Thursday, January 31, 2008

The government of the people

Pravda-by-the-Palace puts out its usual drek:

DPJ must vote on bills before end of FY07
The Yomiuri Shimbun

A political impasse involving an all-out confrontation between the ruling and opposition parties has been avoided at the last moment with the ruling and opposition blocks accepting an unusual mediation offer by the House of Representatives speaker and the House of Councillors president.

As a result, the ruling bloc agreed Wednesday to withdraw a stopgap bill for extending the provisional gasoline tax and other road-related tax rates two months beyond their March 31 expiration.

But, considering the uncertainty over the future course of the nation's economy and the unacceptable nature of political stalemate, it is only natural that a last-ditch effort was made by the ruling and opposition camps.

To help stabilize the economy, people's lives and the finances of local governments, it is necessary to make a quick start to debate over the fiscal 2008 budget bill and tax system-related bills so that their passage through the Diet can be achieved by the end of fiscal 2007.=

Why is DPJ obsessed with bill?

But why was the Democratic Party of Japan so strongly opposed to the stopgap bill drafted by the ruling camp, which aimed to avert turmoil in people's lives and the nation's economy? It may be that the DPJ feared its basic strategy to work the political situation in its favor was likely to be thrown off track...

It takes an incredible suspension of disbelief to assert that when a ruling coalition in possession of a supermajority in the House of Representatives suspends a stopgap bill, that this is a demonstration of the opposition's resignation to political reality.

Since when do the LDP and the Komeitō extend a hand to help the Democrats recover from their long term policy errors?

This was a whupping--the yonyaku were up-front and center in favor of the extension of the temporary tax for a specific purpose--to buy the votes of a favored narrow traditional constituency.

Kōno Yōhei only stated the obvious to these numbskulls: the people cannot be fooled.

The vote-buying plan--the purpose of this whole rigamarole for Elections Measures Chairman Koga Makoto and the other LDP retreads--is dead. The tax revenues are going into the general fund or into an environmental protection fund. If the LDP tries to pull a fast one and channel anything more than a token amount to the road construction gang, then the DPJ will pull out of the agreement--having learned from history that one never commits to anything when shaking the hand of the LDP.

The government against the people lost. The government for the people seems to have won.

Simple, it is, really.

Monday, January 28, 2008

A winter's flight over the Uraga Channel

Yurikamome Larus liribunbus
From the Tokyo Bay Ferry
Midway between Kurihama and Kanaya
January 27, 2008

Click on image for full screen

Friday, January 25, 2008


A name to remember: Nakatsuji Masato.

The first man ever arrested for...well...what really?

I was watching last night's NHK 9 pm news. The second main story of the broadcast was a report on the first arrest ever for writing a computer virus. "Oh, well somebody has to be first, I guess," I thought to myself, though I was puzzled by the detailed knowledge displayed of the virus' effects and its purpose.

Then, without introduction, the screen was filled with an extreme closeup of child-woman Ueto Aya wearing a red Sherlock Holmes outfit. The film quality lighting and the editing made it clear this was professional video work. In the video clip she urged the public to scan for viruses and protect their computers with security programs.

It was an incredibly jarring intrusion--without introduction or explanation. NHK does not have ads--so what was going on?

Neither the announcers nor the voiceover explained the origins or the meaning of the Ueto clip, as if they assumed that the viewer could figure out the relationship without help (a really odd assumption for the 9 pm news crew--because normally they explain everything, thrice).

NHK did, however, note something odd. The announcers admitted their story was a false one: Nakatsuji Masato had actually not been arrested for writing a virus. Because he would send the script embedded in a copyrighted animation character's image, he had been arrested for violating copyright laws.

So, in truth, no one had actually been arrested for writing a virus. Indeed, no one could be--because, as the program then explained, there is no statute that makes writing a computer virus illegal. One of the experts in news piece explained that such a bill making writing a virus a crime had been presented to the Diet...but that it had never actually come to a vote. The expert unsurprisingly urged the quick passage of the bill into law, as the problems of computer virus writing poses a clear threat to public order.

And then it happened again--a video clip of a red Sherlock Holmes gear-clad image of Ueto Aya encouraging better computer security.

I just sat their stunned, thinking, "What the hell was that?"

This is the hell.

Advertisement on the Marunouchi Line
January 25, 2007

Advertisement on the Marunouchi Line
January 25, 2007

Everywhere, in every direction, on every space open to advertising on the Marunouchi Line train this morning--Ueto Aya and her red Sherlock Holmes getup. Courtesy of the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry.

I felt sick. Sicker than I have felt in a long time--gripped with a sense of cold hopelessness at the craven immorality of what the government had done.

They had arrested a person, broadcast his name everywhere, branded him a criminal--in order to justify an advertising campaign. For a crime he could not commit because it does not exist--because it is not a crime under the law.

Some poor nobody, some poor sad sack, selected from out of the great lumpen mass to serve as an example--sacrificed in order to justify a budget item.

Who now among us can feel safe? Who can ever hope for just treatment under such a system?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Bienvenue, traitre

House of Councillors member for the Democratic Party Ōe Yasuhiro is a piece of work.

Courtesy: Asahi Shimbun

This image, of him greeting Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Ibuki Bunmei at the special congress of local and Diet politicians in favor of extending the temporary gasoline tax, graced the front page of the Asahi Shimbun this morning. It was a smack in the face of the DPJ leadership, which is fighting the renewal of the tax. The handshake and Ōe's later remarks to the press have opened the door for other DPJ members, particularly those holding shaky seats in rural areas, to break with the party leadership and side with the road construction lobby.

Ōe's incipient betrayal is not just opportunistic: it is part of a pattern. He abstained on the House of Councillors vote on the government refueling mission bill, instead of siding with his party in rejecting the bill.

Now the DPJ lacks a 51% majority in the House of Councillors and so is unlikely to expel any upper house legislator from the party--but Ōe is an especially enervating case. He is a proportional seat holder. The seat does not belong to him--it belongs to the party. Furthermore, he was reelected last July. Does he expect the party leadership to just look the other way for six years?

What happens when an at-large proportional seat holder ceases to follow party discipline? Can the party expel him and repossess the seat? Is it Ōe's private possession now?

Oh, oh, my brain hurts...

Ōe vey!

The NHK insider trading problem

Chris Salzberg has posted snippets and translations from Ikeda Nobuo's take on the systemic failures that made it possible for three employees of NHK to make windfall stock profits based on inside information.

Whatever the systemic inadequacies, that NHK gets this information ahead of time at all is the real outrage...remember when the network began broadcasting the raid on LiveDoor before the raid had actually taken place? Any chance there were NHK folks doing LiveDoor trades on that day?

Sakurai Yoshiko's think tank (reprise)

The Foreign Correspondent's Club of Japan has a write up on Monday's presentation by Sakurai Yoshiko and friends on relations with the DPRK. "Japan Institute for National Fundamentals" is not nearly as fluid a translation of Kokka kihon mondai kenkyūjo as "Center for Research on the Fundamental Problems of the Nation"--but what can you do?

It is a good thing I am not an angry, skeptical, fly-by-night, weather-beaten, crypto-Socialist FCCJ member with no sense of decorum. Otherwise I might have taken up the microphone (unwise, unwise) and asked a rather lengthy question:

"I am very glad you are taking this stand against persons being taken away from their families and held captive--making it impossible for parents to see children, grandparents to see their grandchildren and siblings to see each other. I am sure that since you are in Japan and are influential citizens, you are of course helping the victims of foreign kidnappings committed by Japanese, yes?

There are dozens of cases of children every year being abducted by Japanese citizens where the kidnappers, rather than being brought to justice, are sheltered by the Japanese state. You are, of course, working hard to end this horrible violation of international law happening right now--because you know Japan runs the risk of being seen as a lawless, isolated, insular, pig-headed state, yes?

Because if you weren't willing to stop the kidnappings of foreign nationals being carried out by citizens of Japan--something you could, as influential Japanese citizens, really could do something about--then one might be led to think that your highlighting the events of over 30 years ago is merely an attempt to sow discord in international relations and create a climate of fear on the domestic front which you hope to exploit in order to achieve your real goal, which is political power. Yes?

And if we are talking about states protecting kidnappers as a form of terrorism, then Japan should really be on the State Department list of states that sponsor terrorism, yes?"

Hmmmm....that last concept would be a fun little legal avenue for the parents of abducted children to pursue, yes?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Sakurai Yoshiko's think tank

Smiles everyone! This one's going in the newspaper!

Hanoi-born hellion and heroine of the Japanese far right Sakurai Yoshiko and a crowd of her cheerful fellow travelers announced on Monday the opening of a new think tank, the Kokka kihon mondai kenkyūjo (interim Eng. translation: Center for Research on the Fundamental Problems of the Nation).

Sora the Metablogger provides a helpful list of the officers of the new organization and a snappy little concluding line about yours truly.

Yes, Sora, you are right--with Ishihara the Elder, Inada, Nakanishi, Hiranuma, Yayama and Matsubara on board and snow coming down outside--it is like Christmas in January for me.

When I have a moment, I might try my hand at a translation of the think tank's founding principles. In the interim, however, please enjoy the image the editors of yesterday's Sankei Shimbun chose to accompany their article (on-line in an abbreviated form) on the announcement.

"You mortals, you will learn the meaning of fear..."

A small step away, a great leap back

Okumura Jun over at GlobalTalk 21 often has issues with the BBC.

I wonder how he will respond to Chris Hogg's piece on consumption of whale meat and whaling from a Japanese perspective.

I wish Mr. Hogg well--the anti-whaling folks tend to rather vocal, maniacal and persistent.

Whilst on the subject, it is worthwhile to take a look at the illustration accompanying this article and the "a-pox-on-both-your-houses" view of 2004's "Australian Humanist of the Year".

The Paul Sheehan piece is particularly interesting. The article begins with a very detailed look at the ecology of the southwestern Pacific humpback population on its first page--then careens off in a completely different direction on its second.

It is hard to believe the two pages are by the same author, much less that they are two parts of a single essay.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Japanese public to the ruling coalition: Drop Dead

Neither stupid Diet absenteeism nor losing the Indian Ocean redeployment fight nor a solid pair of speeches by the leader of your opponents can seriously dent your image with the Japanese public, it seems.

Japan's Opposition Party Tops Ruling LDP in Poll, Mainichi Says

By Tak Kumakura and Finbarr Flynn-- Jan. 22 -- Japan's opposition Democratic Party of Japan has a third more support than the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to win the next parliamentary election, a Mainichi newspaper survey found.

Forty-four percent of people who responded to the survey said they wanted the opposition Democratic Party to win the next Lower House election, while 33 percent favored the LDP...
The Bloomberg report contains an error. The actual numbers from the Mainichi poll are 44% wishing for a DPJ victory and 35% wishing for an LDP victory--not 33%.

Some might jump in and say, "This represents an improvement from the numbers of last month's survey when the numbers were 33% for the LDP and 46% for the DPJ."

Oh please--everything goes the LDP's way in the Diet for a month and they gain two percentage points of support? And the DPJ loses two? That's it?

Most importantly for the DPJ's fortunes, the party held steady among women at 38%. It was among the men that the drop came, from the anomalous 55% (a number so stunning I felt compelled to write a post about it ) down to a still impressive 51%.

More revealing of public revulsion with the ruling coalition are the answers to the question "What would be the makeup of the kind of government you would like?" [The figures in parentheses being the December numbers]

A purely LDP government 8% (10%)
The current LDP-Komeito coalition 16% (17%)
A grand coalition with the LDP and the DPJ in cooperation 29% (23%)
A coalition with the DPJ as its core 26% (21%)
A purely DPJ government 6% (11%)
Other 5% (6%)

The extremes have lost support, most dramatically a pure DPJ government. However, the significant lines are the second and the fourth, where the current LDP-led ruling coalition is 10% points behind its mirror opposite DPJ-led coalition. The high and rising number for the centrist grand coalition further demonstrates the sense that the current ruling coalition is a failure.

In the past, LDP governments could survive less-than-20% support ratings thanks to gerrymandering and the lack of an opposition with serious policies.

Those days are gone, however. The House of Representatives elections are too darn close to just and fair...and the DPJ's policies are too serious and politically savvy to mock.

Rearranging the deck chairs or trying to establish a third mature, sober, virginal, apolitical force are distractions. Artifice and diversions.

The LDP and the whole tawdry circus go to't, my dear Horatio.

Monday, January 21, 2008


What was hardest to bear, when the television this evening showed the reporters crowding around Representative Noda Seiko and then Representative Satō Yukari, asking them both what they know about their respective fates (as if their fates had ever been in doubt) and both of them saying, "I have not received any communication from the Elections Measures Chairman so I cannot comment"?

That both of them are smarter, more conscientious (survivors of more scurrilous innuendo and attacks by the scandal sheets) and better attuned to the needs of the electorate than any of the party leaders they must abnegate themselves before.


Sunday, January 20, 2008

Thought for a cold, cloudy day

The Prime Minister was right on Thursday: the Liberal Democratic Party is in a terrible bind.

I will go out on a limb and make the prediction: the party faces annihilation in the next House of Representatives election.*

If the party is to survive, it must attack the root cause of the nation's current malaise.

Unfortunately, the root cause of Japan's malaise is the LDP.**

* Unlike my last correct election prediction, I promise to get the reasons for the defeat correct too.

** Yes, I know. "But...but that's Koizumism!" So sue me.

A momentary lapse into reason

It happens once on a blue moon, but it does happen--Ampontan (William Sakovich) writes a well-researched and level-headed post on the gasoline tax debate.

Skip over the initial extended non-sequitur on Economics and Fiscal Policy Economics Minister Ōta Hiroko...

(I have reason to believe Minister Ōta suffers from a lack of support. When asked by an interviewer from the Nihon Keizai Shimbun why the Nordic countries, with their generous social welfare systems and aging populations, have avoided economic stagnation and staggering debt, her response was that that their populations are small making it easier for the citizens to keep tabs on their governments's spending. )

...and start at "Two Gas Station Bills in Row." Sakovich thereafter explains with clarity and detail the motivations and plans of the various actors.

Why can Mr. Sakovich not do this more often?

Note: The title above comes from a remark by Tobias Harris, commenting on an August 13, 2007 Ampontan post on the Democratic Party.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

When I and if have the time

I would like to offer my own take on the Prime Minister's policy speech to the Diet. I will have to block out some time to listen to it, as just reading the text gives no sense whether or not the intonation and stress were effective.

Presentation is crucial--some would say, "unfortunately."

Until such time as I can hear the speech or catch bits of it in the televised newscasts, I will defer to the excellent work of the Japan Observer.

Oh, you have to be...

...bloody well kidding me.

By two university presses, no less.

Seriously, the Japan Military Studies universe is not large. How could this have happened?

Later - Check out the position of the faces vis-a-vis the mountain terrain in the background, then the length of the antennae.


Even later - I have received word from a person in the know that everything is legitimate and legal, just...kind of embarrassing.

Full disclosure: Professor Samuels and I have had an occasional lunch together when his travels have brought him to Tokyo.

The technician speaks volumes

Though I am sure anyone and everyone who needs enlightenment has already made the trip, I will point out that Okumura Jun has posted a detailed look at the list of problematic pieces of legislation set to expire on March 31.

How frustrating and saddening that Okumura-san can blithely, but with very good reason, write, "[The Extraordinary Measures Act on Financing Funds for the Improvement of Fisheries Processing Industry Facilities]looks like a gimmie. Nobody wants to annoy the fishing lobby, though they could wait a few weeks for a Lower House override if it comes to that."

I would sure like to annoy the fishing lobby. In fact, I would love to irk them.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Technological change unfairly impacts...

...rural Northern Chiba's tourism industry:
"The opening up of the railroad first of all had a huge impact on other forms of transportation. In Funabashi, which had been a stopping off point for those making the pilgrimage to Narita-san from Tokyo, the main road from Tokyo was 'alive with horse-drawn carriages and rickshaws engaged in the passenger trade.'

When the railroad between Tokyo and Narita opened, 'The horse-drawn carriages suffered the shock first, then many of the rickshaws and the ryokan failed to avoid the vicissitudes of the age.'

It is reported that by the second year of the Taishō Era (1913) some 39 ryokan, 65 horse carriages, 1350 rickshaws and 63 passenger boats had ceased their operations..."
Miura Shigekazu, Takabayashi Naoki, Nagatsuma Hiroshi and Yamamura Kazushige, Chibaken no Hyakunen: kenmin hyakunenshi 12 (Tokyo: Yamaka Shuppan, 25 May 1990), p. 146.

Middle school students open up the windows in order
to exchange greetings with strangers during a changeover
On the Kominato Line, Ichihara City, Chiba Prefecture
August 11, 2007

Yes, I might just be thinking about this article...on this, the first day of the 2008 ordinary Diet session, when all kind of promises have been made.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Acquiring carnal knowledge...

...of themselves is what Democratic Party of Japan leader Ozawa Ichirō suggests those who might criticize him on his failure to stay in Diet chambers and cast a ballot in the revote on the New Special Measures Law do.

Or something like that.

Please, please, please--cannot some news organization offer an English-language account of Ozawa's display of unrepentant douchebaguery? Otherwise the outside world will have difficulty understanding what went wrong when the DPJ manages to blow a sure thing once again.

Asked about DPJ deputy leader Hatoyama Yukio's act of saying "I must offer an apology to the people," Ozawa refused to be drawn in, saying, "I have no idea what Mr. Hatoyama has said."
Hatoyama apologizes for Ozawa on the Sunday talk shows. Ozawa returns the favor by tossing Hatoyama under the bus.

Leadership...its all about thinking what's best for the team.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Politics of Gasoline Prices

Rule #13. - Rely on your own powers. If you can't see the point of your opponent's move, assume there isn't any.
- from "Pandolfini's 64 Rules of Chess"

I cannot understand Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo's strategy or his mode of reasoning as regards the renewal of the temporary gasoline surcharges.

Indeed, after seeing him fumble through a response to the question of what he intends to do about the gasoline tax in the upcoming regular Diet session, it seems reasonable to assume that he has not given a moment's thought to the problem.

Let us see if we can think this through ourselves.

First, who would be thrilled at the extension of the nominally temporary 25 yen per liter tax on gasoline, set to expire on March 31?

- Bureaucrats (is there a source of revenue they will ever forego?)

- The Road Tribe of LDP legislators and their clients in the road construction industry - for they believe, with good reason, that they will be wiped out should they lose this ability to filch from the public's pockets

Now, who would be thrilled if the tax were allowed to expire?

- The remaining of the citizens and residents of Japan, say oh, about 115 million persons, 90 million of whom vote.

The weirdest thing about the ruling coalition's hesitation over whether or not to let the tax die? The lack of a clearcut rural vs. urban angle. Gasoline prices touch everyone. However, they have a particular impact on those living in rural areas. Persons in the chihō are dependent on their vehicles and buses to get around. It is inconceivable that more persons will benefit from the budgetary depredations of the Road Tribe and its host of clients than will benefit from the repeal of a highly regressive tax on the rural population's primary mode of transportation and a major factor of the cost of farming.

As for the LDP's best interests, it is impossible to believe it will be able to buy more votes through public works paid from out of the revenues collected by the tax than it will lose from voters furious at the tax's reimposition. The tax measure was meant to be temporary--and certainly would have never been imposed had gasoline prices been, as they are now, at record high levels.

Nevertheless, the PM's bureaucratic handlers in the Kantei and the idiot-savants in the LDP leadership seem to have clouded the PM's thinking on the matter. They argue that the country cannot live without the gasoline tax revenue--quite oblivious to the fact that by recycling the money through the clients of the Road Tribe, the government will be, to borrow Okumura Jun's phrase, "bribing the people with their own money."

One need only look at the gleeful faces of the DPJ to know that the Prime Minister is facing a Waterloo. The DPJ is going to town on the temporary gasoline tax renewal threat. It yesterday unveiled a 60 Diet member "Brigade to Lower Gasoline Prices," complete with printed banners and slogans.

Who could blame the Democrats for taking advantage of the situation? "Fighting for the needs of all instead of the profits for the few!" sure makes a hell of a House of Representatives election campaign slogan.

Is there no one near the PM with any political or economic sense at all--who is able to say to him, "Ever heard of Mancur Olson? No? Well, no matter. Imagine that you are surrounded by vampires telling you that the people need to submit themselves to mandatory blood donations. Now realize that you don't need to imagine that--because that is precisely the situation you are in."

Will the PM snap out of his trance in time? Or will the DPJ just laugh, as they were laughing yesterday, as the Cabinet immolates itself?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The world as we know it, the end of which is it?

Meanwhile, the markets are hemorrhaging again.

Courtesy: Nikkei Net

I'm just beginning to see...
Now I'm on my way...

Mr. Ugarte, your papers please

This is absolutely not a solution in search of a problem...because a better trained, more culturally sensitive and more alert police force and a serious attempt to shut down training and education visa abuse by mid-sized and small-sized firms cannot stop infrequent but highly publicized incidents of homicide, prostitution, drug dealing and burglary nearly as well as a broad application of language skills testing.

Later - A Bloomberg report has a put a positive spin on the story. However, as I discuss with the very honorable Janne Morén in Comments, the government is putting the cart before the horse, bringing up a language requirement before discussing any liberalization of residence.

Monday, January 14, 2008

68 and 55

Exactly one month ago (on December 15 and 16) the Mainichi Shimbun conducted a survey of the public's attitudes toward the Cabinet, the parties and politicians in general. That the Mainichi editors chose to release the results of the survey on January 6 meant that the release was
1) not exactly timely and
2) sort of got lost in the this year's damn near eternal New Years holiday hootenanny.

Which is too bad, for at least two of the survey's numbers are eye-popping.

The first astonishing number is 68, as in 68% of those who think the Abe-Fukuda transition meant very little, leadership-wise.

"In the transition from the Prime Minister Abe Shinzō to Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo, do you believe the character of the government changed?"

Has changed for the better 14%
Has changed for the worse 11%
Has not changed  68%
The above goes a long way toward explaining why some folks were pushing hard for a Cabinet reshuffle in late December. When over two thirds of the voters see no differences in character, why not go for broke with a new lineup reflection "Fukuda color"?

The survey's second stunning number is 55--the percentage of men who wanted the Democratic Party to win the next House of Representatives election.

"In between the LDP and the DPJ, which do you want to win in a House of Representatives election?"

Men & Women
LDP 33%
DPJ 46%
Some other party 13%

Men only
LDP 31%
DPJ 55%
Some other party 8%

Women only
LDP 34%
DPJ 38%
Some other party 16%
Change for change's sake is a guy thing, to be sure. Nevertheless the huge gap in between the LDP and DPJ support levels among men versus the small gap among women gives one pause (No, I do not know why they were permitted to say, "Some other party" when the question did not allow that as an answer). Clearly, some folks are going to have to rework their images of the core population groups behind the two main parties.

In either case, with the numbers like the above, does anyone think the DPJ is at all worried about its purported lack of preparedness for a snap election?

Does anyone think that the LDP will heed the editors of the Nikkei, who in an end of the year editorial* called for a dissolution of the House of Representatives immediately after the passage of all budget-related legislation so as to "ask the public its opinion"?



* Nihon Keizai Shimbun, "Seiji no antei to shakai no shinraikan o torimodose." December 30, 2007, p. 2.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Let's have a moratorium

Here is a kind of statement I want to see less of, taken from former Gaimushō Asia Pacific Bureau chief and object of right wing contempt Tanaka Hitoshi's first installment of monthly op-ed* he will be writing for the Mainichi Shimbun:


"There is a view that in order to effect policies that make revolutionary change possible there has to be a rupture with the past and therefore a 'change in government' is necessary. In the current situation, views are deep-rooted doubting the abilities of those who would be responsible in a Democratic Party- led government."
First of all, it is not difficult to doubt the abilities of those who would be responsible under a Democratic Party-led government. In fact, it is unavoidable, as the LDP has not allowed a Democratic Party-led government. Without any evidence, it is hard not to doubt. Perhaps if the LDP could be persuaded to let the Democrats run a government, we then might be able to make a more reliable prognostication about whether the Democrats do or do not have the ability to run a government. Until such time as the Democrats are granted that chance, however, doubting their abilities seems somewhat unadventurous, intellectually.

Second, while the abilities of a Democratic Party-led government may be an open question, it is a damn near sure thing that the Democrats could not mess up the country in more ways and more profoundly than a half a century of LDP-led governments have. Before we start worrying about the lack of Democratic experience, let us reflect upon what an experienced LDP has inflicted upon us all.

Better yet, let us have a moratorium on doubting or saying that we doubt that the DPJ could take over as the governing party, for whatever reason. The LDP just does not deserve the indirect credit or praise.

Of course, the above does not mean that Democratic Party leader Ozawa Ichirō should be let off the hook for his conspicuous skedaddle before the Special Measures Law revote on Friday.


* The first installment of "Toki o yomu" appeared in the evening edition of January 10.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

In the news today, oh boy

Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo pulled a Wen Jiabao this morning, dropping in at a Social Insurance Agency branch office in Setagaya, asking citizens seeking help in sorting out their pensions about the service they are receiving.

Courtesy: Tokyo Shimbun

Somebody in the Kantei has finally remembered a politician's first duty is to appear compassionate and engaged--even when he cannot do anything specific in the near term. If the PM can find the time for a few more such visits and gives up prevaricating in the Diet about Abe's promise to fix everything by March 31, then he might pull himself and his party out of the morass.

An aside, but I am puzzled why in the midst of all this no one brings up the reason Fukuda felt he had to resign as Chief Cabinet Minister back in May 2004. It would seem a natural to quip that "poor Fukuda never seems to be able to put his pension problems behind him." *

While the PM seems to be finding his feet public relations-wise, Ozawa Ichirō managed to hand to his enemies an astounding "What Was He Thinking?" moment on Friday. By absenting himself from the House of Representatives revote on the New Special Measures Law, Ozawa opened himself up to criticism that he has no sense of political responsibility. Remember, it was Ozawa's actions as regards the dispatch renewal that triggered the toppling of a prime minister, forced a double extension of the extraordinary Diet session, resulted in a botched negotiation of a new political compact in order to move legislation through the Diet and in general wasted the last five months of the Diet's time. That he should suddenly feel that the Osaka gubernatorial election takes precedence over his day job boggles many an imagination.

The Sankei Shimbun, always an Ozawa friend, decided to give the story "War Declared!" level coverage on its front page:

Courtesy: Sankei Shimbun

I am sure the brouhaha will all die down soon enough--there are enough real problems in the country to soon push Ozawa's being or not being somewhere off the front pages.

But still...what was Ozawa thinking?


* Then again, no one took advantage of coincidental link this week between Friday's override and the last time such a parliamentary maneuver was used back in 1951: in order to legalize betting on motorboat races. No "Once Again, It's Gambling With Boats" headlines...nothing.

The numbers, please...

In the House of Councillors:

New Special Measures Law (government bill)
106 FOR
(government bill is rejected by the House of Councillors)

Terror Eradication Law (DPJ bill)
120 FOR
(DPJ bill is approved by the House of Councillors)

In the House of Representatives:

New Special Measures Law (government bill)
340 FOR
(government bill is reapproved by the House of Representatives, overriding the action of the House of Councillors)

To review:

House of Representatives
480 members
320 needed for a 2/3 supermajority


House of Councillors
242 members
122 needed for a numerical majority


Friday, January 11, 2008

Counting on one's allies

The outright rejection this morning by the House of Councillors of the truncated terrorism special measures bill reauthorizing a dispatch of Maritime Self Defense Forces vessels to the Indian Ocean has exposed the identities of the parties in control of the political calendar.

The Socialists and Communists.

Yes, despite the paucity of their numbers and their non-mainstream views, the Socialists and the Communists seem to have forced Democratic Party of Japan leader Ozawa Ichirō to act against his own best interests.

According to reports in the media, the DPJ leadership had wanted to avoid making a clear statement on the dispatch legislation. A rejection of the legislation would require all the DPJ's internal groupings, some of which were quite comfortable with the bill, to toe the party line.

By pushing the party to vote as one, Ozawa Ichirō will likely end up owing internal party critic and security hawk Maehara Seiji another big favor. Ozawa had previously coopted Maehara and his allies by granting Maehara entry into the core party leadership. With unified vote against the legislation this morning, the earlier concession to the hawks will become done and paid for. Maehara and other hawks will be free to request that DPJ policies start reflecting Ozawa's own historical stance of Japan's becoming a "normal" nation--at least in terms of security.

[One of the problems with being a big time thinker--you leave behind you a big time legacy for others to pick through.]

Ozawa, who did not want to be beholden to Maehara and the hawks (who would?) probably wanted to kick the dispatch bill down the road (Okumura Jun has explained the arcana regarding the handling of bills at the end of a session over at GlobalTalk 21) allowing the LDP-led override of the bill in the House of Representatives to take precedence.

However, the Socialists and Communists in the House of Councillors have been demanding a clear statement of rejection. These two parties have needed to demonstrate to their supporters the value of their close cooperation with Ozawa's DPJ (the sight of Communist Party Chairman Shii Kazuo clapping as Ozawa Ichirō approached the microphone at the party leaders debate had me shaking my head and thinking, "What a long, strange trip it's been..."). Indeed, without an outright rejection of the "American war" dispatch, what had Shii and Socialist Party leader Fukushima Mizuho wrung out of the working alliance with the DPJ?

While the press is fascinated by the House of Representatives vs. House of Councillors struggle, where Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo can be portrayed as the man beset by troubles and surrounded by sharks--Ozawa Ichirō is the one who has to put himself through the greater contortions. The DPJ does not control a majority of votes in the House of Councillors. It relies on an unstable, draining alliance with the Socialists, the Communists and the Japan New Party to be well clear of the 51% mark. The Japan New Party has no program or identity other than parasitism on the public purse and the end of postal reform and so will cleave to whomever waves yen in their faces. The Socialists and the Communists, however, are used to being irrelevant, isolated and bereft of funds. Their loyalty has to be won through acceptance of their policies.

Fukuda holds the sword of Damocles over his party and the New Kōmeitō--a dissolution of the Diet and a general election will empower the DPJ and diminish the ruling coalition's power--if not eliminate its entire raison d'être. Ozawa, by contrast, has nothing with which to threaten his partners. Indeed, he must continuously purchase their loyalty through concessions. If the ruling coalition goes through with its proposal to offer a permanent overseas dispatch law in the regular Diet session, Ozawa will have a heck of time keeping control of his herd of sulky, head-strong co-conspirators.

What is important right now

The first quarter hour of the NHK 9 pm news hour ("the News for Stupid People" * ) last night was a report on the decision of 16 year-old Ishikawa Ryō (the hanikami ōji - Eng.: "the bashful grinning prince") to leave the amateur ranks and become a professional golfer.

Because we are hurting for good, non-threatening news, it seems.


* I do not believe that the persons watching the 9 pm are, indeed, stupid. However, from the editing and presentation it is clear that the producers think so.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The DPJ Questioner's Follow Up...

...should have been:

"Well since this is a question of public monies, perhaps you can tell me the name of a person whom I can summon to the Diet to give the exact amount in the Defense Ministry's slush fund. Someone who, unlike you, seems to know something about the inner workings of the Defense Ministry."

Joel J. Legendre has some choice words regarding the Defense Minister's performance on Tueday.

Over the next few weeks and months... should keep your eyes on what Okumura Jun of GlobalTalk 21 is writing about the gasoline tax and the compilation and passage of the elements of the national budget.

The seizure of control of the House of Councillors last year by a Democratic Party of Japan-led alliance is likely to produce an unprecedented open contest this winter over the question of what Japan should be. The struggle is not likely manifest itself in party statements or in question-and-answer sessions (especially if yesterday's party leader's debate is any indication). Instead, the course of the nation will be legible in the minutiae of how money gets spent and which taxes are applied or rescinded--in the areas where the Budget Committee of the LDP-led House of Representatives tries to find agreement with the Budget Committee of the DPJ-led House of Councillors.

Nobody is going to get everything he or she wants (all desires tend toward the infinite while resources remain stubbornly finite) and no one party apparatus exists to force losers to give up and take their lumps. Finding a peaceful resolution of the battles between the needs and demands of the various interests will not be pretty or simple. Making sense of the whole will require keeping an eye on every detail.

Okumura-san has been scrutinizing Diet maneuverings on these matters for several months now. I hope he will continue to favor us with his attention to the little things.

The Manifesto of the Smart Puppies with Their Floppy Ears and Their Adorable Shining Eyes

Bark, bark, bark, bark!

Less flippantly, the Yomiuri Shimbun's op-ed provides a taught summary of the thinking of the national interest wing of the government's advisors and supporters.

Don't Think Too Deeply About This

I find the true conservatives annoying.

It is not for their militancy, though their cold rage toward the ills they wish to eradicate is disproportionate.

It is because their horizons are so narrow and their snobbishness so transparent.

If you ask a true conservative what her/his goals are, she/he will respond, "To get the conservative agenda passed into law."

When you then ask her/him what the ultimate goals of the conservative agenda are, she/he will say, "To increase the security of the lives of Japanese."

"What about bettering the lives of the citizens or increasing their happiness?"

"The government cannot be responsible for these things."

"So if the government undertakes an action to increase security that makes the citizens worse off or diminishes personal happiness, that is still OK?"


"Have you asked the citizens their opinions about this?"

"No. They would not understand. Well, they would--but it really takes too much time to explain it to them to make the effort worthwhile."

"Is that the reason--that there is not enough time to explain your position in a way the citizens could understand--that you categorize everything that diminishes happiness as being 'a part of Japanese tradition'?"


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Silently falling down

Nishimura Shingō, former member of the Democratic Party expelled for his ethics lapses, convicted felon, right wing militant, history denier and general embarrassment to the Diet, lost his son today. The young man leapt from the veranda of the family home, 20 floors up above the street in the Akasaka House of Representatives Residences.

The young man had only yesterday been diagnosed as severely depressed--but was refused admittance to the psychiatric ward of the hospital on the grounds there were no beds open.

The hospital in question was Keiō University Hospital--yes, the same hospital where last year Matsuoka Toshikatsu's dead body was brought, where Sakai Izumi died under suspicious circumstances and Abe Shinzō was taken after his mysterious breakdown.

Busy place.

Terribly busy place.

Resquiescat in Pacem.

It is getting to the point where one cannot feel contempt toward anybody anymore.

These Thy Empires Signified

The terrible twins of blogging on culture have opened the new year with a pair of entertaining and thought-provoking posts.

Over at Western Fear of the Neonsign, the callygraphy kid offers a long meditation on culture codes. Mercifully or impishly, he leaves for the reader to decide the culture code for Land of the Rising Sun itself.

At Néojaponisme, the always informative W. David Marx peels back the layers of the most recent attack on the young. It seems the kids today are just not getting drunk, nervous, laid or nicotine-stained enough to keep Japan sane and whole.

Doesn't anyone have anything cheerful to report from the front lines?

A personal note on the Hamasaki Ayumi announcement

In a nation that gave the world the Walkman and where every other person seems to have earphones on, the news that pop princess Hamasaki Ayumi has lost all hearing in her left ear may instigate, at long last, a discussion of what constitutes a reasonable fear of sonic pollution and auditory damage.

First, the news reports are confusing matters a bit. Hamasaki has gone deaf in her left ear, probably from nerve ending death. Her condition may spread to her remaining good ear or may stabilize. Hamasaki may also be suffering from tinnitus, a constant ringing or buzzing in the ear resulting usually from a loud sounds bending or breaking the sensory hairs in the ear, leaving the sound sensor permanently in the "ON" position. Tinnitus is a common condition of musicians, soldiers and race car enthusiasts.

Tinnitus does not cause deafness or even precede it. Beethoven, who is always trotted out at any time one talks about musicians going deaf, suffered from both deafness and tinnitus--but the combination of the two has no single identifiable medical cause.

I have had fun at Hamasaki's expense in the past (it wasn't until I did a search that I realized how many times I have mentioned her). Her contribution to the musical life of the country has been risible. The news of her deafness, however, is sad--particular as the odds are not good for her retaining hearing in her remaining good ear.

Typically--and infuriatingly--she has vowed to continue singing for as long as she can. Gaman and gambaru are all fine and dandy but putting on a show of a fighting spirit against deafness is pointless. The body will fail before the will--if her condition worsens listeners will begin squirming as each performance goes increasingly awry.

If Hamasaki indeed also has tinnitus, the very last thing she should do is expose herself to loud sound again. It is not that the damage will get worse (though it could) but that the ringing is quantized--certain sounds at certain volumes will trigger a torrent hiss that can takes days or weeks to die down to a murmur.

Given the large number of musicians with noise-caused tinnitus, Hamasaki's handlers and her music company know full she should not be near amplified sound ever again.

They do not care.

The psychological impact of both conditions is huge. Deafness, particularly deafness that comes after the onset of adulthood, cuts oneself off from the two most fundamental of human joys, conversation and music. Tinnitus is debilitating: the buzzing and whooshing makes it difficult to rest or even think.

I wish Ms. Hamasaki well...and wish that someone would take responsibility for preparing her for the worst.

MTC has had tinnitus since March 10, 2000.

As a member of the wedding - for Janne Morén

A little over a year ago I was attending the wedding reception of one my colleagues. She seated me next to one of her personal friends, a city council member of Hachiōji City.

As the parade of courses flew past, I teased him about incipient move of the Tama area courthouse from Hachiōji to Tachikawa. He did not take the teasing kindly, becoming glum and complaining that losing the courthouse was a disaster for his city.

(Now if you have ever seen or been in the Hachiōji District courthouse, you could not have disagreed more strongly with him. Eyesore hardly begins describe to the exterior of the building...and the interiors! Tawdry, dingy, unimpressive--choose your favorite expression of derision. The demolition of the courthouse will instantaneously raise property values in the immediate area 5%.)

I brought up the matter of the courthouse move because it is a significant symbol of a reversal of Tokyo's westward expansion--and an admission that even Tokyo has had to start to consolidate. Turning the conversation to the subject of the relationship between Hachiōji's economy and its politics, the council member told me of his troubles:

"We have two expressways that have just opened. Where they meet, at the interchange, would be a perfect place for a shopping center and commercial district. However, whenever we try to broach the subject, the chōkai (neighborhood associations) at the center of town go completely nuts, threatening the party with a withdrawal of support. So discussion of the project get postponed."

I was puzzled by his story. "But the merchants in front of the train station have nothing to complain about. They have tremendous foot traffic coming out of the station. There is no parking anyway. A shopping center off the expressway would not compete with them at all."

He looked serious. "The merchants of the stores in front of the station are not in charge of the chōkai. The merchants with their stores on the Ōtsuki Kōshū Kaidō are."

"But..but...that's preposterous!" I spluttered. "Hachiōji Station is over a hundred years old. How could the merchants of the Ōtsuki Kōshū Kaidō still be in charge of the chōkai? "

"Unbelievable it may be," he replied. "But they still are."

The scale of the problems facing Japan in an is not that the merchants of Hachiōji had not yet adjusted to the economic and social realities of the Heisei Era. They had not yet adjusted to the realities of even the Meiji Era.

This post has been revised and improved with helpful hints from readers.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A contracting country

"Can democracy govern a shrinking Japan? If not, what can replace democracy?"

I pondered these questions over the New Year's holiday period--a ten day near eternity of national lassitude seemingly demonstrating that the country had lost its groove and did not care whether or not it got it back.

During the long break my boot heels took me through a passel of medium-sized cities and rural towns. With few exceptions, these communities were gasping for air and spitting up blood--their commercial districts half-occupied, metal awnings red with embarrassing rust, the proprietors of the remaining stores looking at me with far too much hope as I passed on foot before their establishments. Everyone was so nice to me--except in Yugawara, the one relatively prosperous town I passed through, the relative prosperity of which freed the officers of the tourist information office to pretend to not see me even as I asked them questions.

"Thank you and please never come back again!"

For the most part, however, the residents in the towns and cities I visit were too glad to see me--I had the very hardest time not returning laden with gifts of booklets, magazines, maps and cards or paying full price for meals I ordered. Too many merchants were just too happy that anybody showed up at all.

With the fall in local employment, the end of regulatory protections and the end of subsidies sending incomes into freefall, can voters outside the core prefectures be blamed for accepting the self-serving promises of the dope peddlers of socialism or, in anger, the physicians administering the anesthetic of nationalist pride? Should we call them ignorant losers for their inability to share an appreciation of how much their lives will be improved by the slash-and-burn techniques of investment bankers?

For the longest while the failures of Japanese democracy did not matter--the population was growing; the economy was growing; the downsides of trade were kept conveniently off-stage; the land beneath one's toes grew ever more valuable. Everyone could put up with iniquities because iniquities were temporary, or if permanent, still left everyone better off.

Democracy, even a deeply flawed and unequal democracy, can accommodate the reapportionment of surplus. It the reapportionment of pain that tests democracy--and so far, Japanese democracy has been found wanting.

Which community leader could go before the persons who selected her and tell the truth:

"Thanks for the votes...but honestly, much of this town should be shut down. I sincerely hope that all of you who have little in the way of assets or income pack up and leave now--because this area can only support a fraction of you. Those living on the outskirts, we are going to have to charge you extra for services. Those with property around the train station or at the superhighway exit, you are in luck because those are the only places I will work to save."

Something tells me that no elected politician could ever deliver the above speech.

In an opinion article published in the December 19, 2007 edition of the Financial Times, the usually upbeat columnist Martin Wolf expressed his doubts about Democracy's being able to reapportion emerging and unavoidable pains and sacrifices. In Wolf's view democracy's spread over the last two centuries has been concurrent with the a non-zero sum world economy. As long as the world economy offers opportunities for expansion, both on the granular scale and in total, then elites are willing to share power and the have-nots are willing to be patient.

Wolf worries that once the contest becomes zero-sum (or in the case of rural Japan, negative-sum) elites will balk at the demands of the less fortunate and try to cordon off what they have from expropriation. Those lower down will try to use their votes meanwhile to seize elite assets. Democracy will thus be the conduit for class and international conflict, rather than its dissipator.

Demographics, the international reorganization of labor & production and the limits of the globe's carrying capacity all guarantee difficult transitions for the OECD democracies. All will be struggling to cope with a necessary gearing down in the expectations of their publics.

In Japan the challenges of the transition will be heightened and the necessary actions delayed by a malfunctioning system of representation concentrating voting strength in exactly the areas and sectors that cannot be salvaged.

Can Japanese democracy be saved? Is there a national purpose or the national goal that could make palatable both individual sacrifice and a respect for property? Can the present political system or the present cast of characters find a way to manage the necessary transition? If even the most glaring and annoying flaws in Japan's political system could be fixed--the obvious and humiliating stupidities that have nevertheless thwarted the most energetic and fervid of reformers--who will lead the far more painful Great Retreat? Okada Tatsuya tried being honest, modest and realistic in 2005--and his party got slaughtered for his troubles.

How will the leaders of Japan next revolution be chosen? From whence will they gain their legitimacy?

For the revolution is upon us, and we are flailing.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Sourcing at the Edge

From time to time last year acquaintances asked me about the relationship between Abe Shinzō and the Unification Church.

I told the truth--that I knew nothing and would not trust anything that I could read about it.

Itō Takuya, whoever he may be, has has no such reticence. In an article on Abe Shinzō and the abductees posted to the Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies he sets what have to be new boundaries for what can be accepted as valid sourcing in academic-type work on Japan.

Shūkan Gendai and Shūkan Posuto as primary references - wow.

You Unification Church rumor junkies, a festival awaits.

And then again...

For those who think I have it out for everyone on the right...the Sankei Shimbun deserves a huge amount of credit for its recent publishing of front page article after front page article on the consequences of global warming.

Today's front page "Nihon Yo!" op-ed, the first of the year from Tokyo Governor and purported xenophobic troglodyte Ishihara Shintarō, is a case in point (no link yet). In the essay Ishihara lays down the long list of unmistakable indications that the climate's gone haywire. He also enumerates the incredible amount of waste and emissions human activity generates every second of every day (prefectural governors tend to have to know something about dealing with waste). Ishihara excoriates those who refuse to take action to curb humankind's impact upon the Earth, citing for particular blame the governments of the United States and Japan and the leaders of Japan's business community. Unlike his fellow Sankei denizen Komori Yasuhisa, Ishihara does not play to the cheap seats with the cheap shot : he does not even mention China's generation of greenhouse gases, preferring to take aim at the rich rather than the poor.

So my hat's off to Ishihara Shintarō and the Sankei today.


Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Miscontented

What should I make of the Sankei Shimbun's reporting on the disappointment felt by some members of the ruling coalition at the cancellation of the January cabinet reshuffle?

Should I consider the article backfill for the huge hole the paper (all the papers, really) dug for itself in publishing the reshuffle rumor? Or is the paper properly serving as a forum for a slowly accreting coalition of forces on the left and the right that shall irrupt from a subterranean lair and strike Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo down?

The packaging is suspicious.

First there's the title of the article. In the online version, the message is rather simple:

内閣改造見送り 与党内に失望の声
"The postponement of the Cabinet reshuffle: Inside the ruling parties, disappointed voices"
But the title does not reflect the content, in the sense that nothing is conveyed about the latter half of the article. For a more accurate description one has to turn to the print version of the article--wherein the reader is treated to an at once more precise and yet less definitive message:

"Factions that supported Fukuda are disappointed / Taking solace in 'the avoidance of confusion'"
Though better, the title is still misleading. Yes, we find out that in half of the article--the latter half, for some reason--some folks feel pleasure at the Prime Minister's decision rather than being bummed by it. But why is there the precision of "Fukuda support faction(s)" (plural or singular is unclear) as the bummed out parties? Since almost everyone speaks anonymously, how are we to know whether or not these malcontents ever supported Fukuda in the first place? The only purported disappointed supporter named is Yamasaki Taku...and his complaint not only damn near wistful (to be fair, almost everything Yamasaki Taku says nowadays is damn near wistful) but it sure sound like he he does not see himself as a core Fukuda faction supporter:

"(The postponement of the reshuffle) feels strange. There is not much one really can say from the outside, but will they be able to make through the whole of the regular Diet session without a cabinet reshuffle...?"
Far be it from me to cast aspersions, but methinks the Sankei Shimbun's editors, rather than revealing a growing sense of hopeless in the Fukuda camp, are instead revealing their exasperation with Fukuda.


Friday, January 04, 2008

Cabinet Reshuffle - Not!

Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!


Another trial balloon pops upon the needle-sharp point of simple practicality.

Here is the update in 日本語.

In thin trading today

Sing with me now, to the tune of "O Holy Night" (Cantique de Noël)
"Oh, Holy S__t
The Market's really falling..."

Courtesy: Yahoo Finance

The market's been open for 35 minutes on the first day of the year and it is already down over 430 yen.



Better get ready to hock those kimonos, ladies.

Later - Forty five minutes in...down 537 yen.

Even later - One hour and 35 minutes in...down 701 yen.

The Economist Does Shimbashi

This is certainly... different.

Later - smart folks are having a discussion in Comments. Check out what they have to say.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

God Bless You, Mr. Bush, and Farewell

In a few hours the very good, very Caucasian people of Iowa will begin their caucuses. The begining of the end of the Bush Era will at last come into view.

It is all downhill from here.

It nearly is impossible to express how wonderful the Bush Administration has been for Japan. Never before has the United States been led by a group of individuals less concerned with substance and more concerned with appearances than the Bushies. From demanding loyalty oaths from the attendees at presidential functions (lest the attendees show a lack of enthusiasm for the President); to having male prostitutes impersonate reporters, lofting softball questions at White House press conferences; to compassionately letting thousands of fellow citizens drown and starve in New Orleans; to vehemently defending the nation to the extent that a set of losers with box cutters succeeded in carrying out the greatest foreign attack on U.S. soil since the War of 1812--this Administration has a decent chance at supplanting Potemkin as the definition of make believe government.

What a loss looms for Japan therefore! Never again may it be possible for a Japanese government to be given as much applause for simply having the right attitude--because having the right attitude was all that the Bushies expected of themselves.

Never again will the constitutional limitations on Japan's contributions to world security be overlooked as quickly as they were these last few years. Only under a Bush Administration--where knowledge, humility and steadfastness were grounds for dismissal--could simply trying hard be seen as worthy. Only under a G. W. Bush Administration could saying the right words be seen as more important than doing the right thing (ask the South Koreans about this).

What a matched pair Koizumi Jun'ichirō and George W. Bush were! What quirk of history brought them to power at the same time? One was a man who understood how to use gestures to get what he wanted. The other was a man whose entire life seems to have been naught but gestures, real personal achievement having eluded him.

How easy it was for the one to please the other!

No matter who comes out on top today, the Government of Japan has to think seriously about how stupidly easy it has been to manage the bilateral alliance relationship for the last seven years. The next U.S. president and his Administration will demand substance...a lot more substance (OK. If it is Mitt Romney, maybe not).

Having been lulled by the honeyed words out of Washington ("The relationship is the best it has ever been") in an era of low expectations, will the Nagata-chō and Kasumigaseki powers be ready for the shockwave that will hit them a year from now?

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Without an appointment

I was atop Mitakesan (the one in in Saitama Prefecture, not the one in the Tokyo Metropolitan District) alone except for the macaques and the jays, when the Japan Observer buzzed me, asking whether or not we could have dinner together.

"Uh, yeah, ok. Uh wait, let me check the train schedules."

However much I may deride overinvestment in rural infrastructure, such investment comes in handy at times. I was way up in the back end of Saitama near where the prefectural boundary abuts the northern boundaries of Tokyo's Tama Region and Yamanashi Prefecture. Nevertheless through a local bus (I was the only passenger--thank you members of the Diet for the emergency supplementary fuel subsidies) an express local train direct to Ikebukuro and the subway system it was possible for me to make it to Minami Azabu in time for an early dinner.

Now, if someone could only have prevented the construction of that dispiriting logging road slicing through the heart of the forest at the top of the mountain...

View to the West from Mitakesan
Chichibu City, Saitama Prefecture
January 1, 2008

Over dinner the Observer and I agreed that the rumored Cabinet reshuffle made little sense, save as a chance to dump Hatoyama Kunio [I agree with Okumura Jun's hint that leaving Nukaga Fukushirō in at Finance is just begging for trouble.]

Newspapers say that the New Komeitō, seeking to make peace with the party's angry youth and women's wings, wants a reshuffle that has Hamayotsu Toshiko replacing Fuyushiba Tetsuzō as the party's representative in the Cabinet.

However, once you have subtracted those three gentlemen and added the one lady, the going gets rougher. Saturday's page 2 Nihon Keizai Shimbun article floating the Cabinet reshuffle trial balloon (floated, one might add, when the Prime Minister was conveniently out of the way in China) indeed pointed out the difficulties Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo would face finding criteria for the replacement of any other members of the Cabinet. Can he ask Ishiba Shigeru to take the fall for the mess at the Defense Ministry since, as a former defense agency chief, Ishiba was derelict in policing Moriya Takemasa's golf mania? Must he ask Masuzoe Yōichi to take responsibility for the Social Insurance Agency's failure to meet the publicly declared deadline of March 31 for the resolution of all the unassigned pension account numbers? Fukuda cannot, unless he has gone stupid, let any of the faction leaders go--the very goal of the current Cabinet and LDP leadership lineup was the lassoing of every faction leader into supporting Fukuda and bolstering the fortunes of the the non-reactionary "liberal" side of the LDP.

As the original Nikkei article noted, Fukuda will have to fire somebody in addition to Hatoyama and Nukaga--otherwise the "reshuffle" will be seen as merely a dismissal of bad eggs, not the creation of cabinet with "Fukuda color."

And who is full of new ideas, raring for a shot at a Cabinet post--and I mean other than the reactionaries, the very people the leadership wants to marginalize?

And if the goal is to impress the public with a new look cabinet, when is the PM supposed to do the reshuffle? Only 48 hours separate the end of the Diet session and the convening of the LDP party convention--and the day in the middle will be the day of the DPJ's party convention.

All in all the reshuffle looks like a dumb idea that got loose when the leadership was looking in the other direction. Like an early election, it solves little--indeed, it exacerbates the sense of confusion and fear within the electorate.

What happened to the plan to let Fukuda be his own man in 2008, when he would at last be liberated from the millstone of Abe Shinzō's having screwed up the legislative calendar? What is the hurry to have "change, change and more change" in the government--is it really just because of a sharp drop in the Cabinet's popularity? The ruling coalition still has the two thirds majority in the House Representatives--why not use it to ram every last piece of unpleasant but necessary legislation through the Diet? When the next election has to be held by September 2009, why panic in January 2008?

Why not just leave things be, for a while?

View to the northeast from Mitakesan toward Kumaya
Chichibu City, Saitama Prefecture
January 1, 2008

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

January's Song - Sunrise

What is Puffy?

A lot has been written about Puffy (or Puffy AmiYumi as they are known outside of Japan) but not much that gives insight into what has made the act tick. Perhaps someday a talent like W. David Marx will tackle what Ōnuki Ami and Yoshimura Yumi, abetted by serial plagiarist Okuda Tamio, have wrought.

There is plenty to consider. The two misfits, now in their 30s, are not just popular, they are beloved. Without setting themselves against the music industry per se, they have manage to carve out a personal niche where many of pop stardom's basic rules fail to get obeyed. The pair don't dance much; they don't drench songs in emotion; they dress in variations of street clothes (oh, they will tart themselves up every once in a while--but the glam is always ironic and bohemian); they have led scandalous private lives without earning condemnation or ostracism; and they have never managed to make it to the NHK New Year's Kōhaku television special. That they are well liked in both Japan and the United States (where they are known primarily as cartoon characters) and have remained close friends throughout the 12 years since their breakout is borderline aberrant.

Along the way Ōnuki and Yoshimura have served as models of a smart, confident, self-possessed, saucy and assertive feminity (with more than just a hint of sexual orientation ambiguity) to give lie to assertions that a popstar has to chose a prevailing archetype. Neither madonnas nor harlots (though certainly willing show the current generation of pneumatic strumpets like Kōda Kumi a thing or two), confident in their nationality without defensiveness or embarrassment, relentless strivers, cruel yet cute pranksters, intolerant of stupidity or dependency--they present a fantasy vision of womanhood that must terrify the fantabulist advocates of a return to the morals of the past.

And thank Amaterasu for it.

"Sunrise" is not necessarily one of the pair's more listenable songs. However, the stunningly simple video--amateurish footage of the two of them cheerfully picking up an astonishing array of trash off a beach on a winter's day--confronts the viewer with the reality that Nippon is not an utsukushii kuni but a land with an abused environment and a general disregard for public spaces...without being didactic and heavy-handed about it.

January's song is "Sunrise" by Puffy, in the column on the right or here.