Friday, October 31, 2014

He Does Well By Himself

The equities markets are in a light froth this morning over the possibility Health, Welfare and Labour Minister Shiozaki Yasuhisa will announce a change in the allocation of assets in the General Pension Investment Fund (GPIF):
Japan Mega-Pension to Shift to Stocks
Announcement for New Portfolio for Fund Expected Friday Afternoon

By Eleanor Warnock -- TOKYO — Japan's welfare minister is likely to approve a new portfolio for the country's ¥127 trillion ($1.2 trillion) pension on Friday, in a move that will have a significant impact on financial markets, according to people familiar with the matter...

"Significant impact" means shares have risen, will rise and will keep rising, giving the market indexes a feel-good pop lasting, with any luck, well into the new year.

Minister Shiozaki himself has shareholdings -- and not in a stock fund or a blind trust, either. More than any other member of the Cabinet. Shiozaki says he is a completely passive investor -- which is good, because trading while serving in the Cabinet is verboten. Furthermore he says he only inherited his shareholdings from his maternal grandfather and generally has little interest (kanshin) in stocks.

Still, would it not be interesting, just out of the purest of intellectual motives, to calculate exactly how much today's announcement can be construed as having profited Minister Shiozaki -- i.e., how much more money he has at the end the day than he did at the beginning?

OK, here is the list of Minister Shiozaki Yasuhisa's personal shareholdings as printed in the newspapers on October 18:
Company name / # of shares

Ehime Bank / 150

Taiheiyo Cement / 600

Mitsui Engineering & Shipbuilding / 3,000

Bridgestone / 1,000

Panasonic / 5,620

Teijin / 11,000

Takeda Pharmaceutical / 3,630

SONY / 1,100

Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal / 19,747

NTT 102

Harima Chemicals Group / 1,000

Chubu Electric Power / 1,769

Tokyo Electric Power / 1,659

Denso / 1,100

Oji Holdings / 1,100

Fujitsu / 3,348

Asahi Glass / 2,205

ANA / 13,119

Miura / 2,000

Hitachi / 4,200

Kashima / 5,347

Mitsukoshi-Isetan / 2,268

JX Holdings / 1,500

Shonan Belmare (the soccer club) / 5

C-Net / 4

The answer is: ________________?

Later - Yow! Mr. Shiozaki gotta a little help from his friends! (Link)

A very happy camper he must be.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Read/watch list for 2014-10-23

Some items of interest:

- According to the Nikkei Shimbun, BOJ expansion of its balance sheet have made the market for national debt so barren the Ministry of Finance has offered its first short-term debt with a negative interest rate (Link - J). The appropriate comment at this point is, "Yikes!"

- Tobias Harris does a turn on television offering a sober view of the current turmoil in the Diet(Link - J). His view that Abe Shinzo faces a very different political environment in 2014 than he did in 2007. Abe is the quite happy accidental beneficiary of the collapse of a 30-year national program to oust the Liberal Democratic Party. Tossing the LDP bums out, and installing a Democratic Party of Japan-led government in 2009 did not deliver the paradise of responsive and responsible government the Japanese public had hoped for, however. Now the LDP is rivaled in public opinion polls only by the "I don't support anybody/I don't care/I don't like making decisions so please leave me alone" party -- meaning that even if the Second Abe Cabinet enters the traditional death slide of a year of steadily declining cabinet support ratings to 20%, followed by Abe's announcement of his resignation, the only person who can replace Abe will be a member of the LDP (the current likeliest candidates being Ishiba Shigeru, Ishiba Shigeru and possibly Ishiba Shigeru).

- Dr. Adam Posen delivers a very upbeat assessment of Abenomics starting at the 39:50 mark of this PIIE video of its Global Economic Prospects session of 2 October 2014 (Link - video)For the record, 710,000 more women were in the labor force as of August 2014 (the most recent month for which the government has data) than were in the labor force in January 2013, Abe's first full month in office. During that span 230,300 men also entered the labor force -- though that number only returns the number of men in the labor force to the point where it was in February 2013.

- Professor Eugene Gholz, whom I met in Tokyo earlier this year, has produced an easy-to-read paper for the Council on Foreign Relations explaining why Japanese policy makers should continue to remain alert to but should stop making paranoid noises about global rare earth/rare metals supplies. (Link)

- Kasai Yoshiyuki, a Shisaku favorite and the purported maestro of the Second Coming of Abe Shinzo last week saw his grand boondoggle receive the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (Link). Yesterday, he made his pitch to extend his levitating empire overseas (Link) -- not surprising since the CEO of JR Central has admitted that the Tokyo-Nagoya maglev line will never turn a profit. (Link

Later - Jonathan Soble, formerly the Tokyo bureau chief of the Financial Times, starts out with a bang in his new posting as business reporter for The New York Times with the long list of former American politicians Mr. Kasai has acquired for the new North American Wing of his collection. An absolutely precious photo accompanies the story. (Link)

Hope all you shareholders of JR Central are happy with the way the chairman emeritus Kasai is spending your money.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Yasukuni Shuffle

For Langley Esquire, a blog post by yours truly -- "Feeling Festive" -- on the Yasukuni Autumn Festival and the prospects for a repeat of Abe Shinzo's sanpai sometime before December 27.

Surprisingly, Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Takaichi Sanae did not take part in the mass 110 Diet member assault upon the halls of Yasukuni Shrine today. Her traditional spot in the troika of marching solons seem to have been snapped up by Aizawa Ichiro (Link) who with his 9 elections to the Diet is the most experienced LDP Diet member to have never been a Cabinet minister. That his fellow classmate in the first graduating class of the Matsushita Institute of Management and Goverment (Minister Takaichi is one of the Institute's few female grads) Democratic Party member Noda Yoshihiko has already been prime minister must make Aizawa's status of eternal bridesmaid even more galling.

Nothing can fluff up an appeal for a cabinet post like a front row appearance at Yasukuni, I guess.

Takaichi's not showing up on for the march does not mean she has abandoned her pattern of jut-jawed Yasukuni visits. The Autumn Festival lasts until the 20th so she still has plenty of time to tuck in her promised visit.

What will be interesting will be to see whether other Cabinet ministers pay their respects at Yasukuni over the weekend. I am still holding out hope that Women's Empowerment Minister Arimura Haruko (A.K.A. "the McDonald's lady") will show up. Come on, Admiral Togo Heihachiro is one of Arimura's ancestors.

Despite the international fascination of Yasukuni, the struggles of Minister of Economics, Trade and Industry Obuchi Yuko's with allegations of multiple small violations of public campaign finance laws and political funds laws (Link) is the focus of the domestic news media attention right now, to the exclusion of much else.

So it is deja vu all over again in Japan Political News Reporting.

Later - Takaichi, Arimura and National Safety Commissioner Yamatani Eriko all paid their respects at Yasukuni on Saturday, October 18. (Link)

Obuchi Yuko's position has seemingly grown untenable, with the mid-careers in the party calling for her resignation (Link - J). That her parentage and cuteness allowed her to vault to the head of the line in ministerial appointments among her peers did not cause any resentment among those left bereft. None at all.

A spectacular, flaming failure of the Nukaga Faction's marquee appointment to the reshuffled Abe Cabinet 2.0 will shake the faction to the core. The Nukaga faction's accomodation with the Machimura superfaction contributed to former Health, Welfare and Labour Minister Tamura Norihisa's and former House of Councillor Diet Affairs Chair Waki Masashi's decisions to turn in their faction badges. The sudden shuddering halt to the rise of the faction's princess, whom intemperate voices were proclaiming the "next prime minister after Abe but one" and "the favorite to be the first female prime minister of Japan" after the reshuffle, will very likely lead to further defections -- maybe even the faction's complete breakdown.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Longtime readers might recall that I have predicted the end of Tanakaism before. (Link)

Friday, October 10, 2014

Very Kind Of Them #26

En Français, on the crumbling public facade of Abenomics, courtesy Le Temps:

"'Abenomics', un programme qui rate ca cible"

What offends in the Abe Administration's approach to the Third Arrow is the absence of maths. In June, for example, we had 230+ ideas flung at us without the least estimate of the economic or budgetary consequences of the proposed actions. Unconscionable.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Cold Blue Firing Line

You must rise to her defense when she's in danger
Turn around and you're looking at a stranger
And leads you into places even angels fear to tread
She's a blue light.

- David Gilmour, "Blue Light" (1984)
One crucial aspect of the story of newly minted Nobel laureate Nakamura Shuji, whom the immigration bureaus and media outlets of Japan and the U.S. are fighting over (Link) is being ignored, possibly because it is truly MADE IN JAPAN. While everyone remembers the lawsuit Nakamura filed against his former employer Nichia demanding a reasonable share of the revenues the company accrued from the blue diode he developed for them (Link) no one is recalling the most telling detail of the story: Nichia executives ordered Nakamura FOR YEARS to cease and desist in his quest for the blue diode. Nichia could not, due to the extreme protections afforded by Japanese labor laws and out of concern for its reputation, actually fire its insubordinate researcher. Any other company anywhere else would have sent such an employee out the door, pronto. Nakamura could, however, pursue his dream at Nichia's expense. Nichia eventually reaped windfall profits from Nakamura's work, which the company stubbornly but not inexplicably was unwilling to share. After all Nichia had been forced into into years of bankrolling not only Nakamura's salary but his lab.

In the current discussion of the pressing necessity to reform Japan's labor laws (I remember one conference where a British finance industry analyst made reform into a sexual identity issue, baying out, "When is Japan going to man up and attack labor law reform?") advocates should be asked to concede the immense social and financial benefits that resulted from at least one Japanese company's inability to fire a rebel.

Friday, October 03, 2014

A Review of Photography in Japan: 1853 - 1912

From time to time publishers and friends have passed books on to me in the hopes that I will review them. This I have failed to do, to my shame.

Here is a first attempt at what I hope will become a regular Shisaku feature.

Please let me know what you think.


One of my great joys in visiting historical museums or leafing through historical texts is the chance to revel in the photographic images therein. Seeing the images of long ago persons and places, some familiar, most not, strikes the heart in ways no text can.

It was not until my receipt of Terry Bennett's 2006 lavishly illustrated study Photography in Japan: 1853-1912 that I gave much thought as what was going on behind the lens.

Bennett's book tries to fill this void. He describes in details gleaned from newspaper archives and the secondary literature the colorful lives of the persons who brought a new technology of mechanically manufactured images to a country with a rich tradition of hand crafted, mass-printed images -- and more often than not, with an attitude. For a Northern Californian like myself, the story of Jack London's brief and megalomanic turn as a photographer and war correspondent, making an utter nuisance of himself as he tried to cover the Russo-Japanese War, is splash of cold water on a revered (Link) figure.

The true joys of the book are, of course, the photo images themselves. There 350 of them, many which have been published nowhere else. For the resident of Japan such as myself, there is a vicarious thrill of seeing images of a places retaining the contours they had in the last years of the Tokugawa. More often, however, is the astonishment as to how much has been lost, never to be seen again (the beach at Sankeien) except in black and white and two dimensions.

Bennett's goal main goal, as he states in the preface, is to illuminate the photos through the personal histories of their producers. Some of the photographers introduced-- Raimund von Stillfried-Ratenizcs, the mysterious Yamamoto, Enami Tamotsu, William Burton -- are clearly geniuses. They deserve separate books of just their reproduced images. Bennett, however, introduces even the less skilled or artistic with equal vigor, if the photographer's contributions to the visual history of Japan merits notice.

This last point, however, highlights the book's major weakness: it is not what the title promises. What Bennett has produced is not an account of "photography in Japan" in the Bakumatsu and Meiji eras. It is instead a study of "photographers in Japan" during those eras. The section on the various technological and logistical hurdles inherent in producing and storing the images on display -- from daguerreotypes to ambrotypes to wet plate to dry plate and albumen paper -- should be in the main body of the text, not relegated to an appendix. Virtually nothing is written about how photographs were consumed, particularly by the mass media and news organizations. From the use of now archaic technical terms ("cartes de visite," "souvenir albums") we are to understand the photos were bought directly from the studios by final consumers -- tourists, business persons and diplomats -- without explanation as to how these consumption patterns affected or failed to affect prevailing global views of Japan.

Bennett's text also sometimes lurches from the didactic to the overly personal. When a paragraph begins:
“When considering early images, we should try hard to identify the photographers and learn something about their backgrounds."
the reader is left to wonder to whom it is the author thinks he is speaking. The section in the Preface on how hard it is to attain proficiency in the Japanese language is embarrassing and should never have appeared in a book published by a house so readily and intimately identified with books on Japan.

These flaws of judgment are insufficient to put a big dent in the book's appeal, however. I for one am glad that now, when I see the watermark or logo of a long-disappeared studio owner on an ancient image of a man in lacquered armor, a diplomatic mission or a view of Nikko, I can pull Bennett's book out of my bookshelf and find out about the human who stood behind a wooden and metal box, in a haze of inebriating and sometimes exploding chemicals, urging this subjects a century and a half ago in Japan, "OK, now. Please stand still."

Photography in Japan: 1853-1912
By Terry Bennett (2006)
Tuttle Publishing

Thursday, October 02, 2014

The Abe Cabinet Paradox

Two wild and crazy guys.

It's impossssible...
To put a Cadillac in your nose!
It's just imposssssible!

- Steve Martin, Let's Get Small (1977)

One of the classic gag lines, in both sense of the word "gag," in the world of politics and statistics for the last two decades has been the annual reporting of growth rates of the GDPs of China's provinces. For reasons of political expediency and personal promotion within the bureaucracy and the Chinese Communist Party, the officials of all China's provinces have been reporting GDP growth rates greater than the national average, despite the teeny tiny problem of such a result's being utterly impossible. The response of the world's China's watchers to this ridiculous transformation of the world's largest country into a hypertrophied Lake Wobegon, Minnesota ("where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average" - Link) has always been chorus of knowing giggles.

Lately, and sadly, this perennial source of wonderment and merriment has undergone a downsizing, leaving this small, blue-green planet a rather less amusing place. (Link)

Have no fear, bewildering statistics lovers, I present to you...the second Abe Cabinet!

You may have missed Monday's Nihon Keizai Shimbun article on the results of that paper's most recent public opinion poll. In it, quietly and without any fuss, lay a paradox. Not a particularly impossible one (on the order of Steve Martin's above) but still a rather eyebrow-raising one.

Nihon Keizai Shimbun
Telephone survey of 26-28 September 2014 (previous month's results)

Q: Do you support or not support the Abe Cabinet?

Support 53% (60%)

Do not support 31% (26%)
Admittedly, it is unusual to see a drop of 7% over a month when the Diet is out of session and not much has happened -- at least not much the government of Abe Shinzo had any control over, aside from the predictable failure of the DPRK government to produce the report it promised on the fates of Japanese abductees, a possibility (inevitability?) that the Abe government should have gone out of its way to semaphore well before the end of last month. The most reasonable explanation for the drop is a return to the norm, as the 60% support reading was recorded immediately after the announcement of the new cabinet lineup with its attractive record number of women ministers.

The mind-twisting results in the Nikkei poll are the responses to the questions on the policies of the Abe Cabinet:

Do you support the raising of the consumption tax to 10% in October next year?

Support 28%

Do not support 66%

Do you have high expectations for the government's efforts to revitalize the rural areas?

Have high expectations 35%

Do not have high expectations 47%

Do you have high expectations for the Abe government's policies raising the stature of women?

Have high expectations 43%

Do not have high expectations 40%

Do you believe that the restart of the nation's nuclear power plants must be pushed through?

Must be pushed through 34%

Not necessary to be pushed through 53%

Look at the first of each pair of numbers. These are the support numbers for the Abe government's policies or else the percentage of the population having faith in the Abe government's ability to carry out its policies. In every instance, the expression of support or faith is 10 percentage points below the percentage of voters expressing support for the Cabinet.

Basically, the second Abe Cabinet is more popular than ANY of its policies. A lot more.

Take just a moment to figure that one out.

Then perhaps throw your hands up in the air and admit:

"I don't get it. OK, maybe the old saw about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts is true...or the average of the parts...or whatever. Really?"

The paradox of the Abe Cabinet's "being" being more popular than anything the Abe Cabinet is "doing" or "wants to do" does fit into a long-term pattern of public reactions to Abe Shinzo. In his first term a prime minister his Cabinet's popularity and his international standing rose and fell in inverse relation to his acting according to his own personal record, his professed values and his promises.

In other words, the less Abe acted like himself, the more his popularity and international stature rose.

Not much has changed in that department. What is strange is that not liking what the Cabinet is doing is not translating this time around into not liking the Cabinet. The support numbers for the Cabinet stay fantastically high, a-historical in their stability.

Most peculiar, this Abe fellow. He provokes the cognitive dissonance in folks.

There is, of course, one big difference in between now and seven years ago, one that a follower posted immediately after I tweeted this conundrum on Twitter:

Yes just imagine it...because with the current cast of clowns in charge of the opposition (Link) one's imagination is all one can rely upon.