Sunday, August 18, 2013

I Now Believe that Abe Will Not Do the Full 3% Consumption Tax Hike in April

Prime Minister Abe has been persuaded by two economic advisors, Professor Koichi Hamada and former non-mainstream MOF bureaucrat Etsuro Honda, to adopt a gradual five-year phase-in instead of the two-installment plan that is currently in place. It could be jiggered, but the idea is to more away from the three-party deal. That, or Honda is a complete flake, which I do not believe he is. MOF will not like it, but it will go along. Likewise, BOJ.

I can’t take any meaningful bets since I live in Japan (and I’m not so confident that I’m willing to bet the house), but I’m sure that the authorities won’t chase me down if I make a friendly wager to all and sundry for an up to-2,000 yen lunch. Let’s put it this way: If the consumption tax goes up 3% on April 1, you win; if it doesn’t, I do. Wait, I’ll give you the full FY2013 for the Abe administration to do so. Any takers please contact my Gmail account, which is easily found around my blog.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Are We Japanese Ultranationalists?

According to this joint Japan-China survey, 46.0% of the Japanese responders were okay with the prime minister paying his respects at the Yasukuni Shrine and 27.5% were okay if he did it in his capacity as a private citizen while only 9.9% were unconditionally opposed. There’s two ways to understand this: a) 46.6% of the Japanese electorate is ultra-nationalist; or b) you antis out there totally miss what Yasukuni is all about. I might go over this (and the meaning of the 27.5%) in more detail tomorrow—August 15—if I can take time out of some pressing work. And I might work the Arlington National Cemetery into it. Then again, I think that there’s a narrative there waiting to be exposed to a braoder audience. I’ll sleep on it.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Underwear Will Out: The Short Shorts Meditations

Is it my imagination or have my observation skills taken a jump this summer? There seem to be a noticeably higher number of women, mostly young—but then, at my age, what woman isn’t?—hitting the streets of Tokyo in short shorts (SSs). Now most SSs surely have their origins in the short pants outerwear that once only boys wore, but some of them are made from flimsy cloth and trimmed with lace, making them look, with perhaps with added gloss and froufrou, like something out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog (or so I guess, based purely on what I’ve heard from my friends). And some of the similarly constructed dresses could be mistaken for chemises. And on the other side of the gender divide, the suteteko, baggy underpants created to wear under kimono, is making a comeback among the young as casual outerwear.

This reminds me of my Osaka childhood, the hottest days of summer saw women walking around the neighborhood in their chemises and men hanging out in suteteko. But these were the doings of older generations (though for someone my age, anyone above high-school age was old); a couple of events stand out in my memory, the high-school age sister of a friend walking around the house in her chemise and a grade seven classmate stripping down to her chemise to change into gym wear, for their unusualness.

This is not without precedent. The kimono as we know it today evolved from the kosode, which had its origins as underwear for the nobles in the Heian era that spread to the samurai and later to the lower classes. The more casual yukata began life as a bathing suit-and-bath towel, an origin that is reflected in the protocol now largely honored in the breach (or so I hear) that says you’re not supposed to wear any underwear with it.

Summers are hot here, we wanna take our clothes off, and between global warming and the heat island effect, here we go again, by Nelly, led by the young, as usual. And next up for promotion? The thong. I may not be around to see this prediction vindicated, though. Sad, isn’t it?

Sidebar: More women are covering their arms in dark sleeve-like gloves and long plastic faceguards, a look that I first saw maybe just a couple of years ago, when I wondered if the woman was hypersensitive to sunlight. But this Dr. Moreau-meets-the Invisible Man and Darth Vader look is sported by women typically more advanced in years, indicating a rearguard action against the ravages of time.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Aso and the Nazis: Some Thoughts on What to Expect Going Forward

Here’s my weekend memo on Aso channeling the Nazis, edited to avoid any duplication with other stuff out there. Someone whose judgment I respect suggests that I’m being a little too harsh on Aso. I suspect he’s right, and I don’t think that Aso can bring the Aso administration down all by himself. Nevertheless, he is revealing the significant potential as a target for the opposition that I mentioned at the beginning of the Abe administration, a target that can be very useful when the Abe administration is more vulnerable.

Last week, the media swarmed all over Aso regarding an occasion where he allegedly suggested that Japan should learn from the Nazis in how they quietly (stealthily?) changed the German constitution. There’s a case to be made that Aso was mistreated. After all, he first mentioned the rise of the Nazis under the Weimar Constitution in what appears to be a warning that even a perfectly respectable constitution could lead to a disastrous political outcome. However, he later indeed talked about the Nazi experience as something to possibly learn from. True, most likely from a purely tactical point of view, but he broke an unwritten rule of the West: Never say anything remotely positive about the Nazis. Ever. That said, it’ll blow over.

First, the international impact. China and South Korea are jumping on Aso (and the Abe administration by implication), and the story certainly ties into the tide of ill will that has been developing and will impede nascent efforts on all sides to contain the negativity and hopefully improve the situation. That said, the impact of Aso’s latest gaffe will be limited by the fact that Nazism is not a significant element in the history issues that plague Japan’s relationship with its neighbors. It does not resonate in the way that disputing the testimonies of comfort women does for South Korea and the Nanjing Massacre for China. (But hey, if you’ve been telling your clients or bosses that Prime Minister Abe will go to Yasukuni on August 15, this is a useful excuse to stop tooting that horn.) It does resonate, though, in Europe and the United States, which is where the bulk of the public communications damage is being done. Even there, it will not do lasting structural damage to Japan’s all-important relationship with the United States (or the less important one with Europe), but it does make every desirably outcome that much harder to achieve.

Second, the domestic. The Abe administration is on a roll; it is strong enough to weather opposition attacks and media ridicule—which is the problem. Aso has stepped in it before, on issues from women, to the elderly, to nationalism and just about everything else(or so it seems)...and so at this point, the press are just waiting for him to produce provide the next headline, making him a perfect target for opposition attacks that could, cumulatively, weaken the Abe administration with a decidedly negative impact on governance during the three-year, election pressure-free (theoretically) window that Abe has to create a legacy as a transformative prime minister. And much of the media will be happy to build on any negative narratives emerging after the honeymoon with the Abe administration.

Clearly, the best outcome for the Abe administration is to have Aso do the honorable thing and fall on his sword. The problem is, Aso appears to be temperamentally disinclined to take a hint. When he became prime minister in 2008, he refused to honor his predecessor Yasuo Fukuda’s wishes and call a snap election while the electoral honeymoon lasted and instead made a year-long effort to create a legacy for himself. (And we know how that story turned out.)

So that’s the problem that Abe has as prime minister. He has a finance minister who has jurisdiction over the fiscal elements of Abenomics, a finance minister who, he knows with a high degree of certainty, will serve as a high-yield point of attack for the opposition. It’s the best gives hope (other than a significant economic downturn) for to the divided and demoralized opposition and potentially the worst as a potential political nightmare for an administration that wants to use the rare three-year window between national elections for extensive structural reform.

Monday, August 05, 2013

TPP: Any Buyer’s Remorse from Japanese Diet Possible?

Not after the Japanese government signs on.

I just finished talking to an analyst who wanted to know if there would be any potential road bumps when the eventual TPP bills go to the Japanese Diet. (He’s an American, so go figure.) I told him not to worry, since the LDP-New Komeito coalition exercise tight discipline on its Diet members, who would place their political careers at dire risk if the voted against the party line. The only other country that I could come up with that might have US-like problems was South Korea—which, as my interlocutor was quick to remind me, is not party to the negotiations (KORUS FTA is already in place so there’s less urgency)—which also happens to have a presidential system.

I did this as a matter of professional courtesy, so I thought I’d share this point with you as well.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

There Are Gaffes; Then There Are Gaffes

Deputy Prime Minister (and Finance Minister) Taro Aso has turned Godwin’s Law on its head with his latest gaffe about Nazis (Nazis?!?) generating widespread incredulity and opprobrium in equal parts. I have some thoughts on that and its implications, but I’m keeping them under wraps since I’m currently using them in my professional capacity. I’ll know if I can post them here in a few days. In the meantime, let me cover an angle that is for the most part being missed in the debate: Both Aso and Prime Minister Abe are known for making statements around history issues (Nazis?!?) that they must later take back; is there a difference?

Yes, there is.

Abe’s comments typically come as part of a dialogue, sometimes friendly but more often not, when he is drawn into a discussion over the finer points of a given issue, exerts himself in trying to explain himself, and winds up tripping a land mine. (Prime Minister Junichiro Kozumi avoided this largely by barking out the same stock answer no matter how hard the interrogator tried to bait him.) Aso, by contrast, appears to have a demon in his head who whispers things—like, oh, “Nazis”, say it again, “Nazis”, once more, the crowd’ll love it, NOW—whispers that only Aso can hear, whispers that Aso…cannot resist. I can’t think of another explanation; his comments, as rambling and disjointed as they were on that occasion, had been conveying the twofold message that discussions around constitutional amendment should be conducted calmly and deliberately (there’s a legitimate argument against this but let’s leave it out for the time being) and that bad regimes could emerge even under the best of constitutions if we’re not careful (Weimar and Nazis? that’s a reasonable argument), when, after meandering around some generational babble and talking about Yasukuni and working himself up again about the need for calm and deliberation, he suddenly re-injected the Nazis into his argument (this time, like a bad Hitler joke, as a counter-historical example to emulate).

One, with clear forewarnings that the recipient can apply to good use with discipline and practice; the other, unforeseen brainfarts that can only be eliminated by way of a vow of total silence.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Some Thoughts around the Looming Cabinet Legislation Bureau Makeover

I thought that I’d post something that complemented, rather than overlapped with, media reports and also avoided grappling with the polemics that are sure to emerge. I also reserve the right to alter my thoughts on a later, more public occasion since this post represents some of my initial impressions and is largely unedited.

The Cabinet Legislation Bureau (CLB) and the New Komeito are regarded as the two most significant obstacles to a reinterpretation of the Japanese Constitution that would allow Japan to engage in collective self-defense. The Abe Cabinet is about to a) eliminate the first problem while b) keeping bureaucratic dissatisfaction to a minimum by appointing a diplomat who strongly favors reinterpretation as secretary-general of the CLB and nominating the current secretary-general, a former METI official, as the replacement for a Supreme Court justice, a former diplomat, who had retired on July 20 after reaching the constitutional age limit (70).

With regard to the “first problem”, some people have wondered why the Prime Minister (or the Cabinet) can’t simply order the CLB to change its interpretation. After all, the CLB is an agency established within the Cabinet, isn’t it? The answer is twofold. He can’t, and he doesn’t have to. The relevant task of the CLB according to its charter law is to “give opinions concerning legal issues to the Cabinet, and the Prime Minister and the Minister of each Ministry.” It would be an absurdity to seek an opinion and to simultaneously dictate what that opinion should be; indeed the law does not give the Cabinet or the Prime Minister the power to do so. Of course it is just an opinion; the Cabinet, and the Prime Minister and the Minister of each Ministry are free to ignore the opinions of the CLB and do as they please, and take their chances in the courts if necessary. Then why don’t they do so with regard to collective self-defense?

I believe that there is a historical explanation. It must be hard to imagine these days, when you will have difficulty finding any LDP Diet members who oppose reinterpretation, that the early LDP largely took a minimalist approach to self-defense, many not necessarily for tactical purposes—let’s first concentrate on building up the Japanese economy—but from a genuinely pacifist perspective. Some of them had defied the Japanese military and suffered during the long wars, while others had submitted and come to grief. For these otherwise conservative politicians, the CLB’s interpretation must have been exactly what they wanted, while those who opposed it did not have the power to mount a challenge to the leadership around the issue. The LDP has a whole has turned more sanguine in recent decades as the result of the generational shift that has diminished visceral aversion to all matters military and the increasing sense of insecurity over threats emanating from China and North Korea. Thus, the coalition that emerged in the late 1990s with the pacifist Komeito remains as the only structural impediment to the reinterpretation of the Constitution.

This will not be the end of legal hurdles to reinterpretation. With the passing of the years, during which successive cabinets have explicitly or implicitly endorsed this interpretation, significant legitimacy has accreted, precedent that needs to be handled with great care if it is to be breached without serious harm to the rule of law. Still, the institutional obstacle is being removed; the sticks are moving downfield for sure.

The remainder of this post is for people who like inside baseball stuff.

The secretary-general “supervises the activities” of the CLB, which means among other things having final say on opinions regarding the constitution. The position is rotated between officials seconded from the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and the former Ministry of Home Affairs, now part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, who fulfill several key assignments before they are elevated in their turn to the top post. Of course the other ministries as well as the judiciary and the Public Prosecutors Office also second officials to the CLB and most of the MOF, METI, and (now) MIC officials never make it to secretary-general. But only an official from the three ministries does. Until now, apparently.

The replacement of the secretary-general, however, requires handling with care. First, interpreting the constitution is but a small part of the CLB’s legislation-related work (unless it decides to seriously consider changing its mind on the substantive focus of this post), in which the secretary-general is very much involved. Competence and familiarity with the interpretation process is highly desirable. Moreover, the secretary-general is also the authoritative voice of the CLB, nay, the Cabinet, in Diet sessions and committees on legal matters. It is very different, say, from picking Koichi Hamada as your economic guru, influential, true, but still one of many voices that have a say in making economic policy. An ill-advised choice could spell political disaster.

Second, a Prime Minister does not want to unduly alienate the bureaucracy, and the Abe administration appears to have taken the political and policy outcomes of the DPJ’s experiences in conflicts overt and clandestine with the bureaucracy to heart. However urgent the Abe administration’s desire might be to take the CLB in a new direction might be, taking away the CLB post without compensation could not only be a cause of alienation with the METI bureaucracy—political assignments, which have so far favored METI, are fine but METI should be around after Mr. Abe leaves the political scene—but also send a chill throughout the rest of the bureaucracy. Yet in another case of good fortune for Mr. Abe, a position has just opened up in the Supreme Court, a position reserved for all practical purposes traditionally filled by MOFA, the very ministry that is professionally inclined to favor reinterpretation on collective self-defense and, unlike academics, comes with significant practical experience around the legislative process, if not nearly the equivalent of that of the other ministries on the domestic process. It is hard to gauge the relative value of the two assignments. A Supreme Court justice carries significant constitutional prestige; the CLB secretary-general far less so. But the SCJ is merely one among fifteen, while the CLB secretary-general is the undisputed leader of a major institution. Perhaps the difficulty (at least for me) is its own answer and the trade is about as close to a wash as can be engineered. All this is not to imply that METI would not meekly submit if the matter were put to it without compensation. But friction is being been minimized, and that’s not a small matter to a prime minister whose personal proclivities already lean towards comity.

Oh, and make no mistake, this cannot have been a decision made up on the spur of the moment. The Supreme Court vacancy was a certainty from the very moment of the appointment, a fact that Mr. Abe’s political team could not have missed.