Monday, January 28, 2013

Shinzo Does The Minimalist Thing

For a guy whose Cabinet and party are riding high in the polls (Link - J and Link - J) Prime Minister Abe Shinzo delivered a subdued and limited policy speech. (Link - J)

Unsurprisingly, he opened with an executive summary of the Algerian gas plant incident and his government's response to the crisis. Surprisingly, he did not connect the events of the last two weeks with a call for an expansion of the capacity of the Self Defense Forces to carry out evacuations of Japanese nationals.

Also surprising was how much of the the body of the exceedingly brief speech consisted of the pattings of the heads of the pet issues of a tiny minority, ignoring big policy issues of interest to the majority of the electorate. How else to explain the call to build a "respectable and proper society" (matto na shakai) -- the answer, it seems, to everything -- or the call for Japan to aim to be #1 -- a reference not, as some commentators are going to say, to Ezra Vogel, but to a question posed by Democratic Party of Japan legislator Ren Ho to bureaucrats defending Japan's next generation supercomputer program?

It was also striking how much of the speech was delivered in an intellectual crouch. Was it really necessary to kick up the hysteria quotient, declaring the economy, reconstruction of the Tohoku, foreign affairs and education in crisis? Yes, if you are trying to seize power in an election. Yes, if you are trying to foist unpopular programs on a doubting electorate. But when you are front-loading the budgetary and monetary goodies and enjoying 65% Cabinet approval ratings -- do you need to do it then too?

Sometimes one had to wonder whether the various parts in Abe's government are speaking to each other. Who is going to listen to Finance Minister Aso Taro's scoffing at the concept of the Japanese government having a beggar-thy-neighbor weak yen policy (Link) when the prime minister says in his Diet policy speech that unless Japanese policy changes, there will be no way to pull out of deflation and a high yen?

As to foreign policy, who made the calls? Mentioned were:

1) the deepening the Japan-U.S. security relationship, including the third rail of the relationship, the move of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a replacement facility

2) Japan-ASEAN relations

3) trendy threats: terrorism, cyberwarfare and natural disasters

What of China-Japan relations, other than a pledge to increase the national capacity to police Japan's territorial waters and airspace? What of Russo-Japanese relations? What of Japan-South Korea relations?

What of energy policy? Or energy, period? (Just one mention, PLEASE!) What of pensions, eldercare, youth underemployment?

And what are we supposed to make of a promise to return to primary budget balance in the medium term? Those who are interested in the issue know the promise to be a lie, while those are not interested in the issue cannot understand why the promise is being made.

And why as a conclusion, after making all sorts of promises to better Japan and make the lives of its citizens easier (including an eyebrow-raising pledge to make it easier for domestic companies and organizations to recruit non-Japanese employees) wind up the speech with an "Do not ask others what will be done -- the only way to improve your own lives is by your own hands?"

All in all, a surprisingly surprising little speech.

Later, much later - Here is a translated Yomiuri Shimbun article (Link) providing the background to Abe's rhetorical question, "Everyone, shall we not go forward from this day with a goal of being the best in the world?"

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