its experience with the imperial army. And also because it was about the US military—it’s the “shark attack epidemic” effect. A rash of felonies, and the entire media forgets the law of averages.

Do not worry, Ambassador Shieffer, though; it’s not just your soldiers whose crimes catch the attention of the Japanese media. Any crime by any man (rarely if ever woman) in uniform is vastly more newsworthy than a crime of similar proportions by a run-of-the-mill civilian. A policeman leaves the force after five years of duty, kills a guy fifteen years later, he’s identified as an ex-cop: little else that he’s done since then matters. The same holds true for the Self-Defense Force.

Moreover, there’s another, related category of people who receive the same treatment—bureaucrats. Fifteen years from now, if I am arrested for criminal defamation, you can be sure that I’ll be identified not as an inveterate blogger but as an ex-METI official***. Which is why I double-check every single fact on this blog. Trust me.

As I said, life goes on. We haven’t gotten rid of the police. We haven’t gotten rid of the Self-Defense Forces. And the last time I looked, METI was alive and kicking. I don’t think we’ll be demanding that the Yankees go home any time soon. Not while North Korea or, for many people here, an authoritarian China is around.

Speaking of sex offender bureaucrats, this AP report says that a Kinokawa official was demoted for accessing porn sites more than 780,000 times over a period of nine months. The Kinokawa official making the announcement said that the disgraced official accessed porn sites 170,000 times last July alone.

Assuming that the official worked heroic 80-hour weeks and spent them solely on accessing porn sites, a conservative estimate says that the (obviously) guy had to access porn sites every eight seconds that he was on the job. I’m not sure that my fingers won’t drop off after one full day of that kind of activity. Is there some kind of automatic porn-downloading software that lets you do that? And if so, how does the software know that it’s obscene when it sees it?

* Note that the photo in the report came from the original February demonstrations. Note also that the report says “under 16” and “adultery”. The first hints suggests that my conjecture that a straightforward rape charge may not be sustainable under the Japanese Criminal Code (the age of consent under that law is 14) was more likely than not correct; the second tells you that there’s more that needs updating in the US military than the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule.

** I can’t be sure where I found it, it’s been quite awhile; but I think that thispost might be it. It appears to link to the relevant statistics.

*** Teachers and professors are fair game, but I don’t see suspects and convicted criminals identified as ex-teachers…. Maybe the media lose interest in educators as criminals once they leave the profession.

McCain Promises Them the Moon Because It Won’t Happen Anyway Strategy

Ross Douthat slams John McCain for his slew of mutually irreconcilable pledges. Mr. McCain, if he’s honest, will be thanking the gods for the “twisted” Congress, which won’t allow him to do the things he’s promised to do.

Which, of course, reminds me of the DPJ promises. My money says it can’t square their circle. I’ll be more than happy to be proven wrong, since the coalition doesn’t look like a good bet either. And it’s too late to emigrate.

BTW it’s funny how “twisted” works differently; here and there, parliamentary and presidential. This calls for a taxonomy.

Gasoline Prices: Here and There

Here, I took up Paul Krugman’s argument against the temporary relief that Senators Evil and Pointless—his words, not mine, sort of—are pretending to push. MK must be reading this blog, because she kindly sent me this report from the Center from American Progress Action Fund that sums up the discussions going on over there. The consensus of US economists appears to be that a temporary tax cut will not be reflected in a lower gas price and the money will go to the oil companies. (Senator Clinton proposes an excess profits tax on the oil companies to sop it up, which is where “pointless” comes in.) Makes sense, I guess. But wouldn’t economists love to see something like that happen, just to see if their theory works?

Well, Japan just did that all of last month, and the fact of the matter is, thing haven’t quite turned out that way. On and around April 1, service stations engaged in a session of price cutting that only game theorists could love, and come May, they are reportedly going through somewhat similar gyrations, ultimately bringing gas prices up to pre-April levels plus cost adjustments for rising oil prices. What gives?

Two possible reasons: First, I think that Japanese gas supply is more elastic than America’s. Japanese demand is growing more slowly, so there’s likely more production capacity available to take advantage of lower costs. The US oil market is a crazy-quilt of state regulations that makes it difficult in the short-run to adjust supply to cross-state shifts in demand, except for interstate drivers as well as drivers living near state borders. The segmentation also makes it difficult to increase supply through imports. These elements add up to a US market where supply is highly and uniquely inelastic.

Second, a shift in the supply curve can cause also cause changes in gas prices. Japanese oil businesses may be more amenable to public pressure and moral suasion. They cannot forget how the public vilified them for raising prices during the 1973 Oil Crisis, and politicians and the government piled on. All cost changes should be of equal effect, at least in the short-run, but in Japan, some costs are more equal than others.

Here, actually, I’d like to segue into my take on the fall showdown by way of the latest Asahi telephone poll. Hope to do that later, but in the meantime, briefly:

The LDP-New Komeito coalition must come up with a credible fiscal reform package that covers expenditures. The DPJ should come up with a credible fiscal reform package that ties together all the promises that they’ve been making with regard to cutting tax cuts and increasing subsidies. My vote in the next House of Representatives general election goes to the one that does. My bet is on None of the Above. Please stay tuned.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Ex-Prime Minister Koizumi Not Invited to the Beijing Olympics

At least that’s what the Mainichi headline says. The article also claims that Ex-Prime Ministers Mori and Abe have been invited, as well as the incumbent Yasuo Fukuda.

And to think, we’d been foolish enough to believe that the Olympic and politics don’t mix. Now where did we get that idea in the first place…

You don’t think that the Mssrs. Mori and Abe are dumb enough to go without a quid pro quo, do you? In fact, what the hell are all these invitations to heads of state/government about anyway?

Paul Krugman’s Take on Gasoline Tax Relief

Here, Paul Krugman agrees with every other economist on the planet and slams John McCain and Hillary Clinton for supporting a one-off, temporary suspension of the federal gas tax for the summer holidays. He doesn’t use the pander word, but he does call their plans evil (Mr. McCain) and pointless (Mrs. Clinton). Pretty strong words, no?

There are several obvious differences between the U.S. tax cut follies (another Krugman choice) and the one-month suspension in Japan. The following quote from Mr. Krugman’s op-ed happens to lay them out in bold relief:

I don’t regard this as a major issue. It’s a one-time thing, not a matter of principle, especially because everyone knows the gas-tax holiday isn’t actually going to happen.

A caveat here: The DPJ—as with the refueling operations—discovered this matter of principle well after it drew up its manifest. That gives its position something of a makeshift air. Still, it can still showcase itself as a party of substance if it can expose the Fukuda administration’s fiscal reform package as a whitewash of the status quo at the autumn showdown. If the recent behavior of the Fukuda administration and the ruling coalition is any indication, there's a good chance that the proposal will be vulnerable.

Clarification or Step-back? The 2007 US Report on North Korea as State Sponsor of Terrorism

I took this up last September. Now the 2007 State Sponsors of Terror Overview is out. Take a look. I’ve highlighted the before-and-after in bold. I think that the change reflects the latest turn of events, and is intended to reassure US hardliners that the Bush administration will require quid pro quo at each step of the denuclearization process. The abductees remain, in my view, a side issue with regard to the delisting process.

Country Reports on Terrorism; Chapter 3—State Sponsors of Terrorism Overview; North Korea

2006 The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) was not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987. The DPRK continued to harbor four Japanese Red Army members who participated in a jet hijacking in 1970. The Japanese government continued to seek a full accounting of the fate of the 12 Japanese nationals believed to have been abducted by DPRK state entities; five such abductees have been repatriated to Japan since 2002. In the February 13, 2007 Initial Actions Agreement, the United States agreed to "begin the process of removing the designation of the DPRK as a state-sponsor of terrorism."

2007 The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) was not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987. The DPRK continued to harbor four Japanese Red Army members who participated in a jet hijacking in 1970. The Japanese government continued to seek a full accounting of the fate of the 12 Japanese nationals believed to have been abducted by DPRK state entities; five such abductees have been repatriated to Japan since 2002. As part of the Six-Party Talks process, the United States reaffirmed its intent to fulfill its commitments regarding the removal of the designation of the DPRK as a state sponsor of terrorism in parallel with the DPRK’s actions on denuclearization and in accordance with criteria set forth in U.S. law.

President Bush Backs Up on North Korean Enrichment Verification

On April 28, President Bush, while talking about the purpose of the disclosure of the Syrian nuclear facility with regard to North Korea, said that “it's essential that you have a complete disclosure on not only your plutonium activities, but proliferation, as well as enrichment activities.” It clearly raises the hurdle on North Korea’s uranium enrichment program. As a matter of pure logic, he could have made a distinction between a declaration and an acknowledgement of concern. But that would have consigned the entire Chris Hill package to oblivion in the face of Congressional opposition. Either way, the deal looks headed for a deadlock, unless the North Koreans put out on its enrichment program.

It’s not very long, the one relevant Q&A in the entire press conference that President Bush held on April 29; so I’ve copied it below. The entire transcript can be found here.

Q Mr. President, thank you, sir. Previously when asked about Israel's September bombing of the Syrian facility, you refused aggressively to discuss it. Then suddenly last week, your administration released classified photos and details of that bombing, intelligence officials claiming that it showed that this facility was a North Korean-designed nuclear facility being actually built with the help of Pyongyang. Why the turnaround, sir? What did you hope that that would accomplish? And what do you say to lawmakers of both parties on Capitol Hill who are quite concerned that indeed if this was what this facility was, that it took some eight months for you to inform them, sir?
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Let me correct the record. We briefed 22 members of Congress on what I'm about to tell you. First, we were concerned that an early disclosure would increase the risk of a confrontation in the Middle East or retaliation in the Middle East. As I mentioned to you early on, we did notify 22 members of Congress, key committee chairmen. And I was -- I'm mindful that there was going to be this kind of reaction, and of course, we wanted to include more members of Congress at a time when we felt the risk of retaliation or confrontation in the Middle East was reduced, and so that moment came upon us, and then extended the briefings.

We also wanted to advance certain policy objectives through the disclosures, and one would be to the North Koreans, to make it abundantly clear that we may know more about you than you think, and therefore, it's essential that you have a complete disclosure on not only your plutonium activities, but proliferation, as well as enrichment activities.

And then we have an interest in sending a message to Iran, and the world for that matter, about just how destabilizing a -- nuclear proliferation would be in the Middle East, and that it's essential that we work together to enforce U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at getting Iran to stop their enrichment programs. In other words, one of the things that this example shows is that these programs can exist and people don't know about them -- because the Syrians simply didn't declare the program; they had a hidden program.

And finally, we wanted to make it clear to Syria -- and the world -- that their intransigence in dealing with helping us in Iraq, or destabilizing Lebanon, or dealing with Hamas -- which is a destablizing force in our efforts to have a Palestinian state coexist peacefully with Israel -- that those efforts are -- gives us a chance to remind the world that we need to work together to deal with those issues. So that's why we made the decision we made.