Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Very Kind Of Them #52

The warm-hearted, open-minded and hard-working crew at East Asia Forum have kindly published "Commission impossible for Abe's foreign policy," -- my brief look at the Commission for a Framework for the 21st Century, the assembly of 16 foreign policy gurus and internationally adept business folk who are to advise Prime Minister Abe on his Statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2015/03/03/commission-impossible-for-abes-foreign-policy/

Mari Yamaguchi of the Associated Press has published a blast on the backgrounds and writings of some of the members of the commission, filling us in on some of the quirks of the individuals involved (Link). Yamaguchi classes Globis Capital Partners chairman and Globis University president Hori Yoshito as being among the group's revisionists. Considering some of the material Hori has published in English -- let us say, this essay -- the categorization may not be unfair.

Live Blogging The Robert Shiller Press Conference



Are We Headed for Another Financial Crisis?
Robert J. Shiller
Economist and Nobel Laureate
Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan
11:00~12:00
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11:06 Shiller presentation: Of course there is going to be a crisis, the history of the last 800 years is a cascade of crises.

11:08 My view is that financial crisis is a crisis of human emotions, the loss of confidence, a psychological effect.

11:09 In 2005, the new edition of Irrational Exhuberrence focused on the housing market, rather than the stock market (first edition focus)

11:10 The weakness/source of concern now is bond markets, where prices of bonds seem way out of line.

11:11 So talk today is about stock markets, housing markets and then some observations of  world bond markets, where the yields are startingly low.

11:15 Cyclically adjusted price earnings (CAPE) in U.S. markets are at their third highest marks in history, second only to the 2000 millenium boom and the 1929 Roaring Twenties.

11:16 Japanese CAPE ratios were astronomical in the EARLY 1980s but now shrunk to global norms.

11:18 Japanese confidence in rising share prices remains aberrantly positive.

11:20 U.S. economy is now in deflation.

11:21 Trend in yields in U.S. bonds in relentless downward, and downward at an almost constant rate for the last 30 years.

11:24 Psychologically, loss of confidence, less of a sense of security, from 1) capitalist ideology (everyone for himself/herself)

11:22 Trends in bond yield declines are a global phenomenon, somewhat irrespective of the particular actions of central banks.

11:24 2) computer technology,

11:25 The result is excess savings and the bidding up of the prices of existing businesses and governments.  The lack of security is thus leading people to cut back spending and/or starting their own businesses.

11:27 Entrepreneurial and development successes are receding, leading to weakness in confidence that is often called secular stagnation.

11:29 Q: How much can politics can change economic psychology? (Abe reference)

11:31 The "Three Arrows" are actually concrete proposals, not an attempt to talk up the economy. That is what makes the proposals worthwhile, as just cheerleading has a poor record of success.

11:33 Shiller - NASDAQ high yesterday, adjusted by CPI inflation, is not at historic highs. So not so significant.

11:34 Japanese confidence bled into world markets, distorting international flows toward Japan, in the same way that overconfidence in tech magic led to NASDAQ historic highs.

11:37 Shiller - I had a conversation with Prime Minister Abe a year ago - unfortunately I (Shiller) did most of the talking so I have little so say about Mr. Abe's thinking about Abenomics.

11:38 (Says an interesting thing about labor force security - MTC here). Shiller sees the easier firing of Japanese workers as a good thing for efficiency. Intriguing...really?

11:42 In the U.S., there is a socialist economy in the housing markets.

11:44 Schiller - Decision to create the euro was politically an act of genius and not an act of genius economically. Euro is important as a symbolic act, but one with too many economic consequences. Symbolism is good.

11:47 Income inequality - Piketty, capital accummulation; Shiller, technological inequality.

11:48 Shiller quotes Norbert Wiener on whether the nuclear weapon or the computer is more dangerous. Worries about robots replacing human labor.

11:50 Abe advisor and fellow Yale economics professor Hamada Koichi is offering commentary on the presentation.


Hamada Koichi
FCCJ press conference of Robert Shiller on 3 March 2015

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11:51 Hamada: "There is a rosy future for the Japanese economy."

11:52 Hamada: "Mr. Abe is holding back, allowing the figures to speak."

"Oil prices are a positive. A million workers have entered the labor force. Wage are increasing. But Abe must do reforms, overcoming obstacles."

11:54 Hamada+Shiller  - Womenomics is important. Shiller: it is inspiring. Hamada: numbers are returning (???) to the job market.

[Nota bene: the % of women in the Japanese workforce is higher than the participation rate for U.S. women - MTC)

11:57 Q: with true declines in populations and aging of populations, is not there no exit out of slowing or contracting economies?

Shiller: government policy to combine career and family is an important step to reversing or slowing decay in confidence.

11:59 If you want to end inequality, you should have career insurance -- takes care of the insecurity of life planning. Governments must have a plan to tax the wealthy and subsidize work, do it now for the future rather than try to deal with inequality (worsening?) in 20 year's time.


Monday, March 02, 2015

That New Illiberal Thing

First there was Noah Smith. (Link)

Then there was John Feffer. (Link)

Now we have Jake Adelstein getting in on the action. (Link)

To which I say, "Um....really?"

Perhaps I am under undue influence of the brighter days of incipient spring but Japan under Abe Shinzo 2.0 does not seem to be on the march toward to illiberalism. Sure, the egregious Special Designated Secrets Act passed on Abe's watch, with ridiculous protections (under wraps for 60 years?!?) for certain government actions. It cannot be denied that he prceding Democratic Party of Japan-led government, had it continued in power, would have presented and passed a similar bill. It was after all the government of Kan Naoto which suffered the humiliation of the uploading to YouTube of the Chinese trawler collision videos by an active member of the Coast Guard.

As to assumption of the onset of an era of silence and spreading darkness, I am not convinced. The voters of this blessed land are too wise to the ways of flim-flam artists to give up their credulity to the Abe administration's message massagers. As to keeping the public bereft of news and new thinking, paraphrasing the original Star Wars, the more Abe and his colleagues have tried to tighten their grip on information and information providers, the more information has slipped through their fingers.

The Momii Katsuto appointment is, for example, frequently cited as evidence of the government seizing editorial control of NHK and thus suppress the public's right to know (Link - a wonderful brand new article by Yoshida Reiji). The conventional wisdom is that with Momii as chairman and a host of other eccentrics as board members of the nation's broadcaster(Link) the arms of network executives would be twisted into pretzels, convincing them of the need to soft-pedal Japan's pre-1945 detours through crazyland and the Abe government's attempts to redefine the past.

As one of the earliest to issue warnings about the pernicious influence of Momii and his fellow band of comedians (Link) I have the distinct pleasure to say I was wrong.

NHK itself of course cannot do mocking reports of the clown show of the Governors' meetings have become. That the network has to leave to the commercial networks. Without hesitation, the commercial networks have kept us abreast of the latest nonsense issuing from Momii, Hyakuta, Hasegawa and whole motley crew.

Anyone who watched the 7 p.m. NHK evening news on the 25th, however, would laugh at my concerns about the governors pressuring the news division to accentuate the positive as regards the Abe administration. On the day of the first meeting of Framework for the 21st Century Commission, the committee of worthies Mr. Abe appointed to advise him on what he should say on the 70th anniversary of Japan's acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration (I have an essay on the commission coming up on the East Asia Forum tomorrow) Takeda Shin'ichi walked the viewers through the key apologetic phrases, displayed in red and underlined, of the Murayama Statement of 1995 and repeated in the Koizumi Statement of 2005 expressing remorse for the invasion and colonization of Asia. Then he presented a series of video clips of Abe Shinzo showing unable to admit or flat out denying the truths of invasion and colonization.

The effect was devastating. The nation's premier newscast could have had a chyron saying "MORON" on the bottom of the screen during the Abe video appearances. However, such would have been insulting to the viewer's intelligence.

As to the non-news programming, ok, yes, this year we are being treated to a biopic of sorts of Abe's big favorite Yoshida Shoin on the flagship Sunday night Taiga Drama. Happy to say, though, the show's ratings have been abysmal.

By contrast, the morning drama series, the most important 15 minutes on television each day, have featured back-to-back during the past year two biographies with searing anti-war, anti-imperialism and anti-authoritarian messages, with record smashing viewership. The ongoing series "Massan" on the Japanese-Scottish couple that brought whisky making to Japan, and its predecessor "An to Hanako" on the Japanese translator of Anne of Green Gables have been hammer blows to anyone arguing there was anything "beautiful" about the Meiji state.

As for the other evidence of a coming era of fear and repression, I have to be skeptical. The oft-quoted numbers are "61" and "1200" -- the first being the ranking of Japan in the Reporters Without Borders rankings of press freedom, down from 10 a few years ago, and the second being the number of signees to a petition decrying increasing self-censorship in Japan...started by a Japanese living in New York City. (Link)

Forgive for being blunt but both these numbers are silly. They are both based on self-evaluations, which means they cannot be objective, and are not in any corrected for swings in emotions. Frankly speaking, given the laws that were already on the books before the Designated Secrets Act, there is no way Japan's news media should have been ranked as high as 10th in the world in terms of press freedom. The drop to 61st place is equally absurd, demonstrating nothing but the volatility of the human heart.

As for the self-censorship issue, goodness me, where to start...except to ask whether the New York based instigator of the present petition would have spent his time more wisely if he had, instead of lambasting the Japanese government for its attempts -- futile, as it turned out -- to discredit critics of its Mideast and security policy floundering, started a petition against the New York-centered U.S. finance industry's successful suppression of critical thinking about the actions of its members and the continued silence of the nation's business press on the robber barons of 21st century capitalism's waltzing away, their bonuses still pouring into their bank accounts, from the torched the savings and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of ordinary citizens all over the globe?

Finally, is there a fundamental contradiction putting one's name on a petition against the evils of self-censorship? Is not not by definition expressing one's opinion, in an open manner?

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)

CHECK!

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

CHECK!

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.