Saturday, January 28, 2012

Comment Moderation

I do this with regrets but due to a libelous statement made in one of the comments to this blog, I will now have to moderate comments.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Rocket Science

James Saft, a columnist for Bloomberg Reuters, purportedly one of the world's most influential finance and business wire services, has a interesting column out today. Interesting as in "How interesting it is that this piece got past the editors." (Link)

Saft offers a dire scenario that should give any possible foreign investor in Japan's government bond market pause:
At current very low interest rates - 10-year government bonds yield a paltry 1.0 percent - Japan has ample room for maneuver. Take that rate to 2.0 percent and Japan's annual interest bill doubles.
Call that bold; call it counterintuitive. Call it 1+1=2.

(Many thanks to reader JM for putting the scenario into perspective for me.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Very Kind Of Them #6

The East Asian Forum has published an essay of mine on the reshuffle of the Cabinet (Link).

A few of my snarkier observations were wisely excised by the wonderful editors of the EAF. Unwisely, I will post them here.

Re: The consumption tax

Once the proposed hike in the consumption tax is complete, the tax rate will still be below European value added taxes and in line with Australia's and New Zealand's goods and services taxes. It will be unpopular because it is regressive and reaches out to tap the many elements of society who, though one subterfuge or another, manage to avoid or evade income taxes.

Re: Okada Katsuya

Known by his critics as "The Taliban" for his unswerving views, Okada reportedly refused the position of chief cabinet secretary when Noda formed his first cabinet on September 2 of last year. Okada purportedly preferred to stay out of the limelight in preparation for a challenge for the post of party leader at the next party leadership election, scheduled for September this year. Okada's unpopularity with middle-ranking members of the DPJ, who remember how he led the party to ignominious defeat in the 2005 House of Representatives election, also played a part in his decision to sit back and cool his heels for a while.

Re: Matsubara Jin

The appointment of Jin Matsubara, one of the rare foreign policy and security hawks in the DPJ, should probably be seen a sop to the families of those abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s. The families of the abductees and their supporters have felt that the DPJ has given them short shrift, as the during the 2 1/2 years the DPJ has been in power the abductees portfolio has changed hands seven times.

The appointment of hardliner Matsubara to the main homeland security and the abductees positions makes it unlikely that Japan will make a meaningful contribution to discussions among regional actors of new strategies of dealing with the DPRK in the aftermath of the passing of Kim Jong-il and his replacement by his son Jong-un. Instead, Japanese insistence on a "final resolution" of the abductees issue will continue to be throwing sand into the gears of any proposed shift in policies.

Re: Hirano Hirofumi

As for the appointment of Hirofumi Hirano, it is bald attempt on the part of prime minister Noda to curry favor with the group of DPJ parliamentarians loyal to former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama. Hirano put in a disgraceful performance as chief cabinet secretary during the Hatoyama Cabinet and was ineffective as a negotiator with his opposition counterparts during his recent stint as parliamentary affairs chairman.

Re: Ozawa Ichiro and the Kizuna Party

The two ministers who had to be replaced after being censured, Yasuo Ichikawa and Kenji Yamaoka, are close associates of Ichiro Ozawa, the DPJ's problematic former leader and major power broker. Ozawa, who is both under party disciplinary sanction and criminal indictment, still managed to attract 109 Diet members, most of them members of the DPJ, to an anti-consumption tax study group session he led immediately after the main DPJ party convention on January 16.

Rumors that Ozawa loyalists might turn against prime minister Noda in a no-confidence vote this spring or even form a new party in the near future gained considerably more credibility in the last days of December when nine members of the DPJ with strong bonds to Ozawa left the party and founded Kizuna, a new, anti-consumption tax, anti-Trans Pacific Partnership party.

Storm Clouds Gathering, But To What End?

Today the Diet opens its 180th regular session. It promises to be a murderous one, with absolutely no quarter being given by or cooperation coming from the opposition Liberal Democratic, New Komeito and Your parties.

Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko has emanated an aura of preternatural calm in advance of his policy speech today but it masks an intense amount of pressure upon him and his Cabinet. To every single piece of legislation or proposed legislation there is heated, almost hysterical opposition, not only between the ruling coalition and the opposition, but between the coalition partners and even between large segments of the Diet membership of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan. Even the budget, which would normally be guaranteed passage by the DPJ's huge majority in the House of Representatives, is threatened by its contents, most particularly the plan to restart construction of the Yamba Dam -- a plan that is anathema to what seems a clear majority of DPJ Diet members (just why the Noda government caved in to Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation and Tourism pressure on this issue late last year never made the pages or the programs of the mainstream media).

The Fall 2011 extraordinary session saw a miserable 34% passage rate among bills presented to the Diet, the worst rate of bill passage seen since the Heisei Era began. The upcoming regular session, with its series of extremely controversial and radical bills, may end up deadlocked at an even lower level of success.

The question on everyone's lips is whether or not a state of crisis in this upcoming session of the Diet will trigger a House of Representatives election.

Three scenarios predominate:

1) The House of Representatives refuses to consider or rejects the debt ceiling and law modification legislation necessary to implement the Fiscal 2012 budget, triggering a deadlock so tight the prime minister must call an election (a dream of the leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party).

2) The Noda government negotiates a settlement with the LDP and the New Komeito whereby they will band together to pass the budget enabling legislation and the raising of the consumption tax in return for a dissolution of the Diet and an election (a dream of political journalists).

3) Internal dissension within the DPJ over the consumption tax rise grows so fevered that Prime Minister Noda, in a fit of pique, calls an election to rid the party of its of its anti-tax faction (the dream of those who believe Ozawa Ichiro is the black hand behind all of the DPJ's internal problems).

Arithmetic, Ozawa's ongoing trial and recent polling results would argue for deals being struck, possible leading to or made after the toppling of Tanigaki Sadakazu from his perch atop the LDP.

If an election were held prior to the predicted end of the regular session of the Diet and/or with no important legislation passed, the DPJ would lose a huge number of seats, particularly in the rural districts. It was a once-in-a-half-century change of heart on the part of voters that enabled the DPJ to capture these bastions of LDP power in 2009. The party would be loath to part with them.

As for the internal divisions of the DPJ, they are very much as "all bark and no bite" affair. The most loudly barking groups in the party are those most vulnerable to losing their seats in the next election (hence the volume of their barking). They know quite well that if they gum up the works on consumption tax legislation or Japan's entering into negotiations on joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership so much so that Prime Minister Noda feels compelled to hold an election, they are electoral toast. The direct followers of or those ready to bend an ear to Ozawa Ichiro, who love to look around the room and admire their numbers whenever Ozawa deigns to bless them with his words of political wisdom, are also numbly aware that any breakaway party with Ozawa at its head or under his thrall will get thrashed in an election.

Furthermore, neither the DPJ nor the LDP want to go before the voters right now. In a stunning recent poll by the Mainichi Shimbun only 17% of the voters supported the DPJ and 16% supported the LDP (E). The two major parties are terrified of non-mainstream parties, either the Your Party or the proto-national party being formed by Osaka City mayor Hashimoto Toru (J). Even the normally lock-step the-LDP-is-my-party-right-or-wrong Yomiuri Shimbun is terrified of the prospects of a populist revolution and is counseling the LDP to get off its duff and cooperate with the DPJ-led government (E).

So much thunder and lightning will be evident today and through the next two weeks, as the governing and opposition parties get their turns at the rostrum.

Whether the typhoon will bear down upon the land, however, remains surprisingly uncertain.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Second Tsunami

"If the government treated us like adults…"

That is the killer takeaway phrase in Martin Fackler/Makiko Inoue’s piece in The New York Times this morning (E). If the government, that is to say the national bureaucracy, for politicians are (strangely) absent from this drama, would treat the rest of Japan's citizens as adults, or would at least presume that the Japanese citizenry over 20 years of age would act like adults, with adult levels of skepticism and caution, the collapse in trust in the national government now occurring might be avoided.

Several factors have delayed the onset of the wave of disgust in government that is now driving the country in unexpected directions. First and foremost was the shocking scale of the disaster and the need to focus all available emotional and psychological resources on the rescue, recovery and short-term remediation effort. Second was habitual passivity of the Japanese populace, inculcated by the education system and by rhythms of the workplace (it is neither neither unusual nor unexpected that political action has traditionally been concentrated in the pressing forward of the interests of primary industries or in consumer safety, for only those working in the primary industries and housewives have the downtime necessary for direct participation in political action). Third was the invisibility of the political classes in immediate discussions of the structural causes for the disaster. Prime Minister Kan Naoto remained burrowed in the heart of the Prime Minister's Residence in the initial weeks of the disaster, emerging only to face far-fetched, opportunistic and tawdry accusations of having exacerbated the Fukushima disaster (the venting controversy; the non-existent break in the flushing of the reactors with salt water, et cetera). Fourth was the at first admirable, then later lamentable, fear in the news media of spreading panic. Fifth was the successful application of lessons learned in the Great Awaji-Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. In the immediate, full-force dispatch of the Self Defense Forces, the immediate acceptance of rescue and recovery teams from all over the globe, the acceptance of the unfettered activities of non-governmental organizations and volunteers in the disaster zones, the quick supply of evacuation centers and the relatively quick supply of replacement housing and the focus on the mental health of the dispossessed, particularly the communitarian needs of the elderly, the national government showed a surprising level of competence, given the millennial scale of the disaster.

However, 10 months having passed since the triple disaster, anger over the inadequacies over existing forms of governance is spreading. Recovery from the disaster is running up against practices and mindsets that are clearly incapable of responding to the new needs of citizens. The Diet is absorbed in parochial interests, either of destruction of the opposing party or the implementation of plans inspired by if not fully drafted by bureaucrats. The bureaucracy itself, cast free of political direction, has failed to appreciate that the methods it heretofore applied to suppressing public participation in decisions is no longer appropriate or credible (E). Reconstruction in the Tohoku region and remediation of the radioactive fallout from the explosion of the Fukushima Dai'ichi plants remains passive or even non-existent, as governments on all levels – national, prefectural and local – wallow in wishful thinking and daydreaming, promising, for example, to quickly decontaminate 2 million homes in Fukushima (a pledge whose being honored would depend, one would suppose, on what one defines as "quickly"). By either promising too much or acting too little, government is losing legitimacy, as is demonstrated by the ridiculously low levels of support for any of the existing parties and the pathetic longing for a leader, even one so patently absurd as Hashimoto Toru, who has promised to take his authoritarian, regional, bureaucratic-bashing program national in time for the next House of Representatives elections (J).

It is not too late for both the ruling DPJ or the bureaucracy to rethink their positions vis-à-vis the citizens, to salvage what can be salvaged of their authority and legitimacy. However, the task is so much harder than it would have been several months ago, in the midst of the crisis, when the government was getting a free pass by the citizens to remake Japan – and more importantly, remake themselves.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Socialist Party Slides Toward Extinction

Though it hardly seems worthwhile to report on the political decline of a micro-party, the political news of the day is Social Democratic Party leader Fukushima Mizuho's certain reelection as the head of her party. Certain as in she is running unopposed and there will, as a consequence, be no vote for party leader at the party's congress on February 24.

Fukushima's victory comes as a result of both party rules and the SDP's continuing failure at the polls. Party rules state that a candidate for party leader must have the nominations of at least 4 Diet members. With only 10 Diet members in total, the SDP has only just enough members for two competing candidates, if every single Diet member plays along. Fukushima nailed down her fourth nominee on the 20th. Party policy chief Abe Tomoko, who had wanted to challenge Fukushima, managed to win the support of three of her colleagues but failed to win the endorsement of the last remaining Diet member before the nomination deadline today.

With her failure to gain enough support to challenge Fukushima, with whom she has clashed in terms of the SDP's unwillingness to work with other parties, Abe is left with a rather unpalatable choice: either stick around with Fukushima glaring daggers at her all the time or leave the party. "As a politician I have a decision to make and when I make it I will hold a press conference," was Abe's comment to the press (J). Unfortunately for Abe, she is a proportional seat member, meaning that she can only serve as independent, since those elected on a party list who defect from their party can only found a new one, not join an existing one. Abe cannot make the journey from relevance to irrelevance to relevance again trod by district seat holder Tsujimoto Kiyomi who lost her sub-cabinet post when the DSP left the ruling coalition over the Futenma relocation dispute. In revenge, Tsujimoto left the DSP, sat as an independent for a while to cool off, then joined the Democratic Party of Japan.

If Abe leaves, the full Diet membership of the DSP will drop down to nine seats, putting it at a par with the brand new and already much-loathed Kizuna party. If her three supporters in the leadership fight decide to leave with her, the party will be left with three House of Representatives members and three House of Councillors members, leaving it perilously close to the five Diet member limit for political organizations that wish to be identified as parties.

Even without this nasty split over party leadership, the Socialists and indeed all the micro-parties were already in peril. The ruling Democratic Party of Japan has said it will submit a bill in the next session eliminating 80 of the 180 proportional seats in the Diet, ostensibly as a cost-cutting measure but really as a sop to its own rank-and-file, who are ticked off at the party leadership for not making the least effort to carry out the proposals listed in the DPJ's 2009 manifesto and indeed backtracking on almost all of them. The measure has very little chance of passing, despite its attractiveness to the main opposition party the Liberal Democratic Party, since the new bill would decimate the numbers of the LDP's ally, the New Komeito Party. Any reduction of the number of proportional seats, however, would imperil the continued existence of the SDP in the House of Representatives. Simulations show that if the 80 seat reduction were to be carried out, all of the Socialist Party proportional seats, including the one Abe sits in, would vanish.

The disappearance of the Socialists would, of course, end a grand chapter in the history of Japanese politics, one with the cautionary lesson of never giving up one's ideals and policies for the brass ring of power. Once the number two party in the Diet, locked in a seemingly eternal love-hate relationship with the dominant LDP, institutionalized in what became known as "the 1955 system," the Socialists were already in alarming decline after the establishment of center-left alternatives to the LDP in the 1993 election. Real rot and rebellion did not set in, however, until after the Socialists made what they were to find out was really the deal of a lifetime: an alliance with the LDP that had a clueless Murayama Tomiichi become the first Socialist PM since the unifications of the two main parties in 1955. In order to win this prize, the Socialists shed virtually all of their major points of difference with the LDP's left-leaning members. Bereft of the mantle of the party of persons of conscience (because clearly the Socialists did not have one), the party rapidly lost its voting base to the rising DPJ.

The passing of the Socialists into history would not be of much consequence save that in its brief time as the coalition partner of the ruling DPJ-- and its departure from the ruling coalition over policy -- the SDP had regained some of the luster of being the party of conscience. It was its members, not the members of the DPJ, who really tried to find a workable alternative to the move of Futenma to Henoko promised by DPJ party leader and prime minister Hatoyama Yukio. When the coalition voted to backtrack on Hatoyama's promise to find an alternate site to Henoko, the SDP pulled itself out of the coalition (E).

Sic transit gloria Showa mundi...

Friday, January 20, 2012

At Last

After 35 straight days without precipitation, the skies have finally delivered a bit of moisture to the parched Kanto Plain.

And it is in the form of snow.

The child inside me (who is not all that different from the child outside) says, "Yippee!"

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Growth Neither Nominal Nor Real

Over the last few days I have had the chance to fulfill a longtime wish: to read Aurelia Mulgan George's Power and Pork: A Japanese Political Life (2006).

It is sobering to read the book six years on, in light of all that has happened since.

At the time of the study's going to print, Matsuoka Toshikatsu, the subject of the study, achieved his life's goal of being named Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, requiring that Dr. George hurriedly insert a few paragraphs on his nomination into the last pages of her manuscript – all which was all to come to naught a few months later when Matsuoka committed suicide, this in order to avoid further Diet inquiry into just the sort of sordid accounting and fund-raising shenanigans Dr. George documents.

"A Political Life" turned out to be a grimly prophetic subtitle.

But it is not only Matsuoka's suicide that provides a somber coda to the work. Nakagawa Sho'ichi, Matsuoka’s predecessor at MAFF and a lifelong antagonist was himself to die at a young age (56) under circumstances that suspiciously looked like suicide, after his untreated alcoholism undid his life's dream of becoming prime minister. If Nakagawa's death was indeed suicide (the investigation into the actual cause of death was willfully unenthusiastic) it was repeat of the death of his father Ichiro, who committed suicide in 1983.

Ichiro's political secretary Suzuki Muneo, who comes across as the sleazeball mentor of Matsuoka, was sent to prison for his funding escapades, but is now rehabilitated as the leader of a regional political movement and a member of the House of Representatives allied with the ruling Democratic Party of Japan – a political marriage of convenience Suzuki parlayed into the chairmanship of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs – the committee overseeing and investigating the activities of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the ministry Suzuki had so thoroughly and extensively perverted through intimidation and interference during the years covered in the study.

As for the misuse and misallocation of government funds perfected by Matsuoka and Suzuki during the "Lost Decades" that burned a hole in the Japanese government’s pocket, wasting trillions of yen on makework projects whose operations and maintenance costs far exceed any societal benefit derived from the support they gave temporarily to Japan’s GDP figures, "bad" economic stimulus that has left the country in an Alice in Wonderland state where the government has a net debt greater than 100% of GDP, funds half its budget through bond sales rather than revenues, deflation devours debtors and risk taking, government bond yields are but a shade above 1% despite massive debts and deficits and the current government's policy response – which it labels reform – is to cut spending and raise the consumption tax, despite ironclad economic laws mandating that such actions will shrink the size of the economy, thereby further reducing tax revenues, requiring greater bond issuance to fund the same size national government budget...while the reforms of the Prime Minister's Office's powers to determine policy have evaporated away, leaving Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko buffeted back and forth, a feather in the gale.

It leaves one crying, like the poor father at the end of Coup de Foudre/Entre Nous:

"Quel gâchis! Quel gâchis!"

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Witless To History

I was reading James R. Holmes' most recent post at The Diplomat (Link). For the most part the essay argues quite cogently that the United States should reduce the size and change the composition of the naval forces it has based upon its Atlantic Coast. Basically since there are no peer competitors or major zones of instability in the Atlantic, north or south, there is really not much point in having half of the U.S. carrier force based in Atlantic ports.

However, one line in the essay made me gag:

The 2007 U.S. Maritime Strategy calls on the U.S. sea services—the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard—to stage "credible combat power" in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean for the foreseeable future, remaining the dominant maritime force in East, Southeast, and South Asia. Yet some 40 percent of the navy remains in the Atlantic, where it risks becoming a wasting asset. It’s high time to reallocate forces in to support the Maritime Strategy, and to back up President Barack Obama’s pledge to keep the U.S. military number one in this critical region. China’s People’s Liberation Army would be the yardstick for a new "one-power standard." Once concentrated in the Pacific—arrayed not only along the West Coast, Hawaii, and Guam but at forward bases in Japan and, preferably, in central positions like Australia—preponderant U.S. forces would dissuade China from mischief-making, much as Theodore Roosevelt’s "Great White Fleet" did vis-à-vis Imperial Japan a century ago.
Oh yes, great. We all remember how well that policy of prevention of "mischief-making" on the part of the Japanese Imperial Navy turned out in the end, do we not?

The key to an extended peace in the East Asian region is not trying to deter China from "mischief-making." First, it is unaffordable, as the means by which Chinese forces will achieve access denial capabilities in the Western Pacific are far, far cheaper than it will cost to counter these access denial capabilities.

Second and more importantly, the accession of China to a certain level of military power needs to be viewed as an inevitable and desirable corrollary of China's reemergence as a world politco-cultural-military center. Rather than the demeaning puffery of seeking to "defer mischief-making," the goal of the allied Pacific naval powers should be to smother the PLA Navy with collaborative and burden-sharing proposals. Diplomats and military experts traveling to Beijing or Qindao or Hainan should bring with them flash drives packed with great presentations on "The U.S. Navy can do this, the Maritime Self Defense Forces can do that, the Korean Navy can do this, the Aussies and Kiwis can do that and you can do this. Together, with each force providing a vital piece of the puzzle, we can solve this."

The key point to drive home is that the PLA Navy, even as it is currently constituted, can and should provide vital security services within its immediate area of operations and around the globe. The approach should be pro-active, with the navies of the Asia-Pacific showering the PLA Navy with positive actions for its burgeoning assets to perform.

With institutions as with individuals, nothing flusters, confuses and changes plans so much as being loved.

Friday, January 06, 2012

A Little Too Smooth

Off topic, somewhat, but considering the nearly disrespectful rapidity of the transition of power and authority in the DPRK, particularly in favor of Chang Song-tak, who has twice been sent down for reeducation, and his wife Kim Kyong-hui, the sister of the late Kim Jong-il, it is possible that someone might have burked the Dear Leader on his train, before he might have a chance to further alter his succession plans?

For as the Chicago School would argue, where there are incentives, there will be action.

Just a thought.

Concentration, Concentration Now Begins

What happens when your standard operating procedure takes 100 tons of trash, including plastics, and turns them into 99 tons of water and carbon dioxide and 1 ton of ash, with the latter to be either buried or recycled as paving and building material?

A recipe for a magnificent nuclear mess.

Kashiwa stops operation of incinerator again as radioactive ash fills up storage
Mainichi Online

KASHIWA, Chiba -- The municipal government here suspended the operation of one of its main incinerators again on Jan. 5 as a storage facility at the waste disposal factory was filled up with incinerated ash contaminated with radioactive substances emitted from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant.

The operation of the city's Nambu (south) Clean Center had previously been suspended for about two months from last September. It is not clear when the city can resume operation of the incinerator this time because it has not been able to secure new space to store incinerated radioactive ash.

According to the Kashiwa Municipal Government, the Nambu Clean Center is storing about 200 metric tons (about 1,049 waste drums) of incinerated ash whose radiation levels are higher than the national limit of 8,000 becquerels per kilogram for landfill. The storage space there is now filled with drums, and there is also about 30 tons of incinerated ash left in the incinerator. (
Funny, this reduction in volume thing, which worked so well at solving the nation's landfill limitation problem (and heats so many municipal swimming pools) seems to create, post-3/11, a staggering radioactive waste problem.

You have to admit, the affected incinerator has a reassuring, chirpy name.

You Can Never Be Too Sure

One of the outstanding features of the triple disaster of March 11, 2011, was that the scale of the disasters far exceeded any expectations (A double tsunami (E)? Four nuclear power plants blowing up?). The recent interim report of independent fact-finding commission in charge of investigating the Fukushima nuclear disaster mocked the constant repetitions by those with authority over the safety measures at the Fukushima Dai'ichi power station that the events of March 11 were "beyond imagining" (soteigai - J). However, that there have been only five 9.0 seismic events measured in the last century should be reason for cutting the disaster planning folks some slack (not all slack, mind you -- as accounts of the forward thinking and responses of the various branches and levels of government make painfully clear).

So one of the lessons of March 11 seems to be "think beyond what you believe to be the possible."

But there is soteigai, and there is, well, this:

Saitama Pref. to take tsunami countermeasures
The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Saitama prefectural government has begun work to include tsunami countermeasures in its regional disaster management plan, it has been learned.

This will be the first attempt by an inland prefecture to prepare for tsunami damage in its disaster preparations.

It is part of a review on possible damage after experts examining the impact of the Great East Japan Earthquake said a future tsunami could hit Tokyo Bay and travel up the Arakawa river that runs from Tokyo through Saitama Prefecture. (Link)
OK, so Saitama Prefecture has no coastline, is 20 kilometers upriver from Tokyo Bay and 100 kilometers from the open ocean.


I suppose I should look on the bright side. The prefecture investigating its tsunami preparedness at least is not Yamanashi.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Ozawa Ichiro Leaves His Bunker To Go On Holiday

Ozawa Ichiro, the former leader of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and its main power broker, represents Iwate Prefecture District #4. Iwate Prefecture and its neighboring prefectures had a little problem last year in and around March 11.

You may remember it.

Well, Ozawa Ichiro sure did. In fact, on January 3, he forewent his usual New Years party at his house to visit the disaster zone.

For the first time since March 11.

In a whirlwind tour of five locations, he took the time to criticize the government's response to the crisis, saying that it was driven by bureaucrats and top-down thinking, rather than from local, on-the-ground authorities making the decisions. "Has the government forgotten what it was that the people expected of the change in ruling parties?" he asked rhetorically.

"And where the hell have you been?" one might reply, not so rhetorically. "Not in the capital plotting to overthrow the very government that was trying to deal with the catastrophe through a bald power play of joining hands with the opposition in a no confidence motion, hmmm?"

As one participant at one of these canned meetings suggested, trying to put the best face on the situation, "I think it would have been nice if he had come a bit earlier...but to hear he is enthusiastic [about reconstruction and recovery] is good." (J)

Yes, it is good to hear he is enthusiastic about reconstruction and recovery...and to hear from him that if only he had been in charge, implementing as he would be the manifesto of the 2009 elections, things might be better.

"Uncharitable" would be the word to describe my thoughts upon hearing this report. Since I probably am already in pretty hot water over the sea slug comment, I will refrain from finishing this sentence:

"Ozawa-san, you are a total..."

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

I Saw Him Standing There

A few years ago, when a good friend was writing his first book, I chided him gently for the section (he had me reading the drafts) he had penned on matsuri (festivals). From what little training I had had in the social sciences, I knew that festivals were much more than just displays of colored lights, children running about with the gifts and treats they had just received, neighbors greeting neighbors, truly awful food and reaffirmations of local and national traditions. They were about power: who in my neighborhood clung to it, who wielded it and who would never have it. From the lists of the donors to who was pouring sake from the big bottle, the matsuri was a palimpsest of the writhing vines of power binding the neighborhood together in a way that mocked the constitutional equality of all attending.

Due to my own ignorance, I did not point out the most significant oversight: the lack of a mention of the presence of organized crime. As the Lawyer has explained to me since, "Where there are matsuri, there are yakuza.

So I should not have been surprised to see while on a January 1 hastumode at X Hachimangu a tall, heavy-set man in a black suit, short-cropped hair and a gold watch on his wrist matter-of-factly taking a fan of thousand-yen bills from the hands of a food vendor, not three meters away from where I was standing in line.

"Look," I said, "a member of the local criminal element taking his cut."

"Not necessarily," countered my companion. "He could be just a member of the organizing committee."

Uh, no.

It was 6 degrees out; we were in the shade of a grove of trees. Everyone else was in winter wear, stamping his or her feet from the cold. This guy was in a suit, no coat...and he walked over to another guy, short-set, punch-permed hair, in black suit, no coat, smoking a cigarette outside a closed tent marked "RESERVED SEATING."

The only such tent on the grounds.

The ousting of gangsters from the Kitazawa Hachimangu's autumn festival was national news (E) last year, making the evening news broadcasts on NHK. The Kitazawa Hachimangu is a tiny little place. I know; I have been there. That the National Police Agency should make such a hullabaloo about kicking the gangsters out of a postage-stamp sized shrine and its festival is indicative of a serious national problem.

In December, the city of Yaizu pulped its official 2012 calendars after a known yakuza was spotted in a photo of the city's summer festival. Please take a look at the size of the crowd in the photo. How in Amaterasu's name could there not be a yakuza in the picture?

I had my camera with me in line on Sunday. However, as I was going to pray for peace and good fortune in the new year, it is probably a good thing I did not surrender to the temptation to take the shot.