Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Hitting The Road

Playground (2015). Image by MTC.

Why should I care?
Why should I care?

- Pete Townsend, "5:15" (1973)

There's no success like failure
and failure's no success at all.

- Bob Dylan, "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" (1965)

It was not a terribly good weekend for Democratic Party of Japan leader Okada Katsuya. Liberal Democratic Party/Komeito coalition-backed candidates won 10 out of 10 governor seats up for election. The LDP came out as the top seat holder in 40 of the 41 prefectural assemblies holding elections, the sole blot on the perfect record being in Osaka Prefecture. The DPJ finished out the day with fewer total seats in the both the prefectural and the 17 specially designated city assemblies. And to top it off someone hacked Okada's personal Twitter feed on Saturday, generating a flood of spam tweets to all of those following his feed.

The LDP did all right. Its candidates certainly won the governorships. However, only two of the races -- Hokkaido and Oita -- were competitive. In truth, not even the Oita race was competitive, as in former Socialist bastion Oita former Socialist prime minister Murayama Tomiichi campaigned for the LDP-Komeito candidate, an old friend of his. The LDP raised the number of prefectures where it holds an outright majority in the assembly from 21 to 24. It finished the day with 50.48% of all prefectural seats nationwide. On the minus side, the LDP's total number of prefectural seats fell by 43 to 1153.

The big winners were the Japan Innovation Party, the Komeito and the Communists. The JIP increased its national total in the prefectures from 62 to 70 seats and won a plurality if not a full majority of the seats in the Osaka prefectural assembly. The Komeito won every seat it contested on the prefectural level, going from 169 seats to 169 seats (demonstrating once again the party leadership's knowledge of its voters) and raised its seat totals in the specially designated cities from 172 seats to 174. Indeed only one Komeito candidate failed to win a seat on Sunday, coming up short in a race for a seat in the Osaka City assembly.

The Communists, in many races the only opposition candidate, had a field day. The JCP blasted from 75 total seats to 111 in the prefectural assemblies. The JCP now owns at least one seat in every prefectural assembly, including the six not holding election this cycle - a historic first for the party. In the specially designated city assemblies, the JCP moved past the DPJ as the #3 party in the nation, raising its seat totals in these cities from 103 seats to 136 (the LDP is #1 with 301 seats, the Komeito #2 with 174).

All the wins and losses, however, come with a caveat: voter turnout was terrible. New record lows for voter turnout were set in 38 of the 41 prefectures holding assembly votes. In the specially designated city assembly races, 12 of 17 suffered new record low turnout. On average, voter turnout in the gubernatorial elections was down over 5% from turnout in 2011, the one big exception being the competitive race in Hokkaido. However, even in the Hokkaido gubernatorial race turnout declined, from 59.62% to 59.46%.

Average turnout for prefectural assembly (brown line) and gubernatorial (blue line) elections since 1947. Image courtesy Tokyo Shimbun.

Bad turnout of course favors the parties with strong with strong internal mechanisms guaranteeing dutiful voting by its members and clients. It disfavors, and indeed is a symptom of the weakness of, parties that rely attracting floating voters for their victories.

Hence, the DPJ did as well as it should have done -- which is not well at all.

There is a serious amount of specious framing going on of the results as well. News accounts have portrayed the DPJ's losses in the prefectural assemblies as devastating, with the Yomiuri Shimbun crowing:
In prefectural assembly elections in 41 prefectures, the total number of seats won by DPJ-backed candidates fell 82 from the previous elections to 264.

Of course, the Yomiuri's editors know full well that the DPJ of 2011 is not the DPJ of today. The DPJ that ran candidates in 2011 was the big tent DPJ, before the departures of Ozawa Ichiro and friends over the consumption tax rise and the skedaddling of the mostly Kansai-based opportunists to Hashimoto Toru's Isshin no kai.

A look at the numbers

Image courtesy: NHK News

shows that the DPJ was defending only 276 seats on Sunday. The party's candidates won 264 prefectural seats, a decline of -4.3% in the national total. The purported big winning LDP (for that is the way the Yomiuri characterized the LDP's results in its English-language edition) was defending a 1196 seats total. Finishing with 1153 means a decline of -3.6% nationally.

Not that dramatic a difference if you ask me.

The results on Sunday, however, do demonstrate the hurdles Okada-san and the DPJ have to overcome in order to return the party to good graces with the voters, if not with political reporters and editors:

- get people excited about voting again (like I said in this article)

- dump the chase-a-scandal-a-day tactics in the Diet. Spending time grilling cabinet members about their political funding organizations did not make the DPJ more popular this winter. The days of haranguing and the decidedly minor revelations did not affect the public opinion polling of the Cabinet or the LDP. (The videos of the latest NHK poll results are available here and here.)

The latter is easy. The former, however, is hard. The DPJ rode in blissful ignorance on the escalator to power in 2009, propelled upward by a 25 year cycle of "Anyone But The LDP" public revulsion at Japan's ruling party. When being just "anyone else" is sufficient for victory, one can be, as the DPJ was in 2009, just a pale-lipped copy of the LDP, with the LDP's political DNA still visible beneath the overlay of an opposition party.

We now live in an era of "One Strong, Many Weak" (ikkyo tajaku). A superpowerful LDP feeds off of and encourages lower voter turnout, resulting in Japan's wild deviation from Duverger's Law (don't laugh at the link).

For the DPJ to become more relevant and for democratic processes to revive Okada and his loyalists have to come up with popular policies, not just popular-sounding policies. The party has to nurture a generation of new politicians while submitting its existing apparatus and message to rigorous and regular testing.

Otherwise, this happens -- and will keep happening.

The effort may be futile. As I have stated any number of times, a hard conservative Abe Cabinet and LDP, running the loosest and most liberal economic policy in the developed world leaves very little room on the political spectrum for the DPJ to plant its flag on.

However, if the results of Sunday demonstrate anything to Okada and Company, it is that the DPJ's present path and strategy have no future.

Change or decay -- it will be one or the other.

* * *

With this, I will be taking a break from regular posting for a while. I need to devote my energies to a new venture. I may pop in and out every so often, if changes in the political climate merit comment.

Time, as Robert Allen Zimmerman would have it, for my boot heels to be wanderin'.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Very Kind Of Him #57 - The Flip Side Of My Remarks

Jeffrey Kingston of Temple University Japan has quoted me copiously in an opinion article published in The Japan Times (Link: Abe gets negative reviews ahead of U.S. visit). The quotations are certain to make me persona non grata in the Kantei.

I am grateful for Professor Kingston's quoting me. The quotes are verbatim.

However, I disagree with characterization that my overall assessment of Abe is negative.

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo is not really the majority of the population's idea of a dream date. The PM lacks most of the commonly recognized personality traits and qualities of a successful politician. Nevertheless, his Cabinet is the most reliably popular one for three decades. Abe is also fully back from the political Siberia his illness banished him to in September 2007. For four years he wandered the halls or slumped in his seat in the upper reaches of the House of Representatives, a weird ghostly figure. His resurrection and return should be the stuff of legends.

Abe has also fulfilled the proposition I set forth in February 2013: that he and his team will provide Japan with stable government (Video and Slides). The political opposition remains, three years out from the Noda Yoshihiko Self-Destruct Dissolution, an afterthought, a mosquito buzzing around the ruling coalition -- annoying but easily crushed. Heck, the opposition could not even snatch the Hokkaido governorship in today's first round of the Unified Local elections. (Link - J)

Abe, of course, has not just kept the opposition down and irrelevant: he has outmaneuvered and marginalized almost every potential political rival inside the LDP. The last possible holdout against "Abe's Way Or The Highway," LDP General Council Chair Nikai Toshihiro, a frequent critic of several key Abe administration policies, declared in an article published this week that "all of the holders of the top leadership posts of the LDP" is in support of Abe's reelection as party president this fall" -- meaning himself included. (Link - J)

As for "Abe Magic" and the "Abe Paradox" in the article -- again, correctly recorded -- these simple phenomena observable in the public polling data. They are also two manifestations of a single astonishing achievement: the conjuring up of a sense of inevitability to Abe's continued rule despite his inability to convince the majority of the voters to support whatever it is he is planning to do. Are the voters so starved for stability in the prime minister's spot that they are willing to say they support a Cabinet whose policies they do not like?


Not at lot has gone really right in Abe's second stint. The economy is still weak; the monetary carpet bombing of the land with yen has not resulted in zero inflation; the collective self defense proposals are a spaghetti bowl of promises (and way behind schedule); Okinawa is in open revolt.

However, it is year three, Abe is still here and he is sticking to his much delayed agenda. He is letting all the hardships, bad news (the Algerian gasworks attack; the Hiroshima landslides; the murder of Goto Kenji) and missed targets roll off his back. Of course, a PM with a majority in the House of Councillors and a supermajority in the House of Representatives should be invincible. Abe's successors, from both LDP and Democratic Party of Japan, have shown how it is possible to fail in this blessed land's top office despite controlling more than the requisite number of seats in both Houses.

Abe succeeds despite himself. That is not negative. It is amazing.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Abe, Abe Uber Alles

No, this is not one of those childish comparisons of Abe to Hitler, complete with photo of Abe with a penciled in mustache.

No, this is a post praising Abe for succeeding in driving the country forward according to his plan and pretty much according to his schedule, with virtually zero political consequences.

Yesterday, the House of Councillors passed what was nominally the largest budget on record. True, passage came 9 days after the start of the new fiscal year, necessitating a brief bridge budget to keep the government offices open. Still considering that calling a December House of Representatives election blew the budget compilation process right out of the water...and furthermore considering that the opposition spent the last two months pounding away at the discrepancies, errors and dissimulations in the campaign finance declarations of members of the Cabinet, the dispute over the safety of nuclear reactor restarts, increasing economic disparities or the continuing strife in Okinawa, passing the budget only nine days late should probably be seen as something of a minor miracle.

While we are on the topic of the obstructionist tactics of the opposition, they ended up being an immense waste of time. The Cabinet's popularity stayed basically steady; the a-historially high levels of support for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party did not budge; and support for the mainstream opposition Democratic Party of Japan and the Japan Innovation Party stayed limited (5% to 8%). After expending two months of Diet time in attacks, the ruling party and opposition are pretty much where they were before the Diet session opened.

Opposition parties at some point will have to shake off the habit of chasing after minimal violations (like Minister Matsushima Midori's fans), admitting that these harrying tactics have never been more than facilitation of factional and individual fights within the LDP. Abe has outmaneuvered and marginalized every possible rival within his party sos plashing the PM with mud cannot raise the prospects of intra-party rivals to try to replace him.

Oh, what a lucky (or clever) party leader the PM is.

Even Abe's supposed Achilles' heel -- his revisionist views of history. Of the three East Asian leaders who set forth on the journey to consolidate their political base, it is Republic of Korea President Park Geun-hye who finds herself odd person out. China'x Xijinping and Abe have tranformed themselves into the unquestioned and popular (if we make the Abe Cabinet's popularity equivalent to Abe's personal appeal -- which I suspect it actually is not) leaders of their parties and their governments. Park has not.

We should not be surprised if we see a shift in the emphasis of Xi's diplomacy away from the presumably pliant but weak Park to the stubborn and difficult yet in command Abe.

Not surprising that the equities markets gave a cheer this morning, the Nikkei jumping above 20,000 for the first time in 15 years.

For like a colossus is our Abe, perhaps hollow inside but hard without, standing aloof and tall, way above all who surround him.


Thursday, April 09, 2015

Three Fine Things In The Background

Three very fine things giving a frisson when looking at the images broadcast of Their Imperial Majesties' visit to the war memorials in the Republic of Palau:

1) That it is Muraki Atsuko, there on the left in the above screen shot from NHK, who is the master of ceremonies. Muraki is one of the very few victims of a prosecutorial frame-up to ever to win full exoneration and restitution, with the prosecutor who fabricated the evidence against her going to prison in her stead. (Link)

2) That Muraki is not just some flunkey or monomaniacal freak but a straight arrow, high-achieving, dedicated human being in what can only be described an awesome marriage whom the prime minister can take pride in having appointed to the highest office available to her in what was then only the second appointment of a woman as a vice minister. (Link)

3) That it is the Vice Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare presiding at the commemoration events at the newly refurbished memorial on the island of Peliliu, not the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs -- making it crystal clear once again that it is the MHLW, not MOFA, that is in control of war memory in Japan.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Over The Borderline Of Stupid

Ceci est un Japon

Yesterday the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) announced the results of the screening (kentei) of social science textbooks . The screening, which is for textbooks to be used in the nation's middle and high schools beginning April 2016, found 102 of 104 textbooks passed the new criteria established this past January -- a rather stunning display of quickstep obedience. (Link)

What is making this story newsworthy is the lockstep acceptance by book publishers of a word, that word being koyu (固有), usually translated as "inherent" -- as in the following:
All social studies textbooks for middle school students will include descriptions of the Takeshima islets and the Senkaku Islands as "territories inherently belonging to Japan," among other similar phrases, according to the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry.
By saying that not just the Senkaku Islands, where Japan has administrative control, but Dokdo and the Southern Kuriles, where it does not, are all "inherent" territories, the government of Japan is saying that no deals can be struck as regards the final sovereignty of any of these territories and territorial waters.

Which, if you are in the business of solving problems and working toward better tomorrows, which is sort of what democratic governments are supposed to be doing, most of the time (thank you, Immanuel Kant) would be an INCREDIBLY STUPID THING TO INSIST IS YOUR POSITION.

Let us say a Chinese, Russian or South Korean diplomat meets her counterpart in Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The conversation between the two will have to go something like this:

Japanese Diplomat - "I am sorry, but we have nothing to discuss on the matter of sovereignty. The territories are Japanese. End of discussion."

which will most likely be immediately followed by a:

"Hey, wait, where are you going? Stop, stop! I am supposed to sit down with you and discuss things!"

One of the great characteristics of Japanese diplomacy, at least until recently, was the careful consideration done of the potential repercussions of a statement. Whereas Russian or Chinese diplomats (I cannot speak about the ROK diplomatic corps) can be trusted to utter provocative, extremist nonsense, Japanese diplomats have prided themselves on locutions that almost-but-not-quite stake out a position -- a stance that reflects both national aspirations AND reality.

These new criteria claiming that Takeshima, all of the Northern Territories and the Senkakus are all inherent territories -- which is to say that letting go of even a square millimeter of them would diminish Japan as an entity -- mark a surrender to the surreal.

Any deal on control of the Senkakus, on Dokdo, on the Southern Kuriles would be just that: a deal. A deal presupposes compromise and compromises means sacrifice. If one states at the outset that no sacrifice is possible -- "It's either my way or the highway, amigo" -- then one is just being an ass and a damned dangerous one too.

A declaration of a standard of "negotiations without sacrifice" is an example of the threat highlighted by Professor Alexis Dudden in her widely misunderstood op-ed for The New York Times, "The Shape of Japan to Come" (Link). Many reading the op-ed thought Dr. Dudden was issuing a warning that the Abe government was positioning Japan for a military conquest/occupation of disputed territories and territorial waters. Calling Mr. Abe's views "revanchist" did little to discourage such an interpretation.

What Dr. Dudden was trying to convey was likely a more limited warning -- that the Abe administration is leaving reality behind, promising not only to do things it has no intention of doing (the usual business of politics) but also things it cannot possibly do. A government that promises its citizens they are all going to Heaven (a paraphrase of the reaction of one my colleagues to Abe's speech to the Diet of 10 September 2007, delivered two days before he announced his resignation) is not likely to be a helpful international actor, nor a particularly reliable one.

That MEXT officials (and their counterparts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) want to claim for themselves that the impossible is true is bad. That they should want, through the kentei process (and in MOFA's case, through the intimidation of non-Japanese journalists) to insist that everyone shares their grand delusions, is idiocy.

Later - Thanks to reader AO for quickly catching my superfluous insertion of a decade.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

A Non-participation Nation

"If people don't want to come out to the ballpark, how are you going to stop them?"
- Yogi Berra
A startlingly high fraction of this blessed land's prefectural, local assembly and mayoral seats go uncontested. In the last Unified Local Elections cycle in 2011 about 40% of electable positions were awarded without a vote, a figure raising serious questions about just how democratic Japan's democratic system of governance is.

On Friday, the candidate lists for the 12 April 2015 prefectural assembly elections came out. The Bad News is that the previously low level of competition in the prefectural assembly races has for the most part deteriorated. A record 21.9% of the seats will be awarded without an election, the highest level of non-election since the establishment of the current local administration system in 1947. In 321 electoral districts – ONE THIRD -- of the 960 total electoral districts (some districts award more than one seat) -- there will be no voting. In Kagawa Prefecture, 27 of 41 seats -- 65.8% -- will be awarded without contest. In 25 of the 41 prefectures holding elections the number of seats going uncontested is worse than in 2011, which was an election held in the immediate aftermath of the Great Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, a time when the eastern half of the country was still experiencing acute shortages in basic goods and services and the national mood was somber and subdued.

The Good News is that:

1) Shimane Prefecture, which had an absurd 70.3% of its seats filled without elections in 2011, will only have 13.5% of its seats filled without a contest this time

3) in Yamaguchi and Osaka there are to be elections for every seat – whereas in 2011 no prefecture had zero uncontested seats.

(apologies for the split image)





Saturday, April 04, 2015

Womenomics Comes Up A Cropper

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has to be given credit for talking a lot about the empowerment of women in government and the workforce. He has made very visible progress in appointing women not only to cabinet and top party posts but even pushing the bureacrats into accelerating the promotion of women among the ranks.

However, where it counts -- in the fostering of future women leaders -- Abe's "Womenomics" push has come up embarrassingly short of the rhetoric. In the 41 prefectural assembly races being held on April 12, the Liberal Democratic Party is supporting 1319 candidates. Only 48 of those 1319 candidates -- a miserable 3.6% -- are women.

Nationwide, 379 of 3273 (11.6%) of the candidates for prefectural assembly seats are women.

The percentages of women candidates for the other major parties:

Komeito 8.9% *
Japan Innovation Party 10.0%
Democratic Socialist Party 16.2%
Democratic Party of Japan 16.8%

Top ranking and applause goes to (no surprise here) the Japan Communist Party, with 46.5% of its candidate list being made up of women.

In terms of the prefectures, Hyogo is tops nationwide, with 26 women (20.2%) among the 129 candidates vying for seats in its assembly. On the other side of the ledger, Saga -- an LDP bastion -- has ONE woman among the 48 candidates vying for seats in its assembly.

Sources: Asahi Shimbun, Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Kobe Shimbun

*A low number of women candidates is one of the recurring peculiarities of Komeito, both a manifestation of and in seeming contradiction to the immense power of the Married Women's Division inside the Soka Gakkai.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Very Kind Of Him #56

Even though the disputes Stephen Harner and I have over Chinese international conduct and the outlook for a Pax Sinica can only be described "volcanic," Mr. Harner was incredibly kind to me the other day, mentioning my East Asia Forum post in his latest essay for Forbes. (Link)

As one example of my differences with Mr. Harner's assertions, I cannot see how Japan's national interest would be served by its joining in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. I do know that Japan's interest is served by not closing the door on Japan's participation at some later date, which Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide has done by saying that "Japan has no plans to participate at the present time." (Link - J Video)

Oh, maybe participate, someday. Just not today.

Comprendo, mi amigo?

Very Kind Of Them #55 - Straight Out Of Coffee Edition

A non-appearance (phone only) appearance on Channel News Asia.

Monday's collapse of service on Tobu Railways's Nikko Line (memo to me: I think* Tobu Railways is an absolutely terrible company) left me far from my computer and Skype, with the battery on my phone at near empty.

With the recording window immanent, I stepped off the train at X Station, went to the local Major International Coffee House Chain outlet, bought a mug of coffee, plugged in my near dead phone into one of the complimentary electrical outlets and asked to talk to the manager.

Manager Y was a magnificently self possessed young woman, who at no point seemed fazed by a crazed, backpack-toting hiker babbling about doing a smartphone Skype broadcast from her store. She had me explain twice what I wanted to try to do, told me that company policy allows no video recording without explicit permission from headquarters -- so a Skype call with video was a no-no -- but if I wanted to talk on the phone to a international television network about South Korea-Japan relations in the 50th anniversary year of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, sure, she would be happy to turn down the volume of the music in the packed store for the quarter-to-half an hour I might be talking to the host in Singapore.

Which is what she did.

Thanks also to the network, for their flexibility, patience and professionalism. The staff improvised, pulling down from the Web the picture of me from almost a decade ago and pasting it to a photo of Mt. Fuji with cherry blossoms (full disclosure: I am not a big sakura fan) to make up for the lack of a Skype video feed.

Please check out the result.

* My friends with legal backgrounds have explained to me that sticking a superfluous "I think" in front of a statement makes it an opinion and thus not legally actionable. Not having the "I think" (it is my blog, who else would be doing the thinking?) could be considered either slander or libel.

Very Kind Of Them #54 - Local Elections Edition

The latest installment of Langley Esquire's "Tokyo On Fire" series of YouTube videos/ITunes podcasts on burning issues in Japanese politics was an incredible gas to record. I was forever at the brink of talking way too much (Since when have you ever had a sense of proportion in matters pertaining to Japanese politics? - Ed.) but was pulled back by presenter Timothy Langley and fellow guest Dr. Nancy Snow.

Please check it out: Tokyo on Fire: Episode 8 - Japan's Local Elections

Two small errors:

1) I am an Adjunct Fellow, not Professor, at Temple University Japan's Institute for Contemporary Asian Studies, 

[Memo to Me, Memo to Me: compose announcement regarding changes along these lines for publication later]


2) I say at one point that 23% of prefectural and municipal assemblies have no women in them at all. That number is too high. The correct number is 21% of Japan's 1788 assemblies have no women members. (Link)