Tuesday, February 24, 2015

On The Nishikawa Resignation

Ripple in still waters
Where there is no pebble tossed
Or wind to blow.

-- Garcia and Hunter, "Ripple" (1970)
Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Nishikawa Koya (House of Representatives, North Kanto Proportional) resigned yesterday, 173 days after he was appointed to the position. He was immediately replaced by Hayashi Yoshimasa (House of Councillors, Yamaguchi Prefecture) his predecessor in the post. (Link)

By picking up the unemployed Hayashi, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has tried to limit the fallout from the loss of a third minister from his second Cabinet, this after his first Cabinet became the longest-serving team of the postwar era. (Link)

Dogged questioning of Nishikawa in Diet Budget committee had become a distraction. The committee's vital work of approving of the next year's budget, due on March 31st, is already seriously off-schedule thanks to the double whammy of a December House of Representatives election and a February start for the Regular Diet Session. With the Nishikawa questioning it looked like it was going to run completely off the rails. Final stage negotiations for Trans Pacific Partnership looked similarly imperiled.

The violations of campaign finance law in question were not huge -- one illegal campaign donation of 1 million yen (USD$8,400) and another of 3 million yen (USD$25,200). The violations were of a technical nature -- made before a legally mandated embargo of one year had expired -- and before Nishikawa became a member of the government. Nishikawa's office, which accepted the donations, had no practical way of knowing the donations violated the law. Nishikawa also had his office return the donations even while arguing he and his people had done nothing wrong.

The opposition would not let go of the issue, though. Questioners called Nishikawa up out of his seat so often, forcing him to repeat his explanations so many times, he finally had to throw in the towel, crying, "No matter how much I explain [the donations], those who do not understand will not understand." (Link - J)

What he probably wanted to say was "Those who do not want to understand will never understand" or better yet "Those whose paychecks depend upon their not understanding will not understand." Such would have been perceived as rude -- and Nishikawa needs no more trouble.

There were good, non-legal reasons why the prime minister had reason to accept, if not demand, Nishikawa's resignation.

First was the principle of equality of the sexes, i.e., "What is good for the goose is good for the gander." Last year Obuchi Yuko and Matsushima Midori had to tender their unprecedented twin resignations for campaign violations, and quickly, for what in Matsushima's case were violations of comically minute scale. Sticking by Nishikawa, dragging out budget deliberations when Obuchi and Matsushima were so easily jettisoned for far less important legislation threatened to raise hackles within the LDP.

Second, the torture of Nishikawa -- for torture was what it was -- caused a sudden and extremely inconvenient of eruption of The Bad Abe. On the 19th and 20th Abe, seated in the prime minister's chair, heckled DPJ members during their time, snapping, "Well, what about you? You take donations from the Japan Teacher's Union!" -- loudly enough to be easily audible, earning the PM a warning from Budget Committee chairman Oshima Tadamori. On the 23rd Abe apologized for making the remarks, asking to have them withdrawn from the official record of the sessions. (Link - J)

To be sure, Abe has had a rough time hanging on to his agriculture ministers. He had to replace three in his first, year-long stint in the premiership. The first of his ag ministers, Matsuoka Toshikatsu, indeed became the first cabinet minister to commit suicide while in office since soon-to-be-arrested-as-a-war-criminal Prince Konoe Fumimaro in 1945.

The open question is whether the Nishikawa resignation represents a significant violation of the unwritten rules of the Diet. One of the most preposterous and yet durable concepts in Japanese politics is misogi -- "ablution" -- whereby a politician or a party in trouble with the law (OK, OK, an LDP politician or the LDP) is cleansed of the stain of scandal by reelection in a general election. (See these Okumura Jun posts making mention of the concept)

The thought that opposition parties and public prosecutors would actually play along with such a LDP-serving concept is hard to swallow. However, one finds misogi references sprinkled throughout the literature.

Nishikawa was already the target of opposition criticism in the fall extraordinary session. He should, logically, have been let off the hook by the 14 December 2014 House of Representatives election.

However, Nishikawa did not actually win the public's approval in December. He lost the contest for his Tochigi district seat, albeit by the tiniest of margins (46.54% vs. 46.69% of the vote). He returned to the House of Representatives and the cabinet via the proportional "zombie candidate" route.

So in a formal sense Nishikawa was not in line to claim retroactive immunity through a misogi of voter approbation.

However, it would be unwise to put too much stock in misogi restraining the opposition from tying up the Abe government into knots over the rest of this session. The Tanigaki Sadakazu-led LDP's scorched earth tactics during the Kan and Noda administrations (where the LDP would not vote for legislation delivering on LDP campaign promises) dug a nearly bottomless well of ill-feeling in all of the opposition parties save perhaps the Japan Innovation Party. The opposition will be drawing on that resentment for years to come, harassing Abe cabinet members and Abe himself on the most piddling of deviations from absolute rectitude.

The future -- especially a future where one of today's opposition parties takes power -- be damned.


For a sense of the spectrum of indigenous opinion on what has just happened:

A "This is just the beginning of the discussion" editorial - from the Mainichi Shimbun (Link)

A "Nothing to see here, folks. Let's all move along" editorial - from The Yomiuri Shimbun (Link)

The truth is somewhere in between.

Later - The proposed decapitation of JA-Zenchu figures into the decision to accept Nishikawa's resignation. Since I think the reform of Japan Agriculture is bogus, or at least misrepresented, I am going to just let the whole matter slide.

Later still - The Japan Times has checked in with a report that seems to confirm the Mainichi's view of the current political climate as the more correct one. (Link)

Very Kind of Him #49 - Mongolian Sumo Rikishi Edition

Had a wild and wide-ranging talk with Alastair Himmer of AFP regarding the brouhaha surrounding Hakuho's questioning the video refereeing of his first bout against Kisenosato in the last basho, the one which delayed, but luckily did not interrupt Hakuho's claiming the all-time career basho victory record. (Link)

We can say now that Hakuho should have kept quiet, of course. He did win the rematch, convincingly.

However, what if he had lost the rematch and the loss led to him missing his chance for a 33rd Basho? Denying Hakuho's control of the bout's momentum (Link - J) could have been a stunning blow to the history of the sport. Hakuho has good reason to worry at his age that a climb up into the dohyo might end in an injury cutting short his career, or that the victory of a young upstart (Chiyonofuji v. Takanohana, 1991, May Basho, Day 1: Video - J) might usher him off into inglorious retirement.

Considering how much he has done restore excellence to the sport, it is hard to find fault in his sudden bark of frustration.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Very Kind Of Him #48 - Podcast

Steve Miller of Asia News Weekly caught up with me the other day, allowing me to talk almost coherently about the Budget Speech, the supposed positive inflation/growth cycle and its discontents, constitutional reform and the 2016 House of Councillors election.

Here is the link:

Is China a bully, can Abe complete his reforms, will democracy return to Thailand and More

For the streaming audio click the orange arrow. One can also download the podcast MP3 via the provided link. Mine is the exasperated voice at the beginning of the podcast, with the main body of the conversation starting at the 4:30 mark.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Labor = Capital *

Looking at Japan's perennially and perniciously weak consumer spending, the marriage rates of those not in permanent employment versus those who are, the decades-long reign of "public servant" at the top of "What I want my child to be when he/she grows up" rankings (for example, Bandai - J or Kuraray - J) the speed at the checkout stands at Ozeki supermarkets (I was wrong, Ozeki does employ part-timers -- but only high school students it seems) I am beginning to think that the fundamental divisions of economic factors of production into Land + Labor + Capital are unhelpful and possibly harmful. Indeed, in light of the rise of the glaring social downsides of the increasing fraction of non-permanent workers in the workforce, it may not be hyperbolic to say that looking to the economists of Anglo-Saxon economies for advice on reforms of the Japanese labor market is much like asking anarchists for advice on reform of the banking system.

Yes, I will elaborate.

* Offer geographically restricted. Not available in some countries and territories.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Course Correction Check List - Team Abe's Economic Strategy

Check list for anyone watching for signs of "Oops, Not Everything Is Going According To Plan."

1) Sudden eruption of seemingly serious and repeated talk about constitutional revision (Link)


2) Ridiculous ratcheting up of the rhetoric regarding the historical significance of the Abe Adminnistration (Link)


Thirty-six utterances of the word "reform" in his third Budget Speech. Yow.

Good luck with that, Abe-san.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Color Me Cynical - Islamic Terrorist Threat Edition

The Japanese government is supposedly at a heightened state of alert in the aftermath of the killing of hostage Goto Kenji and the threat made to Japan by ISIL.

But only overseas it seems. (Link)

Apparently here in this blessed land (and never, ever has my catchphrase been more apt) the Most Important Man In The Government and possibly The Most Powerful Man In The World's Third Largest Economy can be met walking, accompanied only by a distinctly unarmed and unmuscular young male aide, toward his office in the Prime Minister's Residence using the underground corridor of Tameike Sanno Station at 7:20 in the morning, his identity and person protected by a down jacket (You want to know the color? That's classified) and a surgical mask.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga, if you want me to believe that your government is taking the threats of terrorists seriously, you might want to consider pretending you take terrorist threats seriously.

Like having at least ONE security officer walking with you, when you venture out in public.

Or at perhaps wearing a hat.

But thank you for proving to me, quite inadvertently and sweetly, that all the talk of Japan becoming a normal nation is just bombastic performance -- that you, of all persons, would find it expedient, during this time of heightened alert, to walk amongst us, like a modern day Mito Komon -- but a million times better than Mito Komon because you are the central government and you have no team of quasi-Ninja martial arts masters or a magical tobacco container to protect you.

Just a cotton mask.

Paper Shrines Of Japan

I was meandering without significant aim through the canyons of books in Maruzen's massive Tama Center store (if there are not 30,000 titles on the shelves I would be surprised) when I chanced upon a quiet, unostentatious display in the "NON-FICTION: WAR" section of the Young Readers area.

Only it was not actually not a display. Someone had set books in an unusual way, face outward, with uneven spacing, almost in disarray.

The titles, furthermore, did not all seem appropriate. Documenting War (Senso o shuzai suru) and Prayers for Rwanda (Ruwanda no inori) fit under the rubric "non-fiction: war" but Born in an Aids Village (Eizu no mura ni umarete) about a teen mother in Romania did not.

Then my heart fell to the floor.

Of course the books belonged together: they were all by Goto Kenji.

Whether intentional or not, the non-display display of Goto's books was right above the shelf of books by and about Malala Yousafzai.

Ms. Yousafzai survived her peace-seeking confrontation with fanatics (who despite their vanity and poses are not servants of the Prophet. Indeed, they are only the scrapings-off of geopolitics).

Goto did not.

* * *

If you are looking, in this year of the 70th anniversary, for a book explaining the postwar struggle over memories of World War II -- and how this struggle affects contemporary Japanese politics, pick up a copy of Dr. Franziska Seraphim's War Memory and Social Politics in Japan, 1945-2005. The cover, which I reproduce below, is of that little remembered and today unimaginable September day when the Japan Communist Party took over the grounds of Yasukuni Shrine.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

JA Zenchu Reform - Really?

Wow. An instance where one really has to read a text all the way to the end...and then wonder "Where in a news organization could one find an employee capable of such mendacious wordcraft as to devise such a headline?" (Link)

Ignoring the absurd opening claim for now, what is one to make of the body of the story? Remember that the Yomiuri Shimbun is the shameless snake-oil platform claiming that every single thing Abe Shinzo attempts is a majestic work of pure genius.

OK, not all the time. But most of the time.

However here, not even the Yomiuri Shimbun could pretend for more than a few seconds that there is a real reform story in the Abe reform of JA-Zenchu.

Read that last paragraph again. When I read it I hear the echoes of the last lines of Animal Farm by George Orwell.

As for the reform plan, all I can see it doing is taking away from JA-Zenchu its serious responsibility to oversee the accounts of the mid-level cooperatives, turning over the oversight function to accounting firms -- which, post-2008, we know to be a terrific, risk-free way of guaranteeing better governance at these bodies -- this in the industry that plays the truly minor role of growing and delivering the food we are supposed to eat.

Later -The Liberal Democratic Party is now complaining about opposition parties denouncing the reform proposals as empty and pointless. (Link-J)

Monday, February 09, 2015

Reading Kingston On Abe And Samuels

Professor Jeff Kingston has produced a highly readable essay on the Prime Minister's moves last week to promote his security agenda. The effort has been multi-pronged, with thrusts on constitutional revision, expansion of the geographic area covered by self-defense, expansion of the definition of self-defense to include damage to the Japanese economy and establishment of a special forces rescue unit. Coming on the heels of what was a diplomatic and humanitarian failure -- everybody died and a vengeful bombing campaign erupted -- Abe-san's full out run for military solutions to international political problems, seems a bit...unseemly. (Link)

Kingston refers to this behavior as swinging for the fences. To be sure, Abe and Company do have incentives to propose way too much in the knowledge that in the back-and-forth of domestic politics ambitious proposals are whittled down to something the country's editorialists can disagree upon.

However, Abe and Co. have a another important reason to overreach now: Abe is the Anti-Koizumi.

Prime Minister Koizumi Jun'ichiro could rely upon what mystified commentators called the Koizumi Magic. On seemingly any issue, Koizumi could transform, through reasoned argument, adamantine will, and an ineffable something, what was a Majority Against into a Majority For. (Archive)

Abe The Second Coming has been demonstrating a consistent and astonishing capacity to do the opposite. On any and every marquee policy proposal Abe and his colleagues drive voter support into the ground -- while leaving the Cabinet's popularity unchanged. The more Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide talk about a policy change, the lower the level of voter support, at least as measured by public opinion polls. One would think that out of pure luck Abe and Co. would chance upon some issue where the stance taken by the Abe government would increase in popularity over time.

No such luck.

So Abe must seek the maximum at the outset, at the risk of appearing to be far ahead of the public mood, out of the practical realization that as he tries to explain what he wants to he will erode whatever confidence the public may have in the wisdom of what he is proposing.

A corollary to the above is that Abe and his team members have a strong incentive to cut off debate at what seems ta midpoint and before the discussion has moved to a deeper level. If Abe is to get anything done, he has to cut his losses and move on -- at the outset.

Which will one day make for a rather confusing and unsatisfying historical record.

As for Kingston's conversation with Richard Samuels, Dr. Samuels (full disclosure: Dr. Samuels is a friend) gives his own paradigms short shrift. In addition to the advocates of rapid expansion of Japan's security program and the advocates of a retreat to first principles of Japanese post-1945 security policy mentioned in the Kingston essay, a full Samuels treatment would fine a third group arguing that even though the attempts to negotiate a hostage release ended up in failure, such negotiations have ended up in failure for every national government other than that of Turkey -- and one shudders to think what the Turks gave up to secure their hostages.

Japan, according to this view, did no worse or better than anyone else. Japan is therefor not on the wrong path in terms of its security policy development. The government and the people should not panic.

Samuels explores this tripartite division of responses to threat and catastrophe in his most recent book 3.11 Disaster and Change in Japan. Amaterasu willing, 3.11 could see the light of day in a Japanese language edition sometime soon.

The key takeaway -- and Samuels hammers away at this in 3.11 and in his public appearances -- is that almost no one comes away from these experiences with his/her assumptions shaken. Those who wanted to accelerate policy change and/or switch Japan's policy direction will find the government's inability to save Yukawa and Goto demonstrates the rightness of their views. Those who advocated steady-as-we-go, progressive, "normalizing" policies will downplay the failure and declare the maintenance of a cool, cerebral demeanor paramount. Those who have disliked the expansion and transformation of Japan's security behavior, advocating either a slowdown or more often a reversal of the processes of the last three decades, will see Yukawa's and Goto's deaths as justifying their caution and skepticism.

Some readers may find Kingston's tone and vocabulary overblown. Consider them responses to the extraordinary gall displayed by certain members of the Japanese foreign policy commentariat who seen it appropriate to condemn/decry the sharp criticism of the Abe government. The calls for national unity and support of the Abe government made by these person who shall remain nameless would fall on more receptive ears if residents of this blessed land could forget the vicious, opportunistic and avaricious attacks showered upon the Kan government in the days immediately following the triple disaster of 3.11, even as the country was reeling from the disruption caused by the earthquake, tsunami and an unfolding massive nuclear accident.

No solidarity then, friends, means no solidarity now -- and no rhetorical restraint now either.

Abe Shinzo's Incredible Tell

The Tokyo Shimbun's cartoonist extraordinaire Sato Masaaki had another great one up in Saturday's newspaper, lampooning the prime minister's reactions to last week actions in the Diet and at the Kantei.

In the first panel, Prime Minister Abe is looking down and Finance Minister Aso Taro is looking angrily annoyed in the House of Councillors Budget committee session. Both have good reason to be both subdued and pissed, as the prime minister came under withering opposition criticism for having provoked ISIL with less-than-fully considered comments in Cairo and a too feebly critical stance toward Israel during his visit there. (Link and Link J - video)

The side board reads: "As for the hostage incidents, day after day in the Diet, an exhausted countenance..."


But then, in the second panel, someone says the magic words "Revise the Constitution!" (let us just say it is Funada Hajime, the Liberal Democratic Party's project team leader on revising the constitution - Link) and sproing, the hitherto seemingly knackered PM leaps to his feet -- which is what he did in the middle of last week, figuratively, going on the offensive on constitutional revision at a time when one would have expected him to be a little more circumspect and reflective. (Link)

The caption at the bottom reads, "Still full of vitality after all!"

Guess constitutional revision is a big Abe favorite. Who would have known?

What I love best about the cartoon is the attention paid to Abe's body language. In the first panel, Abe is depicted holding his hands. Sure, everyone has to do something with his or her hands during the 6 hours plus he or she is sitting in the chairs in Diet Budget session (there is a lunch break after the three hour point). Some Cabinet members hang on to the armrests like they are trying to ride out a gale. Others grip sheaves of paper, some flippantly, some as if for dear life.

Abe, however, has a particular nervous habit. He grasps the three fingers of one hand in between the thumb and forefinger of the other, squeezing and wringing his fingers. He does this hand dance most frenetically when he is being put on the spot, like he was during last week's questioning about his actions and the actions of his government during the Yukawa/Goto hostage crisis.

Sato must have been watching last week's session on the NHK live broadcast. NHK's cameras lingered on the PM even when someone else was speaking, giving the pubkic an up close look at the PM's nervous "tell."

I am not fond of writers who use the word "should" when writing about the politics of Japan. However I would suggest to Prime Minister Abe that if any of the casinos that he has been eager to see built actually gets built maybe he should stay away from the poker tables.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Very Kind Of Them #47

If the Spirit, Who is Life, exacted an eye for an eye, or a tooth for a tooth, this world would indeed be peopled with the blind and the toothless.

Henry Powell Spring (1944)

Another terrible day...(Link)

One of the correspondents of Voice of America called me up yesterday and asked me about the deaths of Yukawa Haruna and Goto Kenji. VoA was then kind enough to include bits of the conversation in a report (Link). To deaths of Yukawa and Goto, we must add three more.

As for the expression of an admixture of emotions from the PM (Link-J and Link-E) I confess my own reaction is one of exhaustion.

George, it is hard to be still waiting for that day of yours. (Link)

As for the affiliation mentioned in the report, it is, in the words of the Nixon White House, no longer operative. I am an adjunct fellow of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University Japan and an advisor at Langley Esquire.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Very Kind Of Her #46

Miyake Kunihiko says that it is. (Link)

I say, "Not according to the opinion polls, it ain't." (Link)

Miyake-san (whom I like a lot, for a good many reasons) has gone overboard in his utterances, carried away by rhetoric and emotion...just like the man who is ever seeking Miyake-san's advice, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo (no exaggeration: Miyake-san is the most important of Abe's private sector security advisors). The PM has been flying off the handle a lot of late, with Chief Cabinet Secretary being forced to step in and reel back expectations.

Many thanks to Elaine Kurtenbach for sending me her questions.

Very Kind Of Them #45

The folks behind the Number 1 Shimbun, the house publication of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan, offered to publish some of my musings about last month's Democratic Party of Japan leadership election.

Very, very kind of them -- and brave. (Link)

Monday, February 02, 2015

Très Gentil De Son Sa Part #44

Daniel Eskenazi asked me what the Japanese public's response to the death of Yukawa Haruna and now Goto Keniji will be. I told him that all I know is what the public opinion polls have been saying. (Link - en Français)

[Nota Bene - link may require registration. If you do not want permanent access to Le Temps, there is the temporary workaround via Google News.]