Monday, August 15, 2016

On The Meaning Of Yasukuni Today

Over the next few hours a herd of Diet members will march through the confines of Yasukuni Shrine, participating in an annual political and personal rite. The march will offend many inside Japan and many outside of it. The governments of China and South Korea will offer critical comment.

One focus of attention attention today will be on the number of Diet members who show up (we should expect an uptick from last year's numbers as newly elected members of the House of Councillors make their debuts). Another will be a will she/won't she as regards newly-elected governor of Tokyo Koike Yuriko, whose heretofore staunch nationalist posture now clashes with her task of leading a cosmopolitan metropole.

The greatest emphasis, however, will be on visitations by members of the Cabinet. One, Minister of Reconstruction Imamura Masahiro, already paid his visit to the shrine on Thursday the 11th. Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Takaichi Sanae has vowed to pay a visit today. Minister of Defense Inada Tomomi, who leads a special group within the LDP dedicated to visiting Yasukuni, was suddenly dispatched a study tour of SDF operations in Djibouti. Her gleeful departure from the airport on Friday left little doubt that the purpose of of her trip was the government's trying to keep her away from the shrine on the end-of-war day.

In light of Minister Inada's bubbly egress from Japan it is not inappropriate to revisit a point I have made previously about the August 15 Yasukuni sampai.

For some of the 210,000 or so who visit the shrine on a typical August 15, a visit on the end of war day is an act of REVERENCE, a time to reflect upon and pay tribute to the sacrifices of those died in service to the nation.

For many, including those who arrive in various kinds of dress up – black suits and ties, phony military uniforms or Hawaiian shirts (a favorite of gangster bosses) – the visit to Yasukuni on August 15 is an opportunity to TRANSGRESS, to engage in an activity notable only for being in very bad taste. It is the same delicious sense of being stupid and bad in public, of violating the rules of good society along with one's equally transgressive peers, which is the foundation of the current political support for Donald Trump or the hero worship of Vladimir Putin.

The qualitative difference between the two can be summed up by the difference, in English, between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism is (and for this definition, I am indebted to my TUJ Summer Semester student T. S.) when one loves one's country enough to die for it. Nationalism is (and for this definition, I am indebted to my TUJ Summer Semester student L. K.) is when one loves one country so much one one hates others for it.

For too many showing up today at Yasukuni today it will be nationalism, not patriotism, which propels them through the torii.

Friday, August 05, 2016

The Grand Illusion

Dr. Noah Smith has been one of the great defenders of Abenomics, that amorphous mass of Keynesian stimulus, Friedmanesque monetary policy and Nice Words About Structural Reform, particularly changes in work-life balance allowing women greater access to executive and management positions.

Dr. Smith, however, seems to have undergone a change of heart about the economics of the prime minister. Either that or he has a particular onus against one particular recent seemingly huge announcement: a 28 trillion yen stimulus package, the details of which will be examined in the Diet this Fall (the overal plan received Cabinet approval this week).

Japan's New Stimulus Is Just the Same Old Thing

Japanese growth is still sluggish. Consumers aren't consuming much, and businesses aren't investing. The government doesn't have many options to remedy this, and the Bank of Japan, which has sent both long-term and short-term interest rates into negative territory, has basically no more room to maneuver.

The dreaded Zero Lower Bound is starting to bite. The BOJ is buying more stocks, but this too has its limits -- eventually companies become de facto nationalized, as the government becomes the majority shareholder. That's scary both because it would affect corporate governance, and because it would be politically unpopular. It's also unclear how much of an economic boost the stock-purchasing program has given the country anyway. The BOJ could resort to policies like a higher inflation target or the much-discussed "helicopter money" approach, but so far it has been afraid to take these steps.

With the BOJ seemingly out of the game, demand-side macroeconomic policy is up to the parliament. So this week the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed a new fiscal stimulus package. It is moderately sized: about $45 billion in U.S. dollars this year, and about $60 billion in low-interest loans, to be followed by slightly less next year.

That move might win a few halfhearted cheers from Japan's battered consumers, but it's unlikely to have much of an effect...

(Click here to read more)

Later today (inshallah) Langley Esquire will be posting to YouTube a conversation Timothy Langley and I had yesterday on exactly the same subject.

(For the Langley Esquire YouTube channel, click here)

What should be setting everyone's teeth on edge about both the stimulus package and Abe's recent Cabinet picks, aside from the knowledge that both are in-your-face I-got-mine-suckers giveaways to cronies, is that with majorities in both houses of the Diet, a prostrate opposition, an emasculated bureaucracy, a totally compromised bond market, increasingly compromised equities markets and no rival power centers within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the Abe government has failed to pass a single fundamental structural reform of consequence. No other G7 or OECD leader enjoys the freedom and dominance of Abe Shinzo and his LDP. Abe & Friends nevertheless remain timid and/or clueless.

Amaterasu Omikami, save this blessed land from these poseurs and legacy turkeys.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Friends Of Shinzo Cabinet, Take Two

For the first three years of his second premiership, Abe Shinzo surprised many with his restraint and balance. His Cabinets, with a few exceptions, displayed with a mixture of scandal-free operations, diligent policy implementation and submersion of factional and personal rivalries. A deft hand at personnel and calendar management was evident.

Which is what is making the runup to today's announcement of a new Cabinet lineup such a downer. There are too many returnees, too many members of the Seiwakai (Mr. Abe's own faction), too many non-experts being placed as window dressing in posts requiring expertise and too few unfledged MPs getting their first shot at leading a ministry. Most of the first timers will be doubly hobbled because they will not even have a ministry behind them. Instead they will be state ministers shepherded around by the Cabinet Office.

Staying in place are Suga Yoshihide at Chief Cabinet Secretary, Takaichi Sanae at General Affairs, Aso Taro at Finance, Kishida Fumio at Foreign Affairs, Shiozaki Yasuhisa at Health/Pensions/Labor and the Komeito's Ishii Keichi at Infrastructure & Tourism.

Suga Yoshihide is the heart and soul of the Abe administration. Lacking the prerequisites for leadership of the modern LDP and without a thirst for the premiership, he returns to 1) being charge of the bureaucracy, including the recruitment and advancement of the top 600 bureaucrats, 2) being in charge of the Cabinet's work flow and 3) being the chief government spokesman.

Enough for anybody, really.

Takaichi and Shiozaki are Abe loyalists. Both served Abe as cabinet ministers in his first term (2006-07). Aso is something an Abe frenemy. He needs to be kept close even though 1) he cannot fundamentally be trusted and 2) his tongue repeatedly creates controversy.

Entering the Cabinet are Inada Tomomi and Seko Hiroshige. Both are more than mere Abe loyalists: they are sycophants. Seko indeed has played Mini-Me to Abe these past three years (Link), traveling with him around the world, making a particular spectacle of himself in dealings with Vladimir Putin. Both are largely amateurs in the policy areas they will be managing.

The inclusion of Inada and Seko in the Cabinet, combined with the retention of Takaichi and the rumored slide of Abe personal retainer Furuya Kenji into the vacant party post of elections chairman sends a distrubing message -- that Abe, post-House of Councillors 2016, is not in a mood to share with other factions and forces within the LDP. Closeness or service to the party president will be rewarded; all others will just have to lump it.

Loyalty is of course important for rulers. However, so are knowledge and perspective - neither of which sycophants and/or personal debtors can provide. Leadership demands that one restrain oneself, not take all one can, convincing those not in the inner circle that the system has rewards, not just humiliations, for them.

Abe's seeming abandonment of magnanimity and restraint has me worried. Abe put together a similar team of loyalist and fellow travelers in 2006, one which the news media dubbed the "Friends of Shinzo" Cabinet. Their calamitous performances individually and as a Cabinet make me worried about their echo today.

[For my earlier take on the proposed new lineup of the LDP secretariat, click here.]

The New Abe Lineup At Party Central

In few hours Prime Minister Abe Shinzo will unveil his new lineup for the top party posts of the Liberal Democratic Party and a new Cabinet. From hints that have been leaked to the new agencies so far, Abe seems to be proceeding on the assumption that loyalty and closeness to him, not competence, experience or judgment, should be his main selection criteria.

LDP Party Secretariat

Replacing the seriously injured Tanigaki Sadakazu at Secretary-General will be Nikai Toshihiro. Leader of a medium-sized faction, Nikai was long seen as a potential rival of the Prime Minister. During his stint as chairman of the Diet Budget Committee Nikai was extremely solicitous of opposition members pounding away at the Abe government and the prime minister himself. In the last year or so, however, Abe has made a special effort to woo Nikai, kicking him upstairs into the special post of Chairman of the General Council and visiting him in his home district. The Wakayama legislator has reciprocated with pledges of loyalty and friendship, the most dramatic of which was his recent post-election expression of support for an extension of Abe's presidential term past the party rules-determined 6 years.

[For those with issues as regards Japan's killing of cetaceans, it's panic time. The whaling fleet's mother ship is homeported in Abe's district. The Taiji dolphin-killing "cove" is in Nikai's.]

The appointment of Nikai means that once again the LDP's day-to-day management will be in the hands of a politician with links to China. Tanigaki's ties were largely emotional, his affection for Chinese poetry being one of his remarked-upon traits. Nikai's ties, however, are much more nuts-and-bolts. He is probably the active legislator with the deepest and broadest network of ties with officials and politicians of China. His appointment will likely both please and pain the CCP. If Nikai asks to come across the water and meet with a few old friends, how can the Chinese government refuse?

Ostensibly keeping an eye on Nikai will be Hosoda Hiroyuki, who will take over Nikai's chairmanship of the LDP General Council. Hosoda is the leader of the Seiwakai, the largest faction and the faction to which Abe belongs. It is a measure of Abe's respect for and wariness of Nikai that he has asked his faction leader to step in and run the party’s main meetings.

Moving out of her party position of policy chief and into the Cabinet is Inada Tomomi, a protégé of the Prime Minister's and a fellow Seiwakai member. She will be taking over the defense portfolio – a symbolic, not substantive choice, as Inada has heretofore not been seen as taking a particular interest in defense issues (her own interests can be gleaned from the name of her personal Diet member group, "The Tradition and Innovation Association"). She is also something of an arriviste in party circles, having only served four terms in the Diet. She will be leapfrogging over some 70 LDP legislators who 1) have more elections to the Diet than her and 2) have never served in a Cabinet post.

Taking over her spot as chairman of the Policy Research Council and rising ever so slightly in party rank will be Motegi Toshimitsu. Motegi was the chairman of the party's elections strategy committee and thus nominally the architect of the party's wins in the Hokkaido #5 by-election and the July 10 House of Councillors election this year. However, since the LDP is fighting what is still a prostrate and disarmed opposition, Motegi's actual motivational and organizational strengths remain in question.

Motegi seems to be one of Abe's most important cultivated allies. The Harvard master's degree holder and former McKinsey consultant is a frequent guest and golf partner of the PM. He also has as many elections to the Diet (8) as the PM. Motegi would seem a possible a dark horse candidate to step in to the premiership, should the PM need to suddenly step down. However, Motegi did not start out his political career in the LDP, having first won his seat as a member of the opposition Japan New Party (Nihon Shinto).