Saturday, January 31, 2009


A place to go in mid-winter...perhaps THE place to go* in mid-winter, crossing the Uraga Channel upon the Tokyo Bay Ferry...

Fishing boat in the Uraga Channel
January 25, 2009

Container ship clearing the Uraga Straits before Mt. Fuji
January 25, 2009

(For the record - at this point, Mt. Fuji is 100 kilometers away)

Tobi (Black Kite - Milvus migrans)
January 25, 2009

Amida Nyorai of the Nipponji
January 25, 2009

Rakkan figures in the Nipponji
January 25, 2009

Umineko (Black-tailed Gull - Larus crassirostrus)
above Nokogiriyama
January 25, 2009

All images: MTC
* Unless you are Chris, of course.

Friday, January 30, 2009

When They Already Hate You... like this is not survivable. Not politically, at least.

Japan factory output plunges, jobless rate jumps

TOMOKO A. HOSAKA – TOKYO — The pain of Japan's recession is spreading from the factory floor to the living room, as December figures showed companies slashing output at a record pace, the jobless rate surging and household spending falling sharply.

Industrial production at the nation's manufacturers plunged 9.6 percent in November, the largest drop since Tokyo began measuring such data in 1953, the government said Friday. A survey predicted further declines of 9.1 percent in January and 4.7 percent in February.

Meanwhile, Japan's unemployment rate jumped to 4.4 percent from 3.9 percent in November — the biggest increase in almost 42 years, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Household spending dropped a worse-than-expected 4.6 percent in December, falling for the 10th straight month.
A half a point jump in the unemployment rate in a can mess up anything else, anything...but not the unemployment rate. Having a job is the touchstone of personal worth and identity for many citizens--and comparatively low rates of unemployment have long been cited as an unshakeable foundation of the Japanese way of capitalism.

Unfortunately for the Liberal Democratic Party, the outlook for the next few months is dire. The numbers are going to get worse, the cries of the newspapers and the people louder. Delaying the House of Representatives election, which seemed a few months ago to be almost noble, is now looking like a guarantee of not just a defeat, but a total wipeout of the ruling coalition.

Have a nice time in Davos, Francisco.

The LDP in 30 seconds

Beware the writer who, upon a review of the current splits, divisions, backtracking, prime ministerial fumblings about, betrayals of principle and screams leaking out from behind locked doors, declares:

"The Liberal Democratic Party does not know what it stands for anymore."

This is false.

The members of the LDP know exactly what the party stands for. It stands for what the party has always stood for:

Winning elections.

Which is precisely why the party is thrashing about and coughing up blood right now.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Nihonbashi Shuffle?

Are smart cookie currency traders offering specious analysis to Reuters as a way of head faking their rivals into investing in U.S. dollars?

Japan may help U.S. if China stops debt purchase

By Nick Olivari - NEW YORK, Jan 27 - Japan could be a counterweight against rising U.S. borrowing costs should China buy less U.S. government debt in response to pressure from Washington to change its currency policy.

Investors are on full alert that Japan's Ministry of Finance could buy dollars to bring the yen down from a 13-1/2- year peak first touched in December and hit again in January.

Japan, which relies heavily on trade to power its economy, saw its exports plunge 35 percent in December.

Already holding $1.03 trillion in official reserve assets, according to International Monetary Fund data, the next question is what would Japan do with intervention dollars.

Given Japan is the second-biggest holder of U.S. debt after China, it would likely buy Treasuries, denting some of the impact if Beijing hits back over recent foreign-exchange criticism by Timothy Geithner, now Treasury secretary.

"Japan gets a higher dollar/yen rate and keeps the domestic exporters happy while the increased supply of U.S. debt and specifically Treasuries gets mopped up," said Dustin Reid, senior currency strategist at RBS Global Banking & Markets, in Chicago.

The U.S. government "could issue a lot more debt and it is no secret that Japan wants its currency to weaken," Reid said.

Prices of U.S. Treasury bonds fell last week, partly on concerns that Geithner's comments, made in testimony to senators weighing his nomination as Treasury secretary, could provoke China into buying less U.S. debt.

But there was no sign of weaker foreign demand at a $40 billion auction of two-year Treasury notes on Tuesday...
Why would the Bank of Japan or anyone else want to switch their overvalued yen for overvalued U.S. dollars, then park those dollars in low-yielding Treasuries? If you are going to spit in the wind of the U.S. Treasury's warning against currency manipulation, you should at least buy currencies with some upside potential and/or assets with some yield.

When your country's private and public investors are already heavily invested or even overinvested (Does anyone understand the meaning of the sentence beginning with "Given Japan is the second-biggest holder of U.S. debt after China..."? It baffles me) in a single market (the U.S. of A.) and when these investors have just had their tails singed off because direct and portfolio investments made in that country have turned to lead -- the strategic and emotionally reassuring choice would be to look for other bonfires in which to toss your yen.

I do not deny that yen-for-dollars story offers an attractive quid pro quo...

a) Japan gets to drive down the yen, saving its exporters while

b) absorbing excess U.S. government securities being issued to fund stimulus package and cover revenue shortfalls

... but an excess of Treasuries in the market is not a problem now, nor is it likely to be a problem in the near future.

So are the musings of those quoted in the article part of a legal scam--an attempt to convince otherwise reticent punters to buy dollars in anticipation of a prophecied Bank of Japan dollar buying binge that never actually happens?

What Could He Say That Could Be Even Remotely True?

I have this recurring nightmare.

Prime Minister Asō Tarō is standing before a large group of the world's leaders, trying to explain himself, his government's policies and Japan's future.

He is not succeeding.

Davos forum to explore ways to save global economy

DAVOS, Switzerland, Jan. 28 -- The World Economic Forum (WEF) opened in Davos Wednesday with an aim to address the current economic crisis and other global challenges.


Among the world leaders attending the meeting, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will address participants on the first day of the meeting.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Japanese Premier Taro Aso will also address the sessions...
Just close my eyes in my dream and I will wake up...just close my eyes in the dream and I will wake up...


Asō Tarō promising to do his all to help save the global economy? After only four months in office, the dude cannot save his Cabinet.

My sympathies to his speechwriter.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Reviving Small-Scale Coastal Whaling

Quietly, perhaps even a little too secretly, governments have been sounding ways of easing Japan out of pelagic "scientific research" whaling in the Southern Hemisphere while keeping the International Whaling Commission involved in the management of...whaling.

Secret Japan deal to trade whale kills
The Age

Andrew Darby, Hobart - January 27, 2009 - The Federal Government has secretly helped to draw up a potential deal to break the whaling deadlock that would let Japan expand North Pacific kills in return for Antarctic cuts.

Japanese whalers could hunt a regulated number of minke whales in their own coastal waters under the plan, as well as take many more whales in the high seas of the North Pacific.

In exchange Japan would agree to one of two offers: either to phase out whaling under self-awarded scientific permits in the Antarctic entirely, or to impose an annual Southern Ocean limit.

The package was hammered out in confidence by an International Whaling Commission drafting group of six nations, including Australia and Japan, at a meeting in Cambridge, England, last month...
Allowing the four regulated Japanese coastal whaling stations* a chance to take Minke (Minku kujira - Balaenoptera acutorostrata) the most common species of large whale, ending the mendacious "scientific research" hunt in the Southern Ocean and (probably) the pelagic North Pacific hunt and the substitution hunts of Baird's Beaked Whales, Pilot Whales and Risso's Dolphin around Japan's coasts, is a win-win-win proposition.

Now if someone could only talk the b-----y Australians and Greenpeace into accepting half a loaf when Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries -- i.e., the Ministry of "Negation, Obsfucation and Obstruction" -- hands one to them.

It is the only reasonable way to extricate all parties from out of the current dishonest and dysmal impasse.

And this post is not an attempt to toot my own horn about my longtime view of the issue.


*Since 1999, the city of Hakodate has had the right to have a whaling industry, hunting Baird's Beaked Whales. To my knowledge, the city has not sought to exercise its right.

Great whales are also caught as by-catch in fishing nets.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Always So Polite

The weekly magazines may not terribly good sources of information*...but they are invaluable sources for indigenous mean-spirited snark. This week's Sunday Mainichi has succinct synopsis on its promotional page of what writers and editors, when behaving badly, will let slip.

(Time sensitive -- so be snappy!)

"Sure, the prime minister is a Idiot #1 when it come reading Chinese characters," the blurb teases, "but there are all kinds of hopeless cases in the Diet, each with his or her own special area of inexpertise."

The Sunday Mainichi winners from among Japan's easily identifiable politicians, and the special categories in which they have conspicuously failed to distinguish themselves?

Democratic Party star Nagatsuma Akira for Public Debating Skills

Former Prime Minister Mori Yoshirō for Judging Where the Political Winds Are Blowing

Rebel Watanabe Yoshimi for Male Hotness

Hellraiser Tanaka Makiko for Fashion Sense

Wandering bird Koike Yuriko for Karaoke Singing

[Warning: above link features an extreme Photoshop disaster - results may injure your eyes and/or -- if you like Koike-san as much as I do -- your heart]

Noda Seiko and Obuchi Yūko (tied) for Knowing Her Limit Regarding Alcohol Consumption

[Ah c'mon guys! So the girls knock back a few...give some consideration to the kind of district each of them represents, will ya?]

Yamamoto Ichita for Blogging.


Mean, mean, mean (and pretty damn sexist) stuff...prominently displayed on every train, subway, kiosk and outlet for printed material, all over the country.

So, you wanna run for a House of Representatives seat?

* I have previously stated that those claiming they check the weeklies for "the real story about what is going on in Japan" are, to put it mildly, insane.

Monday, January 26, 2009

It's Not Nay to Nye

I will believe it when I see it...but this looks, as Okumura Jun enjoys saying, like "a done deal."

Sources: Nye to be named U.S. Japan envoy

TOKYO, Jan. 25 -- Former U.S. Assistant Defense Secretary Joseph Nye has been informally designated as the next U.S. ambassador to Japan, sources say.

Nye, a Harvard University professor, has reportedly said he would accept the post and his assumption of the ambassadorship is expected to be formally decided as early as the end of this month, unnamed sources told Sunday's Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper...
This morning's Yomiuri Shimbun is spinning the putative appointment as evidence that the new U.S. administration considers Japan extremely important (Nihon jūshi). The paper also claims that Nye is "known to be of the faction that knows Japan well" (chinichiha to shite shirareru) -- which is normally code for "a guy who will not expect too much from Japan."

[The "Knows Japan Well" Faction? There are factions of the "Japan Ignorant" somewhere? And what is this business about factions, anyway?]

Verily, the Government of Japan should be on high alert. With Joseph Nye, the nominal co-author of the "Armitage-Nye Report" and the mainstream academic avatar of "soft power," Japan's bureaucrats will be facing an individual and a presence to whom it will be very difficult to say, "What you are asking would be very difficult..." Joseph Nye can get them both coming and going -- pushing on the military contribution side and shoving on the aid, trade and public diplomacy/propaganda side -- and still be true to both his mandate as ambassador and his personal intellectual legacy.

"The Faction of Those Who Know Japan well" has a paradoxical countermeaning, of course. To the elite hands in both Tokyo and Washington, it whispers, "those who want Japan to be a major political player on the world stage."

I sure hope the policy "community" makes all this clear to the citizens. The rules of democracy sort of require it.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Grasping at the Wind

The day of the inauguration in Washington of the new American President, the NHK camera pulled in close to the face of a man on the street in Obama City, Fukui Prefecture.

"Do have anything you wish from the new American President Barack Obama?" asked the interviewer.

"I hope," replied the man in the baseball cap, "That the first thing he does is resolve the abduction problem."

The depth of public fascination with the North Korean abductions issue has always bewildered me. Why should the public should care so much about these few individuals plucked off beaches and streets a generation ago--crimes for which Kim Jong-il apologized -- especially since there are a few hundred other Japanese citizens still held hostage by the DPRK regime, unable to return to their homeland after emigrating in the 1950s in the company of their North Korean spouses? The size of fraction of the public that believes the resolution of the abductees issue supersedes any other issue in negotiations with the DPRK (and seemingly, with the United States) is incomprehensibly high. One would think that nailing the lid on the DPRK's nuclear and missile threats would take precedence-- being that they pose an existential threat to the citizenry.

What could I believe?

- That the Japanese people despise the bureaucracy, particularly the bureaucrats of the Foreign Ministry and the National Police Agency, for their years of casting doubt on the validity of the claims of the families of the abducted?

- That the Japanese people need an enemy, an avatar for raging tempest of irrational fear?

- That in an increasingly childless society, many can be swept up in deep sentimentality about the disappearance of children? (If so where is the outrage over the hundreds of children killed and injured every year, authorities and neighbors all averting their gaze from evidence of abuse? Or for every parent and child separated by this blessed land's child custody laws and practices?)

- That the bombardment of the populace's minds by right wing propagandists had convinced most of the public of the ultimate importance of clinging to a hopeless project of raising the dead? (For the remaining abductees are dead, either that or hideously broken.)

Looking at the report, I could only mumble of paraphrase of Hamlet:

"What is this man on the street in Obama to the abductees, or they to him?"

Perhaps it is that the abduction issue is a surrogate for the pent up mass of frustrations felt by the periphery for the center. The victims and their families were peripheral -- socially, economically, even in terms of geography. Their plight was ignored and even scoffed at by the elites in their enclaves of Tokyo's Chuō, Chiyoda and Minato Wards. For those reeling from the indignities inflicted by the powerful, suave and successful in the name of globalization and rationalization, "Resolution for the families of the abductees!" could be a deeply resonant cri de coeur -- an unanswerable challenge to power from citizens who had believed (wrongly as it turned out) that the Government of Japan would always protect them.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Narrative of Nothingness

Tobias Harris has been looking long and hard at the fight within the Liberal Democratic Party over the commitment to raise the consumption tax starting in 2011. Harris sees screaming and yelling by the neo-Koizumians over even talking about a tax rise during an economic downturn as the prelude to the LDP's Final Battle, the Die Götterdämmerung, the Big Breakup Scene--snapping the LDP in two or more little pieces on policy grounds.

Understandable therefore is his dismay at Nakagawa Hideanao et al's acquiescence to a seemingly limp compromise on the plan to raise the consumption tax. In return for a tamping down of the rebellion, the government will commit itself to building of the legal structure necessary for the implementation of a rise in the consumption tax-- but not the implementation of the rise itself. The decision on whether or not to raise the consumption tax would be determined by the domestic and international economic situation in 2011.

Yes, of course, on the surface, Nakagawa's acceptance of this compromise language is as batty as hell--for who would believe that the government/ruling coalition would go through the time and effort of pulling together the legal structure necessary to raise the consumption tax--engaging the Finance Ministry bureaucracy in an orgy of reimagineering of the nation's fiscal structure -- only to turn around and not raise the consumption tax? If the Establishment builds the machine, nothing stops the powers that be from flipping that machine's switch and turning it on.

However, I believe that Harris worries overmuch about the ability of an LDP-led government to actually accomplish anything either now or in the future. A sworn commitment, even one being given the imprimatur of a Cabinet Decision (kakugi kettei) from this class of clowns is nought but an empty shell. This is "The Gang That Cannot Count to 60," the "We Have To Charge Seniors More For Medical Insurance This Year No Wait There Is An Election Next Year Let Us Delay Implementation Two Years AND Oh Amaterasu We Are Still Not Be Ready Even Then" Crew.

Being led, of course, by His Holiness Francisco of the 19.2%.

Nakagawa Hidenao knows that

1) this compromise has been a just one more humiliating climbdown by Prime Minister Aso Taro, driving the stake deeper and

2) if he stays in the LDP, he gets his Q1 2009 slice of political funds being handed out to the LDP.

Nakagawa and neo-Koizumians with any brains want to soak the party for as much money as they can before they bail out or get kicked out, probably in late April. Accepting the current government's feckless wordplay on a rise in the consumption tax represents a smart, personally profitable and ultimately meaningless concession.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

All the Young Dudes

As per Jesper Koll, in today's The Asian Wall Street Journal:

"The Democrats are also mimicking Mr. Koizumi's message of youth and vigor."

Democratic Party of Japan leader Ozawa Ichirō and DPJ executives give clenched fist pledges to fight all the way to electoral victory at the party's annual convention on January 18, 2009.

Image Courtesy: Reuters

Pants Afire

The editorial page of The Wall Street Journal is on a crusade/jihad (choose your poison) against the fiscal stimulus plans of the Obama economic team. In order to bolster their already disproven arguments against a boost of government borrowing and spending, the editors have drafted to their cause, without of common sense or logic, the dorky string of fiscal stimulus packages passed by successive LDP governments in the 1990s--which spent a lot of money but achieved a lot of nothing because of a zombified banking system.

In this vein it seems the journal is willing to publish anything containing a jab at "pork-barrel spending" -- even if the essay is a pastiche of nonsense.

Time for Change in Japan
The Asian Wall Street Journal

The ruling party's same-old, same-old isn't good enough.

By JESPER KOLL - The United States isn't the only major economy bracing for a change of power. For the first time in more than 50 years, a single opposition party has gathered enough strength and built sufficient credibility to dethrone Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party. And the LDP has only itself to blame for its demise.


It didn't have to be this way. Former leader Junichiro Koizumi, who led the country from 2001 to 2006, showed how to remake the LDP into a modern party. Mr. Koizumi appealed directly to voters for support, rather than party elders or faceless technocrats. Never before had a Japanese political leader put so much trust in his national vision. Voters embraced this empowerment wholeheartedly and rewarded Mr. Koizumi at the polls.

Yet the LDP quickly shunned Mr. Koizumi's legacy. His successors -- Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda and Mr. Aso -- fell back into old-style patterns of appointing ministers according to factional alignments and seniority ranking, rather than on the basis of merit and competence. While countless bills serving specific localities and industries were passed into law over the past few years, not a single law of national significance was achieved. Indeed, the Japanese people are hard pressed to name a single policy or specific policy goal for which any of Mr. Koizumi's successors stood...
Oh really? Not a single law? The first reform of the Basic Law on Education since 1947--not of "national significance"? The directives to NHK to emphasize the abductees issue? The reapplication of the gasoline levy, without a redirection of revenues to the general fund as promised?

Not one law?

Not defensible, Mr. Koll. Your assertion, that is.

Sadly, the above is the good part of the opinion article. The latter paragraphs are a forest of unrepentant untruths:

"Although untested in government, their consistent call for economic reform and change looks very attractive. Their leader, Ichiro Ozawa, has taken a chapter out of Mr. Koizumi's book, calling for a politics that 'places people's lives first.' "

Koizumi Jun'ichirō never said that his goal was for a politics that "places people's lives first." Indeed, his clarion calls were "No sacred cows" and "No reform without pain." So Ozawa is not taking a chapter out of Koizumi's book.

"Mr. Ozawa, in fact, sounds a lot like Mr. Koizumi these days. He understands that Japan needs a total system reboot, and has thus put administrative and bureaucratic reform at the core of his platform."

Having heard both Ozawa's utterances and Koizumi's oratory, I cannot imagine what Koll is talking about here . As for Democratic Party's platform, it is an immense laundry list of programs great and small, all of which cost money and all of which will require careful administration. As for the notion that somewhere inside this immense, ungainly scramble one can find a "core" -- well, frankly no, one cannot.

The Democrats are also mimicking Mr. Koizumi's message of youth and vigor. Almost all DPJ members of parliament are first generation politicians, men and women who left their careers in the bureaucracy or business to bring about political change. By contrast, almost two-thirds of the LDP candidates are second- or third-generation professionals who inherited their constituencies from their fathers or fathers-in-law. The Democrats' self-made men and women are largely free from vested interests built up over past generations.

Where to begin?

"Koizumi's message of youth and vigor"? No, the current Prime Minister Asō Tarō, has a message of youth and vigor. Prime Minister Abe Shinzō had a message of youth and vigor. Koizumi? Not so much youth and vigor as a preference for competence, sacrifice, super hip flippancy, and yes, good looks.

"Almost all DPJ member of parliament are first generation politicians...." Well, yes perhaps. It depends on your definition of the phrase "almost all," doesn't it? The party leadership of the DPJ is just as stacked with legacy holders (Ozawa, Hatoyama, Watanabe) as the LDP.

"The Democrats' self-made men and women are largely free from vested interests built up over past generations" -- really? Former members of the bureaucracy or business are "self-made" and "largely free from vested interests built up over past generations"? For some reason, the assumption seems overoptimistic, nay overenthusiastic. Nay, silly.

And when I say silly, I mean...silly.

The DPJ is also unlikely to adopt the LDP's pork-barrel politics -- not because their instincts are any better than the LDP, but because they simply can't afford to do so. Japan's public debt stands at 180% of GDP. The debt servicing expense eats up more than one-quarter of all current expenditures. The deficit is so large that it automatically restrains politicians from trying to spend their way to popularity.

Can anyone explain how the heck this paragraph keeps from flying to pieces? According to Koll, the DPJ will not adopt pork-barrel politics like the LDP because the national debt keeps politicians from spending their way to popularity. Nevertheless, the Ozawa and the DPJ have promised to do just that, spend at the local and national level beyond anything promised by the LDP.

Furthermore, if

1) the national debt automatically restrains politicians from trying to spend their way to popularity, and
2) LDP politicians are politicians, then
3) the national debt automatically restrains LDP politicians from trying to spend their way to popularity.

Ipso facto. Jijitsu sore jitai ni yotte.

Koll-san, what gives?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Kōmeitō Comes On Board... afwaid, you dastahdwy paiwats! Be vewy, vewy afwaid!

According to reports, a Liberal Democratic Party and New Kōmeitō project team (PT) has come up with a compromise bill authorizing the dispatch of Japan Maritime Self Defense Forces destroyers to waters of the Gulf of Aden and off the northwest coast of Somalia.

Map of the possible area of operations.
Courtesy: Yomiuri Online.

Initial reports guess that the Minister of Defense will authorize the dispatch of two destroyers to participate in anti-piracy patrols and maritime operations.

Of course, with the ostensibly pacifist New Kōmeitō in the driver seat, the satanic majesty is in the details.

The itsy, bitsy details.

The stupid stuff.

According to the legislation, the MSDF vessels will only involve themselves in the protection of

1) ships of Japanese registry
2) ships carrying Japanese nationals, or
3) ships of foreign registry carrying Japanese cargo (Nihon no kamotsu o noseta gaikokusekisen)

It looks as though that last category will be authorizing MSDF participation in pretty much any anti-piracy operation undertaken in the area, New Kōmeitō fretting about the potential for violent encounters notwithstanding. Whenever an incident seems imminent or has taken place in the area of operations, there will definitely be a ship with "Japan cargo" on it "in need of protection."

Of course, this whole business has nothing to do with protecting either 1) or 2) or 3).

It is about

A) Embarrassing the Democratic Party of Japan, which has steadfastly opposed the dispatch of MSDF ships to the Indian Ocean as a part of Operation Enduring Freedom. The government and the ruling coalition are daring the DPJ to stand with its allies the Socialists and the Communists in voting down the new legislation in the House of Councillors, allowing the ruling coalition to save the dispatch through an override vote in the House of Representatives, and

B) Keeping up with the Lis. With the Chinese already on station and the South Koreans getting ready to set sail, the Maritime Self Defense Forces are afraid of becoming the laughingstocks of East Asia.

But you know, by sending men into danger as a part of a double-barreled game of oneupsmanship, the nobility of the ruling coalition's anti-piracy project seems somehow...diminished.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Socialism to Egalitarianism: Drop Dead

Fun times in the Diet today as the government got the chance to defend the second supplementary budget bill in House of Councillors Committee. Francisco got to put on his best, vein-popping "No, you're wrong. It WILL have an effect!" defense of the two trillion yen handout that is almost, but not quite, as unpopular as the Cabinet decision promising a rise in the consumption tax within three years.

I must say, I do a double take when hearing both Fukushima Mizuho of the Socialist Party and Kokuta Keiji of the Communists denouncing an egalitarian handout of cash to the citizens. Fukushima indeed called the plan to give every Hiroshi and Hanako an equal amount of cash "the Stupid Stunt of the Century" (seiki no gusaku).

Welcome, my fellow travelers, to the 21st century's more discriminating socialism.

Of Municipal Mergers and Clientalism

Well, well, this looks like a rather promising addition to the broader arguments against a "silent majority" just waiting to gallop to the LDP's rescue in the next House of Representatives election.

ABSTRACT - Although local political elites constitute the cornerstones of national party organizations, the existing literature has not fully investigated their role in affecting national election outcomes. In this paper, we examine it by using the recent case of municipal government mergers in Japan. Specifically, we argue that the political party relying most extensively on local politicians’ efforts for electoral mobilization and monitoring will suffer an electoral slump, as municipalities are merged and the number of municipal politicians is swiftly reduced. Empirically, we show that municipalities with a history of recent mergers exhibit significantly lower voter turnout and obtain a smaller vote share for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in national elections when compared to other municipalities without recent experience of mergers. This result indicates that municipal politicians are indeed indispensable human resources for LDP candidates running for the national parliament.
The key point is that lowered turnout, which in the 1990s was seen as a strategic positive for the LDP (because, ostensibly, the lower the turnout, the greater the impact of the LDP's local political machine), is now seen as symptomatic of LDP decay in the merged municipalities.

Many thanks to the Social Science of Japan Forum (SSJ Forum) for hosting the discussion that led to the posting of this paper on the Web.

The DPRK: Let's Get Real

True to form, the government of the Democratic People's Republic has tooted on its trumpet in an attempt to sully the inauguration of the Obama Administration in Washington. Through the offices of Selig Harrison they have delivered the entirely plausible but empty threat of having "weaponized" their stash of plutonium. As usual, the adolescents in charge of the Wall Street Journal 's editorial page have delivered one of their urgent pleas for extremism in the defense of liberty -- because nothing cries, "Success!" like the recent efforts of Nakayama Kyoko.

Oh, go to hell, all of you.

To unreality there is only one response: silence.

No meetings, no declarations, no trade, no oil shipments, no track two contacts, no third party interventions, no more Selig Harrison in Pyongyang. Nothing.

Just a simple reiteration of the obvious.

Unites States of America: "Any chemical, biological or nuclear weapon attack upon an ally of the United States will be considered an attack upon the United States. Our response will be visited upon on any attacker using such weapons and any supplier, equally and without mercy. In the event of imperfect information, we will attack upon those possibly responsible, without rational limit."

The Republic of Korea: "What the big kahuna said."

Japan: "What the big kahuna said and gosh-golly, is this the point at which we must now have nuclear weapons? Sigh..."

When, in a few months' time agents of North Korea, in secret or through their Chinese allies, slink up to representatives of the United States, the R.O.K. or Japan, saying, "Actually, we did not weaponize. It was the Propaganda Section – they always are trying to milk the cow on more time…" the response should be, "You are dealing with the Chinese now. Give them your plutonium for safe keeping, then contact us."

Will the DPRK then try something incredibly reckless and stupid in order to try to force the U.S. back to the negotiating table, like launch a missile sans warhead impacting on the main island of Japan?

Of course it will.

The key will be to build in an automatic but graduated Chinese response to such provocations. It is the Chinese government, and no one else, who has its hand upon the DPRK regime's jugular. China has heretofore permitted its unruly stepchild to heighten tensions in the regions. Given the interdependence of the economies and governments of East Asia, this behavior is no longer acceptable. When the DPRK lashes out on a level below the nuclear response threshold set by the United States, it is the Chinese who must retaliate.

The Chinese Communist Party Central Committee most probably understands this point. The hard part, the "putting the bell on the cat" moment, comes in getting the People's Liberation Army to understand this concept. Still wrapped up in its own runaway messianic 20th century anti-colonialist project – the invasion Taiwan and the forcible reintegration of the island into China -- the PLA is purblind to its primary goal: the defense of the motherland and the protection of the citizens. The greatest threats to the stability and security of the region are the policies of the DPRK, yet the PLA chooses to emphasize the role Chinese Army "volunteers" played in the salvation of the DPRK and what has become the Kim Dynasty.

The task for Japanese, ROK and U.S policy makers is to get the PLA to comprehend the existential threat posed by the DPRK nuclear program. This task has been made significantly easier by the DPRK's claim of a nuclear weapons capability.

Pyongyang has made a terrible tactical and strategic error. It has crossed the PLA's redline. The immediate and urgent task is to get the PLA to acknowledge this.

Time for that call to Cao Gang Chuan.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Viva La Revolucion!

Sure, he needs a beret...but let us be honest, that hair should never be hidden.

The unexpected Matsunami Kenta walkout and resignation made my day. Good to know that somebody else in the younger cohort has some vim.

Just think of the run for the exits we might have in the spring, after corporations have reported their annual results for the fiscal year ending March 31. Oooh, run from the acrid scent of failure, my pretties, run!

Let the 2009 political circus commence!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Estimating the magnitude of the LDP defeat

Last night, a former member of the Defense Agency asked me when the next election will take place—the usual dinnertime game.

Following my usual awkward hemming and hawing (complete with a long stare at the ceiling) I offered up, "In May? After the budget and ancillary legislation have been passed?"

"I think the ruling coalition will wait until the very last second, in September," he said, smiling.

I must admit, a rational analysis would tend to favor such a conclusion--that the ruling coalition will hold out until the bitter end. The leaders, such as they may be, of the Liberal Democratic Party have little else to pin their hopes upon than world events turning in the ruling coalition's favor. Either that or the Democratic Party of Japan running out of money over the next nine months.

Neither of which is going to happen, of course—but politics is nine-tenths dreaming with your eyes open.

Nevertheless, I will stick with my prediction of May—on the premise that after the Budget and its enabling legislation are passed, the government will gurgle, turn belly up and die.

Prime Minister Asō Tarō’s administration is moribund. The Cabinet and LDP support levels, as measured in the public opinion polls, hover somewhere in between "execrable" and "risible." The government terrifies no one: not even the national broadcaster NHK feels compelled to give the Cabinet and the LDP a break.

What's more, the LDP has broken apart. Yes, only Watanabe Yoshimi has formally voted against the government and vowed to leave the party. However, the Cabinet nowadays cannot announce a single decision without a sizable number of the ruling party members denouncing the policy or the thinking behind it, usually in interviews held only seconds after the government press conference has ended. Former LDP Secretary-General Nakagawa Hidenao runs what is essentially a cancer in the LDP body politic—a mini-party with ideals and goals both contrary and inimical to the main body of the party. Other groups and individuals are heading off in their own directions—whether it be regionalism, hyper-patriotism, abject stupidity (an option in every political system blessed with a vibrant television industry), Barackism (He's so cool, he looks so good—he must know what he is doing. So let's do whatever he does!) or growth-spurt era nostalgia-mongering.

To those who might argue that the LDP has survived great internal conflicts in the past, making the current fractiousness just one episode in a long train of upheavals, I would caution with this observation: the LDP has alienated all of its friends. During the party's past periods of factional and ideological turf wars Diet members could hack away at each other, secure in the knowledge that the local level LDP political machine would back up their national representatives, whatever had been going on at higher elevations.

Unfortunately, in its desperate shifts of emphasis and loyalties since its 1994 alliance with the Socialists, the party has managed to alienate itself from all of its former significant support groups. Its coalition with the Sōka Gakkai New Kōmeitō cut local party ties to the mainstream Lotus Sect groups (the Reiyūkai, the Rissho Kōseikai)--the party's source of cheap election workers. Trade liberalization weakened the ties with farmers. The privatization of the Post Office cut party ties with the hereditary post office managers while the Koizumi assault on the parasitic privileges of the rural areas detonated the rural district-LDP mutuality. Abe Shinzō's readmittance of the postal rebels and attempted coverup of the size of the pension number mess detonated Koizumi Jun'ichiro's carefully constructed image of the prime minister as the tribune of the people. Economic fumbling, past and present, has undermined the image of the party as the ally of business, big or small.

Who is left? Who now stands with the party? The fantabulist right—but their allegiance is to their "true conservative" champions and their myths about Meiji, not with any sort of plan for governing modern Japan. The new Kōmeitō—but as the two trillion yen giveaway crisis has demonstrated, the "Clean Government Party" is a problem, not a solution.

Since 1992 the LDP has been a tiger with its tail on fire, running at full speed to avoid being consumed by the flames.

It has run itself to exhaustion.

My guess is 130 seats in the House of Representatives. At best.

Erratum Demonstratum

Various and sundry Japan bloggers will be coming together on the evening of January 17th to eat, drink, be merry but mostly argue politics. More than a few of the blogs have claimed that I will be in attendance at this event.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely I will be participating in the festivities. I have a previous commitment to go hear Oshitani Saki's one woman show at Shinjuku SACT that evening.

Enjoy, those who do partake.

Friday, January 09, 2009

He's the Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of the United States of A-ME-RI-CA!

Should I Believe...what Katō Yōichi tells me?

Joseph Nye to be next U.S. envoy to Japan
The Asahi Shimbun

KATO YOICHI - WASHINGTON--Joseph S. Nye, a Harvard professor who has authored several influential reports on Japan-U.S. relations, is tipped to be the next ambassador to Japan, sources said Wednesday.

President-elect Barack Obama has also selected his nominees for several other key government positions related to Japan in the White House, State Department and Defense Department, sources added.

Analysts said work on picking an ambassador to Japan before Obama's inauguration on Jan. 20 indicates the importance that he places on ties with Japan.

Sources said Nye, 71, has already been offered the ambassador's post and that he was leaning toward accepting it.
Of course I should.

Katō's The Man, the insider's insider. The one with his ear to the ground. The Oracle. The author last year of the immense article that introduced Obama's Asia advisors to an information-famished Japan.

And yet...I am not feeling entirely confident about this pre-announcement. Nye is a big thinker guy, a policy guru, one who paints with a wide brush. He does not talk just about Japan, or even just about East Asia. Accepting the post of Ambassador to Japan would be a straightjacket, putting him in the position of rephrasing, rewording..."localizing", if you will, harsh policy pronouncements originating in Washington.

Can a big ideas man perform such a job, comfortably and effectively?

The simultaneous leakage of the nomination of Kurt Campbell as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs causes me to further furrow my brow. While it is true Campbell was a staunch Hillary Clinton loyalist during the primary campaign and that the incoming Secretary of State should be expected to have an opportunity to reward her own people with significant positions of influence, the presence of Campbell and Nye on the same ticket sounds too much like the nomination of "The Team Brought to You by CSIS" at a time when Brookings and other institutions are supposedly in the vanguard.

Okumura Jun, as is his wont, has a far more knowledgeable and punchy take on the whisperings of the Anonymice.

Later - Tobias Harris, as one might expect, provides, free of charge (Be grateful people!) the full analysis of the purported appointments.

Even Later - The boys over at Transpacific Radio make it a Joseph Nye house party!

C'mon, this is Getting Ridiculous - Well, whadaya know. According to Okumura Jun, I and the Yomiuri Shimbun share suspicions* regarding the Nye rumor.

* Unfortunately, a clear Sign of the Apocalypse.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Laughter's End

Looking over the shoulders of the other passengers on the airplane, I studied the bold headlines of the sports newspapers with deepening sadness.

What an infernal waste.

Former DPJ lawmaker Nagata kills self
The Yomiuri Shimbun

KITAKYUSHU--Hisayasu Nagata, a former Democratic Party of Japan member of the House of Representatives, committed suicide Saturday in Kitakyushu, police said.

According to the police, Nagata, 39, was found lying on the ground in a parking lot of an 11-story condominium by a resident at about 6:25 p.m.

A suicide note was discovered on a stairway between the 10th and 11th floors of the condominium and the police suspect that Nagata, who resigned from the Diet in 2006, killed himself by jumping from the building...
Japan's politics is in desperate need of clowns--of outrageous, droll morons whose tomfoolery makes the entire nation laugh.

Former Ministry of Finance bureaucrat Nagata Hisayasu was one of these blessed creatures, an irrepressible man-child the Democratic Party of Japan specially assigned to yaji (heckler) duties. In a January 2006 Diet Committee session, he became so bored at a Socialist member's speech that he tore the official printout in front of him into a square, then transformed the result into an origami crane - all in plain view of the Diet cameras.

Nagata's ultimate gesture of pyrotechnical wizardry was the immolation of Maehara Seiji's leadership of the Democratic Party of Japan. Nagata had received, from a journalist friend, a potential political bombshell: an email from Horie Takafumi, the then president of Livedoor, proposing to bribe Takebe Tsutomu, the then Secretary-General of the Liberal Democratic Party, through a bank transfer to Takebe's second son. The obvious ridiculousness of the culprits collaborating to leave a record of their crime -- of sending a bribe via bank transfer -- did not impede Nagata's recklessly reading out the clearly bogus email in Diet session. Maehara Seiji's revisiting the email in his Budget Committee question-and-answer period a few days later, when the email's authenticity was openly doubted even in Democratic Party circles, counts as one of the most staggering feats of lower extremity marksmanship in Japanese political history.

Nagata's death is the third suicide in the last three years to stiffle the laughter surrounding a classic Diet clown. Last year in January the son of the buffoonish Nishimura Shingo leaped to his death from the high floors of a Diet residence. Two years ago, Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Matsuoka Toshikatsu, the "some kind of special water device" accounting fraud laugh factory hanged himself in his own Diet room.

Former Minister of Finance Ibuki Bunmei is still cranking out the stunners--but his way-off-message improvisations always carry an acrid taste.

We need to laugh, not cry, in these times.

We need our clowns to dust themselves off, bow grandiosely and carry on, absurdly.

And such political and social magnanimity as to make it possible for them to do so.