Monday, November 30, 2015

Oh King Of Awful Majesty!

Rex tremendae majestatis
qui salvandos salvas gratis,
salva me, fons pietatis!

"King of Awful Majesty
You who save the worthy without charge,
save me, oh font of mercy!"

[Link - video]
Prime Minister Abe Shinzo is in Paris today, a participant in the mass gathering of world leaders for the COP 21. The good and the mighty will come together, maybe, to map out the next step in our saving of ourselves from the consequences of our lifestyles and organizations, at least as far as climate change goes.

While Mr. Abe is likely to be still asleep at this hour, a brilliant morning awaits him politically. The latest Kyodo News poll is out and it is a stunner for the PM and his allies.

First is the baseline Cabinet support number. It has risen a solid 3.5 points, continuing the Abe Cabinet's popularity's steady climb out its August nadir. Support for the Abe Cabinet now stands at 48.3% of all respondents, with 40.2% of respondents not supporting (down 0.8% from last month). Only 11% of the voters remain on the sidelines (down 2.7% since last month).
Q: Do you support the Abe Cabinet?

Support 48.3%
Do not support 40.4%
Don't know/can't say 11.3%
Asked the reason why they support the Cabinet, a staggering 36.5% of the respondents now say it is because "There is no other appropriate person but Abe Shinzo." This represents a rise in this figure of 8.4 points over a single month. At no time in recent memory has such a large fraction of the electorate enthusiastically/resignedly seen no alternative to the current leader.

Emphasizing the "One Abe to Rule Them All" theme was the movement in favor of the Liberal Democratic Party over this last month -- which is there was no such movement.

Here are the support figures for the parties, both from the survey over this weekend and the one conducted October 7-8 (in parenthesis).
Q: Which party do you support?

LDP 36.7% (36.8%)
Komeito 4.2% (3.6%)
DPJ 10.2% (10.4%)
Communist 4.2% (4.2%)
Innovation 1.1% (4.4%)
Osaka Ishin 4.4%
DSP 0.8% (1.2%)
Other parties 1.4% (1.3%)
Undecided 36.5%% (36.1%)

Osaka Ishin, fresh off its triple victory in the prefectural, mayoral and assembly elections on November 22, has siphoned off the support from the rump Innovation Party (no surprise here) and some further votes from...somewhere else (time will tell). While it has been tempting to write off Osaka Ishin as a minor regional force, with no hope of a national reach anytime soon, attracting 4.4% support in a national poll should shake up some quarters as it surpasses the support for the indubitably national Communist and Komeito parties.

The DPJ secretariat should also be breathing a sigh of relief today, as the poll shows that the bitter and pointless attempt by DPJ conservatives to unseat the moderate party leadership, revealing the ideological divisions within the main opposition party, has not cost the party much of its support. Yet.

In addition to basking in the glow of a near 50% approval rating that is his alone, Abe Shinzo will likely be beaming from the results of the last question of the survey. The responses seemingly refute the concept that Japanese voters are risk-averse when it comes to deploying the Self Defense Forces.

Q: Do you agree with or oppose the dispatch of the Self Defense Forces to the South China Sea to engage in 'cautionary surveillance' (keikai kanshi) of China's building of artificial islands?"

Agree with 52.7%
Oppose 39.9%
No opinion/not sure 7.4%

If you had told me yesterday 52% of Japanese voters are ready and willing to send the SDF into a confrontation with China, I would have thought you daft. Today I obviously would not think you daft...but I am not convinced the Japan normalization partisans should be toasting each other in victory. A telephone poll by definition does not have the respondents looking at a map. For those on the main islands of Japan, the difference between the East China Sea and the South China Sea could be kind of fuzzy. The Senkakus and the Spratlys are both in "the south" at least as seen from everywhere in Japan except Okinawa, and there both in a "China Sea" of a sorts. Asking the voters would they be willing "to have the SDF sailing in between increasingly militarized artificial islands lying in between the Philippines and China" might have generated a different percentage of approving respondents.

Whatever the reality of the level of support for provocative peacemaking, Mr. Abe has reason to look at the mirror today, turn his head to the right, and sigh:


Image: Sunrise from atop Mitake-san, looking toward Yokohama and the Chiba Peninsula. Ome City, Tokyo Metropolitan District, 28 November 2015.
Image courtesy: MTC

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Prime Minister's New Plan, Sir

It is a rare foggy morning here, appropriate weather for the release of the interim plan for the "Dynamic Engagement of All Citizens" - the Abe government's grab bag of proposals to meet its New Three Arrows goals.

For those willing to rush in where angels fear to tread, here is the link to the Prime Minister's Residence proposal text. (Link)

Whether this text is the Request from the Liberal Democratic Party regarding an "Urgent Proposal for Realizing the Dynamic Engagement of All Citizens" (Link); the proposal from the Komeito on "Realizing a Society in which Every Single Person Can Shine and Play an Active Role"(Link); a conflation of the Request and the Proposal; or none of the above, I do not know.

The Kantei text seems to be a flash-translation with little-to-no input from any native speakers of English. The result is an excruciating to the point of being humorous ("Dream-Weaving Childcare"? Somebody call Gary Wright, he has a theme song to sell) read.

Of course, the clumsy English could be part of a Sirius Cybernetics strategy, where the superficial deficiencies of the language mask the deep and fundamental deficiencies in the thinking.

The busy might want to skip to the last page of the ostensibly brief (19 page) plan. Here on a single slide is the whole report, in what wags might call inimical Japanese Powerpoint style.

As for those who slog through the swamp of the text and peer into its forest of lofty notions and ambitious timetables, they might find themselves reprising in their heads the exchange between Colonel Kurtz and Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now:
Kurtz: Did they say why, Willard, why they want to terminate my command?

Willard: I was sent on a classified mission, sir.

Kurtz: It's no longer classified, is it? Did they tell you?

: They told me that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were unsound.

Kurtz: Are my methods unsound?

: I don't see any method at all, sir.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Supreme Court Says, "FIAT"

Back in the bad old days, back before the company owned a major U.S. car maker, Fabbrica Italiana Automobili di Torino had what could be charitably called "quality control issues." The sardonic joke about the automobili manufactured by the company was the acronym "FIAT" actually stood for what one had to say to one's mechanic Anthony when one brought the automobili in:
"Fix It Again, Tony!"
Yesterday, the Supreme Court of Japan did largely the same thing. The automobile in this instance was the nation's electoral map. Anthony's Garage is the Diet and Anthony (Tony) is the Liberal Democratic Party.

In a split decision the Supreme Court ruled that the 2014 electoral district map, where the greatest vote disparity was 2.13 (meaning that 2.13 times as many voters lived in the largest district as lived in the smallest, reducing the value of each individual's vote in the largest district to only 47% of a vote in the smallest one) violated the principle of the legal equality of citizens under Article 14 of the Constitution. Three of the justices ruled the electoral map unconstitutional, one declaring the election invalid. Two dissenting justices ruled the electoral map constitutional. An outright majority (9 of the 14 offering opinions) ruled the electoral maps and the election results "in a state of unconstitutionality" (iken jotai - 違憲状態 - Link).

Ruling a distorting electoral map "in a state of unconstitutionality" is a sophistic fiddle. Some might see it a pusillanimous fiddle, with the justices running away from a confrontation with the Diet despite an Article 81 "power to determine the constitutionality of any law, order, regulation or official act." The Diet and the Government, for their parts, could choose reject a Supreme Court unconstitutionality decision, arguing that under Article 41 the Diet is "the highest organ of state power" which cannot be unseated by a lesser power. (Link)

Labeling the electoral map "in a state of unconstitutionality" does sidestep a clash of the branches of the government over who is supreme based upon the two conflicting Constitution articles. However, rather than a flight from responsibility this twisted non-ruling ruling (similar to the option in Scottish jurisprudence of a verdict of "Not Proven" where guilt cannot be established but everybody still thinks the defendant guilty as hell) should perhaps be more properly seen as a necessary and paradoxical step toward preserving the constitutional order.

Suppose the justices were to ever to lose their collective minds and rule a House of Representatives election unconstitutional and invalid. From such a ruling the sitting Diet would instantaneously become illegitimate and without constitutional standing. The Diet, however, is under Article 41 "the sole, law-making organ of the State" and under Article 47 the sole organ vested with power to determine electoral districts. The justices would thus be ordering a repair of the electoral map whilst simultaneously wiping out the only body able to fix it.

What Masunaga Hidetoshi, one of the leaders of the lawyers who filed the complaint, thinks the Supremes did yesterday. (Link - J)

By ruling the electoral map in a "state of unconstitutionality" for the third time, the Supremes are scolding the LDP for its shenanigans without tearing the entire edifice down in the process. With the closest the Supremes can come to fury they are pushing the electoral map back into the Diet building and telling the LDP that the ruling coalition's sneaky +0/-5 solution of 2013 did not fix the disproportionality problem in the House of Representatives.

"So FIAT!" is what the Supremes are saying.

The government has promised to take the Court ruling seriously - coded language for "we will fiddle with the map again until we find a way to limit the difference between the largest and the smallest districts to 1.994" -- the level of proximity to the Supreme Court-determined no-go level of 2.0 the LDP's crafty map makers achieved in their last version of the electoral map -- in a whatever the ruling coalition thinks a reasonable amount of time may be. (Link)

Yesterdays decision and the ruling coalition's promise to be serious is all that anyone could have and can hope for in terms of the Supreme Court's making Japanese elections more fair and thus better, in theory, at delivering good governance.

Meanwhile, in another challenge to a widely disliked Abe Era law, the Tokyo District Court passed on ruling on the constitutionality of the new and extremely controversial Designated Secrets Act (Link - J). The refusal to accept the case was to be expected, the Tokyo Court following the precedent set down by the Supreme Court's Suzuki Decision of 8 October 1952, which found that unless a plaintiff can demonstrate an actual injury from a statute, the judicial branch will abstain from all involvement in a case. Groups representing the news media argued that the Act injures journalists by preventing them from doing their jobs. The judges of the Tokyo District Court asked, "Who is the specific plaintiff and what specific hurt was caused by the Act?" -- questions to which there were, of course, no answers.


So Case Dismissed.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What Womenomics Can Achieve

I have on-gain/off-again Twitter wars with the opinionated Professor Noah Smith of Stony Brook University on subjects Japanese. In a recent exchange I lost patience with the good doctor, for which I am only slightly sorry.

Dr. Smith asked a simple question: why did Japanese women's fertility (number of births per woman) fall when the level of participation of Japanese women in the workforce was still low? To which I offered a simple answer: because age of first marriage rose. (Link)

In the economics explanation women have fewer children based upon calculations marginal utility and opportunity cost. While in agricultural societies children represent potential increases in labor force and output, in industrial and post-industrial societies children represent zero increase in output. Furthermore, for the woman in developed societies the birth of each child represents an economic subtraction, time and energy that could have been spent furthering their careers or increasing their take-home pay.

In Japan's case, however, declines in fertility preceded and exceeded possibilities of tradeoff between work and childbirth.

Hence my answer -- that in East Asia behavioral effects of calculations of marginal utility and opportunity cost are small compared to the effects on fertility of later marriage and the social stigma/economic catastrophe of out-of-wedlock birth. In contradistinction to the economic explanation, married women in Japan are having children at the same rate they always have -- lost economic opportunity turns out to be a feeble predictor of Japanese fertility.

The policy implications of this for the second of the Abe Administration's New Three Arrows -- raising the number of births from 1.4 per woman to 1.8 -- are clear. More day care, including day care centers inside corporate buildings (Link- J)? Largely irrelevant for fertility. Relevant for the workforce participation rate? Sure, flattening the infamous "M Curve" (Link). But largely irrelevant for fertility.

To raise fertility, the government can:

1) Convince Japanese to marry in their early twenties like they did in the 1970s.

2) Eliminate the social stigma and economic consequences of out-of-wedlock birth.

3) Increase the rate at which women above 35 years of age have children or extend the window of fertility by a delay in the onset of menopause, or

4) A combination of all three.

Good luck with the above.

But don't take my word for it. Check out the amazing slide presentation of Saito Jun of the Japan Center for Economic Research on Japan's capacity to overcome its lower fertility and shrinking population (Link). The whole (expletive deleted) argument over Japan's demographic limits to growth is laid out in detail.

Those with a little more time can check out the Tokyo on Fire videos for discussions of these matters. Like this one perhaps.

Class dismissed.

Later - There are many, many debates where I am rooting for Dr. Smith, such as the one he is currently having with John Cochrane on inter-generational fairness. (Link)

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

No Factions, No Peace

Over the weekend I received suggestions from two friends to read the Jiji Press article on the decline of the factions.(Link)

My reaction? A shake of the head.

The factions are stalled as vehicles for leaders seeking to become prime ministers -- no question. Since the advent of the new single-member district electoral system 22 years ago, only three of the eight the Liberal Democratic Party Prime Ministers (counting Abe twice) have been faction leaders. The factions are still nurseries for prime ministers: every single LDP PM has been a member of a faction. However, that a person becomes the leader of a faction has only marginal bearing on his/her viability as a potential PM.

That being said, the factions are far from dead. In answer to the question asked by the LDP member quoted at the end of the article, the factions exist in order to keep the LDP together. They provide a mechanism for making appointments in a manner that dampens individual competition between members. Rotating posts amongst the factions, particularly sub-Cabinet level posts, enforces patience and forbearance among individuals who would otherwise fight tooth-and-claw to win a party post or political appointment. Factional rotation of appointments gives members reassurance that if they get along with others they will be rewarded, in due time. It also provides a mechanism for adjudicating appointment puzzles posed by the candidacies of several members with identical seniority records and tribal (zoku) affiliations. Handing the post to one person rather than another based an arbitrary (non-merit based) external attribute -- factional affiliation -- defuses a rivalry.

The argument against faction-based appointment decisions is that merit and talent and not rewarded. The institutional answer to that is "Yes, precisely." If competitions for party and government posts were talent-based, then the losers in competitions, had they any self-confidence (sort of a necessity in politics, really), would be left questioning the impartiality of the judgment or the relevance of the judging criteria. With factional rotation, however, a person loses a post because, well, "It was a decision based upon the need for balance among the factions." So nothing the candidate did was really wrong; the timing just was not right.

With the factions no longer led by persons with an inside track to becoming PM, where are we to look for good future PM candidates? With the rise of the theatrical PMs Hashimoto Ryutaro and Koizumi Jun'ichiro a pattern seemed to be emerging: wavy haired, energetic, outspoken, listenable, life-loving, defined, liberal economic reformist bottchan PMs with a need to play to the television cameras -- the type of personality and image tailor made for what political scientist Inoguchi Takashi has termed "kabuki politics" (Link). Neither Hashimoto nor Koizumi was the leader of his faction at the time. However, their flashy personas and stubbornness transcended their seeming institutional weaknesses.

Anyone who has had to listen to Abe Shinzo, who is not the leader of his faction, speak for more than 30 seconds, in whatever language, knows that while he is a bottchan, "listenable" and "defined" he ain't.

So how is it that Abe got himself elected in 2012 and reelected without a vote this year, making him a historically durable PM? That I will save for another time.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Double Take In Osaka

What to make of yesterday's double victory of the Osaka Ishin no Kai in the Osaka gubernatorial and mayoral races? (Link)

Not terribly much. At least not on a national scale.

While the candidates of Hashimoto Toru's and Matsui Ichiro's start up party were able to seize both posts over united establishment rivals, keeping alive Hashimoto's pet project of transforming Osaka into a metropolitan district (the merits of which no one has yet been able to explain to me) the caveats to the victories are many.

First was voter turnout. The gubernatorial and mayoral races attracted 45.4% and 50.5% of the voters, respectively. Both numbers were down from the last Osaka double election, 7.4% down in the prefectural race and a big 10.4% down in the race for the Osaka mayor's office. Both figures were way, way down from the Osaka unification referendum in May where 2/3 of the voters showed up in a contest Hashimoto's forces lost by a whisper. (Link - J)

Second was the ambivalent position of the Abe Administration toward Osaka's political actors. Despite their immense difference in backgrounds, Prime Minister Abe and Hashimoto have long seen each other in a common cause. Hashimoto indeed asked Abe four years ago to leave the Liberal Democratic Party and become leader of his first upstart national party. Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide have been very solicitous of Hashimoto, making time in their schedules to meet with him and saying nice things about him at every invitation.

The close political cooperative relationship between Abe and Hashimoto has engineered a complete breakdown in coordination and trust between the Osaka chapters of the LDP and the national LDP headquarters. The LDP in Osaka ran its own candidates in the double election, asking for and receiving electoral support from blood rivals the Democratic Party of Japan and the Japan Communist Party. The election also caused a minor split between national allies the LDP and Komeito, with the Osaka Komeito chapter releasing its supporters to vote for whomever they wished.

Third, even with their victories in the executive branch posts, the Osaka Ishin no Kai still lacks enough seats in the prefectural and municipal assemblies to initiate the metro area plan. Osaka Ishin no Kai will still need cooperation from another party, ostensibly the Komeito since they are the enemies of just about everybody else.

Fourth, even with this victory, the Osaka Ishin no Kai is still only the rump of the rump of the national party Hashimoto co-led to an astonishing second-place finish in the proportional vote of the House of Representatives election of 2012. Independents spin-offs of the national party still remain in other parts of the country, some clinging to the Ishin brand name while clinging also to a significant amount of Hashimoto's cash in their bank accounts. Hashimoto is going to be fighting for that money -- to the detriment of his political mission and the forward progress of his regionalist movement.

Tactically, Prime Minister Abe's embrace of Hashimoto seems a disaster. He has made enemies of the LDP establishment in Osaka, Japan's second city.

Strategically, however, Abe's continued encouragement of Hashimoto's efforts hurts the national forces of opposition. As long as Hashimoto and his acolytes are in operation, the Kansai region has its own, home-grown opposition to the LDP. With the Ishin no Kai and the LDP slugging it out, perhaps good-naturedly (if Abe invests the time to bring the two sides to a truce) in the Kansai, the DPJ will have forego making a play for the Kansai's rich harvest of seats, making the path to becoming a worthwhile national challenger to the LDP all the harder.

Later - This morning's NHK news has zero reports on the Osaka elections results. Granted, today is a national holiday, meaning that NHK's newscasts are abbreviated. However, even the commercial networks seem to be downplaying the story -- demonstrating that the post-Koizumi, post-DPJ erosion of the image of politics and politicians continues. While terrible news for governance in Japan, the continued decline of the salience of politics is great news for those infatuated with/dependent upon the façade of stability.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

That Feeling Of Recursion

How important is resolution of the issue of the move of the functions of the Marine Corps Airbase Futenma to...anywhere but where they are now? On Friday, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo presided over a cabinet meeting. He had to do so because Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide, holder of position in charge of Cabinet meetings, is in Guam reviewing sites and facilities being prepared for the relocation of fraction of the U.S. Marine Corps forces currently based at Futenma. Though it was not much remarked in the reporting on the Suga visit (Link) Friday's meeting marked the first time in 19 years that a PM had to fill in for an absent chief cabinet minister.

When and what was the occasion of the last time a CCS was out of town and the PM had to direct a cabinet meeting? When Chief Cabinet Secretary Kajiyama Seiroku was in Okinawa, negotiating (successfully, as it turned out) Nago City's acceptance of being the host of a Futenma Replacement Facility (FRF). Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro presided over that cabinet meeting, a seeming eon ago (Remember the press conference of Hashimoto, with U.S. Ambassador Walter Mondale standing behind him, announcing the move of the Marines base from Futenma to Nago within five or at most seven years?) (Link -J)

Speaking of the move to Nago, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism approved a resumption of the groundwork for the FRF, overriding Okinawa Governor Onaga Takeshi's revocation of the initial construction permit (Link). While a logical move, the ministry's action represents further erosion of the guarantees of local autonomy, found in Articles 92, 94 and 95 of the Constitution. (Link)

Since the candidates supported or provided by Liberal Democratic Party of Abe Shinzo lost, in order, the Nago City election, the Okinawa Governor's election and all of Okinawa House of Representatives seats to anti-base construction candidates, Thursday's resumption of construction is a failure of the concept of local, democratic control.