Friday, August 31, 2012

What Price Senkaku?

Governor Ishihara’s plan to buy four (three?)* of the five Senkaku Islands from a wealthy real estate developer in Omiya, Saitama Prefecture, with a war chest of 1.5 billion yen in private donations appears to have hit a road bump. The owner had second thoughts and refused to give explicit authorization to Ishihara to send in the Tokyo Metropolitan government to survey the islands before executing the purchase. This gave the Japanese government, the lessee of the four islands and owner of the fifth one, the right to properly refuse Governor Ishihara’s bid to make landfall. The developer appears to have been swayed by a more recent Japanese government offer of 2 billion yen. Whatever the absentee owner’s patriotic protestations, at the end of the day, it’s apparently about the money, honey. But how much is it really worth?

Note that the territorial waters and the ground beneath it belong to the state. Owners do not even have title to fishing rights, which the government dispenses to fishermen under the Fishery Act. The small, stark, collective landmass and its remoteness ensure that any legal economic activity is unfeasible. And woe be the lot of the members of the JSDF garrison there if it ever comes to that. So the annual rent that the Japanese government pays to keep everyone off the islands appears to be the only economic return on the property. So what’s it worth to the owner of those islands? Here’s the list of the islands in question, with surface and annual rent according to this Yahoo entry.
Uotsurishima : 3.82 km2 21.1 million yen
Kitakojima : 0.31 km2 1.5 million yen Minamikojima: 0.40 km2 1.9 million yen Kubashima : 0.91 km2 NA
Let’s assume that Kubashima, the island for US target practice, is priced similarly per unit of area at 4.5 million yen per year. That brings the total to 29 million yen per year. But there are costs. Most importantly, the owner must pay the fixed asset (real estate) tax to the local government. The standard fixed asset tax rate is 1.4% and is levied on 70% of the assessed value of the fixed asset. The current owner reportedly purchased the islands in 1976 for 46 million yen. Since then, the bubble economy came and went, and real estate prices, particularly in the boondocks, have been tanking ever since. Let’s be really, really generous and say that the islands are assessed at 100 million yen today. So the annual tax would come to 100 x 0.7 x 0.014 ≑ 0.9 million yen. So that makes the owners annual take 29 – 0.9 ≑ 28 million yen. That’s an extremely nice return on a property acquired for 46 million, a 28% annual return on the 100 million yen value that I posited. It’s an extortionary price being paid if you ask me. But it is wahat it is. What then, is the fair market value of these islands given their political value for which the government is willing to pay through its figurative nose?

I found this list of 35 REITs. Their expected annual rates of return range from 3.85% to 8.35%. Since the islands are a very safe investment, let’s put their expected annual rate of return at a near-JGB low of 2%. That would give the islands a market value of 28 ÷ 0.01 = 28 million. The islands, surprisingly, would still be undervalued at 1.5~2.0 billion yen. Even at a more generous 4% rate of return, or about the low end of REIT expectations, the islands would still be worth 14 million yen. But there’s a catch that would push the owner to ask for more in the event of a selloff. Remember that the owner bought it at 46 million in 1976, so he would have to pay a flat-rate income tax of 20% (15% national, 5% local) on the capital gains, so his next take from a gross 20 billion payment would be (20 billion – 46 million) x (1 – 0.2) = 15.6 billion yen. From a 15 billion yen payment, it would be 11.6 billion yen, at which point the 46 million yen per year would be a 3.96% return, which if more appropriate for the lower end of the riskier RIET spectrum. There may be other cost considerations, but you really can’t blame the owner for stiffing Ishihara since his bid is arguably below true market value (meaning, of course, the current value of the government rent payments). Ishihara only appears to have helped bump up the cost of keeping the islands in government hands from its already exorbitant level.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Mystified by LDP Decision to Censure Noda for Conspiring with the Tax Hike Bill

Whee! I am whole again! For the week. Now…

If you’ve following Japanese politics for a living or too closely for your own good, you know by now that (a) two censure motions against the Noda cabinet were submitted in the upper house, one by seven of the smaller parties chastising the Noda cabinet for conspiring with the LDP and Komeito to pass the consumption tax hike (and a few other things) bill and another by the LDP and Komeito because… because they wanted a snap election ASAP and (b) the LDP voted for the first censure motion that chastised, to repeat, “the Noda cabinet for conspiring with the LDP and Komeito to pass the consumption tax hike,” which essentially closed down the Diet for the remainder of the ongoing Diet session.

Now what’s surprising to me is not that the LDP decided to in essence censure itself. No, expedience causes one to do strange things. Like… Whatever. What I don’t understand is why the LDP felt that it had to. After all, it could have sat out the vote, just like Komeito did, then voted with Komeito on their own censure motion, their 106 votes (LDP 82, the septuagenarian New Sunrise Party (no doubt inspired by the movie Sunshine Boys) 3, independent 2; Komeito 19) against the Noda cabinet’s 91 (DPJ 88, PNP3). It would have run (c) the minimal risk of the Microscopic Seven voting against the DPJ-PNP motion—yeah, sure—and (d) the significantly larger risk of the President of the House of Councillors, by custom from the party with the most upper house members, i.e. the DPJ, ruling that one censure motion is enough for one Diet session. As absurd as any such claim may seem, it would have been rendered moot anyway by the LDP and Komeito when they submitted a motion to unseat the House President, a motion that would have reprised minimal risk (c), the risk that the Microscopic Seven would vote against the motion instead of sitting it out. But, nothing ventured, noting gained.

I don’t see this as helping the Noda administration and the DPJ with the Japanese body politic, but it does hurt Sadakazu Tanigaki and the rest of the current LDP (most prominently Nobuteru Ishihara, who is in charge of the day-to-day operations of the LDP) and it must be heartening for Noda to see the Red Queen slipping back. But it does help Shigeru Ishiba, who was shielded from the shenanigans by way of his distance from the LDP commissariat. If it helps him too much, first Tanigaki, then Noda, will suffer when they go up against Ishiba’s street cred in the DPJ leadership and the lower house general election, respectively, in that chronological order.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Is the Gradual, Steady Incumbent Upswing Finally Under Way for Noda?

It may be a dead-cat bounce, but I’ve believed for some time that a personable but seemingly down and out incumbent will enjoy a gradual but steady upswing once exogenous shock wears down.* And by riding the wave of indignation against South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and minimizing the political fallout from the most recent Senkaku Islands incident, Prime Minister Noda appears to have gotten over the latest hump. The Nikkei-TV Tokyo polls (taken August 24-26, published 27) have support for the Noda cabinet at 31%, up from the July low at 28%, while the DPJ is at 21%, up from 18%, and the LDP at 25%, down from 27%. In case you’re wondering, Ozawa’s People’s Life First polled a fringe-party 1%—likewise the SDP—behind Your Party at 6%, Komeito at 4%, and JCP at 3%. 27% were undecided, as Hashimoto’s Ishin no Kai—the Tokyo and Nagoya-Aichi movements won’t really count in the big picture—loomed large in the background.

This must be heartening to Noda and the DPJ, since it puts the LDP within striking distance, and the pace can quicken dramatically one way or the other when the media turns its full attention to the looming lower house election and the politics and policy choices around it. There’s little chance that he’ll be unseated in the DPJ representative election a month from now, and a reasonably good showing in the September polls, particularly just before the leadership vote, will add a layer of positive coverage for the lead-up to the main event.

Now one swallow does not make a summer, but I think it also helps Noda that the media apparently has decided that Sadakazu Tanigaki, who is also up for reelection next month for the LDP leadership, is a wimp. After all, you only have to outrun the other guy, at least until the third party movements get their act together. If this is the onset of a trend rather than a one-off road bump for the LDP and the September polls show it slipping behind the DPJ, I would bet on the party leadership being tossed, Hail Mary style, to Nobuteru Ishihara or, less likely, Shigeru Ishiba.

That’s it for now. A heavy workload awaits me this week. May not be coming back until Friday, if then.
* I got this idea after Ross Schaap at Eurasia Group pointed out to me years ago the secular rise in Prime Minister Fukuda’s popularity in the latter part of his regime before he unexpectedly passed the baton to Taro Aso. And we know how that turned out.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

An Election Looms, Making EPCO Shareholders Happy/Less Unhappy?

I was about to put down my thoughts, briefly, on why LDP leader Sadakazu Tanigaki should be under siege when a snap election was just around the corner with the LDP in the lead. Instead, it morphed into a prediction on the future of the existing nuclear power plants. Go figure.

If you believe what the media is telling us, the LDP and Komeito will:

(1) pass the bill to enable prefectures to set up Tokyo-like special wards in place of cities (to make Osaka warlord Toru Hashimoto happily busy and hopefully keep national politics free of the Ishin-no-Kai for the time being );
(2) pass an upper house censure resolution against the Noda cabinet (as political prelude to (3)); and
(3) boycott the rest of the current Diet session (extended to September 8) (most importantly to deep-six the deficit bond authorization bill.

Presumably, this will set the stage for a brief September extraordinary session where the LDP and Komeito let the deficit bond authorization bill pass the upper house to become law and the Noda cabinet obliges by dissolving the lower house for a general election to be held sometime in October. A few knickknacks are likely to be thrown into the pre-election kitbag, including a possible minimalist five-seat single-member district reduction to take care of the constitutional breech* and the bi-cameral vote on the candidates for the new Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

It what I’ve been expecting for some time, which makes me suspicious: Have I been unconsciously influenced by the media reports colored by their desire for political theatrics? I just have to hope that my conscious search for the counterintuitive makes my thought come out even.

Anyway, I’ve punted on a post-election “g”rand Coalition and I’m sticking with it. One market-relevant implication that no one will notice until it actually comes to pass: Nuclear power will end up as 15% of the electricity supply projection for 2030, the Noda administration’s most likely preferred conclusion, an outcome that had been placed in some doubt by the government surveys conducted in the deliberation process that show a growing preference for the zero-nuclear option as a general election loomed over the horizon. But the LDP is collectively more pro-nuclear in the sense that it is more mindful of conventional industry and business concerns, and Motohisa Furukawa, the cabinet minister who has been the Noda administration’s point man on this item is strongly pro-renewables, but he is highly unlikely to survive the post-election, musical chairs, battle royal to set up the post-election cabinet. This will make electric power company shareholders less unhappy but disappoint fossil fuel power plant manufacturers and disappoint renewables equipment manufacturers including Chinese solar panel suppliers unhappy. The Noda administration might allow the Energy and Environment Council, where Furukawa is in charge, to come forth with a conclusion before the election, but I doubt it; there are several significant DPJ players who should dislike the zero-option, and it’s too divisive a wild card for the cautious and deliberate Noda to inject into the election campaign.

: I’ll believe this when I see it, though. The shmonstitutional concerns are real, but I’m not convinced that the logistics around the reduction can be engineered in time for the election, even if the interested parties have most likely done most of the work sub rosa on the ward-by-ward specifics of the redistricting.

Friday, August 24, 2012

If Only Japan and South Korea Were Schoolboys

(1)President Lee Myung-bak visits Dokto and later says that the Japanese Emperor must go to the independence movement’s martyrs’ grave and apologize from the heart if he wants to visit Japan.
(2)Prime Minister Noda dispatches a letter to President Lee and demands an apology for visiting Takeshima and demanding an apology.
(3)The South Korean Government decides that the letter does not deserve a reply since President Lee went to Dokto, not some imaginary place called Takeshima, and dispatches one of its counselors at its Embassy in Tokyo to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
(4)MOFA does not allow the South Korean counselor to enter its premises, whereupon the South Korean Embassy resends the letter to MOFA, this time by special delivery.

And so it goes. In the meantime, the Japanese MOFA Minister for the first time since South Korea seized the Liancourt Rocks uses the words “illegal occupation” to describe the South Korean presence there, which has evoked a suitably negative response from the South Korean MOFAT spokesman. There are real world consequences, as the Japanese MOF apparently is indefinitely suspending a planned purchase of South Korean JGBs and also is leaning towards letting the expansion of the swap arrangement expire. The blowback in Japan has spilled over to the private sector as a Han-ryu drama starring an actor who participated in the recent Dokto swim-a-thon relay has been taken away from the Japanese airwaves, possibly for good.

A few points:

I don’t remember the Japanese government ever reacting like this towards South Korea (or China for that matter). The Japanese government is reacting because it can; the financial arrangements (and the Chiang Mai Agreement behind the swap arrangement) directly benefit South Korea, not Japan (or China). The government’s shadow also looms behind the han-ryu drama pullout, since land-based broadcasters enjoy the use of public airwaves at below-market cost.* I think that the government’s action is unwise and is actually the consequence of weakness and an inability to properly frame the story on its behalf—to show determination on the security and diplomatic fronts but not allowing it to spill over to the realm of non-national security public goods—but it’s a “normal” reaction. Notice has been served.

That said, I find this war of words genuinely funny. Seriously, it’s hard not to see the You stop it, no you stop it, no you… schoolboy war of words in this. Your heart is racing, your stomach begins to churn and it’s getting harder to keep your hands under control and you really want your teacher to notice or the end-of-recess bell to ring to put an end to it all without your losing face. Of course they’re not really children and America is not coming to mediate and there is no bell… and they’ll wind it down somehow. But they’re not children and that means that there will be real consequences. Some of the asymmetry has been lost, and the new “normal” will be less pleasant for both parties, particularly for South Korea.

* I do not believe that the media group pulled the drama under government pressure. It probably feared the inevitable public backlash and possibly picketing or worse by the right-wing. But the fact remains that its broadcasting license and cheap use of the airwaves ultimately depend on government approval, and that puts it in a more vulnerable position than a paper publication.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

What to Make of the Electoral Reform Bill Being Pushed by the DPJ?

The DPJ and the LDP are currently engaged in a chicken game over the deficit bond authorization and electoral reform bills. Each side is implicitly telling the other side that the voters will assess the larger part of the blame on the latter for a) endangering the solvency of the Japanese Government, causing lasting harm to the Japanese economy and b) putting the country into the jeopardy of a constitutionally flawed election cycle. I’ve written about the former on and off but have not really engaged with the latter, mainly because I believed and continue to believe that the lower house can and will make do with a general election under the current configuration at worst—MTC and I have gone back and forth on that on our blogs and in private for maybe a couple of years now—but this may be a good time to do a preliminary exploration of the subject in anticipation of a possible if more distant deal.

The Noda administration has the numbers to get the bills through the lower house but between the DPJ and PNP, it only has 91 of the 121 votes needed to pass the bills in the upper house. It needs 20 more. So who will oblige?

It so happens that the parties with the smallest representations in the upper house, from the Okinawa Social Mass Party (1) to Your Party (11) have between them exactly 20 seats. The People’s Life First (12) could replace YP with one to spare. Indeed, the coalition’s proposal is not utterly devoid of charms for the wee ones. It reduces the number of regional proportional seats from 180 to 140 (not 100 as promised in the DPJ election manifesto)* but uses a formula for 40 of those seats that will essentially end up allocating them among the smallest parties. This means that the cuts will come out of the DPJ and LDP ranks. As the result, the smaller parties will be empowered relatively speaking. (They will be proportionally larger. Perhaps more important for them, the likelihood of the largest party being denied a singular majority will be greater. But the DPJ will take what it can get.) It was concocted in the pre-Ozawa defecation days, when Komeito could deliver an upper house majority singlehanded, to woo it with half a loaf—Komeito apparently wants an even larger cut. However, Komeito is not biting, most likely in honor of its still-continuing cohabitation with the LDP.

Right now, this looks impossible to engineer any time soon. Today, when the ruling coalition convened the Special Committee on Political Ethics and Election Law for deliberation of the electoral reform bill without securing the consent of the opposition parties to move forward, all the opposition parties represented in the committee including LF, YP, JCP (6) and SDP (4) absented themselves in protest. By far the most likely outcome remains, in my view, an autumn election under the current lower house configuration, with or without the constitutional defect* repaired. But this formula comes across as a reasonable starting point for a post-election compromise.

Finally, it’s noteworthy that the upper house settles for a five-out, five-in constitution-compliance formula that has a similar effect as the lower house adjustment* while the DPJ can propose a more drastic 45-member cut (including the five single-seat district reduction) for the lower house. The projected DPJ losses from the lower house proportional cut will come out of the ranks of the proportional list-only candidates**, most of them written in after the SMD candidates signing up for their zombie-insurance just in case but hitting the jackpot when the DPJ swept the LDP out of huge swathes of single-member districts. They are as expendable as the fat in the camel’s hump when traversing the political desert.
* The bill also reduces the number of single-member districts in five prefectures from three to two each in order to eliminate an imbalance that the Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional.

** The pre-defection DPJ and LDP were more or lessen evenly split in the five prefectures (Yamanashi, Fukui, Tokushima, Kochi, and Saga) where the SMD cuts would come from. This was a little surprising to me, given the relative strength of the LDP in the outlying regions, and likely indicates the overwhelming force of the 2009 DPJ landslide victory.

FYI: Comments Moderated for the Time Being

My blog has always been in the public domain. I have made it my practice to let all incoming comments by posted unfiltered, delete spam, and do my best to respond to them. (I also keep a copy of all comments, my own included, so no one pulls an Aldo DeVito on me so to speak.) Unfortunately, one individual, having been banned from at least one public forum, has chosen my blog to post comments that are unrelated to my posts and are substantively counterproductive to public discourse. I feel no personal animosity towards the individual since he appears to be mentally ill. Nevertheless, the selfish being that I am, I cannot let my blog be used for whatever therapeutic purposes it may be serving to the detriment of my experience and that of my small but (hopefully) faithful readership; I am not a professional caregiver, nor his brother nor keeper.

To make what could be an even longer story short, I am now moderating comments, but only to make sure that the comments of said individual will no longer appear on my blog. All other non-spam comments continue to be welcome. A warning to said individual: I reserve the right to delete all your comments retroactively at any time, and I will certainly do so if you post on my blog again if and when I revert to unfiltered mode at some point in the future.

That’s it. Now, back to work.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

USD 57 Billion Supplementary Tranche Will Be Extended…If South Korea Wants

The following grows out of my end of a conversation that I had with Mark Manyin after his Hitachi-CFR Fellow talk today. (It was a useful talk, and the gist of it should show up on the CFR website and elsewhere.) A bit of advocacy crept in, but I like to think that it’s mostly analytical, descriptive and even predictive, not prescriptive.

There’s some media chatter around the possibility of Japan refusing to extend the one-year expansion of the Japan-South Korea swap arrangement from USD 13 billion to USD 70 billion in retaliation for President Lee Myung-bak making landfall at Takeshima and his subsequent statement about the Japanese Emperor having to go visit graves and apologize from the heart if he wants to visit South Korea.

Don’t even think about it. It’s bigger than Japan and South Korea. The Ching Mai Initiative was essentially about China and Japan bringing their foreign currency reserves to the service of the rest of the East Asian states.* Try to imagine what kind of message the Japanese Government would be sending to the rest of the world, the Southeast Asian members of the Chiang Mai initiative in particular, if it decided to use it for unrelated political purposes. Try to imagine how Beijing could use that for propaganda purposes against Japan, or, worse, dabble in the dark arts themselves.

Not that it’s sure to happen. The South Korean Government might decide to discontinue for political show. I can see the logic; its political leaders might not want to be seen by their domestic constituency in a supplicating position when the bilateral political relationship is at a historical low. I hope they do; the global community needs the message that Japan and South Korea can put the interests of the global financial system above the political demands of a dispute over the Liancourt Rocks. Japan and South Korea also benefit by establishing a baseline where administrative needs will be met even as political exigencies evoke verbal fuselage. If the trilateral FTA talks can go on, so can the USD 57 extension. And everyone will be enriched, at no immediate cost to any of the players.
* South Korea also has a meaningful role as a supplier, but its potential is inherently limited. It has only one-third as many residents as Japan does and has an eerily similar demographics (its surfeit of males excepted) and has one fairly recent currency meltdown in its records.
ADD: Whoa! I don’t think that they’re going to ask for an extension IYKWIM.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Assassin for Kikawada? Is Ozawa Crazy? But Will the DPJ Miss a Golden Opportunity?

As a long-time observer of the US political scene, where no opportunity to slam the enemy is missed by highly paid professionals of political warfare, I cannot but see a golden opportunity for the DPJ to cash in on this report about Ozawa plotting to send assassins for two Diet members in his Iwate fiefdom who failed to obey his orders to leave the DPJ with him.

It seems that Ozawa himself has lost track of where his one-time disciple is coming from, so it’s no shame if you happen to know little about Mr. Kikawada. This obscure backbencher’s initial fifteen minutes of national [fame] came at unfathomable personal cost. Mr. Kikawada became the political face of the 3.11 tragedy when he lost [his wife, oldest son and parents as well as one of his political assistants] to the tsunami. (And you thought the Fukushima victims had it bad.) He has subsequently used it to champion the cause of the tsunami victims in the political sphere. He reluctantly left a subcabinet post at the nexus of the reconstruction efforts at Ozawa’s bidding only after pleading, successfully, to Ozawa to come back to Iwate for the first time in over a year to address Kikawada’s constituency. In case you are not overly familiar with the Japanese political scene, Ozawa’s ex-wife sent out a scathing letter to key Ozawa supporters that he had cowered indoors with fear after the Fukushima disaster and that it had been his fear of radiation exposure had kept him away from his Iwate home for so long.

Now imagine what Karl Rove or David Axelrod could do with this kind of situation. Of course it [could] have been a red herring; the Japanese media, as is often their wont, reading something sinister into a seemingly innocuous statement. But it doesn’t matter. It’s in the Yomiuri, so it must be true, right? Ozawa could deny it, but the damage will have been done. Oh, well, guess what the odds are against the DPJ just sitting on its hands and do[ing] nothing?

Accept Their “Dokto” Claim? I Think That I Have a Better Idea

Several thoughtful academics in communication and in conversation insist that giving up Japanese claims to the economically and militarily near-useless islands would be (to use the words of one of them) “a foreign policy coup” for Japan. One of them even believes that it would improve Japan’s position vis-à-vis the other two territorial issues with South Korea and China. Actually, I agree with another party to that particular exchange in that it “would be exploited by the South Koreans as a victory over a weakened Japan, while the Russians and the Chinese would be emboldened.” Specifically, the South Koreans would see it as confirmation of their stand on all “history” issues and dig in deeper concerning their demands for a “heartfelt” apology from the Emperor, acceptance of the South Korean take on the “comfort women” issue, renaming the Japan Sea, etc., etc., while the takeaway for the Russians and the Chinese will be that Japan is a pushover when it comes to sovereignty issues. In other words, a foreign policy “debacle,” not “coup.”

Do I have a good answer though? Not really, nothing except the wings-for-pigs/wheels-for-aunts kind. And I’m not really the prescribing kind. But for what it’s worth, I did tell a gentleman from a Chinese think tank last week that I’d like to see the Japanese government issue a statement to the effect that Japan a) is willing to take all three territorial disputes, including the Senkaku Islands to the Hague under the condition that China, Russia, and South Korea all agree to submit to adjudication, and until such time as they do b) engage in the maintenance and upkeep of the disputed territory in its possession. The Japanese Government would admit that there is a territorial issue regarding the Senkaku Islands in the hopes that this would render a measure of sanity to the Chinese public’s response (and hence the government’s) when the Japanese government got rid of the goats and took stock of the indigenous wildlife. This is a minimalist position in that it essentially recognizes the physical status quo without prejudice to the legal claims of each party. It’s essentially a unilateral quarantine that is aimed at keeping the noise down to a minimum while the de facto occupants of all three sets of disputed territory go about minding their business there in the hopes that there will be enough subsequent benign history behind us so that we can settle matters once and for all in the manner that, say, the United States and Canada settled theirs, a bid for provisional peace during my lifetime and, heaven forbid, my children’s.

Monday, August 20, 2012

More on Bimbos

…more interruption…

Good friend MTC, proprietor of the Shisaku blog mentions in his comment on a previous post that Japan has its own share of “diminutive dimmer bulbs of the chandelier,” gives the names of celebrities (BTW is Suzanne diminutive?) and wonders what they should be called. My answer turned into a somewhat more general consideration of bimbohood. Anyone who read the post before the comments appeared and is still interested in the subject is invited to go back and take a look. And yes, my friends who happen to be reading this blog, Jersey boy PS is exactly who you think he is. I always use initials to protect the guilty.

Incidentally, the title of this post is homonymous with “Moron Bimbos.” I’ve noticed that many professional writers would follow this with “(pun intended)” or “(pun unintended).” Now, few things are lamer than that—except perhaps taking the time to draw attention to it and skewer it?—don’t you think?

No More BRICs/S!

I interrupt my work to bring you the following message.

It’s time that we stopped using the word BRICs/S.

BRICs appears to have been no more than a sales gimmick created by an analyst in an investment bank, who drew an arbitrary line between the countries with the four largest economies (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) and the rest of the Cold War socialist and third world countries. The funny part of this is that BRICs leaders themselves believed the hype around the idea and turned it into a political concept by inviting South Africa into the fold, no doubt leaving Nigeria with wounded pride. Capitalizing the “s” (one also wonders if an invitation would have been extended to a “Meridional” Africa) and making it BRICS also destroyed any sense of coherence, since Mexico, Turkey and Indonesia, to name three, have significantly larger GDPs than South Africa and the first two have significantly higher GDP per capita.

The economies of the original four BRICs had nothing in common to distinguish them from the others in the first place; the intellectually barren notion is well past its consume-by date even as a sales gimmick.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

So This [Is] Why They Didn’t Place TEPCO into Receivership?

The Sunday front-page headline for Nikkei reads “[General] Security for Electricity Bonds to Be Abolished.”

Wait, I missed that one. I didn’t realize that the holders of uncollateralized bonds that the regional electric power monopolies (EPCOs) issued had priority over general creditors. And by general creditors, I mean the evacuees, businesses, and other people collectively claiming trillions of yen in damages against TEPCO. In other words, once the legal bankruptcy (as broadly defined) started, it would have been very difficult to make bondholders take a haircut. Add to this the plausible argument that the TEPCO pensioners also had a significant claim for priority (if you’re a lawyer and can read Japanese, you’ll want to read this document as a starting point for this discussion; thank God I don’t have to), and there’s a good chance that the main stakeholders as well as other priority creditors would have left little in TEPCO coffers for the victims of the nuclear disaster to pick over. The article also raises the need to level the playing field for IPPs in raising long-term funds through bond issues.

I expect it to become law, since it makes so much sense. Until it happens, though, I’ll be careful the next time an EPCO comes asking for a loan.

Things People Don’t Talk about (6): What’s the Japanese Term for “Bimbo”?

What’s the Japanese term for “bimbo,” asks good friend RD. Beats me. Let me guess. Bimbos are not only stupid, they are also loud, which makes their stupidity obvious to everyone. There are plenty of stupid Japanese women too, but they act more demurely, which masks their stupidity (and intelligence in the opposite case).

What do you think?

We Know So Little about Each Other When It comes to the Territorial Issues

Last week, I was engaged in an online dialog with a few friends and acquaintances in academia around the most recent contretemps between Japan and its two nearest, if not quite dearest, neighbors. I’m putting my end of the discussions on my blog, edited as stand-alone commentary including some explanatory words on the other side of the discussion. The footnotes have been concocted solely for the purpose of this blog.

My academic friends point out the Japanese public and the Chinese and South Korean publics are largely kept ignorant of the view from the other side. I think that this is largely true with regard not only to the historical facts, but also the details of the national myths that the three nations have woven around them. I say that with some confidence that this is true in Japan. With regard to how the other side “feels,” though, I think that the Japanese people get more than enough information on that. In fact, I would argue that the information on how the other side feels as expressed in the continuous susurration of anger punctuated by periodic outbursts of rage as conveyed through the domestic media has raised the temperature of non-right wing public opinion, which in turn generates a looping feedback mechanism of ill-will between the Japanese public on one side and the Chinese and South Korean two sides.

Now, I can understand the South Korean media and professional narrators on Korea toeing the locally dominant storyline*, but it’s not easy to see at first glance why, say, Asahi and Mainichi can’t put both side of the story into play. After all, there are Japanese scholars in Japan who have taken up the other side of the argument without harm to tenure, life, or limb, in descending order of importance, and what’s a few more vans in front of your media group HQs? It’s an interesting question, one which I’d like to hear about from a media expert.

In fact, both sides of the Meiji-and-after story, the glory and the gore of the imperialist era, were featured in the history text books when I was growing up, and this presumably remains unchanged today. My two cents worth says that the Socialist Party, which should have been the standard-bearer for the dark half, never reached post-1955 maturity as social democrats capable of capturing and maintaining the regime. Instead, we had to wait until the DPJ became the only somewhat more diversified alternative. However, the DPJ turned out to be a major receptacle for non-hereditary, largely (though by no means exclusively) conservative politicians with no personal recollection of the war, who assumed the bulk of the policymaking role through their drive and talent. So we have the two major parties subscribing more or less to the same preferred narrative, with the DPJ only mildly tempered by the small minority of former Socialists. Thus, there is no significant advocate around to remind the Japanese public that the Chinese and South Korean sides also have certain facts to buttress their claims to the disputed territory**.

* A respected Korea scholar from the native English-speaking world once gave a not-for-attribution talk where he candidly admitted that there were issues where his colleagues traced the accepted narrative scholars or did not go at all. I’ve seen this phenomenon, what I will call constituency capture, at work firsthand in Bruce Cuming’s literate and generally compelling Korea’s Place in the Sun. He inserts a side story extolling his Korean in-laws for the power conferred in the household to his grandfather-in-law’s “second wife,” a curious digression on the virtues of Korean concubinage for a left-the revisionist scholar unless I have vastly misinterpreted his writing. He also provides without provenance a photo purported to be a group sitting of Korean comfort women and their military overseer (I’m writing from memory so Cuming’s actual words are not reproduced here), when it is obvious from details in the photo that it is almost certainly a gathering of female high school students (at a time when only tiny fraction of girls went to high schools, which was only desegregated after the war) “volunteering to work, most likely at an aircraft factory in the Aichi neighborhood). I actually have a pretty good idea as to how the photo came to be misinterpreted by the Korean side; the fact that Cuming gives no provenance for the photo raises the suspicion that he was aware of this.

** I’ve refrained from discussing the legal merits of the cases here, since they were not relevant to the points that I make here, nor were they a part of the dialog. There was a meaningful exchange on the disposition of Takeshima/Dokto/Liancourt Rocks, though, which I will introduce as a separate post.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Is There a Chance of Party Breakup in the Near Future?

More defectors here and there, sure; but wholesale DPJ and/or LDP breakup around the looming lower house election? I’m not ready to say that it can’t happen before the election when everyone is worried about his/her reelection. But where would they go? Your Party and Hashimoto’s prospective Ishin-no-Kai will be inhospitable for anti-TPP figures, the most likely next batch of defectors. Ozawa’s People’s Life First will let you vote as you see fit, but joining that franchise comes with a serious reputation risk, particularly in a late-in-the-game, desperation flight. Can you take the local party machines with them, much less the party money? And if you decide to go solo, who will be there to sustain you through to the next nationwide election at if you bail out and lose anyway? These are questions that must come to mind as fence-sitters ponder their next move.

What about after the election? Let’s say that you’re on the losing team. At least you’ve made it back under dire straits. Do you want to be a turncoat living among your former enemies in exchange for a one-, two-year hold on a subcabinet post, or would you prefer to stay with your allies and plot your party’s return to power? Remember, also, that an administration that does not have support from an upper house majority or a lower house supermajority is likely to face debilitating attacks from the opposition. This means that the administration is likely to need a large number of members from both the DPJ and LDP as currently configured. So the mostly like post-election configuration remains for me the DPJ-LDP-Komeito coalition.

It is possible that hammering out a common policy position will cause some Diet members to drop out and join the opposition. But most of the recalcitrant DPJ parliamentarians will have already been weeded out, while LDP malcontents will have had their dissatisfaction tempered by their three years in the wilderness. So post-election defections, if any, should be on the fringes.

All this not bode well for governance on critical issues beginning with social safety net reform, TPP, and long-term energy policy...which should suit the folks at Ishin-no-Kai just fine.

The Show Must Go on for the Japan-China-ROK FTA

I read this morning that the next round of talks for the three-party FTA talks will go on as scheduled on August 21 in Beijing, already upgraded to the vice-ministers level at Chinese insistence. Yes, they would like that, wouldn’t they? My money is still on South Korean foot-dragging, so I wouldn’t drop the idea of a Japan-China bilateral FTA yet, but it’s intriguing to see the Chinese authorities playing the role of the conciliator, if you will, at this juncture.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Illegal Aliens Do Appear to Have Violated the Criminal Code as Well

According to this Sankei report, the Hong Kong activists threw bricks and bolts from their vessel at the Coast Guard vessels, causing some damage. However, the damage was slight and most of the damage to the Coast Guard vessels was caused by maneuvers intended to force the Hong Kong vessel to change course, so a senior Coast Guard official does not think that this constitutes the crime of “Obstructing or Compelling Performance of Public Duty” or “Damage to Property.”

I don’t know about that. If I were speeding in a car and I threw bricks and bolts at a police car that tried to force me to the side of the road, I’m pretty sure that I would be prosecuted for “Obstructing…Performance of Public Duty” even if all my missiles failed to hit the target. It’s hard not to think that the fix is in, and the LDP are of course bitching and moaning and saying that the Noda administration should have done a better job of repelling the intruders and will no doubt demand that the intruders be prosecuted with the full force of the law. So there will be some domestic fallout, but not nearly as serious as the 2010 incident, when the Kan administration threatened prosecution only to cave when China roared. But the Japanese possession and control over the Islands remains intact, and it is hard to see the Chinese authorities gaining anything from this incident other than giving its domestic constituency an opportunity to blow off some steam.

Fun Fact: Two Ministers Out to Lunch as Hong Kong Activists Make Landfall

On Wednesday morning, August 15, the Hong Kong activists showed up at the Senkaku Islands as expected and were duly apprehended, together with their ship, by the Coast Guard and the Okinawa Police. The same day, the two cabinet ministers responsible for the two policing authorities—Jin Matsubara, Chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, Minister of State for Consumer Affairs and Food Safety, and Minister for the Abduction Issue, and Yuichiro Hata, Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism and Minister for Ocean Policy—visited the Yasukuni Shrine to honor the soldiers who lost their lives in service of the motherland. The two cabinet ministers must have suffered heatstroke, though, because they never showed up at the office.

It is never good for a cabinet minister to be AWOL when something major breaks. It is significantly worse when everyone already knows what’s coming. The information was apparently leaked to the LDP, where a censure motion may now be in the works. Mssrs. Matsubara and Hata can compound their error by going on what would almost certainly be a futile internal witch-hunt, as politicians embarrassed by their civil servant underlings sometimes do.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Say What Do Barack Obama and Mitch McConnell Have in Common?

It’s often noted that all the Supreme Court Justices are all Catholic or Jewish. But when I learned that Mitt Romney, a Mormon, picked Ron Paul Paul Ryan, a Roman Catholic, as his running mate, I got to wondering, and took a look.

Surprise (to me, at least)!
President: Barack Obama, Protestant
Speaker of the House: John Boehner, Catholic
House Majority Leader: Eric Cantor, Jewish
House Minority Leader: Nancy Pelosi
Senate Majority Leader: Harry Reid, Mormon
Senate Minority Leader: Mitch McConnell, Protestant
1. If Barack Obama is the Jackie Robinson of presidential politics, does that make Mitch McConnell the Congressional version of Kevin Love?
2. Is it a tough call for the Klu Klux Klan or what?

Some Interim Conclusions on the Hong Kong Landing on the Senkaku Islands

The Chinese authorities would be speaking out on anything that happens to their (Hong Kong) citizens on “Chinese territory,” wouldn’t they? The Hong Long Government, though, subsequently demanded the activists’ release and dispatched immigration officials to Japan to support them. I think that they’re playing into Japanese hands. Or the Chinese Government wants to play down the incident. Either way, if the Japanese Government keeps putting the latter front and center of its response going forward, my argument holds. Anyway:

First, there seems to be significant criticism in Japan over the fact that the authorities let the Hong Kong activists land on the Islands. I don’t understand this; are the critics suggesting that the authorities should have exercised deadly force if need be rather than let the activists land, then arrest them for illegal entry? After all, they were posing no known physical threat to any persons or assets under Japanese jurisdiction. If this had been a helicopter and not a boat, would these critics have insisted that the Coast Guard shoot it down?

Second, the usual procedure in Japan for illegal entry is catch-and-release. These are obviously not your usual stowaways, but they do not appear to have used force to make their entry or resist arrest. This would preclude the charge of “Obstructing or Compelling Performance of Public Duty” as an “an act of assault or intimidation against a public officer in the performance of public duty” under Article 95 of the Japanese Criminal Code. And the Hong Kong vessel cannot be retained for potential forfeiture unless it has been used in a alleged crime that the authorities intend to indict the Hong Kong for.

Third—and this is the part of the process of the process that is of greatest immediate interest—will the Noda administration make the preceding two points crystal-clear to the Japanese public and convince it that this is a routine exercise of Japanese policing powers and that it is treating these Hong Kong Activists like any other illegal alien under Japanese jurisdiction? From what I’ve seen over the years, the Japanese powers-that-be have generally done poorly in proactively framing the story so that the narrative would accrue to their advantage; I see no specific reason to believe that it would be otherwise on this occasion.

Fourth, finally, and most important in the long run to the overall narrative, the Japanese Coast Guard (on sea) and the Okinawa Prefectural Police (on land) have confirmed in the eyes of the world that, whatever the politic calculations that determine the Noda administration’s actions, it is the Japanese Government that exercises the powers of sovereignty over the Islands and does so in a rational manner befitting a state observant of universal human rights and the rule of law. And that should count for something. And expect the Japanese government to reinforce the means to do so in the FY 2013 budget.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Why Did the Chinese Authorities Let the Hong Kong Authorities…

…let the Hong Kong boat set out for the Senkaku Islands?

The most likely scenario in my view is one where the Hong Kong vessel plays a cat-and-mouse with the Japanese Coast Guard around the territorial limits of the Islands, then goes back unharmed but without actually making a landing. This is unfortunate for the Chinese authorities because it gives the Japanese authorities a chance to effectively exercise sovereign powers over the Islands. Under another, less likely scenario, the Hong Kong vessel makes an improbable landing, whereupon the vessel and its proprietors are immediately apprehended—we assume that they really are political activists and not Chinese fishermen, who will not hesitate to kill if need be—transported to the Naha Coast Guard office as per the usual catch-and-release program for simple illegal entry violators. This is unfortunate for the Chinese authorities because it also gives the Japanese authorities a chance to effectively exercise sovereign powers over the Islands.

A problem arises when there is an incident involving a physical altercation. We assume that they really are political activists and not Chinese fishermen, who will not hesitate to kill if need be, but accidents happen. It’s simple when only the Hong Kong vessel or its occupants are harmed, because the result is merely a variant of one of the first two scenarios, depending on whether or not they actually make landfall. It is when harm befalls the Japanese Coast Guard, its ship or personnel, that things become interesting. In the September 2010 incident involving a Chinese fishing boat, the Kan administration wound up losing significant political face when it delivered the captain and the boat to the Chinese side before the public prosecutors pressed charges. But this time, the Japanese authorities will be up against, if I’m not mistaken, the Hong Kong Government, an administration with priorities and leverage that are very much unlike those of the Beijing Government. The Noda administration will find it much easier to face down its opponent than the Kan administration did two years ago. Again, this is also unfortunate for the Chinese authorities because it also gives the Japanese authorities a chance to effectively exercise sovereign powers over the Islands.

I think that it boils down to this: If you have possession, you don’t want to give the other side reason to contest it (think South Korea and its Dokto); if you don’t, then you don’t want to give the other side the opportunity to exercise sovereign powers. I think that the Chinese authorities miscalculated.

ADD: Arrested! Okay, let’s see how this plays out. Remember, the cost of backing down is huge for the Noda administration, and the cost of standing firm is much less than it was for the KanADD: Arrested! Okay, let’s see how this plays out. Remember, the cost of backing down is huge for the Noda administration, and the cost of standing firm is much less than it was for the Kan administration in the 2010 incident. Moreover, Noda is ideologically less inclined to bend over.

ADD 2.0: It was the Okinawa Police (nice touch), most surely riding on the Coast Guard vessels, who made the arrests. And in retrospect, it made much more sense to let them land, then make the arrest, since that was much safer than trying to repel the Hong Kong vessel offshore. In any case, the protest only reinforced the sense of Japanese control over the Islands. When you think about it, that’s almost always the case. Sea Shepherd, Anonymous, they all reinforce the notion of sovereignty even as they challenge it. If I were the Chinese authorities, I would certainly discourage these private protests against Japan’s exercise of its sovereign powers over these islands. administration in the 2010 incident. Moreover, Noda is ideologically less inclined to bend over.

Matsubara to Yasukuni? I Should Have Seen This Coming

After all, Jin Matsubara, Chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, Minister of State for Consumer Affairs and Food Safety, and Minister for the Abduction Issue, is about as far to the right of the Japanese political spectrum as you can go without actually jumping on a khaki-colored van and parading back and forth in front of the South Korean embassy, loud enough to annoy the occupants but not so loud that the Metropolitan Police Department, nested in the broader jurisdiction of the National Public Safety Commission, would have to take action, so I should have expected that he would be the one to disregard the Prime Minister’s (Chief Cabinet Secretary’s) request and pay his respects to the fallen soldiers on August 15, the day of unconditional surrender, at the Yasukuni Shrine. But I didn’t, because…I guess because I did not think that this sort of thing was going to be a big deal. After all, cabinet members had been visiting Yasukuni on August 15 up until the end of the Aso administration without incident.

Here is something useful to remember. The deal with the Chinese authorities is that the Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, The Minister of Defense, and the Chief Cabinet Secretary have to stay away from Yasukuni as long as the Class A war criminals remain enshrined there, but anything else would not cause a diplomatic contretemps. This has been a workable compromise, one that even Abe Shinzo respected when he became prime minister (though he now reportedly says that he should have. Yeah, sure). And of course there was no way that South Korea could have negotiated anything more, so there things stand, even today.

The Chinese leadership, in a delicate period of transition amid economic concerns that, if managed poorly, will significantly erode the political legitimacy of the Communist Party, has an overarching interest in avoiding immediate trouble with its neighbors (and of course the United Sates), although there is likely to be intermittent outbursts of provocative rhetoric and possibly action from quarters—PLA, notably—jockeying for power, resources, and prestige throughout the drawn-out transitory process. By contrast, South Korea’s highly pluralist political leadership, also approaching transition, has an inherent interest in competing with each other to appeal to an electorate, highly invested in imposing national myths on the Japanese body politic. This is a recipe for escalation. Sure enough, the initial response, according to this Kyodo wire, has been fast and furious. More will follow if Yuichiro Hata, Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism and Minister for Ocean Policy, makes good on his words and pays a visit later in the day.

Thus, another small nail in the coffin or, rather, time capsule—hopefully of short (by which I mean a couple of years’) duration—of the bilateral political relationship.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Latest on the Super-region Gathering and the Prospective New Party Crystallizing around Hashimoto

To follow up on the meeting between Mayor Hashimoto and five members of a nonpartisan super-region study group, Yasutoshi Nishimura, as I’d expected, and another LDP member of that group emphatically denied any intention of leaving the LDP. The Yomiuri predictably uses the occasion to remind us that Yorihisa Matsuno is wondering if he should use the study group to join hands with the Ishin-no-kai.

Keepin’ the story alive, it seems. Well, at a minimum, it’s highly plausible.

The Consequences of the Growing Rift between Japan and South Korea

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took it to another level today (August 14, on the eve of Japan’s unconditional surrender in 1945) when he told a gathering of educators that “(the Emperor) wants to visit Japan, but I said (to the Japanese side) to come if he would visit the people who died in the independence movement and apologize from his heart.” He specifically cast disdain on the phrase that the Emperor used when he met then President Roh Tae-woo. Lest anyone think that Lee was somehow unaware that there was no chance that the Japanese side would meet his very public demand, he appears to have foregone the use of respectful language if the wording common to all the Japanese media translations is to be trusted, a startling breech of protocol and show of disrespect towards a quasi-head of state. It’s not quite KNCA, not even Hugo Chaves, but it’s still pretty rude.

The markers keep moving from the South Korean side, and this is unlikely to stop until its national myths are adopted wholesale on the other side of the “Japan” Sea. The typical Japanese response has been to make the minimum concession necessary to paper over the incident until the next incident flared up, raising demands for yet another round of verbal ransom.

I don’t think that it’s going to work this way anymore. Lee has jumped the shark this time, and there is no way that the domestically embattled Noda administration could do anything by way of meeting him even half-way. More important, Japan has changed as well. The mixture of collective guilt and sense of shared victimhood and older brother benevolence is about to all but vanish with the passing of the guard. The under-sixty leadership of the DPJ, LDP, and regional movements and their subalterns by and large (though not exclusively) share an assertive outlook. If still milquetoast in comparison to that of their regional counterparts, it should be more than sufficient to compel them to project and/or support responses that will at a minimum ensure that the bilateral political relationship will remain at a new low for a considerable period of time.

So what will be the consequences? First, expect all efforts to enhance the formal relationship will be put on hold for the indefinite future. No Japan-South Korea FTA. No Japan-China-South Korea FTA. No Japan-South Korea General Security of Military Information Agreement. But these weren’t moving before the latest Takeshima/Dokto flare-up, only the Japanese side was reluctant to admit it. No more. Which brings me to the second point: the Japanese response.

Look to Japan to give a serious push to a Japan-China FTA. I suspect that the Chinese authorities will be inclined to oblige, if only to encourage Japan to take up a greater stake in the bilateral relationship. And a gain for China is perforce a loss for the United States. Look to Japan to edge ever so cautiously towards North Korea—or rather, North Korea to attempt to play off Japan against South Korea, while a divided Korea looks increasingly to be in their mutual interests.

All this is not in the best interests of the Japanese and Korean people, or so I think. But that appears to be the baseline scenario.

Session with Hashimoto a Red Herring? Probably. Still…

I may have made a red herring out of the five-Diet member gathering with Hashimoto. Turns out they are members of a pluripartisan group of Diet members, including Yasutoshi Nishimura (LDP, lower house), who is likely to one of the last to jump ship if it comes to that, who are pushing the doshusei concept, which merges prefectures into a small number of super-regions. They made the trip to seek Mayor Hashimoto’s views, not to plot a third-party breakout with him.

Highly plausible, and probably true. But there was the shared background against the three-party compromise—why these guys, and not Nishimura, for instance—and this wouldn’t be the first time in human history that cabals were hatched under the guise of a innocuous gathering of people with a shared interest. I’d keep an eye on these guys.

That’s it for now. Very busy day ahead.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Hashimoto Meets Diet Members, Threat to DPJ, LDP Jumps

A brief memo, before I got to serious work, got a little out of hand, so it’s going to be a long afternoon, and evening…

According to this Yomiuri report, Mayor Hashimoto met with the following five Diet members. I added information on their ages and their votes on the tax and social safety net reform bill.
Yorihisa Matsuno (lower house, DPJ, 51, no) Kenta Matsunami (lower house, LDP, 40, no) Shinji Oguma (upper house, Your Party, 44, no) Takashi Ishizeki (lower house, DPJ, 40, abstain) Hiroshi Ueno (upper house, Your Party, 41, no)
Beyond opposition to the bill, they—like the YP in general—also appear to share Hashimoto’s conservative external policy outlook, making it easier for them to sign on to the Ishin-no-Kai policy agenda. Most important, the presence of two YP members are an indication that the YP is willing to “lend” to Hashimoto the number of Diet members necessary to reach the five-member minimum for registering a candidate simultaneously in the single-seat districts and the proportional blocs. This “zombiehood” insurance means that a) Hashimoto will not have to field two separate slates of candidates and b) it will be much easier for the candidates to make the leap of faith because unsuccessful single-seat bids will have a very good chance of being rewarded anyway with a proportional bloc seat on the crest of Hashimoto’s national momentum. (Hashimotomentum?). YP itself, unable to cash in on the unpopularity of the DPJ and LDP, also stands to gain from the Ishinmania groundswell in its single-seat bids.

Meanwhile, Mayor Hashimoto’s not-quite blessing of Aichi Governor Omura’s adoption of the name “Chukyo Ishin-no-Kai”, which irritated his local ally and rival, Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura, appears to indicate that he has chosen Omura as his Middle Capital partner while quietly writing off Kawamura*. Taken together, Hashimoto appears to be making progress in laying the groundwork for a coordinated campaign by forces in the three major metropolitan centers of Japan.

According to the latest Yomiuri poll (August 11-12), 21%, 16%, and 11% of the responders said that they would vote for the LDP, Osaka Ishin-no-Kai, and the DPJ, respectively. But 26% were undecided. Even election pros would hesitate to make a projection at this point, but with a large number of candidates contesting sigel-seat districts nationwide, it looks quite plausible that the prospective Ishin-no-Kai-Your Party will deny both the DPJ and LDP an outright lower house majority, with the most likely outcome a Tall Coalition**
. * This impression is reinforced by this report on a meeting between Omura and Osaka Governor Matsui, who is essentially Hashimoto’s political deputy. This makes sense, since Kawamura comes across to me as essentially an old-school politician who caught lightening in a bottle and gained a second political wind when he grabbed the Nagoya mayor’s office, more likely to be a drag on Hashimoto’s radical reformist appeal. In fact, I see him as more likely to caucus with the likes of Ozawa’s minions.

** It certainly won’t be “Small,” but it won’t quite be “Grande” either.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Things People Don’t Talk about (4): The Difference between Manga and Comic Books

I noticed during my Sunday lunch break that there was no “Things People Don’t Talk about (4)” on my blog. Rummaging through my files, I found the following brief commentary, which I now haven’t the faintest idea whether I’d intended to edit it further, post it as is but just forgotten about it, or deep-six it. The last may be the prudent thing to do, but why waste the time that I invested in doodling about manga and comic books?
. Okay, maybe some people do, but I looked at the Wikipedia entry for “manga” and it says that a “manga artist (mangaka in Japanese) typically works with a few assistants in a small studio and is associated with a creative editor from a commercial publishing company” and leaves it at that, and that’s good enough for me.

The names of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster are familiar to even fairly casual observers of the comics scene as the creators of Superman, partly because of the purely iconic nature of the superhero of superheroes but largely, I suspect, because of the long and acrimonious on-and-off-again battle in and out of the courts with the pair and their heirs. And even more people know the name Jack Kirby because, well, because he essentially spawned the Marvel-verse, though Stan Lee made most of the money. Multiple writers, multiple artists, all ultimately interchangeable, multiple storylines, continually feeding off each other, that’s what mainstream US comics are all about. By contrast, Dragonball is Akira Toriyama, even if he let the franchise continue after he stopped writing it for Shonen Jump. And JoJo’s Strange Adventures is Hirohiko Araki’s one-man franchise that’s still going strong after 25 years. In fact, every character and narrative in Japanese manga [usually] lives and dies with the singular artist. Yes, there are professional manga storywriters, some of them highly successful, collaborating with the artists, but even there, the characters that they create are indelibly identified with their creators and are rarely allowed to continue their fictional existence under the imaginations of other artists. Osamu Tezuka’s Atom Boy was revived recently by another artist, but it was a related but separate work, almost an homage to the creator, really. People who like cultural explanations may see the shadows of Henry Ford and Frederick Winslow Taylor in the US approach while conjuring the image of the singular Japanese artisan or samurai immersed in the perfection of his art. But nothing could be so wrong. And I could easily prove that—or at least make a good demonstration to that effect, since cultural explanation can’t even be wrong, to paraphrase one of my favorite sayings.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

As Defense Minister Morimoto Goes…

Just a tentative attempt at making sense of where we’re at, and where we’re going.

As Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto goes, so goes the generation that remembers the war, and the peculiar external outlook that it carried. The latest outcry over his comments on South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is another sign of their passing.

Defense Minister Morimoto is being subjected to harsh criticism—deservedly so in my view, but that’s a subject for another occasion—over his comment on South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to Takeshima (Dokto to any Koreans reading this). Specifically, Morimoto stated that “it is a matter that is based on the exigencies of South Korea’s domestic politics. Other countries should refrain from commenting this way and that way on the domestic politics of another country.” Now you may think that this is a pretty nutty thing for a defense mister to say about a contested piece of territory with deep symbolic meaning in the bilateral relationship. And it is. But you have to cut him some slack; he’s 71 years old. And no, it’s not about what you think.

Satoshi Morimoto, born in Tokyo 71 years ago and growing up in the Osaka suburbs, experienced firsthand from his earliest years through his childhood and youth WW II and its aftermath, and post-war reconstruction. As such, he could not have been immune to the sense of personal guilt and shared victimhood that his teachers and, later, many members of the newly ascendant elite genuinely felt towards Japan’s neighbors. Such sentiments all but guaranteed that whenever sentiments flared up, over a new incident, real or imagined almost exclusively on the other side, the instinctive response on the Japanese side was quell the anger and, if necessary,to acquiesce.

The same background must have been at work when 73 year old Uichiro Niwa, the Japanese Ambassador to China, gave an interview to FT reporter Mure Dickie and came out strongly against Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara’s plans to purchase the Senkaku Islands from their private owner, fearing that “decades of past effort [would] be brought to nothing” (“Tokyo warned over plans to buy islands”, FT, June 6, 2012). Niwa may have survived the resultant uproar only because he was deeply embedded in the economic and political establishment in the LDP regime as a go-to guy on economic policymaking.

Against leaders who broadly shared this background, it was easier, relatively speaking, for players on the other side to move the markers on the ground, at sea, and the language and rhetoric with minimal resistance. That Japan had the decidedly stronger economy and enjoyed more prestige, at least within the developed world, for most of this process, like made the concessions easier for the Japanese side.

But this generation is passing—Morimoto and Niwa, at the forefront of the action, are exceptions—and many people have remarked on how the younger generation are decidedly more assertive, more desirous of normal nationhood, than their elders. The Japanese establishment and general public are feeling increasingly distressed with regard to national security and the economy in connection with their neighbors, even as the guilt- and victimhood-laden past increasingly becomes an impersonal relic of “history.” What made practical and emotional sense then, is making increasingly less sense now. Expect the Japanese side, then, to become more assertive, and the political tensions to rise over the coming years, even as the economic relationships broaden and deepen. Even now, we are seeing this in Foreign Minister Gemba’s revival of the Japanese referral of the case to the Hague.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Handball? No Complaints from Nadeshiko

Missed calls are not a rarity, but few have larger potential consequences than the missed handball call that would have given the Nadeshiko a penalty kick in the gold medal final that they eventually lost to the US 2-1. It was a clear foul according to Grant Wahl the American soccer journalist at Sports Illustrated, as well as other US media reports, so it’s not something that happened only in the eyes of the diehard Japanese fan. But none of the annoying histrionics particularly rampant in the men’s game; just play on, as Wahl notes. After the game, it was more of the same. The players, the head coach, no one, not a single quote on the matter from the Nadeshiko side as far as I could gather.

Now, imagine what the aftermath would be like if something remotely similar happens in the Japan-South Korea men’s bronze medal match. And believe me, there will be a lot of fouls to be called or imagined.

Add: Here, Rapinoe comes closest to a concession since Maradonna’s “God’s Hand” statement in the following excerpt: “‘The one on Tobin?’ Rapinoe said, smiling. ‘Thank God I'm not a referee.’" My point, of course, is not that the foul should have been called (though I suppose it should have in the best of worlds) but that no one complained from the Japanese side.

So I Guess My Question Is: Will the DPJ Take an Ozawa Friend Down for Embezzlement/Theft?

I’ll just translate the Sankei article for you; it’s quicker that way.
DPJ Iwate Chapter Funds “Transferred without Permission” to Accounts Held by “People’s Life First” [Representative and Assemblyman]

It became known on the August 10 that 45 million yen managed by the DPJ Iwate Chapter had been transferred to the political funds management organizations of a lower house member and prefectural assemblyman who had left the party and joined the new party People’s Life First.

Kokan Wtanabe, the Acting Representative of the DPJ Prefectural Chapter, held a press conference the same day and sought the return [of the funds, stating], “It has not followed official procedures and is inappropriate. Distribution of assets to collective defectors is impossible.”

According to Mr. Watanabe, on July 3, the day after Ichiro Ozawa, “Life” Representative submitted his notice of withdrawal to the DPJ, 45 million yen, representing most of the money that the prefectural chapter had been managing, was transferred from the prefectural chapter’s account to the funds management organizations of the representative, elected from the Tohoku Proportional Bloc and the prefectural assemblyman.

[According to Mr. Watanabe, t]he representative and assemblyman explained to the prefectural chapter that “political fund raising parties and funds from the old Liberal Party are also sources for the funds.” A document reached Mr. Watanabe on July 9 stating that “the money is being held temporarily and will be deposited in the Life’s account.”
This is wrong in so many ways I don’t know where to start (I gave you the translation partly so you could figure them out yourself); suffice to say that this is a clear-cut case of criminal embezzlement or theft. However, I suspect that the 78 year old Chouemon Kikuchi*, whom Mr. Watanabe apparently refused to name and the reporters on the local beat meekly agreed to equip with the cloak of anonymity, and more broadly Ichiro Ozawa have enough residual political capital vis-à-vis the DPJ loyalists—this is Iwate—to work out a mutually acceptable settlement. With that, I guess I’ve answered my own question.

* The identity of the culprit is so easy to figure out that I can put it out here without any fear of committing any civil or criminal act of defamation.

Things People Don’t Talk about (5) - How the Media Reported on the Seven LDP No-confidence Vote Dissenters

Seven LDP members, defying the party leadership’s decision to abstain, voted for the non-confidence motion in the lower house against the Noda Cabinet. The most remarkable thing about the media report was the way that it put the spotlight on Shinjiro Koizumi, the 31 year old first-term member who inherited his seat from his father, former Prime Minister Koizumi. The Asahi headline reads “Seven LDP members, Mr. Shinjiro Koizumi and Others, Rebel; Search for Rival Candidate [against Tanigaki]?” The article itself more or less repeats this rendering, then adds in the subsequent paragraph that “those voting against it were, other than Mr. Koizumi, former Secretary-General Hidenao Nakagawa; Yoshihide Suga, former Minister of Internal Affairs and Communication; former Yasuhisa Shiozaki, former Chief Cabinet Secretary; Katsuyuki Kawai, former Senior Parliamentary Vice-Minister of Justice; and Masahiko Shibayama and Kenta Matsunami, members of the House of Representatives.” Mainichi reports that “Former Secretary-General Hidenao Nakagawa, who is reluctant with regard to a consumption tax hike, and Mr. Shinjiro Koizumi, who had argued for a hard line, and other LDP members, seven in all, cast votes in favor in the plenary.” The Yomiuri headlines “Seven LDP Members, Mr. Shinjiro[!] and Others, ‘Rebel’…Cabinet No-Confidence Motion Defeated” and goes on to report that “Seven LDP members, Former Secretary-General Hidenao Nakagawa and head of the Youth Department Shinjiro Koizumi and others, cast votes in favor.” Finally, Sankei gives no names in the headline but provides a text similar to Yomiuri’s.

Note that the reports take pains to follow an unwritten protocol in determining the order of appearance when the names of two or more LDP members are given in sequence. And yes, the hardcopy Yomiuri for one does not carry that online report and makes no effort to highlight Koizumi. Moreover, there’s a good chance that Koizumi and Nakagawa happened to be the ones who held the post-vote press briefing on behalf of the seven and, less plausibly, the Yomiuri reporter (or the editor back in Yomiuri headquarters) was the only person to seek the names of the five others.

But if so, the assumption that the seven allowed Koizumi, together with his father’s former second-in-command, to make the announcement and the consequent fact that the Asahi, Mainichi, and Sankei did not bother to ask are telling. As far as the media are concerned, Mr. Shinjiro Koizumi is the Chosen One. And the LDP, from the elders down to his first-term cohorts, will not be complaining, not when the media have his back and a snap election is looming. Unlike the case of the DPJ holdouts, all will be soon forgiven, if not ignored altogether.

Do you know who Koizumi Junior reminds me of? Ronald Reagan. Koizumi has the same calm and easy stage presence and delivery that masked Reagan’s killer instincts and enabled him to maintain a benign aura even when he launched savage attacks against opponents, “welfare queens,” and other Republican targets.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

You Mean, What Do Chiaki Kuriyama and I Have in Common?

What, indeed. I thought you’d never ask.

This is what Chiaki Kuriyama (for those of you who do not recall that name, she played Go Go Yubari in Kill Bill Volume One) looks like and this is what I look like. But beauty is only skin deep. I’ll let her tell it in her own words, right here:

“I’m lazy, I’m not good at sports, and I like to eat when I want, and drink when I want.” She enjoys shochu, the Japanese vodka, while watching the Olympics on TV, and says, “Every day, I look forward to the night.”

Hmm, maybe I should give Chiaki a call…

And speaking of alcohol, good friend Mark Brown has been doing a lot of field work on that subject and has dug up this story about a retired chemical engineer. Turns out, Chiaki and I were both doing the early retirement thing without knowing.

“Hey, Chiaki, there’s this nice beachfront place in Miami…”

Making Omelets and a “Grand” Coalition

As I told Jan Moren in the comments here, a "grand" coalition sounds about as palatable as breaking two eggs to make an omelet—from the egg shells. But from their perspective, it should beat trying to form a bicameral majority from a motley crew of Komeito, Ozawa’s minions, the Hashimoto Ishin allies, Your party, and what else; or, worse, try to govern without a majority in either house.

The equation changes, though, if either party wins an outright majority in the snap election, since that would give the outright winner a much stronger hand in negotiating a manageable coalition without the other. And the idea that neither party will win a majority* is largely predicated on the notion that Mayor Hashimoto’s Ishin-noKai and its allies will win a significant number of seats. But Hashimoto doesn’t have the candidates yet, who will have to run on their own dime. That’s another good reason for the LDP to push for an early election. In fact, if it were just a matter of reelecting as many incumbents as possible (and not minimizing the eventual gap with the LDP), I’m not sure that the DPJ as a whole is better off playing the waiting game. Of course for a first-term DPJ Diet member, another year in hand is worth much more than slightly improved prospects of remaining in office for four more (minus the one).

* I suspect that the conventional wisdom that gives the LDP 200-220 seats and the DPJ 100 (110?) in a snap election has a single source: a recent LDP, district-by-district survey. Political insiders, journalists, and other members of the opinion-forming classes live much in an echo chamber for matters that they do not have immediately familiarity with. This type of conventional wisdom, on its own, is “brittle” in my book.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

The Tax and Social Safety Net Reform Bill: Sooner, Rather Than Later

It looks like Noda and Tanigaki, with Yamguchi (the Komeito guy) as chaperone, kissed and made up well before 9 PM so that they could go home, grab a beer, and watch Kaoru Icho begin her quest for a third straight women’s wrestling gold medal. (Japanese women’s wrestling is what Japanese men’s judo used to be, it appears.) The deal is to

a) pass the tax and social safety net reform bill expeditiously and
b) see the people’s confidence soon after.

As a taxpayer, I say, what took you guys so long? As an analyst, I think, I should have stuck with my first call instead of getting caught up in the volatility. Oh well, no big deal, it’s only about the timing here. And it’s still the deficit bond authorization bill providing the LDP and Komeito with crucial leverage.

Here’s “Ripe Old Age Guy” on the Political Situation…

From yesterday morning, my fifteen five minutes of fame. I’m not giving you my age, but you can see for yourself how ripe I am.

If you can’t bear to watch the video, I make the point that the tax hike and a snap election would be upon us at most within a few months. (As of this moment, it’s looking more likely that the tax and social safety net reform bill will be passed sooner rather than later, but that’s no big deal.) More important to me, I went out on limb and claimed that there’d be a DPJ-LDP coalition, a coalition that would eventually break down and lead to broader realignment. The nice thing about TV, I’m told, is that no one remembers when you’re wrong, and you are free to toot your horn when you’re right.

We’ll see.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

People Rooting for Oscar Pistorius Need to Do some Thinking

I’ve been sitting on this for a couple of days, could stand some improvement, but I’m posting it before it goes stale like so many of my thoughts clattering around on my HD.

Controversy has swirled around the question of whether or not prosthetics give double-amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius an unfair advantage over his able-bodied competitors. If by unfair advantage they mean that he would been slower if he had been born with two normal legs—he was born with no fibulae, which necessitated the amputation when he was a baby—there’s no way of knowing, since what his legs would have been like had they been normal can only be approximate by extrapolation from the rest of his skeletal and muscular makeup. You could test a similar prosthetic on a pair of identical twins, one of whom has one below-the-knee amputation, to see if the prosthetic results in improved performance. But that only proves that the prosthetic confers no “unfair” to that particular twin. A prosthetic whose performance equals the performance of a calf and foot of a LeBron James is more capable than a calf and foot of a Brian Scalabrine, even though they are roughly the same size and play the same sport professionally. Let’s face it, there’s really no way that you can determine what’s “fair” and “unfair.” If you could somehow agree on some fixed formula for strength, resilience, shape, length, etc., you’re still stuck with a standardized equipment, much like vaulting poles. In fact, you now have a sport that is more pole vault than high jump, if you see my analogy.

There could well be more ominous consequences. There’s always the chance that a good athlete could find that the specs allow him an extra inch below his knees if he switched to prosthetics and could see that the inch could be the difference between merely making the varsity track team and winning an Olympic gold medal. That is no idle thought in my view. And I don’t have to lean on memories as a small child in Montreal fantasizing about having my left leg amputated—below the knee!—so I could wear skates and play ice hockey*. If there’s any truth to the Goldman Dilemma, you have to think that there must be not-quite world-class athletes who will think, what’s a couple of legs compared to giving up all but the next five years of the rest of your life, no? And if it really comes to that, the legs could probably be freeze-dried, to be reattached after your athletic career is over.

The Pistorius story and his qualification for the London Olimpycs 400-meter sprint semi-finals may be heartwarming—I don’t particularly think so, but maybe that’s just me—but it opens up a line of inquiry on what’s fair and unfair that really has no answer. I made peace with my own limitations a long time ago, and I think that all physically-challenged people as well as the able-bodied not-quite Usain Bolts should do so as well.

* I had read, or possibly conjured an alternate reality—I now know that I sometimes had trouble making a distinction between objective reality and my nocturnal dreams when I was as old as six—that there was a pre-WW II NHL player who had returned to play in the league after an amputation. It’s possible that I somehow dreamed a happier ending to the life of Howie Morenz.

“Beat Them Up,” or “Beat Them to Death”?

The August 07 online Yomiuri has two reports, and, posted at the same time with the same headlines and same texts, except for one small detail. I’ll give you my translation of the headline(s), and you’ll get the idea:

“Mayor Hashimoto, “Large Number Bullying Small Number, Should Beat Them [Up][to Death]”

Having been the second-smallest kid for most of my Montreal grade school class years who somehow seemed to get into a fight every other day but managed to survive into adulthood, I think I know what he was suggesting here and what he was really thinking when he said it. That said, it still was a pretty intemperate, and I would have suggested that he stick to his more mayoral message, which happened to be:

“Jurists should put support for students and support for teachers together into firm rules and (establish) a clear policy that bullying is wrong, while following steps. A posture that deals severely when a certain line is crossed is necessary.”

Clear rules and procedures that enable students and teachers to deal with bully effectively, as well as a red line to mete out severe punishment for egregious bullying: Now who can disagree with that? Yet I’m sure that 2 Channel is going to be abuzz with Hashimoto suggesting lynching as a bullying remedy. Two takeaways here:

1) The facts matter.
2) The perception of facts also matter.

Actually, much of my work and my avocation both revolve around these two observations.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Hashimoto’s Bunraku Argument in a Nutshell

Sorry, I failed to produce a full-fledged tract on Mayor Hashimoto’s take on Bunraku. You’ll have to be satisfied with my following summary of his July 26 tweets, plus a very brief comment.

1. Bunraku is a popular art form. As such, it must reach out to masses.* If the cultural elite disagree, it should not ask for public handouts. Maintaining Intangible Cultural Assets is the national government’s business.

2. The current script for The Sonezaki Shinju, which was Hashimoto’s second Bunraku experience, is actually a 1955 adaptation. Maybe they should try something new that appeals to contemporary tastes or go back to the original.

3. It’s hard for the novice audience member to ignore the dressed-up, in-your-face, head-and-right hand puppeteer. They should do something about that.

I have one criticism that may seem trivial to you, one that Hashimoto actually should accept if I put it to him. Otherwise, I have no objections to his arguments.

Expect Some Smoke, but Not Much Fire, When Legislators Go Back to Work

The hard-copy Yomiuri today essentially claims that an LDP in-house survey showing that it would win 220 seats in a lower house general election, short of the 241 seats necessary for a single party majority but easily trouncing the DPJ, plus anger over Prime Minister Noda’s understandable desire to lay the groundwork to move forward without calling an early snap election has prompted the LDP rank-and-file and local chapters to push the party leaders to demand a promise of an early snap election in exchange for passing the Legislation Bill concerning the Integrated Reform of Social Insurance and Taxation (essentially, the FY2014-2015 consumption tax* hikes, and pushing back the social insurance reform debate another year, not that it really got started in the first place) in the upper house, making it law. The LDP, like the DPJ, certainly does conduct internal seat-by-seat surveys in anticipation of an election and the poll numbers certainly do give credibility to its purported assessment, so let’s take the prospects of a significant plurality as a driver of the LDP near-term behavior as a given. The mention of the local chapters is also meaningful, because they are to the LDP what the Sokagakkai is to Komeito, the local political machines are to the LDP, and its one clear institutional advantage over the DPJ. The local chapters are not to be taken lightly.

However, it’s still unclear what the LDP can do to force an early snap election just now; the consumption tax hikes won’t kick in until April 2014 anyway. Media reports do mention a lower house vote of no-confidence—the doomsday option: if passed, the cabinet must resign or call a snap election—and an upper house censure motion—the chicken race option: if passed, the opposition claims the moral high ground and goes on strike until a) the government accedes to its demands or b) the opposition is forced to go back to legislative work by the media and popular opinion. I’m betting that the LDP leadership will take a prospective offer from the DPJ—fingers crossed—to vote on the reform bill on 10 August (Fri) instead of 20 (but not 8 (Wed), as the LDP is demanding) to refrain from pressing either motions this week, then sit on its hands on every government bill that does not have “humanitarian needs” written all over it until the threat of the government running out of money becomes imminent, at which point Noda has no choice but to call a snap election as quid pro quo for passing the deficit bonds authorization bill. Besides, Komeito is unlikely to go along with either motion until the reform bill is over and done with.

Once the bill is passed, though, the LDP and Komeito will make a move—if they think that it can get either motion passed. For now, seven other opposition parties, who have most of the remainder—68 seats**—between them, have agreed to introduce their own no-confidence motion on 7 August (Tue). This is actually a negative for the LDP (and Komeito). They cannot vote for it, since it is essentially an anti-consumption tax resolution. The seven in turn will take some convincing to allow the LDP and Komeito to take the lead on a subsequent motion. I think that this going to buy some time for the Noda administration. Note that this is not necessarily a good thing for the DPJ. The Noda administration will feel compelled to compromise to keep potential defectors onside, which means that there will be a corresponding deficit in cohesion, coherence, and clarity as far as its policy messages are concerned.

* I’m not naming names, but I’ve been trying, so far without success, to convince my friends and acquaintances at two media groups to stop calling it a “sales tax.” In the outside chance that you’re reading this, guys, once again, the consumption tax is a value-added tax, not a sales tax.

** In case you’re curious: People’s Life First 38 (including one jointly-caucusing independent), Kizuna Party nine (early anti-tax hike defectors from DPJ), Japan Communist Party nine, Social Democratic Party six, Your Party five (center-right neoliberals), New Party Nippon one (social democrats), New Renaissance Party zero (this is not a typo).

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Am I Repeating Myself on the Political Game Going Forward?

My basic outlook on the political scene hasn’t changed much in the last few weeks. If anything, I’m even more convinced that there’s going to be a snap election this autumn. If the latest polls showing the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) opening a significant lead over the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the Noda administration reaching a new low don’t convince the LDP and Komeito to put an upper house hold on the deficit bond authorization bill long enough to force the Noda cabinet to capitulate and call a snap election, frankly, I don’t know what will. But do they have the numbers?

The LDP-led upper house caucus has 87 upper house members (82 LDP, 3 New Renaissance Party 3, and 2 independents), its junior coalition partner People’s New Party has 3, and Komeito has 17. That’s 107. They need 14 more there to be able to be sure that they can vote down any bill there. Keep in mind that they need one less if there is one abstention, and need one less for every two abstentions after that. So where will they be coming from?

Your Party (YP) is all but guaranteed to post its 11 votes against the bill. As the only committed small-government, neoliberal party in the Diet, it will be voting its conscience. Just as important, its leadership should be seeing a window of opportunity to reap the broad anti-VAT (consumption tax) sentiment, a window that will narrow significantly when Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto’s Ishin movement assembles a viable slate of national election candidates. If the YP is treading water now despite the DPJ’s free-fall and the LDP’s lackluster performance, imagine what will happen when it’s sharing the national stage with a similarly small-government, neoliberal party with a charismatic and articulate spokesman—assuming he doesn’t actually make an always-preposterous immediate run for a Diet seat himself—who commands the respect of his kisha club, i.e. the mainstream reporters on the Osaka municipal government beat. It is even more certain that the Japan Communist Party (JCP), six-members strong in the upper house, will also vote against the bill, as they’ve been doing since forever. Besides, the JCP must be calculating that it is better positioned than the fractious Social Democratic Party (SDP), which has lost every election since it dropped every principle that it had stood for just to produce a prime minister in 1994, to capitalize on the protest left-wing vote. And sure enough, it’s arguing against the bill in the lower house, where I’m sure they’ve turned up the thermostat in the interests of energy conservation. (No, the Japanese Diet is not taking a five-week summer recess. So eat your heart out, Paul S----c!) That brings the total to 124, three more than the 121 minimum necessary. Game, set, match.

The DPJ is sure to complain that the LDP and Komeito are playing politics with national finances. Very true, but the same charge could be levied with the same force against the DPJ. With the VAT hike passed and the social safety net debate pushed back another year, the Nuclear Safety Commission up and running (fingers crossed), and the FY2013 budgetary process mostly up ahead, it will look as good as any time to let the voting public pass judgment on the Noda administration. The media, which never saw a general election that they didn’t like, are likely to see it that way, too, and will color their editorials and reports accordingly. A snap election, of course, won’t change the situation in the upper house, which leads to my base-case scenario, which is an LDP-DPJ-Komeito coalition.

My all-I-want-for-Christmas scenario? Major realignment along ideologically more consistent lines, that’s what. But I don’t see how that is going to happen, even after the likely post-election politicking, so that takes the national political class muddling through, all the way out to the 2013 upper house election, when the Ishin movement should be ready to take advantage of the electoral system that allows it to more fully exploit its national appeal.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Things People Don’t Talk about (3): Say What You Will about the North Koreans…

They sure know how to throw a gay-lesbian rave dance!

Addendum: Even better.

…inadvertently deleted…

Are You Old Enough to Remember When People Were Leaving Kabuki for Dead?

When I was growing up, kabuki was a dying art. Nobody wanted to see it. Nobody cared. And it seemed only a matter of time before its fan base migrated to the Great Big Kabuki-za in the Sky and kabuki became a historical curiosity, available only through open-reel tape—yes, it was that long ago, boys and girls—and bowdlerized performances for camera-toping tourists. But a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral. Young, charismatic stars appeared, like Ichikawa Somegoro (you know him now as Matsumoto Koshiro) and Bando Tamasaburo (still Bando Tamasaburo), and girls began showing up, and the girls went wild. And traditionalists frowned. Shallow! Uppity! And the new face of kabuki did not limit itself to the kabuki stage. Musicals, Greek tragedy, contemporary drama; you name it, they did it*. Then there was Ichikawa Ennosuke, who, instead of roaming, took the 400-year old art back to its roots and melded it with modern technology, and called the pyrotechnic results super-kabuki.

Those stars are now old and fading, and the new ones don’t quite command our attention like the last generation did. But then, in the age of cable, the internet, and the long tail, who does? And kabuki and its actors wouldn’t even be in the conversation today if they hadn’t moved forward and regained relevance.

There’s an important lesson here for another Intangible Cultural Property (MEXT) and Intangible Cultural Heritage (UNESCO) and I’ll get to that later, perhaps over the weekend. But for now, I’m just happy that the week’s work is done and I still have time to put these thoughts together.

* Many of the top male actors on film and stage in the 1920s-60s had kabuki backgrounds. Names like Arashi Kanjuro, Hasegawa Kazuo, Kataoka Chiezo, Ishikawa Raizo, and Okawa Hashizo readily come to mind. They were the Brad Pitts and Al Pachinos of their era. Willingly or unwillingly, they all left kabuki behind when they pursued their new acting venues.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Hashimoto Tweets Narratives, Not Soundbites

As abruptly as he left off tweeting as of July 17 in the wake of revelations about a sexual liaison during his successful career as a lawyer-TV personality, Mayor Toru Hashimoto resumed posting tweets, no explanation given (again), on the 26th. He appears to have returned to his prolific ways as well, with 21 tweets most recently available on the 30th. But if you think he spends an inordinate amount of time on his Twitter account, think again; 20 of those tweets comprise a single narrative. In fact, that’s what Hashimoto mostly uses Twitter for: write a mini-essay or and philippic, which he then uploads in 140 character-and-under chunks. A clever way to get his full story out there. The one other tweet on the 30th is also to the point, sort of, a self-deprecating response to a tweet-shoutout from a well-known neuroscientist and author who had come out in Hashimoto’s support on the Bunraku controversy. (The 20-tweet mini-essay is Hashimoto’s latest salvo on that subject, which at a glance appears to be sharing center stage of late with his battle against the municipal civil service.) He is as much a public intellectual engaged in the new domain as a political revolutionary exploiting the new medium. Keep that in mind when you look at the guy, and his relationship with the media.

I’ll try to find time to put something meaningful together on his Bunraku tweets; in fact, I’d been drafting a post, on and off, on the entire controversy but my work didn’t leave me enough energy to complete it. Now that his latest tweets are out there, I see that he makes all or most of my points, and more, on the substance, though I had also intended to explain why his position should resonate with the general public, as well as intellectuals who were not comfortable with the conventional wisdom and absentminded deference to the “traditional” arts. I’ll try to get back to that; in the meantime, I encourage anyone who reads Japanese to go to Hashimoto’s Twitter account.