Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Empty Capital

In the lunar calendar, the Tenth Month of the year was Kannazuki (神無月) the "month without kami" -- when all the kami of this blessed would leave their shrines, rocks, trees or wherever it was they were residing for a month-long mega-convocation in Izumo...

[I could start on a shaggy dog story about how Izumo is the hometown of Iwakuni Tetsundo, the member of parliament who in 2009 asked the Aso Cabinet for a clarification on the pronunciation of this blessed land's name, and how Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1577 refused to grant the Green Breeze party's Secretary General Kamei Akiko's great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather Korenori's request for control of Izumo, promising him instead, in a letter written on a fan, to make him lord over Ryukyus, and how Korenori's attempt to capitalize on this promise provoked the Shimazu of Satsuma, who had control of half of the island chain stretching from Kyushu to Taiwan, to assert greater control over the entire Ryukyuan kingdom -- modern day Okinawa Prefecture -- which...but that would be just too me.]

The Golden Week holidays, which begin today and will last until May 5, might as well be called Seijikanashu - the "week without politicians" -- as everybody who is anybody is leaving town. The prime minister will be on a tour of Russia, Turkey and the Gulf. The rest of the Cabinet will be scattered all over the globe:

Finance Minister Aso Taro: India, Sri Lanka

General Affairs Minister Shindo Yoshitaka: Indonesia

Foreign Affairs Minister Kishida Fumio: Mexico, Peru, Panama, U.S.

Education Minister Shimomura Hakubun: U.S., Ireland, Great Britain

Agriculture Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa: Vietnam, Indonesia

Economics and Trade Minister Motegi Toshimitsu: U.S., Colombia, Brazil

Defense Minister Onodera Itsunori: U.S.

Reconstruction Minister Nemoto Takumi: Ukraine (!)

Public Safety Commissioner Furuya Keiji: U.S.

Frontiers* Minister: Yamamoto Ichita: U.S.

Admistrative Reform Minister Amari Akira: Vietnam, Singapore

(Link - J)

Me, myself? I will be visiting with an old and dear friend, a guardian and preserver of the arts of her hometown. We nearly lost her this winter.

Shisaku will be on extended hiatus.


* No, "Frontiers Minister" is not Yamamoto's formal title. But it should be, given that he is:

Minister of State for Okinawa and Northern Territories Affairs
Minister of State for Science and Technology Policy
Minister of State for Space Policy
Minister in charge of Information Technology Policy
Minister in charge of Ocean Policy and Territorial Issues

Friday, April 26, 2013

Dead, Again

Just two months after a last round of executions and only four months into his term, Minister of Justice Law Tanigaki Sadakazu signed off on the hangings this morning of two former gang members, both of whom were convicted of committing a double murder in April 2005. (Link)

The reason why the crime was so heinous: the convicted killed their victims by inviting them to a family-style (no, not that kind of family) restaurant and opening fire. (Link - J)

Guns in a place where families go to give Mom a break...bad, bad, bad.

With these executions, the number of persons left on death row is 134.

Later - Yes, I do note the timing of these executions. I recall at least one previous instance of a Liberal Democratic Party minister of justice law "clearing his desk" prior to a string of national holidays.

Image courtesy: Mainichi Shinbun

Sources On Politics - The Diet Committee Session Video Archives

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo answering the questions of Tokunaga Eri
24 April 2013

In case one should ever want to know what the prime minister or anyone else actually said in Diet committee, how the utterance was delivered, the mood in the room (Was there laughter or sharp applause?) and the questions that got the ball rolling, there are the video archives for both Houses:

House of Representatives:

House of Councillors:

Click on the date, then the committee, the name of the questioner if you want to, and voila! The unfiltered, unedited message from the mouths of the horses themselves.

(Favorite moment: Ishii Hajime, in his first Q&A appearance following his forced resignation as chairman over his overlong stay in the Philippines, reminiscing at the rostrum of his time as chairman: "I remember looking out from the chairman's seat, down at the members and thinking to myself, 'Damn there are some fine looking women on this committee.'")

In addition to the archives, the site offer live feeds. As I am typing this the House of Representatives Environment, Law and Economics Committees are in session and the plenary session broadcast is awaiting a gaveling. Over at the House of Councillors, the Budget Committee interpellation is in progress.

For those wanting to get a handle on the remarks that have been causing heartburn in the region, try the following dates and questioners:

The meaning of Yasukuni

April 10
House of Representatives, Budget Committee
Questions from Nakayama Nariaki (fifth on the list)

Murayama Statement ("What 'an invasion' means has not been established...")

April 23
House of Councillors, Budget Committee
Questions from Maruyama Kazuya (third on the list)

Yasukuni visits by Cabinet members ("We will not be threatened...")

April 24
House of Councillors, Budget Committee
Questions form Tokunaga Eri (sixth on the list)
(wherein one learns Senator Tokunaga gets her sense of the state of the economy from conversations with taxi drivers)

Image courtesy:

Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Question About Nakayama Nariaki's Character

Shimazu Nariakira (1809-1858)

[Warning - a Work In Progress - Wonky and Speculative]

A few days ago I put forth a suggestion for what Japan commentators should say when they are asked, "Why are Japan's politicians such idiots when it comes to the feelings aroused by actions and words that seem to slight the invasions of Asia in the 19th and early 20th centuries?" (Link)

I suggested that commentators say, "It's not a Japan thing. It's a Satsuma thing."

One commenter asked:
Could you explain what a "Satsuma thing" is for those of us who normally think of Satsuma as a sweet potato?
I of course have an idea what I mean. However, to make my proposal more substantial I stopped by the local library.

Whilst perusing a quick guide to the Edo-Meiji transition I was struck by the entry on Shimazu Nariakira (島津斉彬), the 11th daimyo of Satsuma, whom Taiga Dorama viewers would recognize as the adopted father of Atsuhime.

I was struck by the second character of the 11th daimyo's personal name.

Hin ( 彬 ), while simple in construction, is a pretty darn obscure kanji. It does not appear among the 5,500 characters listed in Nelson's -- at least the edition of Nelson's on my bookshelf. It does appear in Kojien but seems to be used for but a single word - hinpin ( 彬彬 ) -- which means "when that which is on the outside is the same as that which is on the inside" -- which is a pretty cool state of being, in ceteris paribus.

Looking at the name I said to myself, "That's funny. I have only seen that character one other time...and that is in the name of...nah, it couldn't be."

But, of course, it is. One of the Japanese readings of hin is "akira" as in Shimazu Nariakira. However, another reading is "aki" -- and there just happens to be politician whose name features that reading of the character.

Nakayama Nariaki (中山成彬).

Who is Nakayama Nariaki?

Just a member of the Diet so unapologetic about Japan's international behavior prior to 1945 that he managed to make himself a personal non grata in the Liberal Democratic Party. Nakayama N.'s wife Kyoko was the special advisor for the North Korean abductees issue for three prime ministers in a row (Abe, Fukuda fils and Aso). Nakayama N. returned to Nagata-cho in December after a long period in the political wilderness via the swearing of allegiance to the Ishihara Shintaro-led Japan Restoration Association.

So what?

Well it was Nakayama N. who was feeding the questions to prime minister Abe Shinzo on April 10 when Abe made the dangerous assertion that a Japanese politician's visiting Yasukuni is the same as an American president's visiting Arlington National Cemetery (Link - J) -- the first in what have been a string of Abe responses and Diet member actions which have crippled what had been improving Sino-Japanese and South Korea-Japan relations.

Why would a member of the opposition be serving up revisionist softballs for Abe Shinzo to hit out of the ballpark?

It could be that the JRA is trying to play nice with the LDP to lay the groundwork for a political alliance between the two parties after the July elections.

Then again, it could be that Nakayama Nariaki entered the Diet in 1986 as a member of the Seiwakai, or as it was known at the time, the Abe Faction -- led at that time by a certain Abe Shintaro, the father of a certain Abe Shinzo.

So what about so what? Nakayama's from Miyazaki, not Kagoshima.

True, but Nakayama is from southwest Miyazaki, from the city of Kobayashi, which, in the Edo Period, was inside the Kagoshima han, a.k.a. Satsuma.

If one indeed put plugs the characters for "Shimazu Nariakira" and "Nakayama Nariaki" into Google, out pops a cascade of speculation, mostly on the list-serve 2Chaneru, about the connection in between the daimyo's and the JRA politician's names -- but no official confirmation of a link.

Given the rarity of the character in question, the near homophony of the given names, Nakayama's birthplace and Nakayama's jut-jawed nationalism, it would be weird if the person who came up with Nakayama's given name were not a Shimazu clan fan.

Mito may have provided the ideology; Choshu the brains; Tosa the inspiration. Satsuma provided the brawn..not just in the Restoration in '68, but the Invade Korea dispute (Seikanron) in '73, the invasion of Taiwan in '74, the pressuring of Korea to sign the Kanghwa Treaty in '76, both sides in the Seinan War in '77 (the reason why Yasukuni was established), deposing the Ryukyuan king in '79...

"Japanese nationalism" -- it's all interconnected...and a lot of the time, it's Just A Satsuma Thing.

Later - For fans of the institutional, rather than the familial, indicators, both Nakayama Nariaki and Nakayama Kyoko are former Finance Ministry bureaucrats.

Image courtesy: Wikipedia

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Ruling Coalition Double Dares The Supreme Court

Holding over his head a piece of paper with the words "+0/-5" written on it, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo runs out into a rainstorm saying, "I'll be fine with this!" A flash of light marked "Unconstitutional" zigzags down. In the distance, figures holding umbrellas cry out to the PM, imploring him, "Wait!"

The punning caption: "More than the opinions (iken - 意見) of the opposition, he fears unconstitutionality (iken - 違憲)."]

Yesterday, with a vote that went along party lines, Abe Shinzo and the ruling coalition threw down the gauntlet:
Constituency reform bill gets green light

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a bill to rezone single-seat constituencies that would reduce the number of lower house seats by five to address vote-value disparities.

The bill is expected to be enacted before the current Diet session ends June 26.

The bill to revise the Public Offices Election Law was passed at a plenary session with a majority support mainly from the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito. Five opposition parties--the Democratic Party of Japan, Your Party, the Japanese Communist Party, the People's Life Party and the Social Democratic Party--voted against it. Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) lawmakers were absent. The bill was then sent to the House of Councillors...

The Yomiuri Shimbun is being fastidious with its "(t)he bill is expected to be enacted" phrasing. The LDP and the New Komeito hold a 2/3rds majority in the House of Representatives. The Diet is in session until June 26. If the House of Councillors does not take action on the bill over the next 60 days, the House of Representatives will override the upper house's inaction.

There is, of course, an infinitesimally small chance of the ruling coalition allowing the passage of a rival bill through the House of Councillors, setting up a joint conference of both Houses to craft a compromise bill.

For all intents and purposes, yesterday's bill is the law, unrepentant and unmodified.

Opposition parties tried to get the LDP and the New Komeito to see reason. The opposition boycotted both the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors committee sessions examining the new electoral district map, the +0/-5 solution having been declared insufficient by more than one high court judge in March. The opposition parties hoped their show of unity would demonstrate to the ruling coalition parties that whatever may have transpired in the past, the +0/-5 solution was no longer viable.

The boycott ended up being futile and what was worse mystifying, none of the leaders of the opposition managing to make clear what it was that they were trying to do.

After boycotting the committee meetings, almost all the opposition parties returned for the full plenary vote. Only the Japan Restoration Association failed to show up for the defeat.

The Democratic Party of Japan had a decent enough reason for showing up at the massacre. DPJ leaders wanted to demonstrate that the DPJ was not disinterested in the legislation but indeed actively opposed to it. Unfortunately this admirable attempt to clarify the party's stance on electoral district reform got drowned in a cacophony of catcalls. It is just too easy to point out that yesterday the DPJ voted against the bill fleshing out the +0/-5 plan despite having voted for the +0/-5 plan in December (Yes Secretary Kerry, they were for it before they were against it).

By boycotting both the committee and the plenary votes the JRA walks away from the fight with a clean record. When and if the JRA wants to join hands with the LDP, it can excuse itself, saying, "Look, we may not have voted for your odious little electoral district reform bill...but we did not vote against it either."

The new map is unconstitutional, de facto if not de jure. Using the results of the October 2010 national census, districts in the new map have been drafted so that the maximum disproportionality ratio is 1.998. This number is so ridiculously close to the unconstitutional ratio of 2.0 that one suspects the compilers were just trying to finish up and go home. Analyses by various news organizations have found that when one plugs 2013 population figures into the new map there are districts already above the 2.0 limit.

Had the ruling coalition taken the March decisions of the high courts to heart, showing contrition for disproportionality in the 2012 election, and making concerted effort at real reform in 2013, the Supreme Court could tut-tut about the 2012 results but exonerate all with a "Go forth and sin no more" decision later this year. By staying stubborn and selfish, by insisting upon the +0/-5 framework despite its non-resolution of the disproportionality the Supreme Court finds objectionable, the ruling coalition is daring the Supremes to find the 2012 House of Representatives election unconstitutional and invalid.

The justices of the Supreme Court would love to step away from this fight. They may find they cannot if they want to protect the Court's constitutional stature.

A storm is indeed coming...

Source of image: Sankei Shimbun, 19 April 2013
Artist: Yamada Shin
Click on the image for a larger version in a new window.

The Men Of Straw

For a taste of how Japanese revisionists view Japan's and their own place in the world, a reading of former Ambassador to Thailand Okazaki Hisahiko's "Seiron" column for the Sankei Shimbun, a translation of which has appeared courtesy The Japan Times, is a great place to start. (Link)

Okazaki was a prominent foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Abe Shinzo during the first Abe Cabinet in 2006-07. I do not know whether or not he has the prime minister's ear this time around.

Later - Thanks for the readers who alerted me out the mistake. The hyperlink has now been fixed.

Later still - The New York Times checks in with just the sort of editorial about Japanese nationalism that Okazaki would expect from The New York Times. (Link)

My only quibble with the NYT editorial is the misleading qualification of the number of Diet members who took part in the visit to Yasukuni on Tuesday. There is little value in saying that they were "mostly low-ranking legislators." When one has a group of sufficient size, and 168 is more than sufficient, then by definition most of them will be low-ranking.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Patriotic Water Games

The Asahi Shimbun is reporting that eight Chinese maritime constabulary forces ships have crossed into Japanese territorial waters, the largest fleet of ships simultaneously engaging in provocative border crossings since the Noda government purchased the privately held islands of the tiny archipelago. (Link - J)

Great, just what is needed to keep everything calm in the backwash from the weekend visits to Yasukuni by members of the Abe Cabinet. (Link)

Just the way to steer clear of incidents at sea possibly involving a flotilla of right wing activists, also sullying the waters putting up a show of force near the Senkakus. (Link)

So much for the feelers being extended toward establishment a Sino-Japanese entente on a deescalation of tensions over the islands.

Later - Elaine Kurtzenbach and Mari Yamaguchi do an excellent job in tying all the bits together. (Link)

Image courtesy: NHK

Yours, Now And Forever

I grimaced when I read the first half of the below editorial. The editors of The Yomiuri Shimbun are right: the Democratic Party of Japan and its leader Kaieda Banri have failed to revise their talking points and sharpen their rhetoric to reflect the new politico-economic environment:
Don't Kaieda and DPJ know how to say anything other than 'No'?

There was a stark contrast between Prime Minster Shinzo Abe and Democratic Party of Japan President Banri Kaieda during their debate in the Diet. Backed by the recent surge of stock prices and a high public approval rate, Abe looked confident--even relaxed--while Kaieda's attacks on him made no impact.

As long as the leader of the largest opposition party continues such a lackluster performance, Diet debates will have no vigor.

On Wednesday, Abe and opposition party leaders had their first debate under the second Abe Cabinet.

Kaieda emphasized the projected side-effects of Abenomics. He said the Abe administration's massive monetary easing would hurt people, especially those living on pensions, by raising the cost of living. He also expressed concern about the government's ongoing discussions on deregulation that could pave the way to increased job cuts at companies.

Abe responded by saying that the amount of pension benefits will go up as commodity prices rise, and stressed that inflation will eventually lead to wage increases.

"We have created 40,000 jobs in the past three months, something the DPJ-led administrations never achieved," Abe said.

Present counterproposals

Since the launch of the Abe administration, the excessive appreciation of the yen has been rectified, and stock prices have been hovering at high levels.

If Kaieda does nothing more than harp on his concerns about Abenomics, we can never expect constructive Diet debates. We expect the DPJ president to express his own views on how to end deflation and spur growth. In other words, Kaieda should present concrete counterproposals.

It was Abe who brought up the issue of the bill to rezone electoral districts in the House of Representatives by eliminating five single-seat constituencies without adding any. It seemed the prime minister was trying to take the upper hand in debating the topic. Abe, who is seeking to pass the bill ahead of other electoral reform measures, asked for Kaieda's cooperation.

Abe said: "The public has been demanding that we rectify disparities in the value of votes. As members of the legislature, don't we have the responsibility to meet this demand?"

Kaieda refused to go along, saying that the main promise [between the DPJ and the LDP] on electoral system reforms was to slash the number of seats. However, we have to say his remarks totally miss the point.

In November, a lower house electoral reform bill to eliminate five single-seat constituencies was enacted, and we have to remind Kaieda that the DPJ agreed on passing it. However, now the party opposes the rezoning bill, which would prepare an environment for the realization of the first bill, insisting that more drastic reform is necessary. It is apparent that the ruling parties would never agree to such an unreasonable demand from the DPJ.

The DPJ, saying that eliminating five single-seat constituencies is insufficient to rectify vote-value disparities, has submitted a bill to cut lower house seats by 30 in single-seat constituencies and 50 in proportional representation blocs. However, other opposition parties refused to go along with the DPJ's proposal.

Parties' divergent interests

The ruling parties have submitted the rezoning bill to a related lower house special committee. However, in protest of the move, the DPJ, Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), Your Party, the People's Life Party and the Social Democratic Party refused to participate in Diet deliberations on Wednesday.

While I am no fan of the prime minister's policies, the points the Yomiuri's editors are making are sound. Kaieda and the DPJ are not playing politics at Abe's and the LDP's level. They are stuck recycling stale rhetoric from a decade ago. Looking at the most recent round of polls, the DPJ is perilously close to falling into secondary status alongside the Your Party of Watanabe Yoshimi.

However, Pravda-by-the Palace being the publication that it is, its editors could not complete an editorial without serving up a slice of sycophantic nonsense so preposterously thick as to crush their argument:
Such actions cannot be expected to work, and only give the impression to the public that the opposition parties are putting party interests before all else and ignoring the issue of rectifying vote-value disparities.
Because we all remember how ferociously The Yomiuri Shimbun criticized the LDP for its constant saying of "No" to anything the DPJ-led governments proposed; how the paper was up in arms about unrectified voting disparities giving unnatural permanent majorities to the LDP; and how the editors have never stopped haranguing the members of the LDP for their putting their own and their party's interests above those of the nation.

Because The Yomiuri Shimbun is an independent news organization, correct?

The same publication that a week ago published a story describing with glee the difficulties DPJ members of the Tokyo Metropolitan assembly face because they are unable find issues separating them from TMD Governor Inose Naoki -- the corollary being that the DPJ, being congenitally appreciative of good governance and unable to oppose just for opposition's sake, finds itself fighting for its survival with one hand tied behind its back. (Link)

Oh, to heck with it. The editorial board of the Yomiuri should save time-- theirs and ours -- and just fill the "From the Editor" space every day with a big "I ❤ You LDP, Now and Forever!"

Image courtesy: Chugoku Shimbun

Monday, April 22, 2013

On The Monday Morning After The Yasukuni Visits

Dawn is breaking over the towers of Shinjuku, replete with the promise of a brilliant azure-sky spring day.

Weather not exactly reflecting the international storm that is likely to break out over the course of the morning.

On Sunday, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Taro Aso and Public Safety Commission Chairman Furuya Keiji paid their respects at Yasukuni Shrine. Minister for Internal Affairs and Telecommunications Shindo Yoshitaka paid a visit on Saturday (Link). Aso merely walked up to the offerings box, paid his respects and left, without entering the main building. Shindo and Furuya went inside and signed the register, with Furuya claiming he signed in as "Furuya Keiji, Minister of the Cabinet."

Yesterday was the first day of the shrine's three day spring festival. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has pledged to stay away in the flesh if not the spirit. However, do not be surprised if State Minister for Administrative Reforms (and Bureacratic Reform and Cool Japan Promotion and Taking On Life's Challenges Again -- no I am not making those last two up) Inada Tomomi pays her respects either today or tomorrow -- today being the more likely choice given that the Cabinet meets on Tuesdays.

Inada, Furuya and Shinoda were the trio of Cabinet picks that had trouble written all over them, the three Friends of Shinzo who stirred up trouble over the last two years with their provocative actions whilst on trips outside Japan -- or at least whilst outside Japan's airspace, Inada's and Shindo's trip to Ulleung-do having not progressed beyond the arrival lounge at Kimpo Airport. (Link)

Stepping back at bit from what has transpired and is likely to transpire over the next few hours, Yasukuni is a huge, symbolic non-issue in East Asian life, a lovely carbuncle upon the face of Japan, the legacy of the confused and confusing priorities and habits of the samurai of one particular han (藩).

I just wish that there were Chinese and South Korean commentators who could tell their countrymen and women, "Look, most of this stuff that drives us to distraction? Most of the time it is not a Japan thing. Most of the time, it's a Satsuma thing."

Need proof?

Minister Inada, who hails from Fukui Prefecture, who is her hero?

Saigo Takamori. (Link - J)

Later - For those keeping score on the importance of dynasties and lineages in Asian politics, Minister Shindo is the grandson of Kuribayashi Tadamichi, commander of the defense of Iojima (a.k.a., Iwo Jima - Link - J).

Later still - Et non, et non, et non...

The tree story, it's back. Via Reuters. (Link)

Like I said three weeks ago a masakaki is not a tree (see above). Furthermore, Abe's making an identical offering in 2007 did not "infuriate China" -- so saying that it is likely to do so this time around is no more than provocative pot stirring.

Even later still - Martin Fackler of The New York Times checks in with his version of the story, with Prime Minister Abe offering yet another species of tree the masakaki is not and misidentifying Kato Katsunobu (and yes, I would love to say something about the hair, associating Kato with a certain Muppet) as a member of the Cabinet (Link). Kato is a Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary, a position that will get your name listed on the Cabinet page of the Prime Minister's Residence (Link) but which nonetheless does not make you a cabinet member.

Far later than the above - Jonathan Soble of the Financial Times finds evidence of the Abe pine too. (Link)

To be fair about this mysterious pine business, Zojoji Temple in Minato Ward has "Grant's Pine" (Guranto matsu) in its main courtyard, which a former U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant planted there in 1879. All fine and wonderful except of course Grant's Pine is not a pine but a Himalayan Cedar (Cedrus deodara).

Image courtesy:

Friday, April 19, 2013

Sam Jameson (1936 - 2013)

From the Foreign Correspondent's Club of Japan, sad news for the community of Japan observers:
..Sam Jameson, former correspondent and bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times in Tokyo, former president of the FCCJ and life member of the Club, died on April 19 at 2 a.m. at Kitasato Hospital in Tokyo of a hemorrhagic stroke. He was 76 and had been hospitalized since March 24.。.

Samuel W. Jameson first joined the Club in 1963 when he arrived here as the first Tokyo Bureau Chief of the Chicago Tribune and then moved to the Los Angeles Times as Tokyo bureau chief in 1971...

One of his proudest achievements was helping to arrange the first-ever formal press conference of the Showa Emperor with the foreign press, in 1971. Since leaving the L.A. Times in the early 1990s he worked as a freelancer...
Sam -- he never stood on ceremony, at least not when speaking in English -- was a raconteur and an antiquarian, carrying inside his head a vast library of knowledge about Japan's politics, from the time of Kishi and Ikeda to the present.

The light in that library has now gone out.

For as long as I knew him, Sam was reputed to be at work on an encyclopedic study of Japan's that will now perhaps never find a publisher.

I wonder about who, if anyone, is in charge of his affairs and effects.

さよなら, サム...

Later -The full message from the FCCJ, now up on the website. (Link)

A long obituary in The Los Angeles Times (Link) and a mention in The Japan Times (Link). One cannot blame the JT staff overmuch: Sam had been retired for a long time.

Over at the soon-to-be-shuttered NBR Japan Forum, a number of members have posted their feelings and reminiscences (here, here, here and here).

Representing A Foreign Presence

Just a few days ago someone asked me what former Defense Minister and Liberal Democratic Party General Council Chair Koike Yuriko (7 elections to the Diet) was doing these days.

Ostensibly, she's...

...serving her second stint as bureau chief of the LDP Public Affairs Bureau...

...representing Tokyo District #10 again, after a cycle in the proportional section...

...and getting appointed an outside director to Renault. (Link - J)

Sacré bleu!

In the United States of America the incipient appointment would be seen as so very likely to be illegal that no company would give it half a thought, even without remuneration or transportation subsidy -- the conditions under which Koike says she will serve.

In France and in this blessed land? Taking in the officials of ruling political parties as advocates of the interests of shareholders? Obviously not so much of a problem.

Later - For an English language report from Kyodo News via The Japan Times, click here.

Later still - The Wall Street Journal's always excellent JapanRealTime blog catches up with Koike. She tells JRT she has little idea why she has been invited to join the Renault board. (Link)

Bound Hand And Foot

In my most recent post on Abe Shinzo's soft and lazy tyranny, I referred to the New Komeito as a "restraint" upon Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party. Yesterday, in party leader's debate, Japan Restoration Party co-leader Ishihara Shintaro used a far more colorful term to describe the role the New Komeito will play in Abe & Company efforts to revise the Constitution:

"The New Komeito will without question become bindings on your hands and feet."

The term Ishihara used -- ashide matoi (足手まとい) -- is a pejorative, usually referring to clingy, needful persons rather than actual physical bindings.

Hecklers (The New Komeito has hecklers? Who knew?) immediately cried out, "Rude! Rude!" Ishihara, ever the self-assured provocateur, responded:

"What I am saying is the truth."

(Link - J)

So, a sign of the apocalypse: Ishihara Shintaro and MTC in agreement -- with the caveat that the Blinking One and I may not be copping the same attitude.

The great unfulfilled dream of the LDP is the revision of Article 9 of the Constitution. If the LDP joins forces with the JRA after the House of Councillors elections, the two parties could, with help from conservative independents and the DINOs inside the Democratic Party of Japan, get within striking distance of the 2/3rds majorities in both Houses of the Diet necessary for putting revisions of the Constitution to a national referendum.

One of the explanations for the pacifist New Komeito's continuing alliance with the LDP, an alliance that has persisted through thick and thin, with the New Komeito seeing its entire leadership go down to defeat in 2009, has been that the tie up keeps the LDP's commitment toward revision of Article 9 on an aspirational level.

With a seeming entente between the LDP and the JRA on lowering the 2/3rds threshold in Article 96, transforming constitutional revision into a cakewalk, New Komeito leader Yamaguchi Natsuo has issued a warning -- that no national consensus exists on a revision of Article 96. (Link - J)

The warning is something of a non sequitur. There is, as far as anyone knows, no national consensus on the LDP and the New Komeito controlling the government. However, because the two parties did well in the December 2012 elections, they do.

As for constitutional revision, the same principle should apply: if you have the votes, everything's on the table. Consensus is nice but nowhere in the rules. Only a believer in essentialist myths about a Japanese way would insist upon consensus being a prerequisite for action.

Despite Ishihara's labeling the New Komeito a shackle upon Abe Shinzo's and the LDP's ambitions, a JRA-New Komeito war is not preordained. Osaka City mayor and JRA co-leader has appealed to the Osaka New Komeito for its help in passing his municipal/prefectural reorganization plans, offering to cooperate with the New Komeito in national elections. The New Komeito also remained neutral in the gubernatorial and mayoral campaign last year, helping Hashimoto and his deputy Matsui Ichiro win both spots. (Link)

Furthermore, the JRA, which received an astonishing 12 million proportional seat votes in the December election and which is largely on course to pick up whatever seats the LDP and the New Komeito do not win in this summer's election, failed to win what should have been walkover municipal elections on April 14, revealing a precipitous deceleration in the forward momentum of the Hashimoto juggernaut. (Link - J)

We might be seeing Hashimoto paying a rare courtesy call on New Komeito members, asking them to quietly ignore the Sick Old Man and his "truths."

As for Article 9, the Cabinet has in its usual unanimous way (meaning with the New Komeito going along) just issued a Cabinet Decision approving a bill making it possible for members of the Ground Self Defense Forces to deploy for the purpose of facilitating the evacuation of Japanese citizens from foreign war zones or disaster areas. Until now, the law on Self Defense Forces overseas rescue dispatches only permitted the dispatch of Air Self Defense Forces planes and Maritime Self Defense Forces ships, with the transports and their crews confined to airport or port areas of the foreign country. (Link - J)

If the language of Article 9 can be construed as not impeding an armed and ready GSDF from driving around hither and yon in faraway conflict zones looking for folks to rescue, the imperative for revision of the article seems rather weak.

Later - For an English language report on the Cabinet Decision from Kyodo News via The Japan Times, click here.

Image courtesy: NHK

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Care To Try Governing For A Little While, Mr. Abe?

The Yomiuri Shimbun scored an interview with the prime minister. According to the PM, a revision of Article 96 of the Constitution is his number one priority going into the House of Councillors election. (Link)

What? Revision of Article 96, lowering the threshold for constitutional amendment below the current 2/3rds of both houses of the Diet standard? Opening the door for a gusher of revisions, including ones with the sole purpose of extending LDP rule non erit finis?

Abe enjoys a supermajority in the House of Representatives, meaning that right now he and his party can pass any legislation that the New Komeito can be stiff-armed into accepting. Come August, even this restraint will be removed, as barring an unimaginable catastrophe, the LDP will have robust majorities in both the House of Representatives and House of Councillors. Abe can look Yamaguchi Natsuo in the eye and say, "If you do not like my policies, then vaya con Dios, mi amigo." The New Komeito for its part will likely not leave the ruling coalition, partly because breaking with the LDP would open up the possibility the government looking into the activities of NK's mother ship, the Soka Gakkai.

Whether or not the New Komeito stays or goes (and Abe & Company will be smart enough to make sure that a break up looks like the New Komeito jumping rather than getting pushed) Abe and the LDP will have no effective constitutional or coalition partner brakes upon their legislative agenda.

With essentially total control in his grasp and the only threat on the horizon the remote one of the Supreme Court invalidating the 2012 House of Representatives election (Link) Abe sees his primary duty to be…constitutional revision?


Well, of course we know “why” in the sense of a legacy or mission, as both the LDP and Abe have pledged since the beginnings of their respective existences to rid the country of this constitution drafted by New Deal idealism-inspired staff members of the Occupation.

However, what should be on everyone's lips – most importantly the lips of Democratic Party of Japan leader Kaieda Banri and Your Party president Watanabe Yoshimi – is:

"Why do you need to fiddle around with the Constitution, when you have tyrannical legislative and executive powers? Why not use your constitutional powers and your current popularity to govern the country, seeing as how you do not have to pay the least bit of attention to us at all? The Constitution is not blocking you from running the country as you see fit – only your own timidity and sloth are."

It is a mark of the intellectual and ethical vacuity of the LDP that when it possesses the ability to do anything except mess with the constitution, it wastes its energy on trying to mess with the constitution.

The reason for this pointless obsession with constitutional revision? Oh, Abe & Company (and the Hallelujah Choruses inside Japan’s news media universe and the Washington DC nomenklatura) will give you a list of reasons a kilometer long.

The actual reason, though? Governing a country is work…and who wants to do work when agitation and propaganda opportunities beckon?

Image courtesy: The Yomiuri Shimbun

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

And In The End The Budget Passes Without Them

On April 9, Osaka City mayor and Japan Restoration Association co-leader Hashimoto Toru presented himself at the Prime Minister's Residence for a meeting with Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. During the meeting, the PM asked Hashimoto for JRA support of the Fiscal Year Heisei 25 budget bill.

As I pointed out yesterday morning, this request was superfluous and as such, rather peculiar.

The attempt to win the JRA's support was also, as it turned out, unsuccessful. The bill passed on the  greater-that-two-thirds majority the ruling coalition holds in the House of Representatives. The JRA and all the other opposition parties voted against the bill. (Link - J)

Housekeeping items of note:

1) No matter what the House of Councillors does with the bill -- and given yesterday's vote the chances are good that upper house will reject the bill -- the bill will become law on May 15 (see Article 60, Constitution of Japan).

This is the first time in 17 years that a budget bill will have been sitting in the Diet until May. The last time a budget kicked into gear this late was in 1996, when the Diet and indeed the country was torn asunder over the bailing out of the housing cooperatives (jusen) -- a battle over so little that was so bitter it delayed the much needed and much larger bank bad loan cleanup for half a decade.

No controversy so divisive prevents the Abe Cabinet and the ruling coalition from proceeding according to their needs -- indicating that the Abe II revolution, if that is what we are in, is not so much a movement as a dearth of movement.

2) Rather than seducing Hashimoto and the JRA into joining a winning team, Abe's odd courtship of last week seems to made them more ornery. Yesterday, the JRA joined the Your Party in offering a revised budget bill in plenary session -- the first time any party has tried that maneuver in sixty years. (Link - J)

The House of Representatives voted down the JRA-Your Party revised budget bill as well as Democratic Party of Japan's simple motion for a reconsideration of the budget.

Abe and the LDP can still pin their hopes on anti-liberal forces in the Diet joining hands in revisions of the Constitution. Hashimoto has been making all the right noises about a melding of minds on that score. (Link - J video)

However, Hashimoto's program is one of comprehensive and expansive revision, going after not just Article 96 and Article 9 -- Abe and the LDP's big bugaboos -- but also Article 59 (Hashimoto wants a unicameral legislature or at least a change of the 2/3rds majority requirement for a House of Representatives override - Link - J) and most if not all of Chapter VIII ("Local Self Government"). (Link - J)

Hashimoto tends to be a "my way or the highway" absolutist, making the prospects for LDP-JRA cooperation dim even after the dust clears following this summer's House of Councillors elections. A fragile Ishihara Shintaro (yesterday a Diet staffer helped guide Ishihara's hand toward the right ballot collector) will likely not be much of a restraint on Hashimoto's uncompromising love of the totality of his own ideas.

Martin Wolf Drops The Other Shoe...

...and it lands on Paul Krugman's head.

This is one of my posts on Abenomics.

If your daily bowl of rice depends on your organization's convincing trusting savers to invest their money in shabby assets, you might want to click off.

Two months ago I expressed relief that Dr. Krugman took a moment to explain his support for Abenomics -- or at least the deliberately irresponsible monetary and fiscal policies that are all we are likely see of the three arrows of Abenomics, welcome party speeches notwithstanding. (Link)

The explanation that Krugman provided in February was that the Japanese economy, even at zero nominal interest rates, fails to generate a demand for investment capable of consuming all available savings (Link). By creating inflation and inflationary expectations, the government and the central bank drive real interest rates into negative territory, bringing savings and investment into line.

There was always a bit of legerdemain in the Krugman treatment, failing as it does to provide the bridge in between interest rates and investment. "Invest in what?" is the question that always came to ignorant, non-arithmetic minds minds like mine. "What is this investing by Japan's consumers and corporations that current real interest rates have been preventing?" *

Martin Wolf, in his column for the Financial Times last week, provided what should have been a sobering answer: no such investment exists. According to Wolf's argument, stagnation in the Japanese economy is not the result of failure to reach an equilibrium in between investment and savings. Instead, it is the product of the double whammy of high rates of retained earnings and idiotically low returns on existing investment. In Wolf's view, unless there are reforms creating huge disincentives for corporate savings – an extremely unlikely event, in light of the multi-year effort of the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren) to justify a lowering of corporate income tax rates – the boost from the debasing of the currency will be temporary, at best. (Link)

Wolf and Krugman are not in opposing ideological camps. They are both interventionists, seeing actions by governments and central banks as crucial to altering the contours of economic events.

However, as regards Abenomics, either Wolf or Krugman is right. Of the two columnists, Wolf presents the more convincing story.

The problem is that the success of the Abe government's program is predicated on Martin Wolf being wrong. Abenomics works only if Krugman's right...or if inflation's soaking up of excess savings is not the engine, then some other inflation-induced growth mechanism kicks in increasing consumer spending and lowering the dependence on government debt-fueled economic activity.

The keys to sparking economic growth (and here I am exposed to the slings and arrows of those who truly do know better, like Alexander Kinmont and Peter Tasker**) have always been structural reforms -- and not the ones the Trans Pacific Partnership is promising. What are necessary -- for both in terms of political viability and fairness -- are counterbalanced reforms, one example of which would be the removal of restrictions on the firing of workers (a recommendation of members of the Industrial Competitiveness Council - Link) paired with a ferocious enforcement of limits on working hours.

Unfortunately, given the almost purely political and not-just-seemingly-but-actually irresponsible nature of the changes being instigated under the banner of Abenomics, the outlook for real reform and thus durable increased economic return is poor.

As for Professor Krugman, he is in the United States, which is the actual subject of his Japan postings. His recent virtual victory lap (Link) is a bit unseemly, given the uncertainty (check out the number of times Wolf uses "might" and "could" in his article) of a positive outcome from the Abe government's policies.

Later - For a worthwhile defense of Abenomics, read Okumura Jun's posted crib sheet for a panel discussion on Chinese state radio.


* I have a similar problem with the "part of what Japan's economy needs is greater participation of women in the workforce" statements. My impertinent response is, "Doing what, exactly? What safe, rewarding, decently remunerated jobs are left begging for workers?"

** My suspicion is that Chris White is the smartest of this incredibly smart group -- for the very simple reason that he has to my knowledge never written about investment.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

About That Revolution You Are Fearing

The insurgency began
And you missed it...
- REM, Begin the Begin (1986)
On April March 15, this summer's House of Councillors election became irrelevant. On that Friday, the House of Councillors approved, with coalitions shifting on every vote, the appointments of Kuroda Haruhiko as Governor of the Bank of Japan and Iwata Kikuo and Nakaso Hiroshi as deputy governors.

With these nods, the House of Councillors ceased to have a part to play in governing Japan. High appointments are the only matters requiring the approval of both Houses of the Diet. All other governance issues can pass into law via the supermajority the ruling Liberal Democratic Party/New Komeito coalition holds in the House of Representatives.

The only function the House of Councillors now serves is as a brake upon constitutional revision. The LDP and the Japan Restoration Association will be campaigning hard on the issue of revision in July. However, it is impossible for the two parties to win the necessary 2/3rds of the seats in the House of Councillors.

The existing state of legislative tyranny creates the conditions for some strange requests. Last week, Prime Minister Abe had a meeting with Osaka City mayor and JRA co-leader Hashimoto Toru at the Prime Minister’s Residence. In the course of the meeting, the prime minister asked Hashimoto for JRA support of the government’s budget, stating:

"If the JRA supports the budget bill, we will earn the public’s approval, even if the bill is rejected by the House of Councillors and has to be passed using the override."

(Link - J video)

Put into less convoluted terms, the prime minister's request reads, "We are going to pass the budget using our 2/3rds majority in the House of Representatives if the House of Councillors rejects it. Can you provide the political cover for our steamrolling of the legislation?"

What is the really weird part about Abe's gambit? Not that Abe is asking the Hashist to provide a fig leaf for the ruling coalition's naked use of power. No, what is weird is that under Article 60 of the Constitution, the passage of a budget does not require an override – the budget becomes law effective 30 days after the House of Representatives gives its approval, no matter what.

True, Abe could be talking about the full package of the budget and its enabling legislation, particularly the bond issuance bills to which Democratic Party of Japan prime ministers Kan Naoto and Noda Yoshihiko both had to sacrifice their premierships. Passing the enabling legislation will require the approval of both Houses, and barring the approval of the House of Councillors, the use of the 2/3rds override majority in the House of Representatives.

Of course, that Abe even asked Hashimoto for cover reveals an interesting lack of self-confidence on the part of the prime minister and his party. This could be because the use of the override is constitutionally suspect, the product of the LDP's and the New Komeito's margin of victory in the tainted December 2012 election.

However, reticence toward use of the override extends back before the courts made clear their disgust with the inequalities of the House of Representatives voting districts. Back in 2007-08, prime minister Fukuda Yasuo and the LDP embarrassed themselves repeatedly by failing to use the override majority to keep vital pieces of legislation from becoming defunct.

Some have argued a cultural distaste for the bald use of constitutional powers. Such a proclivity may indeed exists.

A self-interest explanation for earlier restraint would be that the smart elements of the LDP sensed that the party could not use the override without triggering questions about the legitimacy of House of Representatives elections. Had earlier LDP governments used supermajorities again and again to railroad controversial or blatantly self-serving legislation through the Diet, the courts might have stepped in earlier to rectify imbalances in the sizes of the districts -- something the LDP really wanted to avoid.

Later - Thanks to reader PW for alerting me to the error in the first line.

Monday, April 15, 2013

A Saturday In The Showa Era

On Saturday, the Tokyo Shimbun (the capital district’s unabashedly lefty hometown newspaper) published a cryptic* senryu:

tsugi wa boku da to
tamago yaki

The People’s Honor Award
Next on the list is me
Says fried egg
Of course, readers of my post on the response to the announcement of the government’s intent to bestow People’s Honour Awards upon Nagashima Shigeo and Matsui Hideki would know that the food item has reason to feel hopeful.

At noon, in the train, I checked my ancient mobile phone for news. In the headlines was the death from illness of Murata Katsushi, the Sumiyoshi-kai gangster who fatally stabbed Japan professional wrestling hero Rikidozan in 1963 (Link - J). Nearly a full 50 years had passed since the commission of the crime that killed the most prominent (albeit sub-rosa) and admired member of Japan’s North Korean community.

In the course of the afternoon in Odaiba, Tokyo’s urban beach (no swimming due to the coliform bacteria counts – though these high counts are probably the product of the huge numbers of waterfowl that reside there) I stopped in at Daiba Icchome, the Showa era retro indoor shopping arcade in the Decks Tokyo Beach shopping mall (Link). I did not enjoy the experiment, though it must be terribly convenient for populist and low brow media giant Fuji Terebi to have a mall of Showa junk just across the street ("Hmmm...we have an hour of airtime and no budget...hmmm...I know, let's go across the street and document our no name and no talent talent saying the word natsukashii over and over again!").

I only caught the tail end of the Showa Era, during the Bubble Years before the fall. Having departed a still hippy inflected Northern California, the late Showa seemed a time of noise-induced intellectual and spiritual catatonia, redeemable only by in retrospect** by ironic/proud singing of the Regain theme song. (Link)

For those like the prime minister, who is not only a child of the Showa but of privilege, the sights and sounds of the Showa evoke nostalgia. For me, they give me a headache, reminding me only of the cacophony, the hubris and the grime.

* Cryptic according to Tokyo Shimbun standards, that is. The senryu that The Asahi Shimbun publishes are so allusive the paper publishes a key. Otherwise, the poems would be nearly indecipherable.

** Yuki no shirushi would not be released until the tail end of 1989, when the Showa Emperor had already gone to meet his ancestors. However, the song was the embodiment of the mad ethos of the last years of the Showa and became a hit song just weeks before The Bubble burst.

Image: Beach at Odaiba on April 13, 2013
Image courtesy: MTC

Friday, April 12, 2013

Notes On The Yamaguchi By-Election

Yesterday came the announcement of the candidate list for the House of Councillors Yamaguchi Prefecture by-election, the first national election since the ostensibly tainted December 2012 House of Representatives election.

Four candidates will be vying for the seat:

Former Shimonoseki Mayor Ejima Kiyoshi
(Liberal Democratic Party, with endorsement (suisen) of the New Komeito)

Former Minister of Law Hiraoka Hideo
(Independent, with the endorsement of the Democratic Party of Japan and Green Wind and support (shiji) of the Democratic Socialist Party

Former Shunan City Councilwoman Fujii Naoko

Kawai Miwako
(Happiness Realization Party)


On paper, the outcome is a no-brainer: Yamaguchi is a part of the LDP heartland, the prime minister's seat is in the prefecture, Eijima was the mayor of Shimonoseki, which is inside the prime minister’s district. Fighting against Eijima will be one serious challenger, former HoR District #2 seat holder for the DPJ Hiraoka Hideo, and two marginal candidates. Considering that LDP will invest infinite amounts of time and effort -- as was demonstrated by the presence of LDP vice president Komura Masahiko (HoR, Yamaguchi District #1), Election Affairs Commission chairman Kawamura Takao (HoR, Yamaguchi District #3) and Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries minster Hayashi Yoshimasa (HoC, Yamaguchi) at the campaign launch ceremony in Yamaguchi City yesterday – and the Yamaguchi LDP chapter will do just about anything to avoid any chance of the results embarrassing the prime minister, the actual conduct of a vote on April 28 seems superfluous.

With the result not in doubt, what are left are ancillary issues:

1) How hard will the New Komeito work for its disproportionally powerful ally the LDP?

2) With an Eijima victory, will the LDP go immediately into a power struggle with the DPJ over House of Councillors committee chairmanships, given that the DPJ’s claim for control of the House arises from its refusal to strike from its House caucus rolls members who have submitted their resignations from the party? Or will the LDP avoid conflict, preferring to bide its time in the certainty it will win absolute control of the House of Councillors in July? Common sense would counsel patience but patience is never a given when discussing the relationship between the LDP and issues of control.

3) To what extent will the results, if the gap in between Eijima and Hiraoka ends up smaller than predicted, will be seen as having been a referendum against the construction of the Kaminoseki nuclear power station?

What political observers really want to see is whether or not the DPJ puts up a credible fight in supporting Hiraoka's bid, or whether the DPJ remains in the thrall of the anachronistic, contractionary and depressing message that led the party to wipeouts in both the 2005 and 2012 House of Representative elections.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

If You Do Not Think Like Me Then You Are Crazy

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo said something peculiar in the Diet yesterday.

He was responding in House of Representatives Budget Committee to a question regarding the Liberal Democratic Party's plans to amend Article 96 of the Constitution. Article 96 mandates that any alteration of the Constitution be ratified by 2/3rds of all sitting members of both Houses, followed by a national referendum. Prime Minister Abe and his party want to lower the threshold in the Diet votes to 3/5ths or even lower.

When asked about the reason to amend Article 96 and lower the threshold, the Prime Minister replied, "It is just common sense for a person to think it strange that if just slightly over 1/3rd of Diet members are opposed to something then we cannot amend the Constitution."
(Link – J)

When the Prime Minister says "strange" (okashii) what does he mean? Strange as in wrong or unfair? Strange as in unbalanced and threatening? In everyday usage okashii is dismissive and has a strong association with sickness or a wrong having been done.

And what are we to make of the laying of the mantle of "common sense" (joshiki) upon what is no more than the Prime Minister's personal opinion?

One can understand the statement "Requiring a 2/3rds majority in both Houses is stupid." Saying that it is inefficient is also comprehensible.

However, a dismissive dumping of the nation's basic law as odd and contrary to regular thinking? Based upon what standard? What is the "normal" against which one should measure the offending article?

The PM would probably want to short-circuit a discussion of why requiring a 2/3rds majority in both Houses is such a bad thing. For regular Diet business having a 2/3rds or even a 60% majority requirement would indeed be nuts. For amending the Constitution, however, it seems a reasonable hurdle.

Of course, the PM does not like the Constitution, most deeply because it was drafted by Occupation staffers, demoting the Emperor and enshrining a defense-only military posture -- but also because it stands in the way of his running the country as he sees fit.

That Abe Shinzo the man and even Abe Shinzo the Diet member should not like the Constitution is acceptable, if a bit lacking in reflection in the latter case ("I hate this Constitution that gives me my job!").

However, the standards of behavior for a leader of a democratic country are a bit higher than for the simple member of the legislature. Mr. Abe seems somewhat confused about the responsibilities inherent in the position he is occupying -- and on the importance of a nation's leader having an open mind.

Another North Korean Success Story

It is difficult to see what, if any, successes North Korea can secure out of its current course of actions. The unilateral withdrawal from the armistice, the positioning of large missiles mounted on mobile launchers, declaration of U.S. targets and targets around the Pacific, and the closure of Kaesong all seem to injure the North’s negotiating position.

Let us assume, therefore, that a Musudan rocket/missile firing, or a double shot, is not being prepared with the intent to eke some advantage out of successful test launches. Let us assume instead that the primary goal is failure – that the DPRK government or some part of it wants the U.S. and its allies to shoot the Musudans down.

What would be the ideal scenario, for all the interested parties?

At some point just around 10:00 a.m. a Musudan missile is fired from a location on North Korea's west coast. Assuming the missile flies – which is a question (Link) -- it climbs up into the sky and veers south-southeast.

The U.S. government is momentarily stunned by the launch, the known missile having being spotted on North Korea’s east coast. Given the prior North Korean threats of attacks on Okinawa and Guam and the surprise of a west coast launch, the order is given for a shoot down. By previous agreement, a U.S. Arleigh Burke class missile destroyer, with a Japanese Kongo class destroyer providing assistance, takes the first shot with its SM-3 missiles.

The North Korean missile is intercepted and falls in pieces over the East China Sea and Eastern Pacific.

The national security councils of affected nations are assembled. In Tokyo, the Cabinet is convened (luckily it was a Tuesday/Friday morning).

From Pyongyang – silence.

An hour and 15 minutes later, a second Musudan, the known one on North Korea's east coast, launches, with a course nearly due east. With missile's course taking it over Honshu and in the direction of the United States, the conditions are met for a Japanese shoot down. The Kirishima, a Kongo-class destroyer, in cooperation with a U.S. destroyer, fires an SM-3.

The intercept is again successful with the pieces of this second missile falling into the North Pacific.

Now it is the allies turn to fall silent, as they wait, on hair trigger, for what the North Koreans do next.

What the North Koreans do next is…nothing. Instead, inside Pyongyang, all hell is breaking loose, with the various ministries, offices and commands all yelling at each other, urging to further escalate, to pull back, to sue for peace, to demand total war, to flee to shelters…setting the stage for the young prince, wise beyond his years, to declare the prevailing war policy laudable in spirit but misguided and insufficient in practice – requiring a new way of thinking and acting.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Popularity Of Constitutional Revision, As A Concept

One of the reliable, longtime "Yes...but" caveats has been that while Japan's politicians, particular the Diet members of the Liberal Democratic Party and the Japan Restoration Association, are essentially unanimous in their desire for revisions of the Constitution, the general populace does not share their enthusiasm.

Last week's public opinion polls seem to drive a spike into this chestnut. While the data still finds that the general public is not as enthusiastic about constitutional reform as the denizens of the Diet, a clear majority of respondents would still like to the election of a House of Councillors where more than two-thirds of the seats are held by pro-revision Senators -- 2/3rds majority in that House being the only real road block to constitutional revision.

The Kyodo News poll of March 30-31 had the following question and answers:

Currently, in the House of Representatives, 2 out of 3 members wish to revise the Constitution. In reality, in order to initiate a revision of the Constitution, 2/3rds majorities are necessary in both Houses of the Diet. What do you think would be the best outcome for the House of Councillors election?

That 2 out 3 members of the House of Councillors are in favor of constitutional revision

That the number of members of the Councillors in favor of constitutional revision be less than 2 out of 3

Don't know/Don't care

In the NHK News poll April 4-5(Link – J video) the question is and answers are:

In the results of the House of Councillors election taking place this summer, would you find it desirable or undesirable that political forces in favor of constitutional revision come out holding 2 out of 3 seats?

Desirable 20%

If I had to choose, I would say desirable 37%

If I had to choose, I would say undesirable 20%

Undesirable 12%

The public opinion polls will likely be revisiting this question. A rephrasing of the question may shift a few percentage points in either direction -- but probably not by much in the negative direction.

In the aggregate, a clear majority of the electorate is ready, or at least wants the House of Councillors ready, to revise the Constitution.

As to what about the Constitution the voters want to change most, that question is largely left up in the air. The NHK polls does find that voters have not been convinced by the Abe-led LDP's hard sell of a revision of Article 96, the article that mandates revision by 2/3rds majorities in both Houses and a majority in a national referendum:

As regards constitutional revision, Article 96 requires first of all that over 2/3rds of the members of both the House of Representatives and House of Councillors be in favor of a revision. Are you in favor of a lowering of the threshold for constitutional revision, such as is proposed by Prime Minister Abe?

In favor 28%

Opposed 24%

Cannot say either way 42%

That big undecided chunk of voters means real opportunities for political entrepreneurs to ply their trade over the next few months.

Kaieda Banri's Chanting For Inner Peace

You may have missed this little tidbit from the tail end of last week -- but Democratic Party of Japan leader Kaieda Banri revealed at a press conference that he chants sutras to quell his anger, such as the rage he felt at Hirano Tatsuo’s defection. (Link – J)

As a general principle, there is nothing wrong with revealing one engages in religious practice as a means of handling stress. However, one has to choose the right venue. Had Kaieda told a gathering of the Japan Buddhist Federation of his chanting, both believers and non-believers could accept the revelation. Believers could take heart in Kaieda's confession of need and his subsequent sense of deliverance while non-believers could say, “Oh c'mon...Kaieda is just fishing for Buddhist votes."

By talking about his religious practice at a general press conference, Kaieda leaves no space for the cynics to breathe. They have to take him seriously...and Amaterasu knows they do not want to.

I agree with those who argue that Kaieda is in a difficult position, hemmed in between a largely hostile news media, a fashionably irresponsible Liberal Democratic Party, the crazies and flunkies of the Japan Renewal Association and the DPJ’s own cohort of DINOs who acquiesced to Kaieda's election as party leader only because a) they themselves ran the party into the ground in 2012 and b) Kaieda will have to resign after the party gets wiped out in the House of Councillors election this summer.

That being said, Kaieda does himself and the DPJ no favors. He simply seems unaware of how his behavior is seen by a mocking press, his peers and the public.

However, for writers in need of a cheesy opening to a story about the downfall of the DPJ -- "They thought that the party didn’t have a prayer...but boy were they ever wrong!" – Kaieda is a godsend.

[Cue the starts-out-with-sweet-but-slightly-embarrassing-sincerity-ends-in-Spike-Milligan devotional music from George Harrison.]

Monday, April 08, 2013

As Regards The Awards To Nagashima Shigeo And Matsui Hideki

Writing for The Japan Times, sports writer and longtime cultural observer Robert Whiting presents the stats and contributions to Japanese life arguments for the government's decision to bestow People's Honour Awards upon Nagashima Shigeo and Matsui Hideki. (Link)

Reading Whiting's article was refreshing, in that it was the first one I have come across with nice things to say about the government's decision -- if one ignores, of course, the obligatory puff pieces from The Yomiuri Shimbun, the mother ship that owns the Yomiuri Giants Japan baseball franchise. (Link)

The People's Honour Award is the government's most prestigious decoration for contributions to sport and culture. Since the first one was handed out in 1978 to O Sadaharu for besting Henry Aaron's career home run record, only 21 persons and one team -- the 2011 women's world cup winning squad -- have received the award. Seven of the decorated, including the Nadeshiko Japan squad, have been sports figures. The other contributors to Japanese culture receiving the nod have been musical composers (four), poets (three), singers Misora Hibari and Fujiyama Ichiro, film director Kurosawa Akira, manga artist Hasegawa Machiko (the creator of Sazae-san), actress Mori Mitsuko and explorer Uemura Aoki.

Uemura received his award following his disappearance on the way down from his solo ascent of Denali. Kurosawa's and Misora's decorations were also awarded posthumously, as was the most recent award, given last year to the all-time sumo tournament wins record holder Taiho.

There was some murmuring in 2011 about the appropriateness (and expense - the award is usually accompanied by a very expensive gift) of handing out the award to an entire World Cup team --despite the immense joy the Nadeshiko victory brought to the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown-weary country.

However, this year's award was the first to be greeted by a chorus of "Huh? Why now? What for?"

As the Whiting article makes clear, both Nagashima and Matsui have made huge contributions to baseball, with Nagashima excelling with the Yomiuri Giants as a player and then as a manager and Matsui having a stellar career in both the Japan and Major Leagues, playing in each league’s marquee team.

However, world cinema giant Kurosawa, Taiho and Misora Hibari – persons who defined the era in which they lived – did not receive their People's Honour Awards until after their deaths, indicating just how hard prime ministers have thought about the qualifications for People's Honour Award status. The awardee cannot just be excellent at what he or she does. He or she must change the way the Japanese see themselves and the world sees Japan. For Takahashi Naoko to receive the award in 2000 it was not enough that she had been the first Japanese to win an Olympic marathon. She had to be representing an incredibly frustrated, marathon-mad country, stuck in the middle of a 20 year Olympic medal drought, who so thoroughly blew away the Olympic record that her time was not bettered until the Olympics were held in pancake-flat London in 2012.

The announcements of the awards to Nagashima and Matsui -- and the breaking of the news story about the awards by the tiny circulation Jomo Shimbun, the hometown newspaper of Gunma Prefecture -- led many persons to initially conclude the story was an April Fools Day prank. Once the Abe government confirmed that it was indeed honoring Nagashima and Matsui, a storm of speculation broke out as the ulterior motive behind the government's decision:

Maybe Nagashima is at death's door – Having failed to give Taiho the honor he so richly deserved during his lifetime -- his junior Chiyonofuji having received his People's Honour Awared in 1989 -- Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and minister for sports Shimomura Hakubun wanted to make sure that Nagashima got his award while he was alive. Nagashima had a stroke in 2004; Mori Mitsuko, the only living senior citizen to be granted the award in the last two decades, also received hers after a crippling stroke.

Matsui's award was just an add-on to make the attempt to beat the Grim Reaper less naked.

The government is pandering to Sixties Nostalgia – "The Giants, Taiho and fried egg (Jaiyantsu, Taiho, tamago yaki)– the three things kids like!" was a catch phrase of the 1960s. It was the golden era of Japanese male sports and also time of the Japanese economic miracle (which, since it has been replicated by South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and China, is looking a lot less miraculous). Pandering to nostalgia for the 1960s, when the people were poor but virtuous and hard-working (Link - J) is one of the prime minister's favorite gambits and represents an attempt to mine the mountain of votes of those who were either children or young adults during those years of fast growth and order (and horrible pollution, and Okinawa still in under U.S. Occupation, and...)

Since O Sadaharu of the V9 Era Giants (when the team won nine championships in a row...yikes) received a People's Honour Award, why not hand out an award to Nagashima, his fellow superstar teammate?

Thank you, The Yomiuri Shimbun - Japan has two major conservative media conglomerates, the Fuji Sankei Group and the Yomiuri Shimbun Group. The Fuji Sankei Group follows a conservatism of principle, demanding that the government adopt strong defense posture, national pride (some would call it xenophobia), a philosophy of limited government and hands-off economics. In many ways, the Sankei Groups political stance echoes principles guiding the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal).

The Yomiuri Group, however, is the bullhorn of The Establishment -- and in the political world, The Establishment is the Liberal Democratic Party. During the three and half years the LDP was out of power, no media group worked harder to undercut the government and cross the line in between journalism and news manufacture than the Yomiuri's print and broadcast news arms. For the Yomiuri Group's meritorious service to the LDP's cause, the Abe government is handing out the nation's highest honor to former Yomiuri Giants players.

While the Fuji Sankei Groups traffics in 1960's nostalgia and the Sankei Shimbun did print an editorial congratulating the two ball players (Link - J) -- the newspaper did not turn a blind eye to political public relations aspect of the move. On April 3 Sankei Shimbun printed a cartoon of Matsui and Nagashima sitting in the bleachers at the ballpark as an eager Abe Shinzo, dressed as a concessionaire, offers them medals from out of a box marked "People's Honour Awards." The caption on the cartoon reads: "Are we being used for political purposes? Why now? Ah, let's just forget about it and celebrate!"

(The centrist Asahi Shimbun printed a similarly sarcastic cartoon of Abe, Nagashima and Matsui on its editorial page on April 3 as well.)

It is not as though the Abe government and the ruling coalition need the public relations fillip of hoisting Nagashima and Matsui atop pedestals. Even after damaging the value of yen, promising to monetize the budget deficit and grasping the twin nettles of accession to Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations and a move of the functions of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a replacement facility within Okinawa (or perhaps, because of these actions) the Abe Cabinet's support ratings are at above 70 percent (Link - J video) and the LDP's popularity is at opposition knockout height.

An aside: Nagashima and Matsui will be the first basebal players in this baseball-crazy land to accept a People's Honour Award (Suzuki Ichiro has been offered the award twice and has twice turned it down) whose parents were both Japanese. O Sadaharu (Sadaharu Oh)'s father hailed from Taiwan, which was from 1895 to 1945 part of the Japanese empire ("O" is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese surname "Wang"). Kinugasa Sachio, who was the only other People's Honour Award honoree from baseball (he received his in 1990 for surpassing the consecutive game playing record of Lou Gehrig) never knew his biological father. From Kinugasa's features, skin tone and his tightly spiralling hair, however, it is clear that Kinugasa's father was an African American.

As Okumura Jun has previously noted (Link) for what is supposed to be a racist country (Link), less than perfect Japaneseness has mattered little in public recognition of sporting greatness. Taiho, the other human member of the 1960's trinity of "Giants – Taiho – fried egg" – had, like O and Kinugasa, only one Japanese parent. His father, Markyan Borishko, was a Cossack from Ukraine. Rikidozan, the professional wrestler whose flamboyant performances against designated loser American opponents were the guilty television pleasures of the early 1960s, was a citizen of North Korea (which is why today the most frequent Japan-North Korea cultural exchanges are tours of the DPRK by Japanese professional wrestlers).

As for Robert Whiting, he steered clear of politics and cultural criticism in his article on the Nagashima and Matsui awards. He will likely show no such restraint when he will be one of the featured speakers in a discussion of an incredibly hot button topic, "Does Japan have a violence problem in sports?" tonight at Temple Univerity Japan's Azabu Hall.

Sadly, I will not be able to attend what is likely to be a fascinating evening event.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Landslide In The Making

From Kyodo's latest public opinion poll:

Which party or candidate from which party will you be voting for in this summer's House of Councillors election?
(all numbers are %)

LDP 48.2
DPJ 6.7
JRP 10.4
New Komeito 3.9
Your Party 4.5
Communist 3.2
SDP 1.6
Livelihood 0.5
Green Breeze 0.4
Other party 1.3
No preference 19.2

T'is a funky question, since the two ballots choices are separate -- one for a prefectural district candidate, one for a party in the proportional seat vote.

Still, the numbers are daunting for any of the opposition parties. Simply put, unless there are district spaces set asides, such as the Liberal Democratic Party may do for its ally the New Komeito, the LDP could basically win all the district seats and two-thirds of the proportional seats.

Perversely, the 48.2% of voters who say they are voting for an LDP candidate in July is lower than the party allegiance numbers. In this latest poll 50.6% of respondents identified themselves as LDP supporters.

Try to figure that one out, over coffee, preferably.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Very Kind Of Them #15

The East Asia Forum has published my essay examining the fallout from the high court decisions on the unconstitutionality of the December 2012 election. (Link)

Yesterday, the secretaries-general of the parties gathered in the Diet to discuss the ruling coalition's new district map and electoral reform plan, both of which flesh out the ingenious and craven +0/-5 solution. The ruling coalition plans to submit a reform bill for a Cabinet Decision on April 12. After that, the bill will be submitted to the Diet. Given the supermajority the ruling coalition holds in the House of Representatives, the bill will pass into law even if the House of Councillors rejects it.

The response of opposition attendees at yesterday's meeting to the ruling coalition's presentation: "Go jump in a lake." (Link - J)

This morning on the TBS morning show Asa Zuba! Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Ishiba Shigeru was in full damage control/take no prisoners mode.

Ishiba's intransigent defense of the +0/-5 plan and the Council on House of Representative Electoral Districts map in the face of persistent questioning came not only from his position as the day-to-day leader of LDP, though. He also has a personal stake in the passage of minimalist reforms.

Ishiba represents Tottori District #1. Tottori Prefecture is one of the five prefectures losing a seat under the +0/-5 solution. However, due to the prefecture's minuscule population, even the cutting back of one seat leaves Tottori voters overly represented in the Diet (under current law, all prefectures send at least two members to the House of Representatives). Tiny Tottori, under a more equitable system, would only have one.

Ishiba would probably be the top vote winner in his prefecture whether there were two races or only one. However, politics in prefectures with few inward migrants and small populations is very much person-to-person -- and the LDP Way is all about making voters feel special and in control.

Ishiba already has a reputation for being too free in displaying of disdain for needs of his nominal equals. He does not need to add to it.

Flammis Acribus Addictis

Okumura Jun remarked several weeks ago that Kuroda Haruhiko, the new Bank of Japan governor, would have to make "a quick kill" following his confirmation. (Link)

Okumura's post was prescient but it looks as though the timetable has been accelerated. Weak Tankan numbers, softening of the labor demand for labor, unexpected dips in prices and industrial production have made the target of 2% inflation and economic growth look less achievable, leading to some ominous backtracking. (Link)

Kuroda is in a bind. The markets have already priced in the most obvious changes in policy direction, making, for example, a stronger commitment to purchases of longer maturity securities a far more expensive proposition (Link). Coming out of this peculiar "last-meeting-of-the-Shirakawa-term-with-Shirakawa-gone" with no new proposals, just a big dose of anti-deflationary attitude is a possibility -- but who wants to start off the first big public event at one's dream job with "nothing important to say now, please wait until next time"?

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Hirano Pulls The Ripcord

The announcement yesterday of the departure of former State Minister for Reconstruction Hirano Tatsuo from the Democratic Party of Japan was the top story of last night's evening news. The departure was not a surprise: Hirano had been discussing leaving the party for quite some time(Link). It just took him until yesterday to sit down in front of the cameras and spit out his intentions.

A former minister and leading light of the mid-career cohort (Link) is forced to abandon the DPJ four months before he faces reelection: the DPJ is coming apart at the seams – there is a narrative combo no political writer will be punished for reporting.

It is unclear, however, just how Hirano has improved his position by declaring himself an independent. He has, of course, his own base of support within Iwate Prefecture. However, at his press conference he expressed the hope that supporters of the Liberal Democratic Party will also vote for him (Link – J video). Given that the LDP has already got a candidate lined up for the Iwate seat (Link - J), Hirano's hope seems a rather vain one.

Hirano also cannot expect much help from his former mentor, the "king" of Iwate the LDP so very much wants to topple, Ozawa Ichiro – not that Hirano is seeking any connection with the man who set him up in national office. When asked about his former protégé's plan to leave the DPJ, Ozawa, who believes he still has cards to play with the DPJ, stuck in the knife and twisted:

"Since [Hirano] was a DPJ government minister until the end of last year, how likely are the citizens to accept this? Won't [Hirano's decision] be kind of hard for the voters to understand?"

(Link – J)

Ozawa has a gigantic blindspot as to his own unpopularity outside of Iwate. As to his read of the political climate inside his home prefecture, his views are hard to disrespect.

As for Hirano's own justifications of his decision, they sounded...confused. Whilst making a pitch for LDP support, he did not disavow a commitment to toppling the LDP from power. When asked how being an independent was better than being a member of the DPJ, Hirano argued that as an independent he could better push forward the post-tsunaumi reconstruction effort in his home prefecture – a rather interesting theory on the amount of leverage independents have in the Diet.

To the cynical listener (and one should not underestimate the cynicism of the voters), Hirano's reason for running for reelection as an independent boiled down to "I Deserve More."

We will have to see how the good people of Iwate respond to this assertion.