Thursday, October 20, 2005

Reading can be fun...if...

Professor Gavan McCormack is a very frustrated man. In his essay "Koizumi's Kingdom of Illusion" he demonstrates a compelling need to work out—at length—his disquiet over recent political events.

Part of his argument shows signs of coming from essays on rather different topics (a sin, but a venial one in this our age of silicon) but on the whole McCormack offers an expansive look at why it is just so wrong that the LDP did so well in the September 11 election. He also offers a glimpse of the rarest of creatures: a non-Japanese who feels a tremulous nostalgia for the doken kokka.

Sadly for Professor McCormack, Koizumi not only won but won big. He must be doing something right. (Bricolage, peut-être?)

Philip Brasor, who makes his living as a media critic, offers up some juicy sentences but a few too many overripe paragraphs in his Japan Times opinion article "Roll up! Roll up! For a freak show starring Koizumi's children", also available here.

It is not until very end of the essay that Brasor seizes upon what should have been the focus of his piece: the crucial role the morning television shows played in midwifing Koizumi's electoral victory. Instead of repeating what Shukan Shincho said about Katayama Satsuki's prickly personality, Brasor should have examined exactly how the morning shows have become so powerful, supplanting the evening news hours as sources of information for the general public. (Was it simply because the sun rises early in August?)

While McCormack and Brasor write about a country that resembles contemporary Japan, I am afraid David Kang fails to do so in his essay "Japan: U.S. Partner or Focused on Abductees?" in this autumn's The Washington Quarterly.

Kang teaches government at Dartmouth with a concurrent post at the Tuck School of Business. He writes on Korea-Japan relations for the excellent e-journal Comparative Connections produced by the Pacific Forum CSIS.

I am not particularly disturbed this article's relentless reprojection of the Japan-North Korea relationship through the prism of the United States. Kang is, after all, writing for a Washington audience. However, Kang's reliance on English-language sources is somewhat disconcerting. A certain piquancy is lacking in the resulting stew, as key ingredients go missing.

Take for example his account of the derailment of the normalization process that took place after the September 2002 Pyongyang summit (p. 108). According to Kang:

Koizumi traveled to Pyongyang for a breakthrough meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, the first-ever meeting between the two countries' heads of state. The summit produced a dramatic declaration: after three decades of denials, North Korea admitted and apologized for the past abductionof Japanese nationals and held out the possibility of normalizing diplomatic ties between the two countries...

The summit's concluding Pyongyang Declaration was significant, as both sides apologized for past actions—a precondition for moving forward—and pledged to cooperate in the future.

Unfortunately, this optimism was quickly overshadowed by the nuclear crisis. Within just weeks of Koizumi's trip, all hopes of a rapid improvement in relations faded as North Korea and the United States squared off.

My memory of that stunning September three years was somewhat different. Koizumi came back from Pyongyang holding ashes—not literally, that was to come later—but gray and speechless at the stunning revelation that most of the abductees were dead, purportedly in "accidents," their graves all "washed away in floods." He and Abe Shinzo had debated whether to return during the scheduled lunch break without signing the Declaration. They had furthermore traveled to Pyongyang already briefed about the possible clandestine HEU program, fully cognizant of the likely public outcry that would ensue when the U.S. went public with its suspicions.

Nothing prepared them, however, for the shock of so many Japanese dead at such a young age. Since they were bringing no one home, there was nothing to cushion the blow delivered to the families...all of which was broadcast live on television.

The HEU accusation was a sideshow, comparatively speaking.


Anonymous said...

Ditto, MTC, on Mr. McCormack. For example:

"Nearly four years after he was first elected Prime Minister, promising to "reform" Japan even if it meant destroying his own party, the LDP, Koizumi did the unthinkable: he secured an even bigger majority by promising again to do more-or-less the same, having failed ignominiously in the meantime to advance a reform agenda."

Not everything Koizumi has touched has turned to gold, but he has set quite a few changes in motion, and some of them are potentially far-reaching; that's why he's so popular, and why the DPJ has lost traction. Either that, or we have to conclude that the Japanese people are incredible fools for being taken in, but that surely is not what Mr. McCormack implying. You know, I don’t think Mr. McCormack likes Koizumi nor the LDP, and this distorts his commentary.

"LDP Electoral Performance, 1996-2005 [5]
1996 Votes 39% Seats 56%
2000 Votes 41% Seats 59%
2003 Votes 44% Seats 56%
2005 Votes 48% Seats 73%
The cause of democracy is ill-served by a system that so grossly distorts the popular will."

If you agree with that, then you must agree with the following:
"Clinton Electoral Performance, 1992
44,909,806 Votes 43.0% Electoral votes 68.8%, seats 100%
The cause of democracy is ill-served by a system that so grossly distorts the popular will."
What Mr. McCormack is criticizing is actually the first-past-the-post, single-seat electoral system that has served Anglo-Saxon democracies so well over the years. You can't blame the system for the slowness with which the two-party system is evolving in Japan. I suspect what Mr. McCormack really doesn't like are the results.

"Beyond the DPJ the opposition benches accommodate the Japan Communist Party, whose vote has fluctuated between about 2 and 8 per cent throughout the postwar era, the Social Democratic Party, which as Japan Socialist Party (till 1994) used to gain the votes of around 15 per cent of the electorate but slowly shrank to a shadow of its former self as today's Social Democratic Party after the fateful choice made by its leader, Murayama Tomiichi, to accept the constitutional legitimacy of the Self-Defense Force (SDF) and endorse the US-Japan security treaty and the Hinomaru and Kimigayo as national flag and anthem, and now the postal rebel independents and several small new parties. Despite its 1990s identity confusion, the SDP was able to weather the Koizumi hurricane, even slightly increasing its parliamentary representation in the September election, by insisting on the principles of peace and constitutionalism."

There is some truth here, but wasn't the JSP merely following the tidal shift in popular opinion in favor of a "normal nationhood”? Like the USSR, they lost the power of their convictions; Murayama's act was only the logical result of this devolution. Perhaps Mr. McCormack pines for the days when there seemed to be a clear choice between malignant militarism and idealistic pacifism, but, like it or not, the Japanese people are increasingly embracing the boring, middle-of-the-road post-WW II normalcy that all sovereign democracies have enjoyed, including, dare I say it, Japan, in practice? But that is another thread.

I’ll stop here. There’s nothing wrong with being true to your values in the face of change, but you can't let that blind you to reality.

Actually, in all fairness to Professor McCormack, he gives quite sober, and sobering, comments here. So maybe it was just “his disquiet boiling over.”

Mr. Brasor shares Mr. McCormack’s negative take on the first-past-the-post electoral system, but the cynicism with which he views the Japanese body politic, always something of a caricature, is increasingly also an outdated stereotype.

Just as briefly on the Mr. Kang quote: It reminded me of the difficulty I had in conveying to Americans how strongly the fate of the abductees resonated with the Japanese public and had come to overshadow and dominate the entire Japan-North Korea relationship.

Anonymous said...

To avoid any misunderstanding, let me add that when I speak of the "cynicism with which he views the Japanese body politic, always something of a caricature", I am not imputing to Mr. Brasor any personal qualities of cynicism, nor am I dipicting his personal view as a caricature. Instead, I am branding as cynical (NTTAWWT) and now increasingly a caricature a view widely held among foreign observors of post-WW II Japan. To quote Michael Corleone, " It's not personal... It's strictly business."