Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Asō Tarō's Big Hurry, Article 60 and Me

Questions I must ask myself if I am to understand Prime Minister Asō Tarō's electoral schedule strategy:

"Is a supplementary budget (hosei yosan) for all intents and purposes a budget (yosan) as described in Article 60 of the Constitution?"

"If a Diet is dissolved, does the period of time between the dissolution of the Diet and the election of a new one constitute a part of the term of a Diet?"
For if the House of Representatives passes a "supplementary budget" that is in constitutional terms "a budget" (do not get me started on the question of definite vs. indefinite articles) -- which is then not acted upon by the House of Councillors -- then after a guaranteed-to-be-inconclusive round of talks between the parties controlling the House of Representatives and the parties controlling the House of Councillors, the bill passed by of the House of Representatives would become law (no 2/3 majority is needed) 30 days after of the House of Representative vote "the period of recess excluded" (kokkai kyūkaichū o nozoite).

Now let's see what that "period of recess excluded" bit does to plans to hold an election as soon as the second Sunday in November...for the government's theory is that the House of Representatives will begin examining the supplementary budget bill on October 6 and possibly pass it on October 7, with the House of Councillors receiving the bill on October 9.

Now still in my memory at least is Asō Tarō's excoriation of the Democratic Party of Japan in his inaugural address to the Diet on Monday. Basically he painted the DPJ a mob of unreasonable, semi-treasonous do-nothings.

Do Asō and the ruling coalition leaders think that after Monday's tongue-lashing, the opposition-controlled House of Councillors will feel compelled, out of fear of appearing irresponsible, to pass the ruling coalition's supplementary budget, thereby freeing Asō to call an election, his smile even broader and more glittery than usual in light of his smashing legislative coup?

Because what I would do is Jack Diddly Squat with the government's bill, using the 30 days to make the LDP-led ruling coalition squirm with a House of Councillors schedule packed with investigations into the pensions scandal, the Agriculture Ministry scandals, the failure of the government to fulfill its promises on moving road taxes into the general fund scandal...

Because the "let's bullrush the House of Councillors into capitulating" strategy worked so well a year ago in the government's attempt to force a renewal of the dispatch of Maritime Self Defense Forces ships to the Indian Ocean...and so well in forcing the House of Councillors to accept the government's first two candidates for the position of Governor of the Bank of Japan...and so well in forcing the renewal of the gasoline levy during the regular Diet session in time for the April 1 deadline...

I cannot imagine that after all that has happened over the last year I am not hearing people thinking out loud about the unthinkable: of the possibility that the House of Councilors will tell the the government to, in Thomas Friedman's delicate phrase, "suck on this" until November 6, the day when the legislation would automatically go into effect under Article 60 -- in the hope that the lost month tarnishes Asō's victory and delays the Diet dissolution until November 7, pushing the election into early December.

...and that is if the Cabinet Legislative Burean has ascertained that a hosei yosan is a yosan as described in Article 60. If they were to decided it was not, then the gumming up of the supplementary budget and the Diet dissolution strategy would be even uglier.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

In the defense of Tarō Francisco Asō

Although I am ticked off at the Prime Minister for his Cabinet selections, he deserves a bit better from the editorial page of The New York Times than this:

The Return of Taro Aso

Japan’s new prime minister, Taro Aso, is well known — and not fondly remembered — by Japan’s neighbors as a pugnacious nationalist. As foreign minister from 2005 to 2007, Mr. Aso soured relations with China and South Korea and raised tensions throughout the region, praising the achievements of prewar Japanese colonialism, justifying wartime atrocities and portraying China as a dangerous military threat.

Now, the power brokers in the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party have made him Japan's fourth prime minister in just two years and rebranded Mr. Aso as a "pragmatist."

Mr. Aso is expected to focus on stimulating Japan's stagnant economy. To successfully lead a 21st-century Japan, he will also need to swap nationalism for pragmatism when it comes to foreign relations. Japan's future depends on cultivating stronger political and economic relations with China — its largest trading partner — South Korea and other rapidly advancing neighbors.

He has assured Washington that he will resist opposition efforts to shut down a Japanese naval refueling mission in the Indian Ocean — Japan's risk-free demonstration of support for American and allied military efforts in Afghanistan.

What the United States most needs from Japan is a responsible strategic partner, not a government whose imperial reveries and symbolic muscle-flexing will provoke angry reactions across Asia.

Nationalism is enjoying a disturbing political revival because many Japanese fear that their country, once Asia's clear economic leader, is losing ground to booming neighbors. The answer for that doesn't lie in the nostalgic fantasies about Japan's ugly past for which Mr. Aso has become well known.

Instead, Japan needs to modernize its economy by completing the market reforms begun by Junichiro Koizumi, the former prime minister. And it needs to modernize its foreign policy by treating its neighbors as equals. If Mr. Aso can be pragmatic enough to adopt that agenda, he is likely to be a successful prime minister.

OK, let us first off clear from our minds the deleterious echoes of the NYT's insufferable conviction that it and only it knows how the world should be run.

"Pugnacious nationalist" - no.

Francisco loves his country - passionately, deeply, madly. He is infatuated with Japan, with what it is, whatever it might become. His is not the defensive possessiveness of an insecure man. He wants to share with everyone his enthusiasm. He hopes that everyone in the world can come to see his country the way he sees it: as flawed, yes, but for the most part wonderful, kind, quirky, appealing and charming. Like a lover, he underplays the faults of the object of his desire.

Pugnacious? Only as a lover can be when you tell him his lady is a dog tramp.

"the nostalgic fantasies about Japan's ugly past for which Mr. Aso has become well known"

Unlike many in the crowd he hangs out with Francisco seems to have relatively little interest in Japan's past. He sees the past as a source of metaphors and anecdotes, yes - but not as a set of guides to the future of the country. Unlike a Sakurai Yoshiko, who takes the Nihon Shoki and the Nihongi as unbiased accounts of a glorious era when emperors were powerful and benevolent, Francisco seems to know that a lot of the historical record is bunk.

As for his past controversial statements on the legacy of Imperial Japan in Asia, he is not a blanket denier of misdeeds like a Nakayama Nariaki. Francisco seems to want Japan to get a fair shake, for the telling of history to be fair.

An aside, but what will the Iraqi textbooks say about the Americans, after the last U.S. soldier lifts out?

Will the text conclude:

"The invasion and occupation were understandable; Iraq did not have a very good set of leaders. Americans felt it necessary to invade our country because it could pose a threat their own security someday. While occupying the country the Americans were unable to stop the civil war, only limit its violence. Still, they tried to good things for the people of Iraq, including providing modern trauma care and guarding the country's oil revenues. "? 
That Francisco has been unable to make himself understood seems to have less to do with the content of his contentions than with his peculiar dearth of empathy. He is not one to pick up what other people are feeling.

Hence the paradox: Francisco is renowned for saying what he thinks... but also for seemingly being unable to think about what he is saying.

"it needs to modernize its foreign policy by treating its neighbors as equals"

I have not the faintest ideas what this means. Which country does Japan not treat as an equal, aside from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, with whom it does not have diplomatic relations? Indeed, the shoe is on the other foot. It has been the governments of China and the Republic of Korea who have been making presumptuous and preposterous demands of Japan's government.

If the author of the editorial could identify the particular instances when the government of Japan treated the governments of its neighbors with less than the respect one should accord one's equals, I would be glad to learn of them.

I could go on...but I am tired and want to go home.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Asō Tarō, Very Briefly

Following the selection of the more than mildly embarrassing "Thank You For Your Support" Cabinet

[Nakagawa Shōichi on the phone to Henry Paulson and Christopher Cox AT THE SAME TIME. He's that wonderful. Honestly.]

former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun'ichirō's successful kneecapping of the news cycle during the first full day of the Asō Cabinet and the fairly high support ratings for the Cabinet in the overnight opinion polls:

Nihon Keizai Shimbun 53%
Yomiuri Shimbun 49.5%
The Asahi Shimbun 48%
Mainichi Shimbun 45%

means the race is on...not to see if Asō Tarō will set a new postwar record for the fewest days in office before calling an election

1) Hatoyama Ichirō 46 days
2) Mori Yoshirō 58 days
3) Yoshida Shigeru 70 days
49 Ikeda Hayato 98 days.

but by how much he will beat the record.

The real contest, of course, is to see if he can both cram in an election and still beat out Ishibashi Tanzan's postwar record for the fewest days in office.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

You Are On Your Own Now

The other shoe drops...and with a boom.

Former Japanese PM Koizumi to retire - media

TOKYO - Former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi will retire from political life at the next general election, Jiji news agency and Tokyo Broadcasting System said on Thursday...
Now the Koizumi Children are truly on their own...which may not be such a bad thing. With Koizumi still a senior member of the Liberal Democratic Party, it was essentially impossible for any of his followers to bail out. The press would have accused the Koizumi Korps of rank opportunism, of riding to power on the LDP ticket, then abandoning the party when reelection troubles loomed.

Now the barrier is raised. No one can say, "How can you go when Koizumi is willing to stay in the LDP?" because the celebrated Mr. K has announced his retirement from politics.

If Koike Yuriko, Takebe Tsutomu and Nakagawa Hidenao are still in the LDP in a month's time I will be shocked.

It's Asō Tarō's party now. There is nothing left in it for the Real Reformists.

Later - The trips down Memory Lane are already up.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Tarō's Nightmarish Choices - a review

OK, OK, calm down

Hatoyama Kunio, the angel of death, the clown prince of law enforcement

is NOT reappointed to the Ministry of Law. Instead he will be messing with the nation's telecommunications systems and center-local administrative relations.

Don't panic.


Panic tomorrow.

As for the other choices, what can be said?

True to predictions and our worst fears, Nakagawa Shōichi has been named Finance Minister. In order to double the fun and quadruple the insanity, he will be also in charge of the Financial Services Agency - completely defeating the point of the hiving off of the Agency from the Ministry of Finance a decade ago.

Be very, very afraid.

Now I love Obuchi Yūko...who doesn't? However, the daughter of the former prime minister is all of 34 years old and has a one-year old to care for. Naming her the State Minister in charge of Measures Dealing With Fall in the Birthrate is a neat gesture--but it is only a gesture.

And what's with the former prime minister's kids club? Nakasone Hirofumi, one of the ringleaders of the House of Councillors vote against the privatization of the Post Office and son of former Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro will take over from Kōmura Masahiko at the Foreign Ministry.

The sins of the father should not be visited upon the son...which is a good thing if you are Hamada Seichi Yasukazu, the incoming Minister of Defense. His father, Hamada Kōichi, is a notorious, maudlin street fighter of a politician now mercifully retired to appearing on Beat Takeshi's Terebi Takuru and other evening fare.

As for the appointment of Nakayama Nariaki, a man with a most peculiar view of certain episodes of 20th century history, as the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, I shall keep my peace.

Tarō Asō's Nightmarish Choices

Nakagawa Shōichi -- Mr. "Calm and Collected" -- for Finance Minister during the greatest global financial crisis since the Great Depression?

Hatoyama Kunio, everyone's consensus "Worst Minister Not Serving In The Ministry Of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries" of the last decade, returning to the Ministry of Law?

Wow, when Asō Tarō returns a favor, he returns a favor...no matter what the consequences could be for the country at large.

Looks to me like Francisco is handing out door prizes in advance of an immediate dissolution of the Diet.

Monday, September 22, 2008

And Now the Struggle Begins

Asō Tarō wins the presidency of the Liberal Democratic Party and hence the premiership in a crushing fashion.

The Koizumi crypto-faction, pressed to the wall by multiple reversal in the course and popularity of reform, can only muster 46 Diet member votes for their stalking horse, Koike Yuriko. Koike fails to win even a single vote from the local party chapter representative elections.

Ozawa Ichirō is reelected without opposition on Sunday.

Asō Tarō's Quintilemma:

1) In all the polls of "Who is the most appropriate person to be Prime Minister at this time?" he obliterates Ozawa.

2) The last two prime ministers have seen their popularity ratings decay rapidly over their first several months in office. Asō will receive something of a honeymoon level of popularity from the public. He cannot hope to avoid serious deterioration as the battles with the Democratic Party of Japan mount.

3) The LDP's coalition partner the New Kōmeitō is demanding an election by the end of the year.

4) Despite their measily showing in the LDP presidential election, the Koizumi loyalists still have one more card to play: their district seat holders can jump ship from the LDP. If they should do so, the coalition would lose its two-thirds majority, making any delay in holding an election pointless.

5) For two years now, when asked their preference, voters have consistently voiced a preference for a "DPJ-led coalition government" or an "outright DPJ government" rather than their LDP equivalents.

You tell me what Asō is going to do.

If Tomorrow Eve in Tokyo You Be

Saki Oshitani, the featured artist this month, is playing as a part of triple bill at Comfort in Takadanobaba starting at 18:30. The entry fee is 1500 yen.

L' Ancien Régime


Grandfather and grandfather's brother




The last three presidents of the Liberal Democratic Party all had close relatives serve as presidents of the LDP. List these close relatives, in order of the last three LDP sōsai.

Image courtesy: Nikkei Online

Saturday, September 20, 2008

In the Python Embrace of Ozawa's Electoral Strategy

While the five candidates vying for the position of president of the Liberal Democratic Party pout and preen for the cameras, Democratic Party of Japan Leader Ozawa Ichirō has been preparing his own party and its allies for an all-out battle in the House of Representative districts.

In the past few days we have seen the feelgood failure of the merger the anti-reform People's New Party (on a technicality, not a matter of policy); the recruitment of Hepatitis C poster child Fukuda Eriko to run in Nagasaki #2 district against chronic gaffemeister and hideous calligrapher Kyūma Fumio*; the sudden quiet reassignment of youthful Ōta Kazumi from the Chiba #7 seat to the Fukushima #2 (Ōta's unexpected victory in the April 2006 Chiba #7 by-election had been the first serious reversal of LDP's winning ways in the last years of the Koizumi Era); and the DPJ's stunning capture of the endorsement of the Ibaraki Prefecture Medical Association, the reward for the DPJ's opportunistic opposition to the new over-75 years of age eldercare system -- a switching of allegiance so shattering to the LDP that party bigwigs have sent Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare on a mad scramble to junk the reform (Japanese only).

While the more cynical among the commentariat may see Ozawa's flurry of moves as an attempt to steal the media spotlight away from the LDP leadership race, Ozawa may actually be unveiling his grand strategy for countering the LDP's significant advantages in the district elections. By promising the moon to all who have lost in from The Reforms and recruiting anyone and everyone hurt by The System, Ozawa is lashing his own bumptious party together with the ideological potpourri of the People's New Party, the Socialists and Communists. The result is an angry, broad-based, below-the-Nagatachō-radar movement with a winning campaign theme:

"The DPJ and Friends - Fighting As One for the Disdained and the Disenfranchised!"

A bit wordy - but you get the picture. No rural vs. urban dichotomy, the usual fracture line of the Japanese polity. No division between the winners in the economic reforms and the losers: everyone is aggrieved in some way from the way things have turned out -- and all are ready to lash out at The Powers That Be.

Once Asō Tarō clears the hurdle of winning the presidency of the LDP he will have to start thinking seriously about what, if anything, his own ruling coalition will be running on.

What is the advantage of reelecting the LDP-New Kōmeitō coalition rather than handing power over to a ragbag army of the nearly powerless and the largely forgotten? Asō cannot point to the LDP's record of responsible, capable leadership. He probably will not attempt to convince the voters that the LDP and the New Kōmeitō should be rewarded for the freshness of their ideas, their unity of purpose or their intellectual heft. He would probably be really on thin ice claiming that only the LDP/New Kōmeitō coalition can meet the challenges posed by the so-called "twisted" Diet.

Keep in mind (because, believe you me, the voters will) that if the ruling coalition wins a majority of seats in the next House of Representatives election, we will be right back where we have been for the last year - with one House under the control of an LDP-led coalition and another under the control a DPJ-led coalition.

A prospect that will not thrill the voters. Trust me.

So what will be the ruling coalition's stirring campaign slogan? "In the distict, vote for the guy (they are almost all guys, so humor me here) whom you have known for all these years and in the bloc, for the party of the glib dude with the distressingly ready smile"?

For after this remarkable LDP leadership race comes to a close tomorrow, that is all the party will have.


* In unintentional tribute to Japan's purported pacifism, Kyūma's odious rendering of "Bōeishō" is now cast in bronze and affixed for all eternity to the gates of the Ministry of Defense.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Sic Transit Gloria

In a futile gesture, in its final regular Friday meeting, the Fukuda Cabinet approved a Cabinet Decision (kakugi kettei) declaring its full-throated support for a bill that would extend the dispatch of Maritime Self Defense Forces ships to the Indian Ocean.

A gesture almost as pathetic and ridiculous as today's resignation of the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries as a show of remorse for the tainted rice scandal.

Which is neatly matched by the absurd approval today of yet another kakugi kettei in support of three bills necessary to establish a Consumer Protection Agency.

Call the whole sad performance "Fukuda Yasuo's Last Stand" if you will.

The Cabinet minus Agriculture Minister Ōta (I am guessing here) will meet once more next week in order to resign en masse.

Ave Tokyo! Morituri te salutant!

The Third Dawn

A few weeks back, in a surprisingly unreflective blog post (for him at least) Adam Richards asked why Japan should be admitting more "foreigners" -- and laid out what to him seemed strong arguments against such a policy.

The arguments, that Japan can somehow compensate for a declining labor force by abandoning unprofitable activities or by making better use of female labor, senior citizens and technology, are either unworkable (yes, let's just abandon agriculture, small-scale manufacturing and retail) or nonsense (having the elderly work is a way of showing them "respect" - right).

The basic argument for increasing immigration into Japan is relatively simple: in order for the economy to remain the same size, much less grow, one has to, as workers retire, either radically improve output per worker or keep adding new workers. On a structural level, as an increasing amount of domestic labor is shifted into the eldercare industries arising from longer lifespans, and the number of children and young adults shrinks, the physical labor jobs and the non-touchey-feeley lower level service economy jobs will either a) have to be filled by non-Japanese or b) disappear - which means a deterioration in overall quality of life.

[A neat little shorthand economic argument for immigration, if you need one: every time a poor country immigrant, legal or illegal, crosses a border in order to work in a rich nation, World GDP rises by tens of thousands of dollars - making everyone better off. As for the strategic, moral and revitalizing consequences of a state's being open to immigrants, I do not think that these are even disputable.]

Ishizuka Masahiko has published a neat little thought piece in the Nikkei Weekly on the potential impact of the coming increase in immigration. He puts forth the radical yet eminently sensible proposition that immigration over the next few years and decades will be a third opening for Japan, comparable to the coming of the Black Ships and the Occupation.

If Ishizuka is right -- and I believe he is -- then everyone we should welcome the crashing in of this third wave. The two prior openings did much to improve the prestige, wealth, autonomy and security of Japan...and lot of the average Japanese citizen.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

For The Very Best Article on the Current State of Sino-Japanese Relations

Read Sophia University Professor James Farrer's article on the the Japanese media's portrayal of the Beijing Olympics.

If you read nothing else all year, let it be the above. It is worth more than 5 kilos of International Relations books.

Southern Encounter

An image from a long, strange trip.

Portrait of Abe Shinzō
Floor of the Swanson Gallery in Louisville, Kentucky
September 5, 2008

Could Someone Please Make Kyōdō News Items More Bland?

From the department of grossly insufficient reporting comes:

Bear attacks man in west Tokyo
Kyodo News

Alpinist Yasushi Yamanoi was seriously injured Wednesday by a bear while jogging in the mountains near his home in western Tokyo, police said.The 43-year-old climber, who has scaled the Himalayas and other peaks, sustained face and arm injuries before fleeing to a nearby home in Okutama.

The homeowner called an ambulance at around 7:30 a.m.The two bears involved in the incident near the Yamanashi Prefecture border were thought to be a mother and cub, police said.

The Environment Ministry said bear attacks are rare in Tokyo. The most recent, in 2006, was the only attack recorded since 2004.
Excuse me, but if you going to report that Yamanoi Yasushi was attacked by a bear, it is really not out of line to explain in detail who the hell he is, that all things considered he really does not have any more body parts to sacrifice to the mountain gods and that he somehow managed to get attacked by a bear within the confines of the Tokyo Metropolitan District, home of 13 million people, a year after the population of bears in Japan had been decimated by culling.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

In the Eye of the Storm

With the world's financial systems going through their worst crises since the Great Depression, and the governments of the world's first and second largest economies functionally decapitated, it is hard to be jocular about the vagaries and quirks of Japanese politics.

I would like to say something about how the rumored absorption of the People's New Party into the Democratic Party of Japan is indicative of Ozawa Ichirō's preparation for a seizure of control of the House of Representatives, if only by a razor thin margin -- but that the sacrifices made for victory will stymie Ozawa's implementation of a reform agenda.

I would like say that I fail to see the point of Koizumi Jun'ichirō's vocal support of Koike Yuriko in the Liberal Democratic Party's presidential race. Is he signaling that he and his surviving followers are up for grabs, post-election? Or is this merely a vanity action, a final bit of theater for the press to dissect prior to the inevitable wipeout of all the urban district and bloc representatives he led to victory in 2005?

Somehow all the ongoing madness makes it difficult for even a policy nut to stay interested in the stream of petty gestures.

I feel like I am watching a cricket match during a typhoon.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Oh Great, Now That's Just Spiffy

Doesn't this man know I am on vacation?
Japan searches for a new prime minister, again

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan began searching for a new prime minister on Tuesday after Yasuo Fukuda became the second leader to resign in less than a year, threatening a further policy vacuum as the economy teeters on the brink of recession.

Topping the list of likely candidates to become Japan's 11th prime minister in 15 years is former foreign minister Taro Aso, 67, an outspoken nationalist who now holds the No. 2 position in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). He was runner-up to Fukuda in the race for party chief last year.
Just to make sure we know who is zooming who here, a few hits frome the back catalog.

The Rapid Decline of the Fukuda


The Run on the Fukuda Begins

Now my aunt has invited me to dinner and I am going to go.