Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Live Blogging The Masuzoe Yo'ichi Press Conference

Preliminaries - smart move by Masuzoe - having his top assistant collecting name cards for a contact database.

14:00 Reading from a script in English - not bad for a Francophile and Francophone Japanese.

14:05 Extemporaneous joke on what used to be called MacArthur Street, now Shintora (from Shinbashi to Toranomon -- since tora is "tiger" he wonders whether it makes Osaka Tigers fans happy. He asks journalists to please call the road Olympic Road or Paralympic Road instead. Unless one appreciates theg level of envy Osaka has for Tokyo and the contempt Tokyo has for Osaka, incomprehensible.

14:10 Special programs for working women amidst infrastructure projects - seems a zeitgeist box every politician has to tick off nowadays. For some reason I believe Masuzoe more than the PM on this subject, despite the efforts of the scandal media organizations to convince me that Masuzoe still holds on to odd ideas about women.

14:15 Uh-oh, talking about hydrogen fuel cell vehicles - seduction by technologies the central government and Toyota are pushing hard.

14:17 Strengthen WiFi networks - his visit to Seoul was highly instructive. Given how geolocation and enhanced reality are developing on smart phones, a foreign language information infrastructure will make Tokyo a more tourist friendly city.
(Clearly Masuzoe is up on existing infotech infrastructure and software).

14:21 Disaster preparedness - perhaps not sexy for the foreign media set, but a huge subject after the Kobe Earthquake, the March 2011 Triple Disaster and recent super storms.

14:24 Social welfare capital - like Tokyo is not such a place already. He talks about his experience from being Minister of Health, his communiting between Tokyo and Kyushu to oversee the care for his mother during her long fight with Alzheimer's and his raising children. (The mention of the last led some of my tablemates to roll their eyes).

Yes, Mr. Governor - but how to pay for more social welfare? This city is ageing fast too.

14:27 Defense of why he is doing diplomacy and the establishment on July 16 of a special office in the Tocho for advisors seconded from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Notes that it has been 18 years since a Tokyo governor visited Seoul - "Can you believe this? This is really abnormal."

He has visited Beijing and Seoul since he won election to his new job -- more than the nominally peripatetic Abe Shinzo has been able to do.


14:45 Does Tokyo have what it takes to be an Asian Financial Center? Especially since English language skills are a general requirement? Oooooh, that is a mean question. Masuzoe skirts the human resources implications of question by talking about how business forms can be submitted in English.

14:50 "I am checking the budget for the Olympics. A compact Olympics means in terms of budget too, not just the artificial 8 km radius for venues."

14:55 "I have no interest in being the mediator in between the national governments of East Asia."

"City to city talks are my interest. As regards difficult Japan history issues, academics should be separated from politics."

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

That Real Wages Falling Means Abenomics Is Failing Thing

Two days ago the Financial Times published an exegesis upon the most recent Nihon Keizai Shimbun's public opinion poll -- the one that everyone is talking about (Link). Entitled "Shinzo Abe faces rising disenchantment in Japan" the Jonathan Soble article features the following graph:

Source: Financial Times

Now if I were an Abe government flack, rather than trying to ignore this graph or, when confronted with it, try to explain the fall in real wages away ("There will of course be a period of adjustment...but after a while we will see real wages rise again...") I would put the graph on the first page of every presentation on the future course of Japan's economic reforms. "Look," I would tell everyone, "the currency devaluation of Abenomics and consumption tax increase of Nodanomics, implemented in April --- see where the real wage curve suddenly falls like a stone off a cliff? --are doing exactly what they were expected to do. This is not a picture of Abenomics failing; this is picture of Abenomics and Nodanomics WORKING!"

"Now the executives of Japan's multinationals can bank their currency devaluation boosted profits, leading to consumption to fall off a cliff too -- or they can buckle down and start raising national incomes by either paying more to existing workers, hiring more workers, engage in some capital expenditure or distribute the profits among shareholders. So I say to you top executives of Japan's largest companines, I know that a lot of you top executives are timid, self-pitying and avaricious tyrants -- not all of you, mind you, but a lot of you -- who will do what is right for the company books but is wrong for the nation and its people. Hear me, your country needs you NOW!"

Abe Shinzo has indeed been engaging in this kind of "moral suasion" as the IMF put it in April (Link). He just needs to do it more, twisting the arms of his best corporate buddies until they scream out serious, inflation-indexed or more raises in wages. Would it not be impressive if, let us say, Akimoto Yasushi, one of Abe's closest advisors on "Cool Japan" promotion strategy (Link) were to announce a 3.6% raise in the wages of every member of the AKB48 empire? Because, let us face it, the Akimoto stable's corporate image is in need of a buffing right about now (Link). Or how about a similar increase in the wages of JR Central employees before Abe Best Friend Forever Kasai Yoshiyuki wipes out every bit of corporate wealth those employees have created in a farcical, sure-to-have-to-be-bailed-out bid to build an electricity-snarfling hyperspeed subway (86% below ground) from Tokyo to Nagoya? (Link)

Oh, yes. Prime Minister Abe could also push up the real wages curve by using his big ruling party majorities in both Houses of the Diet to pass legislation further increasing the wages paid to bureaucrats and other government employees, reversing decades of wage and benefit cuts. Poaching a few corporate hotshots and putting them to work on the nation's problems would further foster the impression that in this blessed land there is a competition for talent, one for which Japan corporate heads will have to start loosening the purse strings or face being blindsided by defection.

When At Length A Reader Writes

I would be in remiss not to post the result.

Reader Troy Yuen, via email, in response to my post Urban Harvest Tokyo of July 17:
In my neighborhood and surrounding area (Meguro--Shirokane) while there is a lack of FREE public green space, there is a lot of private greenery available. For example, 八芳園, 雅叙園, 自然教育園 (which is HUGE). But other areas seem to have minimal amounts greenery, public or private. Shibuya, Ebisu (I'm still wondering where is the "garden" in Ebisu Garden Place).

Fortunately, in the last 10 years there seems to be some attempt to increase the amount of green space in central Tokyo. Midtown built a big garden/park/pond in the back. I noticed that some of the buildings in Otemachi have built gardens on their roofs. Next to the new Otemori building there is a mini-forest including trees and a small stream.


Flowers in Jindaiji Botanical Garden, Chofu City, Tokyo Metropolitan District on July 20, 2014. Photo courtesy: MTC.


While sound in theory, the idea always rankled。Only one who does not live in the TMD would ever think of the micro-farms as wasted land. Without the farms, life in the great concrete metropolis would be far less livable. The central wards are woeful in the paucity of their area devoted to parks. Such public parks as exist are uninviting due to bad design, regulations and a love of bare dirt.


There is so little greenery in central Tokyo that some of the best hanami parties I've been to have been at cemeteries (青山墓地 and 染井墓地)!!

Not sure that the "love of bare dirt" is entirely accurate. There are many parks that have nothing but dirt and there seems to be no attempt to grow grass, but I think that a possible reason for that is the few public parks that exist are overused to the point where they've given up trying to grow grass.

There is a park in Shirokanedai with a fountain, minimal exercise equipment, no playground, just a few benches and open space. They are always trying to grow grass by making some areas of the park off limits to give the grass a chance to grow. But once the off limits area is reopened for public use it turns into dirt pretty quickly because of overuse. They've recently tried a new strategy by laying a green protective plastic net over most of the park to prevent the grass from being trampled to death while still allowing sunlight and water to pass through. It seems to work pretty well as the grass is thriving and growing through the net.

One complaint about Tokyo greenery that I do have that you didn’t mention is that there are very few public places in Tokyo where BBQs are allowed (none inside the Yamanote as far as I know). Even where they are allowed, for example Futakotamagawa, there are rules regarding noise, start/end times, etc.

Thank you Mr. Yuen, for your readership and your missive.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Prime Minister Abe Tries It Latin Style

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has arrived in Trinidad and Tobago (Link - J) for a two day visit (Link), a part of his 11 day summer smash tour of five Latin American and Caribbean countries (Link). Tomorrow, he will be meeting with 14 heads of state attending the CARICOM conference, adding a big chunk to his already impressive list of meetings with heads of states. He then heads on to stops in Colombia, Chile and Brazil.

While the first visit of a prime minister of Japan to Latin America in a decade -- yes, the last Japanese premier to survive in office long enough to make such a trip was Koizumi Jun'ichiro -- should be significant in its own right, the leisurely (for Abe Shinzo) jaunt is being treated as an echo of Xi Jinping's July 15-22 visit to the region. (Link).

To be brutal but fair, the Abe visit does pale beside the Xi tour. Xi came to the region as a collaborator in the establishment of a new world order (the BRICS summit in Brazil - Link), as a big time customer of a national champions (Link), as a banking hyperpower (Link) and as a potential savior of limping, pariah economies ( Link and Link). Abe comes as a supplicant (groveling for votes for a UN Security Council non-permanent seat, which permanent member China never has to do - Link), as a top salesman of Japanese goods and services (with 70 Japanese corporate executives in tow, including the head of the Nippon Keidanren Link - J), as a celebrant of his blood ties to better, bolder times in Japan's diplomatic history (Link - J) and as a guarantor that Japan is not dilly-dallying on the Trans Pacific Partnership. (Link)

Not an impressive comparison. Just in terms of striking business deals, a customer is usually far more welcome than a salesman.

However, Abe will come away from his long summer trip with his reputation for incessant activity intact. He has in 18 months in office made 23 trips abroad. Admittedly, 10 of those trips abroad were for international conferences. Still, he has touched down in at least 3 countries on a single trip 11 different times since he became premier in December 2012. By September he will set a new record for all postwar prime ministers in terms of number of foreign countries visited -- and this only from his current term, not counting the countries he visited his first 2006-07 term. (Link - J)

Maybe he should take on "The Blur" as a nickname...

Later - Clint Richards of The Diplomat delivers a more positive review of Abe's Latin Swing. (Link)

Later still - Peter Ford of The Christian Science Monitor talks to Japan-based experts regarding the Xi vs. Abe comparison, among them the prime minister's most important message sculptor. (Link)

As for the psychological underpinnings of the trip, The Japan Times offers a compilation article with yes, more Taniguchi. (Link)

Original image courtesy: Abe Shinzo official Facebook page.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Dancing Toward A Better Japan-South Korea Relationship

On the occasion of Tokyo Governor Masuzoe Yo'ichi's 40 minute summit meeting with President Park Ge-Hyun (keep in mind that until the Abe-Kuroda devaluation, Tokyo's economy was assessed to be bigger than Indonesia's - Link) a gratuitous embed of World Order's "Permanent Revolution" - where Sudo Genki and the boys posit their Japanese Ultra Everymen as the agents of an East Asian concord in such sharp contrast with the current, discouraging discord.

(In HD - so do click on the Full Screen button)
It has been a lousy several weeks and months for the human species - where we seem hellbent on spinning out ever farther from Sudo's definitely quirky (and deeply skeptical of the role and motives of the United States) appeal for hitotsu no sekai e.
Later - The concantenation of ironies of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo's having to rely on freshly minted Governor Masuzoe, who had been Abe's nemesis during Abe's annus horribilis of 2007, in order to get the president of South Korea, a fellow U.S. ally, to talk to him, is not lost upon me.
Later still -For those who catch it -- in the scene shot in front of Seven & I Holdings's world headquarters, Sudo demonstrates he has issues with the Masons too.

Friday, July 25, 2014

From The Folks Who Gave You A World Cup In Qatar

I'm the Burning Bush
I'm the Burning Fire
I'm the Bleeding Volcano!

- Jagger & Richards, "She's So Cold" (1980)
Today is six years to the day of the proposed start of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The shade temperature at the site of the new main Olympic Stadium is at this hour a balmy 36ºC (97ºF for you of the U.S.A. persuasion). The temperature in the waterfront areas, where many of the Olympic venues are to be concentrated, is a brisk 35ºC (95ºF).

I put to you the proposition that the date of the opening of the 2020 Olympics may need to be pushed into October -- as it was in 1964.

Later - More on the heat from the good folks at JapanRealTime. (Link)

Image courtesy: NHK News

Grim Exposition Of Fundamental Flaws in Abe's Abenomics

Loose monetary policy goes a long way toward liberating a country from economic torpor. However, monetary policy alone is insufficient for the whole journey. I have for a long while been railing that the Abe Cabinet has to get down to brass tacks and figure out ways to punish companies for hoarding their profits rather redistributing them to shareholders, converting them into higher pay for employees or deploying them in investments. (Link)

In a video that everyone should watch, Charles Dumas, the chief economist for Lombard Street Research, agrees. (Link - video)

That exports continued to underperform last month despite the effective devaluation of the yen (Link) only makes the Dumas presentation all the more damning.

Given that Abe 2.0: The Return of the Princeling was orchestrated by a select group of (often China hating) empire builders of the zaikai who crowd around Abe on the weekends, not letting others with their pesky opinions near their superannuated golden boy, the chances that the PM will be made aware of the changes necessary to save Abenomics, much less implement those changes, are very, very low.

Image: Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy meeting of 22 July 2014
Image courtesy: The Prime Minister's Residence

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

From The Places They Have Seen We Might Know Who They Are

This morning Prime Minister Abe Shinzo paid a visit to the Tomioka Silk Works, Japan's first Western-style silk production facility, recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He paid tribute to the citizens' groups which had cared for the site through its many decades of sleepy neglect and who spearheaded the drive to have the site designated a part of the world's heritage (Link). The prime minister also showed his appreciation for the women whose labors inside Tomioka and Japan's other giant silk mills produced the export yen that helped pay for the national strengthening policies of the Meiji Era.

Local community efforts, women working with the nation reaping benefits, international recognition - all great political messages to latch onto and integrate in the prime minister's Abenomics master narrative.(Link - J video)

However, in the "recognition for the previously under-recognized" travel league, the prime minister got trounced this week by their Imperial Majesties.

Yesterday the Emperor and the Empress finished a forty six year long project of national contrition and inclusiveness. They visited the Tohoku Shinseien, a former leprosarium, fulfilling a promise made in 1968 to visit all the former incarceration sites for sufferers of Hansen's Disease. (Link - J video)

Japan's leprosariums, where education and care was minimal, stayed in operation decades after other countries had ceased to isolate their Hansen's disease sufferers. It was not until 1996 that the draconian Leprosy Control Act was repealed. It took a 2001 unconstitutionality ruling by the Supreme Court (a rarity) to open the door for the Koizumi Cabinet to apologize for successive Japanese governments's violations of the patients's civil and human rights. (Link)

Their Highnesses's travel itineraries do not shirk revisiting the dark sides of the country's history. In May they visited the areas affected by Ashio Copper Poisoning Disaster, indicating that his Highness was not entirely displeased by House of Councillors member Yamamoto Taro's clumsy reinactment of the Tanaka Shozo Appeal last year -- and that their Highnesses are keeping their eyes on the government's fumbling at Fukushima Daiichi. In June their Highnesses paid their respects at the location of the wreck of the wartime evacuation ship Tsushima Maru, sunk by a U.S. submarine in August 1944 with loss of 1418 persons, most of them children. (Link - J)

It is hard not to love the Emperor and Empress for their efforts, at their advanced ages, to promote a full and complete reckoning of the nation's history.

Which suggests an intriguing idea. If Abe Shinzo's views of history make him unsuitable to meet or invite to China or South Korea, how about inviting their Imperial Majesties instead? By inviting them one proves that one's problems are with the policies of the Japanese government, not the Japanese people. One also gives oneself a wonderful chance to get off the merry-go-round of hatred and suspicion the region finds itself on.

Images courtesies: NHK News

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Nihon Keizai Shimbun Sees The Signs Too

I do not read the Nihon Keizai Shimbun's editorials as often as I should. I am glad though, that I read the editorial the paper published on July 15 on the results of the gubernatorial election for Shiga Prefecture. I am clearly not alone in seeing an emerging recidivism in Abe's and the Liberal Democratic Party's rhetoric-- like the plan to revive the economies of declining prefectures by making it easier for for small- and medium-sized businesses to win government procurement orders (I am not making this up - Link).

Abe Shinzo's party seems to be veering from its professed course of revolutionary rectitude to instead head down LDP Memory Lane -- the bramble-covered track of scrounging for rural votes and wasting everyone's time on head-in-the-sand pet security projects. You know, the things that used to make everyone to hate the Liberal Democratic Party and Abe Shinzo, only probably more so this second time around:

It has been exactly one year since the end of the so-called "Twisted Diet" of two opposing parties, one controlling the House of Representatives and the other the House of Councillors. What has come about was an easy-to-understand failure coming at a time when the gradual trend seems to be the reappearance of the LDP of old. It would be good [for the party members] to remember their zeal during their time in opposition.

The paper goes on to warn that if the Abe Cabinet, after Abe names his new State Minister for Rural Revitalization in the presumed September cabinet reshuffle, goes on to promote shallow reforms with a target of capturing local votes, then it should not expect its weakened support ratings (Link) to start climbing any time soon.

A warning worth listening to, when it comes from the editors of Japan's top business news daily, the voice, they say, of the Establishment.

Image: "The Prime Minister Receives a Courtesy Call from Members of a PR Campaign for Yamanashi Fruits"
Image courtesy: The Prime Minister's Residence

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Positive Lessons For The Opposition From The Shiga Governor's Race

"Wanna race?"

Over at Izakaya Politics, Stephen Stapczynski has published a credible analysis of the outcome of the Shiga gubernatorial election. (Link)

I cannot disagree with Stapczynski's broad point that whatever the nation's dailies and talking heads are saying, there is little reason to believe the Abe government's recent decision to reinterpret the Constitution so as to allow the exercise of the right of collective self-defense (CSD) strongly impacted the outcome in Shiga. While there is evidence the CSD decision affected the outcome by somewhat suppressing the New Komeito vote for the ruling alliance candidate (Link), talking about the possible effect of CSD detracts attention from the real valence issue in Shiga: nuclear power plant restarts -- from which Shiga Prefecture would enjoy relatively few benefits and accrue a significant amount of risk. Indeed, it is telling that Abe Shinzo and other LDP bigwigs, who have reason to blow smoke in people's eyes, have been among the most prominent purveyors of the narrative that the CSD decision affected the Shiga outcome. (Link - J)

Stapczynski's conclusion is not unreasonable:
"Abe's shift in security policy will have a broader (yet minimal) impact on his national approval rating, but nuclear energy was the key issue in the Shiga gubernatorial elections, not CSD. The LDP is still the king of the land, and I suspect that future local elections will go in their favor. And with no organized or popular opposition party in sight (Mikazuki ran as an independent), Abe really doesn’t have anything to worry about."
Nevertheless, there are aspects of the Shiga election Stapczynski does not mention which do have significant implications for revival of the fortunes of Japan's political opposition.

1) You Can Do This

After getting trounced by the LDP-New Komeito alliance in election after election since the ill-designed House of Representatives contest of December 2012, Japan's riberaru ("liberal" very much in the American sense of the word) politicians managed in Shiga to hang on in one of their strongholds. That they were able to do so at a time when the national polls show the liberal parties in total winning the loyalties of only 10% of the voters -- the LDP alone has the allegiance of 40% -- just hanging on is a major achievement.

2) The Communists Don't Enter Into It

All during the post-war era, the Japan Communist Party has served as a facilitator of LDP dominance. By insisting on running candidates in almost every race, the JCP has traditionally drained off around 10-15% of anti-LDP votes, making it difficult for moderate anti-LDP candidates to compete.

The big question for many has been whether moderate opposition is so down at present it has no choice but to forge an electoral alliance with the Communists, fielding joint candidates in order to capture that otherwise lost 10%-15%.

The Shiga result indicates that the answer to the question is "No, the opposition does not need to accommodate the Communists, a move that could destroy it, in order to beat the LDP" -- though the nuclear restart issue clouds the conclusion.

3) Make Them Happy To Vote Again

This is the big one.

Turnout for the Shiga election was 50.15%. This seems a dramatic decline from the number in 2010, when 61.56% of the voters showed up. However, the 2010 contest was held in concert with a House of Councillors election, artificially goosing the numbers in the gubernatorial race.

The true comparative is the 2006 election, when Kada Yukiko won her first term in office. The figure then was 44.94%, 5.21 percentage points fewer than in last Sunday's contest.

So what?

Here's what: the margin of victory for the former DPJ MP Mikazuki was just 13,076 votes, less than 2.4% of the total votes cast. Exit polls indicate that some of that margin of difference came from disaffected New Komeito voters, a surprising 24% of whom disobeyed the party directive to vote for the LDP's Koyari.

The vast majority of votes that made a difference, however, came from the ranks of the non-aligned vote, which according to recent polls, is 42.5% of the electorate (Link - J). Non-aligned voters broke for the anti-nuclear Mikazuki two-to-one, overwhelming the machine LDP vote (73% of self-proclaimed LDP voters chose Koyari).

The exit polls indeed indicated that while the nuclear restarts issue was crucial on the margin, it was not fundamental to the voting patterns of the voters. Only 10.3% of the voters called nuclear power the most important issue at hand. Far more named economic growth and employment (28.4%) and social welfare (19.3%) the key issues of the election. For those thinking the economy and employment the key issues, 63.1% voted for the LDP's Koyari.

So the takeaway from the election results for the opposition, particularly the moribund DPJ, are:

- keep the nuclear power phaseout plans worked out under the Kan Naoto and Noda Yoshihiko administrations - it helps at the margin

- ditch the constrictive Koizumi/DPJ economic policies of a decade ago. They made some sense in the fat times of the early part of the Zero Years. After the Global Recession of 2008-Present, they make zero sense. Be big time Abenomics boosters instead, but offer an alternative "Abenomics with a brain attached"

- snipe at Abe Shinzo and the LDP higher ups for their omniscient, dictatorial attitudes, even as newspaper editorialists tell you not to -- because doing so keeps the New Komeito leadership nervous about appearing to be the pushovers they are


The Second Abe Era began with 10 million voters not showing up at the polls in December 2012, turning a DPJ defeat into a runaway LDP victory -- in an election where there was were non-DPJ, anti-LDP alternatives for whom moderates could vote (and vote they did, for the Japan Restoration Party, which captured 12 million votes to the DPJ's 8 million). The message out of Shiga to the opposition is "Get the disaffected voters interested in voting -- not necessarily voting for you, specifically, just voting at all -- and the LDP can lose, just like it did before 2012."

Voter turnout. Voter turnout. Voter turnout.

Get it up and you are in this game again.

Later - The Economist has published a solid presentation of the more standard view, with the graph everyone has to keep in mind when thinking about Abe Shinzo -- and the advance warning the Fukushima and Okinawa gubernatorial elections are not likely to polish the image of Abe as LDP leader. As noted above, that members of Team Abe use the Cabinet Decision on CSD as an explanation for the Shiga results invites caution. (Link)

Image courtesy: Abe Shinzo official Facebook page.