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.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Live Blogging Law Minister Matsushima Midori's Press Conference

15:15 Merci Joel! Ambush question on Yasukuni. Minister Matsushita indicates she has no intention to visit Yasukuni during her term as minister.

15:10 AAAAAAARRRRRRRGGGHHHHH. Matsushima is the Abe Cabinet's point person on the Secrecy Act, which goes into effect on in December. A room full of journalists forgets to ask her what she is going say in the Diet about defending the rights of journalists.

15:05 Yet another question - or is a question - on Koreans in this case the North Korean schools. Should not the North Koreans be treated as other foreigners.

14:55 D. Leussink asks a question that those who do not know about the impasse Japan's death penalty has represented in the negotiation of an EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement. The EU countries are pushing Japan hard to abandon the death penalty.

14:49 Holy Cow is that Egawa Shoko the Warrior Against Aum Shinrikyo asking a follow up question on the Zaitokukai? Holy crap it is!!!


14:42 Death penalty and Zaitokukai question from R. L. Parry.

"As to the (Zaitokukai) organization, I do not know enough about them to comment?"

MC - "Would you not want to know, as Law Minister, more about this organization?"


14:37 Wicked first question - "You once in Diet session said that trying to accommodate a Muslim prisoner's request to have no pork in his meals would constitute 'reverse discrimination.' Is this still your position?"

14:29 Personal anecdote of how difficult it was to be a working woman in her youth and thus how much she values Prime Minister Abe's advocacy of improving the ability of women to have careers.

14:27 A request from the MC to talk about "Women in Politics" -- one of today's advertized topics -- somehow instigates a long explanation about anti-DV and assault activities.

14:25 Note to self - Minister Matsushita uses an extremely hard "p" in her pronounciation of "Nippon."

14:23 Immigration will be hiring 300 persons this year, a big jump from the current 2200 officers.

14:19 Now the sunny side of the street stuff: Matsushima is in charge of Immigration so she can bubble, as best she can, about welcoming foreigners to Japan in advance of the 2020 Olympics. "Smooth entry into the country" (nyukoku) - particularly for high frequency travelers, like businesspersons.

14:16 (Note to self - the right wing defense league is sitting along the wall on the left side of the room. I guess they heard about the verbal scourging Abductees Minister Yamantani Eriko suffered yesterday.)

14:15 "On the first day of my service as Law Minister, my first act was to order the revision of the sentencing laws that punish theft more severely than sex crimes."

14:10 Lots of explanation of the peculiar situation where property crimes are legally more heinous than sexual assault.

14:05 "Of all my Diet career, that which I am most proud of my part in the drafting of the legislation that became the Victims of Crimes Act."

14:00 Minister of Law (Homudaijin) Matsushima Midori walks in. She has rejected the lectern and is speaking while standing, mike in hand, as if on a campaign stop.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Oh, The Persons You Will Talk To!

This was the scene in the Liberal Democratic Party cafeteria on Friday, the first of the "Whale Meat Fridays" demanded by General Council Chair Nikai Toshihiro and other scientific pelagic whaling-supporting party members.

In the center is Nikai, a representative of the Wakayama district that has in it the infamous town of Taiji, where the residents conduct coastal harvests of dolphins, porpoises and small whales not covered by the International Whaling Commission ban. He is holding aloft a hunk of sei whale (iwashi kujira - Balaenoptera borealis) a species which can only be harvest on the deep ocean. The meat has been deep fried Tatsuta style -- one of the two ways whale was being served on Friday (the other was in a whale meat curry). Former Defense Minister Onodera Itsunori (Miyagi, another whaling prefecture) is among the other politicians visible preparing to have their Sei.

"Whale in an irreplaceable part of Japan's food culture. If foreigners come [to this cafeteria] we will shower them with whale!" crowed Nikai. (Link)

Friday's very public eating of Sei whale conflates and confuses coastal whaling, which is traditional for communities with very little flat, arable land like Taiji or Chiba Prefecture's Wadaura -- and which I support -- and industrial pelagic whaling, which has no traditional basis and is a ward of the government -- a point conceded in the Yomiuri Shimbun's pro-pelagic whaling editorial of yesterday (Link).

Because it is my nature to never leave any dishonest and poorly thought out thing well enough alone, I decided to have a bit of fun on Twitter at the expense of Nikai -- whom I like immensely -- and the other politicians pictured.

A cheap shot, perhaps. However, given the absurd bravura of Nikai's lofting of his whale-laden fork, a not entirely inappropriate cuffing of the chin, metaphorically.

Well, since having loosed the above, you can imagine the number and variety of folks of all persuasions have been blessing me with their opinions. Or perhaps you cannot. Anyway, it has been a lot of folks, some of whom did not see the humor intended.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Tanigaki Pulls Out The Fire Extinguisher

A bit of good news that might otherwise slip by...

Remember how last month, in response to The Asahi Shimbun's retractions of a number of its stories on the comfort women from over two decades ago, the Liberal Democratic Party's Policy Research Council (PARC), under the direction of the now Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Takaichi Sanae, announced its intention to demand that Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide formulate a new Statement to replace the Kono Statement? (Link)

Funny thing about that demand: it had to get past the desk of the LDP's secretary-general.

Now if the LDP secretary-general were still Ishiba Shigeru, the gentleman who really wants to replace Abe Shinzo as president of the LDP and prime minister, the demand might have had a chance of receiving the necessary stamp of approval. Ishiba needs the votes of the freshmen and freshwomen of the Houses of Representatives and Councillors if he is to have even a chance against Abe or Abe's anointed successor in the LDP's internal elections for president. These Diet newcomers are for the most part stubborn on issues of national pride and national honor. Ishiba would have had no choice but to acceded to the PARC's nihilistic demand.

Ishiba, however, has moved on to the possibly greener pastures (it is still unclear whether his choice is a coup or a trap) of wandering about the least populated areas of the country making promises about economic and demographic revival the government cannot possibly keep. In his place at LDP secretary-general is certified Friend of China Tanigaki Sadakazu, who harbors not the least hope or desire to become the party president again.

In a press conference on Tuesday, Tanigaki was asked about the pending demand for a new Statement to replace the Kono Statement. Tanigaki replied:
"Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga has said on numerous occasions that he will not revise the Kono Statement. I would like to be with him on this."
(Link - J)

Tanigaki's response is weak-sounding. Paradoxically, flaccidity makes the response all the more credible. Tanigaki has a history of tripping himself up whenever he has played the implacable tough guy. Saying that he would merely "like to be with" the chief cabinet secretary on the matter of not revising the Kono Statement, however, is in character and thus plausible. Tanigaki's phrasing also leaves plenty of space for him to tell the militants in his party, "Look, I only said 'like to be' -- not 'will,' you know."

For as long as Tanigaki is secretary-general, it seems, the LDP will not be submitting a formal request for a Statement replacing the Kono Statement. This is regardless of Takaichi's having been replaced at PARC chair by Inada Tomomi whose revisionism no less feral than her predecessor's.

All in all, a very good bit of news -- for the Kono Statement is the keystone of the Japan-South Korea relationship. Mess with it and the architecture collapses.

Original creen shot courtesy: NHK News

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Parties Talking To The Party

"Normalization? What normalization? Sino-Japanese relations have always been run throught the Komeito." *

Two weeks ago on Channel News Asia I tried to explain that newly announced Cabinet and Liberal Democratic Party line ups hinted that repair work on the Sino-Japanese political relationship was less likely to be conducted state-to-state as party-to-party. (Link)

Yesterday, at a lecture/press availability, New Komeito vice representative Kitagawa Kazuo revealed that unnamed high-level members of the LDP and New Komeito executive secretariats will be traveling to China in October to meet with counterparts in the Chinese Communist Party in what should be read as a preparatory visit for a possible Xi Jingping-Abe Shinzo direct dialogue on the sidelines of the APEC Summit in November. Unsurprisingly, Kitagawa made mentioned of the two high ranking officials of the LDP I highlighted when I talked on CNA two weeks ago. (Link - J)

Working party-to-party, in what I called in the video a privatization of the relationship, is not necessarily a bad thing, despite the negative connotations "privatization" has. Working LDP/NK-to-CCP certainly allows both sides to get past the cumbersome prerequisites each of the respective governments has declared are the minimal decencies that must be met before the two sides can sit across from each other in those grotesquely overstuffed armchairs the Chinese favor.

However, those of us who still harbor illusions of living in a democracy rather than in what is one of a set of strangely similar Asian plutocratic aristocracies (thank you, Indonesia, for keeping lit the pathetic tiny flame of meritocracy) still must wince at princelings convivially meeting each other in their private capacities rather than facing off against each other in the public arena.

Given how close we might be to stupid shooting breaking out between paramilitary forces of both sides, we possibly should not be so picky about how conversations get restarted.

* Not an actual quote, of course. C'mon.

Image: Kitagawa Kazuo speaking on 17 September 2014.
Image courtesy: New Komeito official website.