Saturday, August 31, 2013

A Minor Contrarian Note On The Abductees Obsession

No postings in a time of turmoil and change -- bad, bad, bad. Excuses few have I save the lassitude of the final week of a long, hot August.

I have, however, been thinking about Japan's policy moves as regards the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Japanese government mewling about the fate of those abducted by the DPRK in the 1970s and 80s is probably one of the most frustrating and annoying diplomatic shows on Earth, at least among those put on by the diplomatic corps of the advanced industrialized countries. Japan's representatives performed a lacrimosa on behalf of the abductees and their families yet again this week -- with the twist being that this time it was to an international panel responsible for actually listening to the stories. (Link and Link)

Japan's official obsession with the abductees, rather than generating sympathy, likely has turned opinion against Japan on the issue. The world's diplomats and employees of international organizations must dread Japanese presentations, as morose tales and demands for resolution of the abductees issue clog the agendas and fritter away precious time at every international gathering.

Then again, being annoying might be the whole point of the exercise. Given the way the DPRK regimes operates, which is to give crumbs in returns for huge sums of money, and the price the North Koreans will demand from Japan for any further moves on the abductees issue, given that Japan stiffed the North Koreans in 2004 by both keeping its citizens and their loved ones and halting all moves toward normalization, the next round of action, which will be a last one since freedom of travel for Yokota Megumi's daughter Kim Eun Gyong is the only card the North Koreans have left, will likely come at a price which will give the rest of the world, particularly Japan's ally the United States -- which has just hit another wall as regards to one of its own citizens held in the DPRK (Link) -- serious heartburn.

At which point having annoyed the rest of the world to tears over the abductees will reveal itself as a brilliant strategy rather than an obtuse surrender to trivial domestic political pressures. The rest of the world might gag at Japan's paying off the indefensible DPRK regime in return for what will seem truly risible humanitarian gestures. However, if whatever Pyongyang coughs up gets the Japanese government to shut up once and for all about the abductee issue, the sighs of relief in diplomatic circles will be embarrassingly audible.

Nota bene - Normally I would not link to Karajan. But for a performance featuring Price, Pavarotti and Ghiurov, I will make an exception.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What Is In Fact An ICBM

Update @13:52 - National broadcaster NHK is reporting that the Epsilon launch has been scrubbed for today.

There is always tomorrow--or even later. After the huge media buildup of the past week over the launch, however, today's cancellation represents a huge embarrassment for the space agency.

The official press release on the non-event can be found here.

Update @13:48 - The clock has run down to zero but the Epsilon rocket is still sitting on the pad. No explanation for what is going on, since what was supposed to happen has not happened. The rocket sits, immobile and silent.


In a few minutes' time, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will be attempting to launch the first of its new Epsilon rockets. JAXA will be using this Epsilon launch to boost a 350 kg SPRINT-A ultraviolet band observatory (Link) in to Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

The Epsilon-1 is a new generation of low-cost, high frequency launch vehicles capable of carrying 1200kg satellite into space, or a 700 kg satellite if a liquid-fueled propulsion unit is required for final orbital positioning (Link). The new rocket is designed to make Japan a niche player in the international commercial launch vehicles market. Japan's current heavy lifting offerings are simply too expensive to be competitive with other launch vehicles built in lower-cost countries and launched from sites closer to the Earth's equator.

Or at least that is the narrative that the mainstream, "let's go Team Japan" media has been feeding us.

The problem with this narrative? There is likely no market, not even a niche market, for the Epsilon's services.

Here is the table from the June 2013 report of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation on the market for satellite launches through the year 2022:

Click on image to open in a larger window

See that last line in the Launches table? For NGSO Small, i.e. Non-Geosynchronous Orbit Small, launches? The projections are for 2 launches in 2013, one in 2016 and then a big line of fat line of zero launches until the end of the time frame.

Three launches over 10 years.

What makes this doubly sad is that this projection is less than half of the number of small-scale launches estimated only last year.

While the FAA is projecting the lofting of dozens of satellites of less than 1,200 kilograms over the next few years, all of these can be accommodated as add-ons to satellite launches for larger satellites. What would be left for the current programs (Japan, Europe and China, for now) in the NGSO-Small class is the tiny, if it even exists, market for time-sensitive launches. (Link - see page 73)

The only real role for the Epsilon and its competitors in the commercial sphere is the role of space ambulance -- an emergencies-only vehicle, sitting in its assembly building most of the time, waiting for the call to launch within hours of receiving a precious payload.

OK. Let us cut the crap, shall we?

The Epsilon is a solid fueled rocket. It can sit on the ground, ready to launch basically on command -- no need for time-consuming gassing up.

The Epsilon's payload is too small for commercial satellites, even in LEO and definitely nothing of any size for GSO.

The Epsilon has one active competitor in the European Space Agency's Vega rocket. It will soon have a Chinese competitor. The South Koreans and America's SpaceX group are also in the running.

For a market that is too small to support even a single program.

So you tell me what the heck I should think the Epsilon is, really.

At best, it is an enormous waste of time, money and talent -- a make work project keeping Japan's space engineers from leaving the archipelago.

At worst, it is a signal.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Problem With Yasukuni - From A Company Man

All the brave soldiers
That cannot get older
Been asking after you.

- Stephen Stills, "Daylight Again/Find The Cost of Freedom" (1982)
I have been thinking for the past week about the controversies that rage over Yasukuni, of how the inclusion of the 14 Class A war criminals taints the place, or as Shigeru Shino of Katsushika City, Tokyo Metropolitan District wryly remarked in a senryu published in the Tokyo Shimbun of August 17:

Eiyu to
“A”yu ga sumu
Hitotsu no yane

The Spirits of Heroes (eiyu) and
the spirits of Class A war criminals (eiyu) dwell
under a single roof
Through the blunt pun the poet offers the conventional criticism toward paying one's respects at Yasukuni -- that while it is right to pay respect to those who heroically made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, the simultaneous presence of the kami of the Class A war criminals muddles the message, making a Yasukuni visit a protest against the judgment of the International Military Tribunal of the Far East (a.k.a, "the Tokyo Trials"), the acceptance of which is demanded in the 1952 San Francisco peace treaty. Politicians, by their visits are issuing an implicit challenge to the underpinning to the postwar order and/or are revealing a wish to revive elements of the pre-1945 order.

The surreptitious enshrinement of the 14 Class A war criminals in 1978 is not what is wrong with Yasukuni, though. The Unforgivable Fourteen are a side show -- a profitable, cynical and self-perpetuating sideshow. The governments and civil society of China and South Korea -- and to a lesser extent counterparts in the United States -- work themselves into self-righteous, indignant lather over Japanese politicians directly or indirectly paying respect to the Unforgivable Fourteen. This festival of outrage in its flaming hypocrisy (the governments of all three countries having been involved in the killing millions, mostly civilians, in the period since 1945) in turns empowers self-righteous Japanese right wing, which harrumphs, not without reason, about Japan's innocuousness in security affairs over the last six decades.

Each side, after a florid show of umbrage, marches back to cheers and applause from their benighted and shallowly patriotic supporters.

"No!" I have wanted to say, "What is REALLY WRONG WITH YASUKUNI IS..."

...and had to stop for over a week now, since my visit to the shrine on the 15th.

One of the seductions of writing about policies and politics is a pretension of esoteric knowledge -- of becoming so confident about a country's culture and quirks as to presume to know what the real story is, or worse, what the story should be.

I confess I am not always successful at avoiding the pitfall of prescription. I do offer advice -- mostly of the trivial kind, such as suggesting to Finance Minister Aso Taro it is time to stop dyeing his hair black.

Jumping up and down as to what is really wrong with Yasukuni, beyond the 14 Class war criminals, seemed beyond the pale -- or at least beyond this pale's bailiwick.

However, on Saturday (August 24) my local newspaper published a letter to the editor (in a special box, so as to attract the eye) by a reader who shared the main elements of my disquiet, one who took issue with the whole concept of heroes being enshrined at Yasukuni:
[Dear Editor]

Last year my grandfather passed away. He served in the war as a merchant marine sailor. The story is that the ship that my grandfather was on was attacked by Americans and sunk. My grandfather, in the confusion inside the ship, grabbed ahold of a door. By holding tight to the floating door, he survived to be picked up by another merchant marine vessel, thereby escaping the fate of losing his life in the battle zone.

Many times did my grandfather say to me, "Had I died then, your father, and of course you, Tetsu, would never had been born." However, never did anything like "Ah, to fight for one's country is a glorious thing!" come to his lips.

Those wishing to legitimize Yasukuni or the Great War always talk about "heroes (eiyu) who died fighting for their country" or some such thing. But to make it sound like a Hollywood movie where alien life forms were coming to our land to unilaterally to attack us -- this is mistaken. Those whose lives were sacrificed in that war were sacrificed for the idiotic lusts and policy failures of the military leaders and the politicians, and the capitalists who insinuated themselves into their company.

In the first place, as was written in the Sanmen no kakushin article "Thinking about visiting Yasukuni" (Yasukuni sanpai o kangaeru) published in this newspaper on the 14th [of August], how much value should we be assigning Yasukuni? The shrine was built to honor the battle dead of imperial forces, those who died in the Meiji Restoration and other conflicts of the time, using Japan's tradition of imperial rule to political ends.*

If there are those who wish to believe that the spirits of their ancestors, who, unlike my grandfather, did indeed die on the battlefield, are honored at this shrine, fine -- I have no problem with that. However, the statement "They died fighting for their country" -- that I want revised. At the very least, it was not for these chest-thumpers in the present day who say "the honored dead (eiyu) are the pride of Japanese people and the State (kokka)" that those who sacrificed their bodies and lost their lives on the field of battle did what they did.

Kameda Tetsu
Age: 35
Occupation: company employee
Matsudo City, Chiba Prefecture

Thank you Mr. Kameda.

At some point I will have to write about the kind of persons I saw at Yasukuni on the 15th. Someday also I should examine the Prime Minister's assertion in Diet session in April this year that visits to Yasukuni by Japan's leaders should not be framed as excusing the pre-1945 order because visits to Arlington National Cemetery, where Confederate soldiers are buried, does not result in U.S. presidents being accused of honoring slavery. (Link - J)

But that will be for another day.

As for that purported rightward shift in public attitudes, it seems as though the wave has not swallowed up quite everybody just yet...


* The implication being that far from being a place for honoring those who fought for the protection of Japan, Yasukuni was at its origins a shrine tasked with the placation of the spirits of those who lost their lives in domestic political violence.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Politics And Society In Comic Verse - Special Taro Aso Edition

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Aso Taro's recent peculiar musings on the Nazi takeover of Weimar Germany earned him international scorn.

Aso-sensei also has a taut face topped with a mop of improbably black (he will be 73 years old on September 20) hair severely parted to one side (see above).

The combination got one Takasaki Yusaku of Atsugi City, Kanagawa Prefecture to compose a 17 syllable poem:

Hige kakeba
kao mo nite kuru

If you draw in the mustache
There is a resemblance in the face as well
Deputy Prime Minister

The editors of Tokyo Shimbun, which published Mr. Takasaki's poem on the paper's editorial page on August 17, decided that of the 10 poems it published that day, this one was the most in need of a visual prompt.

So the cartoonist Uno produced the below drawing, with the microphone head in just the right, or perhaps ultra-right, position:

Dear Aso-sensei, after this, it might be the time for you to do the switchover to the full Shirasu Jiro look (I agree. It is hard to believe that the one on the left is your grandfather, when Shirasu on the right seems the closer match). You have the money and personal style to make it work. Besides, you can babble convincingly about wanting to be as close to your grandfather as Shirasu was (like in this photo of the two of them on the plane bound for the San Francisco peace conference) while remaining a conservative icon, which Shirasu is.

Later - As for how it was that the internationalized Shirasu -- who opted out of serving the wartime government by taking up farming, returning to public service at the invitation of Yoshida Shigeru as a member of the Liaison Office facilitating the Occupation -- could become a conservative poster boy, see this Japan Times article.

For the zenith of Shirasumania, see this poster of a Takarazuka production of his life. And look, Shirasu is wearing Aso's hat. And yes, the individual in the uniform is supposed to be General Douglas MacArthur.

Beyond this be wonkery - Is there a specific use of "to write" (kaku - 書く) that applies for the penciling in of mustaches? I would have thought that "to draw, to paint" (kaku - 描く) would be correct character here.

This post has been edited to compensate for link rot - MTC

Photo image courtesy: Bloomberg News

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Worth My Time - Readings For August 21

-- Over at the semi-revived NPR Japan Forum, Dr. Alessio Patalano on the opportunistic braying about the purportedly inappropriate choice of "Izumo" as the name for the Japan Maritime Self Defense Forces latest and largest destroyer:
For the record, in the JMSDF (like in the IJN) names are chosen based on the Kantei meimei kijun (Fleet's naming principles). According to this regulations, destroyer, cruisers, and - a century ago - battleships, were named after natural phenomena, mountains, or ancient regions. The 'wind' class of ships, the 'rain' class of ships, as much as Hyuga, Ise, and other recent ships - all follow this regulations.

The IJN, had originally named the cruiser 'Izumo' after the ancient name of part of today's Shimane province (Izumo no Kuni).

So why the JMSDF decided to name the new destroyer after the original cruiser Izumo?

The reason is not related to the ship's serving as the flagship of the 3rd fleet that served in China - by then, the ship was mostly a training vessel and was recalled into service as a command ship because whilst antiquated for the day, its main armament and accommodations were good enough for the role it had to play in command and naval gunfire support operations.

Let me make this clear, no military organisation would ever name its next flagship after a ship that was famous for 'naval gunfire support operation' - whether that operation was conducted against Brest, Copenhagen, Shanghai, Kagoshima, Genoa, or wherever else. Professional military organisations think in terms of what the ship is likely to mean to the crew and to the organisation, and making the argument that the JMSDF would allow to have the new flagship named Izumo because of the Second Sino-Japanese war is either devious, or based on a complete lack of knowledge of how professional militaries work. Or a combination of both.

In fact, the reason for the JMSDF to choose this name is related to the more important facts that the cruiser Izumo was the flagship of the 2nd fleet during the Russo-Japanese war under Admiral Kimamura's command - serving admirably in all the war's major operations; and also the flagship of the 'Mediterranean Squadron' that provided convoy escorts in the Med during WWI. In between these two conflicts, the Izumo served also on a number of international diplomatic missions. The cruiser Izumo was scrapped in 1947, which made it also one of the longest serving ships in the IJN.

Ship names are selected after long discussions within the JMSDF and the Maritime Staff Office. Very senior retired officers contribute to this debate too. I had the opportunity to follow the naming process of two major vessels recently, including Hyuga, and there is little in the Japanese process that is different from any other navy with an important past...

Furthermore, while the MSDF does reuse names, it rewrites them so as to clarify that the new names are not to be strictly identified as revivals of the pre-1945 names. The ship christened this summer is the いずも, with the name written in katakana hiragana. The older Izumo was the 出雲, with the name in Chinese characters.

Details, details...but piddling they are not.

- Earlier this year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe publicly promised the aging former residents of Japan's Northern Territories and their descendants that he will exert every effort to win back all four of the Kurile Islands and island groupings currently under Russian administration. All or nothing.

The possibility that he may be willing to stiff the former residents and greenlight a plan to divide of the islands, in return for a Russo-Japanese peace accord, is intriguing:
The one difference this time around is Tokyo's determination to get a deal done and normalize relations with Russia. Abe's summit in Russia last winter should not be viewed as mere window-dressing. In fact, the visit marked the first time a Japanese leader had made an official state visit to Russia since former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Putin met for three days in 2003. Abe has motivation to get a deal done with Russia and his government has been sending feelers out on a compromise deal. Shotaro Yachi, one of Abe's personal confidants and a special advisor to the Cabinet, recently teased out the idea broached by Putin last year of hikiwake – or a "comprise" [sic] on the territorial row. Yachi noted in an interview before the recent Upper House elections that, "Japan needs to go into the negotiations with a strong determination to settle this issue once and for all while Putin remains president. If Putin broaches the idea of a hikiwake, we shouldn't reject the idea outright. We should explore the possibilities of a hikiwake in a form that would be acceptable to Japan."

This is a considerable shift in thinking for Japan and Yachi indicated that there needs to be recognition that a deal may result in political blowback: "No solution is going to win unanimous popular support in either Japan or Russia. An acceptable compromise would be one that a majority in both countries can support. But that will entail a larger agreement embracing cooperation in areas like energy and the environment. Hopefully, people will see it as a win for both sides once all of those elements are taken into account. The key is putting together an agreement that doesn’t give one side a clear victory over the other."

Of course, if a Democratic Party of Japan government or its top diplomatic advisors had ever mooted the possibility of a strategic, sacrificial, half-a-loaf solution to the continuing dispute over the North Territories/Southern Kuriles, The Yomiuri Shimbun, the Sankei Shimbun, their respective media groups' radio and television networks and the guys in the sound trucks would all be screaming, "Treason!"

How nice it is to be Abe Shinzo.

-- And in the eternal "MTC, you are simply wrong" category, I very much look forward to reading Alaistair Iain Johnston's "How New and Assertive is China's New Assertiveness?" (Link) -- to find out how much of my concern about Chinese adventurism is the result of my ignorance abetted by media outlets hyping unrelated and possibly innocent events.

Tip of the hat for the link to Amy King and Shiro Armstrong at the East Asia Forum.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Cry If I Want To

You would cry too if it happened to you.

- Gluck, Gold and Weiner, "It's My Party" (1962)
It is a great time to be a political opposition entrepreneur in Japan. The official opposition parties, aside from the Communists, are busily killing themselves off.

First the Democratic Party of Japan turns on its founders for the crime of demonstrating that their successors lack principle, communication skills or party building nous (Link). Then the founder and chief lieutenant of Your Party go at each other, resulting in the firing of the lieutenant as the executive charged with maintaining discipline and unity (Link). On Sunday, former Socialist Party leader and Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi declared the currently headless (Fukushima Mizuho resigned as Social Democratic Party leader after the July 21 election but the remaining SDP MPs have failed to choose a successor) party "without a way forward." He advised a merger of anti-LDP forces in a new party. (Link - J)

Feeling left out from the circular firing squad jamboree, the Japan Restoration Party (Nippon Ishin no Kai) -- whose co-leader Ishihara Shintaro had an intimate dinner with Prime Minister Abe Shinzo on Saturday at the PM's villa in Yamanashi -- seemingly yesterday set out to divide the party into pro-Ishihara and anti-Ishihara splinters.

Or at least, that is what logic would tell a person of average intelligence.

In terms of party leadership, JRP co-leader and Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru has been a man of two hats. He is co-leader of the national party, which only has Diet members as full members. He has also remained the leader of the Osaka Restoration Party (Osaka Ishin no kai), the regional party whose members are prefectural and municipal elected officials of the Kansai region.

Yesterday at the JRP convention came the announcement that up to 16 Osaka-area JRP members of the Diet have been invited to re-register themselves as members of the ORP. If all 16 indeed re-register, the ORP would become a force in the national debate. It would be able to introduce its ideas, particularly regarding devolution of power from Tokyo, direct elections of prime ministers and the merger of the prefectures into larger and fewer units of regional governance. The ORP would also become eligible for public funding -- an important issue for a party whose private funding is likely to diminish steeply as the old dominating, big tent Liberal Democratic Party has reassembled itself. (Link - J)

What was and is weird is the response from JRP Secretary-General and Osaka Prefecture Governor Matsui Ichiro to this development. Knowing full well that a Diet member cannot be a member of two parties at once, at least not two parties competing for public funding, Matsui told the assembled, "The (Diet members) are boon companions who have come to this point together. It is desirable to receive their inclusion in the Osaka Restoration Party. The JRP does not have a whiff of schism in it." (Link - J)


Matsui-san, I can understand you are in denial about the rapid diminution of your national status whether you stay an acolyte of Hashimoto or seek your fortune with Ishihara as he plays footsies with the securely Abe-led LDP. Nevertheless a lack of emotional preparation does not preclude you from acknowledging reality.

To be fair, Matsui has probably been feeling out of the loop ever since Sakaiya Ta'ichi, Hashimoto's chief advisor on administrative restructuring, accepted absorption into the Abe advisory team (Link). Prior to the Sakaiya appointment, Matsui had probably convinced himself that come what may, the Abe Cabinet would be approaching him (Matsui) rather than the more problematic Hashimoto at deal-cutting time.

As for the grander picture, one cannot escape the impression that the unstable opposition parties are at the event horizon of the grand black hole of the renewed LDP. Not a few members of the opposition, such as former Sunrise (Tachiagare Nippon - literally, Get Up, Japan!) Party chief Hiranuma Takeo, whom Koizumi Jun'ichiro expelled from the LDP in 2005, would love nothing more than to march, head held high, into LDP without conditions. Others in the JRP, the Your Party and the DPJ are ideologically and temperamentally indistinguishable from LDP members. Why retain the artificial boundaries in between the Diet members, save out of a pathetic, anachronistic respect for the will of voters as expressed oh, when was it? Oh, yes, last month.

With undoing of the bonds knitting the opposition party members, a fair number of Diet members are likely to be sucked into the black hole. The rest are likely flung out into the cold, their hopes and parties identities shattered.

Last month, a few days after the election, I was asked an Economist Conference event about the possible re-emergence of a 1.5 party system, this after the seeming failure of the 15 year-long experiment in an emerging 2 party system. My response was typically pedantic, long-winded and contrarian. The gist, though, was that a 1.5 system would be a pipe dream for the current opposition. What we have to talk about after 21 July 2013 is a 1.0 party system, with no appreciable opposition at all.

Would I be far wrong in dropping the qualifier "appreciable" from my late July assessment?

Original image courtesy: Yomiuri Shimbun

Monday, August 19, 2013

And Everything Under The Sun

All that you eat
And everyone you meet...

- Roger Waters, "Eclipse" (1973)
Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has been on vacation since his appearance at the commemorative events on the August 9 anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. He purportedly most definitely needed a vacation after seven frenetic months where he visited 12 (?) foreign countries, took one day off per month and led a leave-no-stone-unturned effort to win the July 21 House of Councillors election.

The PM's dedication to rest and recuperation has been only nominal. Looking at his schedule, it would scarcely count as a vacation.

Mr. Abe has had some days when the only items on his schedule have been a round of golf and a dinner at an eatery close by his second home in the Fuji Lakes area. However, he has all been away from the villa almost as much as in it. He had a two day trip to Yamaguchi Prefecture for grave visits and political support network meetings on August 12 -13 where he tucked in sympathy calls at locales damaged by recent torrential rains (since these were in his and right hand man and fellow Choshu Mafia member Kawamura Takeo's districts, the pair had good local support reasons for the special sympathy tour). He had his public duties in Tokyo on August 15, which included a cabinet meeting, receiving the chairman of the U.S. Senate's Foreign Affairs Committee, laying a wreath on the tomb of the unknowns at Chidorigafuchi, co-presiding with the Emperor at the official end-of-war service and an hour-long visit to the salon to get his hair done.

No, I am not making that last one up.

Even when he has restricted himself to eating and playing golf, he has been power lunching, power dining and power putting.

On Saturday, for example, the PM played golf with former Nippon Keidanren chairman and the current chairman and CEO of Canon Mitarai Fujio and former Nippon Keidanren vice chairman and JX Holdings advisor Watari Fumiaki -- an activity which lasted from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon. For dinner, the PM went to the Hotel Mount Fuji for a meal with Japan Restoration Party co-chairman Ishihara Shintaro and Environment Minister and I. Shintaro’s second oldest child Ishihara Nobuteru. After a spell Hieda Hisashi, the CEO of the right-leaning Fuji Television Network and the PM’s wife Akie joined the group.

The day before, on Friday, the PM and Akie played a round of golf with Komori Shigetaka, the CEO of the Fuji Film group and Mrs. Komori from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. (when did they eat lunch?). Dinner was at the not hideously expensive but not shabby either Oshino Yashima with Watari Fumiaki and Special Advisor the Prime Minister Hasegawa Ei’ichi (Link - J). Akie-sama again was the hostess.

The day before that (Thursday) the PM played golf (sense a pattern here?) with former Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro (one would think that after the Ehime Maru Incident former PM Mori would have learned to stay away from the golf course...but obviously no), Minister of Economics, Trade and Industry Motegi Toshimitsu, Ishihara Nobuteru and Yasukuni cash envelope delivery man and member of the House of Representatives Hagiuda Ko'ichi. Their play began before 7 am and lasted until 2 pm. In the late afternoon the PM was the host of a barbecue at the villa where the main guests were Komori Shigetaka and Hieda Hisashi.

For the record, Hagiuda seems to have been well rewarded for the task of being the PM's envoy to Yasukuni on the morning of the 15th. He not only scored a round of golf with his betters on the 16th but had dinner on the night of the 15th at the villa with the PM, Mori, Ishihara, Motegi and Sasakawa Yohei, the chairman of the Nippon Foundation. (Link - J)

On the 14th, after a morning at an exercise fair in Yokohama the PM was at his home in Tokyo. However, in the evening, after a paying his respects at the wake for a relative of his personal secretary, he had dinner at the Hotel New Otani with Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide, former Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Nakagawa Hidenao (a.k.a., Big Nakagawa, a.k.a. Nakagawa the Sane) and Shida Tsutomu, the supreme advisor and former chairman and CEO of the Shidax food and entertainment conglomerate.

This is relaxing?

There are days in the schedule since this holiday began where the PM's schedule has listed only "played golf with friends" and "ate dinner with friends." For the most part, though, the PM's daily activities seem to have been organized around lining up key allies and advocates among the movers and shakers in Big Business, the Cabinet, free marketers (Nakagawa), the LDP, former bureaucrats and even the opposition before the fall extraordinary session of the Diet. Huge decisions loom as regards the constitution and education reform, revisions to Japan’s security policies, the Trans Pacific Partnership, greentlighting the 3% rise in the consumption tax and the heretofore unannounced parts of the Third Arrow of Abenomics -- and Abe seems to spending his purported rest period smoothing whatever edges he can prior to the session's start.

Even the deeply personal trips, like the one to Yamaguchi to pay respects at his father's grave -- a seasonal and filial duty he neglected in 2007 in the chaos after the defeat in the House of Councillors election, a botched selection of a new Cabinet and ill-timed official trips abroad -- provided an opening for political box checking. The family grave in Nagato was not the only pilgrimage site. The PM also traveled a few kilometres further up the coast to Hagi to pay his respects at the grave site of martyr to the Restoration movement Yoshida Shoin (Link - J -- for those less mobile than the PM, Yoshida has another grave marker in Setagaya -- Link - J). As "a son of Choshu" a visit to Yoshida's school and grave marker represents an understandable nod to historical geography and hometown sensitivities (the PM, while nominally from Nagato, is really from Tokyo).

An aside...but Yoshida worship seems to have, in recent years, been in something of an eclipse. Other figures from the age have enjoyed greater study and exposure. Perhaps the PM is trying to jump start a Yoshida boom. Whether or not the Yoshida boom ensues, visiting the gravesite of the spiritual father of the Meiji Restoration does the PM no harm in the more nationalist patriot segments of the electorate.

How do I know what the PM has been doing in so much detail? I read it in the newspaper, of course. To get the PM's schedule of where he went, who he met and where he ate (if not exactly what he ate) just copy 首相動静 into the search window of the Japanese news aggregator you like best. If you are language challenged but willing to wait for a while, Asia Policy Point has been doing the yeoman's duty of translating Abe's published schedule into English (Link - J). The APP translations are a great complement to the pretty decent job the Prime Minister's Residence is doing keeping the public abreast of highlights in the PM's day (Link), some of which are downright bizarre (taking part in this art exhibition, for example). The PM and his staff fill in further information via the famous/infamous postings to his Facebook page.

There are so many windows allowing us to peer into the PM's life. T'is a thing of wonder he still so enjoys throwing the occasional stone.

Top image courtesy: MTC
Original image by Storm Thorgerson

Photo courtesy: Mainichi Shimbun

Friday, August 16, 2013

Readings On Abe Shinzo As Standard Bearer

Essential reading for a sense of Abe Version 2.0, what drives the folks behind him and the road to the end of the postwar era:

Linda Sieg
"Special Report: The deeper agenda behind 'Abenomics'" (Link)

Yuka Hayashi
Wall Street Journal
"In Quest for Japan's Revival, Abe Secures His Own Comeback" (Link)

Isabel Reynolds
"Abe Threatens Ministries With Power Shift Rivaling MacArthur" (Link)

The Japan Times
"Mr. Abe’s constitutional runaround" (Link)

The Economist
"Fishing Trips" (Link)

The Japan Times' editorial, for all its vim, actually understates the deviance of Abe's choice of an outsider to lead the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, Japan's de facto constitutional court. How many of Abe's predecessors have similarly chosen an outsider to lead the CLB? Zero, none.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Live Blogging The Yasukuni Visit Shuffle

12:55 - If the current level of Cabinet visitation of Yasukuni holds -- with only the Terrible Trio paying their respects in person and the Prime Minister sending an envoy -- then the "Japan is turning rightward" argument really does not hold up.

By staying away from Yasukuni when he was but a few hundred meters away, Abe Shinzo has lobbed the ball into the Chinese leadership's side of the court. Plainly and without shouting, he has declared, "There, I have foregone my favorite ceremonial act and my electoral base's litmus test to reach out to you. What, if anything are you going to do for me?"


12:10 - The Prime Minister and the Emperor have delivered their speeches at the official war's end ceremony at the Nihon Budokan. Neither man's speech, in a cursory listen, had anything surprising or new in it.

For the record, the PM, in addition to the official noontime ceremony, did lay a wreath at around 11:30 a.m. on the altar to the unknown war dead at Chidorigafuchi. (Link)

11:55 - Minister for Administrative Reform and a few other things Inada Tomomi has basically confirmed that she will visit Yasukuni later today. After this morning's cabinet meeting she told reporters, "I believe it is accepted that the citizens of a sovereign nation have the right to show their gratitude, respect and condolences for those who have given up their lives for country."

If Inada does go, three of the four most radical members of the Cabinet (Education Minister Shimomura Hakubun is on an official overseas trip), the three I have dubbed the Terrible Trio, will all have paid their respects on this the most sensitive day.

(Note that by saying, "those have given up their lives for their country" (jibun no kuni no tame ni inochi o sasageta katagata, she includes those who were executed or died after being imprisonned for doing what they thought was right.)

10:10 - Hagiuda Ko'ichi, member of the House of Representatives (Tokyo District #24), the Special Advisor to the Party President (a rarely filled Liberal Democratic Party advisory position) and rugby enthusiast (he is 180cm tall and weighs 93 kg) has visited Yasukuni as Prime Minister Abe Shinzo's representative. He paid for an offering (tamagushiryo) in the PM's name, supposedly with money that the PM gave him, and signed the register "Abe Shinzo, President of the LDP" on the PM's behalf. (Link - J)

10:05 - Correction, Furuya Keiji paid his respects in an official capacity, signing the register as "Minister of State, Furuya Keiji."

9:30 - Shindo Yoshitaka, minister of Internal Affairs and Communications, grandson of Kuribayashi Tadamichi, the commander of the defense of Iojima (Iwo Jima), and failed visitor to Ulleung-do (Link) has visited in a private capacity.

Furuya Keiji, Chairman of the National Public Safety Commission and the Minister of State for the Abduction Issue, and a Abe family retainer, has visited in a private capacity. Asked for comment, he replied, "I paid homage as a Japanese."

(It's not as though anyone was expecting him to pay homage as a Korean...)

(Link - J)

Monday, August 12, 2013

Any Signs Of Abenomics' Working Yet? A Rant's Worth

As a huge fan of the writings of Princeton's Paul Krugman, I have been hoping that today's GDP release today would provide some evidence of Abenomics actually changing spending habits.

Maybe there is.

If mortgage rates are going to rise dramatically, one should see desperate buying in the interest-rate sensitive sectors. Lo and behold, looking at the nominal increase figures one finds a year-on-year quarterly rise of 9.4% (correct me if I am wrong, but when annualized, this is 44%) in private residential investment. Over that same span private consumption overall rose only 1.2%, or 4.9% annualized. (Link).

Some of this rush into housing, though, must result from the prospect of a sudden jump in costs taking place at the stroke of midnight on 31 March 2013. With the new fiscal year comes the rise of the consumption tax from 5% to 8% -- a huge price increase for consumers to swallow.

Either excuse -- rising interest rates or a big, bad new tax on transactions -- would be reason enough to get cracking on buying that piece of land, home or condo.

If consumers had fear of the new tax but only a weak fear of inflation, one should see weak or negative growth in big ticket items not bought on credit, i.e. - where borrowing rates do not enter into the equation. Consumers considering these big purchases would be right to oscillate between the temptation to buy now so as to to beat out the imposition of the tax and the fear of cheating oneself by failing to enjoy the new features of the latest generation of products becoming available in the new year -- items one still can buy before the March 31 tax tax rise kicks in.

Looking at the purchases of durable goods, we do find a -5.4% drop year-on-year (-23% when annualized) in the second quarter. This continues the shrinkage that began in the fourth quarter of 2013. The rate of decline is decelerating but the year-on-year figures for durables remain in the red, unlike the numbers for semi-durable and non-durable items. (Link).

Consumers should be worried about the price rises manufacturers are going to try to impose. Nevertheless, that fear has not manifested itself. Either that or consumers are not going on to go on a buying spree until the last few weeks of this year, when distributors and retailers slash prices to clear the way for new merchandise.

So in the aggregate consumers are spending more, but none of the extra spending may have anything to do with Abenomics creating inflationary expectations or expectations of robust (kencho na - borrowing the adjectival used this morning by Minister of Economics, Trade and Industry Amari Akira - Link - J) growth.

Where Abenomics has been successful is, of course, in the dumb stuff: government spending, exports and national income.

- Increase public spending, replicating the temporary burst the Democratic Party of Japan-led government deployed to prevent the triple disaster of 3/11 from engulfing the economy -- but this time without any disaster other than the continuing catastrophe at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station to counter, and yep, you can get nominal GDP back to where it was at its post-disaster stimulus height.

- Have the Cabinet and the Bank of Japan swear to debase the yen expand the BOJ's balance sheet indefinitely. Calculate one's export earnings and the income from overseas investments in the newly debased currency's units. Look like a sales and investment genius, despite having done diddly (exports and income from abroad are up 4.7% and 16.6%, respectively, from the second quarter 2012 - Link)

Does the dumb stuff count? Sure...but the DPJ would be doing itself a great favor if one of its officers would just stand up and declaim:

"Borrow money and spend it? We could have done that. But we had a sense of responsibility toward the future, to not further deepen Japan's debt hole at the expense of future taxpayers. Actively attack the yen's value, telling folks to better get rid of their yen because we are going to fritter away the currency's relatively worth? We could have done that. Since we care about small businesses and consumers losing their domestic purchasing power, rather than the profits of the large exporters, we didn't. We didn't because we cared ...and even if we had not cared, nobody -- the media, the opposition parties of the time, the voters -- would have allowed us to behave so irresponsibly.

But the Liberal Democratic Party, coming in, manipulating the currency, increasing the deficit, stiffing consumers and savers? That, that is OK. In fact it is not just OK, you all are cheering it on!

The DPJ is in disarray, a loser because it does not know what it stands for? Ii kagen ni seyo!"

I know such a speech is not on anyone's daily schedule. Instead, likely as not those clining to the shell of a party will just keep carping about "wasteful public works spending" as if the voters know how do differentiate what is wasteful from what is necessary in a depressed economy.

However, that something will not happen does not keep me from smiling at the thought of what the reaction would be if it did.

As for my hopes that reality-based economists like Krugmam, Joseph Stiglitz, Brad DeLong and Noah Smith are right about the effects of ferocious quantitative easing and big fiscal stimulus packages -- they remain only that, hopes.


For the full press release on the preliminary estimates for Q2 2013 GDP: (Link - J)

Later -Thanks to all those who responded to the request for a correction.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Zenpukuji Park on August 10, 2013

It may have been that the temperature was 37 degrees in the shade and that we are in the middle of the Obon holidays, but Zenpukuji Koen in Suginami-ku was largely deserted yesterday, a Saturday afternoon. The location of the headwaters of the Zenpukujigawa (once a river, now a rivulet running in a concrete trench until it empties into the similarly concreted and diminished Kandagawa) the park is relatively difficult to visit: far from a major train station and a terrible riverside bicycle ride from Ogikubo to the park itself.

Pond at Zenpukuji Park

Great Cormorant (Kawa'u - Phalocrocorax carbo)

Great Egret (Daisagi - Egretta alba)

Grey Egret (Aosagi - Ardea cinerea) and Little Egret (Kosagi - Egretta garzetta) in flight

Koi and water lilies

Photo courtesy: MTC

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Baddest Bad Bank Of Them All

Over at The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard either did not get the email, or ignored the postscript: "And for Amaterasu's sake, do not let on to what it is that we are doing!" (Link)

Once in an exchange with a noted Japan expert I described Japan Government Bonds as toxic assets. Evans-Pritchard clarifies what I mean.

What is peculiar is the mention of bond vigilantes. More curious still is the mention comes from BNP Paribas chief economist Kono Ryutaro.

What bond vigilantes? Over 90% of JGBs held by domestic investors and most of that, when not by  the Bank of Japan, is by Japan's largest financial institutions. Anyone demanding yield -- a.k.a, lower of bond prices - would open up craters in the capital bases of every major participant in the financial system. So everyone has had an incentive to play nice, especially since the financial system has continued to gorge itself on real income (thanks to deflation) producing JGBs long after the national debt-to-GDP-ratio made any sense.

Exit was kept in check by both the lack of reasonable investment alternatives (see the graphs of Japan's equities markets and real estate prices since 1989) and mutually assured financial destruction if any big player tried to opt out of the game.

So no vigilantes. Instead, a genteel Mexican standoff -- no participant having the ability to get out fast enough to make up for the losses on its hoard of JGBs.

What Bank of Japan Governor Kuroda Haruhiko is offering -- and what made the interest rate volatility in May so inexplicable -- is an orderly and gradual exit from the standoff for non-government market participants. The Bank of Japan promises to expand its balance sheet without limit, under the aegis of doing everything it can to create inflation. Japan's financial giants, not working in sync but not being disharmonious either, sell their JGBs to the BOJ, reducing the riskiness of their portfolios.

Of course, if the BOJ is successful in triggering inflation, then the pressure will be on the financial system players to get out of JGBs all the faster -- faster perhaps than the BOJ can buy the securities on offer.

At that point reported increases in government tax revenues had better be spectacular. If they are not, the JGBs in the portfolios of Japan's financial system will indeed be toxic, transformed into poison by the loss of credibility of the ultimate cover story of the Japanese government's being able to pay JGBs off.

So good luck with that asset switchover, everyone.

As for idle cash appearing on the balance sheets of Japanese megabanks and insurance giants, some of it is going to flow into the equities markets and possibly real estate, reinforcing the emerging bubbles there. However, the financial giants, which employ at least a few individuals who remember the 1980s, are going to direct a lot of the BOJ-printed money overseas. Which means global asset reflation and a tumbling yen. Higher import prices, primarily of energy and raw materials, from the lower yen, yes -- but also more competitive export prices and enormous profits for exporters, at least in their debased accounting currency. Which in turn would mean higher government tax receipts.

Where does the virtuous, BOJ-inspired cycle break down? In competing devaluations of the won and the yuan? Too stupid am I to say.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Of China’s Pizza Preparations, Chess And Miyazaki Hayao

Commenter Jeremy Whipple asked me a few weeks back for my take on Brahma Chellaney’s essay, "China's salami slice strategy," published in The Japan Times. (Link)

Basically I am on the same line, verse and page as Chellaney. To be honest, I have the greatest difficulty not falling for any essay bringing up the Aksai Chin, the only major region of Earth resistant to a one-degree of separation challenge (No matter how many persons you know, you do not know anyone who has been there).

I would differ with Chellaney in repeated use of "China" as a singular origin for Chinese actions. Chinese government ministries, state owned enterprises and People's Liberation Army commands create facts on the ground surprising not only to the targeted regions but to the top central government civilian officials in Beijing. Too often the spokespersons of the Foreign Ministry are just blinking at the camera lights, unable to even offer even standardized cover stories for events -- the anti-satellite interceptor test in 2007 being the starkest example of the FMPRC's being the last to know.

I also have problems with Chellaney's use of the word "strategy." If there is no controlling hand, or small set of hands, deploying the various capabilities of state and quasi-state actors, can one call result a strategy? If the scattered actions evolve out the intrinsic structures or ideologies of the state, is that not more an ethos than a strategy? If it is in the nature of states at China's levels of wealth and income distribution to experience disjointed security policy entrepreneurship, should we not be talking about a zeitgeist rather than a strategy?

Strategy also always implies sacrifice, which sends us back to the question of the ability to decide*. If the blur of action emanates not from a single node but disparate points on a grid, adopting an attitude of "We know what you are doing so cut it out!" is probably pointless. For the smart-aleck reply would be, "If you know what we are doing, please tell us. We are always playing catch-up with our own people."

As for what a state should do in the face of an expansionist power, controlled or uncontrolled, I find the prescriptions of Bruce Pandofini's Commandments of Chess (Link) helpful in clearing away the dross and foam. I cannot judge the merits of the application of these commandments to the chess board. However, I sense that the person reputed to be America's greatest teacher of chess has to at least have a few worthwhile insights into the fundamental principles as regards protecting a vulnerable core, deflecting threats and advancing interests, all whilst coping with severe limitations placed on mobility, time-to-react and deployable resources.

Not all the commandments of have real world applications. However, enough of them do.

In the case of what to do about a salami-slicing Chinese grid mind, commandments #6 and #7 offer a snapshot of the conundrum:
6) Answer all threats. Try to do so by improving your position and/or posing a counter-threat.

7) Play for the initiative. If you already have it, maintain it. If you don't have it, seize it.
In his now famous essay attacking constitutional reform, Miyazaki Hayao takes one look at potential outcomes arising from a binomial expression of these two principles and ends up waving the white flag. No matter how much one may try to deter aggression by following commandment #6, a Chinese application of commandment #7 means conflict. So if you cannot fend the Chinese off with talk, just let them have the islands already.

But of course, assuming that this blessed land can play but a single round against an expanding power with multiple means of challenging the status quo seems a huge gamble...with horrible odds against being able to hold the line after that one round.

Later -The East Asia Forum has just published an essay on the potential of a strategy's underlying the Sino-Indian pushing and shoving over in the Ladakh/Aksai Chin Line of Actual Control (Link). Inside the essay is a link to a wonderful Srinath Ragavan opinion article explaining the difficulty an unbiased observer would have in trying to separate legitimate actions from illegitimate ones as regards the LAC. (Link)


* I once read of the idiot manager who at a business meeting asked the assembled, "Why can"t we just focus our energies across-the-board?"

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

A Win Is A Win Is A Win Is A Win

They call it the Miracle in Miami (Maiami no kiseki).

On 21 July 1996, the under-23 teams of Japan and Brazil faced off in the first round of the Olympic soccer tournament. Brazil, which had won every major crown except an Olympic gold medal, sent to the Miami pitch what was essentially its national team. To a side that had Bebeto at forward and Rivaldo at mid-field, the Brazilian coach added the maximum three overage players, inserting Roberto Carlos, Juninho and Ronaldo.

Japan, which was not expected to advance, put its actual under-23 squad on the pitch. Japan's indeed was the only team in the Olympic tournament composed entirely of players under 23 year of age. Only two of the players on the Japan side of the pitch had played for the national squad.

It was a hopelessly unfair contest of legends against kids.

The match began, with Brazil pressing from the start. The difference in individual skill levels was clear and humiliating. The ball almost never left the Japan side of the field, the Brazil players passing it around amongst themselves. From left, right and center, the Brazilians unleashed a fusillade of shots-on-goal.

But the strangest thing happened. Despite running the Japanese ragged and firing away without restraint, the Brazilians were failing to put the ball in the goal mouth. Sometimes the shot sailed wide; sometimes it struck the post. Desperately lunging Japanese players blocked others. A multitude bounced, glided or rocketed into the gloved hands of Kawaguchi Toshikatsu, who had what the Brazilian coach later called "the match of a lifetime."

The crowd, which was composed almost entirely of Brazil supporters, began to get frustrated. A Brazilian fan ran on to the pitch, disrupting play.

Halftime came, the players switched sides. The ball still never left the Japan side; the Brazilians still could not get a goal.

Then, in the 73rd minute of play, a long clear from the sidelines sailed toward the penalty area in front of the Brazil goal. Two Brazilian defenders and two Japanese attackers rushed to meet it. In what was a scene replayed a million times afterward, Brazil national team goalie Dida abandoned his position in a flying attempt to wrest the ball away from the four. What he managed to do instead was crash into one of the two Brazil defenders, wiping out Brazil’s line of defense. The ball, with excruciating slowness, bounced toward the empty net. Midfielder Ito Teruyoshi, who is still playing professional soccer today (Lifetime J1/J2 record: 636 appearances/36 goals. International record: 27 appearances/ 0 goals), gave it a final, perverse tap.

The freak goal made the Brazilians mad. They went to a full press, no defenders back. The action on the pitch began to get ugly, with scrambles and kicking fests in front of the Japan goal familiar to anyone who has watched six year olds play.

Still the ball refused to curl Brazil's way.

After what was the longest 17 minutes in any of the Japanese players’ lives, the referee blew his whistle.

Final score: Japan 1 - Brazil 0

The Brazilians had taken 28 shots on goal. The Japanese were generously credited with 4 -- but their only real shot had been Ito's toe tap.

* * *

Why bring up what many Japanese fans consider the greatest match in Japanese soccer history -- and the most improbable victory?

Keeping in mind the result on that crazy afternoon in 1996 might help curb the tongue when the subject of conversation turns to the implications of voter turnout in the December 2012 House of Representatives election or last month's House of Councillors election. There have been a lot of well-meant analyses pointing out that the majority of folks did not vote for the Liberal Democratic Party in the last two national elections, with the implication that the Abe government's mandate to rule based on control of both House of the Diet is somehow less than legitimate.

It ain't.

As to voter turnout, if the voters do not show up to vote, and the LDP benefits, do not blame the LDP.

As to the district first-past-the-post system and a fractured opposition's meaning an awful lot of anti-LDP votes get nullified, do not blame the LDP. Be thankful for the positives: first-past-the-post gives the most popular party at least a chance at forming a stable government.

Yes the gearing of the first-past-the-post system is inequitable. So is the electoral college system for choosing U.S. presidents. Most of the time, with U.S. turnout rates the way they are, only ¼ of the U.S. electorate has voted for a U.S. president.

Do not blame the LDP also for claiming a mandate from the elections. What would you want the party to do instead? Shrug and mumble, "You know, most folks did not vote for us so we really should not presume to take any action"?

Voter turnout is the significant number in terms of making good choices as regards candidates. It should not be seen as significant as regards the right to govern...

[For the record, given

a) historical downward drift in voter turnout,
b) the reality that the outcome in the House of Councillors election was never in doubt and
3) the many horrible candidates of the opposition

voter turnout for the 21 July 2013 election was fantastic.]

The significant number for governance is Cabinet popularity. With high levels of public support, a prime minister can lead the country and his Cabinet can provide stable government.

Lose support, and the election results of a few months ago become meaningless. Just ask Hatoyama Yukio how this happens.

As long as Abe Shinzo can keep himself from creating international incidents and Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide can keep in the air all of the dozens of balls he is juggling, Japan will have the possibility of effective government. There are going to be some real crisis points -- whether to go forward with 3% rise in the consumption tax, whether or not to wave the white flag in the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations. That the folks who won election under the banner of Abe's leadership of the LDP may not see as the party secretariat does regarding these and other issues mean huge problems.

The LDP and the New Komeito won last year and last month, ostensibly according to the rules. That the Supreme Court might decide in the autumn to toss the results of the December 2012 House of Representatives in the trash can will be a judgment on the validity of the rules, not on the victory.

To somehow imply that the LDP is on shaky ground making decisions because it does not have the support of 50% + 1 of the voters -- no.

If it is according to the rules and within regulation, a win is a win is a win is a win -- no matter how ridiculous.

Later - Thanks to reader DS for catching the error.

Monday, August 05, 2013

On Hugh White's China-American Mirages

A huge fan am I of the East Asian Forum (Link). Dr. Peter Drysdale and associates publish pertinent articles by smart authors on a huge variety of topics. Though I wish I could be more omnivorous, I usually have to restrict myself to the contributions on Japan. While not everything that gets published is great (an occasional contribution by yours truly slips in, for example) the EAF essays in the build up and aftermath of the 21 July 2013 election were thought-provoking and enriching. Stalwarts authors like Aurelia George Mulgan and Soeya Yoshihide were their usual fascinating selves, while new talents like Ben Ascione and Toshiya Takahashi offered balanced broader pictures of the landscape of this blessed land's politics.

In its admirable open-mindedness the EAF every so often publishes a huge white whale of an essay that demands attention and, if possible, a harpooning. The Moby Dick of this weekend, which has caused me to leave the confines of my usual Japan-only reading list, comes from Dr. Hugh White of Australia National University: "Containing or counterbalancing China." (Link)

Dr. White is a prolific and much-quoted author of Big Cross-Temporal Themes And Hard-Nosed Advice pieces about foreign policy. In this essay, he tries to distill and transmit his ideas on the future of American power in the Indo-Pacific region in the face of a rising China, a theme he has explored at length elsewhere. (Link)

The essay, after a little revving up of mental engines, launches with a cascade of related questions and a brief answer.
The key questions are pretty simple: what is the aim of the current US policy towards China? What are its likely costs? Will it succeed? What if it fails? And what are the alternatives?

America's primary aim in relation to China today is to preserve its position as the primary strategic power in Asia. This aim is seldom scrutinised or even acknowledged. It is taken for granted because it assumes that primacy is the only conceivable strategic role for America in Asia, that perpetuating US primacy is thus the only alternative to strategic withdrawal, and that US primacy therefore provides the only possible basis for a stable and secure future for Asia, as it has done for so many years past. And it assumes that everyone else wants Asia to remain peaceful, and that they all agree that continued US primacy is the only way to ensure that.

And no, no, and

While the usual pattern is to smack the first answer, then knock off each subsequent answer in turn, that is not the best way to proceed here. The last three statements can be disposed of without refutation, as they are little more self-aggrandizing positioning of the author as a seer who has thought about the implications of China's rise -- and detractors as acolytes of dead religions who have not examined their received notions.

Which leaves the first answer to the first question as worthy of contention:

"America's primary aim in relation to China today is to preserve its position as the primary strategic power in Asia."


America's aim in its Asia Pacific policy is not primacy. It is presence with depth. The U.S. wants East Asia to operate in ways that further U.S. interests in the aggregate. It is agnostic on the means by which this influence is exercised or the particular hierarchy of interests it is pursuing at any one moment. What the U.S. seeks most of all, however, is to never be reliant on an ideal set of reactions by regional participants to systemic stress or a crisis.

Call it the anti-Blanche DuBois Strategy, where the ultimate goal is to never be dependent on the kindness of strangers. (Link)

Primacy in a region is only one means of realizing U.S. policy. Building up the capacities, either individually or in concert, of allies is another.

That U.S. policy is not obsessed with being the big boss but is instead careful about remaining flexible and sensitive to change in the region is why U.S. community of Japan watchers is so split over the downfall of Hatoyama Yukio. Hatoyama had faults by the bucketful (Link). He was clearly doomed by his dependence on then Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro and Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirano (The Stupidest Person To Ever Serve in the Kantei) Hirofumi.

However, the United States government's intransigence in the face of Hatoyama's attempt to reopen the issue of the relocation of Marine Corps Airbase Futenma -- a conversation the United States had an obligation to have, as Japan had just changed governments after decades of a single party's dominance -- set the stage for Hatoyama's whirling dervish death spiral of contrite reversals.

The Obama Administration's intransigence, undermining as it did the duly elected government of an ally, leaves the Japan analysis community divided into antagonistic tribes. On the one side is the shrugging (and occasionally smirking) defenders of U.S. interference and on the other the holding-their-heads-in-their-hands-in-disbelief critics. Members of either camp can lunch together but cannot start talking about Hatoyama or the Democratic Party of Japan without the conversation degrading into testy sniping over the U.S. government's having transgressed or not transgressed a fundamental principle of U.S. policy.

Getting back to the essay, Dr. White's initial wrong assumption -- that the U.S. is wedded to primacy in the region -- cripples the rest of Dr. White's argument and his prescriptions. While well begun is half done, badly begun means even the sharpest of cooks (and Dr. White is sharp) can only pull out items seemingly half-baked.

How did Dr. White misread the fundamental nature of the goal of U.S. policy in the Indo-Pacific?

One strong candidate is the conflation of strategic and tactical mendacity. Strategic mendacity is the mask of wisdom one must adopt when one cannot, for propaganda purposes, admit the fluidity of situations and limits of human knowledge. Tactical mendacity is an intentional spewing forth of a mix of truth and falsehood under the guise of appearing to get something done.

For those with a greater interest in tactical mendacity, the philosopher John Frankfurt has written the book on it, calling it by its common name. (Link)

White has listened to purveyors of tactical mendacity on the Indo-Pacific -- members of the U.S. Congress, a lot (but not all) of the uniforms in the uniformed services, think tank enablers in Washington...and their respective correlates in the Chinese establishment. He concludes that what they have been saying is indicative of intents or plans.

However, what they are saying is complete...tactical mendacity. It is neither true nor false. Whether the adamant stomping of "America cannot accept a peer rival in the Pacific" or the sly misrepresentation of history of "China seeks a level of military power commensurate with its traditional cultural and economic role" -- the obvious impracticality of the goal should be a flashing red sign with the words "Ignore Me" on it.

Strategic mendacity -- the obvious and not-so-obvious nonsense that governments say because they have to keep up appearances -- is by contrast a worthy subject of attention and dissection. The lies governments tell because they have to can be lined up alongside truths, with the writer and the reader learning something from the differences in between the two.

As for truth, what Xi Jinping and Barack Obama can talk about in private...or what Abe Shinzo and Barack Obama can talk about in private, if and when President Obama feels confident that Prime Minister Abe understands the difference between reality and strategic mendacity -- that neither Dr. White nor I can be privy to for a very long span of decades.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Oh Really, Minister Shimomura?

It had been a conundrum.

Of the four arch-revisionist Friends of Shinzo in the Cabinet -- Inada Tomomi, Shindo Yoshitaka, Furuya Keiji and Shimomura Hakubun -- all except Shimomura had paid their respects at Yasukuni. It took Inada a little bit longer to make the trip. However, she eventually made it, turning the event into a minor plug for her minor effort at organizing young reactionaries into a movement.

Until yesterday it seemed as though Shimomura, for all the horrible, authoritarian, illiberal nonsense he has sworn to inflict upon the primary-through-high-school education system, had the strategic sense to follow a less provocatively ideological line than the Terrible Trio.

Yesterday, Minister Shimomura stopped the seeming:
Minister reveals visit to Yasukuni Shrine
Jiji Press

Education minister Hakubun Shimomura revealed Friday that he has visited war-related Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo since he took office in December.

"I've already visited there [Yasukuni Shrine]. I have also visited as a minister," Shimomura said at a press conference. He did not explain when he visited the shrine or the style of prayer he made...

This revelation, on the heels of Aso Taro's brilliant attempt to convince an audience of revisionists to look to the undoing of the Weimar Republic, will do little to reassure folks outside of Japan that the barking mad within the Abe entourage are any less in lock-step than they were during the last Abe Cabinet.

As to the possibility of Shimomura's revelation of a clandestine visit's being a part of efforts to provide the proper atmospherics for an Abe climbdown on his vow to visit Yasukuni (Link) -- of that I would not be surprised. I would not be surprised if it turns out that Shimomura lied -- that he indeed has not paid his respects at Yasukuni since becoming a minister -- but was willing to say that he did in order to make it look as though the excursions into national pride malarkey the Abe administration can take are not as constrained by geo-politics and economics as they really are.

Later - Yes, I agree. Having the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology claiming he makes Yasukuni visits on the sly is not helpful to Tokyo's bid for the 2020 Olympics.

Then again, given some of the illiberal governments of recent winners in the Olympics beauty pageant (Beijing 2008; Sochi 2014), having a lousy international reputation does not necessarily hurt one's standing among the Olympic villagers.

Friday, August 02, 2013

High School Girls in Short Skirts, Middies and Werhmacht Jackets

What's not to like?

In line with this week's "let's think about a takeover by Nazis" theme provided to us by our unthoughtful Finance Minister -- who yesterday repudiated his discombobulated attempt to illustrate...well, no one knows what (Link) -- there is the news out Oarai Township, Ibaraki Prefecture. Oarai is home to one of Japan's, which is to say the world's, great aquariums. I visited Aqua World (Link) in March and, despite a debilitating bout of hay fever, had a wonderful time.

Unfortunately, when folks talks about tanks and Oarai nowadays, chances are they are not talking about fish tanks:
Ibaraki town's tank attracts tourists
The Yomiuri Shimbun

MITO--The town of Oarai, Ibaraki Prefecture, has adopted an unusual symbol to attract visitors: a Ground Self-Defense Force tank.

Oarai is the setting of the popular TV anime series "GIRLS und PANZER" in which high school girls learn "senshado," a fictitious popular martial art that uses tanks as its main weapon, at Oarai Joshi Gakuen girls' high school, a fictional school in the Ibaraki Prefecture town. Many tanks appear in the series, in which various facilities and streets of the town are precisely re-created.

The series is popularly called "Garupan" (a portmanteau combining "girls" and "panzer") by its fans.

During a recent seasonal beach-opening festival, the town displayed a real state-of-the-art GSDF tank with the cooperation of the GSDF.

Events were held during the three-day festival, which began on July 13, with the participation of GSDF equipment and personnel. The town's efforts to attract sightseers, whose numbers fell after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, harmonized with the GSDF’s wish to promote the significance of GSDF tanks in the nation's defense among the public.


The town proposed the idea of bringing a real GSDF tank to the festival.

Oarai Mayor Takaaki Kotani said, "We wanted visitors to see a real tank like those that appear in 'Garupan.'"

The GSDF willingly accepted the offer to provide the tank and even provided information about various tanks to a company that produces the anime.

The GSDF apparently was eager to cooperate because it feels its status lags behind that of the other two forces--the Air Self-Defense Force and Maritime Self-Defense Force. For instance, originally 1,200 tanks were scheduled to be deployed mainly in Hokkaido in the 1970s, but the GSDF currently deploys only 400 in Hokkaido due to such reasons as the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In contrast, the number of submarines possessed by the MSDF, which has to deal with Chinese submarines and ships in the South China Sea, has been beefed up from 16 to 22.

"We'd like to make the public aware of the necessity of tanks and other GSDF equipment through various events," a senior GSDF official said.

Hosei University Prof. Toshiyuki Masubuchi, who specializes in "content tourism," a field that actively uses movies and dramas to promote tourism, said: "'Garupan,' in which the townscape, shops and streets of Oarai are quite precisely rendered, is widely supported by the town's residents, so the current boom should last for a long time.

"There are pros and cons to using tanks to promote a town, but this can be a good chance to once again consider what peace means to Japan."
(Read the whole article, and do please read it, here)

Ummmm...where to begin...

OK, let us leave aside the issue of the charms of the short-skirt-wearing high school girls of Oarai Joshi Gakuen (a prefectural school -- come on we are not talking about one of those sleazy private institutions) lolling about atop functioning tanks (Hey, you can buy the shirt here). What some folks fantasize about is really none of my or anyone else's business.

The governance question is who in the Ministry of Defense is signing off on the release orders for the transport of top-of-the-line tanks to anime events? If one really wants to demonstrate that your tanks are of zero military value -- i.e., for display purposes only -- I cannot think of a more blatant way of doing it.

Then there is the icky business of the "und Panzer" and at least one girl's dressing up as a Werhmacht dominatrix (Elvin (sp?) is a member of the school's moody "Hippopotamus Team." The Hippos drive and maintain one of the the school's two German tanks. No, I am not making this up). Or the ersatz Iron Crosses on collars (Link) and on the sides of some of the tanks?

OK, if edgy is what one is shooting for, the use of the German language and modified Wehrmacht symbology is edgy. But do the inter-titles of the promotional videos really have to replicate the graphical elements, shakes and flickers of pre-1950s movie reels? (Check out the second video here)

Whilst we are on the subject of appropriateness, at least one blogger maintains that the Type 10 tank famously used as a campaign prop by Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was at the Nico Nico Douga event as a part of the GSDF's collaboration with the Girls und Panzer Projekt (yes, that is what it calls itself). I do not know whether this is true or not. However, Girls und Panzer certainly has increased interest -- though possibly not the kind of interest one needs when facing appropriations committees or recruitment quotas -- in battle tanks.

I encourage the readers to go back to the Yomiuri's story and reread Professor Masubuchi's end comment. Honestly, one cannot pay folks to come up with lines like it.

[For those wanting to know more about Girls und Panzer, the website is here]

Later - If you are planning a trip to Oarai this summer, you might want to put your Girls und Panzer knowledge to the test. Those scoring 80% or more on the 20 question "Japan Federation of the Way of the Tank Mock Test" (Nihon senshado renmei mogi shiken) turned in to the information counter at Oarai Station receive a special certificate from the Oarai Tourism Board. (Link)

Think of how good this certificate would look on your wall...

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Finance Minister Aso Taro's Golden Tongue

Aso Taro's talking without thinking has gotten him into trouble again.
Japan Finance Minister's 'Weimar Constitution' Comment Draws Fire


During a Tokyo speech Monday, Mr. Aso — who also serves as deputy prime minister and was once prime minister — said Japan should learn how Germany’s constitution under the Weimar Republic was transformed by the Nazis before anybody realized what was happening.

"Germany's Weimar Constitution was changed before anyone noticed. It was changed before anyone was aware. Why don’t we learn from that technique," Japanese media quoted Mr. Aso as saying. The comments were confirmed by his office.

His aides said Mr. Aso was in his local district on the southern island of Kyushu on Wednesday and couldn't be reached for comment. But they said his remarks were taken out of context, and Mr. Aso didn’t say anything to praise Nazi Germany. Rather, he was trying to convey how discussions over constitutional revision should be conducted in a calm environment.

"Minister Aso referred to pre-war Germany as a negative example for Japan," said Ichiro Muramatsu, one of Mr. Aso's secretaries. "Continuing emotionally charged discussions could lead the discussions into a wrong direction. Mr. Aso didn't in any way support the Nazi constitution or the way they changed the Weimer constitution."

A report by Kyodo news agency also quoted Mr. Aso as saying how the Weimar constitution was the most "progressive" in Europe at the time, but that the Nazis emerged under it. "Even under a good constitution, things like that happen," he was quoted as saying...

As the human charged with doing damage control for Aso Taro, Mr. Muramatsu must enjoy some of the best job security of any person on the planet.

But what of Mr. Aso? Has this latest incident of mental diarrhea marked the end of his usefulness?

Aso Taro is by his own admission a cheerful dolt. His book Totsute mo nai Nihon is a gleeful celebration of his doltishness. His outbursts, simultaneously colorful and idiotic as they are, demand explanation by bon mot. Indeed, I have prepared a trio of such, for anyone who needs one:

- "It is not correct to say that Mr. Aso is a stranger to his own mind. It is clear, though, that the two are not communicating most of the time."

- "Claiming one can understand what Aso is trying to say presumes that Aso understands what it is he is trying to say. There is nothing in his history to support this latter assumption."

- "Aso was appointed Finance Minister because of his inability to understand what he would be defending. For Abenomics to fly, it needed an advocate at Finance who not only could not understand what he was saying, but who would not even try to understand what he was saying."

Unfortunately, in this instance, Aso Taro probably knew exactly what he was saying. His extraordinary "Isn't there something we can learn from the Nazi takeover of Weimar?" flourish was made to an audience provided by the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals (Kokka kihon mondai kenkyujo - Link) -- former Prime Minister's Residence frequent visitor Sakurai Yoshiko's talk shop for purveyors of myths of former national greatness and present-day national peril all wrapped in a love of the state power that Meiji oligarchs might have found overwrought (well, aside from Yamagata Aritomo, for whom no amount of love of state power could be overwrought).

When Aso was pointing out how easy it was for the Nazis to push aside the constitution of Weimar he was obviously not telegraphing an unstated "We must therefore be vigilant in preserving Japan's liberal democratic charter" to the assembled. He was telling these True Conservatives to stay cool, keep quiet and let an indigenous form of state-centered revisionism take over by degrees.

Over the course of these first months of the second coming of Abe Shinzo MOF minister Aso has provided the domestic and international news media with a string of bizarre statements, fashion and otherwise. These deviations from message have all rolled off his and the Abe Cabinet's collective backs with such ease that many critics of Abe Shinzo and Abenomics believe the domestic news media and the Abe government are in cahoots, or at least signed a secret armistice.

Aso's latest excursion into bizarro world, however, may be his last as Finance Minister. While Abe clearly appointed Aso because there was no chance of Aso ever understanding what the Finance Ministry bureaucrats wanted him to say (a trick Abe learned from Koizumi Jun'ichiro, who neutralized the Finance Ministry by appointing Tanigaki Sadakazu to lead it) he also needed Aso close by tied to an impossible-to-shirk mountain of major responsibilities so as to keep Aso from wandering off and indulging himself in the kinds of intra-party machinations that brought the first Abe premiership to crisis and collapse. Aso's motor mouth has therefore been allowed to run rampant, despite the titters of the world community.

With this utterance, however, Aso has crossed a red line. He has revealed the carefully concealed truth that the Abe Cabinet's core illiberal supporters, rather than being supplanted by the Economy Firsters in Abe's circle of advisors, have been merely biding their time offstage, secure in the final victory of their cause. For this blunder Aso may find himself bereft of a portfolio after the next Cabinet reshuffle -- which many news organizations are projecting will take place in the first days of September.

Aso's failure to check himself should be met with gratitude, not umbrage or opprobrium. He has once again, without fully intending to do so, pulled aside the curtain of respectability hiding the dark intentions of a political movement with little, when seen under the bright light of the rising sun, to recommend it.

For as long as he is in office Aso remains, as he has been, the Cabinet's inadvertent patriot.