Wednesday, January 10, 2007

I'm not letting go of this

Try as I might, I cannot rid myself of a terrible unease over the resignation of Honma Masaaki.

I feel that something truly bizarre occurred and no one noticed.

Part of my unease comes from my not being able to identify a solid reason why Honma had to be hounded from office. I can understand why Sada Genichirō had to go--his political offices had presided over a long-term major fraud.

If I understand the story being told to me in the media, Honma became an unforgivable pariah because he had had his ladyfriend sleeping over for a month at his publicly subsidized apartment.

Now the last time I looked, Japan was not prudish nation. Adultery has rarely been a firing offense. Indeed, if all the products of adulterous relationships of Japan were to suddenly vanish, the Diet, the Imperial Household and many of the executive offices of major corporations would be rather silent.

The Japanese public has furthermore had a soft spot for couples forced to live together unwed because the legal spouse of one of the partners will not countenance a divorce. The courts in Japan are no help: it took 16 years for Sakamoto Ryūichi to secure a divorce from Yano Akiko. Painter Ikeda Masuo and violinist Satō Yōko lived together unwed for nearly 20 years (until Ikeda's untimely death in 1997) because his wife would not agree to a divorce.

Ikeda's and Satō's life together indeed has been featured on a number of television programs.

So what was it about Honma's transgression that was so awful? He is, after all, in divorce proceedings. The relationship with his lover seems a partnership of equals (Honma is 61; the ladyfriend is reported as being in her 50s). So there is none of the icky May-December romance (or even ickier February-December romance) problem here.

So what was the big deal?

The Asahi Shimbun has been the foremost purveyor of the "glaring contradiction" line.

It goes something like this:

Honma is an advocate of the sale of national property. He wants to get the national government out of the property maintenance business and free up land and buildings for use by private enterprise. Sales, of course, would also go far to reduce the national debt.

However, according to the Asahi and the other papers, Honma paid 77,000 yen a government to live in a government-subsidized apartment that, had it been a private residence, would have cost him 500,000 a month...

...if we are to believe the "local real estate experts" anonymously quoted, of course. Any idiot knows that a real estate agent will vastly overestimate the average rent in a neighborhood--both to encourage the client to quickly seize the "bargain" he is being shown and also to jack up the rent the client is willing to pay. The agent's fee is, after all, equal to one month's rent.

To stay in such an apartment while advocating the sale of such government property is hypocrisy, or so they say.

There is a glaring contradiction within this argument, however.

Honma began living, probably part-time, in a government-subsidized Tokyo apartment in January 2003. As a public servant (Osaka University being a state institution at the time) serving on the government's economic revival and budget commission, he had the right to live in the complex at the subsidized rate. He continued to have a right to live there (and advocate the sale of public property) even after Osaka University incorporated in April 2004.

Somehow, his advocacy of property sales and his subsidized apartment only become a problem after the story about the girlfriend, who according to reports began staying overnight starting in October of this year, appeared in Shūkan Post on December 11--one month after Honma took over as the head of the Tax Commission.

Oh, the infamy of his hypocrisy?!?.

Give me an Amaterasu-damned break.

The Yomiuri seems to favor another reason, the "it's asking too much of the people" line.

As the head of the Tax Commission, Honma was in charge of a panel that, one way or another, was going to have approve a government plan to raise taxes. The country has an insane budget deficit even after years of cutting spending. The fiscal imbalance will grow even worse as the post-war baby boomers begin retiring en masse over the next few years and the ratio of workers to retirees plunges.

New revenues are needed to plug the gap. That means taxes have to go up--most likely the consumption tax, from 5% to 7%.

For Honma to live in a tax-subsidized apartment when contemplating raising everyone's taxes is rank hypocrisy. To do it while carrying on with a woman who is not his wife is in bad taste.

Now I may or may not disagree with the second sentence.

The first sentence, however, is hogwash.

It just so happens that everyone who will have anything to do with the decision to raise taxes will be living on the government dole. Either the taxpayers are paying their salaries, or the taxpayers are paying for three staffers in their Diet office or the taxpayers are subsidizing their housing.

Government costs money. Surprised?

Running for office and/or working for the government is high cost, often high risk and low reward way to live. You really have to compensate people in the short run for the burdens they will be taking on by working in the public sphere.

For those who do not reside in Tokyo, for example, there is an added burden of maintaining a second residence.

Without subsidized accommodations, only the rich or Greater Tokyo residents could afford to run for public office or serve on government advisory commissions. If you want middle-class or even upper middle-class folks to come to Tokyo from the prefectures to serve in government offices, you the taxpayer are going to have to chip in a little.

Indeed, since the Honma controversy broke, members of the Diet have been cancelling plans to move into the newly-constructed Diet official apartment building. There is now a waiting list to get into older aparments for Diet members. Representatives figure that if they live in the older, decrepit accommodations, citizens will not get quite so angry about subsidizing the rent (My point would really be made if some government official confessed, "And in by living in this older apartment building, I can get away with shacking up with my mistress too.")

O.K. now, so what was Honma's real crime?

Not having any friends.

In only a month and a half as the chairman of the tax commission, Honma managed to alienate all the three constituencies that could have come to his rescue--and put his faith in a fourth constituency that apparently does not exist.

The three constituencies he managed to anger were the business establishment, the people and the media.

The business establishment, through its avatar the Keidanren, has been clammoring for a reduction of corporate income tax rate from 40% to 30%--to bring Japan's taxation in line with international norms.

The Keidanren's position is specious, facile and self-serving--the Japanese corporate tax system has its own internal network of peculiar tax dodges and hidden subsidies that lessen and reassign the depredations upon the corporate purse.

Rather than telling the Keidanren to go to hell, however, Honma demurred, saying that perhaps a reduction from 40% to 35% would be sufficient.

Now this attempt to split the difference upset the business lobby. It really ticked off the press and the public, though.

To talk on the one hand about the need to raise the consumption tax--at a time when everyone but everyone is talking about how weak Japanese private consumption has become--and then propose to reduce taxes on corporations at at time when corporations are earning record profits-- shows unspeakable political tin ear.

Why did Honma lull himself into thinking he could triangulate between the demands of business and the expectations of the public and the press?

Because he counted on the support of the Prime Minister.

He had good two reasons to believe the PM would cover his back.

The first was that his predecessor, Ishi Kōki had not wanted to relinquish his chairmanship. The PM had had to make a special effort to kick Ishi out and appoint Honma in his place.

The second was that the chairmanship of the Tax Commission is as close to a life appointment as one can get. One of the reasons Ishi tried to hang on was that, at six years and 10 months, his was the shortest tenure of any chairman. Indeed since the position was created in 1959 until this year, only five men have been chairman of the Tax Commision--with the average tenure being 12 years.

That Honma could be forced out after only a month and a half on the job is astonishing.

Now why does all this bother me?

Because there is a word for ostracizing and hounding a friendless person for wanting to live his life differently. Not illegally, not offensively--just differently.

That word is ijime.

And everyone, jut about everyone, seeing that Abe could do, would do nothing to protect the man he himself appointed, just dove right in, condemning Honma's immorality.

How was it possible for those in their high dudgeon to ignore the Augean stables of their own private lives?

If you can name one wide show host, one television commentator, one editorialist, one major political figure without a closet filled to bursting with dirty laundry--then I will buy you lunch. Twice.

And how was it possible for them to get away without getting called out?

That we were all expected to snicker at the phrase "a woman who is not his wife", get all worked up about Honma's presumption and then, after two weeks, move on to something else, is just creepy.

For that, my friends, IS hypocrisy.


Anonymous said...

I have Honma-san's meishi at home, with his mail address on it, shall I send him the address of your blog? You're his only friend in Japan, by now, and I swear he would have loved to see anything like this written in the Japanese media...
Actually, the Japanese (if we are to suppose that there is just ONE opinion shared among 127 millions people) didn't blame him for Mademoiselle "P" (I wonder if there's a name starting with "P" in Japanese, except mine, but I am not Japanese), but for renting an appartment for 7-man-en instead of 50-man while advocating a rise of the consumption tax and selling the State's estates. One must not forget that, thanks to the Asahi's campaign since December 2005, we entered the "Kakusa-shakai" era: damned, a Japanese can now just buy one Louis Vuitton, instead of two during the "Baburu"-era. Panem et circenses: they suffer. To forget, they want to see important people suffering as well on TV or in the media. Anyone who wants to embrace an important position during Sleepy-Abe's reign shall first declare: "Morituri te salutant", "those who will die hail you". Meanwhile, there's also a strong campaign against Abe to show he's not the strong leader the people want. Honma-san is not the true target, I guess. In that sense, anything that can hurt Abe is good for any other LDP heavy-weight: There are some crucial elections soon. Actually, the Honma-san affair is basically a leak from a powerful Ministry. So, memento Mori, memento Koizumi and soon... memento Abe?
-The Latin reader-

MTC said...

Latin reader -

Ubicumque homo est, ibi benefici locus est

- Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Do as you must, or as you think best. I have no objection.

Anonymous said...

"Wherever there is a man, there is a place for kindness".
(For those who were born after the XVIIth century and/or did not study Latin). The Honma-san's affair leading to Stoicism, a philosophy born while despair and darkness were the only horizon of men... What a world! Is Athens about to fall again? Will Koizumi soon shout: "Tu quoque, mi fili?" to Abe and will his political nephew reinitiate the public works projects while nationalizing Japan Post, in order to please to the people before elections? Oh, it sounds so frightening!
-The Latin Reader -