Friday, February 27, 2009

For the Men of Osaka: Sweet Tools

The multi-talented Janne Morén demonstrates his skills in photography via a pair of stunning images of his wife's Valentine's day gift.

Damn does he ever do good work.

For a DPJ You Can Count On

Here is the Democratic Party of Japan's nagging problem:

With Ozawa Ichirō at the helm, the party is going to defeat the Liberal Democratic Party at the polls.

Ozawa is an electoral wizard, no doubt about it.

After coming out on top as the #1 party in Japan, however, the smarter puppies in the DPJ will have to try to guide a shell-shocked nation through the jettisoning of a crippled economic model -- and they will have to do so with Ozawa Ichirō at the helm of the party and the government.

Not a reassuring prospect.

In Comments

I have been asked a pair of questions in comments, queries about posts "On Koizumi's Retreat and Asō's Status" and "Take My Security Treaty, Please" that I want to answer.

I have just not had the time.

Maybe I will have the time on Saturday.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Hey, That's My Line!

I was watching Mino Monta's morning news variety show "Asa Zuba!" -- the show that was, during the Koizumi years, the morning show to watch in order to catch the pulse of the public. While once cutting edge, it has been drifting for some time, especially after the Abe Shinzō administration went out of its way to flatter Mino-san, resulting in what seemed to be a dulling down of his previously sharp and free-wheeling populist editorializing.

Anyway, Mino, his panel of three guests and the feature reporter were taking a look at Blaine Harden's Washington Post report on Prime Minister Asō Tarō's visit to the United States, published prior to the PM's meeting with President Barack Obama. Several of the lines from Harden's article making plain Asō's diminished stature ("he already ranks among the most gaffe-prone and unpopular leaders in Japan's postwar history," for example) were displayed on a board along with their Japanese equivalents. As the reporter went line by line, an ever-more deeply grimacing Mino could not hide his displeasure. In the end, he turned to his guests, asking them whether or not Harden had gone too far, saying such nasty things about their prime minister. The three guests nodded in agreement, one saying that the descriptions were "not fair."

OOOOooooh REeeeeeeeaaaaallly?

I guess that none of them works for the Mainichi Shimbun -- or its affiliates.

Here is Mainichi's February 24, 2009 editorial cartoon's take on a pair of "two-shot" (tsū shotto - a photo of two persons together) photos with Asō Tarō - or, if you are a Liberal Democratic Party candidate facing a tough election and need an image for your campaign poster, not with Asō Tarō.

The caption, a message to Asō himself, reads, "The 'Two-Shot' photos know your popularity."

I guess that foreign correspondents based in Tokyo have a special requirement to be nice to the PM that does not apply to domestic journalism..and that Mino Monta is the man to tell them foreigners when they've stepped over the line.

Or on it.

Dr. Mankiw Finds A Nut

Dr. Greg Mankiw's blog is insufferable, most of the time.

In a vain attempt to make up for a life-changing bad decision -- his acceptance of George W. Bush's invitation become Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors (if you look at the current American and world economies, you might see a reason that he should feel....well...a bit chastened) -- Dr. Mankiw gives all kinds of right wing economic insanity a platform. Maybe by handing folks making numbskull errors a megaphone, he avoids having to admit before his colleagues that he blew it.

However, in a recent post on the U.S. attitude toward Chinese purchases of U.S. Treasuries -- an attitude that if you listen to the lobbyists from U.S. automakers, extends to Japan -- Dr. Mankiw finds a glaring and obvious contradiction.

When Timothy Geithner warned China about manipulating its currency (and, sub-rosa, Japan about even thinking about intervening in currency markets to weaken the yen) at his confirmation hearing in January, he was pandering to the U.S. Democratic Party's support base. As a man seeking a job, Geithner had little choice: 59* of the 100 Senators are Democrats, with a solid chunk of them from America's industrial heartland (which should not be construed as an attempt to absolve Republicans from the Rust Belt and textile industry states, for their trade talk is just as bad).

As Mankiw's choice of quotes points out, you cannot reconcile criticizing currency manipulation with bankrolling American profligacy.

Of course, until the current collapse in trade with the United States, Japan, China and other exporters were engaged in what amounted to vendor finance--meaning that Japan, China and the other Asian exporters vacuuming up Treasuries were deriving a benefit from their bankrolling of U.S. consumption: employment in their export industries.

So it was not as if Asian exporting countries were just doing the U.S. a big favor out of charity, or perhaps simplemindedness.

However, as America's economy is failing to suck in imports from Japan and the rest of Asia and the U.S. government, in its legislation and language promotes America First industrial support policies, Geithner's January warning looks hypocritically mendacious.

* Yes, Bernard Sanders is an independent and Senator Al Franken's victory had/has not been certified. Cut me a little slack here, though. Does anyone know what one should call Senator Joseph Lieberman nowadays?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Take My Security Treaty, Please

The headquarters of I Corps, a U.S. Army command that in the event of land conflict in East Asia would be in charge of the defense of U.S. allies in the region, is being moved from Washington State to Camp Zama in Kanagawa Prefecture. The shift is an indication of a U.S. commitment to its allies. As such it is probably not reversible.

U.S. jet fighters based in Misawa and Kadena and the heavy lift wing of Yokota also probably fulfill vital roles in bolstering the capabilities and credibility of the Japan-U.S. security alliance.

So what was Democratic Party Leader Ozawa Ichirō thinking when he told an audience in Nara Prefecture last night that the only branch of the U.S. armed services that needs to be in Japan is the U.S. Seventh Fleet? Arguing that the revolution in military affairs and force realignment have made the presence of the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army (and the U.S. Marines - them too?) unnecessary seems not only wrong, but wrong in a way that makes googoo eyes at the People's Liberation Army.

Perhaps it is an example of Ozawa's thinking about long game, looking ahead to the day when the Chinese government has to select a target upon which the PLA can work out its frustrations. Japan would be able to say, "Not us, we reduced the U.S. presence that you found so threatening. We're the good guys, see?"

Or perhaps he believes that if the U.S. presence is lessened, the Chinese will stop trying to build up their power projection capabilities aimed at Japan.

Who knows?

Because the excuse Ozawa gives -- that getting rid of the non-Navy U.S. forces on the ground and in the air would compel Japan to provide for more of its security needs by itself, making Japan a more equal partner in the alliance -- seems nuts. It is akin to arguing that because swimming is a very valuable skill for individuals to have, we should be tossing babies off of piers.

My country's best bald buddy

Does your eyebrow cock as much as mine does when you learn that the last four times a prime minister of Japan paid his first visit to the White House, the PM then had lunch with the U.S. president (George W. Bush, in all four cases) -- but yesterday, when Asō Tarō paid his first visit to the White House, he had lunch with...Richard Armitage?

Amaterasu on High, what conclusions are we supposed to draw from that bit of scheduling?


It has come to the point where someone has to decide what, if anything, of Japan's politico-economic structure can be saved.

Japan's Exports Plummet Record 45.7%, Signaling More Job Cuts

By Jason Clenfield - Feb. 25 - Japan's exports plunged by a record in January, as recessions in the U.S. and Europe smothered demand for the country’s cars and electronics.

Exports plummeted 45.7 percent from a year earlier, the sharpest decline since 1980, the earliest year for which there is comparable data, the Finance Ministry said today in Tokyo. The January drop eclipsed a record 35 percent decline set the previous month. Economists predicted a 45.9 percent contraction...

It is difficult to believe that Asō Tarō will be prime minister for much longer. The Houses of Representatives will pass the budget bill on Friday. After that is done, what else is there for Asō to do, except dangle?

A more interesting question seems to be whether or not Democratic Party Leader Ozawa Ichirō can be made to understand that the country needs a stopgap government of national reconciliation, with his Go buddy Yosano Kaoru as PM (not a bad thing at all) and with elections...whenever...

I am not sanguine about either Ozawa or Asō Tarō's Liberal Democratic Party understanding even now how desperately bad the situation has become.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Oh That Old-Time Cabinet Reshuffle!

When all else has failed...and there are no more tricks inside the bag...members of the ruling coalition start talking about the desirability of a Cabinet reshuffle.
At a press conference today Amari Akira (Kanagawa #13) one of prime minister Asō Tarō's closest ideological allies, uttered the phrase that -- if the fates of Abe Shinzō and Fukuda Yasuo are any guide -- is prime ministerial kryptonite.

"The responsibilities of Yosano Kaoru -- who is simultaneously Minister of Finance, Financial Services and Economy & Fiscal Policies -- these must be unraveled. At that time we can have a mini-Cabinet reshuffle. One option is to make the scale of the mini-Cabinet reshuffle really bold.*"
First, a "mini Cabinet reshuffle" that is "really bold"? What kind of oxymoronic nonsense is that?

Second, Amari-san, aren't you yourself simultaneously the Ministers of

1) Regulation Reform (kisei kaikaku)
2) Administrative Reform (gyōsei kaikaku)
3) Reform of the Civil Service System (kōmuin seido kaikaku)

without your head exploding from overwork? (Nice hair, by the way.)

You would not be, by any chance, trying to diminish the rising profile of the multi-tasking Yosano Kaoru, at whom even hard-bitten Socialist lady ex-felons are waving their hankerchiefs?

Well, if that was your purpose, you blew it Amari-san. The papers smell blood in the water when a sitting minister suggests that the Cabinet is out of whack and needs fixing. Your words have made the sharks of the information mediaplex especially excited because

1) the PM is out of town (Did I say something about the cat being away?)

2) the last two Cabiner reshuffles preceded spectacular collapses the Abe and Fukuda premierships within weeks of their having been undertaken

Cabinet reshuffle talk is the province of covetous layabouts on the outside wanting to get in, Amari-san. The job of the Minister is to serve faithfully and steadfastly until fired.

What Latin phrase could the PM say (he is a Roman Catholic, you know) when he sees you next, Amari-san? Perhaps,

"Et tu Akira?"

Sure, one could argue that Amari is just being realistic. Yosano has been given the jobs of three ministers. It strains credulity to think that one human could be in charge of the entire government finance, economic planning and financial regulatory systems.

Unfortunately, when the PM and his Cabinet are knocking on the single digit popularity door (in the polls conducted by Mainichi and the Sankei) talk of reshuffle will inevitably be interpreted as a member of the prime minister's inner circle losing hope.


* "Mini kaizō no kibo o daitan na mono ni suru no wa, hitotsu no sentakushi."

When Tarō Meets Barack

Prime Minister Asō Tarō arrives at the White House for his hour long meet-and-greet with President Barack Obama. To break the ice, the prime minister tries some cute wordplay and physical comedy--to show how unique and unusual he is. His jokey routine collides face first with the stony wall of President Obama's serious post-inauguration demeanor. Finding that his jokes are going nowhere, the PM doubles down, sweating as he tries harder and harder to be funny, the president's eyes growing ever more narrow and misty...

Why I am worrying like this?

Perhaps it is because when George W. Bush was in the White House, Japan's leaders could be well-bred non-entities, comfortable in the knowledge that:

1) they were dealing with a man with fewer little gray cells in between his ears than they had in between theirs

2) he was, at the base, just like them - a son of privilege whose fathers and grandfathers -- greater and better men -- had handed them control of the nation on a silver platter

On Tuesday, Washington time, Asō Tarō, grandson of a premier, a rich princeling (his family being the union of political royalty and big construction money), a miserable student ("lackluster" does not begin to describe his lack of school smarts), high-living bar-hopper will meet a much younger, dead serious, scholarly, accomplished man who in his own words is a "mutt" -- the son of cash-poor but gumption-rich pair of students, one from Kansas and the other from Kenya.

The man raised behind high walls meeting the man for whom walls are anathema.

What could possibly go wrong?

Image courtesy: The Asahi Shimbun
morning edition, February 24, 2009

Monday, February 23, 2009

Count Me In

How bad are this morning's polls for Prime Minister Asō Tarō?

Let's see, in the Mainichi Shimbun poll his Cabinet is supported by 35% and is opposed by 46% of the voters...who support the Liberal Democratic Party (20% of the respondents in this survey). Among the general populace, Asō received a whopping 11% support (still in double digits, yeah!) while 73% say they do not support him. Even ennui ranks above the PM, with 15% of the voters saying they have no special feeling either way.

The Nihon Keizai Shimbun poll has a more comfortable but still abysmal Cabinet support level at 15%. Unfortunately for the PM and those around him, the Nikkei poll number might be inflated by an insufficiently randomized sample. The number of respondents saying they support the LDP in this poll is 34%, a very high figure and 5 points above the support number for the LDP in the Nikkei poll of a month ago. Given that mistrust of the Cainet shifted 6 points, to a stunning 80% of all respondents, one has to guess the PM and the Cabinet got 1 to 3 points of support they do not deserve.

As Okumura Jun is always pointing out, "Amaterasu on High, both of these dudes suck" is the winner in a head-to-head competition between the Prime Minister and his chief rival, Democratic Party of Japan leader Ozawa Ichirō. A piddling 8% think Asō is the appropriate person to be prime minsiter right now, a fall of 8 points since the last poll taken a little less than a month ago. Some 25% of the respondents think Ozawa should be prime minister--exactly the name number as the previous poll. At the top at 61% is "Neither of these two is appropriate," up from 55% in the January 24-25 poll.

Count me in on that. Ozawa's low-energy repetition of "the-PM-has-lost-the-support-of-the-people-we-need-a-dissolution-of-the-Diet-and-general-election" sort of peaked around the 56th iteration. Since then, each addition repetition of the Ozawa mantra has set my teeth on edge.

I know that seizing power through elections is Ozawa's entire political program. If he could just fake interest in what is going on in the Diet (not that he would know, of course, since he is out on the hustings so much) the charade would make me and seemingly 61% of the voters a lot happier. If you cannot gain even 1 percentage point of support when your chief rival drops 8, then you have what looks like a problem.

Ozawa, if he really wants to topple the ruling coalition, needs to find a way to get the people to like him. Does he not realize that winning by the tiniest of parliamentary seat margins means he would have to try to govern with only the tiniest of parliamentary seat margins?

If I Were an Australian Journalist...

...I would want to produce an in-depth portrait of Ishiba Shigeru, the minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, whose ambition to become Prime Minister probably stands in the way of the Japanese government's accepting a compromise being worked out by the International Whaling Commission that would allow the resumption the small-scale coastal commercial whaling of Minke whales in return for a phasing out of the research whaling hunts in the Southern Ocean.

Just so the Bruces and the Sheilas could find out how smart folks around here can still support pelagic whaling, walking away from a compromise, when the status quo is a net economic drain, logically indefensible and hurts Japan's image.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

When the Cat's Away...

...the mice do play.

This may the most consequential and fascinating week in recent Japanese political history. A variety of political forces, working at cross- and sometimes self-contradictory purposes, will be meeting and plotting in a fury. Members of the LDP will be trying to tear Prime Minister Asō Tarō down. Democrats will be trying to prop him up (he is their greatest vote getter). Former prime ministers will gang up upon each other.

It is a terrible time for Prime Minister Asō Tarō to be away from Tokyo, on a trip to Washington that is, ironically, meant to burnish his image as the country's leader.

He will be far from where the action is, unable to affect or even get a sense of the domestic scene.

Nothing ever goes right for him, does it?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Burnt Tongues

Reactions to former prime minister Koizumi Jun'ichirō's declaration that he will absent himself from a revote on the second supplementary budget bill.

Minister of the Environment Saitō Tetsuo (New Kōmeitō):

"Since he agreed with the second supplementary bill (the first time it came up for a vote) I believe that he must not be so inconsistent, as befits a politician."

Minister of the Education, Science, Technology, Sports and Culture Shiotani Ryū (LDP):

"He agreed with the bill the first time around. His stance is illogical."

Saito's and Shiotani's replies highlight a hypocritical thread in Koizumi's attack on the PM. Just last week Koizumi criticized Prime Minister Asō Tarō for playing the postal privatization bill both ways, declaring that he had voted for the bill while having been personally opposed to it. Here, Saitō and Shiotani catch Koizumi set to reverse himself: voting for a bill, then declaring his inability to vote for exactly the same bill a few weeks later.
Minister of Health, Welfare and Labor Masuzoe Yōichi (LDP - potential PM candidate):

"If you have various opinions, what you have to do is put your opinion forward during the policy decision process. For that reason, I would say 'It's TOO LATE.'"*

Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ishiba Shigeru (LDP - potential PM candidate):

"As a party member, he has to obey the party's plan."

"It's taking a gun, a bazooka to party internal affairs and sending pieces in all directions."

Minister of Foreign Affairs Nakasone Hirofumi (LDP)

"I want him to follow the party's plan...especially because he is a former party president, he must do so."


Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Hatoyama Kunio (LDP)

"Former prime minister Koizumi is an incredibly impressive higher ranking senior colleague. It is really unfortunate."

Minister of Population and Gender Equality Obuchi Yūko (LDP - 35 years of age)

"Being where we are, for him to come to that kind of decision, there are just bits I just don't understand, but..."

"I want him to decide as a member of the party, I think."

Minister of Consumer Affairs Noda Seiko (LDP - potential PM candidate):

"He is a very great higher ranking senior colleague. I believe (his decision) comes from a great wisdom. Therefore I have no comment."

Minister of Finance, Financial Service and Economic & Fiscal PolicyYosano Kaoru (LDP- potential PM candidate)

"I am not thinking anything about it."

That last quotation would almost certainly be a lie, except that Yosano probably really does not have a single waking minute to consecrate to political gamesmanship. The guy is holding down all three main economic ministerial posts at once.

* To emphasize his point, Masuzoe said "Too Late" in English.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Playing With Fire

For a bunch of not terribly popular blokes with not terribly popular policies, Liberal Democratic Party leaders are acting with extraordinary self-assuredness.

I had thought Ōshima Tadamori's dismissal last night of a threat to the leadership's ability to shepherd the second supplementary budget through via an Article 59 two-thirds majority override should Koizumi Jun'ichirō go through with a pledged walkout was...on target...but still insufficiently open-minded to the possibility of a non-LDP centric reality.

Now members of the leadership are telling the press they are laughing at Koizumi's warning, digging the knife in deep by parroting Koizumi's now famous line about being so astonished and disgusted at Prime Minister Asō Tarō's perfidity that he could not longer get angry, only laugh. The head of the LDP General Council is even contemplating how the leadership could punish Koizumi, should he go forward with his threat to absent himself from the Diet chamber during the revote.

Damn, is this ever getting interesting.

On Koizumi's Retreat and Asō's Status

Last Thursday former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun'ichirō, his former lieutenants and allies in tow, made what seemed to be a show of force , demonstrating that he had at his disposal the votes necessary to stymie an Article 59 two-thirds majority override procedure.

Last night, in what was seemed a painful statement to make, the Lionheart pulled back hard on the reins, stating that should the secondary budget bill be brought up in House of Representatives again he would walk out of the chamber...which would be, of course, counterproductive to his cause, as lowering the number of members present makes it easier for the government to secure the two-thirds majority it needs to override the action or inaction of the House of Councillors.

I can think of two reasons for Koizumi's sudden gearing down of his attack against Asō Tarō:

1) Someone reminded Koizumi that a revolt against the party president would really mess up the chances of his second son succeeding him in the Kanagawa #11 seat (Koizumi forgets these self-interest things sometimes)

2) Nakagawa Hidenao (Nakagawa the Sane) decided a revolt was not a part of his plans right now

[I have never been able grasp Nakagawa Hidenao's game. His tactics are inexplicable, given what his strategic goals should be.]

While Koizumi's pullback seems to be good news for the PM, the latest Kyōdō poll is an unwelcome "Welcome Home" announcement greeting the PM on his return from his trip to Sakhalin. The poll, conducted over February 17-18, saw the Cabinet support level drop another 4.7 points to 13.4%, a result which the Chūgoku Shimbun claims is the second lowest reading for any prime minister. There is still plenty of room down below for Asō to go, however, as this same article claims that Mori Yoshirō hit rock bottom at 6.5% - which is the lowest number for any PM that I have heard so far, beating the 7% reading for Takeshita Noboru (Harris, "Aso follows Mori's Path").

The PM, who, as Okumura Jun notes, loves being the PM, can also take little comfort in this morning's Asahi Shimbun survey of the 47 prefectural branch executives of the LDP. Sure, he "won": 30 of the 47 prefectural executives surveyed said that they were ready to contest the next House of Representatives election with Asō as the party leader. However, 7 party executives said it would be better if someone else were party leader. The 10 remaining party executives did not indicate a preference either way.

What is remarkable about the survey is that everything is on the record--the identities of the executives not coming out in support of Asō and their reasons for doing so are all there, for anyone to see. The LDP prefectural executives wishing to contest the next election under a new party president are those in Yamagata, Gunma, Gifu, Shizuoka,Yamaguchi and Okinawa Prefectures and Osaka-fu.

Most embarrassing is the admission by party executives inside all the three groupings - those For Asō, those For Somebody Else and those who Can't Say - that they cannot think of an appropriate candidate to replace the current party president -- and for some of the party executives in the "For Asō" column, the lack of an obvious successor is the reason they are supporting the current party president.

The party has sunk that low.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

"You Should Not Test My Patience Further...

...Hissed the Wasp to the Spider."

From Moscow, former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun'ichirō has officially committed himself to walking out of the Diet vote should the ruling coalition attempt to pass an unamended second supplemental budget bill (i.e., with the 1.2 trillion yen handout intact) through an Article 59, two-thirds majority override.

He will not stop Asō and the leadership from going through with their plans...but he will not honor them with his presence.

Who Will Be Japan's Next Prime Minister?

A drowning man will grasp at anything, even the point of a sword.

One of the recurring themes in the reporting on the plummeting fortunes of Prime Minister Asō Tarō -- and the darkening outlook for the Liberal Democratic Party -- is LDP's lack of a suitable replacement for the PM, even as his Cabinet support numbers plunge into the abyss. Traditionally, there would be jostling of the party's big mammals, with meetings in exclusive restaurants and deal cutting with high-powered rivals. The papers would be following the daily movements and utterances of the main candidates, while granting a few, experienced dark horses their allotment of attention as well.

Despite the opportunity afforded by the Prime Minister's departure on what is sure to be described as an "ill-starred" visit to the United States, speculation about a likely replacement for Asō is being conducted in the abstract, not the concrete. There is talk about pressuring Asō to step down (Asō oroshi) , about opposing Asō (han-Asō) and about the Asō Administration's final days.

[The Mainichi Shimbun's top editorial is particularly cruel, declaring, "Just as we thought: the Aso Administration is in terminal condition" (Yahari, Asō seiken wa makkiteki da)]

However, as to the names of candidates capable of stepping in to replace Asō, they are conspicuous only in their absence.

The reason for the lack of a discusssion of alternatives is fairly clear. Last September the LDP conducted a presidential election that I derided then as "Asō, Snow White and the Three Dwarfs." It pitted the current party president against former Defense Minister Koike Yuriko and the trio of Yosano Kaoru, Ishihara Nobuteru and Ishiba Shigeru. Due to their numbers (five candidates is a heck of a lot) and lack of factional support, none of the four rivals had even the slightest chance of putting up an impressive show against the Asō juggernaut. All four furthermore had the reputation of being policy wonks (tsū) rather popular figures.

In addition to their shared weaknesses, the candidates had their individual strikes against them. Yosano is 70 years old, a small, wizened figure. Despite his sharp, determined mind, he is not likely capable of rousting an exhausted and shell-shocked electorate. Ishihara is a true retail politician, with excellent people skills. Unfortunately he neither impresses nor frightens anyone. Ishiba's mannerisms would be electoral poison, and he finished dead last in the September 2008 election, with only 4.7% (25 votes).

[After the Abe Shinzō flameout, I think the country finally has had its fill of prime ministers hailing from the Chūgoku Chihō. Ishiba is from Tottori #1, one of the most grossly overrepresented districts in the nation.]

As for Koike Yuriko, she may be well known, hard line, vital and photogenic - but she is probably one of least liked LDP politicians, at least among the LDP rank-and-file. While it is true she finished third in the voting in September, she is a watari dori, a migratory bird who has swooped from party to party to party, and then later from district to district, always moving on either in line with

a) the times (if you are being generous) or
b) opportunity (if you are the typical LDP true believer).

While the 46 votes she mustered were impressive for a first-time woman candidate, they sound pretty close to a plateau for a Koizumi Jun'ichirō lieutenant, at least in the present politico-economic climate. Koike's advocacy of a continuation of the process of structural reform is anathema to most of the party's supporters. She would have difficulty overcoming the perception that she is an urban sophisticate, a member of those metropolitan, international elites whose "globalization" has brought so much pain to the traditional LDP voter.

However, with the LDP in the process of having blown through its third straight traditional prime minister in a row, with the party's image crumbling into dust in the meantime, the party desperately needs a game changer, a person who highlights the deficiencies of Democratic Party of Japan chief Ozawa Ichirō, who bridges the rifts between the various branches of the LDP, who appeals to the party's rural, conservative base--all while presenting a brand new start.

Which is why I am placing my bet on the dark horse candidacy of Noda Seiko.

LDP poster in Tokyo's Nakano Ward
February 2009

Yes, Noda is one of those expelled from the LDP by Koizumi in August 2005, readmitted in December 2006 in what was, at the time, the first deeply wounding error by Abe Shinzō. To a certain extent, her election would be a repudiation of the judgment the public rendered in 2005.

Nevertheless, Noda hits so many of the right notes. She is well-known on the national stage, popular with both urban and rural voters (as indicated by her being on the Tokyo LDP poster above, despite her home district being Gifu #1 ). She is seen as a strong figure for having stood up to Koizumi, defeating his most glamorous assassin, Satō Yukari, in the 2005 district vote. She is capable of inspiring intense loyalty, her 2005 expulsion from the party leading to a split in the Gifu LDP.

She is also seen as an extremely sympathetic figure, particularly by educated women voters (the Achilles heel of the Democratic Party of Japan) for her struggles with the country's marriage laws and own very public struggles with infertility. Fantabulist conservatives, who would normally find Noda's views on marriage anathema, would be assuaged by having one of the most regular of the August 15 Yasukuni sanpai regulars as PM.

Noda's taking over for Asō is, admittedly, a long shot...and the selection of Noda could end up being as successful a campaign ploy for the LDP as the selection of Kim Campbell was for the Progressive Party of Canada in 1993.

If the history of the last 15 years teaches us anything, it is that the LDP, when it is faced with the prospect of annihilation (which it is, with Asō at the helm) it will reach deep down and find within itself the will to do the impossible, to change the lay of the battlefield so that divisions become unrecognizable, to grasp the point of the sword, in the hopes of living on to fight another day.

Signifying Nothing

Rescued from comments, with many thanks:

"Your reference to Macbeth surely deserves the full treatment given the state of the PMs popularity, and the uselesness of this planned meeting:

'Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.' Macbeth (Act V, Scene V)."
On very sombre note, I hope that Nakagawa Shōichi is under 24 hour watch. His reputation and future hopes have been utterly ruined--and his family history is none to reassuring as regards the acceptance of setbacks.

Pointlessness, Redefined

A few days ago, our blogging robotics researcher Janne Morén wrote a note of encouragement to Prime Minister Asō Tarō, assuring him that even though he never got near a medal in his trip to the Olympics in 1976 he now had a serious shot the "Least Popular Postwar Prime Minister" gold.

At the time Herr Morén wrote his piece I thought him a bit too hopeful. Surely, though I, when the 9% support level record of Mori Yoshirō came into in his sights, the PM would find a way to step down to avoid a final indignity.

Now, after the Nakagawa affair, I would have to admit Herr Morén's post is almost certain to be prophetic. The PM's stubborn unwillingness to understand that he had to ask Nakagawa to go after the Finance Minister had humiliated himself and the country will likely be the final straw for the public. The newspapers are most assuredly gearing up for a special round of snap polls over the next few days, racing to be the first to publish (next Monday, most likely) a sub-9% result.

Which makes the announcement, made yesterday, seem all the more pointless:

White House to Host Japanese PM Aso Next Week
Fox News

Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso is set to be the first foreign leader to visit the Obama White House next Tuesday.

The sit-down underscores the new administration's outreach to Asia.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, rather than heading to Europe or the Middle East, is currently on her first official trip abroad -- to Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and China.

The visits are a nod to the growing importance of the region to America's economy and security...
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's visit to the White House would signal "a nod to to the growing importance of the region to America's economy and security." A visit by President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea or Prime Minister Wen Jiabao would be" a nod to the growing cetera."

A visit by the president of a moribund, fracturing LDP and a single-digit support Prime Minister of Japan Asō Tarō signifies ... nothing.

Or, at least, nothing within a margin of error.


Later - Over at Observing Japan, Tobias Harris gives this story the treatment it deserves. He also corrects an error in the above.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Resigned to One's Fate

According to The Asahi Shimbun online news, Nakagawa Shōichi has said he will resign as Finance Minister and Minister of State for Financial Services "after the passage of the 2009 Budget and its enabling legislation."

Provided that the Asō Cabinet is still in existence then, I would have to add.

I am looking forward to what Okumura Jun is cooking up. He says he will be posting soon.

Aha, here it is.

Flashback to Back Then

From Shisaku, on September 26, 2007:

My only fear for the overall economy is that Fukuda, Nukaga and Tanigaki will pay far too much attention to the eternal paranoiac tales of Finance Ministry bureaucrats about budget deficits...and insufficient attention to the unraveling of the U.S. housing market, a slow train wreck that will mercilessly stomp upon the revenues and profits of the export sector.
Of course, if you had asked me "Would the U.S. Treasury let Lehman Brothers go bankrupt?" I would have laughed.

A Verb

A・be - (ä-bā')

tr.v. a-be
1. to hospitalize under suspicious circumstances
2. to make disappear from public view at times when behavior has been an embarrassment

Example: "I don't want to jump to conclusions...but it looks as though they've Abe'ed Nakagawa this morning."

The report from Reuters is here.

The Sankei Online has the more complete report, saying that Nakagawa will be skipping has already skipped out of today's Budget Committee interpellations and will miss the afternoon Finance Committee interpellations as well.

As for the above definition, I am referring, of course, to this.

To Bury Him

Television stations last night started showing video of previous "cold medicine incidents" involving Finance Minister Nakagawa Shōichi, with snarky subtitles affixed.

Either Prime Minister Asō Tarō accepts Nakagawa's resignation, or demands it, or they are both gone.

It would be interesting to find out whether or not it was significant that the incident took place at a joint Ministry of Finance-Bank of Japan press conference. If Nakagawa had only had the MOF press club members in the room, the stunning video might have never seen the light of day. With the BOJ press club members in the crowd, however, the broad distribution of the footage would seem a foregone conclusion. Members of the BOJ press club would hardly feel a need to suppress the video--not when it offered such a delicious chance to boost the BOJ's status vis-a-vis the haughty MOF.

At Seventeen

Would somebody please tell me why I labor under the delusion that I understand anything about seikyoku ("political maneuvering")?

On Saturday, I chortled at the paltry number of members of the Diet attending the "Gathering to Promote Adherence to the Privatization of the Post Office"-- the meeting where former prime minister Koizumi Jun'ichirō was all over Prime Minister Asō Tarō like hair on a gorilla.

Chortled I:

"...very few folks at all showed up - just 18 members of the Diet were at the meeting, a testament to the collapse within the LDP of confidence in the Koizumi economic and structural reforms."
Amaterasu am I stupid.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

The tiny number of Koizumi Kids, the first-termers elected in the 2005 election, should have tipped me off.

MTC, how many members of the Diet attending the meeting were from the House of Representatives?

Uh, seventeen. Yamamoto Ichita was the sole attendee from the House of Councillors.

And how many members does the House of Representatives have in it?

Normally 480 members. But there is an open seat right now, so there are only 479.

And what is 2/3 of 479, roughly?


OK. Let's be generous and round down to 319. Now what is the number of members of the House of Representatives who are members of the ruling coalition?

There are 334 members in the ruling coalition. 303 members of the Liberal Democratic Party. 31 members of the New Komeito.

So therefore?

If all the 17 members attending the meeting on Sunday voted with the opposition, then there would not be enough votes--assuming no defections from the opposition and no support from the 9 independents in the House--to pass the second supplementary budget bill using the Article 59 override...because 334 minus 17 is 317, which is less than the 319 "Yes" votes necessary to override a supplementary budget bill should it be rejected or ignored by the House of Councillors. And that goes for not just the second supplementary budget bill but any bill, should the 17 members vote with the opposition.

Only 17 members attended because only 17 needed to attend. Everyone else, particularly the vulnerable first-termers, could stand comfortably away from the action on the sidelines. They might support the Lionheart's attack on the Prime Minister and believe in the Koizumi way...but they were superfluous to the main point of the exercise: showing that Koizumi and his lieutenants have the votes necessary to kill any piece of legislation.

Later - I see over at Global Talk 21 that Okumura Jun has come to the same conclusion. He believes that the government will be able to manipulate the final results via abstentions--but I do not believe the members, facing an election, can skip out on a vital vote in order to manipulate the quorum number. The constituents of any member, even established ones, would revolt. The newspaper editorialists would go absolutely nuts, too.


All apologies to Janis Ian for the title of this post.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Reflections Upon These Men, Broken

Time, pressure and opportunity seem to have finally caught up with Nakagawa Shōichi, the man.

Asleep at the Wheel: Japanese FM Nods Off During G7 Talks
ABC News Blogs

ABC News' Matt Jaffe reports: Finance chiefs from around the world gathered this weekend in Rome to figure out how to solve the worsening global economic crisis, but simply staying awake proved too tough a task.

It appears that Japanese Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa fell asleep at today's meeting of the Group of Seven's finance leaders.

See for yourself (source: APTN / AP):

Granted, the jet lag from a 15-hour flight isn't easy to overcome, but when your nation's economy is predicted to contract by 2.5% this year, per the IMF, and its biggest automakers like Toyota and Nissan are slashing jobs by the tens of thousands, that should be enough to keep you awake.

If not, there's always that time-honored Italian stimulus: espresso.

Ha, ha, ha, espresso. Hilarious.

Nakagawa has a drinking problem. His illness is an open secret in Nagata-chō and among members of the press. It is has been not discussed in public, even indirectly, until now, because--well, hell, I do not know why.

Something about it ruining his chances to become Prime Minister some day -- as if not being honest about the possibility of serious impairment or incapacitation is in the public interest.

This when Nakagawa's father Ichirō took his own life.

Now to the amazement of everyone -- and despite the enormity of the dual tasks of being both finance and financial services minister -- Nakagawa Shōichi kept away from the bottle after his September appointment. While my view of Nakagawa's politics is negative in the extreme, I have, in conversations with journalists and friends, given him credit for fighting a titanic struggle with his disease at a time when the nation has needed him to be clean and sober.

Yes, his humiliating display of public intoxication in Rome could be the result of the effects of cold medicine, an overnight flight in First Class and wine the night before.


Or perhaps it was a complimentary glass of champagne on the flight over, followed by a scotch on the rocks, followed by...or perhaps it was an unfortunately full hotel mini-bar, carefully emptied by a staffer only to be refilled by an unknowing hotel worker.

The best course of action for Nakagawa would be to open up about his illness, rather than offer bizarre and unbelievable scenarios. A frank admission would go a long way toward destigmatizing alcoholism -- a disease that is comparatively rare here.*

Of course, it will hardly help Prime Minister Asō Tarō's reputation for it to become a matter of public record that he retained an alcoholic as the person in charge of the nation's budgets and of its financial system during "the greatest financial crisis of the century."

But frankly, who gives a damn about the PM's reputation? A person who would care more about his reputation than the needs of a sick friend should not be in charge of a government, anyway.

Yes, yes, some of us remember what Asō Tarō did for Abe Shinzō, when Abe confessed in private that he could not carry on as Prime Minister. Some of us even remember what Abe-san and those around him did for Matsuoka Toshikatsu when Matsuoka had reached his breaking point and wanted to resign as Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

“Held out a helping hand” is not the phrase that comes to mind, sadly.

* This for sociological and biological reasons others are better qualified to argue about.

Take Me to the River

It is official. The economy is drowning.

Japan’s GDP Shrinks 12.7%, Most Since 1974 Oil Shock

Feb. 16 -- Japan's economy shrank at an annual 12.7 percent pace last quarter, the most since the 1974 oil shock, amid an unprecedented collapse in exports and production.

Gross domestic product fell for a third straight quarter in the three months ended Dec. 31, the Cabinet Office said today in Tokyo. The median estimate of 26 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News was for an 11.6 percent contraction.

Exports plunged a record 13.9 percent from the third quarter as global demand for Corolla cars and Bravia televisions evaporated. Toyota Motor Corp., Sony Corp. and Hitachi Ltd. -- all of which are forecasting losses -- are firing thousands of workers, heightening the risk a slump in household spending will prolong the recession...
It was surmised that the collapse of the system of national-scale vendor financing, perversely labeled the "Bretton Woods 2" system, would adversely affect the governments of East Asia, the collapse in the value of the dollar socking them with huge losses on their Himalaya-sized currency reserves.

Funny, that's not the way things have turned out.

Indeed, both the dollar and the government's assets are fine. It is the export industries and their employees that have been eviscerated.

I wonder how these figures, coupled with Japan's lack of a functioning government, will impact the relative importances of American "partners" versus its "allies" versus its "friends" in East Asia.

In Detox

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will have a meeting with family members of the abductees--but on her own terms, it seems.

Via Glenn Kessler, in the Washington Post.

Bush had met at the White House with the mother of Megumi Yokota, a 13-year-old who vanished more than three decades ago. But the pleas of Japanese officials that the president not remove North Korea from the list were brushed aside in a bid to secure a final diplomatic victory. Indeed, because of the sensitivity of the issue in the North Korea talks, sources said there was resistance in the State Department to Clinton's interest in holding the meeting.

After her speech, Clinton told reporters she wanted to meet with the families "on a very personal and, you know, human basis. I don't know that I'll be meeting as a secretary of state any more than I will be meeting with them as a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister." Clinton said she attaches "great importance to the abduction issue," and "it's important that their plight not be forgotten."

Very good, Secretary Clinton. Very good. May your gambit drain the political juice out of the meeting!

Along the same lines, Okumura Jun offers some thoughts on the significance of "not be forgotten."

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Takeaway from Tokyo

If one were a member of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's entourage, harried, sleep deprived, on a strict regimen of hurry-up-and-wait, what would be the takeaway, the kicker, the palm-of-the-hand-sized lesson one should come from one's few hours in Japan?

It's this:

The Secretary is in a land ruled by embarrassingly over-aged adolescents, chronological adults whose sole qualifications for high office are the funky electoral victories their ancestors won 50, 60 or 70 years ago.

Despite a democratic constitution, free elections, a fiercely dedicated and meritocratic bureaucracy, plentiful water, rich soil, peace with neighboring countries, absurdly high levels of personal safety, a fanatically hard-working, healthy and educated citizenry--the political classes, in pursuit of their own personal interests, have nearly managed to run the country into the ground.

Politics and governance matter.


P.S. Sure, if it helps, think of it as something like an island Switzerland under a 50 year-long presidency of G. W. Bush.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Jivin' Me Man

Now that the United States has gone to all the trouble of arranging a time for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to meet with Ozawa Ichirō, the head of the Democratic Party of Japan, Ozawa says he is too busy to meet with her. It seems he has some very important campaign events in the countryside he absolutely, positively, has to attend.

There are so many things wrong with Ozawa's act it boggles the imagination.

1) If you are going to skip out on a date with a lady, you need to call to make the cancellation yourself. You do not have Hatoyama Yukio call and make excuses for you.

2) If you want to avoid looking like you are avoiding making difficult choices then stop walking away from situations where you are forced to make difficult choices (yes, some of us DO remember your walking out of the revote of the Indian Ocean dispatch legislation two years ago).

3) You have been playing hookey from Diet sessions, traipsing through the hinterlands, for over a year now. By now you have likely visited nearly every district the DPJ has a even a remote chance of winning.

I could go on--but duty calls.

Ichirō, booobie, just tell me you want to be taken seriously.


Later - OK, so now Ozawa is going to meet Secretary Clinton.

No, I am not going to apologize, Wataru-san.

There never should have ever been a question about his meeting her. That the Democratic Party of Japan ever let there be the slightest doubt about Ozawa's availability exposes a staggering lack of gravitas in the DPJ's central leadership.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Why Should Secretary Clinton Meet Ozawa Ichirō?

Because Ozawa and his allies control the House of Councillors, meaning they can stymie, delay and claw their way through all kinds of legislation and documentation (remember when they asked for the refueling logs of the Indian Ocean oilers, then the courses of all the ships that had received fuel from them? Aiiieah!)

Let us pray the meeting does not descend into farce, as when he met with Ambassador Schieffer.

The Americans, who are in a hell of a hurry on a whole lot of fronts, need Ozawa to stop eating up the clock, waiting for the election. They need Japan to speed things up, and -- as it was nearly two decades ago -- it is Ozawa, among all of Japan's politicians, who can deliver the necessary votes for the United States.

Anyone who does not see this is locked in a pre-July 29, 2007 mindset.

That he also may be in charge of Japan later this year is just sauce on top.

Stunned and Bleeding

"Rather than feeling anger, I just have to laugh. I am just totally fed up astonished and disgusted."*

Koizumi Jun'ichirō took office in 2001 with a raft of policy options in his pockets--but a single, strategic objective in mind. Policies came and went, were amended, watered down, twisted and rejected. However, Koizumi's pursuit of the objective remained unshaken, even as his support tumbled to 33% in January of 2005.

Imbue the prime ministership with an awesome power.

His every gesture, his every shift and pivot was calculated to draw attention, funding and loyalty away from other centers. Rather than just be a member of the Diet elected to the presidency of Liberal Democratic Party through concessions and promises to party leaders, Koizumi created the position of the nationally-elected prime minister, winning election thanks to overwhelming support from the rank and file in the local chapters -- persons his policies were destined to betray.

They did not care. They saw in him a winner.

The key to Koizumi's genius was a simple proposition: when the prime minister says something, he means what he says. When Koizumi promised he would visit Yasukuni on the August 15 festival day, despite the fury such an action would provoke on the Korean peninsula and in China, he went ahead and did it anyway (Oh, he took his time about it...and gave the Koreans and Chinese lots of different looks at halfway to a classic Yasukuni sanpai. When they refused to countenance any of his less fraught options, he let them have the full August 15 extravaganza.) When he warned the LDP members of the House of Councillors to stand with him on the postal reform bill, otherwise he would dissolve the House of Representatives, many a pompous twit thought he was joking.

He was not.

The people loved him for it.

One of his formers rivals in the post office privatization fracas --I believe it was Kamei Shizuka -- actually said, at some point during the Abe Administration:

"I opposed nearly everything Koizumi was trying to do. But damnation, when he said something, you knew where he stood on the issue!"

Koizumi's successors have frittered, fumbled or tossed away his legacy, mostly to save their own political skins on some issue in the short term.

However, on Friday when Prime Minister Asō Tarō, in his usual breezy, too honest way, admitted that he had voted for the postal privatization laws and had continued serving as minister of posts and telecommunications -- even while in his heart of hearts opposing the legislation -- he did not just repudiate the Koizumi legacy, he danced a jig upon the prone form of Koizumi's greatest achievement.

Even Koizumi, who as a part of his plan to burnish the post of prime minister had refused to criticize his successors, even when they committed dumb, easily remedied mistakes, could no longer keep his peace.

"The most important thing in politics is a sense of trust. When the word of a prime minister cannot be trusted, one cannot contest an election."

Whether Koizumi's bitter laughter will mean anything is hard to say. The press went bananas at the former much-beloved PM saying that he can only laugh at the current occupant of the prime ministerial office.

Within the Diet and the LDP, however, the response to Koizumi's criticism was little more than a shrug. While the old familiar faces from the glory days were present at yesterday's "Gathering to Promote the Adherence to the Privatization of the Post Office" -- Koizumi, Nakagawa Hidenao, Koike Yuriko, Shiozaki Yasuhisa, Takebe Tsutomu, Ishihara Nobuteru, Katayama Satsuki, Satō Yukari and Yamamoto Ichita -- very few new folks showed up. Indeed, very few folks at all showed up - just 18 members of the Diet were at the meeting, a testament to the collapse within the LDP of confidence in the Koizumi economic and structural reforms. Most stunningly, only six of the eighty-one members of the Koizumi Kiddie Korps - first-termers like Koike, Satō, Fujita Mikio, Katayama, Ono Jirō and Hirotsu Motoko -- showed.

This is not a revolution in the making, my friends.

At least not from within the LDP.

The game changer will have to come from elsewhere.


* "Okoru yori waracchau kurai, tada tada akirete iru."

** "Seiji ni ichiban daiji na no ha shiraikan da. Sōri no hatsugen ga shinjirarenakereba senkyo wa tatakaenai."

Later - Upon reflection, "astonished and disgusted" probably more closely cleaves to the dual meanings of akirete iru in this context.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Honking Bad Time

Over at Observing Japan Tobias Harris gives a "heads up" on the government's desperate bid to arrange a meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the families of the DPRK abductees.

Oh Amaterasu, please. No.

The Secretary obviously cannot avoid this appointment, if the Asō government seeks to arrange it. To refuse to meet with the abductee families or even "have no time in my busy schedule" for them would be disastrous. It would be the ruination of the visit and possibly Secretary Clinton's entire relationship with Japan during her term in office.

I have this fantasy, though, that Secretary Clinton turns the Aso Government's attempted squeeze play into an embarrassment...

"Minister Nakasone and I also talked about the issue of those abducted by the DPRK, whose families I had a chance to meet yesterday. I told Minister Nakasone that the United States will never forget the families and will do its utmost to seen a resolution the abductees issue. I told him that as a mother of a child more precious to me than life itself, I would never forget the terrible crimes dones against these blameless individuals. I then urged Minister Nakasone to reinforce Japan's position on the abductee issue vis-a-vis world opinion by signing The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of Child Abduction, thereby bringing Japan's practices and laws in line with the 81 other other signatories to the Convention, and immesurably strengthening Japan's hand in its negotiations with the DPRK."

What's good for the goose is good for the gander, or so they say.

How About That Election?

From the Asahi Shimbun poll, conducted over the weekend:

"Should there be a dissolution of the House of Representatives as soon as possible, or is it not that necessary to hurry?"

As soon as possible 60%
Not that necessary to hurry 31%

Still quite not at "so mad I could spit" level, but close.

The Carnage Continues

More data, expanding on this morning's post.

-- The results of the Hōdō 2001 poll, conducted last Thursday (February 5) and published in this morning's Sankei Shimbun.

Which party will you vote for in the next House of Representatives election?

Support level for the Asō Tarō Cabinet:

19.8% Support
75.0% Oppose

Person most suited to be prime minister, post-Asō?

Later -

- From the Kyōdō News poll, done over the weekend.

Support level for the Asō Tarō Cabinet:

18.1% Support
70.9% Oppose

- From the NHK News poll, done over Friday, Saturday and Sunday

Support level for the Asō Tarō Cabinet:

18% Support
71% Oppose

This Party is Over

This Cabinet, this prime minister, this party... es finito, Francisco.

Support for the Cabinet, in blue, according to this morning's Yomiuri Shimbun:

Support for the Cabinet, in red, according to the Asahi Shimbun:

19.7% supporting the Cabinet in the poll conducted by the loyalist Yomiuri. 72.4% opposed.

14% support in the Asahi poll. 73% opposed.

This is beyond ugly.

The Asahi finds an unprecendented 42% vs. 22% split in proportional vote preference in between the Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Democratic Party. The Yomiuri finds a similar 40% versus 26% split.

Heck, that is not a split -- that is a gulf. The DPJ has creamed the LDP in past elections when the polls just prior to election day had the LDP still slightly ahead. What kind of Amaterasu-awful thrashing is the LDP going to suffer in the next electoral clash?

As I told to Okumura Jun a few weeks ago, you can be dead certain that DPJ Leader Ozawa Ichirō is going to dump party rules and start putting receptionists, drivers --heck, anything in DPJ headquarters and offices with a pulse -- on the proportional candidate lists.

In a result that gives all persons resembling horned toads a reason to beam, the Yomiuri poll find an astonishing 40% of the populace thinking the little-loved Ozawa should be prime minister, while only 24% believe Asō Tarō should be.

Mere words cannot describe how bad these numbers are.

Might as well let the fat boy sing about it - about the cruel fate of the clown whose show must go on.

Unfairest of Warnings

Oh gosh golly, what fun!

According to the Sankei Shimbun, Air Self Defense Forces General Tamogami Toshio (Ret.) will be giving a lecture on March 1 at 14:00 at the Holiday Inn in Torrance, California.

For tickets, send an email to:

Oh boy, will someone please inform the Chinese and Korean communities of Greater Los Angeles about this fantastic opportunity to meet and interact with The Man himself?

More Re Green

Steve from comments writes, regarding my disquiet at the revelation that Dr. Michael Green was a prominent guest at the dinner briefing for Secretary Clinton:

You're right, she should definitely stay away from the guy that probably knows more than anyone about Japan politically, and has the network and experience there.
I imagine you'd prefer she call you, or Tobias Harris, or some other person that's great at trashing the LDP (talk about fish in a barrel) but never offers a real solution but can act as cheerleader for the DPJ.
No, I do not think I would be appropriate. I talk way too much and always way out of line. Mr. Harris, who is both sweetness and sincerity personified, would probably have looked at the guest list, then humbly demurred.

My difficulty with Dr. Green's attendance comes neither from his contacts nor from his experience nor from his knowledge. He has worked and works within a bi-partisan consensus in Washington, crafting a broad-based foreign policy. He is well-liked, well-regarded and well-known in Tokyo.

I do not have a problem with his having worked in the Bush White House (I must admit, I blew it on this point--more evidence that I am not an appropriate person to attend the Secretary's dinner). It was possible to work in the Bush Administration, be tough on the Democrats in Washington and still come out with a reputation for probity.

My problems are three-fold:

- Dr. Green's image in Japan is not bi-partisan but strictly partisan. He has for years given warnings about what could happen should Democrats take control in the United States. This has set up a terrible dynamic in Japan. Even now the mainstream here is still locked in "Republicans -- Good for Japan. Democrats -- Bad for Japan" knee-jerk mindset.

Dr. Green chose to contribute to an atmosphere of worry and mistrust about the Democratic Party. He really should not have.

(I must admit that House Democrats have played to prejudices about Democrats with the "buy American steel only" provisions of HR1. Here in Tokyo, the public is not given any idea of why the provision is included. All that gets broadcast/printed is that HR1 is a "buy American" bill. The Commerce folks at Embassy in Akasaka must be in a state of catatonic shock, watching decades of public relations work swirling down the drain.)

- The message of the Obama presidency is "change." You cannot have change if the same twelve persons are always in the room. This is not a problem with Dr. Green--this is a problem with Washington. The debacle of the Daschle nomination is this problem writ large.

There are dozens of Japan scholars in the United States on a par with Dr. Green in terms of his analytical skills. If "change" is what the relationship need, then would it be so hard for those heretofore unheard voices to be given their shot?

Yes, Dr. Green has been extremely important to the Japan-U.S. relationship. But he has been the point man during a previous Administration. It is time for new blood.

- Members of the Bush Administration Asia team committed a major blunder in failing to speak bluntly to the Japanese government and the Japanese people about the DPRK abductions issue. Having the Yokotas visit with President Bush was a nightmarishly bad decision, setting the stage for an ultimate, inevitable "betrayal" of Japan over the DPRK terrorism delisting.

Dr. Green possibly did not have a part in the decision to defer to Japanese government wishes on the abductions issue. The decision to go full bore may have been taken after he left government employ.

Nevertheless, an ability to tell friends bad news is an important trait in a confidant. If Dr. Green, in his exalted position, had set about tamping down the expectations of the Japanese government and the Japanese people (yes, I know the opinion poll results on the importance of the resolution of the abduction issue) then so much pain and resentment could have been avoided.

Now on this last point, on finding the balance between negotiations with the DPRK on its nuclear and missile programs and standing with the Japanese government on the abductions issue, "Steve" may have me hanging over a precipice. Dr. Green could have been invited to the dinner in order to present the views of "those who think Christopher Hill erred in his negotiations with the DPRK and in his handling of Japanese sensibilities. " There are specific turning points where Chris Hill could have handled things better--there always are, in everyone's professional life. Dr. Green may, with his intimate knowledge of all the participants, may be able to identify specific errors.

If this were so I only hope the guest list featured a few persons holding the opposite view -- that "Chris Hill did a heckuva job given that the official Japanese position was insane."

Because that view has been given no play at all here in Tokyo.

Later - As for the matter of the "trashing" of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) by Mr. Harris and myself, the entire spectrum of Japanese opinion, from Akahata on the left to the Sankei Shimbun on the right, up to and including the sycophantic Yomiuri Shimbun all would agree that the LDP has done a pretty fine job of trashing itself. Indeed, a survey of political reporters from all the different publications, asking the question:

"Is the Liberal Democratic Party a party, right now?"

would have a surprising number and variety of writers answering, "No."

Monday, February 09, 2009

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (2009 version)

Excuse me, but can anyone explain why he was invited?

Clinton Packs Full Asia Agenda for First Trip as Secretary of State
The Washington Post


As preparation for her trip, Clinton last night had dinner with about a dozen experts on East Asia, seeking ideas and proposals. The dinner was organized by State's new head of policy planning, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and the guests included Michael J. Green, a former top adviser to President George W. Bush on Asia, economist Nicholas Lardy of the Peterson Institute for International Economics and Wendy Sherman, an Asia expert who headed Obama's State Department transition team.

The gentleman who said unkind things about the Democratic Party (both the U.S. and Japan versions) every time the Yomiuri Shimbun or NHK called, fishing for a quote? The gentleman who served in the confines of the Bush White House for five years, without complaint? The gentleman who, knowing well the stakes, could go ahead and publish a brief in November 2007 entitled, "The Abductee Issue is a Test of America's Strategic Credibility," winning brownie points with the Japanese right for a brief that, when one reads it, makes a rather different set of points?

This is the gentleman invited to the dinner acquainting the new Democratic Secretary of State with the state of relations with Japan?

In the name of all that is decent, should not Dr. Green be under quarantine for about, let us say, one full Administration? Are there not other, less angina-producing sources of information on Japan, persons who might have, at some point, said something nice about Democrats (both Japanese and American versions) or at least said nothing at all? Or is this a case of "I want my friends close--and my enemies even closer"?

Secretary Clinton, whatever Dr. Green may have offered you at dinner, please take it cum grano salis.


While the event has only a tangetial connection to Japan-- via the role Dr. A. Q. Khan might have played in instigating the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's as-yet-unproven highly enriched uranium (HEU) program, the purported discovery of which unraveled the 1994 Agreed Framework that had been keeping the DPRK's plutonium program under lock and key -- the release of Dr. Khan by Pakistan's Supreme Court seems a slap in the face of global efforts at non-proliferation.

Ejaz Haider of the Daily Times of Pakistan does a heck of a job putting the release in perspective.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Dead Horse Kicking

Dear Secretary Clinton:

You love this blessed land so much you are going to make it the first stop on your first excursion as Secretary of State.

We have official assurances of this.

Though I may be getting a bit ahead of myself in sending you this little memo, I felt it not out of place to toss you a very brief warning in advance of what I am sure is going to be an avalanche of complete and total nonsense, some of it criminally obtuse advice on what to concentrate on while you are here.

In short, one would have to look the recent historical record over once, twice, thrice to find a worse week for a prime minister of Japan.

- In front of the Liberal Democratic Party leadership council Prime Minister Asō Tarō muttered that he would not be participating in the cash handout plan, the government project that had cost his party dearly in terms of political support. When reports of this boneheaded utterance appeared in the press, the PM, before the members of the Diet denied he had ever said such a thing...which meant that, according to the PM, members of the LDP leadership council are liars.

Calling your fellow party leaders liars -- not the best way to maintain one's support within the party, would you not agree?

- A leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, during Diet committee interpellations, called the Prime Minister a cheat and a thief-- and the committee chair, a member of the PM's own party, gave the legislator only a verbal warning.

- Again in the Diet, the PM called into question the privatization of the Post Office, asking whether or not the break up plan was really feasible--casting away the last tenuous line to Koizumi Jun'ichirō, whose audacious call for a House of Representative election in August 2005 after a House of Councillors rejection of his plan for postal privatization plan led to the greatest LDP majority in over 25 years...which sort of sparked a frenzy among LDP members of the House of Representatives who would rather not be associated with a prime minister who thinks the people made a mistake back in 2005.

- Speaking of The Celebrated Mr. K, a Yomiuri Shimbun/ Waseda University poll found that three years and three prime ministers later, the Lionheart is still running away with the title of "Who would be the most appropriate person to be prime minister right now?"

Which means, as anyone in Nagata-chō could tell you, "reform is dead."

Yes, Secretary Clinton, that was sarcasm.

- Meanwhile, out in the economy...

[one would hardly know from what is being debated within the ruling coalition that Japan indeed has such a thing]

... this week saw the best-regarded companies laying off permanent workers (a no-no around here) and being pummeled by heretofore unprecendented bad news (here and here and here and, oh well, why not this too) . ..leading some legislators to propose that the government out "Bernanke" Fed Governor Ben Bernanke.

Which is another way of saying, "We have reached the stupidity event horizon."

So if at a reception you are asked to crack the ceremonial sake cask, please give it your most vigorous, most "Japan valueing" blow. Then raise your little wooden box, wish your hosts the very best, tell then how much this meeting means to you and, immediately, forget all their faces.

You will likely not be meeting any of them ever again.



Friday, February 06, 2009

Forget Marquess of Queensbury Rules

"You are a thief of the people's taxes."

"You a habitual perpetrator of 'I will do it!' 'I will do it! fraud." *

"You are a fraudster for the ages." **
Sure, the Democratic Party of Japan's Maehara Seiji got a stiff reprimand from committee chairman Ōta Seishirō for leveling these accusations at Prime Minister Asō Tarō in Diet committee session on Wednesday.

But his remarks were not stricken from the record.

The Yomiuri Shimbun saw the attack as a clear violation of the rules.

Maehara Seiji swings with a glove marked "Fraud" as an amazed Asō Tarō ducks away from the blow. He appeals to the reader, asking, "Hey, isn't that an illegal punch?"
No, Francisco, it is not. Not when members of your own party are unafraid of calling you a liar for claiming you did not say something that numerous persons heard you say earlier this week.

Get with the program, Yomiuri. Your default mode is to fawn upon the leader, whomever he is -- as long as he pays court to Watanabe Tsuneo, of course.

Asō Tarō is not the country's leader. He's the country's punching bag.


* Maehara told the PM he was committing "Yaru yaru sagi" ("I'll do it! I'll do it!" fraud) - a play on the term "ore ore sagi" ("It's me! It's me" fraud). Maehara was referring to the Prime Minister's multiple postponements of a House of Representatives election.

** Kidai no sagishi

Cartoon image courtesy the morning edition of the Yomiuri Shimbun of February 5, 2009.

Coordination and collusion

I hate NHK today.

This morning's seven o'clock news started with an incomprehensibly mundane story about the capture of low-rent criminal. The young punk had attempted a lame swindle involving an elderly gentleman, his son and a motorcycle messenger service, and had got himself arrested for his trouble.

Nothing in the crime was particularly clever or newsworthy. The young swindler called an elderly man, claiming to be the man's son. Since many telephones display the number of the caller, the swindler started his spiel with the lie, "Hi, it's me, your son. I have changed my cell phone number. Here is my new one."

A few days later, the swindler called again, asking for money for some odd emergency. "Send the money via motorcycle messenger to this address," the swindler explained.

The old man did as he was told, except for one slight modification. After he had received the first call, he had called the police department, telling them he was likely the target of some kind of scam. The officers told him to wait for the swindler to call again, then call them with the detailed description of whatever it was the caller wanted.

The police promised to take care of the rest.

So it was that when the criminal opened the door to the motorcycle messenger, instead of the cash he was expecting he received a fine pair of handcuffs--the motorcycle messenger being a policeman in disguise.

That was it.

The whole story.

The top news story on the national broadcaster's morning newscast.

Now I had paid special attention to the story because the introduction had been shamelessly misleading:

"There has been an arrest in an attempted swindle where a policeman impersonated a motorcycle messenger."

I thought it was going to be a juicy case of police corruption, or an account of a dastardly clever ruse. When it turned out that the swindle was a tiny, unimportant incident and that the policeman's having dressed as a motorcycle messenger was not an element of the crime, I was ticked off.



My furor, however, was tempered with befuddlement. The voice over had been at half speed, as if the journalist were speaking to a room full of four year olds. The story was also wildly overproduced, with reenactments of the telephone calls (ominously lit and shot from behind, as always) and minutely detailed sub-titles.

"What the hell is this," I finally had to yell at the television set,"The news for codgers? The lead story on the national news is the arrest of an ore-ore fraudster?"

"And what's with the reenactments of a crime committed only yesterday?" I thought quietly. "What producer would OK such a wild waste of crew and broadcast time?"

"What the hell is going on?"

Of course, it was The Lawyer who explained it all to me:

"Don't you know? February is National 'Let's Stop Telephone Fraud'* Month."

"You mean?"


"So it goes to the top of the newscasts, with everyone speeeaaaakkiiinng veeerrrryyy slllllooooooowwwwwwllllly, so that even the demented can understand?"

"Of course."

I have written about the apparent collusion between the producers of NHK, the National Police Agency and other government organs before -- so the shenanigans on this morning's newscast should not have upset me. I know that the NPA gives NHK a heads up on every arrest so that crime may be presented the way the police would like it to be viewed.

Upset I nevertheless was, infuriated that NHK had tricked me ("There has been an arrest in an attempted swindle where a policeman impersonated a motorcycle messenger.") into surrendering even a gram of my usual caution.

NHK, without shame or sense of irony, had defrauded me.


* Officially, February is "Let's Eradicate Wire Transfer Fraud Month" (furikomi sagi no bokumetsu gekkan)... which makes the story even more annoying, since there was no wire transfer involved.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Briefly, Before I Think

As regards Prime Minister Asō Tarō's purported declaration to his fellow Liberal Democratic Party leaders that he will not be accepting the 20,000 yen due him through the 2 trillion yen handout proposal, the prime minister today is denying all the published accounts of what he supposedly said.

Reports had him at the meeting, thinking out loud that as a rich man he could not accept the government's handout. That the point of the proposition is for every taxpayer to receive the money, then spend it, thus giving the economy a kick in the pants, has been the the defense that Francisco has been repeating over and over in the Diet.

Were we dealing with almost anyone else (former prime minister Mori Yoshirō being a notable exception) Prime Asō Tarō's contemptuous dismissal of the news reports - "That is not something that would be said at a meeting of the executive board" -- would have some weight. Unfortunately, dear Francisco suffers from an extraordinary lightness of being: the course of his life is strewn with similar incidents of incredibly inappropriate phrases at indelicate times.

As for the plan to save Japan's economy by shrinking the size of the Diet and cutting the salaries of Diet members -- a trial balloon that floated in from out of nowhere -- it seems to be the handiwork of the New Kōmeitō. The party will be submitting a bill abolishing 30 district seats in the House of Representative, reducing the number of district seats from 300 to 270 and total House of Representatives seats from 480 to 450. New Kōmeitō Secretary-General Kitagawa Kazuo is quoted as saying he wants the bill cutting Diet salaries to pass in this Diet session.

First, that the New Kōmeitō's fingerprints are all over this plan to mess with the number of Diet members comes as no surprise. It pushed hard for the 2000 cut that dropped the number of members of the House of Representatives from 500 to 480.

Second, are New Kōmeitō's leaders out of their blinking minds? Oh sure, they can go to their own constituents with the message, "You see, we are like you, tightening our belts, sadly letting surplus people go" -- as if the Diet were a medium-sized law factory or a big, unhappy family.

If the whole point of policy making is to play pantomimes for your voters, sure, this is fantastic theater.

If, on the other hand, the nation's legislators have a duty to focus their attention on measures that could keep the nation from hurtling toward economic breakdown -- and not upon diddling around with the Diet's makeup or making symbolic reductions in the salaries paid out to the members -- then wow, is this ever a bad pair of proposals.

The corrosive effects of the New Kōmeitō's constant foistings of nonsense projects (the 2 trillion yen handout is also though to be one of their works of legislative art) upon the government is killing the LDP...and rule #1 for parasitic lifeforms is never kill your host.

Asō Tarō's World of I Don't Care What the Point Might Be

The last time we left Our Intrepid Leader, he was in the Diet stating that he was definitely, positively sure that the 2 trillion yen cash handout plan in the second supplementary budget was a crucial, I say a CRUCIAL part of the economic stimulus package. When the folks receive their 12,000 or so from the government, they will spend, I tell you, spend that money. The jolt of consumption from the cash handout burning its way out of everyone's pockets will provide jobs, boost the stock market and stop climate change in its tracks.

OK, maybe not that last one.

The cash-from-the-government plan was so important to the economic well-being of the country that, even though over 70% of the so-called electorate hated the handout plan, the Prime Minister, nay his entire party, would choose to take a huge hit in popularity rather than trim the provision from the bill.

Which is precisely why Prime Minister Asō Tarō on February 2 told his fellow members of the Liberal Democratic Party central leadership that he will not take (ore wa morawane) the cash handout.

[Imagine a vast, black ocean of silence, lapping on a stony shore.]

The Prime Minister explained that it would be unseemly for a person as fabulously wealthy as himself to take the money--which, Amaterasu love him, is pure, unadulterated Asō Tarō: fabulously wealthy, sentimental, cognizant of how the world looks to the little man, obsessed with appearances and incapable of thinking through anything.

True to himself, he remains. The burdens of political office have not changed him a bit.

Too bad that both of the jobs he holds sort of require that he understand the point of a policy, particularly a policy has cost his party so dearly in terms of its credibility.

With this revelation, the search for his replacement has just been kicked up one gear.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Flaccid Power

Oh Amaterasu on high, what kind of flim-flam flummery is this?

How Japan Could Save the World

Don't laugh—Japan has the skills and the resources, and has made huge contributions before.

By Christian Caryl - As the chaos off Somalia has forced more and more countries to address high-seas piracy, one nation stands out for its proven track record in the field. For years, the Strait of Malacca—a narrow but vital waterway between Malaysia and Indonesia—was bedeviled by buccaneers. Who came to the rescue? Japan, a nation not known for its willingness to take on international threats. Yet Tokyo quietly rose to the challenge, providing training to regional militaries, setting up an information-sharing center that allowed local security forces to respond quickly to attacks and providing Coast Guard ships to the ill-equipped Indonesian Navy. Japan's efforts were highly effective, helping reduce piracy incidents in the area from 150 in 2003 to a third of that just three years later.

After seemingly endless dithering, politicians in Tokyo also recently agreed to dispatch warships to the Gulf of Aden—but only to protect Japanese ships and cargo, which will limit any international good will the country earns in return. And the mission will be so entangled in caveats and conditions that its effectiveness will be highly questionable.

What gives? Japan, it seems, has become the Hamlet of Asia, endlessly fretting about its waning world influence while failing to do much about it. Some analysts explain the diffidence by pointing to the drawn-out recession of the 1990s, which left the country demoralized and mired in debt. Others suggest that Japan's half-century military reliance on the United States created a culture of dependency and timidity. Some even blame the lack of mojo on the country's aging population, or its strikingly mediocre politicians.

There's a core of truth to all these charges. Japan's government often seems to lack the will to assert itself. This reluctance is particularly problematic today, when the world is desperately looking for ways out of the economic crisis. But there's reason for hope. In some cases, such as Southeast Asian piracy, Japan has already made real contributions to global problems—and hinted at a way forward on other issues. And later this year, when Japanese voters go to the polls, they're expected to deal a stinging defeat to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has governed the country essentially unchallenged since World War II. If the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) forms the next government, it will face a remarkable opportunity to launch bold new initiatives—even though its current positions are a bit of a muddle. Japanese voters are likely to support decisive moves, given their frustrations with the LDP's fecklessness...
If you are going to claim that Japanese non-military contributions to piracy control in the Malacca Straits proved crucial to the suppression of the number and/or severity of attacks, could you please offer one person, preferably an Indonesian, Malaysian or Singaporean security expert, to back up your assertion? Otherwise, it sounds like you are regurgitating government or an amakudari NGO's propaganda.

As for the high state of muddle of the Democratic Party of Japan's foreign policy pronouncements or the public's champing at the bit in the hope that Japan will take on a more activist role in security affairs, where are the examples, the quotes from government documents and the results of surveys? What is so "muddled" about the DPJ's drumbeat of "Hell no, time to go (home)?" What foreign policy adventure did the public recently cheer on? Not the GMSDF Iraq dispatch, to be sure, which a majority of the populace opposed.

"How Japan Can Save the World," tootles the title...but no payoff comes. What Japan can do seems pitifully small compared to the accumulated wealth of the country, or as compared to its latent geostrategic capabilities or human resources.

Is it possible that Mr. Caryl has been tasked with responding to Hannah Beech's article of late last year, keeping his magazine on a par with its major rival? If so I feel pity for him -- because Beech's article was insufferable.

As for the broader thesis -- that one can win friends and influence people through being exceptionally nice -- well, frankly no. Exceptionally generous, exceptionally thoughtful, possibly. Willing to face death to protect the defenseless, definitely.

Exceptionally nice? Uh, no.