Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Gone Swimming

In case readers are wondering, and in the hope that they care, the author has been outside of Tokyo since election day.

Regular posting will resume on June 30, Amaterasu willing and a typhoon don't arise.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly Election

As is my habit on voting days, I accompanied The Lawyer to the local elementary school.

The Lawyer stood for a long time in front of the panel of candidate posters. A long time. And the Lawyer was not alone in taking an inordinate amount of time for a study of the 14 faces there.

Finally the Lawyer came to a decision, of sorts.

“I can’t believe it. I don’t have a choice! I might have to vote for the Communist!"

“Why?” I asked, barely containing giggles.

“Well, I have to at least show I want to protect the Constitution!”

* * *

Voting for the Communist in one’s district’s election for members of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly will not do anything to protect the Constitution, of course. However, I can commiserate with the Lawyer’s predicament, as well as the couple with two children in tow who were trying to rationalize voting for any one of the 14 candidates, the top four of whom would be elected to the TMD’s 127 member Assembly. Flakes, freaks and fanatics are jostling for what seems to be on the surface a not terrible difficult job, the Assembly being in session less than five months of the year. (Link)

Turnout is likely to be light. It is a lovely day in the TMD, meaning that lots of folks will be heading out for the day. There are no pressing wedge issues and Mayor Inose Naoki is still a new, relatively popular and well-regarded manager (his demonstrated lack of any skills at dealings with non-Japanese being a source of bemusement rather than condemnation). There is a national election in a month’s time, meaning whatever anger issues voters have can be expressed at members of the Diet, rather than lowly, local assemblymen and women.

A few things to keep in mind regarding this local election:

The superlatives - Though the Wikipedia page on the populations of the world’s cities argues otherwise, the TMD, with its 13 million registered residents living on 2,188 square kilometres of landfill, low hills and along dark mountain valleys, is still one of the most populous cities in the world. If it were an independent country it would rank 70th on the world list.
The TMD has the largest economy of any urban unit on earth -- and the third largest economy of any unit of local government , smaller only than the U.S. states of California and Texas. If it were an independent country its GDP would make it the 16th largest economy in the world, in between South Korea and Indonesia. Its 2013 budget is 6.6 trillion yen (USD $64 billion at current exchange rates).

Lukewarm competition The 14 candidates vying for just 4 spots in the above example is outside the norm in terms of competitiveness. In many of the districts over half of those running will win seats. In total, 253 candidates are vying for the 127 spots …which makes the plethora of joke and freak candidacies all the less excusable.

The ruling coalition’s reputation - this is a local election, so it should not mean diddly about national politics. However, the parties have imbued this fight with a great deal of symbolic energy, with members of the Cabinet and the Diet campaigning like crazy on behalf of these local officials.

Given the way the national party popularity opinion polls have been running, the Democratic Party of Japan, which is defending only 44 of the 58 seats it holds, is going to get squelched. The Liberal Democratic Party, having taken back all the old constituencies that sheltered under its “big tent,” will do extremely well. However, since it is only running 59 candidates, it will be in essentially in the same position the DPJ has been. The New Komeito, the LDP’s partner in the ruling coalition, will do well thanks to the large numbers of members of the Soka Gakkai sect living in the TMD. If turnout is light, the New Komeito will do very, very well indeed.

The only way the election will make news is if the LDP-New Komeito victory is less-than-overwhelming. If the ruling coalition fails to extirpate the DPJ and/or if mini-parties like the Japan Restoration Party or the Your Party do well, then pundits and prognosticators can start promoting a “the public is not convinced” narrative regarding the Abe Cabinet’s policies, particularly the Three Arrows of Abenomics.

Hashimoto Toru and his movement - The election is supposedly also a mid-term referendum on the Osaka City mayor’s co-leadership of the JRP. Hashimoto has intimated that if the party performs as national polls indicate, which is miserably, he will have think about resigning with having seriously damaged his movement’s viability. Just how this state of affairs came into being -- that the Osakan co-leader of an anti-Tokyo populist movement is on the hook for how the party performs in a Tokyo election, while the co-leader who is a Tokyo resident is not -- is a thing of wonder.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Prime Minister Abe On Facebook

The Asahi Shimbun insists that we pay for English language content (Link). Non-Japanese speakers have had to therefore wait for Toko Sekiguchi's account to learn about the Prime Minister's losing it when Tanaka Hitoshi chided the Abe administration for creating the impression of a rightward tilt in Japanese politics.
Japan PM Facebook Foray Draws Allies, Arguments

In the year since he opened his Facebook account, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has embraced the social media site in a way that's unlike any of his predecessors, praising it as a direct channel to the public...


In a newspaper interview, Hitoshi Tanaka, an ex-diplomat who played a crucial role in the negotiations between Tokyo and Pyongyang over the return in 2002 of five Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea in the 1970s, voiced his concern that the prime minister’s recent comments on wartime history and his push to revise the constitution were being perceived as Japan's "rightward tilt" by the international community.

Mr. Abe went on the offensive on his Facebook page, reminding his nearly 367,000 "followers" and some 4,800 "friends" that Mr. Tanaka claimed 11 years ago that the abductees should be eventually returned to North Korea as initially agreed to with Pyongyang. Mr. Abe called Mr. Tanaka's decision then "a decisive mistake for a diplomat," dismissing him as "unqualified to speak about diplomacy."

Right off the bat, though it was a non-sequitur, the prime minister was right about Tanaka's having been wrong about returning the abductees to North Korea. For the North Koreans to get double-crossed in a brutal, calculating way -- by the Japanese, of all people -- taught Pyongyang to not underestimate the mental tenacity of opponents -- a lesson the new DPRK leadership has, over the course of this last year, seemingly had to learn all over again.

More important, however, is what Abe's lashing out at critics has shown about his character.

First, that despite all the buffing from the message masters at home and allies in Washington, Abe remains insecure and reactionary, with an ability to descend into name calling when challenged. (Link)

Second, that those closest to him still think him a child:
Other lawmakers weighed in on the row. Economy Minister Akira Amari tried to downplay the round of name-calling, explaining this week that the 58-year-old prime minister is a "hot-blooded youth" whose endless duties have left him high-strung.
Amari, who has been gaffe-central in the Abe Cabinet through his inexplicable desire to tell the truth behind the fictions (Link) may have finally talked himself out of a job, post-House of Councillors election, with this last unhelpful "explanation."

Abe is 58 years old and prime minister. That he could still be, in the eyes of those closest to him, a "hot-blooded youth," should give everyone pause.

How much the Facebook posts actually reflect Abe's thinking, and how much is the product of pugnacious, defensive aides (and I am looking at you, Seko Hiroshige) hiding behind the PM whilst lobbing metaphorical bombs at "oppositionists" (Link), is a reasonable question.

Third, there is nothing more delicious than Abe being told by Koizumi Shinjiro, a man half the PM's age, to conduct himself in manner more becoming to his office.

Fourth and finally, someone might want to write about how the denizens of this famous land still, at this late stage of the game, lose themselves in social media -- lolling about in the ids they keep so hidden in other forms of discourse.

While we are on the subject of politicians and Facebook, can someone who knows Democratic Party of Japan leader Kaieda Banri tell him that it is OK to remove scurrilous and irrelevant comments from his Facebook page? It may be a sign of a noble character to suffer the slings and arrows of every single lunatic who spews out his venom, then hits the "send" button. However, no one should have to tolerate the vile abuse being dumped on Kaieda's posts.

Taking The "Flight" Out Of "Test Flight"

The latest from the continuing "Officials keeping the public interest and the public's right to know foremost in their minds at all time" series of mindbenders:
All four engines on new reconnaissance plane stalled during test flight
Mainichi Shimbun

All four engines on a new reconnaissance plane stalled during a test flight earlier this year, it has been learned from a ministry source.

When the incident was announced by the Ministry of Defense at a press conference on June 20, a ministry official discussing the P1 plane engine failure had said, "We can only say that multiple engines stopped." Later, in an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun, it was learned that the ministry had not yet told municipalities near the base that the failure had affected all four engines.

According to the ministry's aircraft department, the engine failure took place on May 13 off the coast of Aichi Prefecture, after pilots from the plane's manufacturer, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, descended the plane from an altitude of 10,000 meters to around 8,000, and then regained flight posture while quickly lowering engine output. The maneuver was done to test an alarm on the plane for excessive speed. The crew was able to manually restart the engines, and execute a safe landing.


One senior Defense Ministry official said of the engine trouble, "We were prepared for it and it is not dangerous." However, another senior official noted, "The P1 is a purely domestically-made and developed aircraft," adding, "The ministry was probably worried that the damage (to the project's public image) would be great."

All four engines shut down...but of course "We were prepared for it and it is not dangerous."

Not that we are going to tell anyone about it, any time soon, mind you.

This report kind of makes the ongoing brouhaha about the Government of Japan purportedly lying to the public about the safety of the MV-22 Osprey flights seem misplaced and (in)advertently xenophobic, no?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Plus Ça Change

Looking back through the archives on the politicking that heaved Abe Shinzo into the nation's highest office for the first time, I came across this little Christian Caryl/Akiko Kashiwagi gem from 17 September 2006:
Asia's Mystery Man

When Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited the controversial Tokyo war memorial known as Yasukuni Shrine last month, the story made headlines around the world and triggered indignant protests in Seoul and Beijing. But when the news broke a few days later that Koizumi's political confidant Shinzo Abe had made his own surreptitious visit to the shrine earlier in the year, few outside Japan took notice. Even given the fact that Abe had made a point of avoiding the cameras, the reactions still seem disproportionate. The first of the two men, after all, is about to step off the political stage and into the history books. The other is almost certain to step onto it this month and become Japan's next prime minister--a job he could hold for years to come.

On Sept. 20, in all likelihood, Abe will be elected president of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party--a victory that will guarantee his election, a few days later, as prime minister...


He's got at least two big goals, and they're both risky. The first is revising the Constitution to eliminate Japan's pacifist postwar military tradition, and the second, which could be a function of the first, is defying China's bid for regional pre-eminence. A generation ago, the first idea would have struck mainstream Japanese voters as irresponsibly radical; the second even now strikes many as fraught with uncertainty.


And in 2013, after the end of Japan's special relationship with the George W. Bush Administration, a global financial crisis and China's surpassing of Japan as the world's second largest economy, Abe Shinzo is still enamored of the same two goals.

Read the whole article: Caryl and Kashiwagi's work has withstood the test of time.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Rootless - A Decidedly Minor Meditation

The loveliness of Paris
Is somehow sadly gay
The glory that was Rome
Is of another day
I've been terribly alone and forgotten in Manhattan...

- Cory & Cross, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" (1953)
The Financial Times has published an opinion piece on the concentration of the world's wealth and power...and now the world's wealthiest and most powerful, into a top tier of what it calls global cities:
Priced out of Paris
by Simon Kuper


Global cities are turning into vast gated communities where the one per cent reproduces itself. Elite members don’t live there for their jobs. They work virtually anyway. Rather, global cities are where they network with each other, and put their kids through their country's best schools. The elite talks about its cities in ostensibly innocent language, says Sassen: "a good education for my child," "my neighbourhood and its shops". But the truth is exclusion.

When one-per-centers travel, they meet peers from other global cities. A triangular elite circuit now links London, Paris and Brussels, notes Michael Keith, anthropology professor at Oxford. Elite New Yorkers visit London, not Buffalo.

Sassen says: ...These new geographies of centrality cut across many older divides – north-south, east-west, democracies versus dictator regimes. So top-level corporate and professional sectors of São Paulo begin to have more in common with peers in Paris, Hong Kong et cetera than with the rest of their own societies."
First, those who read the FT are almost all either in the 1%, are aspirants to being in the 1% or have fallen out of the 1% through lassitude or ill-luck. How many of the readers have turned to the mirror after reading the piece and said, "This is an essay about me and what people like me are doing to the world. How do I stop myself?"

Second, the Tokyo Metropolitan District and Japan in general have for the most part opted out of participating in the crafting of a global superelite -- or if they are participating, they are doing so in an idiosyncratic way. Tokyo is an expensive place to live, a center of global finance and head-and-shoulders above the rest of Japan in terms of density of talent and wealth. The disportionality in international stature of Tokyo as compared to other Japanese cities indeed fuels a politics of resentment, the most obvious manifestation being the rise in the Osaka area of the Ishin no Kai.

Tokyo super-elites tend, however, to be just that: Tokyo super-elites. Only the tiniest sliver, and not an influential one, of its members can truly be said to be international or internationalized. A person famous and successful in Japan cannot and frequently does not aspire to fame and success on a global stage. 

[An aside, but one of the chief reasons famous Japanese choose to reside overseas is for the anonymity it affords them.]

Even in terms of wealth, power and influence, Tokyo and Japan remain parochial. Except in terms of design, Japanese influence on the rest of the world tends to be muted. Few Japanese are in positions of international power, fewer still take part in the global elite conversation. Ask a member of the global elite the name of a famous Japanese author or thinker and you will draw a blank, or if they do name someone it will be Murakami Haruki, who is as much a marketing phenomenon as a writer.

Most Japanese lack a portable reputation, such as is possessed by members of the international elite Kuper describes. In life, after corporate or keiretsu identity comes Japaneseness, followed in some cases by religious affiliation, then education, then class.

The relative unimportance of class may be a significant reason why life in Japan and even in Tokyo remains basically decent for all. Japan does have a high and increasing Gini coefficient (Link). However, public transportation remains affordable and available in the remotest communities where it has no business being. Public housing is still being built (or nowadays being rebuilt) right next door to the toniest private residences, with the many economic strata represented shopping at the same supermarket, getting their shoes repaired by the same leather shop, grabbing a ramen and beer at the same hole-in-the-wall and receiving home delivery of the same newspaper.

Elites in Tokyo may grumble about subsidies and tax breaks their poorer neighbors may receive but they are still neighbors. The upper crust and the lower depths still mingle. Contrast the everyday life of Tokyo elites with the totalizing and totalized world of elite education, personal safety, health and wealth of the globalized meritocracy -- and I do know about you but I will take the Tokyo model, thank you very much.

So when I have seen op-eds about the declining number of Japanese undergraduates studying in the world's top universities (graduate studies is another matter) or the inability of Japan to attract highly skilled immigrants, my quiet pleasure has been to say to myself, "And thank goodness for it! Society is already stratified horizontally into good livelihoods and bad ones, and divided vertically into family lineages. The last thing the country needs is a super-strata of fluttering, mobile talent perched on top." When I see Third Arrow proposals for special deregulated zones where non-Japanese can live and do unfettered business, with international schools operating under special circumstances and non-Japanese doctors treating patients outside of domestic controls, I want to take the plan, attach it to brick and drop it off a pier.

Globalization, meritocracy, freedom to immigrate and emigrate -- these all open wonderful opportunities for the betterment of the lives of ordinary citizens...the trick, of course, is making sure that ordinary citizens receive the benefit.

Monday, June 17, 2013

If Things Are Going Great, Remember

Sometimes you're just lucky.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann provides some deflation, of the good kind. (Link)

Of course a country needs some basic strengths to capitalize on the opportunities that being in the right place at the right time tosses in its direction.

And of course, leaders of a country have to keep the "feel good" quotient high so as to attract voter and manipulate insecurities.

However, leaders should never get so high on the mythology to believe that hard work and sacrifice were even close to being all that was needed.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Duck And Cover, HPV Edition

Yesterday, a government advisory panel to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare recommended that doctors stop encouraging patients to be vaccinated against the HPV virus. Following a spate of reports of lingering pain from the shots and the organization of a parents support group of purported victims, the panel concluded that the ministry that should ask doctors to suspend the practice of telling patients and their parents that receiving the shots is a good idea. (Link - J)

An oddity in this story is the lack of agreement on how many cases of mysterious pains have been reported. NHK is reporting 33 cases, with 8 patients still suffering from unresolved pain. The Nihon Keizai Shimbun is reporting 38 cases out of the 3.28 million patients who have received the shots since November of 2010 (Link - J). The Asahi Shimbun is reporting 43 cases over the same timespan (Link). The Mainichi Shimbun is also reporting 43 cases, with 11 of them with still unresolved pain. (Link- J)

Ostensibly, all these news organizations had their representatives at yesterday's meeting, or received the reports of the advisory panel's recommendatoin. How can the numbers coming out of the meeting be all over the map?

Since the panel has not recommended a halt in the vaccinations, it is difficult to assess what it is recommending the MHLW ask doctors to do. The incidence of mysterious pains is around 1 in 100,000, with the instances of lasting pains less than 1 in 300,000. At the same time, known adverse reactions to the vaccine (such as anaphalactic shock) numbered over 10,000. That and the fact that cervical cancer kills 2,700 Japanese women every year seems to argue that panic in the face of pressure is...inadvisable?

Women's health advocates fought a long and costly battle to push the health industry and the government into including the HPV vaccine in the regimen of standard vaccines provided free for minors. It is both saddening and entirely in character that the advisory panel has chosen to delegitimize the program at the first sign of trouble, on the entirely political and utterly unscientific excuse of "Well, we do not know what is going on, but to cover our behinds let us retreat to the position of being neither for nor against the vaccinations."

Friday, June 14, 2013

Where Is The Real Abe Shinzo And What Have You Done With Him?

On Wednesday, the Liberal Democratic Party released its campaign posters for the July House of Councillors election. (Link - J)

From the photo image on one of them, it seems that Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has a previous undisclosed identical twin brother, ten years his junior.

Here is the photo this younger twin, taken from the Prime Minister's Facebook page:

The alternative explanation -- that the LDP's motto for this election, the same as it was in the last election, Nihon o, torimodosu ("Japan, I'm taking it back") is a prelude to the announcement of the Abe Cabinet's Fifth Arrow: time travel.

And judging from the photograph, the fifth arrow is working rather better than the other four.

All joking aside, Photoshop is for repairs, not makeovers. There is nothing wrong with being 58 years of age and looking like it.

Abenomics -- A Tragi-comedy In A Series Of Desperate Acts

Jesper Koll will be at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo on Monday. Koll is an engaging and effusive speaker, his main fault being a Teutonic tendency to shout.

Unfortunately, he will be on a panel speaking on the topics of "Abenomics: A Story of Success or Failure?" (Link)

[Odd...when I was typing that phrase just now, the fingers went astray, typing out: "Abenomics: A Story of the Success of Failure"]

I would go to witness the latest iteration of the Koll spiel (We all remember his TED talk from last year, bullish back even before Abenomics started slapping us around, yes? -- Link- YouTube ) but "Dogpile on Koll" is tired even as a silly party game.

I hope the attendees leave him alone. He's a narrator, not a playright, after all.

There have been a lot of debates on Abenomics. There will be a lot more. The one I want to hear will explain how a government and a central bank of an advanced industrialized democracy with a shrinking population creates inflation in the real economy (the capacity to create asset inflation is proven) without going through the actual physical procedure of printing currency and leaving it out on the street for folks to pick up.

The enthusiasts have never explained that one.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

An Impossible Result

It's impossssssible!
To put a Cadillac in your nose.
It's just imposssssible!

- Steve Martin, Let's Get Small (1977)

Public opinion polls are supposed to be a reality check for politicians, keeping them from getting either too big for their britches or too far out ahead of the curve.

However, sometimes the results of public opinion polls demonstrate that the pollsters, the public or both have a slippery grip on reality.

NHK on Monday released the results of its June 7-9 public opinion poll. The results were largely in accordance with expectations:

- the Cabinet is still popular (62% supporting, 20% not supporting)

- the turnout for the July 21 House of Councillors election will be poor, but not historically poor (58% of the respondents said they "definitely will vote" - indicating that actual turnout will be around 50%)*

- a solid majority of the voters (64%) want the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito alliance to win enough seats in the House of Councillors in July to be in control of that House. Only 29% want the twisted Diet (nejire kokkai), the current splitting of control of the Houses of the Diet in between the ruling and opposition parties, to continue

- a more than two-thirds majority (69%) of the voters appreciate the government's economic programs, a.k.a., Abenomics

- the LDP is the only major party around today

Q: Which party do you support?
LDP 41.7%
DPJ 5.8%
New Komeito 5.1%
Communist 2.2%
JRP 1.5%
Your Party 1.5%
SDP 0.4%
Life 0.1%
None 34.5%
There is one unexpected result -- and it is a doozy.

To the question of whether the respondents personally felt they had accrued benefits from Abenomics, the replies this month were:
I am feeling them 11%

I am not feeling them 46%

I cannot say either way 37%
What is so charming about this result? It is impossible.

Last month (10-12 May 2013) NHK asked exactly the same question. The responses NHK pollsters recorded then were:
I am feeling them 21%

I am not feeling them 36%

I cannot say either way 40%
You read that right.

In May, 21% are feelin' it, baby.

In June, only 11%.

So, the Abe administration is in place one more month, initiating and implementing more and more of its policy program each day. During that month the percentage of those declaring that they have felt the effect of Abe's economics policies shrinks by 10 percentage points.

For the NHK statistician, the options are not terrific. Either

1) the poll has a colossal margin of error, capable of accommodating a 10 point drop and a 10 point rise -- which means the polling is unreliable, or

2) at least one poll has a perverse and crippling sampling error, or errors, wiping out 10% of the population at a go -- which means your polling is unreliable, or

3) when asked about their own lives respondents tell the poll data collector not what is happening in their lives but what they think is happening in their lives -- or what they think the pollster wants to hear is happening in their lives -- which means your polling is unreliable, or

4) combinations of the above, which means...well, you know already.

The most likely reason for the evidently possible (it has been recorded and reported) but obviously unusable set of results is #3, with the respondents getting caught up in the earlier zeitgeist and answering "Yes!" without looking at their own situations with objectivity. However the party support numbers for the JRP and the Your Party are also suspiciously low in this poll. In most other polls support for these two parties hovers in the 4% to 5% range. So options #1, #2 and #4 could also be in play.

Whatever the cause(s), the loss of 10% of the "Abenomics - Are you feeling it?" believers over a month should be attracting a heck of a lot more attention.

Later - In comments, a reader offers an Option #5.


* The lowest turnout ever for a House of Councillors election was in 1995, when only 44.5% of the voters showed up.

The Last Man

The Past
Be Here Now

- George Harrison, "Be Here Now" (1973)

This one really is for the history books: at 2 a.m. local time, Kimura Jiroemon of Kyotango City, Kyoto Prefecture, died. (Link - J)

Kimura, born in the 30th year of the Meiji era, was 116 years, 54 days old at his death. For followers of the Gregorian calendar, Kimura was the last man alive to have been born in the 19th century. (Link)

Skilled At Improvisation?

There is a reasonable debate about what the Japan Restoration Party (Nippon Ishin no Kai) represents. For most commentators the JRP is a haven for the detritus that the Liberal Democratic Party coughed up as unpalatable (for the latest on that score - Link). For others it is the vehicle for a refreshing form of anti-politics. This was certainly the view former LiveDoor CEO Horie Takafumi expressed last Wednesday. (Link)

I was firmly in the former camp. After Sunday, I am not so sure.

On Sunday, Your Party candidate for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government assembly Fujii Kaoru was plugging the crowds outside of Hikarigaoka Station in Nerima City. Dressed in a white suit (a trademark, it seems: Fujii is a dentist) she roved back and forth about the plaza, cheerfully seeking out passersby for a mutual bow or a handshake.

By mutual agreement or through mutual antagonism, Fujii had to quit the scene at noon, awkwardly ripping her microphone and headset off her head as she did. For even as she was gamely trying to engage the potential voters (who are, understandably, not terribly interested in the upcoming June 23 assembly election) a young woman with a keyboard and a bass player set up next to her, launching, in their first number, into as swinging a version of Duke Ellington's Satin Doll as one will ever hear.

So what? A Sunday afternoon concert sent the politician packing.

Well, no.

The young woman on the keys, giving the Duke his due and more? She was Matsuoka Rika, the JRP's Nerima candidate for the Tokyo assembly.

How long Matsuoka held court on the plaza, delivering cool jazz to the multitudes on sunny, lazy afternoon, I do not know. All I know is that four and a half hours later, when I came back to the station, she was still playing, calling out "Hello, good people of Nerima Ward. I'm the Nippon Ishin no Kai’s Matsuoka Rika!" every so often -- but letting the music do most of the talking.

Now I have seen my share of campaign stop performances…but this one was one for the history books.

Whether Matsuoka's unorthodox approach to campaigning comes at the encouragement of open-minded JRP executives -- "Go ahead, play. Do what works for you!" -- or out of a personal "Oh, well, what the hell" defiance of the odds, the JRP having fallen, according to Kyodo's latest poll, to fourth place among the parties with 4.8% of the voters supporting it (and to only 1.5% support in the latest NHK poll) -- the result was a refreshing departure from the usual practice of politics here.

That the candidate Matsuoka pounded out of the plaza was the one from the newly arch-enemy Your Party (Link) made the notes sound all the sweeter.

Later - Broken links in the above have been fixed.

Photo: Nippon Ishin no Kai candidate Matsuoka Rika. Nerima City, Tokyo Metropolitan District on June 9, 2013.

Photo courtesy: MTC

Saved By Deflation And The High Yen

Q: The Abe administration's economics team members are on record as being the enemies of deflation and a hard yen. Does that enmity persist when the evil twins make the Prime Minister look like a good steward?

On Monday, the image of the Abe economic program was boosted by two numbers:

- higher real GDP growth, with revised figures showing annualized growth of 4.1%, a big jump upward from a previously announced 3.5% (Link), and

- the current account surplus, which at 750 billion yen in April was double the April 2012 figure of 374 billion yen. (Link)

Funny thing about these positive numbers -- they are both conversions. Does the raw data still tell quite as salubrious a tale?

Take the real GDP figure. One would assume that an economy with an annual real growth rate of 4.1% has more yen it after a year has passed than it had before.

One would think that, yes.

However, the total nominal size of the Japanese economy -- that is to say the number of yen one can use to pay for things, like, let us say, interest on the national debt -- was, in the first quarter of 2012, 118.4 trillion yen.

A year later, nominal GDP in the first quarter of 2013 was...117.6 trillion yen.

Oh. Oh dear.

"Real" is a funny word in economic statistics. It makes sense for economies undergoing inflation, as asking citizens to "get real" keeps them from getting giddy about rises in nominal income. "The growth number may look big," the government is telling them, "but please remember you are paying more for stuff too."

In economies undergoing deflation, the entity in danger of going all giddy is the government. If  deflation is accompanied by negative nominal growth, the temptation for the government is to trumpet "real" to make what are on the surface smaller totals bigger. "Look, there is less currency in your pockets," the government says, "But thanks to deflation, that smaller total buys more stuff than before."

"Yes," Hiromi Q. Public says, "But what about the stuff I have already bought? How can I make the payments if the actual number of yen in my pockets is smaller?"

"Oh," says the government, "Oh that. Yeah, that's a problem. Sorry, that's gonna sting."

In the graph below, the blue and red bars show the different figures for the reported real (blue) and nominal (red) rates of growth in the first quarters of the last fourteen years.

Click on image to view in a larger size.

There are, as you can see, some very, very ugly numbers here. The drop in response to the Lehman shock (2009 Q1) is terrifying, in both nominal and real terms.

However, "getting real" -- that is converting the more swinging nominal figures into real, that is to say, theoretical yen is not, for the most part, misleading.

The figures for the first quarter of 2013, where a -0.6% loss in size becomes a 1.0% gain in value, are therefore notable for their potential to empower mendacity. The only comparable quarter is the first quarter of 2005, when the nominal economy shrank at a -0.8% but the government booked a 0.2% gain.

+ + +

In the trade release figures, there is a 100.8% difference in the current account total of April 2012 and April 2013.

Very impressive...except that these are not the same yen, are they?

Let us, for simplicity's sake, take the U.S. dollar as the surrogate for all the currencies of the rest of the world, the "rest of the world" being where this current account surplus was made and where it stays (the current account surplus being the amount a country adds to its net foreign assets).

Taking the figures from yesterday's government release, the current account surplus accrued in April 2012 was worth 4.68 billion dollars, using the conversion factor of 79.83 yen to the dollar -- the yen's value on 30 April 2012.*

Monday's announced figure, when converted at 97.52 yen to the dollar -- the yen's value on 30 April 2013 -- is 7.69 billion dollars.

Year-on-year growth in net income in dollars is a still impressive 64.3% -- but the growth is not the doubling recorded in the ledgers of this blessed land.

To get to 100.8% growth, you need a boost from last year's terrible hard yen.

In fairness to all, the valuation of a positive net foreign asset position in a fluctuating currency regime is alchemy, always.


* The choice of the value of the yen on 30 April is arbitrary -- but then the conversion figures used by government statisticians are approximations.

Data sources:


Current account

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Politics and Poetry: Senryu For The Week Of June 3, 2013 - Abenomics Burning

What's up with this drawing? Just hang in there, I'll get to it.

The serious reversal of the euphoria in the equities markets has dented the reputation of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and his Three Arrows reform program, a.k.a. "Abenomics." Unsurprisingly, the rough patch for the PM brought out schadenfreude in the writers of senryu comic verses who submit their creations to the fiercely left-of-center Tokyo Shimbun.

Here is selection of this week's comic verses, starting with the mildly interesting and winding up with a "let there be no doubt about where we stand on this" flame fest.

Kiken yori
gaika kasegi ga
saki ni tatsu

From danger
those booking their earnings in foreign currencies
have set out first
Until now the Japanese markets were an effervescent mix of opportunity and danger for the foreign investor: skyrocketing equities prices on the plus side with a falling currency on the minus. Now, with the market in correction, the heretofore acceptable risk now sends the skittish on a search for other places to play.

itami ni taero
mo gomen

Let's grit our way through the pain
of the side effects.
I'm sorry, it's already...
It does not take too much time for the reader to understand that the medicine here is Abenomics, with the side effects being inflation in the cost of imported goods and volatility in the equities and bond markets. Just who is saying "mo gomen" is left up to the reader's imagination. Is it Abe, apologizing for putting his fellow citizens through suffering from rising prices without concurrent rises in income? Or it is members of the public who are telling the PM the pain is already too great to bear -- so please do not ask us to bear more?

Umashi kuni
awa no mikusu
uki shizumi

The bountiful country
In the mix ("mics") of bubbles
rises and sinks
My translation is pathetic. However, the heavy duty wordplay here would challenge even a competent translator.

The author starts out with an archaic expression umashi kuni, "the bountiful country." However, rather than tip her hand, the author has chosen to write umashi in hiragana rather than with a Chinese character. This choice is deliberate, not because there is more than one way to write the expression -- there are, indeed two ways -- but because seeing the phrase written out with the appropriate character would detract from the reader's fun. The reader has to make the conversion in his/her head, transforming うまし国 into 美し国. The reader then knows the author's umashi kun (うまし国) is actually Abe Shinzo's infamous utsukushii kuni (美しい国 -- "the beautiful country"-- Link) .

Senryu are supposed to be fun -- so why be obvious?

The next line again plays with the various written forms of Japanese words. Awa no mikusu -- the "mix of bubbles" is supposed to conjure up a vision of investment bubbles rising and bursting. However, the katakana the loan word mikusu ("mix”) hammers home the similarity between awa no mikusu -- “Awanomics” -- and the Abenomics of the current non-occupant of the Prime Minister's Residential Quarters. "Abenomics/Awanomics" certainly has created a bubble in the equities markets, a bubble that seemingly has popped.

Ushinau to
iu ji ni niteru
ya no ji ka na

The character that looks like
the character for "loss" --
it's “arrow” isn't it?
The Chinese character for the verb ushinau -- "to lose" -- is 失. The Chinese character for the noun ya -- arrow -- is 矢. In what is a purely visual pun, the author notes that only the slightest change takes one from the Three Arrows of Abenomics to losses.

So what about the drawing at the head of this post, with the PM's posterior on fire?

It is the illustration the Tokyo Shimbun produced for the third poem on this week's list, from a Matsuda Masaru of Kashiwa City:

Shiri no hi mo
kezezu shusho
shita kocho

Without putting out
an ass that is on fire
the prime minister’s tongue keeps right on going
There is a slight bit of word play in the last line, where shita kocho could intentionally be misread as zekkocho -- "going just great" -- but when you have a butt that is on fire, there is no time for pedantry.


Image and poems reproduced from page 5 of the Tokyo Shimbun of 8 June 2013.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Me Talking About India-Japan Nuclear Power Cooperation

Via Voice of America. (Link)

My family name, however, is pronounced "Chew-check." You can find us primarily in Slovenia and Croatia.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Sato Masaaki, An Appreciation

All the major newspapers have their editorial cartoonists. Some are better draughtsmen than others, with a great or lesser grasp of the tradeoff between image and caricature.

Almost all, however, are unfunny, or what is worse, unclever.

The exception is Sato Masaaki, the cartoonist for the Tokyo Shimbun. He foregoes artistry or style, choosing instead crude drawings with a bite. He has willingness to use all shared knowledge, including his readership's much derided but still considerable understanding of the English language, in order to charm and incite.

Here is his cartoon of Tuesday, "Through the ABC Song," where he use the letters of the Roman alphabet to draw a picture:

Click on image to see in a larger view.

In the last panel, the caption reads, "The image of all alone in the Pacific."

Children are taught the use of kana to draw faces, such as the simple face below composed of two he for eyebrows, two no for eyes, a mo for a nose, a he for a mouth and a ji for the jaw line and a tuft of hair.

In this the digital age the tradition of constructing faces out of characters has been extended in the profusion of multi-line emoticons and the massive stroke drawings of the list-serves.

But to use all the letters in the alphabet to draw a picture of a Hinomaru-flaunting Abe Shinzo making a go of it all alone on a tiny island in the middle of a Pacific -- in this there is a precious madness.

The kicker?

For once, I have no idea what Sato is driving at.

And I know there has to be an allusion or pun in this. Because with Sato, there are always multiple levels of meaning.

Recall the New Year's Eve song contest cartoon from last year? Where Abe is singing "Here Comes The Sun" not only because it offers an apt description of his return to office but because it is the signature song from the album...wait for it...Abe Road?

As Elaine Lies and her co-authors recently explained, "Abe Road" is not just a groan-and-grin inducing pun on the PM's name and the name of the last Beatles studio album. The "Abbey Road Group" is indeed what the quartet of pragmatists Abe, Watanabe Yoshimi, Suga Yoshihide and Shiozaki Yoshihisa called themselves last year. (Link)

So any guesses as to what Sato's ABC song is really about?

Image courtesy: Tokyo Shimbun

Thursday, June 06, 2013

You Gotta Get In To Get Out

Via the Prime Minister's Residence, evidence that Abe and Company are in so preoccupied with fostering the image of engagement that they are failing to pay close attention to what they are saying.

Consider, if you will, the announcement on the Residence website of yet another gathering of worthies, this time tackling the relationship between the central government and the regions:

Headquarters for Promoting Decentralization Reform
Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Photograph of the Prime Minister delivering an address at the meeting of the Headquarters for Promoting Decentralization Reform 


You caught that?

The government has, inside the Prime Minister's Office, a headquarters for decentralization.

A Headquarters for Promoting Decentralization inside the Prime Minister's Office.

A Headquarters...for Promoting Decentralization.

Call it a Task Force on Decentralization. Call it a Study Group on Decentralization.

But please never become so completely inured to the everyday meaning of words as to be blind to the glaring oxymoron of a Headquarters (honbu) for Promoting Decentralization (chiho bunken) located inside the Prime Minister's Office.

Trivial? Perhaps. 

But indicative of a preference for a semi-manic force feeding of change initiatives over governing.

Roll Over, Doggy

When looking for mendacious fawning upon the Liberal Democratic Party, the Yomiuri Shimbun rarely disappoints:
Electoral reform: Making it count / Should electoral zones be absolutely proportional to populations?

This is the second installment of a series.

There is growing mistrust between judicial and legislative circles over the value of a single vote based on the population represented by each lawmaker.

On March 26, the Okayama branch of the Hiroshima High Court ruled that the House of Representatives election last year, in which there was a vote-value disparity of up to 2.43 times, was "unconstitutional," and that election results for Okayama Constituency No. 2, where the vote-value disparity stood at 1.41 times, were "invalid."

Two weeks later on April 11, Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Gen Nakatani made the following remarks at the lower house Commission on the Constitution:

"The Constitution leaves matters concerning electoral systems to laws. I think judgments regarding whether electoral systems are unconstitutional or constitutional should primarily be left to the Diet."

Article 47 of the Constitution stipulates, "Electoral districts, voting method and other matters pertaining to the method of election of members of both houses shall be fixed by law."

Nakatani's reference to the article indicated his hostility toward the judicial bodies over their infringement of the Diet's discretionary power.

Takashi Yamashita, an LDP lawmaker elected from Okayama Constituency No. 2, also cast doubt on the ruling, which if abided by would cause him to lose his seat.

"The idea of 'one vote for each person' is important. But if the principle were strictly applied, lawmakers would be concentrated in urban areas," Yamashita said...

First, nice use of the demeaning question marks around the judgments of the high courts. Very respectful.

Second, I guess Representative Yamashita understands the constitutional requirement that the members of the Diet be representatives of all the people (Ryogiin wa, zenkokumin no daihyo to suru) to mean "people as they have been or might be, but not as they are."

For having lawmakers representing the urban areas, where the people are, is unfair to the rural areas, where the people are not, right?

Third, Article 47 of the Constitution? That your winning hand, Yomiuri? Really?

Pull up a chair. Let us play a little round of jurisdiction poker.

Ok, let us lay down your card one more time.
Article 47. Electoral districts, method of voting and other matters pertaining to the method of election of members of both Houses shall be fixed by law.
I am feeling generous today. I will give you a wild card.
Article 41. The Diet shall be the highest organ of state power, and shall be the sole law-making organ of the State.
The highest organ of state power? Whew. That is good.

Now, what do I have in my hand?
Article 81. The Supreme Court is the court of last resort with power to determine the constitutionality of any law, order, regulation or official act.
Oh, too bad. When the Supreme Court delivers its judgment, as it will later this year on the constitutionality of the December 2012 House of Representatives election, that judgment will be final. Whether the Supreme Court has the means of enforcing an unconstitutionality ruling, in the face of resistance from a House of Representatives determined to cling to power -- that I grant you is a question.

Does not the above article make you long to read the rest of the series? Well you can, at the Yomiuri's spiffy new English language site. (Link)

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Abe Shinzo and the Holy Grail

Juvenile and stupid of me, but when I read "How Shinzo Abe could win the Nobel Peace Prize," the title of an opinion piece published in Monday's The Financial Times, I could not resist imagining James Clad and Robert Manning as King Arthur and Sir Percival. (Link - YouTube)

Because, uh...Abe Shinzo's family has already got one, you see. (Link)

What is more, it is the only one in Japanese hands.

Abe Shinzo and his relatives have been prime minister for over 20 years out of the 68 since the Japanese surrender to Allied forces (more if you include the marriage relations - Link - J). Having Kishis as the holders of Japan's two Nobel Prizes for Peace would be beyond satire, especially in light of recent revelations of the flexibility of Sato Eisaku's anti-nuclear stand. (Link with key photo)

As for selling the concept of Abe's renouncing of Japan's claims on Dokdo/Takeshima by putting such a renunciation on a level with Sadat's acceptance of the Camp David accords and Nixon's opening with China, one could hardly fault Abe Shinzo for dryly noting, "And taking these bold leaps resulted in huge personal benefits for both men, yes?"

Not that there is not merit in renunciation -- for the United States. Dokdo is a flashpoint in South Korean/Japanese relations, complicating the establishment of an integrated regional security structure of U.S. allies -- not that the establishment of a Japan-South Korea axis in such a structure would in any way be perceived as the crucial step in a strategy of containment of China, much less be one.

Acquiescing to South Korea's military seizure or liberation (choose one) and garrisoning of Dokdo/Takeshima as a fait accompli would make it harder for Japan to hold any sort of line with Russia over the sovereignty of the Southern Kuriles/Northern Territories. It would also be very hard for the Prime Minister to explain to the families of the dozens of Shimane Prefecture fisherman injured or killed and thousands jailed during the period 1954 to 1965 -- from the arrival of South Korean forces to the normalization of relations (not that there is any chance that such a betrayal would lessen the Liberal Democratic Party's hammerlock on Shimane, mind you) -- unless he wrested from the South Korean government a sincere apology for the brutality it showed toward Japanese civilians.

A mental retort of "And it will be a cold day in hell before that ever happens" is not inappropriate here.

Having South Korean forces, armed and armored, occupying Dokdo/Takeshima, islets lacking fresh water sources, scanning the horizon for the Japanese invasion that will never come, and having patriotic South Koreans spending money, time and energy trumpeting South Korea's claim on Dokdo/Takeshima in venues appropriate and inappropriate all over the globe plays into the vital revisionist theme of Japan as victim, in this case of an irrational and therefore indissoluble South Korean paranoia.

In the end, my puerile association of the Clad/Manning appeal with the one King Arthur makes to the French soldier is not far wrong. Abe Shinzo, like Guy de Loimbard, has a stout fortress. An appeal to come outside to join an idealistic quest is something about which (and who could blame him) he is not very keen.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Kyodo Poll Results For The First Week Of June 2013 - Am I Up?

Monday saw the release of the results latest Kyodo News poll, conducted on June on 1-2. The numbers reflect the political atmosphere after Japan Restoration Party co-leader Hashimoto Toru's appearance at the Foreign Correspondents' Club but before the weekend talk shows analyzing and passing judgment on said appearance. The numbers in parentheses are the numbers from May 18-19, five days after Hashimoto's disastrous musings about military life and sexuality:

Which party do you support?
LDP 48.1 (48.5)
DPJ 7.0 (5.9)
JRA 4.2 (4.8)
New Komeito 5.2 (3.2)
Your Party 3.6 (4.4)
JCP 2.0 (2.8)
SDP 0.8 (0.5)
People's Life Party 0.5 (0.4)
Green Breeze 0.1 (0.9)
Other political parties, groups 0.2 (0.3)
None of the above 28.3 (28.3)

More important: Which party are you likely to vote for in the House of Councillors proportional vote?
LDP 44.6 (44.4)
DPJ 7.9 (6.8)
JRA 4.5 (5.7)
New Komeito 6.4 (4.4)
Your Party 4.0 (5.2)
JCP 2.6 (3.1)
SDP 0.8 (0.5)
People's Life Party 0.3 (0.3)
Green Breeze 0.1 (0.8)
Other political parties, groups 0.5 (0.4)
D/K+N/A 28.3 (28.4)

Key takeaways

- Time for members of the opposition to start looking for a new job

It is June 4. The Diet session ends on June 26. Prime Minister Abe has no interest in extending the Diet session. This means an election on July 21 (Link - J ). Forty-five percent of the electorate wants to vote for the LDP. The electoral system is designed to perpetuate LDP rule in the single-seat districts and LDP equality in the multi-seat districts even when the LDP is deeply unpopular. The proportional seat distribution is weighted in favor of big parties.

Why are members of the opposition absenting themselves from House of Councillors plenary sessions in order to go out and campaign, earning a tut-tutting from the news media in response? (Link - J)

A will to fight with every gram of one's strength is laudable. However, there comes a point where one should just shrug one's shoulders, finish up what one has been doing (for SIX YEARS - Ed.) and start calling up old friends.

- The damage is done for the JRA

While Hashimoto's comments have severely injured the Japan Restoration Association, the bleeding from the wounds he inflicted has largely stopped. Hashimoto's mendacious and wily defense at the FCCJ press conference may indeed win him and his party a few percentage points of support over the next few weeks.

That said, the JRA has little future as an institution for change. It will be a micro-party in the House of Councillors, meaning that it will have little attraction as a coalition partner for the LDP. In the House of Representatives, its members will be the face of revisionist thuggery, making it a wonderful foil for the LDP, which will appear sane by comparison.

- "Support" clearly does not mean what I thought it means

48.1% of the respondents support the LDP. 44.6% say they will vote for the party in the House of Councillors election. This means 3.5% of the population believes it can go up to an LDP Senator and say, "You know, I support you -- but I sure as heck won't vote for you."

- Where will you go Ozawa Ichiro?

The People's Life Party (Seikatsu no to) leader Ozawa Ichiro called a press conference yesterday, unveiling his party's manifesto for the July election. The news networks covered the announcement as if it were an actual event. (Link -J)

The PLP has six of its eight House of Councillors seats up for reelection. If the party holds onto a single seat, Ozawa should throw a celebratory bash.

One seat will leave Ozawa with three Senators and six Representatives under his authority.

He has been down before -- but never like this.

What a price he (and the country) has paid for his hubris in the fall and winter of 2009-10.

* * *

The really interesting number in the Kyodo poll? Support or not for revision of Article 96, the article mandating a two-thirds majority of all members of both Houses of the Diet for any proposed changes to the Constitution.

Do you agree with a loosening of the requirement for a two-thirds majority to only a simple majority in both Houses of the Diet?
Yes 37.2 (41.5)

No 51.6 (48.6)

Don’t know/Can’t say 11.2 (9.9)
You read that right. 48.1% of the respondents said they are supporters of the LDP and 44.6% said they are ready to vote for the party in July. However, only 37.2% of the respondents were in favor of lowering the bar in order to facilitate (some would say eliminate all restraint on) constitutional revision.

The LDP cannot even get all of its own (self-identified) supporters in line to eliminate the constitution's key bulwark against mob rule. As the shift in the numbers since mid-May indicates, public opinion seems to be moving in favor of retaining Article 96 as is. Any wonder why the talk of revising Article 96 and/or the Constitution has died down to a whisper since Abe Shinzo's coy little little bit of number play* on his ceremonial Yomiuri Giants uniform on May 5 (above image)?

* Abe Shinzo is Japan's 96th prime minister. His donning of a uniform with the number 96 on it could have been innocent. However, the PM did nothing to discourage speculation he was broadcasting a message of strong support for revision of Article 96.

Original image courtesy:

Monday, June 03, 2013

Reflections On The Prime Minister's Award In Truck Driving

All politicians, even those in non-democratic states, have to participate on a regular basis in some strange photo opportunities.

This, I put to the readers, is one:
The Prime Minister Receives a Courtesy Call from the Winners of the National Truck Driver Contest

Thursday, May 30, 2013


With the Prime Minister is Mr. Tetsuya Takashima of Himeiji, Hyogo Prefecture. Mr. Takashima won both the 11 Ton Division and the Overall Title in the 44th annual National Truck Driver Contest. He and the Prime Minister are holding the Prime Minister's Cup, one of many, many such awards bearing the Prime Minister's imprimatur.

Not all Prime Minister's Awards are backed up with a trip to the Prime Minister's Residence to meet with the prime minister -- who, in a linguistic tussle, never resides in the Residence. This particular prime minister, who officially hails from Yamaguchi Prefecture, does not even reside in the Prime Minister's Residential Quarters, preferring to live in his actual home in his actual hometown of Tokyo -- prompting the ineffectually puckish Democratic Party of Japan to ask for an official government determination on whether or not the prime minister is too afraid of ghosts to live in the supposedly haunted Residential Quarters, a jibe that has played well internationally (Link) but has failed to hit home in the domestic media.

Returning to the subject of truck driving, it is one of the few tests of skill graced with an actual Prime Ministerial photo op.

However, this has not been the case for most of the contest's history. It was only during the premiership of Koizumi Jun'ichiro that a Prime Minister's Award winner in truck driving actually received his award from the hands of a prime minister.

According to the conventional wisdom, the trucking industry has been a vital constituency for the Liberal Democratic Party, supposedly pushing the LDP in the direction (there was not much resistance) of overenthusiasm for costly and under-used high-speed toll roads. It is also a part of the conventional wisdom that Ozawa Ichiro's desire to capture the trucking industry's votes led to the DPJ to promise it would eliminate tolls on the toll roads, despite the ruinous effect such an abolition would have had on government finances and the credibility of government pledges to reduce carbon emissions. The promises to eliminate highway tolls in order to "buy" the trucking industry vote became a big fat target for the LDP to shoot at after the LDP was dumped into the opposition. The promised reductions, which the public knew were dubious, were never carried out, serving in the end only as examples of the DPJ's tendency to promise more than it could deliver.

Despite the importance of trucking votes in Japanese politics it took 33 years of Prime Minister's Awards before the contest winners were let into the Residence.

Part of the reason may be the contest's unusual pedigree. The sponsor of the first two contests was The Science Museum (Kagaku gijutsukan -- I am sorry but that is the organization's actual English name), presumably as a means of promoting truck technology.

After two years under the control of the national museum, sponsorship of the contest was taken over, and I am not making this up, by the Yomiuriland amusement park.

There is a story there that I have no time to look into.

After 10 years of being a part of the weird and wonderful world that is the Yomiuri entertainment and media empire, sponsorship of the contest was transferred -- and again, I an not making this up -- to the Japan Youth Center (Nippon Seinenkan) -- an organization established as a system of social control by the Home Ministry and the Ministry of Education in the 1920s. (Link)

It was not until 1995 that the national truck driving contest landed in the lap of the organization that now controls it, the Central Training Academy for Safe Driving (Anzen unten chuo kenshujo -- Link J) -- where, among other things, the national police go to learn their vehicle handling skills. The Diet established the national Safe Driving Center in 1975. However, it seems the Center was not deemed the proper administrator of the national contest of safe truck driving until a score of years later. (Link - J)

Interestingly, the year after the contest winners were first received at the Residence, the government privatized the Central Training Academy for Safe Driving.

Coincidental? Hmmm...having some contest winners meet the PM for a few minutes for a photo op at the Residence hardly seems compensatory for being thrust into the cold world of the private sector.

Why look into all of this, aside from the inadvertent deadpan hilarity of the title of the event on May 30?

The National Truck Driver Contest took place in the beginning of November. It has been over six months since the winners were announced.

When did previous prime ministers meet the contest winners?

Noda Yoshihiko - 1 February 2012

Kan Naoto - no meeting recorded on Kantei website

Hatoyama Yukio - 23 February 2010

Aso Taro - 15 January 2009

Fukuda Yasuo - no meeting recorded on Kantei website

Abe Shinzo - no meeting recorded on Kantei website

Koizumi Jun'ichiro met the contest winners more than once, and each time within weeks of the contest.

At least from the evidence in the Kantei's photo pages, Prime Minister Abe is not alone among his predecessors in not letting the trucking association bask in his glow. Prime ministers Kan and Fukuda did not receive the truckers at all (though a meeting may have been in Kan's calendar for March 2011 -- who knows?).

When prime ministers have hosted the truck driving contest winners, however, they have done so in a timely fashion -- not six months after the fact.

What can be read from this tardy reception?

The pragmatists might say that Abe has been so preoccupied with the revival of the animal spirits of Japan's economy that he could not find the time to meet the truckers before now.

The strategist might say that the truckers have never been an important constituency for Abe. He has met them but only as a gesture on behalf of his party a month before the House of Councillors election.

The cynic might say that Abe's meeting the winners six month's late is an example of a profound lassitude, another instance of an item getting pushed down the domestic political calendar, like the startling delay until May 15 of the passage of the national budget.

One should perhaps be cynical. When one checks the legislation the Abe Cabinet has managed to push through the Diet, bearing in mind that the ruling coalition has a supermajority in the House of Representatives, one should probably come away unimpressed.

Even less impressive is the rhetoric of the current administration. It may be difficult to find a clearer demonstration of the contrast between a commitment to normalcy after 3/11 and exploitation of tragedy than Prime Minister Noda's remarks to the truck driving contest winners in 2012 (Link - J) and Prime Minister Abe's remarks on Thursday. (Link - J)

Grist for the mills of those who believe in a substantive difference between the parties.

Later - I have to be careful. Any more of this kind of archeology of the banal -- following the threads leading out of the apparently trivial, arriving at all kinds of unexpected destinations -- and I will drive away all of my readers.

Image courtesy: Prime Minister's Residence

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Worthwhile Reads #2 - On Abe And The Revisionists

And did we tell you the name of the game, boy?
We call it 'Riding the Gravy Train' - yeah...

Pink Floyd, "Have a Cigar" (1975)

Two good essays from yesterday on Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and the potential limitations on his freedom of action on the issues purportedly dear to him and his Friends:

Brad Glosserman, PacNet

Abe's dilemmas

Karl Gufstasson, East Asia Forum

Japanese Prime Minister Abe's U-turn on the Murayama Statement

Both essays hint at what appears to be a change in the way Abe Shinzo and his Cabinet operate. Both Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party squeaked into power in the LDP presidential and December House of Representatives elections, meaning that both faced pressures to produce results in the immediate term. However, for various reasons (the most convincing one I have heard: "the Japanese people are just tired of being in a bent over in a defensive crouch"), the man and the party have a mad surplus of political capital in the bank (Cabinet support, Party support). The July 21 (?) House of Councillors election will be a coronation.

Relieved of worries about July, Abe & Company can be insincere in every direction. They do not have to pander to a core constituency; they do not have to assemble a coalition of disparate forces. Instead they can play upon the neediness of particular interest groups by making what are head fakes toward their hot button issues, feigning commitment to a position, stirring up a fire storm of protest in response, then beating a hasty retreat. Tobias Harris has highlighted this stimulus-response-retreat pattern for the specific case of constitutional reform. However, the this-has-to-be-done/wow-why-are-folks-so-angry/oh-I-guess-it-can-wait model seems applicable to almost any policy initiative and constituency.

In terms of the red meat revisionist issues of Yasukuni visits, revising Article 9, war responsibility, the sanctioned brothel system and garrisoning the Senkakus, Abe and his Cabinet have the luxury of limiting themselves to gestures, signs and code words, signaling to their revisionist followers of their purported true beliefs, while going through desultory pantomimes of being held back by Japan's internal and external foes.

Of course, by making intermittent, sulphurous and maudlin shows of addressing an issue -- such as, let us say, securing the transfers of the remains of the deceased abductees and freedom of travel for the surviving relatives still in North Korea -- but never actually achieving the stated goals (or by constantly moving the goal posts further, which is effectively the same thing) -- the politician's gravy train rolls on.