Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Humble Proposal Regarding a Possible Clarification of the DPJ's Views on Constitutionalism

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

If the leaders of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) feel misunderstood by the outside world, it is not because they are paranoid. The longstanding direct ties between analysts of Japan and what was, for this last decade, the only game in town, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) means there is distinct lack of an infrastructure of understanding. Tapping into the inner workings of the DPJ mind was until recently the interest only of an esoteric priesthood.

Unfortunately, part of the injuries to DPJ's global image are self-inflicted. The DPJ's leaders had little interest it seems in packaging the party message for the international marketplace. Since the party leaders were focused on winning elections at home, their lack of caring about the international image of the party is comprehensible. Had the party leadership cared about presenting the DPJ as being an alternative to the LDP, rather than the party in the default, take-it-or-leave-it position of being the alternative to the LDP, then the DPJ would certainly have produced a less ungainly and wooden translation of its manifesto.

The first problem with the translation is in the presentation. The English language manifesto is a barren, barely formatted PDF image document, its content uncopyable and unsearchable. The the Japanese version of the DPJ manifesto, is not just a jazzier pdf document, it can be navigated and searched. The use of formatting, bold and different size type also provides a visual architecture for the DPJ's policy statements.

The second problem is the translation itself. To be sure, the translation is not wrong in an ordinary sense. It supplies the numbers, the nouns and the basic concepts without major formal errors. However, the vocabulary and syntax in the translation gives little hint of the verve of the Japanese manifesto, where the language is at once wonderfully succinct and slyly supple.

Take, for example, the DPJ's statement on constitutionalism. For someone wanting to have an overall sense of the DPJ's philosophy of government, finding out what the party's attitude is toward the Constitution of Japan would be pretty important .

Unfortunately, this is not an easy task. First you have to find the statement - all alone on the last page of the official translation, as if it were some kind of postscript.

Then you have to wade through it. I have posted a jpeg image of the statement below. Please click on the image to see an expanded version. Come back when you have finished.

As a translation, the text is not unintelligible. But even when concentrating, is the average reader likely to discern what issues the DPJ is trying to address?

Probably not.

This is blasphemous -- because the original text is

1) a stubborn commitment to a literal interpretation of the Constitution - in defiance of past practices - and

2) a pledge to amend the Constitution should the people find that the current written text no longer acceptable - a promise the DPJ's predecessor never, ever managed to deliver upon even once.

Below is my first attempt at an unwinding of the Edwardian syntax and anachronisms of the official version so that the ideas and issues dear to the DPJ come into greater focus. There is also a conscious attempt to jolt some life into the text even at the cost of completeness...

Toward a Free and Freewheeling People's Debate over the Constitution

"That which those who are sovereign have determined shall play the fundamental role in the limitation of the exercise of state power" -- that is what a constitution is, in modern constitutional thought. It is not a set of moral precepts or duties that the people must fulfill -- nor is it a type of society or certain set of traditions or values that a particular Cabinet may consider important. The Democratic Party of Japan believes that the people support the principles of the Constitution of Japan as written -- namely, "popular sovereignty" "defense of fundamental human rights" and "pacifism"-- and that they do so with conviction. While taking great pains to uphold the Constitution, the DPJ feels nonetheless that it has a responsibility to offer amendments to the sections that are insufficient and revisions for those sections that are in need of revision. It shall do so from the point of view of working "together with the people" and with a sincere commitment to the theory of what a constitution is.

In the autumn of 2005, the DPJ released its "Proposals for the Constitution." Based upon this document, the party hopes to have free and freewheeling debate on the Constitution of Japan with the citizens in a variety of venues. We will continue to actively examine particular sections of the Constitution where a majority of citizens desire a revision -- and where a broad consensus for a revision could be achieved without friction in the Diet.

I have taken a few liberties with the sentence structure and vocabulary. I invite suggestions for improvement.

Nevertheless, I think that the above text does a better job in clarifying the DPJ's commitment to a doctrine of literalism, where the words in the Constitution are potent and mean what an average person of sound mind would understand them to mean.

A radical departure from past practice, in other words.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Japan's Subsidy Culture on Trial

For the past week the citizens of Japan have been the stunned witnesses of an unfamiliar phenomenon: a new regime addressing the excesses of its predecessor. In clockwork proceedings of subdued brutality, the grimly-named Government Revitalization Unit (GRU) has been reviewing the budgetary support of 447 programs, a fraction of the thicket of government supported programs that had proliferated over the fifty-four year rule of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). For those watching the live webcasts or the excerpts broadcast on nightly television, the proceedings have been the first solid evidence that the government is serious about bringing change to Japan. For the participants, particularly members of the elite central government bureaucracy, the proceedings have demonstrated their diminished horizons under Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

The GRU proceedings are decidedly humble-looking affairs. The sessions are being held in a commandeered Tokyo gymnasium, with the three GRU working groups separated by temporary partitions. The commissioners and those summoned to testify sit on simple chairs at folding tables set up in an O arrangement, while the press and observers sit in ranks of chairs set up alongside. Should anyone wish to talk, he or she has to pick up an old style handheld microphone from the table.

Each GRU session is an hour long. It is half venture capital investment conference, half Stalinist show trial. Bureaucrats in charge of a government budget allocation or executives from non-profits explain as fast as they can what a program is doing and why it deserves continued funding. Experts from the Finance Ministry offer their assessments of the history of the government's support of the program. GRU commissioners then pepper the program's defenders with questions -- what progress the program has made toward its stated goals, which the private sector competitors fulfill the same function – anything to pick apart the funding request. The program's defenders quietly plead for understanding and more time; the commissioners cut them off. Just before the hour ends, the commissioners vote and the session chair announces its decision.

The GRU judgments so far have been stunning in their consistent negativity. Of the 244 budget requests reviewed during the first five days, 243 have been rejected. "Reapply with a new proposal," "No budget increases," "Reduce budget request," "Cease activity" have been the responses. Just one program has received the GRU's stamp of approval: a Health, Welfare and Labour Ministry fund supporting theater productions in the nation's after-school activity centers.

The GRU sessions have given the citizens a sense of the immense scale of the activities the government of Japan has been funding. The GRU's ludicrously large task of examining 447 programs – a task it is halfway to completing – represents only a fraction of the 3000 programs and funds now receiving central government support. Thanks to the 243 negative assessments, some 1.4 trillion yen (about $15 billion U.S. dollars) will be returning to the Finance Ministry for redistribution in the regular budget.

While the sessions have resulted in the elimination of funding for possibly valuable science programs (the lost funding for the national supercomputer program looks more and more likely to be restored) they have for the most part demonstrated to the public what the public had long suspected: that an immense amount of their tax yen was going to waste on frivolous or hopeless projects.

The sessions have also exposed just how poorly the nation's bureaucrats perform when they are asked to explain themselves. The defense of the funding requests has been at times lackadaisical, at other times obtuse. Some of the defenders have even made the mistake of questioning the commissioners' right to run the sessions as they see fit – a stunning display of petulance for persons who are essentially begging for mercy.

The poor quality of the defense has been particularly surprising given the direct threat the decisions pose to many current and former bureaucrats. Sitting bureaucrats of the Finance Ministry have been willing collaborators with the GRU commissioners as the Ministry has an institutionalized loathing of these funds and subsidies. For the officials of other ministries, the reduction of the budget allocations under a ministry's purview threatens that ministry's prestige and power. The non-profit organizations and institutions that have been the primary recipients of these ministry-administered funding are furthermore the major suppliers of amakudari ("descent from heaven") positions – sinecures for bureaucrats whose services are no longer needed by their ministry. Eliminating the government funding effectively eliminates the sinecures: without subsidy, non-profits do not have the means of paying the retired bureaucrats. Loss of subsidy also kills their motivation: the main reason why non-profits would hire retired bureaucrats was because the retirees could attract the funding.

Given that the judgments of the GRU pose threats to livelihoods and lifetime earnings, the lack of intensity and sincerity in defense has been striking. Some of those testifying have even laughed along with the commissioners at the ridiculousness of the programs they have been sent to explain. For the public watching the proceedings over the Web and in nightly news excerpts, this indifference has been the most galling revelation: that not even those with a potential to personally profit from these allocations think them fully defensible.

The big winner in the process so far has been the DPJ. The party promised the voters in August that a DPJ victory would bring radical change. Through the GRU sessions, the DPJ seems to be delivering it. Whether it is the change the country needs is another question: cutting back on current government spending programs is an unorthodox way of addressing the problems of a deflation-wracked economy performing far below its productive potential. Nevertheless, the GRU proceedings have reinforced the DPJ's image as the party that cares about how tax revenues get spent. For a citizenry exhausted by the weight of decades of iniquitous government spending, the sight of members of the bureaucracy and their dependents squirming is satisfaction enough.

Image: The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices. Shinjuku, Tokyo Metropolitan District. November 1, 2008. Image credit: MTC

Friday, November 20, 2009

Koke no Musu Made*

The lucid and ferocious R. Taggart Murphy has published a pair of fine articles on the Japan-U.S. relationship and the current fiscal and currency situation that dispell a lot of the doom and gloom currently being peddled on these subjects.

I do not disagree with most of the points Murphy raises in his essays. Nevertheless, I find it hard to reconcile the one essay's view with the other. I cannot fully share Murphy's optimism:

Of course Japan faces formidable problems, but the world has been underestimating the place for 150 years now and really shows no sign of learning from this history. Yes, many of Japan's savings have been wasted, yes, the birth strike by Japanese women is both understandable and worrisome, yes, we're in for some rough years particularly for an economy that has long relied on exports as its primary engine of growth. Those exports are unlikely to recover any time soon. But the levels of human capital here and the immense creativity of the population are still enviable. To be sure, the country has been poorly served by its leaders, but perhaps even that is changing.

The world does indeed underestimate the human capital and immense creativity to be found in the least corner of this blessed land...and yes, the political situation has grown more responsive and less cynical.

At the same time, the United States has been the consumer of last resort for Japan's products, whether as direct exports, as components assembled in other Asian countries or as Japanese machine tools and equipment for assembly and production lines set up in other Asian economies. The collapse in the buying power of the U.S. consumer brought on by the U.S. housing crisis and economic slump poses a fundamental conundrum to Japan's economic planners. To date, they have not been up to providing a solution. The growing Chinese market is not a perfect substitute for the damaged American one. Having been hit hard by the global economic crisis and forced to undergo structural change right in the midst of it, Japan may have suffered one blow too many.

From what I see from the windows as wander the backcountry byways, I find myself asking whether or not the damage to the finances and collective psyche have been too great. Everywhere I see the signs of a gathering stasis -- the grass growing over collapsed houses; the commercial zones all shuttered on a Sunday afternoons; the silent factories, their corrugated metal walls peeling; great age of those working in the vegetable patches and rice paddies; the silent playgrounds...and I find myself all at once hearing the plaintive first few bars of U2's "Running to Stand Still" as the background track to the emptying landscape.

In part this is a natural progression for a country such as Japan.

However, even in the great cities the edges are less sharp. The trains seem to drift imperceptably off their schedules; the cracks and wrinkles appear more pronounced. Even as we are witnessing the flowering of a new revolutionary order, the thrill of August fades. There is a growing quiet outside, with local administration and social life growing more and more desperate, and an increasing doubt that the rescue mission has come in time.

* "Koke no musu made" is the final verse of the national anthem. Translated, it means "Until the moss covers it."

Image: Grimacing jizo statue. Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture. September 3, 2006. Image credit: MTC.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

In the Play's Defense

And on the fourth day, they found something they liked.

Since November 11, the three working groups of the ominously named Government Revitalization Unit have been doling out brutal summary judgments on government-supported programs.

Review program.
Freeze planned increase.

Yesterday, for the first time, one of the working groups came to a heretofore unheard of conclusion regarding the program it was examining:

Approved, as budgeted.

The winner of this first reprieve from the budgetary scythe?

The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labour's financial support of theater productions in the nation's child recreation centers (jidōkan).

The decision stunned Iki Noriko, the ministry official summoned to defend the program before the Unit. She stumbled away from the working group meeting area, her head bowed down toward the floor. As the camera crews and clots of journalists swarmed about her, she tried to apologize for her singular success:

"This is not what we expected..."

Image: Child kabuki production. Karasuyama, Tochigi Prefecture. July 25, 2009. Photo credit: MTC.

Of Crimes and Punishments

A first for this backwater of marginal effluvia: a former commenter makes a well-deserved appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

May Yakuyoke Amida Nyorai protect you and yours, Mr. Adelstein.

Later - Japan Probe provides the video clip.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Praxis and Taxes

Whilst on a visit to a local tax office today, I spied on the wall something I did not know existed -- but in retrospect, had to exist. In this blessed land, where my morning paper has a poetry section in it, I should not have been surprised that the Tax Office sponsors haiku contests for middle school students, recognizing the poems by adolescents that best sing the praises of taxes.

Would you like to hear some of the prize winners?

Watashitachi no
mirai no tame ni

For the futures
of all of us
the consumption tax

Shōhizei wa
shakai o tsunagu

The consumption tax
tying together society
a treasure

Zeikin o
minna de osamete

let us pay them together
build the nation

Propaganda does not get much more precious than this...

...a bit of light-hearted counterpoint as 447 government-supported programs are being dragged out, one by one, to face Hatoyama's Stalinist-sounding Government Revitalization Unit* (Gyosei Sasshin Kaigi) in order to plead for continued support from out of the people's taxes.

Image: Prize-winning haiku in praise of taxes. Tokyo Metropolitan District. November 13, 2009. Image credit: MTC.

* This is the translation The Japan Times is using.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

This Land, This Earth, These Words Unspoken

"Hatoyama-san. I am sorry. I come without a fixed plan to reduce America's carbon emissions, thus abdicating my country's natural role as the leader in the fight against anthropogenic climate change, the greatest threat facing us all. I have no plan to free our countries from petroleum dependency, thus guaranteeing that we will continue to bankroll the petroleum tyrannies which have grown in number over the last decade, swallowing up once-promising elected democracies.

I come asking for your help in regards Iran and Afghanistan whilst saying in nothing in public about America's role in the creation of the problems posed by these states. I will not openly recognize the unfairness of pressing allies to help out in reining in Iran when it was the CIA that overthrew the elected government of Iran, installing a puppet monarch -- or in pacifying Afghanistan, when it was the U.S. that armed and arranged for the training of the anti-Soviet forces that were to transmogrify into Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

I am not going to apologize, of course, for my country's having seemingly learned nothing from Japan's real estate/equity markets bubble. I certainly will not apologize for Americans having harangued the Japanese government for failing to to prevent the Bubble or for not responding with proper speed and sufficient scale to stop an overall economic collapse. I will also not pay tribute to the Japanese policy makers who managed to keep unemployment in Japan low during the worst parts of the so-called Lost Decade when I and my team have allowed unemployment to soar past 10% in just one year.

I am also sorry that I will be making oblique, negative references to your proposition that Japan needs to relocate its central foreign policy axis to a point in between China and the United States without ever mentioning the shadow cast on U.S.-China relations by the immense store of U.S. Treasuries and other dollar assets China has piled up over the last six years, effectively bankrolling America's wars, tax cuts and fiscal profligacy.

As a Pacific islander, I should express a greater sympathy for the burdens placed by both your government and mine on the people of Okinawa. I will not say anything, however, that could annoy my military commanders or interfere with their schedules. "

"Dear Obama-san. I too am sorry.

I came into power without actually having thought through what my goals are. I do have a long list of things-to-do in my party's manifesto, much of which I have a real chance of enacting due to the immense parliamentary majority I enjoy. However, if you ask me what the five main goals are for my tenure, I would respond with a quintet of platitudes.

My country has a crashing birth rate, is deeply in debt and faces a rapidly growing army of retirees. I have no idea how to respond to these worsening problems. Enacting the policies listed my party's manifesto will likely exacerbate my country's already staggering fiscal crisis.

I will promise you all kinds of international economic contributions in lieu of sending Japanese into harm's way. There is no realistic means, however, for me to finance all of my pledges to you and keep my promises to my voters. You do not need to guess who it is I will shortchange.

As the father myself and in honor of your two young daughters, I should pledge that Japan will do its utmost to join with the international community in wiping out the twin scourges of child pornography and child abduction. I will offer vague promises of action, maybe.

You have come so far and I have nothing of substance to give you. I wish that I could tell you that will be around for a long time, so you can rely on me to make up later for having nothing for you now. However, I hired an idiot as the accountant for my political funding organization, who then engaged in activities that I have, in Diet session, said look criminal to me. Given Japanese law I am likely to lose my premiership and might even be forced to give up my Diet seat."

"We should apologize to both our peoples for pretending that there is much of anything we can do about the threat posed by North Korea except engaging in humiliating and pointless on-off negotiations, continuously refining missile defense and maintaining the threat of a nuclear attack on North Korea, should the least thing happen to Japan."

"We should. But we won't, will we?"

"No, because saying so would expose the inconsistency between our stated faith in dialogue, our wishes for a world free of nuclear weapons and our peoples' desires for closure -- and the dogged presence in North Korea of a dirt-poor regime insensitive to anything but the threat of ultimate annihilation."

"But surely the people of our countries can understand the necessity of being inconsistent?"

"Yours probably can but not mine."

Image: Kohauchiwa kaede (Acer sieboldianum) and kuromatsu (Pinus thunbergii) on Mutsuishiyama, Okutama Township, Tokyo Metropolitan District. November 3, 2007. Image credit: MTC.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ozawa Ichiro's Trashing of Christianity

Oh my! According to Kyodo News:

Ozawa lashes out with scathing remarks on Christianity
The Japan Times

Ichiro Ozawa, secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan criticized Christianity on Tuesday, saying the religion is "exclusive and self-righteous" and that Western society is "stuck in a dead end."

Ozawa also said "Islamism is also exclusive, although it's somewhat better than Christianity" regarding exclusiveness.
The comments will no doubt cause a stir as he is the most influential figure in the ruling party.

He made the comments to reporters after meeting with Yukei Matsunaga, chairman of the Japan Buddhist Federation, a body of 102 Buddhist sects and groups, in Koyacho, Wakayama Prefecture.

Christianity "is an exclusive, self-righteous religion. Western society, whose background is Christianity, has been stuck in a dead end," Ozawa said.
Where to begin? Not with "Islamism" for sure, whatever that might be.

I doubt that Ozawa is expressing anything resembling his views of Christianity. Ozawa's nonsense jawing is about votes -- lots of them -- and a personal vendetta.

Yesterday Ozawa was paying his first visit ever to Koyasan. His host was Koyasan's lead abbot and thus the symbolic head of the Shingon tradition in Japan. In addition, the gentleman in question is the chairman of the Japan Buddhist Federation (Zen Nihon Bukkyokai).

How likely is it that Ozawa, having arranged this unprecendented meeting, would not try to butter up his host with a passel of pro-Buddhist rigamarole?

For the more political psychology minded, Koyasan is located in Wakayama District #3 - the electoral district of Nikai Toshihiro, once Ozawa's most trusted lieutenant. Nikai parted ways with Ozawa and rejoined the Liberal Democratic Party after Ozawa forced the break up the LDP-Liberal-New Komeito coalition in 2000.

Nikai is the only remaining LDP House of Representatives member from Wakayama. He won reelection with the open support of the New Komeito -- a very interesting choice on Nikai's part. Acceptance of New Komeito support means a willingness to be seen as being beholden to the apostate lay Buddhist Soka Gakkai -- the public enemy #1 of most mainstream Buddhist sects.

From Ozawa's point of view, a short jaunt to Koyasan offers the opportunity to lure Shingon tradition voters disappointed with Nikai to the pull the lever for the DPJ in the 2010 House of Councillors election. Both of the current members of the House of Councillors for Wakayama are from the LDP and the DPJ would certainly love to walk away with one of those seats next July.

Of course, these political considerations were the furthest thing from Ozawa's mind yesterday. As he told gathered reporters, "I did not come here in an elections effort. I paid reverence and now my heart is cleansed."

Duplicity -- is it in his very nature or did he learn it from past masters?

Now as for whether or not Ozawa's remarks on Christianity were "scathing" might depend a lot on what he actually said - and what one believes "scathing" means.

Ozawa referred to both Christianity and Islam as being haitateki ( 排他的 ) meaning "rejectionist of other beliefs" -- which Kyodo News has rendered as "exclusive" -- as opposed to Buddhism, which he posits as exhibiting a greater inclusiveness.

Is this, in fact, wrong? Also, is it such a peculiar thought to express, coming out of a meeting with the chairman of an organization linking 102 different different Buddhist congregations?

As for Ozawa's accusation of Christianity's being dokuzenteki ( 独善的 ) I am not confident that it has same resonances as "self-righteous." In literal terms, dokuzenteki means "the sense that one's own way alone is good." Is "good" the same as "right" in this instance?

Now as for the "dead-end" quote, the Asahi Shimbun quotes Ozawa as saying:

This Kyodo translates as saying, "Western society, whose background is Christianity, has been stuck in a dead end."

When I translate all of what Ozawa said, however, including the vital sugata sono mono da ending, I find Ozawa delivering a somewhat different message:

"As for the civilization that has as its background this exclusionist religion of Christianity, right now its manifestation is this Euro-American society that is hitting a wall."
Ozawa is still being dismissive of Christian civilization but on the grounds that its (purported) triumphalism is not backed up by proofs of its excellence.

Now as to the question whether Euro-American society is a manifestation of Christian civilization - that is beyond the boundaries of my bailiwick.

I would have to chalk up the somewhat overwrought article as an attempt drum up international interest in the never-out-of-style "Ozawa is evil" line when the real story -- Ozawa Ichiro will say anything when pandering in the hopes of winning votes -- is not news at all.


Note on sourcing: I do not normally quote articles at length out of respect for copyright. The Japan Times, however, scrubs its archives so quickly one cannot follow normal linking protocols to material presented on their site.

Image: Head of the Amida Nyorai statue in the Kotokuin, Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture. November 8, 2009. Photo credit: MTC.

Friday, November 06, 2009

On President Obama's Untimely Tokyo Junket

When President Barack Obama visits Japan on November 12-13, he will be accompanied by a brigade of assistants with many years of experience dealing with Japanese officials, academics, business executives and journalists. The president will likely review briefing papers that explain with clarity and without bias Japan’s current political and economic situation. He may even skim through a book or two, seeking further insight into a frustrating and fascinating ally.

All of which will likely leave President Obama still unable to answer a simple question: just what exactly is he supposed to do while he is in Japan?

He could, of course, try to just sleepwalk through the visit, restricing himself to a self-limited and self-limiting series of mannered gestures:

- pay tribute to the Japan-U.S. security alliance

- thank Japan for its civilian contributions to global peace and security

- promote Japan's and America's common vision for trade and economic development in the Asia-Pacific region.

Facts on the ground, however, are inconvenient things, and not supportive of a business-as-usual approach. The new, Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)-led government has serious reservations about many agreements underpinning the Japan-U.S. security alliance, including the long-standing agreement to close the Futenma Marine Air Station. Japan's contributions to global peace and security, while substantial, have been shrinking, with the world's second largest economy and longtime #1 official development assistance (ODA) donor now only fifth in the world in terms of the aid it gives other countries. As for a common vision, Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio has pursued multilateral trade initiatives and international economic frameworks that exclude the United States (at least for now) whilst leaving hanging in the air some rather flowery rhetoric about Japan needing to distance itself from the United States.

Departing from the script and confronting the new reality in Japan would be the preferable course for President Obama to follow. Doing so would require Mr. Obama would need to know what the new reality is – and what status, if any, he holds within it.

The answers to those questions are not likely please U.S. government ears.

He is a distraction – Mr. Obama arrives in Japan as the DPJ-led government enters its second month in existence and just days after the opening of the first non-Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-dominated House of Representatives session in over a half-century. There is too much in flux everywhere – in the Diet, in the ministries, in the prefectures, in the parties – for anyone to put aside what he or she is doing to play host to a VIP. All of the different parts of Japan's systems of governance are renegotiating their positions and responsibilities vis-à-vis one another. In this charged and uncertain atmosphere, the arrival of even such a historical, important and charismatic figure as President Obama becomes an unwelcome complication. This is especially true for the official host of the visit, Prime Minister Hatoyama, who is trying to bring up to speed an untested and revolutionary form of government whilst keeping the political freelancing of his allies Ozawa Ichiro and Kamei Shizuka to a minimum, all the while avoiding being drummed from office by whatever accounting shenanigans prosecutors and the LDP might find in his political fundraising records.

This is nothing, however, compared to...

A deal is not necessarily a deal – Prior even to the fraught visit of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Japan, when the differences in the views between the governments of Japan and the U.S. on the validity of certain agreements became manifest, U.S. government officials were promoting the concept that bilateral agreements signed prior to the August 30 elections were commitments between national governments and thus not open to renegotiation.

This assertion betrays an ignorance, willful or innocent, of Japan's political history, and a contempt for the Japanese people's judgment. From 1955, the year the LDP was founded, until the August 30th election, the LDP had held a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives Except for a brief 10 month period in 1993-94, when a fragile anti-LDP coalition government held sway, the LDP was the party of government over that time. So institutionalized was the LDP's hold on power that Japan was described as being ruled by "the 1955 system." And it was a system, with the LDP in charge of everything from the Cabinet, to the prefectural governments, to the neighborhood assemblies of the tiniest mountain hamlets.

All ruling parties have natural advantages over challengers. By virtue of their control of government they control budgets and regulations. They also control the political agenda, thereby putting the initiatives of their supporters front and center.

What was miraculous about LDP was its ability to persevere despite overwhelming evidence of its failure to properly manage the country or even itself. No embarrassment -- the exposure of massive, corruption permeating the party; the twenty-year long collapse and stagnation of Japan's economy; a series of uninspiring, short-term leaders (including, it its final, desperate years, a trio of prime ministers who failed to complete even a year in office) – could topple its from its perch.

The cause of LDP's magical invincibility was not all that mysterious: the Japanese electoral system was crippled. The Constitution of Japan lacked a mechanism for reapportionment of electoral districts. Japan's Supreme Court lacked the intestinal fortitude to create robust alternative mechanisms on its own, or to enforce fairness in political campaigns. Thus as an 80% rural agrarian society transformed itself into an 80% urban society the number of Representatives from rural constituencies remained fixed and peculiar 1950s era electoral rules metastasized (every election is followed by the arrest of dozens of candidates and election workers for what in most countries are normal political activities) to the advantage of incumbents.

Under the frozen system, elections increasingly became vote auctions, where small numbers of super-empowered marginal voters were bought off with regulatory protection, budget outlays and government contracts. The LDP thrived by exploiting and encouraging the proliferation of structural iniquities, shamelessly and openly, for decades.

Even after some basic electoral reforms were enacted in the early 1990s, the LDP kept its grip on power, though it had to employ increasingly opportunistic methods in order to do so. First it formed a chimeric coalition government with its arch-enemies, the Socialists. Then it selected a president (the long-serving Koizumi Jun'ichiro ) whose main campaign pledge was a promise to smash his own party. The LDP hung on though the last three years and three prime ministers in the most pathetic manner of all: by refusing to call an election.

Now in international law there is the concept of "odious debt" – of national debts incurred by an oppressive regime that a successor regime has the right to refuse to pay. It is a rarely invoked concept – international bankers, not surprisingly, do not think highly of it – but it rests upon a sound principle: that the people, once the yoke of an oppressor has been thrown off, should not be forced to make good on debts incurred by the oppressive regime.

Given the decades the LDP clung to power and the manner by which it managed to do so, it is not difficult to understand that many in the present coalition government consider a whole host of the Japanese government's obligations to be "odious" ones – obligations that they should be allowed to examine to ascertain whether or not they really are in the national interest, and if they determine that they are not, should be able to repudiate.

The agreement to transfer Marine Corps elements from the Futenma Airbase to Henoko is seen, along with the Yamba Dam project, to be the ultimate expression of an odious obligation. It was an LDP solution to an LDP problem: keep American bases off the main islands (even though the amphibious ready unit, the ships the Marines are supposed to ride on, are homeported in Sasebo and the Marine fighter jets are housed at Iwakuni); keep the Okinawans down and quiet; and keep visiting Americans alternately enchanted and frustrated by disingenuous reports of progress toward the goal, which somehow had to along the way destroy vital dugong habitat. As the Prime Minister and others in the DPJ point out, not even 12 years of LDP governments could bring the Futenma transfer to fruition. That he and his party should be condemned for not imposing an arrangement they oppose on a population that does not want it baffles them. That the United States government continues to insist that they do so exasperates them.

So what is President Obama going to do? Does he simulate understanding for the new government's positions, and in so doing infuriate American defense planners who want Japan to get moving on Futenma and doing more in Afghanistan? Does he lecture from the mountaintop, telling the Japanese he meets what is in their best interest, as if they cannot figure it out themselves? Does he look thoughtful and say nothing, even as the press is yelping, and wish silently he were already in China?

A tricky little trip, this will be.