Thursday, May 06, 2021

William Pesek on the Slow Vaccine Rollout

The Washington Post has published a badly titled William Pesek opinion piece: "Why Japan is failing so badly on vaccinations?" While I sympathize with editorial need for a punchy title of reasonable brevity, describing the current vaccination effort as a "failure" is both premature and presumptuous. It is indeed not sustainable, for Pesek quickly and nakedly swerves off into trying to answer another question, "With the Olympics only three months away, only 2% of Japanese are vaccinated for Covid-19. Why?" -- which is a fair, but far less exciting topic. [With a derogatory title and a quote from my boss, Jeff Kingston, the piece seems tailor made to set off poor, old Earl Kinmonth.] The second, longer more specifc question is a good one. Japan's Covid-19 vaccination rate is dramatically lower at this point in time than the vaccination rate of other OECD countries. This is peculiar as Japan, contrary to what Pesek asserts, has only a fragmented and inconsistent anti-vaxxer movement. Japanese citizens and most foreign residents have also been excellent in carrying out masking and other preventative measures on a voluntary basis. The country's government is also reputed to be highly organized (it is) and Japan's public health system sound (ditto). There is also the vaccination imperative Pesek notes of the country's elites not wanting Japan to fall on its face in hosting the Olympics. Regulations, such as the requirement that only doctors do vaccinations, might be bottlenecks slowing the process down -- though these regulations have heretofore have not interfered with annual mass vaccinations for influenza. The Japanese government's preference for Japan-produced (kokusan) everything and the lack of a domestic supplier of a Covid-19 vaccine could be another cause of the slow ramp up. However, the Government of Japan went on a buying spree of vaccines early on to address the lack of progress on the domestic front. So what is happening -- or not happening, as the case may be? I will offer some thoughts tomorrow.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Sussing Out Abe's Next Move

Yesterday's resignation of Democratic Party leader Renho only days after a major DP victory in the Sendai mayoral election, together with the resignation of Cabinet-support sapping Inada Tomomi as Minister of Defense opens up to Prime Minister Abe Shinzo an opportunity to initiate what 24 hours ago would have been considered political suicide: dissolve the Diet and call a House of Representatives election. Indeed, this decision may already have been made -- it certainly makes the Inada resignation more comprehensible ("Why now? She is about to be let go in the Cabinet reshuffle!" was a natural, immediate reaction to yesterday's announcement).

As the results of the July 2 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections have shown, the LDP's recent dominance has been all about the absence of a centrist opposition with a clear pathway to victory. Offer a ruthless alternative, one that leaps over the structural impediments and clientalism designed to return the LDP to power time after time, and the resentment of the voters will lift you to victory. Koike Yuriko, with her amazing ability to tear away the Komeito from its coalition with the LDP at the same time as dog whistling to the Tamogami Right (too quickly forgotten is her calculated dissing of the South Koreans) provided Tokyo voters with just such an alternative.

The obvious decision for Abe, who faces declining poll numbers and obvious factional maneuvering against him, is dissolve the Diet, proclaiming, "I am asking for the judgment of my performance from the voters" or something like that. With the DP leaderless and no national Koike party as yet, the chances are fairly good that Abe's LDP will march to another victory under his command. Perhaps one which fails to return a Constitution revision-capable 2/3rds majority in the House of Representatives for the ruling coalition -- but still a simple LDP majority (take that, Komeito!) in the lower house.

At least, that's the way it looks.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Speculating About The Renho Resignation

Let us keep this simple: the explanations Renho has offered for her resignation as leader of the Democratic Party make zero sense.

"The very best would be for a stronger DP that can be built by a new directorate"

NONSENSE - the DP has no obvious list of successors the current leadership group. The conservative wing, which should be the logical alternative, is depleted by defections to Koike Yuriko's Tokyoites First movement. The election of a left wing leader and the selection of a left directorate would cause the party to implode.

"I tried to think of a way of transform the centrifugal force into a centripetal force. I realized that this would not come from personnel changes but through a reexamination of myself."

NONSENSE - Please do not tell me you have been reading Wang Yangming's Instructions for Practical Living. Or any other Neo-Confucian philosophers, for that matter.

Oh, and another thing: you cannot have either a centripetal or a centrifugal force without a center. That center is/was you.

"I would like that a party be built that can respond to the insecurities the people are feeling"

NONSENSE - Where is the agent of change? Who is going to do this building of which you speak, if not you?

The real story, as outlined in this Business Journal article, is a simple matter: Renho cannot keep a fundamental campaign promise.

The Constitution allows for members of the House of Councillors to become prime minister. However, no prime minister of the postwar era has ever been elected from the upper house. This is in part due to a logjam-breaking provision of the Constitution: when the two houses of the Diet hold elections for PM and each elects a different Diet member, the choice of the House of Representatives becomes the PM.

This traditional and technical preeminence of the House of Representatives prompted Renho to promised that in the event of a general election she would resign from the House of Councillors to run for a House of Representatives seat. Not out of a technical necessity, just a political one.

Hence the emergence of a new problem: for which HoR district seat would she run? It would have to be a safe DP seat; the party would suffer a huge loss of face if the party leader were defeated in her district race. If there were not one available, a sitting DP member would have to give up his/her seat to accommodate Renho's candidacy.

Unfortunately, the current map of Tokyo's electoral districts has no open, reasonable district for a Renho run for a House of Representatives seat. Furthermore, after the loss of DP seats in the July 2 assembly elections, Renho has none of the authority necessary to tell any DP HoR Tokyo district hopeful to move aside for the good of the party.

Renho had tried horse trading for a new mantle of authority in the party. She found, however, that not even offering up the resignation of her eminense grise Noda Yoshihiko, the party secretary-general, bought her a winnable district in Tokyo.

Facing a climb down from her promise to take the fight to the LDP in the House of Representatives, Renho decided to cut her losses by folding up her tent now.

At least, that is the way it looks.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Quietly Fading Away

Yesterday (January 5) was the last day for candidate registrations for the Yamagata Prefectural governor's race.

By the end of the workday only the incumbent, Yoshimura Mieko, had registered.

Without an opponent with whom to grapple Yoshimura immediately, without the expense and bother of an election, began her third term as governor. (Link)

Yoshimura's case is somewhat special. Unlike most local officials, she has strong backing from Democrats, Socialists and Communists, rather than main Liberal Democratic Party/Komeito alliance running much of the country. She also has members of the Yamagata prefecture LDP establishment supporting her. As a consequence, her being reelected without an election is a reflection of her popularity across the political spectrum.

However, having incumbents being returned to office without election is becoming a saddening habit in Japanese local politics (Link). Running for office costs money (starting with the kyotakukin candidate deposit) and can alienate you from the victorious candidate and his/her supporters in the local community. If one is, by some circumstance, elected to office over an incumbent, being forced to lead a local government saddled with precipitous declines in the social and economic environment must be no fun at all.

So it is not just through hyperpartisanship or authoritarianism that democracy can wither. Depopulation and genteel decline are effective as demoralizers, too.

Democratic election of local government -- one of the key reforms of the U.S. Occupation -- becomes just one more aspect of that which was Japan that is fading away. (Link)

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Trust Is A Word I Believe In, Yes

First off and foremost, my utter admiration for Prime Minister Abe Shinzo for making his lightning, naked visit to the Trump residence to meet with President-elect Donald Trump. The usual mechanisms of managing the asymmetric Japan-U.S. relationship were broken -- the U.S. Japan Hands were all violently pro-Clinton (for good reason, mind you) leaving Japan with almost zero contacts in the Trump organization post-election. Abe himself, on the advice of the relationship managers, had doubled down on the mistake, meeting Clinton but not Trump during the campaign. By going into a one-on-many meeting with the Trump family brain trust with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs kicking and screaming at him not to (read Yuki Tatsumi's post for a taste of the toned down version of this kicking and screaming) Abe personally rescued Japan's place in the U.S. orbit and possibly put in a few good blows for a rule-based, rather than a power-based, world order on the side.

Now about Abe saying that he has established a relationship of trust with Trump, as many in the non-Japanese speaking news biz have reported, it is important to know exactly what the prime minister said after his meeting with the Trumps.

In prepared introductory remarks, the prime minister said this about trust:


That we together could build a relationship of trust, we had a conversation that could confirm this. As for the internal details, he let me relate to him my basic way of thinking. I talked about a range of subjects.

In this opening statement Abe does not say that he trusts Trump. What he says is that he went into their conversation with a purpose of building a relationship of trust and that the president-elect allowed him to express his own views. As to what he thought of what Donald Trump said in the meeting, nothing.

It was in response to a reporter's question (smart reporter) that Abe had to make a second, unprepared statement about trusting Trump:


I cannot answer your question concretely as regards the views of each but without trust an alliance cannot function. As for me, as for whether or not President-Elect Trump is a leader one can truly trust, I was able to confirm this.

For me, the intrusion of the adverbials masa ni ("truly, really, actually") and kono yo ni ("in this manner") makes this response sing. These phrase hint that Abe is making a case rather than responding in earnest.

Thanks to the vagaries of Japanese sentence structure the PM never says he trusts the President-elect. What he says he has confirmed is whether or not he can truly trust him -- to which the answer is yes, he has confirmed it -- it being "whether or not he can truly trust him."

To which, if Abe is asked later by someone interested in what transpired in that first meeting, he can in all honesty reply:
Oh yes, I did confirm whether or not I could truly trust him, and the answer to that question was, "No, I could not."

So yes, Abe did confirm something about Trump and trust. But the door is open on just what that something is.

And that ambiguity is in everyone's interest right now.

Later - In comment, David Littleboy offers a possible and highly likely explanation of kono yo ni that would strengthen the case of those saying that Abe has declared Trump trustworthy.

The Japan News, which is translated from the pro-government Yomiuri Shimbun's reports, takes the circumspect route (Link).

The always problematic official-yet-only-provisional Prime Minister's Residence translation is, by contrast, emphatic (Link).

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Consider My Mind Blown

Just in case anyone is missing the significance of Abe Shinzo's sudden rush to meet with Donald Trump, try recalling who Abe is, or at least who is supposed to be according to his domestic critics and elements of the international news media and non-Japanese academia.

Come with me on a short walk-through what seems to be Ultimate Irony Town:

Abe Shinzo
Is traveling to the United States
To plead with the incipient leader of the United States
To foster and preserve a liberal, rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific
And ask him to not indulge himself in facile, nationalist posturing,
Lashing out based on a dated and embarrassing worldview.

Do you need to hear that again?

Abe Shinzo
Is traveling to the United States
To plead with the incipient leader of the United States
To foster and preserve a liberal, rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific
And ask him to not indulge himself in facile, nationalist posturing,
Lashing out based on a dated and embarrassing worldview.

Now some links to commentary by folks I admire:

On the Trump victory’s implication for American leadership in East Asia, Daniel Sneider

On the importance of TPP, Mireya Solis

James D. J. Brown on the implications of the Trump victory for Japan-Russia relations

On the Abe visit with Trump, Robert Dujarric

As I have been saying for a long while, though hardly believing it myself:

Abe Shinzo = liberal icon

Later -

I would endorse Funabashi Yoichi's op-ed for The New York Times but the judgmental "should" appears too often for my tastes. Perhaps others would benefit from reading it, nonetheless:

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Three States Solution - an immoderate suggestion

Shisaku readers: This has little or nothing to do with Japanese politics. However, this is my blog and I needed to get this off my chest. Thanks.



The Three States Solution

People of the United States of America: there is a way out of this.

Imagine if in the first week of January in 2017, newly elected and returning members of Congress gather as they do in Washington. However, in an agreed-to change, the Representatives and Senators of the North Atlantic and Pacific Coast states are not present. Instead the members of Congress from those regions gather elsewhere – the members from the North Atlantic states in Boston and the members of Pacific Coast states in Salem, Oregon. They all swear oaths to uphold the Constitution. However, in Boston and in Salem, the name of the country is changed. The Boston group swears allegiance to the Union of North Atlantic States (Nordlantica). The Salem group swears allegiance to the Union of Pacific States (Pacifica).

On January 20th, three presidents are sworn into office. In Washington D.C. President Donald Trump is sworn into office without incident. In Boston President Hillary Clinton is sworn in (as is Vice-President Bernard Sanders). In Salem Hawaii-born President Barack Obama takes his third oath of office as president.

The divorce is peaceful: there are no border fences; commercial, transportation links stay open. The U.S. dollar remains the common currency for the interim as the New York and San Francisco Federal Reserve banks take over the role of central bank for the two new countries. Persons and corporations in the two new nations receive instructions on where to send their Internal Revenue Service checks by April 15. Elements of the Federal Government in each region remain in place and functioning, with the photos on the walls of the president and vice-president being the only initial indication of the new situation.

In security and foreign policy, the new states divide up the assets and responsibilities of the pre-2017 United States of America. The tanks, planes, aircraft carriers and submarines are apportioned equally. Nordlantica automatically becomes a member of NATO and takes up U.S. responsibilities there. Pacifica similarly takes up all current U.S.A. alliances with Asian countries – allowing President Trump and members of his administration to decide whether to involve their nation in world affairs or not.

Another major change comes in the matter of nuclear weapons. In order to maintain world balances and in line with the presumed preferences of their publics, Nordlantica and Pacifica turn over all nuclear weapons in their possession to the U.S. of A. (the new formal acronym, to distinguish the remainder state from the pre-2017 U.S.A). They join the United Nations and the world community as declared non-nuclear weapons states.

In time, the physical differences between the three countries emerge. New passports and currencies are issued, new national anthems and national flags are chosen. The G7 becomes the G9. Pacifica joins the TPP; Nordlantica the TTIP; the U.S. of A. joins neither. Instead, U.S. of A. commentators weigh the pros and cons of their nation joining OPEC.

To be sure the divorce may not be painless. Post-breakup Nordlantica and Pacifica may face a surges in residency and citizenship requests, even refugee flows, from persons seeking to flee an unhealthy human and civil rights climate in the U.S. of A. Presidents Clinton and Obama may be calling on the citizens of their respective nations to be as inclusive toward immigrants as they currently claim to be. 

* * *

Too fanciful? The Soviet Union broke up peaceably. The Czech Republic and Slovakia divorced without acrimony. Trying to hold culturally and politically divided countries like Yugoslavia and Russia, by contrast, led to catastrophic human/civil rights abuses and war.

A common theme in recent years is how divided the U.S.A. has become. Indeed, like the War of the Roses or the Gempei wars, the division is color-coded: Red America versus Blue America. The mystery is why Americans keep trying, election after punishing election, to stay together. Certainly they live with the legacy of the Civil War, with a stern marble Abraham Lincoln and his “A House divided against itself cannot stand” looming over their heads. However, the current situation – of mutual loathing, street protests, alliances of convenience with foreign powers, plotting and counterplotting to game the Electoral College, depression and anger -- cannot stand either.

So as regards the "united" part of the United States of America, why not, as a rather popular tune of recent years advised, just let it go? As three nations, indivisible, Americans would be a lot happier.

Monday, August 15, 2016

On The Meaning Of Yasukuni Today

Over the next few hours a herd of Diet members will march through the confines of Yasukuni Shrine, participating in an annual political and personal rite. The march will offend many inside Japan and many outside of it. The governments of China and South Korea will offer critical comment.

One focus of attention attention today will be on the number of Diet members who show up (we should expect an uptick from last year's numbers as newly elected members of the House of Councillors make their debuts). Another will be a will she/won't she as regards newly-elected governor of Tokyo Koike Yuriko, whose heretofore staunch nationalist posture now clashes with her task of leading a cosmopolitan metropole.

The greatest emphasis, however, will be on visitations by members of the Cabinet. One, Minister of Reconstruction Imamura Masahiro, already paid his visit to the shrine on Thursday the 11th. Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Takaichi Sanae has vowed to pay a visit today. Minister of Defense Inada Tomomi, who leads a special group within the LDP dedicated to visiting Yasukuni, was suddenly dispatched a study tour of SDF operations in Djibouti. Her gleeful departure from the airport on Friday left little doubt that the purpose of of her trip was the government's trying to keep her away from the shrine on the end-of-war day.

In light of Minister Inada's bubbly egress from Japan it is not inappropriate to revisit a point I have made previously about the August 15 Yasukuni sampai.

For some of the 210,000 or so who visit the shrine on a typical August 15, a visit on the end of war day is an act of REVERENCE, a time to reflect upon and pay tribute to the sacrifices of those died in service to the nation.

For many, including those who arrive in various kinds of dress up – black suits and ties, phony military uniforms or Hawaiian shirts (a favorite of gangster bosses) – the visit to Yasukuni on August 15 is an opportunity to TRANSGRESS, to engage in an activity notable only for being in very bad taste. It is the same delicious sense of being stupid and bad in public, of violating the rules of good society along with one's equally transgressive peers, which is the foundation of the current political support for Donald Trump or the hero worship of Vladimir Putin.

The qualitative difference between the two can be summed up by the difference, in English, between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism is (and for this definition, I am indebted to my TUJ Summer Semester student T. S.) when one loves one's country enough to die for it. Nationalism is (and for this definition, I am indebted to my TUJ Summer Semester student L. K.) is when one loves one country so much one one hates others for it.

For too many showing up today at Yasukuni today it will be nationalism, not patriotism, which propels them through the torii.

Friday, August 05, 2016

The Grand Illusion

Dr. Noah Smith has been one of the great defenders of Abenomics, that amorphous mass of Keynesian stimulus, Friedmanesque monetary policy and Nice Words About Structural Reform, particularly changes in work-life balance allowing women greater access to executive and management positions.

Dr. Smith, however, seems to have undergone a change of heart about the economics of the prime minister. Either that or he has a particular onus against one particular recent seemingly huge announcement: a 28 trillion yen stimulus package, the details of which will be examined in the Diet this Fall (the overal plan received Cabinet approval this week).

Japan's New Stimulus Is Just the Same Old Thing

Japanese growth is still sluggish. Consumers aren't consuming much, and businesses aren't investing. The government doesn't have many options to remedy this, and the Bank of Japan, which has sent both long-term and short-term interest rates into negative territory, has basically no more room to maneuver.

The dreaded Zero Lower Bound is starting to bite. The BOJ is buying more stocks, but this too has its limits -- eventually companies become de facto nationalized, as the government becomes the majority shareholder. That's scary both because it would affect corporate governance, and because it would be politically unpopular. It's also unclear how much of an economic boost the stock-purchasing program has given the country anyway. The BOJ could resort to policies like a higher inflation target or the much-discussed "helicopter money" approach, but so far it has been afraid to take these steps.

With the BOJ seemingly out of the game, demand-side macroeconomic policy is up to the parliament. So this week the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed a new fiscal stimulus package. It is moderately sized: about $45 billion in U.S. dollars this year, and about $60 billion in low-interest loans, to be followed by slightly less next year.

That move might win a few halfhearted cheers from Japan's battered consumers, but it's unlikely to have much of an effect...

(Click here to read more)

Later today (inshallah) Langley Esquire will be posting to YouTube a conversation Timothy Langley and I had yesterday on exactly the same subject.

(For the Langley Esquire YouTube channel, click here)

What should be setting everyone's teeth on edge about both the stimulus package and Abe's recent Cabinet picks, aside from the knowledge that both are in-your-face I-got-mine-suckers giveaways to cronies, is that with majorities in both houses of the Diet, a prostrate opposition, an emasculated bureaucracy, a totally compromised bond market, increasingly compromised equities markets and no rival power centers within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the Abe government has failed to pass a single fundamental structural reform of consequence. No other G7 or OECD leader enjoys the freedom and dominance of Abe Shinzo and his LDP. Abe & Friends nevertheless remain timid and/or clueless.

Amaterasu Omikami, save this blessed land from these poseurs and legacy turkeys.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Friends Of Shinzo Cabinet, Take Two

For the first three years of his second premiership, Abe Shinzo surprised many with his restraint and balance. His Cabinets, with a few exceptions, displayed with a mixture of scandal-free operations, diligent policy implementation and submersion of factional and personal rivalries. A deft hand at personnel and calendar management was evident.

Which is what is making the runup to today's announcement of a new Cabinet lineup such a downer. There are too many returnees, too many members of the Seiwakai (Mr. Abe's own faction), too many non-experts being placed as window dressing in posts requiring expertise and too few unfledged MPs getting their first shot at leading a ministry. Most of the first timers will be doubly hobbled because they will not even have a ministry behind them. Instead they will be state ministers shepherded around by the Cabinet Office.

Staying in place are Suga Yoshihide at Chief Cabinet Secretary, Takaichi Sanae at General Affairs, Aso Taro at Finance, Kishida Fumio at Foreign Affairs, Shiozaki Yasuhisa at Health/Pensions/Labor and the Komeito's Ishii Keichi at Infrastructure & Tourism.

Suga Yoshihide is the heart and soul of the Abe administration. Lacking the prerequisites for leadership of the modern LDP and without a thirst for the premiership, he returns to 1) being charge of the bureaucracy, including the recruitment and advancement of the top 600 bureaucrats, 2) being in charge of the Cabinet's work flow and 3) being the chief government spokesman.

Enough for anybody, really.

Takaichi and Shiozaki are Abe loyalists. Both served Abe as cabinet ministers in his first term (2006-07). Aso is something an Abe frenemy. He needs to be kept close even though 1) he cannot fundamentally be trusted and 2) his tongue repeatedly creates controversy.

Entering the Cabinet are Inada Tomomi and Seko Hiroshige. Both are more than mere Abe loyalists: they are sycophants. Seko indeed has played Mini-Me to Abe these past three years (Link), traveling with him around the world, making a particular spectacle of himself in dealings with Vladimir Putin. Both are largely amateurs in the policy areas they will be managing.

The inclusion of Inada and Seko in the Cabinet, combined with the retention of Takaichi and the rumored slide of Abe personal retainer Furuya Kenji into the vacant party post of elections chairman sends a distrubing message -- that Abe, post-House of Councillors 2016, is not in a mood to share with other factions and forces within the LDP. Closeness or service to the party president will be rewarded; all others will just have to lump it.

Loyalty is of course important for rulers. However, so are knowledge and perspective - neither of which sycophants and/or personal debtors can provide. Leadership demands that one restrain oneself, not take all one can, convincing those not in the inner circle that the system has rewards, not just humiliations, for them.

Abe's seeming abandonment of magnanimity and restraint has me worried. Abe put together a similar team of loyalist and fellow travelers in 2006, one which the news media dubbed the "Friends of Shinzo" Cabinet. Their calamitous performances individually and as a Cabinet make me worried about their echo today.

[For my earlier take on the proposed new lineup of the LDP secretariat, click here.]