Saturday, May 31, 2008

Out of Their Right Minds

In a concerted effort to prove that the revisionist/fantabulist movement is, while far from dormant, far from the actual levers of power (and reduced to exhibitionist feats of fury) LDP exile and serial plotter Hiranuma Takeo cajoled 64 members of the Diet to join him in forming yet another study group—this one intent on reintroducing the pre-1945...

wait for it...

wait for it...

orthography system.

Because when compiling the list of the causes of Japan's modern ills, a reasonable method of writing Japanese words as they are pronounced must not be allowed to escape opprobrium and condemnation.


For reasons clear only to the members of this group, which met for the first time on Wednesday (because, being Diet members, they had nothing else to do, the Diet being in session and all) reading and writing using four different symbol systems (kanji, hiragana, katakana and romaji) two of which are borrowed from languages that have no morphological similarities with Japanese--is simply too easy.

What is needed to revitalize Japan is the reversal of the orthography reforms carried out under the Occupation, the ones that eliminated the superfluous "wi" and "we" kana and most of the archaic kanazukai reflecting ancient pronunciations or differentiations of homophones. The most notable escapees from reform are the uses of the "ha" and "he" kana for the particles pronounced "wa" and "e" in modern Japanese.

The goal of the Occupation-era simplification was to make reading and writing less onerous, opening the door of literacy wide for all the newly enfranchised citizens. The PRC government had similar "democratization of society through democratization of literacy" goals in carrying out its own massive simplification of Chinese characters...with the democratization bit seeming to have been not quite so successful in the Chinese case.

(Hmmm...the anti-PRC angle...)

At the May 28 inaugural meeting, Hiranuma explained the study group's raison d'être thusly:

"We say that words have the spirit of words (kotodama) in them...and in generation after generation, our ancestors took care of them. But then there were the policies of occupation and now the national language is greatly disturbed. I want to establish a movement to bring back a steadfast (shikkari to shita) national language."
It is all there: the reification of prewar society; the blame for a purported current, debased state of the national language upon the democratizing reforms of outsiders (Americans, yes you damnable, occupying, gelding Americans, I am talking about you!); the betrayal of the ancestors and antiquity; the presence of kami everywhere, even in the very words we speak...the whole, esoteric mystery-spinning, xenophobic, nostalgic, nobility, blood-and-semen worshipping authoritarianism just beneath the skin of every self-professed "conservative"...

Oh Amaterasu, can we be not spared hearing any more from these ugly minds?

Luckily, or perhaps because Amaterasu has already heard our prayers, Hiranuma managed to summon to his shindig a motley crew of the truly unusual suspects. Former Prime Minister Mori ("Japan is a land of kami with the emperor as the centerpiece") Yoshirō is the chief advisor to group. Clearly demonstrating the moral perfection of achievable through archaic orthography was the presence of the LDP's Funada "the Very Sorry Adulterer" Hajime. Watanuki Tamisuke, leader of the Japan People's Party and the leather-skinned co-owner (with Kamei Shizuka) of the Ugliest Man in the Diet Award put in appearance, together with the bat-eared Nishioka Takeo, the Democratic Party of Japan leader in the House of Councillors.

Of the above, Watanuki is to be forgiven for wishing a return of the old ways. He is a calligrapher of extraordinary talent. T'is indeed a pity that he chose politics as a profession rather than art. That he would want to restore archaic, complex written forms is understandable.

As with any Diet study group, especially one where Hiranuma plays a leading role, the press speculates as to whether or not the orthography movement is a screen for meetings leading to the formation of a hardline conservative party. Hiranuma is the chief advisor to Nakagawa Shōichi's "True (space) Conservative Policy Study Group" [Honest to Amaterasu, I am not making this up: the actual name is the "True (space) Conservative Policy Study Group"]—which clearly styles itself the kernel of a future hardline party. Hiranuma has also been claiming he can lure enough former postal rebels who lost their seats following Prime Minister Koizumi Jun'ichiro's purge of the LDP in 2005, local LDP politicians, disgruntled current LDP and DPJ Diet members on his own to field 30-strong contingent of district seat candidates in the next House of Representatives election.

It is unlikely that this orthography counterreformatory group is the core or even the shadow of a Hiranuma-led new party. Former Prime Minister Mori's presence indicates that the movement likely does not seek to break down the major divisions of the existing political order.

The sheer cussed antiquarian pointlessness of organizing a Diet study group on reestablishing the complex, anachronistic pre-Occupation written forms of words does, however, cast an interesting light on the dormant constitutional reform movement. As former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō repeated ad nauseum, Japan (and by "Japan" he meant himself and his revisionist/fantabulist allies) needs (and by "needs" he meant "is going to get") a Constitution "written by our own hands" – meaning, of course, not dictated to the surviving members of Japan's elite by outsiders (Americans, yes you damnable, occupying, gelding Americans, I am talking about you!)

Because pater and patria should not be sundered.

The formation of this new group shows that no postwar reform is spared the gelded rage of today's "true conservatives" –- no matter how useful or beneficial something may be, if the Meiji State did not have it, then out it must go. In the conservative mind, it is not just the anti-military strictures of Article 9 or the emperor's renunciation of divine and sovereign status that have impermissibly hollowed out Japan's moral center, leaving it at the mercy of the rapacious Chinese and North Koreans. The humiliating, democratizing rationalization of "spelling" by the Occupation, is destroying Japan.

No humiliation too small, no reform too rational that it will not attract the vorpal blade of the "true (space) conservative" right...

Friday, May 30, 2008

Still Pulling Our Legs, Mr. Machimura?

The extremely, wildly, improbable is still impossible, it seems.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Machimura Nobutaka, a former long-serving Minister of Foreign Affairs who stunned the world with the announcement of a mischievious, stick-it-to-the-Chinese-Communist-Party-in-the-worst-way proposal to send relief supplies to embattled areas of Sichuan Province on Air Self Defense Forces C-130s, has just had the pleasure of walking back the story in his usual Friday new conference.

The dispatch is like, so not going to happen.

Of course, the dispatch plan is not ditched, just miokuri -- "suspended until a later date" -- until such time as self-appointed Chinese superpatriots no longer have Web access or email, I guess.

I guess we will have to file this story under: "More fun facts from Japan's Von Daniken."

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Lucky Yasuo

The news could not be better for the Prime Minister Fukuda:


- The troglodytes over at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology have had to take it on the chin ans suspend their quixotic battle to recover, on paper, the Liancourt Rocks from the evil forces of the Republic of Korea.

- The Chinese government has not rejected out of hand the participation in the Sichuan earthquake rescue efforts of short takeoff-and-landing C-130s from the Air Self Defense Forces.

Web patriots in China are reportedly going bananas over the idea of ASDF planes landing on Chinese soil.


- The huge gamble on the policy sincerity of the opposition appears to be paying off: Kyōdō News is predicting the bill proposing major revisions to the Basic Law on the Bureaucratic System will pass the House of Representatives with support from the Democratic Party of Japan and the Socialists.

A Chūnichi Shimbun editorial has the DPJ's Hatoyama Yukio telegraphing his party's willingness to forgo the easy hit in favor of cooperation with the government on the bill, saying:

"If no reform bill gets passed, then the only ones who will rejoice will be the career bureaucrats."
As the editorial notes,

"To be able to get the ruling and opposition parties to pool their knowledge and show the will to put together a solution -- this from out of a 'Twisted Diet' -- is huge."
Enjoying a spell of good luck are we, Mr. Prime Minister?

Later - The House of Representatives has passed the bill amending the Basic Law on the Bureaucratic System.

Before we shout out our three "Hip, Hip, hoorays!" -- let us admit that the pace of reform remains leisurely. As the Jiji Press article notes, the implementation of this legislation creating new rules and selection procedures for the bureaucracy is predicted to take...five years.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Accommodation with wolves

Tobias Harris, back in Japan for a spell, writes about the agreement between the leaders of the Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeitō on revisions to the bill reforming the Basic Law on the Bureaucratic System (kōmuin seido kihonhō kaikakuan). The leadership of the ruling coalition, if not the rank and file of the ruling parties, has accepted many of the necessary revisions to the bill demanded by the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. The revised bill now goes to the House of Representatives.

A few points that need emphasis:

1) In agreeing to accept modifications to the bill suggested by the DPJ, the reformist wing of the LDP has compromised and made common cause with...the reformist wing of the LDP.

DPJ leader Ozawa Ichirō, his second-in-command Hatoyama Yukio and a much of those in the upper crust of the DPJ are LDP refugees. They differ from many of the reformists in the LDP only in having never jumped back into the LDP, having jumped out once.

Ideologically, centrist DPJ members are the blood brothers and sisters of the anti-patronage wing of the LDP. In a certain sense, Koizumi Jun'ichirō was the first DPJ prime minister: in terms of reforms he borrowed a lot of DPJ ideas and stances and in terms of the LDP...well, from the outset he promised to destroy it (albeit in an effort to save it) --all to the DPJ's black fury. That the reform-minded Fukuda & Friends segments of the LDP, the New Komeitō leadership and the DPJ to come together on trimming the wings of the ministries and the zokugiin should come as no surprise. What is surprising is that it took six months and a near death experience for the Fukuda Cabinet to understand who, in terms of domestic policy, its friends are.

Left fuming at this surrender deal are the recalcitrant, patronage-reliant elements of the LDP. They will have their vengeance someday but on the wording of this bill at least, the Prime Minister seems to have overidden (word choice intentional) his internal party opposition.

However (shikashi)

2) Having cut the legs out from under the LDP members that are both clients and patrons of various ministries and industrial sectors, Prime Minister Fukuda has to push this reform bill through both houses of the Diet--and soon.

Given how the zokugiin hate (a) reform in both the abstract and the concrete and (b) the DPJ-authored changes toughening up this particular reform bill, the chance that the government will be capable of cobbling together a two thirds majority for an Article 59 override, should the House of Councillors reject the government's bill, is close to nil.

Seen in the light of Prime Minister Fukuda's inability to push the bill through using a House of Representatives override, the enormity of PM's wager becomes apparent. He is placing his reputation as a leader and reformer on the line against one of the surest things in Japanese politics: Ozawa Ichirō's wish to topple an LDP-dominated government. As the video montage of the Monday night political hackfest Terebi Tackle (on the TV ASAHI network) reminded viewers, Ozawa has been merciless in both the building up and the demolition of political ententes--his ultimate, yet strangely forgotten act of destruction having been the late March 2000 abandonment of the tripartite LDP-New Komeito-Liberal Party coalition that likely triggered, on April 1, Prime Minister Obuchi Keizō's fatal stroke.

Despite this rather nasty shadow looming over his past, Ozawa must feel sorely tempted to instruct his House of Councillors members to reject the government's revised bill.

Should the bill fail to pass both Houses of the Diet, after the PM and the LDP leadership went the extra kilometer to accommodate the DPJ's demands-- and in so doing betrayed the LDP's zokugiin -- well, if that does not trigger immediate demands for Fukuda's resignation as party leader, I do not know what will. A Fukuda resignation over the session's fundamental reform bill could even blow the LDP apart.

With the DPJ riding high in many public opinon polls, Ozawa must feel tempted to ignore Fukuda's attempt to forge a trans-party reform consensus on reforming the bureaucracy. There may not be a better chance to attack a weak and exposed Fukuda, leaving hism naked and defenseless against the rage felt of his party's anti-reform and revisionist wings.

Were I to lay a bet on the outcome of this encounter, I would not want to be placing too much money on the PM's longterm survival.

It would be all too easy to just tip the balance...

Monday, May 26, 2008

It is a fine plan...and it is worth the fighting for

After weeks of relentless bad news, the Fukuda Cabinet woke up to a some cheerier public support numbers today. In a poll conducted on Friday and Saturday by the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the Cabinet's approval rating actually rose 3 points from the low recorded three weeks ago. A still pathetic 24% of those polled support the government. However, this uptick marks the first rise in the Cabinet's popularity since it was sworn in eight months ago .

The Cabinet's better numbers did not boost the fortunes of the Liberal Democratic Party. The percentage of voters saying that they support the LDP sank another 3 points to 31%, opening up a 5 percentage point deficit between itself and the Democratic Party of Japan, which earned the support of 36% of those polled.

Though the results are likely to provoke a nervous tic in the denizens of LDP headquarters, the ruling coalition would do iteslf a hell of a lot of good if it could send the message "Don't Panic" out to the Diet rank-and-file. From what was broadcast on Sunday morning's NHK Nichiyō Tōron, the ruling coalition is going to have a very decent couple of weeks ahead defending what has heretofore been a lead weight for the government: the new over 75 eldercare system.

Considering how the new plan was demonized in the buildup to Yamaguchi #2 by-election, one might think that having to defend the plan would have a deleterious effect on the ruling coalition's popularity.

While there are superficial resemblances between the upcoming struggle over the eldercare system to the fights over the extension of the Indian Ocean dispatch, the gasoline levy and the road construction bills, there are some significant dissimilarities as well--ones which bode ill for the opposition.

First, the opposition has no alternate plan other than reverting to the old system. In the Indian Ocean dispatch reapproval and the road construction bills, the opposition could argue it was fighting for a new approach, a reimagining of the nation's policies. In this instance, however, all the opposition has promised to do is put off change--despite the smoldering public sense that the previous system was doomed.

Second, the opposition is not stopping the imposition of the new system--only its reform. The new system is ongoing--the funds are being withdrawn directly from the pensions of the enrollees; the per-visit fees have already fallen to 10%. What the opposition can stymie or even reject is fiddling so as to make the system fairer, such as the proposal to lower the deductions of the very poorest seniors to 10% of the standard deduction.

Third, the new system offer a good, incentives-based compromise solution to the questions posed by created by medical advances leading to increases in lifespan. The debate on Nichiyō Tōron exposed the intellectual vacuity of the opposition's alternative visions for handling a complex set of competing social and economic goals.

In a nutshell:

- the Democratic view is that all Japanese are equal, ergo, all Japanese should all have the same health insurance system;

- the Communist view is that Japan has a lot of rich individuals and they should simply be forced to pay higher taxes to keep the current system solvent;

- the Socialist view is that women live longer so they will be paying more into the system in total, there are fewer doctors in certain areas and certain specialities, costs keep rising every year and we need this all to stop;

- and the Japan New Party...thinks that putting "ne" and "yo" after every statement makes that statement into an argument (seriously, it was excruciating).

If this is going to be the debate, then this is one that the ruling coalition wants to take place at length, under the cameras, in the House of Representatives committee chambers. Not only does the coalition have the better plan but they have Health, Welfare and Labour Minister Masuzoe Yōichi, the Cabinet's most popular minister, as the point man.

Finally, the original system and the reform bill are bitter medicine that in the end benefits no one but the public.

Contrary to the beliefs of the gopher-brained in the ruling coalition, the public respects the making of hard choices, once the reasons for the reform are explained to them. That was the miracle of "Koizumi magic" - the rapid switchover in public support numbers for tough, mold-breaking reforms once Prime Minister Koizumi Jun'ichirō and his subordinates began explaining why a reform or a decision was important.

As for what made Article 59 passage of the Indian Ocean dispatch reapproval and the road construction bills so damaging was the perception, correct as it turned out, that the primary beneficiaries of the passage of this legislation were, in order

1) the military establishments of other countries, and

2) rural district LDP Diet members and LDP member local government officials.

Not the Japanese public.

The new eldercare system is perceived, by contrast, to be electoral poison--with no identifiable client-patron rationale--and for that reason, gives the Cabinet and the ruling coalition a chance to win something they most desperately need: a reputation of being courageous.

Now ever since last year around this time, perhaps ever since the readmission of the postal rebels in late December 2006, the ruling coalition has offered not the slightest sense that it understand the public mood...or that it knows how to handle a legislative calendar.

Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo's and his Cabinet's eulogies have already been composed. However, the LDP and the Komeitō may have at last sunk so low that the members may be willing to go against their better political instincts and trust the public--rather than pandering to elements of it--and may, after having suffered the consequences of a year of atrocious calendar management, realized that getting bills passed on time after sufficient public debate is a part of being the normal functioning of a Diet.

If they have, then the battle over the reform of the eldercare system gives the ruling coalition a chance to halt the slide in its popularity and electability. The gains may be temporary--looming in the fall is the debate over the legislation formalizing the transfer of the gasoline levies to the general fund.

But dead and doomed are the Cabinet and the ruling coalition ?

Not if they argue the case for the eldercare system on the merits.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Temple of the Law

Going through my files (I call them my files even though they really are just uncollated, dog-eared sheafs of paper) I came across a newspaper report of an Aichi court decision from one year ago. It casts an interesting light of the Okinawa police force's decision to not charge Sgt. Tyrone Hadnott, particularly as it applies to the issue of how intent can have an effect on the prosecution of sex crimes.

On May 24 last, newspapers reported that the previous day a Nagoya Municipal Court had found a 32 year old man not guilty of violating Aichi Prefecture's Youth Protection and Nurturing Ordinance (seishōnen hogo ikusei jōrei, also called the "Prohibition against Harlotry" – inkō no kinshi). The man, an assistant restaurant manager--married, with a pregnant wife and one child at home -- began a relationship with a then 17 year old high school student working part time at the restaurant. Four months after the girl began working at the establishment, the man and the girl began visiting a local hotel to engage in sex. The recorded number of visits to the hotel were six...

The police arrested the man for violating the ordinance's prohibitions against inciting a minor to lewd and licentious behavior. Prosecutors demanded he pay a 400,000 yen fine.

The judge ruled the man not guilty, with the explanation, "It was a sincere and continuing relationship for which it cannot be said that the man carried it out solely with the intent of satisfying his own lust." As a consequence, the judge concluded, there is no evidence of a crime having been committed.

Prosecutors brought up the seemingly important point of the man being already married. The judge would have none of it, saying, "The girl knew of the situation and accepted it. She sought out this relationship out of mutual affection."

As for the argument that the man abused his position as the girls's supervisor—the judge dismissed it out of hand.

In closing remarks, the judge nevertheless warned the man:

"This court's decision does not represent the public's placing a mark of approval on your actions. I want you to think seriously that even though what you have done is permissible under the law, what you have done has elements in it that are morally impermissible."

Very odd. Not very encouraging too. I can perceive no legal principle being honored. The special needs of children for protection...the definition of sexual harassment...impartial application of the law as written...the separation of the powers...all dissolved in the bathetic cauldron of "affection."

Sometimes it seems as though the law is just one vast, empty edifice.

Friday, May 23, 2008

A far, far country...and quietly

Reader Julian Ortega Martinez sends word that former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō led a delegation to Bogota as a part of a celebration the 100th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Japan and Colombia...oh, and that nobody cared.

Courtesy: Office of the President of Colombia

Some might decry the lack of attention paid to Abe's visit as indicative of Japan's declining stature in South America, especially in the face of expanding Chinese influence (with another interesting recent take on the issue here).

On the other hand, sending Abe Shinzō -- whom the scandal mags derisively call "the zombie" -- does not send a signal that the Government of Japan is feeling a particular sense of urgency about the Japan's diminished stature.

Later - Okumura Jun has a rather more entertaining write-up on the same story.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Not so bad after all - the long road to putting Yongbyon out of commission

Ofttimes, if you don't panic and just pugnaciously stand your ground, crises can sort themselves out. The outcome may not be perfect...but experience teaches that holding out for perfection is the indulgence of adolescents and rich morons.

North Korea to Demolish Part of Yongbyon Nuclear Facility

A top South Korean official in the talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program says Pyongyang will soon demolish part of its main nuclear facility, a symbolic gesture of its commitment to nuclear disarmament.

South Korean nuclear envoy Kim Sook says North Korea plans to demolish the cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear complex after it hands over a long awaited nuclear declaration.

Hopes have been rising recently that a months-long deadlock in negotiations will soon end. Earlier this month, North Korea handed over 18,000 pages of records for its Yongbyon reactor and reprocessing plant.

Last year, North Korea agreed to disable and dismantle its main nuclear complex under a deal reached with the United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. In return North Korea was promised diplomatic incentives and energy aid...

So, let's see here--Japan comes out of this with:

- a strengthened Japan-U.S. security commitment

- a pair of missile defense systems, one of which actually seems to work against ballistic missiles (Hello Beijing! Howdy Taipei!)

- a regional consensus that the DPRK is an inexcusable mafioso regime and an overall pain-in-the-butt

- its living abductees back

- Article 9 still in force

and all without paying the $10 billion in in war reparations that everyone agreed Japan simply had to, had to, had to pay if the process were to go forward.

Sweet, really.

Now if the leadership in the Diet could get the Foreign Ministry's head wrapped around the idea of giving up the Liancourt Rocks (and before that, smack around the idiots in the Ministry of Education intent on messing up the Japan-ROK relationship only weeks after the inauguration of the most pro-Japanese ROK president in 30 years) then the strategic snatching of victory from the jaws of defeat would be complete.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Unlikely to go critical - on TCI vs. Macquarie

I opened up today's Asahi Shimbun to page 2 and saw, on the left side, a special article promising to explain how foreign investment in power companies poses a threat to the nation, while a much larger foreign ownership stake in the operator of Haneda Airport does not.

Aha! Finally, an explanation of the government's bi-polar reaction to two attempts by foreign funds to buy large stakes in major elements of the nation's vital infrastructure--on the one hand decrying the frenzied attempts to prevent the Australian fund Macquarie Airports from purchasing just over 19% of Haneda Airport's operating company--while at the same time serving The Children's Investment Fund (TCI) with a cease-and-desist order to prevent it from purchasing more than 9.9% of electrical power company J-Power--on the grounds that TCI's holding more than 10% of J-Power would pose a threat to public order.

As if owning the airport closest to the center of Tokyo does not affect national security and public order.

Eagerly, I zipped through the piece. "At last," I thought, "someone will explain the government's schizophrenic behavior so I will not have to try to make sense of it myself.

Here is the Asahi Shimbun's explanation of the difference:

"First there is the procedure involved. In the case of the airports, criticism has come out saying that they are trying to rewrite the rules after the fact, which is leading it to be called 'choosing between Rock, Paper and Scissors after your opponent has shown his hand' (ato dashi janken). On the other hand, in the case of J-Power, the law is already in existence.

It is also said that in the case of power generation, there is a great worry that it will have an impact on the lives of the citizens. J-Power has 67 thermal and hydroelectric facilities and is in the midst of building a nuclear power plant in Aomori Prefecture. Then again, TCI insists that in the case of the nuclear power plant and vital main facilities, it will defer invoking its rights as an owner."
The article then notes that other OECD countries protect their electrical generation and power grid through limits on foreign ownership. The sole example given is America's 1994 Act on Foreign Investment. The article claims the Act, known as "Exon-Florio," is the "strictest law in the world on foreign investment"-- because it requires an confirmation from the President that the acquisition of over 10% of an American company by a foreign entity does not threaten U.S. national security.

That's it. That's The Asahi Shimbun's exoneration of the government's inconsistent responses to the two situations.

A lot of "it is said that"..."there has been criticism saying that" buck passing.

The Asahi Shimbun. The thinking man's and thinking woman's paper. The feisty iconoclast, the voice of liberality. The skeptic's refuge.

I am going to go bang my head on the desk for a while.

* * *

The reason METI did not want to have TCI messing with J-Power obviously has nothing to do with national security. That argument does not hold water in light of the Haneda gyrations.

So what is the reason?

One possibility is that METI has a lot it wants to hide as regards the power market. The research of Paul Scalise of Oxford indicates that if TCI gets the opportunity to examine J-Power's books, it will find out why electricity is so costly yet power companies profits so small--and probably flee in a panic.

TCI would find out that money-making opportunities in power generation evaporate away not because of the incompetence of venal power company managers or an insufficiently competitive power market--but because of "Citizen Bandits and Conformist Revolutionaries."

And if Mr. Scalise could hurry up and finish his thesis, I would have the freedom to explain what I mean by that phrase.

Later - In comments, the mighty Chris checks in with a professional opinion.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Light Blue for Boys, Pink for Girls, Yellow for Flashing Warning Lights

Chihō bunken - "decentralization"-- the verbal smokescreen deployed by those advocating pseudo-reforms that eviscerate citizens services while failing to increase transparency or stamp out fraud and waste. See "shell game" and "horse manure."

According to today's Yomiuri Shimbun, the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labour is considering relaxing national minimal standards on the facilities and grounds for day care centers (hoikuen) in favor of allowing local municipalities to set their own standards.

Uh-oh. A problem nobody thought existed is about to be solved by the tempting local municipalities to skimp on childcare facilities.

Niwa Uchirō, the chairman of general trading giant Itochū and the Chairman of the Commission for for the Promotion of Government Decentralization (Chihō Bunken Kaikaku Suishin Iinkai) presents the planned relaxation of national standards of the sizes of rooms and playgrounds as responding to the regional (environmental?) variation:

"Having a single standard from Hokkaidō to Okinawa is bizarre. There is no scientific basis for it."

But Niwa-san, the proposed revision is not about the maximum size of facilities, of the area of open space, indoors and outdoors, per child. If we were talking about taking advantage of regional differences, the ability to expand the beyond the minimum grounds would make sense--as land is abundant in all but a few areas.

The Yomiuri correspondent dutifully repeats the canard that this sudden plan to hand off to the local municipalities the ability to set the standards for child care facilities is necessary because relaxing the standards would make it possible to enroll more children in non-standard facilities, eliminating need for children to be on waiting lists.

In the example in the Yomiuri article, municipalities with children on waiting lists but insufficient open land to build a center to national standards could convert a floor of an office building near a train station into a day care center. Impoverished rural communities could convert old, unused elementary or middle schools into day care centers.

Now color me stupid, but this slide in the Ministry's own March 2008 Powerpoint presentation on Japan's day care facilities indicates to me that the Commission seems a little too eager to fulfill its mandate of promoting decentralization.

Slide #8 tells me the number of children on waiting lists to get into day care centers is 17,926.

You read that right: fewer than 18,000 children are on a waiting lists nationwide. At the same time, some 2.11 million children are currently enrolled in day care--meaning that over 99% of the children seeking immediate entry into day care centers are enrolled in facilities operating according to the current national standards.

There is no waiting list crisis.

What is more, the number of children on waiting lists has fallen by 31% over just the last five years, from 26,000 children in 2002 to under 18,000 in 2007. Given the decline in the number of children nationwide, this seems to a problem that is going to solve itself.

Furthermore, as the right graph shows, 70% of the children on waiting lists today are from 74 municipalities--with the remaining 30% coming from an additional 294 municipalities.

A small fraction of the country's total number municipalities

Now it may be the case that these municipalities are hard cases--chronically incapable of providing a sufficient number of open spaces at facilities that meet the minimum national day care center standards. Perhaps these hard-pressed municipalities need flexibility in terms of the minimal facilities so that they help their young parents.

But is the problem facilities? Some 70% of the children on waiting lists are under three years of age. The size of the facilities are usually not the issue for such children--the limiting factor is almost always is the number of caregivers that must be employed to watch over them. Under national guidelines, one caregiver can watch over 3 infants under 1 year of age or 6 toddlers of either 1 or 2 years of age.

When children turn 3 years of age and ratio of children to caregivers drops from 6:1 to 20:1--the number of kids on the waiting list falls.

The waiting list problem seems more likely an employment issue than a facilities issue.

So what is this about, this handing off of standard setting on childcare facilities to the local municipalities, having the municipalities set their own lower minimum standards for facilities, replacing the minimal standards first established in 1948 when the country was dirt poor?

Could it have anything to do with local officials possibly noticing that

a) young adults in the childbearing years vote too infrequently

b) children cannot vote at all

c) the number of children is falling

d) the number of the elderly is rising

e) young working parents (for the children to be eligible for the day care centers both parents must be working) are grateful for whatever childcare they can afford

f) the elderly, who also put heavy demands on government services, vote at the highest rate of all

g) in an era of limited resources something, somewhere has to give, doesn't it?

Of course, this is an exceptional case. One almost certainly could not find another example of decentralization encouraging the possible rationing of services out to special interest groups within the electorate.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Pour l'exemple - Hadnott sentenced

Last month I was stunned at the U.S. military's filing a mountain of charges against Staff Sergeant Tyrone Hadnott in relation to an alleged rape of a 14 year girl in Okinawa on February 10.

I was beside myself. I could not believe that a U.S. military court could try and convict a service member of serious sexual assault when Japanese prosecutors, laboring under extreme political and community pressure, could not file charges.

Despairing that my own lack of faith in law enforcement may have tainted my assessment of the case, I posted the following on April 25, the day the news broke of Hadnott's arraignment:

I must admit, I have hoped Sergeant Hadnott not guilty of the crimes of which he has been accused. I suppose I have not lost hope that he is still partly innocent--that he is being charged with very serious crimes in order that he may be intimidated into confessing a lesser crime as a part of a plea bargain--a dirty trick but one exasperated prosecutors will employ in order to win a conviction sometimes.

It is a long shot though--and one that unfairly impugns the motives of JAG officers--a really bad initial assumption, generally.

Not so long a shot and possibly not so unfair, as it turns out.

The extremely serious charges against Staff Sgt. Hadnott -- all bargained away.

Hadnott goes to the brig for three years for the crime of abusive sexual conduct: touching the victim in a sexual manner over clothing.

US Marine gets 4 years on sex charge

By TOMOKO A. HOSAKA –TOKYO — A U.S. Marine accused of raping a 14-year-old Japanese girl was convicted of a lesser charge Friday during a court martial and sentenced to four years in prison in a case that inflamed public anger at the American military presence on Okinawa.

Staff Sgt. Tyrone L. Hadnott, 38, was found guilty of abusive sexual conduct, said Master Sgt. Chuck Albrecht. He said four other charges — rape of a child under 16, making false official statements, adultery and "kidnapping through inveigling," or trickery — were dropped.

Though Hadnott was sentenced to four years in prison, he will only serve a maximum of three years, with the fourth year of the sentence suspended under a pretrial agreement, the Marines said in a statement...
Justice has been served.

I am sure of it.

We have nothing to fear.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The new elder care insurance system and the disappearing art of dying at home

Over the next few weeks, the ruling coalition and the Democratic Party of Japan-led opposition will have to make some tough decisions about the newly-installed eldercare insurance system.

The ruling coalition will have to look at the numbers and decide whether or not the system can really afford the proposed fiddle with the payments of low income elderly. In the proposed revision to the law, low income couples would see the monthly withdrawals from their pensions shrink from 30% of the standard cost for their prefecture to 10% of the standard cost.

The proposed revision seems to defeat one of the basic goals of the program: encouraging the very poor to go to see a doctor early on because they have already paid a significant lump sum upfront. The proposed revision would of course also decrease the aggregate contributions to going into the insurance system -- meaning that the revenues supporting the the program will have to be drawn from elsewhere.

For its part, the promise-happy DPJ-led opposition will have to decide whether it is serious about the submission of a bill to House of Councillors bill reversing the imposition of the new eldercare system. The opposition camp has made pledges and noises about passing a such a bill by the end of the month....then again, the opposition also swore that if the the road construction bill were overridden, it would pass a motion of censure in the upper house of the Diet against the Prime Minister.

One can hope that both sides in this political fight will leave the program alone. While unpopular, the new program has the ambitious and admirable goal of providing for the healthcare system that exists--not those of some fantasy trade-off-free universal low cost system for an imaginary group of cuddly and genki oldsters.

* * *

A few weeks back I looked at the publicity campaign for a book by Sakurai Yoshiko. In the ad, the right wing's Madonna calls on the Japanese people to rediscover their identities in their traditions, one of which she identifies as "seeing the dying off while seated at their bedside" (kazoku no saigo wa mitoru).

Too bad Sakurai's moral lashings are reprehensible nonsense--people are not staying away from being by the bedside of their dying relatives out of selfishness or disinterest--for she does hive near an ultimately unsustainable trend in the country's handling of death.

Public opinion polls conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare find that about 60% of citizens would prefer to die in their own homes in their own beds. However, figures from the Ministry show that while fifty years ago 80% of all deaths took place at home, in 2007 only 12% of all deaths occured at the deceased's residence.

The Tokyo Shimbun published this dramatic graph of the new reality of death and dying:

Image courtesy : Tokyo Shimbun

The number of deaths at home has plummeted (white line) while the number of deaths in hospitals and other medical facilities has soared (black line). The percentages of each have almost completely reversed over the course of the last 50 years. Since Japanese have low rates of deaths from accident and disease and nearly all suicides happen outside of hospitals, this number--8 out of 10 deaths in a hospital--can only represent the accelerating warehousing of the feeble elderly in medical facilities.

The immense additional cost to the national health insurance system resulting from this complete reversal in the treatment of death is one of the major reasons for the new elder care system's introduction. It is simply not reasonable to expect that the previous system of low payments and a moderate deductible can finance the final hospitalization of 850,000 pensioners per year.

Beyond the monetary cost of keeping all these near moribund persons in a hospital, the opportunity cost--the loss of hospital bed space to a persons with little chance of long-term survival or improved quality of life--is large and growing. It should not be at all surprising that there is a crisis in "patients in need of emergency care being turned away from hospitals multiple times because of a lack of beds and proper facilities". In 2006, 83.5% of all hospitals beds were occupied at any one time. For assisted care facilities (kaigo ryōyō byōshō) the occupancy rate was 94.1%.

Unless there is a dramatic shift in behaviors--meaning at least a doubling of the rate of those dying at home over the next decace--the dying elderly will simply overwhelm the physical plant of the healthcare system. As the passing of the baby boomers drives the number of deaths per year from its current 1.1 million to at least 1.7 million, where will those near death going to be drawing their final breaths?

Perhaps I am just doomed to suffer the disquiet arising from the ravages of intelligence, but underfunding the health care of the very old in order to score cheap political points seems a hell of an answer.

Google Translation Aspirates

Free online translation engines, a comparison

Original text - Yomiuri Shimbun. May 16, 2008.


The ruling on May 15, more than 75 years later, a medical system for the elderly (long-running medical system), low-income earners to reduce the premium policy measures to expand the sources said.
The government party decided the policy of expanding measures that reduced low income earner's insurance of medical-care system for the elderly of latter term intended for 75 years old or more (long life medical care) on the 15th.

Sergey and Larry, stick with search.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

An Industry Washes Out?

After recording the production in Japan of a stunning 1580 film cameras in January of this year, the Camera and Imaging Products Association (Kamera Eizō Kiki Kōgyōkai) seems to have ceased counting the number of film cameras produced by its members.

I have drawn up a graph of the last year and a quarter of monthly production data. According to CIPA figures, manufacturers in Japan produced 92,716 film cameras in July 2007 and 79,210 as recently as October.

Click on image for full size

From all appearances, the industry has just evaporated.

I believe I now can understand what my great-grandparents must have felt when they read in the newspaper one day that the last cart owner in the city had put his old mule out to pasture.

Original report from Wired's Gadget Lab.

Later - It seems Kitanaka-san checked in with her getto first.

Stars in the Clouded Sky

Not in my normal line, but as regards the collapsed schools of Sichuan, a coda.

None of the newscasts I have seen nor any of news reports I have read has paused to note that China, with exceptions, still has a one child per couple rule.

The parents we are seeing grieving on television or in photo images have not lost a child.

They have lost their child--the singular expression of all their hopes and striving.

Later - Jim Yardley of The New York Times gets close.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Well Said

Tobias Harris does a supercalifrajilistic job of explaining the ramifications of yesterday's House of Representatives vote on the road construction bill.

Nihon Cassandra drinks of the bitter cup and expounds upon the TCI/J-Power ruckus and vermicious Steel Partners extortion play. We mere mortals are properly edified.

Anna Kitanaka wonders how "Japan" can want stuff.

David Daniel Morales, writing about the short stories of Murakami Haruki over at Néojaponisme, entirely fails to grasp the concept of "you should get this into print" -- with his on-line readers reaping the benefits.

Later - M.A.R.X.Y. quite rightly asks in comments me what the hell I am saying.

I Am the Voice of the Zaikai...Pay Heed To Me

"I find you unworthy."

I had though that yesterday morning's rushed Cabinet Decision (kakugi kettei) endorsing the Prime Minister's plan to have the proceeds from gasoline taxes shifted from road construction to the general fund in 2009 would supply sufficient political cover for the ruling coalition as it used its two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives to override the House of Councillors's rejection of the 10 year, 59 trillion yen road construction bill.

Evidently the editors of the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the readers and leaders of conservative corporate opinion (and no friends of the Democratic Party of Japan, believe you me) were nevertheless unimpressed by the Cabinet's tail-covering exercise:

A spineless conversion to the general fund is impermissible
May 14, 2008

The Road Financing Special Measures bill, which retains for 10 years the special tax revenues for road construction, has been passed by the House of Representatives through use of the two-thirds majority. It has now become law. The law clearly contradicts the stated policy of Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo who promises to switch the full amount to general fund in fiscal year 2009. Having forcibly passed a bill as is without correcting it is deplorable...

The Prime Minister and the Cabinet were all smiles after the override vote...but with every victory, this impatient and innumerate ruling coalition loses more and more support.

What drives them to win the battles but lose the war?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Totalitarianism Ain't What It Used To Be

TV Asahi's evening broadcast had a very interesting snippet from a government press conference on the conditions in earthquake affected Sichuan Province. According to the translation, the young Chinese woman reporter asked government officials, in a live broadcast:

"We have seen so many collapsed schools but very few other severely damaged government buildings. To what would you attribute this difference?"
Whoa. I am guessing the officials on the spot wanted to think before answering that question. Only problem was, they were on TV, where you do not get any time at all to craft a ideologically and politically savvy response.

The national leadership sure does not look as self-confident as and the people sure look less cowed than I have been told they are due to the new flowering of Chinese patriotic nationalism. The local officialdom seem to be unable to suppress what is going on--at least, not to the extent I have heard they can.

The old gray mare, she ain't what she used to be.

I wonder what Sakurai Yoshiko and Komori Yoshihisa are thinking Japan should do in this, the Chinese people's time of trial? Which is it, action or inaction, the Golden Rule or the Silver, that best serves Japan's national interest?

Because the national interest is so easily defined, yes? And China is a monomaniacal behemoth, bent on crushing Japan's freedom, yes?

Oh, let't be honest: the whole fearmongering cabal has nothing to teach us. To heck with the whole lot of them.

A Paladin Responds

A surprise and an honor it is to retrieve the following from comments:

Jake writes:

"Well, it seemed like a pretty reasonable idea at the time. I know I'm an idiot. I know I'm stubborn and bit off more than I chew and I should have dropped that one story years ago.

Believe me, I hear this from Okamisan, all the time.

If I had known the details of the story and how much it "meant" to Goto--I would have been a little more cautious. In a bizarre way, I kind of understand his thinking on the matter. He's betrayed the Yamaguchi-gumi. He may have told them, "oh yeah, i made the deal but I'm so much smarter than the FBI--I gave them nothing." I can't believe that there would be a yakuza dumb enough to believe that. If he hasn't told them, them being the ruling faction,--my article represents a death sentence for him. Even if he has, the story being in print raises a hell of a lot of questions. He has about 900 people. There are another 39,000 members that are going to be a little suspicious about him making a deal with the FBI and saying NOTHING?

He also has a son in the yakuza and having a rat for a father is a promotional hindrance. I can understand why he would like me buried in a concrete foundation in Kobe.

No Japanese magazine or newspaper has followed up the Washington Post story. I doubt they will soon. Goto has a long reach and powerful friends. Even the police files on him mention this.

I really do believe that the organized crime cops in Japan are trying to bust yakuza ass. The problem is that they don't have the tools to do it. No wire-tapping, no plea-bargaining, no witness protection--no incentive at all for the thugs on the bottom to turn over the the thugs on the top.

In terms of contract law, since Goto promised the FBI in information terms, about let's say $100.00 worth of material and since he only gave them about a twenty-dollar bill--I figure he should return 80% of his liver back to the United States and it should be given to a worthy donor. It seems fair to me.

Here is the text of Jake's original article, courtesy of The Washington Post:
This Mob Is Big in Japan

By Jake Adelstein
Sunday, May 11, 2008; B02

I have spent most of the past 15 years in the dark side of the rising sun. Until three years ago, I was a crime reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper, and covered a roster of characters that included serial killers who doubled as pet breeders, child pornographers who abducted junior high-school girls, and the John Gotti of Japan.


Most Americans think of Japan as a law-abiding and peaceful place, as well as our staunch ally, but reporting on the underworld gave me a different perspective. Mobs are legal entities here. Their fan magazines and comic books are sold in convenience stores, and bosses socialize with prime ministers and politicians. And as far as the United States is concerned, Japan may be refueling U.S. warships at sea, but it's not helping us fight our own battles against organized crime -- a realization that led to my biggest scoop.

I loved my job. The cops fighting organized crime are hard-drinking iconoclasts -- many look like their mobster foes, with their black suits and slicked-back hair. They're outsiders in Japanese society, and perhaps because I was an outsider too, we got along well. The yakuza's tribal features are also compelling, like those of an alien life form: the full-body tattoos, missing digits and pseudo-family structure. I became so fascinated that, like someone staring at a wild animal, I got too close and now am worried for my life. But more on that later.

The Japanese National Police Agency (NPA) estimates that the yakuza have almost 80,000 members. The most powerful faction, the Yamaguchi-gumi, is known as "the Wal-Mart of the yakuza" and reportedly has close to 40,000 members. In Tokyo alone, the police have identified more than 800 yakuza front companies: investment and auditing firms, construction companies and pastry shops. The mobsters even set up their own bank in California, according to underworld sources.

Over the last seven years, the yakuza have moved into finance. Japan's Securities and Exchange Surveillance Commission has an index of more than 50 listed companies with ties to organized crime. The market is so infested that Osaka Securities Exchange officials decided in March that they would review all listed companies and expel those found to have links with the yakuza. If you think this has nothing to do with the United States, think again. Americans have billions of dollars in the Japanese stock market. So U.S. investors could be funding the Japanese mob.

I once asked a detective from Osaka why, if Japanese law enforcement knows so much about the yakuza, the police don't just take them down. "We don't have a RICO Act," he explained. "We don't have plea-bargaining, a witness-protection program or witness-relocation program. So what we end up doing most of the time is just clipping the branches. . . . If the government would give us the tools, we'd shut them down, but we don't have 'em."

In the good old days, the yakuza made most of their money from sleaze: prostitution, drugs, protection money and child pornography. Kiddie porn is still part of their base income -- and another area where Japan isn't acting like America's friend.

In 1999, my editors assigned me to cover the Tokyo neighborhood that includes Kabukicho, Japan's largest red-light district. Japan had recently outlawed child pornography -- reluctantly, after international pressure left officials no choice. But the ban, which is still in effect, had a major flaw: It criminalized producing and selling child pornography, not owning it. So the big-money industry goes on, unabated. Last month's issue of a widely available porn magazine proclaimed, "Our Cover Girl Is Our Youngest Yet: 14!" Kabukicho remains loaded with the stuff, and teenage sex workers are readily available. I've even seen specialty stores that sell the underwear worn by teenage strippers.

The ban is so weak that investigating yakuza who peddle child pornography is practically impossible. "The United States has referred hundreds of . . . cases to Japanese law enforcement authorities," a U.S. embassy spokesman recently told me. "Without exception, U.S. officials have been told that the Japanese police cannot open an investigation because possession is legal." In 2007, the Internet Hotline Center in Japan identified more than 500 local sites displaying child pornography.

There's talk in Japan of criminalizing simple possession, but some political parties (and publishers, who are raking in millions) oppose the idea. U.S. law enforcement officers want to stop the flow of yakuza-produced child porn into the United States and would support such a law. But they can't even keep the yakuza themselves out of the country. Why? Because the national police refuse to share intelligence. Last year, a former FBI agent told me that, in a decade of conferences, the NPA had turned over the names and birthdates of about 50 yakuza members. "Fifty out of 80,000," he said.

This lack of cooperation was partly responsible for an astonishing deal made with the yakuza, and for the story that changed my life. On May 18, 2001, the FBI arranged for Tadamasa Goto -- a notorious Japanese gang boss, the one that some federal agents call the "John Gotti of Japan" -- to be flown to the United States for a liver transplant.

Goto is alive today because of that operation -- a source of resentment among Japanese law enforcement officials because the FBI organized it without consulting them. From the U.S. point of view, it was a necessary evil. The FBI had long suspected the yakuza of laundering money in the United States, and Japanese and U.S. law enforcement officials confirm that Goto offered to tip them off to Yamaguchi-gumi front companies and mobsters in exchange for the transplant. James Moynihan, then the FBI representative in Tokyo who brokered the deal, still defends the operation. "You can't monitor the activities of the yakuza in the United States if you don't know who they are," he said in 2007. "Goto only gave us a fraction of what he promised, but it was better than nothing."

The suspicions about the Yamaguchi-gumi were confirmed in the fall of 2003, when special agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), whom I've interviewed, tracked down several million dollars deposited in U.S. casino accounts and banks by Susumu Kajiyama, a boss known as "the Emperor of Loan Sharks." The agents said they had not received a lead from the Tokyo police; they got some of the information while looking back at the Goto case.

Unlike their Japanese counterparts, U.S. law enforcement officers are sharing tips with Japan. Officials from both countries confirm that, in November 2003, the Tokyo police used information from ICE and the Nevada Gaming Control Board to seize $2 million dollars in cash from a safe-deposit box in Japan, which was leased to Kajiyama by a firm affiliated with a major Las Vegas casino. According to ICE Special Agent Mike Cox, the Kajiyama saga was probably not an isolated incident. "If we had some more information from the Japan side," he told me last year, "I'm sure we'd find other cases like it."

I'm not entirely objective on the issue of the yakuza in my adopted homeland. Three years ago, Goto got word that I was reporting an article about his liver transplant. A few days later, his underlings obliquely threatened me. Then came a formal meeting. The offer was straightforward. "Erase the story or be erased," one of them said. "Your family too."

I knew enough to take the threat seriously. So I took some advice from a senior Japanese detective, abandoned the scoop and resigned from the Yomiuri Shimbun two months later. But I never forgot the story. I planned to write about it in a book, figuring that, with Goto's poor health, he'd be dead by the time it came out. Otherwise, I planned to clip out the business of his operation at the last minute.

I didn't bargain on the contents leaking out before my book was released, which is what happened last November. Now the FBI and local law enforcement are watching over my family in the States, while the Tokyo police and the NPA look out for me in Japan. I would like to go home, but Goto has a reputation for taking out his target and anyone else in the vicinity.

In early March, in my presence, an FBI agent asked the NPA to provide a list of all the members of Goto's organization so that they could stop them from coming into the country and killing my family. The NPA was reluctant at first, citing "privacy concerns," but after much soul-searching handed over about 50 names. But the Tokyo police file lists more than 900 members. I know this because someone posted the file online in the summer of 2007; a Japanese detective was fired because of the leak.

Of course, I'm a little biased. I don't think it's selfish of me to value the safety of my family more than the personal privacy of crooks. And as a crime reporter, I'm baffled that the Japanese don't share intelligence on the yakuza with the United States.

Then again, perhaps I'm being unreasonable. Maybe some powerful Japanese are simply ashamed of how strong the yakuza have become. And if they're not ashamed, they should be.

Jake Adelstein is the author of the forthcoming "Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan."

jake -

First - my admiration for your bravery.

Second - my thanks on the part of all who dwell in this land for what you have tried to do. Especially for those of us with children.

Third - I do not think you are an idiot.

Fourth - you give the police force far more credit than I ever would. I hope that they live up to your image of actors rather than down to mine, where the least pernicious of them are mere observers and notetakers.

Fifth - my best wishes, as I have nothing else to offer.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Help Us Kimutaku, You're Our Only Hope!

"The person who changes could be you, maybe."

So with this teaser Fuji Television tonight invites us to enter a world that is supposed to be like our own, except in it Kimura Takuya is a nebbishy elementary school teacher and amateur astronomer in rural Nagano (implausible? Noooo...) whose world is turned upside down when his father and elder brother are killed in an automobile accident.

Oh, the ghastly carnage necessary to set up a fish-out-of-water comedy-drama!

Now it just so happens Father was a member of the House of Representatives from Fukuoka (a political hotbed in the real world right now, the home prefecture of three faction leaders--Aso Tarō, Yamasaki Taku and Koga Makoto--as well as Justice Minister Hatoyama Kunio) and Elder Brother was being groomed to succeed him. With the seatholder and the heir apparent out of the picture, the chairman of the General Council (played by the avatar of exhaustion, Terao Akira) and his frighteningly bloodless secretary (played by Fukatsu Eri, revisiting their pairing in Hakase no aishita sūshiki) hatch a plan to have Son #2 run for the seat in the necessary by-election.

A hopeless plan, given that Son #2 is a total dweeb.

Still, they see something in him...something fresh, something new...something that gets them thinking about the Prime Minister's record low support levels in the public opinion polls...something that might have something to do with Son #2's being Kimura Takuya hidden behind thick black glasses and underneath an electro-shock medusa of hair.

Real by-election victory material, seemingly.

And the title of this new series, in English: CHANGE

Prime Minister Fukuda, watch your back.

Political junkies of a certain kind will furthermore be grateful that staffer Miyamoto Hikaru (played by semi-Italiana Katō Rōsa) will be providing supplementary explanations of the political jargon used in the program.

Something about the excessive attractiveness of the main players me has me guessing that CHANGE will not be a hard-hitting and cynical examination of the political process.

But you never know.

The black dragon

It is not enough that the country is saddled with a representative government where a third of the elected do not actually represent anybody; has "a beautiful nature" (sic) that is a biological nightmare due to mismanagement, climate change and introduced species; has a justice system bent on seeking the criminal first, then determining the crime; has public employees striving toward the singular goal of not making any trouble until they are old enough to retire (a goal shared by many company managers, sadly).

It must also be subject to a brazen criminal element, unfettered by police investigations, political pressure or press exposure--as one intrepid Yomiuri Shimbun reporter has found out.

Poor bugger--dreamt he could make his living stalking the yakuza and also have a family.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Sunday's Listening In

It is hard to type away about the foibles and failures of Japan's political classes at the time when a tragedy of immense proportions is befalling the people of Myanmar. Not an entirely avoidable tragedy...but certainly one that need not have been so murderous.

I will nevertheless try.

Depending upon one's tastes, this morning's Nichiyō Tōron on NHK was either an utter waste of time or a useful, succinct introduction to why Japanese Diet politics has become moribund. Through an inexplicably bad decision, the parliamentary affairs chairmen (kokkai taisaku inchō) of the major parties were brought together to debate the hot sujets du jour: the road construction bill--scheduled for a ruling coalition override in the House of Representatives on Tuesday--and the implementation of the over-75 elder care system.

Now, as a general rule, one does not want the parliamentary affairs chairmen slanging each other at close range in front of cameras. These are men (and they are all men) who are supposed to get together and work out the schedules of bills, the terms under which bills will be debated and the corralling of one's own party's worst elements and tendencies--this in order to have the parliamentary process move along with some sense of decorum.

The parliamentary affairs chairmen need to be able to understand what the other chairman are thinking, what their pressure points are, where the others are capable of compromise.

Sniping at the other side, listing all the reasons the other side is to blame for the breakdown of Diet proceedings is the responsibility of the party general-secretaries, or at worst, the party research council chairmen. Having the diet affairs chairmen passing the buck around was tawdry--and screamed, "We need an election! Or at least a leadership shakeup!"

"A waste," thought I as the six parliamentary affairs chairmen merely quoted their party lines--which consists of little more than "It's their fault!" '" No, no, it's their fault!"--when they should have been considering what happens in the Diet after the train wreck of Monday's rejection of the road construction bill in the House of Councillors and Tuesday's override of the rejection.

The issue that was worthwhile debating--"What kind of country do we want to have?"--was never addressed.

Some might say, "of course" belongs somewhere in that previous sentence...but I am not so cynical.

Interestingly this broadcast has taken place after House of Representatives Speaker Kōno Yōhei called LDP Secretary General Ibuki Bunmei and LDP Parliamentary Affairs Chairman Ōshima Tadamori to his office to read them the riot act over the deterioration of relations between the parties in the Diet, particularly the LDP's response to the blockade of the Speaker's Office on April 30. On that day a phalanx of Democratic Party of Japan legislators had prevented Kōno from making his way from his office in Diet Building to the House of Representatives chamber where he was to gavele opent the session where the ruling coalition was to use its two-thirds majority to override House of Councillors inaction on the bill reviving the temporary gasoline tax levy. DPJ members blocked the door to Kōno's office for an hour in what was a symbolic final act of protest against the use of the override provision to pass the unpopular bill. After an hour passed, Kōno made his way to the House of Representatives chamber and the vote took place.

In retribution for the telegenic brouhaha, the LDP-dominated Disciplinary Committee began punitive action against Democratic Party of Japan Representative Mikazuki Taizō, a leader of the blockade.

According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, Kōno told Ibuki and Ōshima on Friday to issue a cease and desist order to party members leading the persecution of Mikazuki. The young lawmaker had apologized to the Speaker in person. As far as he (Kōno) was concerned, there was no need for further punishment.

"This kind of skirmish happened because you guys are fumbling around. I want the parties talking to each other."
spake Kōno unto the pair from the LDP.

Those who may have been disturbed by the physicality of the blockade might wish to note that Kōno did not invite Hatoyama Yukio or Yamaoka Kenji or any of the other secretary generals or parliamentary affairs chairmen to the meeting.

Just his own party's men.

Makes you wonder where the ostensibly neutral Kōno thinks the greatest fault lies.

Then again, "let's all just get along" is a popular message among those far from the LDP's centers of power. Yosano Kaoru and Aso Tarō, who aside from both being on the outs in the party also are charter members of the "Persons-Less-Illustrious-Than-Their-Grandparents" Club, are coming out with a joint article in Bungei Shunjū calling for a collective LDP-DPJ formulation of next year's budget.

Sort of a "Well, gosh that was unpleasant...but don't give up on us just yet!" kind of appeal to come out and play one more time.

Funny thing about this call for comity though...if I were in the DPJ, I would be thinking that working out a budget together was what the LDP should have been inviting the DPJ to do last year.

Better late than never, I guess.

Guess Hu's Not Here

Yes, "Hosokawa Morihiro" is a correct answer.

Image Courtesy: AP

I was thinking of a more recent former Prime Minister.

Who? Oh Who? Oh Who can it be?

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Over Mitōsan to Makiyoseyama

Mitōsan (三頭山 - 1524 m) is the tallest of the three "celebrated mountains of the Okutama Region" in the Tokyo Metropolitan District, punctuating the border between the TMD and northern Yamanashi Prefecture. Its base can be reached either by a 30 minute bus ride from from Okutama Station on the Ōme Line or a 55 minute bus ride out of Itsukaichi Station on the Itsukaichi Line.

The Mugiyama Ukihashi (the floating footbridge)
across the Okutama Reservoir
Okutama Township, Tokyo Metropolitan District
May 6, 2008

On the Nukazasuyama trail at altitudes starting around 1000 meters one can see an increasingly rare sight: stands of living pine trees. The higher elevations are less hospitable to the pine sawyer beetle and the pine wood nematode, the vector and cause of the pine wilt disease that has wiped out all untended red pines and black pines (MTC photo - Yugawara, 3 January 2008) at lower altitudes over the last few decades.

Healthy red pine (akamatsu - Pinus densiflora) stand at 1100 meters
Okutama Township, Tokyo Metropolitan District
May 6, 2008

In my posts I frequently mock traditionalists who claim life was better in the past, before Japan accepted Western things. Here is a rare instance where the traditionalists are right. Pine wilt is an introduced disease, indigenous to North America. The nefarious nematode seems to have hitched a ride in the soil of trees imported to Japan.

Konara (Quercus serrata) forest
Okutama Township, Tokyo Metropolitan District
May 6, 2008

Cold is one of the few natural weapons against the spread of pine wilt disease. As global temperatures rise, these pines will come into the range of the beetle and the nematode.

In the future the only places one may see Japan's celebrated pines could be public parks, private gardens and ukiyoe.

View of the Tsurukawa Valley in Yamanashi Prefecture from Makiyoseyama (1188 m)
Hinohara Township, Tokyo Metropolitan District
May 6, 2008

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Things I Did Not Know

You can learn a lot from reading Martin Fackler.

Like about the fierce Aves vs. Sapiens competition in the real estate market:

Blackouts are just one of the problems caused by an explosion in Japan's population of crows, which have so grown numerous they seem to compete with humans for space in this densely crowded nation.
About the frailty of the Japanese homeless:

Communities are scrambling to find ways to relocate or reduce their crow populations, as ever larger flocks of loud, ominous birds have taken over parks and nature reserves, frightening away human residents.

Or about the official and scholarly consensus on the Western origins of garbage:

Behind the rise, say experts and officials, has been the growing abundance of garbage, a product of Japan's embrace of more wasteful Western lifestyles. This has created an orgy of eating for crows, which are scavengers.
Or about the Japanese embrace of satyagraha and knee-jerk environmentalism:

The crow explosion has created a moral dilemma for Japan, a nation that prides itself on nonviolence and harmony with nature, because culling programs are the only truly effective method of population control.
Or about the truism that when a government official tells you an absurd story of how the past was a golden age, the job of the journalist is to reproduce the quote without examination:

"In the old days, crows and humans could live together peacefully, but now the species are clashing," said Naoki Satou, the head of planning in Tokyo's environmental department, which conducts crow countermeasures. "All we really want to do is go back to that golden age of coexistence."
Or about the miraculous wonder of the the land of the Rising Sun that if someone somewhere says something, it is important--whether or not the person is making sense or not.

While the city said it only killed 200 crows last year, the use of traps has stirred opposition. A local ornithologist, Michiyo Goto of Yamagata University, called for nonviolent alternatives, such as relocating the crows outside the city by building an appealing habitat for nesting, which she said was a brightly lighted area with no underbrush to hide predators.

"Once you start killing them, there's no end," Goto said. "You can't stop the damage unless you exterminate every last crow."
You, in the back, you have a question?

"Yes. If the crows are moved out of the city, what do they eat? Won't they just find new garbage dumps or worse yet raid the fields of farmers? And if they reproduce successfully, what prevents their offspring from returning to the city? And doesn't the ornithologist admit in the end that if the goal is to eliminate all damage you have to kill all the crows? But if that is not the assumption... "

Silence Unbeliever! Read your full Fackler and feel a faith in the editorial board of The New York Times coursing through your veins!

Hi Hu! Hi Hu!

La, la, la, la, la, la...

"Hey Jintao. Have the umeboshi; there from my home district in Gunma. Yes, Madame Liu, there are stones in them. Sorry, forgot to warn you about that.

Hey, there's a historical geography quiz in the paper. 'Name five countries that existed in between the end of World War I and the end of World War II that have not reemerged since the collapse of the Berlin Wall.'


OK, I give up. Let's look at the answers. Oh, there's the Dominion of Newfoundland and Labrador--it joined Canada only in 1949. Wow, did you know that? Then there's the Tuvinian People's Republic or Tannu Tuva, annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944. Does it freak you out when you hear those Tuvans do that voice thing? Scares the pants off me. Then there's Manchuguo/Manshūkoku --oh dear, our bad. Not really much of a country--there are hardly enough native Manchu speakers left to fill an izakaya nowadays. Bad idea it was. I can officially confirm here and now that we are really, really sorry about all the whole Pu Yi thing. Honest, we really are. Moving right along, there's Republic of East Turkestan--hey that's present day Xinjiang Province. Then there's...oh...a mountainous kingdom. No, not Sikkim--Sikkim did not win sovereignty until after World War II--another mountain kingdom. You know...rhymes with "kismet"...that one.

I know you say it has never been independent. We agreed to disagree on that point. I know that in your opinion you did not agree to disagree. "Agree to disagree" is the default option. Have your Foreign Ministry call my Foreign Ministry, OK?

Hmmm...when you look at a map, four out of the five abolished countries were on China's periphery. You guys have three of the four under your thumb--not bad. If you add to your absorption of those sovereign nations your claim on Taiwan and your puppet state on the Korean guys have managed to put a heck of a lot of effort into keeping the empire thing going well into the post-imperial age. Makes me wonder how you have any energy left for our little tiff over the Senkakus and the bed of the East China Sea.

What? What? Why are you looking at me like that? It was just a quiz..."

Monday, May 05, 2008

In Rude Political Health

In what is a probably astute gesture of restraint, the leadership of the Democratic Party of Japan has reportedly backed away from the plan for a vote of censure in the House of Councillors.

A DPJ candidate's defeat of the Liberal Democratic Party candidate in the Yamaguchi #2 by-election and the prime minister's disastrous public polling numbers have robbed a bill of censure against the PM, a member of the other house of parliament, of much of its former luster. The DPJ has proven itself relevant: it does not need an act of political theater to convince the public of its sincerity and importance. On balance, a censure motion now poses more of a risk to the DPJ's standing than the DPJ can perhaps stomach. Proceeding to a vote on a legally dubious bill could boomerang, leading to the public to call into question the DPJ's credibility.

As if to balance its new restraint in regards the censure with excess elsewhere, the DPJ has announced a plan to proceed with a bill terminating the new over-75 elder care system.

The move is smart in seikyoku (political street fighting) terms. The elderly vote in far greater numbers, both in aggregate and proportionally, than the young. In terms of regional power, retirees are a larger fraction of the voting public in the low population rural prefectures, where the move of a few thousand votes from one column to the other could switch a district from LDP to DPJ control. Elderly-dominated districts are also over-represented in the Diet due to the incomplete equalization of the declining rural districts with stable or growing urban-suburban ones. Appealing to the old cannot only win you more votes within a district, it can win you more districts period, due the dominance of elderly voting a larger number of districts. Add to this structural justification for pandering to the retirees a tone-deaf ruling coalition incapable of even breathing without offending—and you have what must be a seductive opportunity to position the DPJ for a seizure of power.

Such positioning is Ozawaism at its worst. It is Tanakaism reversed: the irresponsible promising to undo all unpopular LDP policies—even the difficult and necessary ones—in order to win the next election. It is irresponsible and dishonest—justifiable only to revolutionaries to whom the end of winning political control justifies the means. That Kan Naoto—a former minister of health and welfare—should be the DPJ's spokesman for this facetious termination bill is disturbing. He of all the leaders of the DPJ should know that health insurance system is doomed to a financial unraveling unless fundamental reforms of elder care are undertaken.

In seisaku (political policies) terms, the recently instigated elder care system seems a fair solution to the looming elder care crisis. With the young a decreasing fraction of the total population, relying upon on the underconsumption of healthcare by the young as the subsidizer of the healthcare of the very old puts one on a collision course with reality—no matter what one may think of the social justice aspects of the intergenerational transfers...

(I am an apostate. I hold as self-evident that the young today have high paying jobs in an advanced industrial society thanks to the savings, self-sacrifice and hard work of preceding generations. Whining about being taxed to death in order to coddle rapacious old folks grants to the individual an unearned aura of autonomy across time.)

The decision to deduct (tenbiki) a regular extra insurance fee from the pensions of persons over 75 years of age in return for lowering the patient's visit costs to 10% of the total cost does penalize very healthy seniors. Then again, all insurance systems penalize the healthy.

Having a regular fee deducted from one's pension and a low per visit cost avoids a major problem with the elderly: self-rationing of healthcare. One wants the healthcare system to discourage frivolous visits to the doctor—one of the reasons (aside from the obvious fiscal ones) that the authorities over the last decade have increased the percentage an individual pays out of pocket from the original 10% to 20% and 30%. However, one would want the very old to seek treatment for minor ailments before they deteriorate into major and expensive-to-treat illnesses. One would want the system to stimulate the individual retiree into rationalizing a visit to the doctor as a way of recouping for himself or herself at least some fraction of the money the government has forcibly taken from his or her pension.

The regular pension deduction and lower per-visit cost also addresses one of the real problems of the cost curve of healthcare over time—that the last six months of a person's life are the most expensive. As organs and internal systems fail, doctors and hospitals deploy all kinds of life-prolonging medications and devices...

(One unfortunately misinterpreted gesture has been the government program encouraging physicians to give their patients questionnaires asking them to specify about what kind of life-prolonging treatments they would not want deployed in case of incapacitation. Some critics [Veracity Alert - The following is according to Shūkan Gendai - quote at your peril] of the system have depicted the gathering of this information as a preliminary step to charging higher monthly fees to those individuals expecting more aggressive and expensive life-prolonging strategies. They have pointed to the assigning of a point system to certain kinds of treatment as evidence--as if a person amassing a certain number of points after saying "yes" to a particular number of life-prolonging treatments would be then charged an "X" amount in fees. The actual goal of the point system is almost certainly to help hospitals decide on how much to spend on certain technologies and treatments, and avoid overinvestment into life-prolonging technologies the patients do not want employed.)

To expect an individual to have liquid savings able to cover 20% or 30% of the cost of these end-of-life treatments, especially as life-prolonging technologies advance in their ability to increase lifespan, is simply not reasonable. Better to have each person pre-paying over the course of her or his retirement into a general fund, creating a special drawing right for the individual for the time when her or his vital systems begin to shut down, leaving the individual at that time liable for only 10% of the cost out-of-pocket.

Now, if the above is indeed a proper description of the new elder care system, it would take a special kind of genius to be so unnerved as to never, ever attempt to explain it. Perhaps the LDP and the New Komeitō deserve to be sent to perdition for having both delayed the introduction of this system and left it to the bureaucracy to justify.

However, the cowardice of the ruling coalition is no excuse for the DPJ's turning its back on reform. The public is not stupid: it will ask what the DPJ's plan is for the long-term financially stability of the healthcare system. Being in an advantageous position on the electoral map is a fine and wonderful thing—and elections are about winning. However, as a party that will win at best a plurality of seats in the House of Representatives, requiring the cobbling together of a coalition in order to form government, the DPJ should be at least considering the possibility that a reputation for conscientiousness could make the signing up of allies a slightly easier task.

Kan Naoto speaking out in favor of reverting to the previous system puts pressure on the DPJ's House of Councillors membership to speed up the consideration of the termination bill. Submitted to the House of Councillors in February, the bill has yet to see the inside of a committee chamber. A suspicious mind could even posit that the DPJ councillors have been stalling on their allies—all of whom are enthusiastic supporters of a rescinding of the new system.

Perhaps being in charge of one of the houses of the Diet has made DPJ's House of Councillors members the party's "responsible wing" —which would be a neat reversal of the traditional image of the House of Councillors membership as the breakfast cereal (i.e., the flakes and nuts) of every political party.

Friday, May 02, 2008

You Can Check Out Any Time You Like

In the first panel of the cartoon Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo, clad in tennis wear, is preparing to serve. From outside the panel come catcalls and taunts. "Go ahead, show us what you've got! C'mon, you aren't scaring anybody."

Fukuda rears back, tosses the ball in the air, and unleashes a terrific serve.

The ball come zinging back at him as if on fire. He only just ducks down in time.

The catcalls continue, "Oh, that was brilliant! Why don't you try it again?"

Fukuda again rears back, launching an even more powerful serve.

The ball comes sizzling back, clocking Fukuda in the forehead and knocking his glasses askew.

"Whooopeee! Come on, serve it for real this time! Hit it with all you've got!"

Readjusting his somewhat bent glasses, and wiping the sweat from his forehead, Fukuda rears back even further and unleashes a monstrous serve--that comes back like a bullet, knocking him to the ground.

It is then that the frame pulls back, revealing the whole tennis court. Ozawa Ichirō, Hatoyama Yukio and Kan Naoto are all on the other side of the net, their rackets down by their sides, shouting encouragement to the PM. Ozawa leads the jeers, yelling, "Oh, please, please; one more time. That was awesome...of course, whenever you're ready to stop serving against the back wall and instead hit a ball in our direction, that would be great too!"

* * *

One would think that after all the self-inflicted wounds and humiliations over the last few months, the PM and the ruling coalition would have learned a simple lesson: get the ball out of your side of the court. For every issue, the PM and the ruling coalition have found themselves incapable of getting the ball to drop in the Democratic Party of Japan's side, forcing the DPJ and its leaders to actually do something other than just stand around shouting imprecations.

Unbelievably, it is about to happen again. On May 12, the sixty day limit on the road construction bill will expire. It will become possible for the ruling coalition to pass the bill using its two thirds majority in the House of Representatives.

Unfortunately the road construction bill coming up for override is not the road construction bill the Fukuda government wants. The bill that is up for reapproval is a public relations nightmare, an execrable promise of a decade-long matsuri of pork.

"But you know," the DPJ is saying with a huge grin on its face, "You guys passed it once already. Two months ago you thought this was an absolutely fabulous, absolutely essential bill. And you voted for it. Surely you could not have changed your minds about this bill in just two months! That would be irresponsible and unserious--and you are the serious, responsible party! Everyone knows that. So override. Pass this monstrous bill. We dare you. We double dare you."

And the PM and the ruling coalition leadership are simply stunned. They launched a laughingstock of a bill--an absurdity--over to the opposition-led House of Councillors, daring them to leave it alone--only to see their own howling creation land right at their feet, untouched and unchanged, for them to either reject (and won't that look smart--voting for a bill only to reject it only two months later) or pass using the override provision, inviting the public to go ballistic with righteous indignation.

Leaving the PM and the leadership to wonder, "How is it possible the ball is back in our court, AGAIN?"

Funny things happen when you don't play with others, choosing instead to play with yourself.

Later - We may be looking at game, set and match.

Tobias Harris notes that a snap poll by The Asahi Shimbun finds the Fukuda Cabinet's support level at a mere 20%.

Now the Tokyo Shimbun has come out with a rival poll finding support for the Cabinet at 19.8%--which, the paper, bless its leftist little heart, is calling "a support level of only 19%".

Guess folks might be upset that gasoline station owners raised prices a nice round 30 yen per liter yesterday?

(No, no, it is not price gouging to raise fuel prices 30 yen per liter during Golden Week when the tax being revived is only 25 yen per liter. Perish the thought.)