Saturday, February 28, 2009

Christianists Love Porn? Sure, but…

The following is a good example of how information is simplified and consequently misinterpreted as it is passed along even by the most reputable of sources. It shows the importance of going to the source, and looking at the broader context.
Andrew Sullivan says that “[t]here's a significant correlation between consumption of online porn and Christianism.” To back up that claim, he gives us the following excerpt from the New Scientist article:
Eight of the top 10 pornography consuming states gave their electoral votes to John McCain in last year's presidential election – Florida and Hawaii were the exceptions. While six out of the lowest 10 favoured Barack Obama. Residents of 27 states that passed laws banning gay marriages boasted 11% more porn subscribers than states that don't explicitly restrict gay marriage...

States where a majority of residents agreed with the statement "I have old-fashioned values about family and marriage," bought 3.6 more subscriptions per thousand people than states where a majority disagreed. A similar difference emerged for the statement "AIDS might be God's punishment for immoral sexual behaviour."
But the study by Professor Benjamin Edelman that the New Scientist goes a little deeper than that. Specifically, Edelman controls the data set for income, age, education, and marital status and comes up with a slightly altered ranking according to each state’s “difference in subscribers per thousand home broadband users relative to subscription rates predicted based on demographics”. In this new list, McCain’s lead over Obama among top online-porn prescribing states decreases to seven to three, while the two are tied at five each. In short, take out the effects of demographics, and the political significance of online-porn subscription becomes less evident.

But what about the positive correlation between online subscription and Christianist views? After all, “[s]tates where a majority of residents agreed with the statement "I have old-fashioned values about family and marriage," bought 3.6 more subscriptions per thousand people than states where a majority disagreed”, didn’t they? Not quite. It is obvious that this figure from Edelman’s study is merely a statistical hypothesis (albeit a highly robust one), that is, the “difference, in subscriptions per thousand broadband households, between a hypothetical state where all residents disagree with the quote versus one where all residents agree with the statement.” There’s definitely a positive correlation, but its dimensions are exaggerated by the simplification in the New Scientist article.

More important, there is more to porn than online websites. A table in Edelman’s study shows that in 2006 “adult entertainment” on the Internet brought in 2,841 million in “adult entertainment” retail sales. That’s a lot of money, but it was still only one-fifth of the 12,815 million for all “adult entertainment” retail sales. If stores and clubs that provide adult entertainment as well as porn-friendly shelf space in otherwise respectable establishments are, as I suspect, harder to come by in conservative states, then it stands to reason that some of that business is going to flow to online providers. Without more information, there is no way on knowing whether Christianists are more lustful than their less literal-minded bretheren, heathens, and, to quote Barack Hussein Obama, “non-believers.”

Christianists like porn. Now it’s reassuring to know that they are human, just like the rest of us. But does that make them hypocrites? Not necessarily. It certainly makes them sinners (in their own eyes—I could give a hoot), but that’s what they have churches for, I suppose.

DPJAnnounces New Candidate and PNP Is Furious

In a terse thirteen-line report, the hardcopy Yomiuri reports that Ichiro Ozawa held a press conference yesterday to announce that the DPJ had chosen an assistant college professor as the party candidate for Kanagawa First District in the upcoming Lower House election. According to the report, the People’s New Party, which intends to field its own candidate there, is furious and is threatening to dissolve its Upper House alliance with the DPJ. Add this to the deliberate insult that I talked about yesterday, and you have to wonder what kind of game the DPJ is playing.

The last thing that the DPJ wants to do is run an administration where the Social Democratic Party and the PNP each has a de facto Upper House veto. A far more appealing alternative would be a stable coalition with a sizeable, likeminded—whatever that means—bloc of LDP defectors. Ozawa’s actions—the Thursday insult could not have come without his approval—seem to be pointing in that direction. This bears watching.

Friday, February 27, 2009

War of Words within the Opposition a Harbinger of Things to Come?

Today, a reliable source told me that I would soon be proven wrong on the DPJ response (or lack thereof) to the economic crisis. Let’s hope he’s right, and I’m wrong.
On Thursday, the People’s New Party threatened to boycott opposition consultations over a DPJ slight. According to media reports, Masaaki Itokawa, the PNP Upper House whip, sought to introduce an Upper House censure motion against the Prime Minister. The DPJ is understandably reluctant to do that since it doesn’t want to push Aso so hard that he resigns, opening the way for an electorally more attractive face (Kaoru Yosano?) to lead the LDP-New Komeito coalition into the Lower House election that must be called no later than September. Jun Azumi, the DPJ deputy whip, could have tried to mollify his PNP colleague, but instead went on the attack, pointing to the PNP’s reluctance—more specifically Shizuka Kamei’s—to go along with an earlier, DPJ push for a censure motion against the troubled then-Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa. Azumi further insulted Itokawa by telling him:
“go tell that to your party.”
He did, and Kamei talked to the press, saying:
“Even if the DPJ wins the next Lower House election, it won’t be able to maintain power if the PNP and the Social Democratic Party say no because it won’t have a majority in the Upper House). They’re being full of themselves, not understanding how scary that is.”
The DPJ-PNP-Shin-Ryokufūkai-New Party Nippon bloc holds 118 seats. Add to that the four seats that the SDP holds, and the DPJ and its allies have 122, or a razor-thin majority, of the 242-seat Upper House.

The rhetoric notwithstanding, this is a minor dustup. The DPJ needs the PNP’s votes in the Upper House, but the PNP needs the DPJ’s electoral help if it intends to keep its place in the Diet. (Three-way battles with both the LDP and the DPJ could spell disaster for all but the strongest PNP candidates.) So the two sides will kiss and make up. But it gives you a preview of how the two small tails, one of them old-school conservative, the other pro-labor paleo-pacifist, will wag the new dog on the block if it manages to catch the meat truck. We’ve seen the wagging happen in more important matters, as in the DPJ’s acceptance of PNP desires to turn back the clock on Post Office privatization. And there may be something personal about Ichiro Ozawa’s newly-evident stance against the U.S. military presence in Japan, but it certainly helps to keep the SDP satisfied.

The problem, as we’ve seen before, is not limited to the DPJ’s relations with its prospective coalition partners. To reprise the point, the DPJ itself is just as motley a crew of everyone from SDP defectors to fiscal and national security hawks, who are united only in the desire to finally topple the LDP-centric 1955 regime for good. The divisions, many latent, have led most conspicuously to the DPJ’s inability to address the growing financial/economic crisis head on despite its formidable cadre of in-party policy wonks and academic suporters.

In the here and now, the DPJ is being gifted by a Prime Minister that the mass media and the Japanese public have almost completely tuned out, as well as an LDP that has come up with duds three in a row with little relief in sight. (Which must be why new Finance Minister and septuagenarian Kaoru Yosano is gaining credibility just for being coherent, affable, and at peace with himself.) But in the long-run, the fault lines are likely to become evident under a DPJ-led regime, as the consequences of its policies become manifest in the face of the realities and the coalition members and the DPJ’s own factions begin making new demands. That has also been true, of course, with the LDP-New Komeito axis and the LDP itself, which have most recently suffered from their own dissonances, most recently under the wobbling, lurching Aso administration. They have set the bar pretty low, so to speak. Still, the media and the public will expect more than just more of the same. A DPJ honeymoon, particularly under an Ozawa administration, in an economically challenging climate is likely to be short, and filled with unpleasant surprises.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Aso Meets Obama, Medvedev. What Gives?

There’s little that can be settled between someone with a four-year lease on power with a one-off extension option for the landlord and another guy who faces near-certain eviction in less than seven months. No to worry though; there are no purely bilateral issues of major concern, and the global financial/economic crisis is…well, global. At the regional level, Futenma, Guam, and the rest of the U.S. troop realignment issues are what they are (where Ozawa’s latest statements are far more interesting and somewhat alarming, given the political winds), and North Korea is…North Korea, the pending Taepodon 2 “satellite” launch notwithstanding. So Prime Minister Aso took the twelve-hour flight to Washington, had a one-hour get-together (half that, really, if you consider the interpretation) with President Obama—no lunch, no press conference—and took the flight back home; the clock started running again on the embattled Prime Minister as if nothing had happened.

The only effect seems to have been to give the President of the United States a four-year pass against charges of Japan passing NTTIAWWT. Think of it as a follow-up to Hillary Clinton’s visit and talk with family members of abductees. Speaking of whom, it may only have been a scheduling glitch, but I think it was a clever idea to insert Indonesia between Japan and China and South Korea in her itinerary. By breaking the sequence with a country of clearly less political consequence, the U.S. government minimized the political significance of the order of the visits.

Russian President Medvedev made an offer his Japanese counterpart couldn’t refuse when he invited Aso to Sakhalin Island for the Wednesday launch of the LNG plant that will send 65% of its 9.8 million-ton annual production to Japan*. It should be good publicity, foreign and domestic, for the Kremlin in the face of issues with Ukraine and serious knock-on effects on Western European customers, all of it unfolding within a broader, alarming context of plummeting energy prices. Aso’s visit also provides political closure to an obscure but not insignificant legal issue regarding the final status of Sakhalin Island. The USSR never signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty, under which Japan gave up sovereignty over what was then a strategically significant but barely habitable piece of real estate, along with the Kurile Islands. So Sakhalin (and the Kurile Islands) must be part of the final bilateral treaty that will settle all issues including the four islands most commonly referred to as the Northern Territories. It was a bargaining chip, albeit very minor. Aso’s visit laid that issue to rest.

In return, Aso got a promise of a May visit by Prime Minister Putin and a pledge to settle the issue within “our generation”, which the Japanese side is spinning as “during the current administrations.” The last point should be alarming to Japanese nationalists; Russia has never shown any hint of any intention to give up anything more than the two near-most (from the Japanese perspective) and smallest islands except in President Yeltsin’s weakest moments—only a hint at that, mind you—and Putin’s Russia has gone some ways in reverting to its old empirical ways since then. Meanwhile, Aso as Foreign Minister all but gave away his own game plan when he talked about splitting the islands in half by area—giving Japan the three smaller islands and a significant portion of the fourth—before there was any inkling that negotiation were going to start any time soon. At bottom, actually, is Aso’s moderate pragmatism—something most Western observers miss because of his sometimes nationalistic pronouncements—but it certainly won’t help him with a significant portion of his support from the LDP right.

* The rest goes to South Korea and the U.S.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I Interrupt My Work to Solicit Your Views on Yoshiko Sakurai and JINF

A respected international relations expert solicited my views on Yoshiko Sakurai and her Japan Institute for National Fundamentals . Mindful of his specific purpose, I tried to give as nonjudgmental an assessment as possible of her place in Japanese politics. My answer was necessarily brief (free samples always are), rendering it appropriate in size and subject for this blog, so I’ve left out the irrelevant bits and lightly edited the remainder and posted is below. If anyone has any opinions of their own, feel free to comment. I’ll answer them to my own satisfaction and ask the expert to look in.
Yoshiko Sakurai is the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals as far as I see it. In my view, she is a prominent member of the nationalist-conservative wing of mainstream Japan, as are the JINF board members whose names I recognize. As such, the graceful, unflappable award-winning investigative journalist and pioneer female newscaster espouses views on history issues that are deeply inimical to Western liberals, as well as embarrassing to their conservative counterparts who agree with her views on, say, dealing with North Korea's nuclear weapons and other security issues. But she is not a fringe figure, nor a demagogue. Among the dailies, the Sankei editorial board likely supports her, and the Yomiuri board would give her a respectable hearing. The Asahi board probably thinks she's nuts, while the Mainichi board lies somewhere between Yomiuri and Asahi. Many of her views on history issues are shared—I use the word in a broad sense; history is never either-or, never black-and-white—and given respectful hearing by mainstream conservative politicians, including some recent prime ministers.

You may not agree with her on history issues, in fact may think little of her views in that respect. But think about it this way: Would you dismiss as irrelevant Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara (who is on the JINF board)? Or Kyoto University Professor Terumasa Nakanishi? Ex-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe? Ambassador Hisahiko Okazaki?

One thing: If you want to debate her, you'd better come to the table with a full brief. She has a most impressive command of the facts, like an evangelical preacher with the Bible. Also like a preacher, indeed most advocates, she tends to ignore or make light of inconvenient evidence and facts, but you still have to be prepared to match her chapter for chapter, verse for verse.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Death Brings Relief in the Worst of Economic Downturns (and Other Ramblings)

It is only in the last week that the enormity of the fourth quarter decimation of the Japanese economy became clear and sent economic prognosticators running to their computer terminals to revise their 2009 forecasts downward; the Japanese economy is now going to fall three percent instead of two—if the average crystal ball is any indication. Of course most households, companies, governments can individually absorb a three-percent hit on their incomes with ease; the catch is that the blows will fall unevenly, with some folks going into negative-income territory, especially in the case of businesses. Thus, the stimulus bill/bills and the FY2009 budget will be at best a most clumsy means of easing the collective pain. And I don’t think we’re getting out of this until global consumption patterns re-coalesce.

Beyond that, I have little or nothing to say about the big picture; I’m not even an economist. However…

A look at the details will show us that some are less worse off than others, in fact, may be doing just fine. Take death. We all know that death can bring relief to the most miserable of lives, but did you know that it is uplifting an entire industry? In fact, the funeral industry was one of the few bright spots on Japan’s 2008 economic scene.

More broadly, during downturns, services as a whole tend to hold up better in Japan and it’s no different this time around according to METI statistics . Of the six business services for which 2008 data is available on a year-on-year basis, four actually increased sales in 2008. (Up: rentals; information services; credit card services; engineering. Down: leasing; advertising.) Of the thirteen personal services with year-on-year data, seven increased sales (Up: theaters, performances and theatrical companies; golf driving ranges; amusement and theme parks; funeral services; wedding ceremony halls; fitness clubs; supplementary tutorial schools. Down: movie theaters; golf courses; bowling alleys; pachinko parlors; foreign language schools; culture centers.), with funeral services among the winners. After all, if there’s one purchase that’s hard to put off until better times…. And more people are dying anyway, as Japanese society ages and the baby boomers begin taking leave. In fact, this is one industry where they can predict the size of your long-term, year-to-year market within a fairly narrow margin of error.

Looking beyond the funerals industry, there are several interesting inverse symmetries. One is between the decline in golf club revenue and the rise in driving range revenues. Japanese golfers are plaything less, but practicing more. It’s not hard to connect the dots here; I don’t think that Ryo Ishikawa has touched off a desire among golf dads to raise their own versions of the next Tiger Woods (or the less fortunate next Michelle Wie).

Another requires a look into the fine print. The METI table shows that the “credit card industry” as whole increased year-on-year business volume in 2008. However, most of this came in the dominant “sales credit” sector, while the “consumer credit” business (read: reformed loan sharks) continued a year-on-year decline. Cash-strapped consumers in Japan must be stretching out payments, instead of paying cash on the barrel as is the Japanese custom. Meanwhile, the shakeout appears to be continuing in the consumer credit business in the wake of the long-running judicial and legislative crackdown on usury.

Finally, rentals increased, but that did little to offset the much larger drop in leasing. It’s no surprise that businesses are more reluctant to take on long-term financial obligations.

On a different note, movies, bowling alleys and pachinko parlors continued their downward trend. I wonder if this noticeable drop in the cheaper amusement categories is an indication of the hit that the lower-income brackets are taking, or merely a point in the long-term timelines of entertainment industries whose best days are behind them.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

No Mention in KCNA of Hillary Clinton’s Visits

The Korean Central News Agency is studiously ignoring Secretary of State Clinton’s trip to Japan, South Korea and China. It’s also ignoring her trip to Indonesia, although it did acknowledge (February 18) a visit to the site of the 13th Kinjongilia Festival by the third secretary from the Indonesian embassy in Pyongyang.

Seriously, were the third secretary and the Cuban first secretary the only foreign dignitaries to take an interest in the event(February 20)? You wonder what they won’t give to have the current U.S. Secretary of State attend one of their mass games.

Why Not Help the South Korean Navy?

I’m usually far more interested in figuring out what the Japanese authorities are up to than in trying to tell them what to do. It’s better for business; besides, the authorities don’t listen to me. But I’m making an exception here. The online Asahi carries a February 22 report headlined South Korea Sounds Maritime Self-Defense Force on Refueling in Offshore Somalia; Japan Refuses(韓国、海自に給油を打診 ソマリア沖で 日本は拒否) telling us that the Japanese government rejected refueling Munmu the Great DDH-976 (the destroyer that the ROK Navy will be dispatching to escort South Korean ship in the Somali neighborhood) under the Japanese Counterterrorism Act—these are pirates, not terrorists, so that’s understandable. However, the Aso administration reportedly is also reluctant to include the necessary provisions for this in the legislative bill to upgrade authorization for the two JMSDF that will be dispatched next month under the current, more restrictive laws on the books, fearing potential trouble in the Diet.

If true, it looks like the Aso administration will be making a big, big mistake. On the domestic side, prospective counter-piracy activities enjoy the support of a healthy majority of the Japanese public—in contrast, the majority of the Japanese public consistently opposed sending troops to Iraq, while the public has always been divided over the counterterrorism refueling activities in the Indiana Ocean. With 2000-3000 ships of immediate Japanese interest passing through the dangerous waters each year and an actual seizure in recent headlines, this is a cause that will have the public and, just as important, the media behind it. This will put the DPJ on the spot: its collective instincts probably tell it to support helping the South Koreans. But it is constrained by the need to appease the “no troops” Socialists, whose votes the DPJ needs for an Upper House majority in the case of a Lower House victory in the next election. The Socialists in turn are likely to blackmail the DPJ on this issue to appease its own ever-more-narrow constituency on the diehard left-wing of the Japanese political spectrum. In other words, this is a chance to force the DPJ to make up its mind and take a difficult stand on a publicly popular issue. It’s a chance to make the DPJ look weak and waffling, a welcome, unusual switch for the LDP.

It would also be an excellent piece of diplomacy. It not only would be great payback for the Lee Myung-bak administration, which has moved much closer to the Japanese position on North Korea, but also a great show of solidarity between the two militaries that would help put local issues into proper perspective, first and foremost the Takeshima/Dok-to so that the South Korean public doesn’t go flying off the handle every time the Japanese authorities issue a reminder that there are conflicting claims over the islets, but also history issues so that the South Korean public won’t see every dislikable comment from a Japanese politician as a national affront. If this is the only thing that the two JMSDF destroyer squadrons achieve, I’d say it will be money well spent.

So I don’t see what they’re worried about. Maybe I’ve missed something.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Is It a Good Thing That These Indian Moslems Will Not Bury Their Dead?

There are nine bodies — all of them young men — that have been lying in a Mumbai hospital morgue since Nov. 29. They may be stranded there for a while because no local Muslim charity is willing to bury them in its cemetery. This is good news.

The fact that Indian Muslims have stood up in this way is surely due, in part, to the fact that they live in, are the product of and feel empowered by a democratic and pluralistic society. They are not intimidated by extremist religious leaders and are not afraid to speak out against religious extremism in their midst.
That’s what Tom Friedman says. But there is another explanation that seems equally plausible:
There are nine bodies — all of them young men — that have been lying in a Mumbai hospital morgue since Nov. 29. They may be stranded there for a while because no local Muslim charity is willing to bury them in its cemetery. This is bad news.

The fact that Indian Moslems have stood back in this way is surely due, in part, to the fact that they live in, are the product of and feel cowered by a majority-rule society dominated by Hindus. They are intimidated by extremist religious Hindu leaders who have conducted multiple pogroms against Moslems in times of religious conflict and are afraid to bury their dead, let alone speak out against religious persecution from on the other side.
Never mind the unseemly glee and presumptuousness with which Friedman purports to pass judgment on the propriety (or lack thereof) of the religious rites of another faith, never mind that the denial of a Moslem burial mirrors the extreme intimacy between the religious and the secular that empowers Moslem radicals–would Friedman similarly rejoice if Baruch Goldman’s grave were reopened and his remains returned to the Hebron morgue?—never mind that Friedman has a tendency to craft his quotes and anecdotes. I make no claim for the truthfulness of my alternative version and I know nothing of the theologies surrounding Moslem or Jewish burials, but I do say with some confidence that it would be deemed most uncharitable for the Christian church to deny a decent burial to the most heinous of condemned criminals among its flock.

If my words are not enough, read Edward Luce’s highly regarded “In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India” and you will see that Friedman’s version of the truth, interpretation of the facts, cannot be accepted unquestioningly. But it was his most uncharitable thoughts that touched off my tirade.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Perils of the Shakedown Process

The three most recent administrations have been plagued by Cabinet appointments gone bad. In fact, the Abe administration arguably lost control of the political game and the 2007 Upper House election because of botched assignments and poor damage control. Now, the Aso administration just had another one, and it has been a doozey.

But before you accuse the LDP of institutional fatigue—which I have done quite recently, actually—you have to remember that the great Junichiro Koizumi, whose passing into the political afterlife continues to be mourned by his diehard supporters, invited his own appointment fiasco in the first year of his administration when he rewarded Makiko Tanaka, the charismatic but ill-disciplined daughter of the late former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, with the Foreign Affairs portfolio for her indispensable help in his LDP campaign. It is to be remembered that Koizumi failed to show any leadership skills in managing the ensuing crisis at MOFA and her ultimate resignation. In fact, the Tanaka incident was so damaging that (according to Wikipedia) the Koizumi Cabinet’s poll numbers fell 30%. Nor is this a purely Japanese phenomenon. Barack Obama has been President of the United States for exactly one month (three if you count, which in all fairness we should, his two months as President-elect) and he’s already lost three Cabinet nominees and one White House appointment (two if you double-count Tom Daschle) requiring Senate approval.

What we’re seeing, then, is the initial shakedown process. At some point, the Obama administration is going to reach full operational capability, just like the Koizumi Cabinet did. Prime Minister Abe cracked before he made a real attempt to regain his footing, but Prime Minister Fukuda had been making a slow but steady improvement in the polls before his nerves gave out at the thought of contesting a Lower House general election. So it is not inconceivable that Prime Minister Aso could, over time, make the necessary adjustments to engineer a comeback.

Of course there is an institutional constraint to that rosy scenario. Aso always had at most only a year to reach full stride, since he had to call a Lower House election before the current four-year term expires this September. That gave the newly-appointed Prime Minister very little time to recover from any shortcomings detected during the initial shakedown.

As a second constraint, there is the cumulative effect of the two previous failures. This meant that each successive administration has begun with progressively less political capital and consequently narrower margins of error. Prime Minister Aso, among other calculations, gambled that he could add to it and deferred the snap election that his predecessor had expected him to carry out. He has squandered most of the depleted store of chips that he inherited.

Which brings me to the third and most painful constraint for the Aso administration: In the eyes of the public, the Prime Minister has arguably been his own most disastrous Cabinet appointment. And that’s a mighty difficult flaw to remedy.

That’s it for now, folks.

DPJ Wants to Keep Aso Alive?

Coming from Sankei, this report supports another contention of mine (the other was that the LDP doesn’t want to push him out until April comes around): the DPJ doesn’t want to push Prime Minister too hard (and the other opposition parties are upset about that). The Sankei report clearly sees the best-case DPJ scenario as a mortally wounded Prime Minister Aso calling a snap election, which he is allowed to do under the Japanese Constitution regardless of the LDP’s wishes. Which means of course that the LDP will not allow that to happen which means that the DPJ…

Stepping away from that cloud of conjectures, I expect things to quiet down over the coming weeks (unless another shoe drops), in which case Aso’s poll numbers will begin edging up again over the coming months. But that’s a slow process, Aso’s starting from single-digit numbers, and he only has seven months.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Odds and Ends from the Nakagawa Resignation

Yomiuri was the most favored of all.

I’ve noted that Yomiuri was kindest to the Finance Minister when the story about the press briefing meltdown first broke. It turns out that Yomiuri reporter was the only journalist at the preceding lunch with the MOF Minister and his bureaucrats. One bureaucrat testifying today in the Lower House Budget Committee said that the Minister asked for the wine himself but barely touched the stuff. The MOF bureaucrat further testified that there was a similar dinner the previous night that included four journalists, one of them being the same(?) Yomiuri reporter, while two of the others asked that their identities not be revealed and the fourth did not respond. Asahi is the only online source that is reporting on that dinner. With these clues, you have four guesses to name the other three. Don’t worry, you’ll find the answer in one of the tabloids. In the meantime, if you really need to know what I think, look here* where I’ve written them down in size”0” font, backward.

The LDP isn’t pushing Aso out until April at the earliest.

At least that’s what the mainstream media is telling us. Party faithfuls want the Aso administration to preside over late-April, supermajority overrides for FY2009-budget-related bills. After that, they want him to leave the stage or stay on to preside over yet another stimulus package, depending on whether or not they are diehard Aso supporters and/or speaking on the record. It’s not really a bad game plan, actually, considering the DPJ has nothing but the same old four-year schedule for its 2007 manifesto rev.2 in response to the economic collapse. However, there’s no one ready in the LDP to step up—帯に短し、襷に短し, if you will—and frankly, after the last three offerings, the Japanese public will be excused if it decides to kick the tires some, then goes to the other used car dealer’s lot down the street.

Everybody is talking about Nakagawa’s alcohol issues.

It’s one thing for a DPJ member to talk about how he’d seen Nakagawa held up on both sides as he left the local airport twice, it’s totally another for LDP cohorts to give eyewitness accounts on the record about his numerous public meltdowns and chronic late-shows. Never mind the usual backstabbing friends; these colleagues are shooting him in the face. Casper the Friendly Ghost he is not.

* ieknaS dna ,ihciniaM ,iekkiN

North Korea Mum on Hillary Clinton’s Visit to Japan

Recently, North Korea has been making noises about U.S. plans for all-out war and throwing verbal stink bombs at South Korea’s Lee Myung-bak regime, all the while going through the motions of preparing for a Taepodon launch. However, it has been relatively quiet with regard to Japan and, unless I’ve missed something, has studiously ignored Hillary Clinton’s visit to Japan and her meeting with family members of the abductees—as well as her comments regarding its nuclear program. Instead, the Korean Central News Agency has chosen to focus on more groundbreaking news such as a third secretary from the Indonesian embassy and a first secretary from the Cuban embassy “visit[ing] the venue of the 13th Kimjongilia Festival on Feb. 18 on the occasion of the February holiday.” (February 18, folks. The site does not have direct links to individual articles.)

Nothing surprising here if you conceive all of North Korea’s actions and words as tactical moves in the service of a strategy that is intended to maximize economic returns without giving up and when possible enhancing its two bargaining chips. And what are they? One, we will pee on you (conventional and nuclear military power); and two, we will throw up on you (internal meltdown). Yes, North Korea is Bizarro baby. It does need a U.S. interlocutor, though, and likely figures that, with her Billary Albright associations, the Secretary of State is better than most.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Nakagawa Outtakes

Yes, the Aso administration has been further wounded, but so what, “deader” and “deadest” are not real words. Having said that, I think that the Aso administration will linger into April. Aso is the first Prime Minister since Koizumi with a real hunger for the job and he knows that he has only one crack at it. The LDP party elders do not have the stomach to push him out and diehard reformists do not have the numbers. The DPJ would be foolish to actually push him over the edge (assuming it could); why help the LDP do a makeover? So, if I’m wrong, I’m wrong. But in the meantime, even the lousiest movies have some watchable outtakes…

Shoichi Nakagawa is one sick puppy.

Take a guy who by reliable accounts—much of which is surfacing in the mainstream media, as usual, post facto—drinks heavily under stress and does not hold his liquor well, is a regular user of painkillers, and has a tendency for self-overmedication. He took over the family business when his father committed suicide in the prime of his career. His own promising career is now in tatters, as he has disgraced himself in full view of the mainstream media; the video clip holds a spot in cyberspace somewhere between those of Chris Crocker and Paris Hilton’s performances.

The guy needs help.

Shoichi Nakagawa is the first Japanese politician to be brought down by the Internet.

Kidding. But the Internet did play a significant, if far from decisive, role in the story. Let me explain.

None of the initial dispatches from the embedded reporters in Rome probed the real cause and broader background of Finance Minister Nakagawa’s meltdown. There were several reasons for this. The MOF kisha club folks who accompanied him there are economic reporters whose backgrounds are in the business and financial worlds and the related bureaucracies and public banking institutions. They have not cultivated the experience or temperament for the battle and the hurly-burly of the political and the crime-and-grime “society” scenes. Moreover, as MOF regulars, they are inclined to go along to get along, since it is the day-to-day economic news that allow them to earn their keep in the form of bylines. The correspondents gathering from Rome and elsewhere in Europe also appeared to have had understandable difficulties in grasping the political delectability of the spectacle that was unfolding before their eyes. (The kisha club crowd had no incentive to alert their overseas counterparts/competitors to the possibilities even if they had been aware of them.) It must, then, have been a godsend to the Sankei writer at home/in Washington to have come upon the ABC News blog item, for here was a factual hook to file a report to trump their MOF kisha club counterparts, fleshing it out with the familiar, meatier allegations of substance abuse.

That was step one. Step two came when Japanese broadcasts of Nakagawa’s media fiasco debuted on YouTube. Nakagawa must have been viewed by more people outside of Japan than any other Japanese since Ken Watanabe stole the show from Tom Cruise in Last Samurai after being simul-linked by Matt Drudge and the Daily Dish metablog. Needless to say, the overseas attention was duly reflected in the Japanese media, adding to Nakagawa’s woes.

Would the Japanese media have eventually turned their attention to Nakagawa’s substance issues in the absence of the overseas reports? Of course. Was Nakagawa a goner without the ridicule from the overseas media? Surely the Japanese TV wide shows would have been more than enough to elevate the story above tabloids levels. And would the overseas media have turned their attention to the spectacle without YouTube assistance anyway? No doubt. But subordinate though their roles may have been, there is no doubt that the blogosphere and YouTube became highly useful props in the made-for-docudrama script that took down Nakagawa. There’s always a next time, and the time will come for the Internet to star.

Shoichi Nakagawa Starring in Groundhog Day

Step 1. Embarrassing details emerge in the political life of an LDP Cabinet Minister, Minister issues denial.
Step 2. Prime Minister expresses confidence in Cabinet Minister.
Step 3. More embarrassing details emerge, Minister repeats denial.
Step 4. Prime Minister expresses confidence in Cabinet Minister.
Step 5. More embarrassing details emerge, Minister backtracks.
Step 6. Prime Minister expresses confidence in Cabinet Minister.
Step 7. More embarrassing details emerge, Minister backtracks.
Step 8. Prime Minister is silent.
Step 9. Minister resigns and/or kills himself.
Step 10. Return to step 1…
Note: Steps 3&4, 5&6 and 7&8 may be repeated, in tandem at each juncture.

This has been the story of the three most recent administrations, including the current one. Two observations: First, the LDP seems to have lost all semblance of an institutional memory. (Paging Oliver Sachs...) Second, each successive administration begins with lower health levels and shorter ATB gauges, like some Bizarroworld computer game.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

No East Asia Miracle for Finance Minister

The proprietor of Shisaku sends his friends a Reuters link that Shoichi Nakagawa just announced his intent to resign after the Lower House passes the budget and budget-related legislative bills. End of story. A few percentage points in the opinion polls this way or that don’ t matter anymore for the Aso administration.

Out of Sight, Out the Door? The Media on Finance Minister’s Last? Gaffe

This post is dedicated to Drs. YH and PS and the letters C, O, and H.

Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa’s latest spacewalk at the G7 meeting in Rome—his previous one came at the January 28 Lower House plenary session, where he made 26 acknowledged errors while reading the fiscal statement for the administration—when he fell asleep during the closed meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors and later slobbered through a subsequent press briefing. Widely reputed to have a drinking problem, credible reports have had him in previous administrations showing up late and hung over for the twice-weekly morning Cabinet sessions. In this case in point most likely the consequences of a combination of jet lag, cold medication and, yes, alcohol, his latest travails have forced him to take the day off today (February 17) to seek medical help, while the Lower House shut down work on the budget and budget-related legislation for the day. Regardless of the medical prognosis, only a political miracle will allow the near-terminal Aso administration—the only administration other than the Mori Cabinet to fall to single-digit approval figures in public polls—to keep him on as Finance Minister. I drafted a fairly long post last night on this affair, but it looks trivial and already dated in the light of day—Mr. Nakagawa, detox helps!—so I’ll merely give you a brief rundown of how the story broke in the media.

Two different stories initially came out, one in Japan, the other in the English-language media. The Japanese media wrote up the post-meeting briefing for the Japanese media, some of whom were embedded members of the MOF kisha club while others were correspondents dispatched to Rome or possibly other places in Europe. Although the Finance Minister acted as drunk as a skunk and the Japanese journalist who is not aware of his alleged substance issues is rarer than a dodo-passenger pigeon mix-breed, the Japanese media tiptoed around the matter at first, speculating about things like fatigue and jet lag, while using question marks (Asahi) or a code phrase ろれつが回らない(unable to articulate properly) (Nikkei) or both (Mainichi) to drop a hint to the political cognoscenti (i.e. tabloid readers, bloggers, and chatroom denizens) that there might be more to the story. (Yomiuri kindly decided to be nonjudgmental.) The post-meeting late-afternoon press briefing for the Japanese media by the Finance Minister and the BOJ Governor was preceded by a lunch with the Japanese media and a hour-or-so-long break.

An ABC News blog broke the story overseas with a riff on close-up shots by APTN / AP of Nakagawa nodding off at the meeting. The blogging White House correspondent for ABC News only mentions jet lag, but Sankei brought the two strands together in a story that raised the “drunk” question in conjunction with the “nodding off” issues. Then it was open season as ex-Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori—yes, Mr. Single-Digits— went on national TV on one of those morning wide shows ahead and noted, “I was surprised. (Mr. Nakagawa) is a person who likes alcohol very much, so I’ve often told him to be careful with his alcohol”, intimating in the bargain that he had disagreed with Taro Aso when the latter decided to nominate Nakagawa as Finance Minister.

I do not think that it was a coincidence that none of the postprandial reports from Rome explicitly used the A-word, nor that the Yomiuri was the most reluctant to hint at the issue. Likewise that the Sankei was the first to pop the question and that it bundled it with overseas reports—the shame of it! Although I watch little regular TV programming, I believe that the morning wide shows have helped drive the print media along the narrative.

That’s all for now.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The DPJ Response to the Economic Crisis or Lack Thereof


The DPJ is taking the Aso administration to task for talking about yet another multi-trillion-yen budget well before the second stimulus package and the FY2009 budget have been enacted by the Diet. This lack of foresight on the part of the Aso administration may not be unique from a global perspective and given the rarity of the economic situation, but it’s still fair game politics-wise.

What makes me uneasy, given the increasing likelihood that the DPJ will take over in the next Lower House election, is the fact that the DPJ is even less reluctant to address the current, escalating economic problems. It came out last year with a plausible plan to deal with the financial crisis, but it never went on to push it with the Japanese public. More significantly, it is sticking to its four-year rollout plan for the 2007 DPJ manifesto plus a few big-ticket items that it subsequently promised, such as the discontinuation of the “temporary” gasoline surtax.

If the Aso administration suffers from a case of making-it-up-as-you-go-along frivolity, the DPJ is welded to a partly-sound, part political-expediency set of measures that may have been superseded by the dramatically altered economic landscape, in Japan and globally.

The Downsized Pope

John Paul II was a force of nature, Bill Clinton without the sexual baggage, a supersized Barack Obama. You might not like his conservative views, you might not like his religion, but you could not help liking the man. Benedict XVI by contrast offends Muslims and Jews, then offers to make up for it on his official visits. You wonder what he’ll have to say about Hindus and non-believers, not to mention Buddhists and Baha’is. The current pope appears to have no authority, no outreach, beyond the conservative members of his flock and to be merely tolerated by the other Catholics.

Pop quiz: What other Roman Catholic leader does he remind you of?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Ozawa-Clinton Meeting On

The Ozawa-Clinton meet-and-greet is on after all: the DPJ had second thoughts and asked the U.S. side, who obliged. If you like the over-under kind of bets, then you must be curious about the odds of Ichiro Ozawa serving if the DPJ wins. Well, they’ve just gone up as the result of the about-face. More substantially, it’ll be interesting to see how Ozawa handles issues related to the U.S. military presence in Japan (ex. Japanese sendoff gift for U.S. troops headed to Guam, U.S, relocation within Japan) and the overseas projection of Japanese Self-Defense Forces (ex. Afghanistan, refueling operations in the Indian Ocean, piracy off the Somalia coast).

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Some Thoughts on Hillary Clinton’s February 13 Speech

Hillary Clinton’s 13 February speech at the Asia Society in New York, two days before her trip to Japan, South China, South Korea and Indonesia, has already been widely reported and is available in its entirety, including the Q&A, here. As English-language speakers no doubt are already aware, a substantial part of her talk is about the financial crisis, North Korea’s nuclear program, and climate change and China. I hope my comments shed some light on her talk that has otherwise not been covered.

The substantive part of Hillary Clinton’s speech begins with a tribute to the progress that Asia has made in the fifty years since the founding of the Asia Society. In the process, she gives a list of the traditional sights and sounds of Asia that have caught her attention in her travels over the years.
I think of the elegant temples of Kyoto, or the rituals of nomadic life outside Ulaanbaatar, the intricate handwork of traditional craftspeople in Chiang Rai, the vibrant markets of Hanoi, Hong Kong, and Dhaka; the grand hotels of Singapore and Manila, the calligraphers practicing their art in Xi’an, the historic dress of Seoul and the traditional dances of Jakarta, or the strum of the sitar in New Delhi.
In doing so, she implicitly refers to: Japan, Mongolia, Thailand, Vietnam, China (twice: one state, two systems), Bangladesh, Singapore, the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, and India. They can be sorted into: Northeast Asia (four; excluding North Korea and Russia), ASEAN (four; with Malaysia the one major member missing), and South Asia. Her visits to Central Asia—she visited Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan as First Lady—Pakistan, West Asia (Afghanistan) and the Middle East (Iraq) go unmentioned.

These omission are not unreasonable, since she is weaving a story of progress as the backdrop for a “new era of diplomacy and development in which [the United States] will use smart power to work with historic allies and emerging nations to find regional and global solutions to common global problems.” The “common global problems” that she specifically cites here are: financial instability and economic dislocation, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (for all practical purposes nuclear proliferation), food security and health emergencies, climate change and energy vulnerability, stateless criminal cartels and human exploitation. The U.S. outreach, using smart power, will extend beyond governments and “engage civil society.”

There is a strong emphasis here on dialogue; “we are ready to listen”. This is very much Obamaesque. But it is in this context that a couple of other countries (as well as China) receive less favorable attention when she says, “As part of our dialogues, we will hold ourselves and others accountable as we work to expand human rights and create a world that respects those rights, one where Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi can live freely in her own country, where the people of North Korea can freely choose their own leaders, and where Tibetans and all Chinese people can enjoy religious freedom without fear of prosecution.”That’s Burma and North Korea, as well as China. (Note, though, the carefully crafted ambiguity of the phrase “Tibetans and all Chinese people”—not “Tibetans and Chinese” of course, but not “all Chinese people, including Tibetans,” either.

Of these global concerns, Clinton first takes up global financial crisis and its economic impact. Nothing really new here; I’ll just note that she invokes the importance of international partnerships and avoiding protectionism.

The second major item on the ticket is North Korea’s nuclear program. But before that, she touches briefly on “maintaining our historic security alliances in Asia and building on those relationships to counter the complex global threats we face” and goes on to state “I’m very pleased that Japan and South Korea this week agreed to joint assistance for reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, and that both countries continue to work with us on global security, especially in combating piracy off the Horn of Africa.” Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the main opposition party, has reportedly been spouting some unrealistic thoughts about dispatching the Japan Coast Guard there. No wonder he has been doing his best to avoid Clinton’s outstretched hand. At least she didn’t mention the refueling operations.

Back to North Korea: she states the obvious with regard to the Obama administration’s continued commitment to the Six-Party process and her intent to discuss this with Japan, China, and South Korea on this visit. The U.S. position is clear and unchanged from the central premise, however unrealistic, of the Six-Party process:
“If North Korea is genuinely prepared to completely and verifiably eliminate their nuclear weapons program, the Obama Administration will be willing to normalize bilateral relations, replace the peninsula’s longstanding armistice agreements with a permanent peace treaty, and assist in meeting the energy and other economic needs of the North Korean people.”
After 165 words on this subject (out of a total 3,382 words for the entire speech, frills and all) she follows with 32 words on—what else?
“On a related matter, I will assure our allies in Japan that we have not forgotten the families of Japanese citizens abducted to North Korea. And I will meet with some of those families in Tokyo next week.”
It is now all about not forgetting, it seems. Such meetings have become a rite, sealed in a place where time goes by so slowly, until regime change—or something very similar—heralds the beginning of the end for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and hauls Japan’s financial assistance into the picture..

Next, Clinton expends 276 words on climate change and the need for clean sources of energy. She emphasizes the need for “partnerships that promote cleaner energy sources, greater energy efficiency, technology transfers that can benefit both countries, and other strategies that simultaneously protect the environment and promote economic growth”, and sees such collaboration as “a real opportunity to deepen the overall U.S.-Chinese relationship”. Nothing remarkable here about the substance, but note the careful distinction here between the plural “partnerships” and the singular “relationship”.

But I digress. Before leaving climate change and energy behind, note that Clinton also mentions working with Japan and South Korea, as well as Indonesia, on clean energy. Not that anything dramatic is going to happen any time soon—is it my imagination, or are pundits with the least energy background the most enthusiastic supporters of collaboration?—but it’s not all China here.

This is followed by a riff on “development” as one of the three D’s—the others are defense and diplomacy—that are vital to U.S. security, and cites Indonesia, and more broadly ASEAN, favorably in this context, saying, “we look forward to working with our other partners and friends in the regions, allies like Thailand and the Philippines, along with Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam, to ensure that ASEAN can live up to its charter, to demonstrate the region’s capacity for leadership on economic, political, human rights, and social issues.” A shoutout to Australia, which is not on the itinerary, follows. After that, it’s a rundown of specific, bilateral issues that she will be discussing on her visit.

The key sentence with regard to Japan:
“Our security alliance with Japan, 50 years old next year, has been, and must remain, unshakable.”
. It’s not easy to be more explicit than that. Her agenda: signing the Guam International Agreement to move U.S. troop out of “the peace and stability of Asia and increasingly focuses on global challenges”. Again, a problem for the Ozawa DPJ, given its challenge of the price tag, the Japanese,, trillion-yen and upwards, payout. At the bilateral level, China receives by far the most space (295 words to Japan’s 159). But it’s a desire for “a positive, cooperative relationship.” Speaking of which…

Earlier, I took note of the care with which Clinton used the words “relationship” and “partnerships”. The same care can be seen in her use of words regarding bilateral issues here. More broadly, I was reminded of the sentence that touched the nerves of the Japanese establishment in her Foreign Affairs essay where she said:
”Our relationship with China will be the most important bilateral relationship in the world in this century.”
It had MOFA officials counting the number of times “Japan” and China” appeared in this essay as well as her campaigning speeches and reportedly asking visiting Japan hands to divine the meaning of it all. All too often, The Japanese authorities and the Japanese media fail to see that Clinton, as well as other responsible U.S. figures, routinely distinguish between “relationship(s)”, “partnership(s)”, and “alliance(s)”. Then of course there’s “engagement”. This is not a mere quibble. These distinctions are essential to understanding, constructing, and explaining the conceptual framework that is the foundation of the foreign and national security policies of Japan, indeed, of any sovereign state.

After China, the speech ends on a positive if unremarkable note, with the following call:
Let us commit ourselves to providing the kind of outreach and responsiveness, understanding, and commitment that will lead not just to a better understanding, but positive actions to improve the lives of our own people here and those who live in Asia today.
And who can disagree with that?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Koizumi Reams Aso

I don’t know what—carelessness? fearlessness? mindlessness?—that was driving Prime Minister Aso when he wandered all over the map expressing his dissatisfaction—assuming there was—over the cornerstone of Junichiro Koizumi’s legacy as Prime Minister, that is, Post Office privatization, only to further diminish himself in the eyes of public opinion. No matter. He roused the lion from his stupor—half-hearted support for “reformist” candidate Yuriko Koike, bequeathal to his nondescript second son and all—who dismissed the hapless Prime Minister on a phone call, then strapped on his guns and unleashed a full-bore attack in a talk to a raggle-taggle, eighteen-member clutch of diehard reformists gathered around Hidenao Nakagawa, his trusty second-in-command during the glory years. The Prime Minister’s chances of leading the LDP into the next Lower House general election have obviously been further diminished. I would also bet against, though I would still bet on the legislative bill authorizing the funding of the 2-trillion-yen handout in the supplementary budget obtaining a Lower House supermajority in a revote*. (The magic number is between 16 and 3247*, depending on the number of defectors and mere abstainers in the voting.) Beyond that, I hesitate to guess what the fallout will be.

The full transcript of Koizumi’s talk is here. As a public service, I offer the following translation of the Yomiuri summary:

With regard to the Prime Minister’s recent statements, it’s as if I am more, like, laughing instead of being angry; I am truly stupefied. A couple of days ago, the Prime Minister “want[ed]to talk”, so I talked to him on the phone, and I told him, “I’ll fax texts from Jiro Ono, Lower House member, and Hironari Seko, Upper House member (criticizing the Prime Minister on their blogs[!]), so please read them carefully.”

When young LDP Diet members express opinions critical of the Prime Minister and party executives, the executives try to suppress them, saying, “No backstabbing”, but isn’t the recent situation such that the Prime Minister is shooting people in the face who are trying to contest [the election]? I told him, “Be careful what you say.”

He seems to be saying about me, “You can’t reason with the guy,” or, “Weirdo, an eccentric,” but I think that I’m a normal person, who has common sense. We have to fight the election by September. We’re all worried what’s going to become of the LDP. I may do some irrational things at times, but it’s necessary to really talk it over in order to come to a rational outcome.

The twisted Diet [LDP-New Komeito has a Lower House (super)majority, but is an Upper House minority] is not a bad thing at all. Currently, the Japanese public is making powerful demands that policy should take priority over politics. If there is a (policy) difference between the two Houses, then it wouldn’t be a bad thing to discuss a plan that the public can be satisfied with, would it?

Regarding the [2-trilllion-yen] handout, the Prime Minister says that it is sordid [for the wealthy] to accept it. He’s been saying a variety of things, such as, “I’m not going to accept it,” and, “No, I didn’t say such a thing.” I don’t think that this legislative bill is one that must be passed if we must resort to the 2/3rds majority (in the Lower House). I don’t want to say later, “I supported it then, but I really hadn’t.” I want them to reach an appropriate conclusion after more consultations with the Upper House.

We must seek the confidence of the public by September. The most important thing in politics is trust. In particular, if the there is no trust in the words of the Prime Minister, we won’t be able to fight the election.

* ADD 14 Feberuary: Bad arithmetic. I always get it wrong unless I do it on paper. I found a way to visualize it, so it won’t happen again. In any case, 47 abstentions? That’s a pretty big number. More importantly, the media have talked to LDP Diet members including first-term Koizumi kids and close associates of Koizumi and are drawing the conclusion that there will be relatively little dissent when the legislative bills come to a Lower-House revote.

Biting the Hand that Feeds Me? Yep, Sounds Like Me Alright…and a Public Announcement on Behalf of PBS

I have been asked to add my voice to Perspectives, a feature on the World Focus website. I consider it an honor, and have gladly accepted. But:
Perspectives highlights the best of the blogosphere by cross-posting columns culled from a network of contributors. We cut through the noise of tens of millions of bloggers worldwide and bring you commentary from experts and voices on the ground.

So I guess my question is: Should I consider myself fortunate no longer to be considered noise, or should I show some compassion for the riff-raff, the clamorous multitude from whose cacophonous midst I have so recently emerged?

How about:
We sift through the voices of the tens of millions of bloggers worldwide
I think I could have lived with that.

Seriously, Perspectives must be following hundreds of blogs every day, so don’t expect my posts to show up there any time soon. Of more interest to me is the fact that this is part of the move the mainstream media have been making in the blogosphere for some time now, pushing forth their own journalists and columnists professional writers and journalists, and roping in solitary bloggers like wild horses—I was asked to suggest some blogs, which I did, reminding myself of yet another equine parallel. I am far from going professional—one of hundreds, one of hundreds, but am I being domesticated nonetheless? What will the lure of a broader readership do to my content? My choice and interpretation of events? This is going to have me thinking for a while.

In the meantime, Perspectives has asked me to plug Talk to Us, a “World Focus Citizens Initiative”. There’s always a quid pro quo, it seems. Kidding. They want you to give advice to President Obama. Take a look.

Ryang Yong Gi is a 27-Year-Old North Korean Soccer Player

Ryang Yong Gi is a 27-year-old North Korean, one of the hundreds of thousands of Koreans who have grown up in Japan as permanent residents here. Ryang is also a very good soccer player. In fact, Ryang is so good that he has earned five caps with his North Korean national team, scoring four goals. For the last four years, he has also been one of the starting forwardmidfielders for the Vegaluta Sendai, a second-division J-League team that has barely missed out on returning to the top Japanese division those same four years. His mostly Japanese teammates have just reelected him as team captain for the second straight year.

He is of course only part of the picture that is Japan, which is of course not always a pretty one. But I thought his story should be told too.

Chuko Hayakawa: One Face of the Liberal Democrats

If anyone in the LDP has good reasons to distance himself from the Aso administration, it’s Chuko Hayakawa. Elected to the House of Representatives on his fourth! try for national office, the second-term Lower House member inhabits the reformist and left-wing regions of the LDP map, two topological features that set him apart from the traditionalist and right-wing forces that are putting the best face on their support, now likely regretted, for the embattled Prime Minister.

A commercial lawyer by trade with a strong interest in human rights, Hayakawa is one of the few LDP Diet members able to actually appreciate his entry-level political appointment as Parliamentary Secretary at the unglamorous, backwater, Ministry of Justice. (The real power is shared by the courts and the quasi-independent National Prosecutors Agency.) But at the ripe old age of 64, his chances of a future appointment to the top MOJ job—typically awarded as a Cabinet-level gold watch to long-serving party hacks or sop to a junior coalition partner—or any other Cabinet posting are slim. In short, the status quo does not work in his long-term favor.

Hayakawa also suffers under a double handicap as a) a still vulnerable sophomore Diet member—he like so many of his classmates escaped the rookie slump in the 2006 election on Koizumi coattails—whose b) independent-heavy urban electorate profile will be hostile to LDP incumbents this time around. So he’s up against a dilemma; he a) needs the LDP’s money and local help, yet b) needs to maintain a healthy distance from a highly unpopular administration that he does not feel comfortable with in the first place. Defection to the opposition is not an option either, since the DPJ already has a candidate up and ready to run against him. (Do not think for a moment that the DPJ is going to drop its own candidate to do him a favor. I’ve talked about this before; I’ve since come across evidence that deepens my convictions on this point. Besides, the DPJ candidate is an HR incumbent who is trying to upgrade a proportional district seat. )

Seen in this context, his actions make perfect sense, namely:
Diss the hapless Prime Minister;
Talk about realignment, including vague noises about a “new party”; and
Declare that you’ll resign from your political appointment of your heart’s desire; but then
Declare your loyalty to the LDP; and
Be “talked” into staying on by your boss the Justice Minister to finish your work at the Justice Ministry.
It is very easy to imagine this story slightly modified as an Edo-Era, samurai, costume drama.

Now I’m not saying that Hayakawa concocted this story; rather, it comes across as the natural outcome of the predicament that he and likeminded LDP members are in. Seen in that light, by thrashing about, he has established the outer boundaries of accepted behavior within the LDP that allows beleaguered HR members to maximize their chances of being reelected while keeping their options open for any realignment possibilities and still maintaining their LDP membership. Not good news for Taro Aso, but it’s increasingly every man/woman for him/herself.

You know, I think we’re talking about…cooties. Yes, Taro has cooties.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Some Implications of South Korea’s Help on Japan’s Abduction Issue

I’ll have to issue a corrective regarding my previous post on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit regarding a possible meeting with family members of abductees. I’d overlooked the change in South Korea’s policy regarding its own abductees under the Lee Myung-bak administration and more broadly the impact of an overall shift away from the ten-year-old Sunshine policy. This point was driven home for me when South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-Hwan announced that he was helping to arrange a meeting between Kim Hyun Hui, one of the North Korean agents responsible for the 1987 Korean Air Flight 858 bombing and now living in South Korea in relative seclusion, and family members of Japanese abductee Taeko Yaguchi, who had been tasked with teaching Kim the Japanese language and Japanese customs.

I can’t imagine the Lee administration following Japan’s lead in asking Clinton for a face-to-face with South Korea’s own abduction constituency—it makes South Korea look weak and reliant on the United States, always bad politics over there, and it’s not going to help right things anyway—but the South Korean gesture has raised the media’s attention. I believe that this slightly raises the stakes for both Clinton and North Korea with regard to her response to the Japanese request. Moreover, it’s one thing for the United States to indulge Japan as an act of diplomatic courtesy; it’s another for the three parties to act in consonance, if not in unison. The North Korean response will be that much harsher. The Kim Jong Il regime is playing its latest Taepodon caper for much larger stakes in its bid for face and more fungible goodies, but it may nevertheless see such a gesture as an indication of a harder line from the Obama administration than the late-Bush administration’s sliced-salami concession tactics.

A Few Thoughts on Hillary Clinton’s Upcoming Visit

I thought that the AP wire that I linked to in this previous post implicitly said everything that absolutely needed to be said about Secretary of State Clinton’s East/Southeast Asia trip, and I still do. But there are a couple of bits of trivia in the Japanese media about which I have a few thoughts that might be of use to you. By that, I mean a) the U.S. attempt to set up a meeting with Ichiro Ozawa and b) the Japanese attempt to set up a meeting with the family members of the abductees.

The DPJ’s attempt to bask in the afterglow of its U.S. namesake’s across-the-board victory in the November elections notwithstanding, I will be pleasantly surprised if the Ozawa-Clinton meeting happens. The DPJ does not want to have its differences with Japan’s most important military ally (the only other one being Australia) and within its own party ranks regarding a) the U.S. military presence in Japan and b) the Japanese role regarding operations in and around Afghanistan and off the coasts of Somalia aired in public. It would be unsettling. Ozawa would be particularly problematic as the DPJ interlocutor, since he has been personally responsible for the policy positions that have led to the bilateral discord regarding the overseas projection of the Japanese military. Add to that, Ozawa… being Ozawa…

Incidentally, there’s nothing odd about a State Secretary meeting the head of the DPJ. After all, the DPJ is the leading opposition party. I wonder how it works the other way around though. What if Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone tries to do the same if and when he visits the United States? Nothing wrong with meeting the head of the Republican Party, but Michael Steele, the Chairman? Please. Not John McCain either, he only came close; now, he’s just a senator. George W. Bush? Maybe, but only as a courtesy call, which leaves the question open. There’s something to be said for the parliamentary system where official visits are concerned.

The other meeting, the one with family members of the abductees, is clearly not a top priority item for the Clinton side, if claims of her scheduling difficulties mean anything. The fact that the story of the logistical problem is emanating from Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary* indicates that the Aso administration is either not pushing too hard, which would mean that it is unlikely to happen; or lowering expectations to get the most out of a, say, ten-minute interlude in an Aso-Clinton meeting during which a few family members are shuffled in and out of the Prime Minister’s office. If I absolutely had to make a call, it would be the latter—it would be so easy to engineer—but either way, the consequences would be trivial. Some people in Japan will like Clinton (and the Obama administration) less if she doesn’t meet them. But Japan’s stance with regard to North Korea and more broadly the bilateral alliance including U.S. troop realignment will remain unchanged. Clinton-family facetime will earn some credits with the nationalist crowd, but that’s not where the real public and LDP opposition to Aso is coming from. Remember, this episode is playing out against a backdrop of increasing “abduction fatigue”. Wounds may never heal, but we at least learn to live with the pain; the media’s diminishing treatment of the issue reflects this fact of life. Moreover, a meeting may only exacerbate the sense of futility, which would be a negative for the Aso administration.

All this, of course, is predicated on the assumption that the regional problems of major concern for the bilateral alliance are chronic, not acute, in nature and require careful management, not dramatic initiatives. That includes North Korea, despite its most recent Taepodon threat. The short-term course for the overseas projection of the Japanese military is also set for the moment. The results of the upcoming Lower House election can change this, as well as the Japanese stance on U.S. troops realignment, but there’s little short of throttling Ozawa that Clinton can do to affect the outcome. Hey, maybe that’s why Ozawa…

The report is available from this short-lived Mainichi link. Oddly, the full reports of the Chief Cabinet Secretary’s press briefings for that day (available on the Sankei website) do not include this point. Perhaps the Mainichi chased him down after the press briefing. Takeo Kawamura, the current CCS, is regarded as a lightweight, but to his credit appears to be uncommonly accommodating with the press. He held two press briefings on Sunday.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Desperate Times Call for Desperate Means: Government Scrip and Inheritance-Tax-Exempt, Zero-Interest National Bonds

One of the less-noticed features of Yoshimi Watanabe’s Dear John letter to the LDP was his proposal to issue government paper money (in addition to the BOJ paper money and the government-issue coins) and use the funds to prop up the stock market. More recently, an old LDP chestnut, the inheritance-tax-free zero-interest national bond, has been revived by Yoshihide Suga and other prominent LDP MPs. Last Friday, the forces came together in the preparatory meeting for the establishment of the Diet Members’ League to Examine the Issuance of Government Paper Money and Inheritance Tax-Free, Zero-Interest National Bonds. (政府紙幣・無利子国債(相続税減免措置付き)発行を検討する議員連盟; it’s easier on the eye when you have space- and breath-saving kanji, sure, but eschewing katakana altogether?…Wait, is there a political agenda here?) Yoichi “Buried Treasure” Takahashi, the MOF bureaucrat-turned-academic and economic guru to LDP reformists, is the intellectual force behind this, if this report is to be believed. According to the media, the first idea was knocked down by old-school, older, fiscal conservatives such as faction leader and ex-Finance Minister Bunmei Ibuki and current Economic and Financial Regulation Minister Kaoru Yosano and the more expansion-minded Prime Minister Aso and Finance Minister Nakagawa, while the second received a somewhat warmer hearing. Now I have some respect for Professor Takahashi and I’m not an economist, but I have to say no to both. Let me explain:

Both measures are essentially interest-free loans; in fact, with paper money, the government doesn’t even have to repay the principle. That’s why most countries try to take segniorage out of the hands of politicians and leave it to an independent central bank. Otherwise, what you have is “scrip”—more appropriate for provisional governments, rebel regimes, Argentine provinces and mine site canteens.

Now government scrip stays in the monetary base forever unless it is redeemed with BOJ notes or other fungible assets. In fact, if I understand correctly, that is exactly the point—to increase the monetary base to raise prices and push consumption without swelling future debt repayments. But experience during the post-bubble years has shown that increasing the monetary base is like pushing on a string when nobody wants the money. I’m not an economist, but it looks like the measure runs a serious risk of runaway inflation if it is anywhere near effective in goosing demand. I’m siding with the people doing the worrying.

The inheritance-tax-free, zero-interest national bond by contrast has received a respectful nod from the LDP mainstream. Let’s take look at what this means.

The top inheritance tax rate—applicable above a net tax base of 300 million yen (after a maximum 47 million yen deduction)—is 50%, while the going annual interest rate for a maximum-maturity 30-year national bond is a shade under 2%. If we round up the interest rate to 2% and use it as the discount rate, the present value of the principal for a 100 million yen bond comes to 55.2 million yen. So it appears that someone on his deathbed who has a net tax base of more than 400 million can lock in a 5.2 million yen after-inhertance-tax profit on a 100-million yen, inheritance-tax-free, zero-interest bond—the difference between the bond’s 55.2 million present value and the 50 million-yen after-tax cash—for his heirs or other more worthy causes. (It is named inheritance tax but is in effect an estate tax.) Of course it doesn’t quite work that way, since the discount rate, which is equal to the corresponding interest rate, should be progressively higher for each later interest payment—which should be considered as independent cash flows for valuation purposes. Since the face value of a 100-million bond at a 2% interest rate is the sum of the present value of the principal and all the present values of the interest payments, all but the last of which are subject to lower discount rates than the principal, the present value of the principal and hence the present value of the zero-interest bond is lower than 55.2 million yen and likely lower than the 50 million threshold that would begin making the deal attractive at the margins, i.e., to wealthy people on their deathbeds. The terms under progressively shorter maturities improve rapidly for the 300-million-and-over tax base, though, with the effect of the shorter maturities being compounded by the lower discount rates. Note that a ten-year government bond currently carries an interest rate around 1.2-1.4%, a five-year bond 0.7-0.8%.

Now, it will not be difficult to calculate the break-even point for any given life expectancy under any given set of yield curves. Since the government cannot match the maturity of the bonds to the individual purchaser’s life expectancies but must set a single maturity for each issue, it will in principle have to give up more in terms of present value that it loses in inheritance taxes than it gains in interest that goes unpaid. And if the government is to have any hopes of taking in substantial revenue, that giveaway shall have to substantial as well.

And all that for what? Let’s say that the government manages to save a couple of hundred million yen in interest payments per year over ten years on a trillion-yen bond issue. That’s the kind of money that would help my cash flow, but would be lost in a 80-something trillion yen budget. Moreover, these “gains” will be more than cancelled out in the initial years by huge shortfalls in inheritance tax revenue, since purchasers of these bonds will be concentrated on the short end of the life expectancy range. In fact, I foresee a massive concentration of the shortfall coming in the first year of implementation. (Buy, then die quickly, would be the best strategy for people who buy the bond.) And that’s over and above the government giveaway that I referred to in the previous paragraph.

All this begs the question: Why bother? Unless of course, you want to turn it into a no-questions-asked money-laundering scheme—something not totally out of the question.

It is possible that the intent is to placate complaints from the wealthier LDP supporters that the inheritance tax is too high, and that the generally well-off LDP Diet members (if you are taking those annual disclosures of personal assets at face value, I have a bridge to sell you) are inclined to be more than sympathetic to their views. To be fair, I think that the top rate (or the threshold tax base thereof) is excessive, and I swear I have no personal financial interest in this issue either way. But that’s a different agenda that should be met head on, instead of sneaking in a one-off favor to the well-to-do before the DPJ and its allies with their more egalitarian background comes into power.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

U.S.-Japan Security Treaty Applies to Senkaku Inlands

I’ve begun going through Wikileak and this CRS report caught my eye. The report makes a strong, unequivocal case that “while maintaining neutrality on the competing claims, the United States agreed in the Okinawa Reversion Treaty to apply the [U.S.-Japan] Security Treaty to the treaty area, including the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands.” The unstated flip side of the coin is that neither Takeshima (Dokto to some of you) nor the Northern Territories are covered.

Words of Wisdom from Taro Aso

“The LDP is the subject of mistrust because of the public pension and other (problems), but in the case of the DPJ, it’s a matter of anxiety, not mistrust.”
—Taro Aso, from a February 8 speech

The head of the Japan Communist party could not have said it better. The Prime Minister clearly has a great future ahead of him as a political commentator.

Extra! Read All about It! And It! And It! And…

I interrupt my work to inform you that a blogger friend—I’m sure he/she won’t mind being identified, but just in case— Gen Kanai has just come across the Wikileaks website. Wikileaks is exactly what its names says it is and has apparently been known to the public for while—there’s a citation from TIME magazine—but it’s news to me. Yes, there’s much Japan-related stuff too.

Have fun. Now, back to our regular programming…

Monday, February 09, 2009

Getting Real in TaroAsoWorld

Is it not instructive to think of Taro Aso that we see as a practice Prime Minister, not the real thing?

Imagine Aso on the stage as a stand-in at a rehearsal for a head-of-government event, when everything that can go wrong, does. The teleprompter flickers in and out of operation, so the words come out garbled—Hey, I’m only reading this stuff. The sound system keeps breaking down, so he has to test it repeatedly—Let’s get creative and wing it with one after another of my own versions of “We bomb Russia in Five minutes”! And the lights are falling and half the stage is caving, so the script keeps changing by the minute—Post Office privatization was good, no, I was for it and now I’m against it… wait, slip of the tongue, I’m for it, silly! If he is the real Prime Minister, then perhaps we are an imaginary audience in his imaginary world, where he practices his lines and tries out his policies and programs and irons out the kinks—how else to explain the inability to read, and multiple flip-flops and twist-and-turns that seem to plague every other off-the-cuff policy pronouncement of his?

I have nothing against the Prime Minister the person. In fact, I would be happy to join him in his real world, where everything must be fine and dandy. I’ll close my eyes and click my ruby-red shoes (look, if Tom Daschle can wear those glasses…) if that’ll help. And if that doesn’t work, I can go to the voting booth come the Lower House election and help him get real. That is, if the LDP doesn’t get to him first.

The Prime Minister is not the total nincompoop that some of you might like to think. He appears to be well-read in the classics, all things considered. He shows flashes of native intelligence, as well as a knack for explaining things in the vernacular. It is when he wanders into the world of contemporary, standard discourse befitting a Prime Minister that he shows his limits.

A case in point: In the course of a talk that Aso recently gave on a visit to the provinces, he gave an easy-to-understand outline of the pushing-on-a-string, liquidity trap that the economic downturn has created. The problem: he seemed to be under the impression that academic economists were unaware of the concept. In the same talk, he claimed that he had more or less foreseen the seriousness of the consequences of the financial crisis before the rest of the crowd. Problem: He forgot to let us know. More pertinent to understanding the extent and limits of his qualifications as a head of government, businessmen had already been warning privately of the bloodbath to come as autumn rolled round.

What this reveals is an Aso that listens (I wouldn’t read that out loud if I were you—and don’t, DON’T visualize) and understands, but does not read, has failed to create a clear intellectual scaffolding to support and give structure to his thoughts. He seems to treat public discourse as if it were a series of off-the-record working dinners with his friends and associates at a three-star restaurant. And at 68, it is too much to expect even the most noble of leopards to metamorphose.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Some Thoughts on the Political Consequences of an LDP-New Komeito Loss

The following is my response to a comment from Ross to my previous post:
If the DPJ wins the two-thirds supermajority required to override an Upper House (HC; House of Councilors) veto, this game is over. The DPJ has the public and constitutional mandate to have their way in the Diet. It will surely welcome any Lower House (HR; House of Representatives) members representing single-seat district defecting from the LDP. But since it does not need collaborators to govern, it will not provide few incentives if any. Moreover, the LDP survivors will be a hardy bunch, better able to resist the temptation to “better sidle up to a big tree under its shadow” and wait for the next HR general election under a new generation of policy-savvy leaders. Ideologically, they will continue to comprise a motley crew, but will look no worse in that respect than the DPJ. There is little likelihood of a post-election realignment that splits the LDP under this scenario.

If the DPJ manages to gain an HR majority but falls short of the two-thirds supermajority, it must achieve a working majority in the HC in order to carry out its policy agenda. (An HR caucus that creates a supermajority will have the same effect, but that outcome came be dealt with mostly as a variation of this scenario.) This requires a minimum of 121 out of the effective 240 votes. (The HC has 242 seats but its nominally independent President and Vice-President hail from the DPJ and LDP respectively so it is effectively a 240-seat chamber.) The DPJ-People’s New Party (PNP)-New Party Nippon (NPN) caucus has 118 members. The Social Democratic Party (SDP)-Pro-Constitution Alliance caucus has five seats, which would put the DPJ-led coalition comfortably over the top in the HC. That is surely why Ichiro Ozawa has squashed internal dissent to refrain from fielding DPJ HR candidates in 11 single-seat districts and support SDP candidates instead. (Note that the DPJ is being more generous to the SDP than its formal HC caucus partners—the PNP has eight similarly-favored candidates and the NPN has only one.) However, the SDP clear stands to the left of the DPJ and its other prospective coalition partners, which could become a serious constraint on the DPJ as it tries to govern from the reformist middle.

There are three true HC independents, that is, legislators other than House President and Vice-Presidents who do not formally caucus with any party; Naoki Tanaka, Ryuhei Kawada and Keiko Itokazu. If the DPJ can cut deals with all three, it will have a working majority of 121 votes. Tanaka, a recent LDP defector, is likely in the bag since his wife Makiko already caucuses with the DPJ. Kawada is close to Yasuo Tanaka, the NPN. He has a human-rights agenda, but the DPJ should be able to subsume it without much of a hitch. Itokazu is a leader of a Okinawa regionalist party to the left of the political spectrum who was elected with the support of the DPJ, SDP and the Japan Communist Party (JCP). As such, she is likely to vote with the coalition most of the time but side with the SDP (and likely aligning herself with the JCP as well) when it dissents.

Our look at the prospective coalition partners and the HC independents suggests that a coalition government led by a DPJ that lacks an HR supermajority is workable but is likely to be constrained by the need to keep a small band of leftists on board. Thus, the DPJ will be sorely tempted to lure LDP defectors, mainly in the HR, to its fold with offers of plum political assignments. Mass defection from the LDP is not out of the question but the DPJ is likely to prefer a small number of transfers that gives them a comfortable majority in the HC.

Things get really dicey if the DPJ wins more HR seats than the LDP-New Komeito coalition but falls short of a majority. (Or the other way around for that matter.) Much will depend on the composition of the remainder of the HR, but it is clear that that the inherent instability of any such situation will be deeply unsettling to the status quo in both major parties. Anything from a grand coalition to a fragmentation of the LDP is possible. If the margin is narrow, announcement of a few quick LDP defectors in both Houses could seal the deal. If the margin is wide, then a massive breakout of LDP reformists becomes more likely. That will be the end of the LDP as we know it, as any remaining reformists become an uncomfortably dwindling minority. Note also that in the DPJ, old-school sympathizers of recent DPJ defectors Hideo Watanabe et al will become more expendable as a result.

Paradoxically, if my analysis is correct, the LDP is likelier to collapse the smaller the margin of defeat. But this is all highly speculative. Without parallel universes in which the Lower House election is played out in infinite numbers, there is no way of knowing for sure.

That’s it for now.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Yomiuri Polls Have Losers, No Winners

In a recent Yomiuri poll (January 31-Feb.1) Junichiro Koizumi, the ex-Prime Minister who announced his retirement and in the same breath willed his seat to one of his more obscure sons (where will be hearing that story soon, hmm?), places first, but Ichiro Ozawa has opened up a huge gap between himself and the LDP leaders, including the hapless incumbent Taro Aso. The bad news for Ozawa is that he remains mired in the low teens. Ozawa is not winning; Aso is losing, and no one else in the LDP is picking up the slack. This changes little about my views of the political game, even as the incredibly casual, make-it-up-as-we-go-along Aso administration lurches from one unsettling statement to another with potentially enormous consequences for statecraft.

While waiting for some grownups to show and in full awareness that the people responding to this poll may be saying not much more than I’ve seen this guy/lady on TV and I like him/her, let’s see if I can tease a few other facts for your amusement from this poll that the hardcopy version missed.

First, add up the numbers and the LDP still leads the DPJ 35.4% to 22.8% (with others 3.9%, no preference 30.2% and no answer 3.4%). Still, off the top of my head, I can say that the gap has been closed significantly. If this is a portent of voter sentiment come Lower House election time, it is likely that a (relative) majority of the electorate will find it easier to write in the DPJ name on the proportional ballots, just as they did in the penultimate Lower House election. And this time, the DPJ hopes to field the horses to dominate the local races too—not a given, as some of the rides will turn out to hastily trussed up nags—while the LDP candidates hope that incumbency and seditious talk—Koizumi won running against the LDP; maybe we can do the same (if we can figure out what the LDP is these days)—will allow them to keep their seats.

Second, heirloomers outpoll first-generation Diet members 42.0% to 16.2%. Multi-generation Diet members claim four out of the top five places. Support for political reformist Koizumi does not appear to have diminished even after he bequeathed his seat to an offspring with no discernable achievements. The public does not appear to mind Diet members acting like noble in an Ottoman court, at least not in the specific, although powerful elements the DPJ is trying to make it an issue. (Crucially, though, Ozawa himself is likely to harbor dynastic pretentions. It will surprise no one if he stands for election at the last minute in one of the districts in the media-friendly Tokyo neighborhood, leaving no time for his DPJ colleagues to come up with a plausible candidate beside his son.)

Finally, in an apparently simultaneously conducted, joint Yomiuri-Waseda poll had the DPJ now neck-and-neck with the LDP with regard to the ability to rule. Not that they have risen in the eyes of the public in terms of governability; the DPJ is treading water at 50.8% (50.4% in December), but the LDP slipped badly yet again, from 60.7% (67.1%) to 53.0%.

Meanwhile on the policy side, the casualness with which the Prime Minister has dissed Post Office privatization has left me speechless. I mean, can you imagine the Minister who presided over the Post Office if not the privatization process in the Koizumi Cabinet now saying as Prime Minister that he had been opposed to in the first place? In response to a question from the opposition in the Diet? But you see it, so you have to believe it.

This and other flailing and thrashing, mainly but by no means limited to the LDP, would be exceedingly funny if it were not not funny at all. I suspect low voter turnout when they finally hold the election.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

With Friends Like These; or, Changing Hiring Practices in Japan

Two Harvard-graduate friends of this blogger have sent their joint op-ed Why can’t Japanese kids get into Harvard? and made me green with envy with the news that they have received what would be a princely sum if that figure had been paid in dollars, not yen for their efforts, for I am still waiting for the $100 owed me by a certain conservative monthly for two short pieces since a couple of years ago. (And you wondered why they say, “Never trust a Republican”.) In any case, I decided to write a thorough rebuttal as part of my anger-management exercise.

Read the op-ed, please, then read on.
All you say may be true, Drs. Honjo and Dujarric, but snotty little ex-pats matriculating at Hahvahd, resentful Todai-graduate soldier-ants running Japan Inc., and tongue-tied semi-literates enduring slow times at Azabu High are far from the only elements preventing Japanese high school students from swarming the hallowed halls of Ivy League colleges. First, Japanese courts have made it highly difficult to fire employees. Second, the Japanese school year ends in March. Third, many of the best Japanese universities are national universities

The other side of the first coin is that reputable businesses exercise enormous care in hiring. It is not unusual for such businesses to make an undergraduate go through ten, twenty interviews by different employees at a variety of levels before they actually take him/her on. It is hard enough to do this with the thousands of, say, Kyushu U. undergraduates; imagine what it’s like with the smattering of Japanese national Ivy Leaguers scattered around the boondocks of New England and the Tri-State area. Many Japanese companies now do make an effort to reach out to overseas undergraduates, but it’s still a huge chore, on both sides.

The second point combines with the first to magnify the difficulties. New Zealand apples and Chilean salmon make sense in Japan because we want them fresh year-round. Not so wide-eyed graduates; it takes time and effort to draw, quarter and cure them before they are ready to be ingested. If you’re a human resources director, you don’t want to have to run an additional counter-cyclical orientation-assignment-training program for what is likely a handful of newbies three months after the main group has scattered to the four corners of the corporate empire.

The third point is significant because it means that many top Japanese schools are exceedingly cheap. They have become increasingly expensive in recent years, but I would be surprised to hear that they have reached the level of the in-state costs of an education at the cheapest state universities. Yes, Ivy League schools have generous scholarships, but how many of the best and brightest Japanese students are likely to meet the need requirements?

These are structural factors that have nothing to do with the human and cultural factors cited in the op-ed. They would have the same effect for a gang of teenage mutant ninja turtles.

All this begs the question though: (actually paraphrasing the thoughts of another friend, a Japanese ex-pat) Why would a guy graduating from an Ivy League school who is not short, shy, or Japan otaku want to go back to Japan to find work?

*psst, Wall Street imploded*


Jun Okumura is an indigent blogger living on the wrong side of the Tama River. He is willing to divulge his plans to remedy the three flaws for the price of a nice lunch, preferably warm. He says that you can expense it as “structural impediment talks.” Trust him. He is an unlicensed lawyer*.

* ADD: Disclosure: The blogger spent two years at Harvard Law School.