Friday, October 31, 2008

HAHA He Said Testicles

This raccoon dog is what Blaine Harden is talking about—“supersized testicles” at that. In the New York Times.

I blame it all on Bill Clinton.

Actually, Mr. Harden got the chronology backwards. Godzilla was a post-WW II creation, drawing on Ray Harryhausen and the fears and memories of the nuclear holocaust. If anything, it was Hayao Miyazaki’s work that brought the two Japanese narratives together in the movie theater, most prominently in Princess Mononoke.

I’m back. Will try to post. Later.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Transformation at AP; Also, Jodi Kantor on Barack Obama

I’ve taken note of the BBC’s tendency to jazz up its headlines to attract hits on its website. AP is doing much, much more than that according to the Washington Post, which ran a report entitled The AP Is Breaking More Than News. Jay Newton-Small, the reporter, chronicles the shift to what the AP’s Washington bureau chief calls “accountability journalism”.

Speaking of WaPo, Jodi Kantor’s report on Barack Obama is the most persuasive one I’ve seen on the man. I’ve finally gotten around to reading his Dreams from My Father and, though the stories he tells about himself there are nothing short of enchanting, I’ve been somewhat disconcerted by their neatly scripted, tightly edited feel. Ms. Kantor’s report sheds light on this sensation in a way that nothing else I’ve see does. It made me go back and look at her other articles; I think there’s a Pulitzer or two waiting for her—not now, but somewhere down the line.

And as another piece of proof that I’m behind the curve, I’m also finally reading The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. A Black Swan, according to Mr. Taleb, is an event with the following three attributes:
First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of normal expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
No need to explain why I’m getting into it now. Funny thing is, the real black swan carries only the first attribute.

Incidentally, I bought the two books (and a few others) at the Shinjuku Junkudo bookstore, which is currently selling all its foreign language books at half-price. For those of you in the Tokyo area who weren’t aware of it, the 50%-off sale continues till the end of this month.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

President Sarkozy and Group of LDP Backbenchers Both Want Sovereign Wealth Funds. So What, You Ask?

So what indeed. The President of France pushes sovereign wealth funds to “protect” European businesses, while a proposal for a Japanese SWF from a group of LDP backbenchers follows the gyrations of the financial markets. Lesson?—the French will be French, while Japan won’t be seeing an SWF any time soon? I’m not quite sure; you tell me:
President Sarkozy on January 8 proposing to use the state-owned Caisse des Depots et Consignations, which manages state pensions, to “protect” French businesses from sovereign wealth funds and private speculators:
"There is no question of France remaining unable to react in the face of a rise in the power of extremely aggressive sovereign funds which only follow economic logic," Sarkozy said.

"France must protect its companies and give them the means to develop and defend themselves. I want the CDC to be the instrument of this policy of defending and promoting the essential economic interests of the nation," he added.
Note his use of the terms “economic logic” and “economic interests”.
[A]n aide to Sarkozy…denied that Sarkozy wanted to set up France's own sovereign wealth fund or wrest the CDC away from parliament, whose powers Sarkozy has actually promised to strengthen.
Mr. Sarkozy on October 21 calling on EU members to set up SWFs to keep European businesses in European hands:
“Stock markets are at a historically low level. There could be an opportunity to create our own sovereign wealth funds, which would make it possible to defend national interests and European interests,” Mr Sarkozy said in remarks at the European Parliament.
Here’s Mr. Sarkozy on October 24, announcing plans for a French SWF using CDC money:
President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday said France would set up a new “strategic investment fund” to stop French companies from falling into the hands of foreign “predators”.
Let’s turn to Japan. Here’s a July 3 report on a LDP project team, which came up with a plan to set up a Japanese SWF using 10 trillion out of the 150 trillion yen held in public pension funds. There was less here than meets the eye. According to the proposal, the SWF would continue to be subjected to the same 2 to 1 split between domestic bonds and other assets as the rest of the funds and would share the same 3.2% annual return target for a five-year trial period. An earlier report had Kotaro Tamura, the executive director of the PT (Yuzo Yamamoto, a former Financial Services Minister, chaired the PT), pushing for an 8.5% target. The text of the proposal is nowhere to be found on the Internet.

Fast forward to October and the U.S. stock market meltdown, when Mr. Tamura attracted foreign media attention, this time with the idea of using an SWF to buy up distressed assets in the United States and Europe.
"We should send the signal that we are ready to save the world with this money," he said in an interview.

Tamura leads a group of 65 lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party who have proposed to Prime Minister Taro Aso that Japan treat the global financial meltdown "as a huge opportunity for us."

They are urging the government to inject some of its abundant cash into troubled U.S. and European banks, in return for equity, and to purchase distressed corporate assets at fire-sale prices.
I have yet to find a domestic news source regarding the 65 lawmaker group and its relation to the LDP PT, but let’s take the English-language news reports on faith. In any case, Mr. Tamura had to change his tune when the Japanese equity market collapsed:
What we should do is to buy stock and real estate with government assets…If the government and BOJ can’t act, there is no alternative but to close down the Tokyo Stock Exchange.
Who knows, we may wake up tomorrow to find that the Japanese government buying up Japanese stock, real estate, and real estate-based securities. But something tells me Mr. Tamura’s political pull falls short of his ambitions; helping regional banks stay afloat appears to be about as far as the Aso administration is going to go as far as propping up banks and non-banks are concerned. Beyond that, bailing out major financial institutions (unnecessary, knock on wood) or real estate businesses (undesirable) is a step that the Aso administration or any other administration for that matter will not be able to take without potentially fatal political repercussions.

I can see how the English-language media needed the Japanese buzz. As for the EU following Mr. Sarkozy’s lead…I’ll believe it when I see it.

Japanese Newspapers Follow Demographics

In Japan's Papers, Doomed but Going Strong, Washington Post's Blaine Harden does a competent job of describing how closely the state and fate of the five major dailies in Japan are tied to demographics. The gist of his article is that Japanese dailies are doing better than their U.S. counterparts because they benefit from the growing number of older people, who prefer to get their news from the print versions, in contrast to younger generations, who tend to rely on the Internet. A couple of elements that help maintain their grip on their readership are their highly developed home-delivery networks and their refusal (with the notable exception of fifth-place Sankei, now affiliated with MSN) to put anything more than a fraction of their material online.

Even more enviable for Mr. Blaine must be the following:
A national survey this month by the Yomiuri newspaper found that 85 percent of those questioned said they trust newspaper reporting.

About 20 percent of U.S. readers believe all or most of what they read in daily papers, according to a 2007 "State of the News Media" report issued by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
There’s obviously more to the print media than the five major dailies. (For starters, the Tokyo Shinbun group and other local newspaper groups, and the sports/entertainment and/or general purpose tabloids.) But this article is a good place for starters. It probably helps to write about something you know and understand.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

New Sarah Palin Story Reminds Me of the Wild West

If this story doesn’t sink the Palin-McCain ticket, I don’t know what will. In fact, I think that she’ll have to forget about 2012 as well. From troopergate to tickettravelgate, with the governor’s spouse hanging around office meetings thrown in, many people must be hearing echoes of Bill Clinton’s saga. Me? I’m struck by the resemblance to those Westerns, where a strongman takes over an outpost, he and his people begin acting as if they own the place… In fact, I just read one of those the other day.

Alaska appears to be a frontier in more ways than one. Not that this doesn’t happen everywhere that a liberal democracy doesn’t exist, or fails to function properly.

Will Power Draw the DPJ Even Closer to the LDP, and Related Thoughts

The LDP’s refueling extension bill is now in the Upper House, but the DPJ bill to help out on the ground in Afghanistan did not make it out of the Lower House. The LDP-New Komeito voted the latter down, no surprise there. However, the Communists (JCP) and Social Democrats (SDP) added their voices of opposition just to be sure.

Not that either of the two hands cared what the other one was doing; the JCP and SDP don’t want the Self-Defense Forces to go to Afghanistan, period. In fact, there’s no reason to believe that the two left-wing parties and any independent allies of theirs will vote for any particular measure put forth by a DPJ-led administration. Beyond that, there’s the People’s New Party, more conservative, actually, than the LDP itself.

Unless the DPJ winds up with a majority of the seats in the upcoming election, a DPJ administration may have to work even more closely with the LDP and/or the New Komeito—a grand coalition?—than it’s doing now if it wants to get its legislative initiatives out of the Lower House. And we haven’t even talked about the Upper House, where the DPJ will be short of a majority at least until 2010. The alternative for the DPJ is to find an LDP splinter group that is willing to join a coalition government. Both of these options, if engineered successfully, should be more manageable and able to get more things done than a coalition with the other parties currently in opposition.

I’ve already said that the DPJ is a poor man’s LDP. In fact, the two have far more in common (including their respective ideological cacophonies barely contained by party discipline and a common desire for power) than any other combination of the political parties. The Japanese electorate thinks so too, if this Waseda-Yomiuri poll is any indication. The DPJ and LDP both scored highly negative 17%-79% and 20%-80% satisfaction/dissatisfaction splits respectively. As for future prospects, the DPJ and DPJ scored nearly identical 49%-50% and 50%-48% respectively for the expectation/non-expectation split.

A few caveats: this is a Yomiuri poll, albeit with the Waseda University gloss. Also, the DPJ did do better on other indices. It also scored better with the younger generations. Conventional wisdom tells us that, other things being equal, that is not good news for the DPJ in terms of election-day turnout. However, it does bode somewhat well for the DPJ in the long-run if (a huge if at that) the political configurations remain more or less as is.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Maruchi Shoho, the Business Model that Won’t Stop Giving

According to the Asahi, the Mie Prefecture Council of Social Welfare, established under the Social Welfare Activities Act, issued a warning against maruchi shoho in one of its newsletters. In response, the Distribution Business Promotion Parliamentary League aka Diet Member League to Nurture a Wholesome Network Industry (健全なネットワークビジネスを育てる議員連盟) fired off a letter in the name of DPJ Diet members Kenji Yamaoka, Yukichi Maeda and Yoshio Maki threatening the Mie Council with lawsuits if it did not retract its warning and post a public apology. The Wikipedia entry on Mr. Maki states that the Council newsletter is dated 15 October 2006 and the League ultimatum 28 February 2007. It is not known if the lawsuit was actually filed. According to the Asahi report, Mr. Yamaoka and Mr. Maki deny any knowledge of the letter, though Mr. Maki does admit that he did agree to join the League. Mr. Maeda claims that he discussed the ultimatum with the pair.

For the record, Yoshio Maki is a three-term Lower House member from the DPJ. With regard to Western-liberal hot-button issues, he appears to be south of Taro Aso and somewhere in the vicinity of Takeo Hiranuma. He also seems to have an affinity for the maruchi shoho industry. His defense background in addition to his obvious relationship with the two suggests that he could be also be an Ozawa recruit.

Today, Asahi reports that on October 2003, Mr. Ishii received 3.5 million yen from the maruchi shoho industry. According to the Asahi report, Mr. Ishii, who had jump-started the political caucus the month before, was the only one who received money that month. Asahi can’t get enough of this DPJ angle; they’re certainly doing a more thorough job than Mainichi on Mr. Ishii. In any case, the DPJ obviously failed to make a clean break when it dismissed Yukichi Takada.

… and the DPJ was supposed to be an LDP upgrade… Any more of these side stories and the DPJ won’t have any momentum left.

DPJ Endorses Military Deployment to Protect Global Sea Lanes?

DPJ Deputy leader Yukio Hatoyama strikes a more than reasonable note on sending Self-Defense Force ships to protect the sea lanes against pirates. He stated that the DPJ would “consider the matter positively and favorably after [taking power]” and that “if we are to protect foreign ships as well as Japanese ones, we need a new law.” He may only be saying this to keep national security conservatives such as Akihisa Nagashima and Keiichiro Asao on side in the lead-up to the Lower House election, but I don’t think so. I am going to take his words at face value. Robert Dujarric sent me his latest Japan Times op-ed Japan in a Post-U.S. World, where he argues that Japan can and should do more to maintain and reinforce the public services that for the most the United States has provided during the post-WW II period. I agree (though I have some issues with his specific recommendations; I may talk about that later), and protecting the sea lanes in the Middle East and East Africa from pirates is one area where our national interests are squarely in line with the global public good.

I can’t quite see how Mr. Hatoyama can square that with the DPJ opposition to the Self-Defense Force refueling operations in the Indian Ocean on constitutional grounds. In both cases, the parties we’ll be going up against are non-sovereign entities engaging in illegal, often violent activities. Under international law, engaging them in battle would be a policing action by the JSDF, not an act of war, would it not? It doesn’t make sense from a legal point of view to choose one and reject the other.

Having said that, if it had to be one or the other, I’d say that patrolling the sea lanes against pirates is more important from a operational, if not necessarily diplomatic, point of view. Moreover, it’s the more radical and welcome departure from Japan’s traditionally circumspect approach to overseas projection of its military, not to mention more fun—fighting pirates indeed…Do I hear echoes of… yes, to the shores of Tripoli…

ADD: My reference to the U.S. Marines’ Hymn is partly in jest, partly a note of caution. For the line between policing actions on one hand and infringements on sovereignty and even war on the other can be blurry and subject to shifts.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Jero the Enka Guy, on CNN

It’s good to see this young man get some recognition over there. After all, he’s one of the few college graduates, much less computer scientists, to make the jump from amateur karaoke to the pros in the enka genre, reminding us of all those music majors and teachers in the United States in the 30s and 40s who brought the blues and folk music into the mainstream.

But speaking of the 40s, “a traditional form of lounge music that flourished in 1940’s Japan”? C’mon, enka produced the first Japanese million-seller single in 1961 and continued to produce big hits and megastars for many more years. It is only in the last couple of decades that the genre has seen a serious decline, but it’s still more popular with the general public than, say, American folk music is in the United States. Or the blues. And “lounge music?” If so, then jazz is “lounge music”, as any self-respecting gaijin should be able to tell you.

There may be a story here to be told about how outsiders from the “riverbed people” to Korean residents have been integrated into the broader Japanese society through the entertainment industry.

Meanwhile, in Boston in game 5, Matsuzaka is froof that if you’re no good, that’s when it’s really good to be lucky.

The Association of Diet Members Who Go to Yasukuni Together. Not... Much

This morning, members of the non-partisan Association of Diet Members Who Go to Yasukuni Together paid their respects at the Yasukuni Shrine on the occasion of the Autumn Seasonal Grand Ceremonies. 47 members attended, down from 67 in 2007 and 84 in 2006. Money quote, from Yoshinobu Shimamura, the Association Chairman:
”The number of Lower House members is down; perhaps they have the [upcoming] Lower House election on their minds.”
So much for the right-wing surge that op-ed writers love to drool over.

Incidentally, none of the Cabinet Ministers, not even those people’s favorite right-wingnut Prime Minister Aso, joined the Elected Ones.

Facts Emerge from Seiko Noda’s Press Conference on Maruchi Shoho Incident

Let me dwell again on the maruchi shoho controversy, not because it’s a game changer—it’s not, really—but because it illuminates a corner of Japanese politics that adds a little local color and hopefully helps you understand what politicians here do and why they do it, which is at least more useful than any big-picture stuff that I can do right now. Or ever.
This morning, Consumer Affairs Minister Seiko Noda’s held a press conference to explain her relationship with the maruchi shoho industry. Now we have a clearer outline of the facts:
In 1996, Ms. Noda used question time in the Lower House Commerce and Industry Committee with regard to a legislative bill to amend the Act regarding Door-to-Door Sales, Etc. (the current Act regarding Specified Commercial Transactions) to ask questions that were by media accounts favorably inclined toward the businesses. In preparing for the Q&A, she received a briefing from Amway Japan. Later, she sold eight tickets (three each in 2002, 2003 and two in 2008) totaling 160,000 yen for fundraising parties to Amway. Her records do not go back beyond 2000. She is returning the money to Amway today.

15 other Cabinet Ministers denied that they had received any money from the maruchi shoho industry or used question time on their behalf. Yuko Obichi, the Minister for Social Affairs and Gender Equality, was still checking. That’s one Minister shy of the full 18, but I’ll leave it at that for now.
Ms. Noda’s alleged advocacy appears to be a one-off event and involves far less money than what Mr. Maeda and the DPJ earned for their sympathies. So far, other, more significant elements of the LDP have not been implicated. (A suggestion on that, later.) Nevertheless, the media is paying a lot of attention to her case, because she is a high-profile Diet member (whereas few people outside of his constituency had even seen Mr. Takada) and, more significantly, a Cabinet Minister, in charge of consumer protection of all things. It can’t have helped the LDP, either, that it had been bludgeoning the DPJ with the revelations regarding Mr. Maeda and his more illustrious DPJ colleagues, even as Ms. Noda’s case was about to break.

So has Ms. Noda been a rogue operator all along? No. Actually, I’m rather sympathetic to her case. Let me explain:

The Act regarding Specified Commercial Transactions began life in 1976 as the Act regarding Door-to-Door Sales. The ASCT currently regulates six types of business activities including, from the beginning, multilayer marketing, or maruchi shoho, as it is popularly known. The law’s objective is to “contribute to the wholesome development of the national economy by protecting the interests of the purchaser, etc. and rendering appropriate and facilitating the distribution of goods, etc. and the provision of services”. In other words, the law does not a priori condemn maruchi shoho and indeed implicitly assumes that, properly regulated, it can contribute to the public welfare.

From time to time, the ASCT has been amended, mostly to broaden the coverage and/or tighten existing regulation. 1999 was just such an occasion, when it was amended, first to enhance criminal sanctions and again to hand over responsibilities from the state to local governments. Ms. Noda’s questions must have come during the first legislative bill*.

When a legislative bill is submitted—in this case most certainly by the Cabinet and in any case not by the opposition—it is sent to the committee with jurisdiction over the subject of the law of the House to which the bill was specifically submitted. There, committee members on all sides interrogate the Cabinet Minister or Ministers under the oversight of that committee and their subordinates. Other sub-Cabinet government officials may also be summoned by the committee members for questioning. Time is allocated among the parties represented in the committee in the order of the size of their respective parliamentary representations, with the opposition parties usually more favored than their numbers warrant in the case of Cabinet-sponsored bills. I do not know how the time is allocated within each party; suffice to say that on that particular occasion, Ms. Noda was the one LDP Lower House member—or one of possibly two—assigned with the responsibility to use her time to draw out answers that assure the public that the government bill was not too lenient, not too heavy-handed, but just right. For maruchi shoho is not fraud; there’s good maruchi shoho and there’s bad maruchi shoho. I mean, multilayered marketing. Or, if you prefer, network business.

Whatever. In any case, Ms, Noda was bound by party loyalty if not necessarily personal conviction—though I have no reason to doubt her then sincerity—to proceed under the assumption that, properly regulated—which being the amendment bill—the maruchi shoho industry (business model, actually) could in fact “contribute to the wholesome development of the national economy”. I’d have to see the transcript of the 1999 Q&A to be sure, but it appears that Ms. Noda at the time was guilty of no more than being a dutiful foot soldier for the government party.

As for Amway, I know that it has been the subject of many allegations, some proven, regarding the improper, on occasion illegal, consequences of its operations. It also happens to be the big fish in the lagoon, taking root in the U.S. business and entertainment establishments. It is about as respectable as it gets as far as this line of business is concerned (although I have stated that some traditional Japanese arts also follow this business model). Thus, it was not unreasonable for Ms. Noda (on the advice of a parliamentary colleague) to reach out to Amway Japan to hear from the other side. And there the matter would have ended, but for her 20,000 yen party tickets.

Party tickets have been the fundraising staple of every political party (I assume) bar the Communists, though the LDP easily must outdo them all. If you are a reasonably well-know business or professional organization, you are likely to be peppered with envelopes, each containing an invitation and an x-ty thousand yen ticket to a book-launch, or birthday celebration, or whatever reason they give for the event. I’m sure there’s someone in each of these institutions (or divisions and subdivisions thereof; for some of these institutions have their hands in many things and each hand cannot be expected to know what the other hands are doing or should be doing) who decides from whom and how many to purchase. If you’re a really big business, they can’t be easy decisions.

Now at the other end, it’s not quite the snail-mail version of spam, but it’s even less like selling a Rolls Royce; it’s inconceivable that in any of the years 2002, 2003 and 2008, Ms. Noda (or even anyone in her entourage) said to herself, damn, this year, we’re going to target the maruchi shoho guys. Instead, Amway Japan probably must have unwittingly ended up her mailing list, which she uses to pass out those envelopes, when it briefed her in 1999.

So why that odd, seemingly random distribution? Here, I am stumped. Assuming Ms. Noda’s people got the facts right, maybe something happened in each of those three years that made the Amway people think that it was the prudent thing to do to hedge politically. In any case, with regard to the tickets, I haven’t seen anything so far that makes Ms. Noda guilty of something more serious than carelessness in managing her mailing/sending list.

Now, you know what you can do if you happen to be a journalist? You can go read the Diet transcript of every discussion of the maruchi shoho industry and go to every Diet member that asked any question that did not vilify the business and ask if he/she has received any money from those businesses. Just sayin’. And here my online research ends.

* For true Japan otaku’s eyes only: The second amendment was included in an omnibus bill transferring power to local governments that covered 457 laws. It would not have been taken up in the Commerce and Industry Committees at all, except possibly in the form of a joint session of all the committees with jurisdiction over any of the laws that were to be amended. In any case, it would not have been billed as a CIC session, and it is highly unlikely that details such as maruchi shoho would have been taken up in any case.

I warned you.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Maruchi Shoho Shoe on Both Feet Now

The LDP talked up DPJ links to the maruchi shoho industry as a brickbat for Budget Committee delibrerations*. The DPJ countered in the Budget Committee in the Upper House, where they can control the proceedings, with questions directed at Seiko Noda, the Consumer Affairs Minister. In 1996, she had used question time in the Lower House Commerce and Industry Committee to talk up the maruchi shoho industry. Minister Noda’s response this time was far less supportive and appears to have involved a somewhat creative reinterpretation of her previous statements.

Blowback came more quickly than I had imagined.

The high-profile Budget Committees in the two Houses serve as surrogates for Plenary sessions. Unlike the other lesser committees, any Cabinet Minister can be summoned for questioning. Thus, question time is often used to take up matters whose relevance to fiscal issues are tenuous.

ADD: What if it turns out that she had received political contributions? Will she have to do a Maeda Dive? What is the political statute of limitations here?

Yukichi Maeda’s Ordeal—A Little Background, Present and Past

In case anyone is relying on this blog for the latest on the maruchi shoho scandal, the DPJ dealt with it swiftly by convincing Yukichi Maeda to leave the DPJ and not stand for reelection in the upcoming lower House election. The other Diet members with industry ties were left untouched because they had not used question time to push the multilevel marketing industry’s interests. This has been a particularly sensitive issue for Ichiro Ozawa because the recently-dissolved pro-maruchi shoho caucus group “Diet Member League to Nurture a Wholesome Network Industry(健全なネットワークビジネスを育てる議員連盟)” has a heavily Ozawa cast to it. According to Wikipedia*, it was founded by Hajime Ishii, an associate of Mr. Ozawa since he first split from the LDP. Hirohisa Fujii, chairman of the caucus, and Kenji Yamaoka, advisor, are his closest associates who have stuck with him for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health. Mr. Maeda, executive director, and Kenko Matsuki, member, are Ozwa protégés. In fact, the other member, Shinpei Matsushita, former DPJ ally who has since distanced himself because of political differences, is the only one without apparent Ozawa ties. I missed the extent of Mr. Ozawa’s guilt-by-association aspect of the issue when I first looked into it.

How did the DPJ and more specifically Mr. Maeda get into this mess?

First of all, the DPJ is out-funded by the LDP. Although big business does give some money to the DPJ, it remains firmly behind the LDP as far as Keidanren members are concerned, who favored the LDP over the DPJ with political funds by a factor of nearly forty to one in the most recent FY2007. Money from public coffers under the Political Party Subsidies Act (政党助成法) has gone a long way to bridge the gap. Still, with the relative lack of ties to big business and other moneyed, traditional interest groups, the DPJ and its individual members have a greater challenge in meeting its day-to-day and campaign financing needs than their LDP counterparts. Second, unlike the Communists and the New Komeito, the DPJ does not have the ideologically-committed support base that serves as the low-cost political machinery for their candidates come election time. In short, the DPJ is a poor man’s LDP, but with similar outlay requirements. The DPJ and its members had more reason to look towards non-traditional and, in the case of the amaruchi shoho industry, less savory sources.

A third point—and this is where Mr. Maeda’s politically fatal enthusiasm for the maruchi shoho industry came in—is that the DPJ is the opposition. It is no secret that the LDP has always enjoyed greater access to the administrative authorities than the opposition parties that goes beyond the control exercised directly by Cabinet Ministers and other political appointees. Thus it is no wonder that improper influence—proven and alleged—exercised by LDP members have been at the center of many a political scandal over the years**. This has been less of a problem for the opposition because there are fewer of them and as a consequence—they are the opposition—have less influence to peddle. This means that much, if not most, of the influence that the opposition must come from their formal rights as parliamentarians; of those prerogatives, question time in the Diet is the most visible and usually most effective. In fact, a rare bribery conviction of an opposition Diet member—Fumio Yokote, (indicted 1986, final appeal rejected by Supreme Court 1999), then up-and-coming star of the now-defunct Democratic Socialist Party—turned on Mr. Yokote’s use of question time (admitted) to favor political contributors (denied). Of course the circumstances of the transfer of funds in Mr. Yokote’s case (as determined by the courts) and in Mr. Maeda’s (as reported) are quite different. From what I’ve read, Mr. Maeda appears to have an outside chance of being charged with political contribution infractions but not the more serious one of bribery. Still, his use of question time echoes Mr. Yokote’s ordeal and, more generally, highlights the access problems and their consequences for the (so far) eternal opposition.

* The defunct caucus group’s web page has been shut down, and there are no independent sources other than Wikipedia regarding its membership.

** Most recently, the politically powerful MAFF Minister Katsutoshi Matsuoka took his life in May 2007 after a series of allegations of improper influence including accusations of bribery surfaced.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

It Takes a Thief to Catch a Thief in Atlanta

Yes, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, one in three Atlanta Police Academy graduates have criminal records. The idea for the initiative came from two PhD candidates in Japan studies at Emory University, who found out that the Tokugawa Shogunate was able to maintain law and order for three centuries only because of its extensive use of former criminals as rank-and-file policemen known as okappiki//goyokiki/meakashi.


Okay, so I lied.

ADD: But not by much. Follow the links.

What Asahi Readers Tell Us Random-Digit-Dialing Poll Has to Say about Aso et al (and What to Make of It All)

Today’s Asahi (online) has the results of its Second Consecutive Public Opinion Poll (telephone) taken on October 11-12. Here are some numbers:
Aso Cabinet: support 42% (41%) not support 38% (42%)
Lower House proportional voting intent: LDP 32% (33%), DPJ 32% (34%)

October 4-5 poll numbers in parentheses
These numbers predictably are not as good for Aso/LDP as the Yomiuri ones. Still, an Asahi poll that actually gives a positive rating to the Aso Cabinet and has the LDP in a dead heat with the DPJ is a reminder not to bet against the LDP-New Komeito coalition maintaining a majority in the upcoming Lower House election.

The financial crisis and the damage it is doing to the real economy has not hurt the LDP. Instead, it has turned public attention away from the nation’s future—the DPJ manifesto’s main subject—and its past—the wear and tear from 53 years of LDP in power—and instead is highlighting the here-and-now, where the administration has the advantage of being able to take the initiative by marshalling government resources to shore up the economy.

What about foreign policy? The Japanese public is very much focused on the domestic front. The Asahi poll did ask the respondents about the JMSDA refueling operations in the Indian Ocean—a point of contention that Ichiro Ozawa used to good effect against the Fukuda administration. The results were 42% in favor of an extension, 42% against—another dead heat. If this and the Yomiuri numbers are anything to go by, public opinion has softened, if only a shade, towards the operations. And the DPJ does not have a workable alternative. I do not think that North Korea—nuclear program, abductees—is going to be a major political issue either, once the disappointment over the U.S. action to delist North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism blows over. Unless something big happens in the Six-Party talks that puts Japan on the spot, but that’s a big if.

The Aso administration, with a little help from U.S. financial institutions, has stanched the bleeding for now. Nobody is ready to put a sell call on the DPJ yet, but it’s time to play some offense (or grab an LDP fumble or two, which is another thing that you should never bet against) if it is to deny the LDP-New-Komeito coalition and fellow-traveler independents a majority in the upcoming Lower House election—a modest goal for the LDP Secretary-General to be shooting for to be sure, and a measure of how far the DPJ has come..

On a related matter, the Asahi, alone among the major dailies, continues to focus on DPJ ties to the maruchi shoho industry. Today, it named names, including Kenji Yamaoka’s. (By comparison, yesterday’s evening Yomiuri tucked the story away on the antepenultimate page, where lesser scandals go to die (unless they’re spillover from the penultimate page). And that seems to the end of it for now as far as the Yomiuri is concerned.) There is no clear evidence of illegal activities; the DPJ should be able to put this behind it without serious harm. But it’s obviously an unwanted distraction going into the election. More immediately, it gives them something to think about when it decides what to do or not to do with the Yano-Sokagakkai-Komeito sideshow in the remaining days of the current Diet session.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Shoichi Nakagawa’s Choice of Regrettables Is Not by Accident

The English-language media seized on the “extremely regrettable” comment that Shoichi Nakagawa, Finance Minister and well-known hardliner, made with regard to the U.S. delisting of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism and took it as the expression of Japanese displeasure. There was one article that even speculated that Japan might stop the U.S.-DPRK agreement at the Six-Party Talks. In fact, Mr. Nakagawa’s words had served only to let off steam. That should have been clear from the circumstances and the wording.

First, the easy one. The Finance Minister does not speak for Japan on North Korea’s nuclear issue. He has as much authority with regard to the Six-Party talks as the death penalty. Or reproductive rights. And the list goes on.

Second, for “regrettable”, he used, “残念”, more a show of disappointment than “遺憾”, the word used in officialdom to register a protest or issue an apology. (It totally depends on the context; I know, that’s weird and somewhat weasely, but no more so than the “I’m sorry if you were offended” apology favored by American public figures.) “残念” lacks direction; it does not make any demands, explicit or implicit, on the Bush administration. In today’s Upper House Budget Committee Q&A, Prime Minister Aso used the word “不満”, or “dissatisfied”. Mr. Aso also avoided the most obvious choice of words if he had intended to register an official protest. The two political veterans knew what they were doing; “不満”, like ”残念”, are emotive words. What the two men did was to use words that are high on emotion but low on action in order to soothe local discontent while minimizing friction with the Bush administration.

What all this means is that North Korea is now a nuclear pseudo-power; China and South Korea will provide its upkeep, but Japan will not, and the abduction issue will recede into the background, until North Korea sees a way to use it to its economic advantage. That is the new status quo, the new equilibrium.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Extended Weekend Brings Joy to LDP?

Nothing says it’s better to be lucky than good (knock on wood, LDP) than the state of the Japanese financial industry, whose difficulties in the 90s and early 00s have put it in position to snap up choice real estate occupants—actually pieces thereof. Among other things, this puts the Aso administration in the position of claiming that Japan is in an exceptional position within the G-7 and that it would not have to resort to the extreme measures that other OECD member countries have to undertake. Now normally, the Japanese authorities would be the first major financial market to be put to the test. However, this Monday happened to fall on a national holiday, so the markets will only open on Tuesday. In the meantime, the inexorable rotation of our planet has forced the U.K., Germany, and France to come up with multi-hundred billion dollar rescues plans for their financial institutions. This coordinated effort has pushed up the Monday financial markets worldwide, giving more confidence to the Aso administration to come out on Monday and claim that LDP-New Komeito coalition’s management of the post-bubble economy has enabled Japan to position itself to weather the fallout better than any of its OECD colleagues.

Maybe it is better to be lucky than good after all.

Multilevel Marketing Money Trips Up DPJ Backbencher

Not all multilevel marketing is disrespected in Japan. Traditional arts such as ikebana (flower arrangement) and sado (ceremonial tea) have long been run on the same principle as Amway. However, maruchi shoho, as multilevel marketing is called here, is considered a disreputable line of business, only a notch above outright fraud. Regulated under the Act regarding Specified Trading Practices, efforts have been under way to clean up the maruchi shoho industry. Yukichi Maeda, a third-term DPJ Lower House member from the Tokai proportional district, has been at the forefront of such attempts, serving as executive officer for a political caucus dedicated to the cause and as the advisor to a political action committee. As such, Mr. Maeda has been using question time in the Diet to play up the healthier aspects of maruchi shoho and call for business interests to be represented in a government advisory council.

So far, so good. Mr. Maeda has also been receiving political contributions from the industry since he began championing their cause in the Diet four years ago. But that too, is par for the course. In fact, the 1.6 million yen reported over four years is a paltry sum.

If only. During the same period, Mr. Maeda’s political organizations (one of which is the DPJ local chapter, which he heads) had received (and reported) another 9.96 million yen from maruchi shoho businesses for giving “talks”, presumably by Mr. Maeda himself. People are wondering if this money does not count as camouflaged political donations from businesses to individual politicians, which under political financing law is illegal. One of the contributors received 3-month timeout last year for improper business practices.

Mr. Maeda is a backbencher* and the LDP for obvious reasons will not want to go too deeply into a pissing match over money-for-influence allegations, but it’s the kind of story that the media love and the DPJ does not want to hear heading into the election. The DPJ stands up for the little guy, the LDP is in the tank for big business and the bureaucracy: Mr. Maeda’s actions undermine this message. Yukio Hatoyama, stomping the sewer covers in faraway Sendai in preparation for the general election, has been forced to play defense in a press conference there. In a lucky stroke for the DPJ, the story broke in the Asahi, on a holiday Monday. Thus, it will be free of the hard-copy news cycle until the Tuesday evening editions, by which time the media will have other, bigger fish to fry.

* According to Wikipedia, the five-member political caucus, consisting of DPJ members and its allies until it was abruptly disbanded in the wake of the revelations, included Kenji Yamaoka, the PDJ’s Diet Affairs Committee chairman and equivalent of a parliamentary whip, as the advisor.

Fat Lady Yet to Put on Her Geta Where Mitsubishi-UFJ/Morgan Stanley Deal Is Concerned

I thought that Matt Dioguardi’s comment here was a reminder that it’s often better to be lucky than good. Well, maybe not, as the U.S. stock market continued its freefall and those pieces of investment banks that Japanese financial institutions had been picking up are turning out to be even less of a bargain than they looked when they cut those deals. Fortunately for Mitsubishi-UFJ though, a handshake was apparently not enough for the deal to go through. After Morgan Stanley saw its stock plummet, it is sweetening the deal, reportedly leaving Mitsubishi-UFJ with all—instead of 2/3rds—of its new holdings in convertible preferred shares with a 10% annual dividend (that would be junk bond territory if they were not subordinated to debt), mostly at a much lower conversion rate than envisioned. Moreover, Treasury may be on the verge of offering some kind guarantee that the “if the United States were to inject money into Morgan Stanley at a later time — a step the Treasury has ruled out for now — the move would not wipe out Mitsubishi’s investment.”

Not yet sealed and delivered; this has been a momentous weekend.

What Yomiuri Readers Tell Us Random-Digit-Dialing Poll Has to Say about Aso et al

Today’s Yomiuri has the results of its monthly RDD poll taken between October 10-12. Here are some numbers:
Aso Cabinet: support 45.6% (49.5%) not support 38.2% (33.4%)
Lower House proportional voting intent: LDP 38.9% (37%), DPJ 31.4% (30%)
For Prime Minister: Taro Aso 55.9%, Ichiro Ozawa 23.4%

September 24-25 poll numbers in parentheses
So Prime Minister Aso’s inauguration bump was in the 4-5% range? Given the MLIT Minister’s resignation, the Yamato Life bankruptcy, the freefalling stock market, and ever-growing economic fears, it could be worse. In fact, if it were up to Yomiuri nation, the LDP-New Komeito coalition would win going away. Unfortunately for the Aso administration, there’s also Asahi nation and Mainichi nation; and Sankei and TV nations can be quirky. Still, I think the DPJ and its allies have their work cut out for them if they want to win a working majority without the Communists. For that, I think that Yukio Hatoyama snapping at the LDP at every turn just isn’t enough; Ichiro Ozawa needs to show face. Mr. Ozawa is the DPJ’s biggest asset, and biggest liability.

Regarding the timing of the election, 70.3% want economic stimulus before the election while only 24.5% say they want to have an election first. These must be more or less the same people—24.9%—who want an election immediately. 12.3% want it somewhere around the turn of the calendar year, 23.4% want a spring election, and 33.8% say they can wait all the way up to next September, when the Lower House term expires. The supplementary budget for the stimulus package that the Fukuda administration had prepared should pass the Upper House (with DPJ support no less) this week. The second tranche that Mr. Aso has promised should be ready by early next week. The going could be harder this time; the DPJ has more legal leverage on the second package, since providing tax relief and dipping into Special Account reserves(or just possibly issuing deficit bonds) both each need legislative bills, which unlike budget bills can be held up in the Upper House for up to 60 days before the Lower House can hold a revote. It’s highly unlikely that the public and the media will let that happen. In the unlikely event that the DPJ tries, Prime Minister Aso will surely call a snap election, casting Mr. Ozawa’s people as the villains putting politics first. Either way, the election will happen sooner rather than later. There has been talk in the LDP about delaying the election, given dismal returns on a private poll, but I don’t think that’s a real option. Once the second tranche is in the bag (or the DPJ can be blamed for a delay), there’s little else that help them and a lot more that can go wrong; the economic downturn, political scandals, more bad news about the public pension system—the list goes on.

Yomiuri also asked the respondents about the JMSDA refueling operations in the Indian Ocean. The results were 46.6% to 39.9% in favor of an extension. Again, the DPJ is willing to let it come to a quick Upper House vote (setting the stage for the Lower House override) if the LDP is willing to agree to an early election. In any case, the outcome will change the minds of few voters either way.

Given the timing of the poll, it does little to reflect the U.S. weekend decision to delist North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism despite Japanese pleas regarding the abduction issue. The action has been seen across the board here as a slap in the face for the Aso administration and the DPJ has been quick to seize on this point. Moreover, the nuclear deal itself is widely seen as incomplete and unsatisfactory. However, though I’m probably biased because of my own strong pessimism regarding the fate of the remaining abductees, I don’t think that a significant part of the Japanese public still believes that Japanese authorities have significant leverage over the U.S. administration where the Six-Party Talks are concerned. Thus, the issue should not have much of a bearing on the outcome of the upcoming election. Besides, the election is going to be very much about our economic worries; that is what both sides are going to try to capitalize on.

I’m Old, Why Do I need an iPod…

… when I have YouTube? I mean, when I have YouTube?

* that was close*

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Norimitsu Onishi, Doing What He Does Best

Here, he doesn't seem to be hiding an ideological agenda. Note his careful mention of the defiant self-reliance of these down but not quite out men:
He refused to apply for welfare or enter the city-run homeless shelters, where each person receives one piece of hardtack bread a night. He would never, he said, depend on the government.
Mr. Ikeda boasted that he had never taken a handout, stood in a soup line or stayed in a homeless shelter. When there were no jobs, he collected aluminum cans. His “policy” was to rely on no one, he said.

North Korea Delisted; Life Goes on

Last January, I made the following speculation on what it would take to move beyond phase two:
It is barely conceivable that the lame-duck Bush administration could bring the North Koreans around to a deal on the declaration that it can defend against Congressional accusations of caving in. But that would require North Korea to make a couple of difficult decisions, at least one of which would completely strip North Korea of the strategic ambiguity that it currently enjoys.

First, the two sides must come up with a plausible explanation of the scope and extent of North Korea’s uranium program, or, much less likely, a convincing case that there is no such thing… [S]econd, the two sides must come up with a plausible explanation of the scope and extent of North Korea’s plutonium stockpile and nuclear arsenal, such as there is.
I was highly skeptical about this. In any case, the United States delisted North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism somewhat short of my guesses. So much for my powers of prediction. I’m not sure that the Six-Party process has moved beyond phase two though. It seems more like the twilight zone dada-dada, dada-dada… between phases two and three… which looks a lot like what I most recently talked about here:
I still think that by far the most likely better-case scenario for the foreseeable future is North Korea disabling its three facilities but holding onto its current nuclear arsenal and ballistic missiles system at their current levels, enough to allow China and South Korea to keep sustaining the current North Korean regime without incurring US disfavor, but well short of normalization of the US-DPRK relations.
As for the abduction issue, I’ve long believed that nothing of note will happen without regime change in Pyongyang. The Fukuda regime sought to push the process forward with the agreement on a new survey on the fate of the rest of the abductees—which would have led to ultimate disappointment. With the U.S. delisting in the bag, my money is on an indefinite delay on the part of the North Korean authorities until they feel the desire for another political fix, likely when (not if) North Korea-U.S. relations comes to an impasse again.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Why Do Financial Markets Close for the Weekend?

Since time immemorial, nature has never stopped to rest on weekends, and neither has man—or humans, in these politically correct days. Even today, after the ecumenical Christianification of the temporal rhythm of human activities, manufacturers and service providers are open for business, and tractors and fishing boats are at this very moment braving the elements to keep us fed. So why should securities exchanges close down two out of every seven days, when investor sentiments can change overnight due as the result of boons and calamities real and imagined?

One Consequence of the Hit the Koizumi Kids will Take in the Upcoming Lower House Election

The DPJ is not without its own heirloom parliamentarians. In fact, Ichiro Ozawa and his deputy Yukio Hatoyama are second- and fourth-generation Diet members respectively. However, the LDP overwhelms the DPJ as far as pedigrees are concerned. To give just one example, the last four Prime Ministers including incumbent Taro Aso are all heirloomers, born, growing up, and working in Tokyo, only to assume control of the family estate in due time, much like the Ottoman nobles who enjoyed the fruits of their fiefdoms from the distant court of the Caliphate, where they habitually engaged in political intrigues.

There’s nothing wrong about children following their parents into politics; we can assume at least that there’s less likelihood of their stealing from us. One downside though is that their hearts may not really be into the task*, that they may be doing it merely out of filial piety—we saw how that turned out with Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda. This, perhaps more unfortunately, also excluded many ambitious professionals and crackerjack bureaucrats, who turned instead to the DPJ to find their entry into national politics. Enter Junichiro Koizumi and his Post-Office snap election.

One of the unintended achievements of the Koizumi-Kids first-term Lower House members who were elected in the 2005 landslide LDP victory has been the broadening of the LDP gene pool. The newbies brought in new blood into the LDP. They were the very kind of people who might have migrated to the DPJ, or given up thoughts of entering the political arena altogether; instead, they listened to the fateful siren call of Mr. Koizumi and his minions to join the LDP cause. Now, as the tide has turned for the worse, it is widely believed that the Koizumi hatchlings will bear the brunt of an enormous LDP setback. This will significantly tilt the balance back in favor of heirloomers, which bodes ill for the LDP’s long-term fortunes.

* I remember a journalist who had covered the Kantei for many years and whom I very much respect telling me a couple of years ago that the only thing that could keep Shinzo Abe from the Prime Minister’s office was a refusal by Mr. Abe to serve. (I think I blogged this at the time.)

Friday, October 10, 2008

I Am Tempted to Call It the KaputThing Bank

But I won’t, because—who knows who’s next?

So, Russia was the first choice, but Iceland has to make do with the IMF? Boy, those boys at the IMF must be mean.

Yamato Life Insurance First Casualty of Market Collapse

Earlier in the week, I told some Americans that the U.S. financial crisis had not directly impacted Japan. This morning, Yamato Insurance went into bankruptcy procedures under the Corporate Rehabilitation Act. Falling stock prices had already put its finances at risk. Subprime exposure plus the most recent stock market freefall pushed it over the edge. That’s about as close to a direct hit as it can get.

Will there be others? How many? Are going to have worry about the Japanese banks’ asset ratios again? Shades of the 90s.

I’ll be responding to comments on recent posts no later than tomorrow. Hope to make something out of the latest twists and turns in the Diet too.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Supplementary Budget: Remind Me Not to PUI, and Odds and Ends

I write a Most Likely Budget Scenario where the DPJ rejects the supplementary budget in the Upper House, so of course the next morning, the newspapers announce that the DPJ is going to vote in favor of the supplementary budget. Ichiro Ozawa apparently saw little harm in letting the LDP have their way on a measure that Prime Minister Aso and his people had already discounted as inadequate. Some parts of the media are also reporting that the DPJ is inclined to let the legislative bill to extend the JMSDF refueling operations in the Indian Ocean pass the Lower House quickly, but generally speaking, the media are all over the place on the ultimate outcome of this and other issues, including the timing of the Lower House election. This no doubt reflects the state of play.

Mr. Ozawa has been hospitalized. Given his long-standing health issues, this might have merited an inch on the front page on a slow news day. However, the three Japanese Nobel Prize winners—physics—has wiped everything but the supplementary budget off page one of the Yomiuri. In fact, they have been given five out of the 32-page edition, and that’s not counting the one-sheet extra Yomiuri handed out last night at major train stations. Most of the non-baseball sports news also got wiped out. Totally. I also saw someone with an Asahi extra on the train. We take our Nobel Prizes seriously. What’s it like in your country? Do U.S. winners, for example, receive invitations to the White House, like major team sports champions and Olympic Gold medalists?

But going back to Mr. Ozawa’s illness, this brings up the question hovering in the back of many people’s minds: Will he serve, if elected? Will he turn out to be the Moses of Japanese politics?

Most Likely Budget Scenario

The Lower House passes the supplementary budget this week, the Upper House rejects it next week, the two Houses meet and do not come to an agreement, and, under the Japanese Constitution, the budget becomes law. Beyond that, things get murky. The underlying situation is such that the more Prime Minister Aso delays, the worse it gets for the coalition, and the New Komeito cannot wait any longer than early January. That does give Mr. Aso enough time to pass legislation for the consumer protection agency and the refueling operations. But will the LDP let him?

My guess: Mr. Aso will fight a snap election with a second stimulus package on the line.

Most likely outcome: It The Lower House vote for the Prime Minister turns on the Communist vote. More to come later, hopefully. In the meantime, from my email a couple of hours and much alcohol ago:

There are so many scenarios for the Japanese scene: it may be 50-50, but it's not a Tunny-Dempsey 50-50, not even a Red Sox-Rays 50-50; it's an Antonio Inoki-Mohammed Ali 50-50.

Th-, th-, th,- that’s all, folks. For tonight.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Shoichi Nakagawa Most Plausible Heir to LDP Conservative Wing

I saw Shoichi Nakagawa—yes, that dyspeptic nemesis of Western liberals—this morning on TV, on the Sunday Project wide show featuring septuagenarian insult host Soichiro Tawara and one of the dumbest sidekick announcers on the planet. (No, not her, him. She’s a clear improvement over her clueless predecessor.) Always responsive, coherent and intelligent, if often morose and sometimes acidulous, Mr. Nakagawa looked fresh, rested and—dare I say it?—cheerful. Perhaps he slept well last night, perhaps it was a mild case of Schadenfreude—maybe it’s both; as Minister of both Finance and Financial Services, he cannot be unhappy that Japanese banks are sitting on only! 12 billion dollars (and counting, like their less-fortunate U.S. and European counterparts) in sub-prime losses and snapping up what they hope are juicy bits and more of Lehman, Morgan Stanley and (oops) Merrill Lynch. Unlike his predecessor, he can go to G-7 meetings with jurisdiction over financial services, a good thing to have in these troubled times—thanks to the wisdom of Prime Minister Aso, so he repeatedly points out.

There may be more to his (for him) sunny demeanor. Mr. Nakagawa is one of the smartest heirloom Diet members around; he now has Big Three (Policy Research Council Chair) and senior Cabinet (Finance) appointments under his belt, not to mention his competent tours as METI (once) and MAFF (twice) Minister. At 55, he is favorably positioned to become the Prime Minister Aso’s heir to the conservative wing of the LDP.* So, do not count on Mr. Nakagawa to split the party any time soon to join hands with Takeo Hiranuma, just to become the eternal Greek chorus to whatever middle-of-the-road coalition that will be administering Japan in the wake of a major realignment.

The LDP and DPJ Lower House whips, Tadamori Oshima and Kenji Yamaoka, followed Mr. Nakagawa. The LDP apparently wants to pass the Fukuda supplementary budget, show Prime Minister Aso’s second, expansionary tranche— the LDP is working on it, the New Komeito satisfied by the (2 trillion yen?) income-tax-plus-payout—and play the snap election by ear from there, with both eyes on the public. The DPJ would like to focus on the 53-years-and-counting LDP mess, of which the tainted rice and the latest public pension scandal are the latest examples. (I’m increasingly coming around to the view that the DPJ is bluffing where putting the screws on New Komeito is concerned.)

* There are two senior Cabinet appointments that an LDP Lower House member wants to test his mettle at before he is a Prime Minister candidate—Finance and Foreign Affairs. It is significant that Mr. Nakagawa has been enfranchised in Finance, where he would have little or no opportunities to talk about matters that could bring down international opprobrium on him. That he began his professional career as a banker and served in economic cabinet posts (and LDP policy chief) make his double portfolio all the more natural.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Hawaii: Un-American in More Ways than One

Timothy Noah asks: Why is Seward's Folly the "real America" and the Aloha State not? His explanation:
Alaska leans Republican while Hawaii leans Democratic, and the GOP long ago intimidated the media into believing that only Republican strongholds represent the "real America." These Republican strongholds are usually sparsely populated, and I suppose the media's been sold on the idea that because the United States started out as an agrarian nation, rural areas are somehow more authentic than urban ones.
There’s a certain truth to that, and Hawaii is more urban than Alaska, as Mr. Noah shows. But Texas and Utah were only 17.5% and 11.7% rural respectively, as this table based on the 2000 U.S. Census shows, and what two states could be redder than this pair? Mr. Noah is too discreet to point to the causation and not the correlation. But he doesn’t have to. For the reason is obvious. And it’s the one thing, together with the unforeseen mega-event—a massive terrorist attack or an Osama bin Laden takedown—that could turn the tide in John McCain’s favor in this election.

Having said that, let’s look at what other things that the contrast between the two states reveals. With its forbidding winters and the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897, Alaska is a fitting coda to the founding myth of America, How the West Was Won (bought it from Russia?), the often violent, always white, saga played out against the vast expanses of “no-man’s” land*. The facts of the Palins and their friends have the feel of a Western movie.

Hawaii is a chapter in the imperial phase of America’s expansion, a series of political and military maneuvers like many imperialist endeavors that culminated in the formal annexation of the territory—the aborigines and their culture largely intact, but gradually reduced to a small minority by subsequent waves of immigration, Japanese and Filipinos taking the place of the Indians of the British colonies, to serve the colonial masters alongside the ubiquitous Chinese. The Asian-Pacific aborigines and immigrants—like the Hispanics in the other parts of the empire—remained mere extras in the greater narrative.

Alaska delivers the White Man’s valedictory while Hawaii tells the immigrants’ tale. One is Republican while the other is Democrat.

There! It’s always more fun to write other peoples’ histories, isn’t it? Maybe I should do it more often.

* Coming as it did at the end of the 20th Century, Alaska’s conquest was relatively free of the genocide and ethnic cleansing that marked the takeover in the contiguous United States and territories.

True Tales: AIG Blog Relations Builds Cyberbridge to Nowhere

Somehow, GlobalTalk 21 found its way onto the AIG Blog Relations mailing list a little over a week ago. Since then, I’ve been getting messages like the following:
We apologize for sending this to you as a mass e-mail distribution, but we thought you would want to receive this as soon as it came out, since you and your readers have been following this story closely.

Below is an announcement that AIG released minutes ago at 7 a.m. EDT. For more information, you can listen to AIG Chairman and CEO Edward M. Liddy's investment community conference call today, October 3, at 8:30 a.m. EDT at

Contact: Charlene Hamrah (Investment Community)
Nicholas Ashooh (News Media)
Now dangnabbit, wouldn’t you know when I click the link, I need a “User Name” and a “Password” to get through? For what it’s worth, Ali Baba and Open Sesame won’t work.

Blog relations, of course, is the least of AIG’s worries.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Murayama Statement Erratum?

The most recent expression by a new Japanese Prime Minister of accession to the 1995 Murayama Statement on Japan’s wartime responsibilities (MOFA English translation here) urges me to find the time to collect my thoughts sufficiently to inflict you with yet another post regarding history issues—specifically, on the respective roles of government, civil society and the individual. In the meantime, let me do a riff on the words “errors” and “mistake” and its adjectival variant “mistaken” in the translation.

The English translation renders “過去のあやまち=ayamachi” as “the errors in our history”, “国策を誤り=ayamari” as “following a mistaken national policy”, and “未来に誤ちayamachi無からしめんとするが故に” as “In the hope that no such mistake be made in the future”.

The second example, where the translator replaces the verb “誤り” with adjective “mistaken” is the easy part, so let’s take care of it first. The root form of the verb “誤り” is “誤る”, which is translated in the online Kenkyusha dictionary as:
mistake; make a mistake; 《fml》 commit [make] an error; 《fml》 err; 〈誤解する〉 misunderstand; 〈しくじる〉 fail; 〈取り違える〉 mistake [take] 《A》 for 《B》.
Here, there is no sense of inherent moral or ethical failure; the examples merely point out a variance with the correct action or understanding of things. Kenkyusha is even more concise with the noun form of “誤る ayamaru” —again, confusingly for the novitiate “誤り”:
a mistake; a slip; a blunder; 《fml》 an error ⇒→まちがい
This is not the case for the first, hiragana, ayamachi(=あやまち). Kenkyusha gives it following definitions:
〈過失〉 a fault; a blunder; 〈誤り〉 a mistake; 《fml》 an error; 〈罪過〉 an offense; 〈事故〉 an accident; a mishap.
Note the word “offense”. Inherent, if implicit, is something that goes beyond mere correction, a legal, moral or ethical sanction, external and/or self-inflicted—retribution and/or atonement. If fact, this sense is so powerful that it is rarely used in a non-judgmental sense. Instead, “誤り ayamari”, that is, the noun form of the verb “誤る ayamaru” is almost always used to convey the generic sense of “error” or “mistake”.

The second, mixed-orthography, ayamachi(=誤ち) poses a problem. It is nowhere to be found in the Kenkyusha or Sanseido dictionaries, online versions of two of the most widely used sets of hardcopy dictionaries in Japan. Instead, the only mixed-orthography version of ayamachi is “過ち”, and is coupled to “あやまり”, the hiragama version. In other words, two respected authorities (surely seconded by other publishers) recognize “過ち” and “過ち” alone as an acceptable mixed-orthography rendering of “あやまち”, or “ayamachi”.

The MOFA translators must have been aware of this difference, and reflected it by transposing the two words to “errors” and “mistake”, respectively. But why in the first place did the original drafters of the Murayama Statement render ayamachi, one of the most crucial concepts in the text, in the first instance in hiragana and switch to what is at best an unorthodox rendering in the second? My mind is not settled on this point, so I’ll leave it at that, for any of you that are interested to consider. I mention in passing that my thoughts were set off by what I perceived to be a gap between the emotive “ayamachi” on one hand and the less judgmental “error” and “mistakes” on the other.

* There is, in fact, a verb version of “ayamachi=あやまち, 過ち”, namely “ayamatsu=過つ”. It is no longer used except perhaps for some archaic and formal effect. Interestingly, it does not convey any inherent sense of moral or ethical failure. Thus, it has more or less the same meaning as “ayamaru” (but without the latter’s alternate meaning to apologize, which is expressed with a different Chinese character).

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Update on the Aso-on-Ozawa, DPJ-on-LDP Battle

The Prime Minister’s Q&A continued in the Upper House, though without Ichiro Ozawa and his faithful deputy Yukio Hatoyama, it just wasn’t the same. Media reports are showing him even more eager to keep the Diet session running to push the stimulus package and the other two items on his agenda. What he says at this point doesn’t matter; public perception will drive his actions with regard to those items. Supermajority overrides on the consumer protection agency and the Indian Ocean refueling operations remain long shots.

But What Are You Going to Do about the Ten Trillion Yen Hole, Mr. Ozawa?

…oh… Well, Mr. Aso?


According to Ichiro Ozawa’s opening “statement”, the DPJ price tag for its new program in the works now comes in at 20.5 trillion per year in its all-options, fourth and final-year version. I assume that this is a pretty honest reckoning for now, give or take a few hundred billion, although the long-run effects of some of the items, such as the elimination of the gasoline tax surcharge (2.6 trillion) and the medical care makeover (2 trillion), are hard to control and therefore difficult to predict. The numbers do not add up to 20.5 trillion because some big ticket items are missing, such as the DPJ promise to halve corporate tax rates for small and medium enterprises. Where all this money is going to come from is vaguer, although they do conveniently add up to 20.5 trillion. According to the Yomiuri, it consists of:
4.8 trillion: Coming down on special tax breaks (business) and income tax deductions (individuals)
0.7 trillion: Selling off government property
6.5 trillion: Taking net revenue and reserve cash from the Fiscal Investment Special Account (FILP-SA) and the Foreign Exchange Special Account (FE-SA)
4.3 trillion: Cutting subsidies
1.8 trillion: Reforming government procurement (and otherwise reducing government waste?)
1.3 trillion: Reducing payments to national public servants
Some comments while I wait the announcement of the entire package:

On the expenditure side, the 2.6 trillion gas tax reduction and the 1.5 trillion loss in highway toll revenues add up to a 4.1 trillion gift to private car owners and businesses. Do the Socialists and, yes, Communist really want to support that? On the revenue side, the DPJ’s global warming countermeasures tax (DPJ 2007 Manifest 4.1, first paragraph) should counterbalance the gas tax reduction, but it’s missing from the revenue estimate. Does the LDP want to mention that? But that’s small change compared to:

The DPJ is going to dig into the two cash-cow special accounts for 6.5 trillion, or almost 1/3 of the 20.5 trillion bill. According to MOF, in FY2006, the FILP-SA and Foreign Exchange-SA had surpluses of 2.5 trillion and 2.1 trillion respectively)*. This is in the same ballpark as the 4 trillion that I dimly recall Yoichi Takahashi—ex-MOF official, Koizumi-reformist brain-trust member, and one of the pioneer treasure hunters—saying could be safely taken out of the two special accounts on an annual basis. Give the benefit of the doubt to the DPJ and assume that the government can count on a combined four and a half trillion surplus each year; that still leaves a 2 trillion shortfall to be made up by digging into reserves. Kudos to the DPJ for owning up to that, but how long can it do that on an annual basis before these most fungible of “buried treasures” are gone? Actually, if the fiscal conditions expected at the start of FY2008 continues unchanged, a business-as-usual scenario is likely to eliminate these “buried treasures” altogether by FY2011 (three years into what would be the DPJ four-year-plan) unless annual government borrowing is increased by 10 trillion.

Talk about an elephant in the room… I think I need a drink.

ADD: I just realized that the need for more debt issues depends on the maturity schedule of the existing ones. I can rest a little easier. A drink (or two) sure helped. Still, the matter needs to be looked into over the next four years (and beyond). I’ll try to remember to look for the relevant data when I have the time.

* See this post. The relevant MOF links are in the footnote at the bottom. The arithmetic behind the vanishing “buried treasures” can be easily read off the post.

Briefly, regarding Plenary Q&A on Prime Minister Aso’s Inaugural Speech

After the Prime Minister’s policy speech at the beginning of a Diet session, the two Houses each hold plenary Q&A sessions where party leaders get a chance to take a crack at the Prime Minister. The Lower House goes firs. Yesterday, on the first day, the DPJ and LDP took turns: for the DPJ, Ichiro Ozawa and his deputy Yukio Hatoyama; for the LDP, Mr. Aso’s party deputy Hiroyuki Hosoda.

The questions are always prefaced by statements. Mr. Ozawa did not even bother to ask a question. Instead, he demanded that the LDP vacate the Prime Minister’s chair to the opposition and open the way to an immediate election, then went on to give an exposition of the DPJ’s post-election plans—an outline of the new election manifesto in the works. So the Prime Minister opened with questions and the opposition leader countered with a policy statement. Fair is foul and foul is fair. The questions aside, Mr. Hatoyama also went after the LDP, while Mr. Hosoda went after Mr. Ozawa—an indication of where the DPJ and LDP each think that the weakness of its opponent lies.

In his response, Mr. Aso repeated his three-point agenda for this Diet session, that is, the fiscal stimulus/consumer protection agency/refueling operations package. On that, I’m changing my call: I see zero chance of bipartisan compromise on the consumer protection agency. The LDP-New Komeito coalition will have to use the Lower House supermajority override to get this one. The DPJ is not going to let Mr. Aso go into the Lower House general election as an outgoing, can-do leader against a destructive, old-school spendthrift politico if it can help it. The DPJ scenario has a reformist party working for you taking down a political bankrupt LDP beholden to the bureaucracy. Any bipartisan agreement will have to be on DPJ terms, not the Prime Minister’s.

Why Does Mr. Ozawa’s Electoral District Have to Be an Issue? Now?

In yet another manifestation of the enigmatic Ichiro Ozawa’s personal issues, possibly (thought increasingly less likely) as little as a month before the Lower House general election, we still don’t know—he still doesn’t know—where he’ll stand for election.

Mr. Ozawa makes John McCain look like the Rock of Ages.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

How Far Can Prime Minister Aso Push Back the Lower House Election? Depends.

According to news reports as well as Prime Minister Aso’s inaugural September 29 policy speech to the Diet, the top three items on his policy agenda are: shoring up a sagging economy, establishing a consumer protection agency, and extending counter-terrorism refueling operations in the Indian Ocean. He has chosen a personalized Aso vs. Ozawa/LDP vs. DPJ, confrontational approach in sharp contrast to Mr. Fukuda, his predecessor. The already gloomy economic outlook has taken a turn for the worse with the explosion of the U.S. financial crisis. An economic package and a consumer protection agency are in principle not anathema to the DPJ. These developments raise the possibility that Mr. will delay the snap election to expand the economic package, (somewhat less likely) to pass legislation to establish the consumer protection agency, and (even less likely) to use the supermajority override to renew legislative authorization for the refueling operations.

The first item is for the time being covered by the 11.7/1.8 trillion yen fiscal package, with the bill for income tax relief and other legislative items to arrive after the Lower House election. The requisite budgetary bill becomes effective by a simple majority in the Lower House after a maximum 30-day wait in the Upper House. The DPJ is reportedly leaning toward a quick Upper House vote in exchange for a few days’ deliberations in the high-profile Budgetary Committees in the two Houses, where they can turn the klieglights on to the LDP’s multiple malfeasances over and beyond the stimulus package. The worsening economic circumstances have forced the LDP to give up the notion of avoiding this unwanted media attention by skipping directly to the election. Mr. Aso’s flatly-stated apologetic foreword on the swiftly disposed-of MAFF Minister Nakayama’s maledictions and the untimely administrative makeover is an indication that he intends to weather any criticism by apologizing and moving on, dismissing any attempt on the part of the opposition to further linger his administration as pure politics. Likewise in the address itself, Mr. Aso further apologized for the bureaucracy’s yet more public pension capers as well as the delinquent inspection of tainted rice that led to their intrusion into the human food chain. Long on apologies, short on substance, the two sides will it no doubt do their best to fill the public narrative with its own tropes and memes. But that’s where Mr. Aso intent appears to lie. But this willingness to take the heat has raised another possibility. Mr. Aso and Chief Cabinet Secretary Hosoda among others have been openly talking about an additional stimulus package. But if you are going to get slagged anyway, why not go for the whole hog? Thus, the most recent media reports have Mr. Aso and the party leadership looking at the possibility of passing a second package during this Diet session. Whence they cannot help but think, more electoral bang for more bucks.

A second package would significantly push back the timing of a Lower House election. Here, it gets interesting. More time on you hands means more time to take care of other things. The notion of a consumer protection agency has bipartisan support; the devil is in the not inconsiderable details. There may be room for compromise, or at least, from Mr. Aso’s point of view, show up the DPJ as diddling with the consumers’ interests for political gain. Who knows, the ruling coalition might even be able to avail itself of the Lower House supermajority to pass the necessary legislative bill. What happens here will depend very much on the way the issue, including the broader issue of bureaucratic incompetence and the LDP’s responsibility for that plays in public opinion.

The refueling operations are trickier, and harder to read. Public opinion polls show a majority/plurality (depending on who does the asking and when) opposing their continuation. However, no Japanese troops are dying on the Indian Ocean; this is not a hot-button issue for the Japanese public. My guess is that if Mr. Aso calls on the ruling coalition to override the opposition on the consumer protection agency, he will also insist that it exercise its Lower House prerogative on the refueling operations as well. First, this is in keeping with his confrontational approach and conducive to a decisive image. Second, there are undeniable diplomatic benefits that accrue to Japan. Imagine going into a snap election with (the increasingly likely) President Obama’s words of praise at your back for this: safe work in a dangerous place.

All this, of course, pushes the end of the current Diet session back as far as late December; the Lower House election would be held in early January, the limits of New Komeito’s patience. This is still not likely, but at least possible, and is, in my mind, Mr. Aso’s now best-case scenario.

Having said that, I’ll be looking for an opportunity to consider how the DPJ is going to play this. In short, I think it’s this: Look, those guys had 50-some years to do something about this mess; how often do they think they can fool you and me with yet another string of apologies and promises to do better.* And by the way, where’s the rest of the beef? That’s all for now.

Writing this reminds me of the old saying Eri wo tadasu, or straighten our collars, as an expression of remorse and the will to do better; and a political cartoon that had a politician (I think it was a Prime Minister; MTC probably remembers) stating this phrase—in a suit without a collar.

And Have You Ever Heard of a Singing Waitress?

They were two lawyers and I have a legal background too, so talk turned to workplace discrimination and the reasons why the more expensive restaurants have few if any female waiters and the legal implications thereof. The hardest part is staying on your feet all day, so the reason can’t be physical. Yet have you heard of any lawsuits? Which reminded me, diners always have waitresses, at least in the movies.

So, what’s going on? And has a man ever successfully applied for a waiting job at Hooters? Bonus question: Would he have to wear that uniform?