Friday, April 18, 2014

Rex Omnis Qui Videt, Shinzo Abe Est

© Jeff Cable Photography
O Fortuna!
Velut luna
Statu variabilis!

O Fortune!
Varying in state
like the Moon!

- Carl Orff, Carmina Burana (1935-36)

Yesterday morning I was seated in the far left side of the Ascot banquet hall of the Hotel Okura. From out of the dark on the far right, avoiding a piece of equipment dropped in his path (the special police had something to say about that afterward) walked in Abe Shinzo, the prime minister of Japan.

Or at least that is what my eyes, my program and everyone around me was telling me.

The man delivered a set speech for fourteen minutes and fifteen seconds, then sat down in an armchair answering questions from the chairman of the day's proceedings for another ten and a half minutes.

I have had Abe Shinzo in my line of sight since October 2005, when I attended a conference on Japan's defense at the hotel nearest the Kantei. Abe, the then Chief Cabinet Secretary, was the keynote mealtime speaker.

The speech then was unimpressive. The phrase best describing its delivery: "still wet behind the ears."

Halfway through Abe seemed to lose himself, using the expression ware-ware ("we" "us") to explain what his grandfather Kishi Nobusuke was doing during the build up toward the signing of the revised Security Arrangements between Japan and the United States.

I turned to my tablemate (Dr. Richard Samuels of MIT) with a look on my face of "Did Abe Shinzo just refer to himself as a comrade-in-arms of his grandfather during the Ampo struggle, when he was all of six years old?"

I had Abe Shinzo right in my face every day during his first year as prime minister. I recall the expression of utter, contemptuous boredom on his visage on last day of the Diet session, as he sat on the dais watching vote after railroading vote in the House of Councillors plenary session, the opposition having left the chamber (except for the Communists, who stayed) after the insult of the morning votes -- and the look of his eyes, visible just over the shoulder of a desperate and sweating SP, as he was driven to a specially prepared ward in the Keio University Hospital just seven weeks later. (Link)

I have watched him on a daily basis in the fifteen months since his return to the premiership: struggling to remember his routines, spluttering in Diet interpellations on the simplest of questions, mawkishly flailing his way through some simply embarrassing speeches. (Link)

That man, the Abe Shinzo I know, or thought I knew, did not show up at the Japan Summit 2014.

Someone else did.

The person called Abe Shinzo at the dais and in the armchair yesterday was not Abe Shinzo, grandson of Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke, grandnephew of Prime Minister (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Sato Eisaku. He was Abe Shinzo, Prime Minister of Japan, President of the Liberal Democratic Party -- pure and simple. When he sat down in the armchair to answer the hard ball questions thrown at him by The Economist's Asia chief Dominic Ziegler, throwing them right back at his interrogator when when answering was not in his interests ("Since what you are asking pertains to what tactics my country will be using [at the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations] I obviously cannot provide details") -- Abe owned that chair like I have never seen any Prime Minister of Japan own a piece of furniture. Not quite a Vladimir Putin slouch -- but Abe still sat in that chair as if he had brought it with him from home.

This was not your "wet behind the ears" botchan, acting out the role of prime minister with the shadow of imposture looming over him. Those who still look at Abe Shinzo that way are living in the past -- and it might as well be the distant past.

Was Abe's astonishing poise, humor and self-confidence all an act?

Maybe. But then he and his handlers should be triply congratulated for having him put on this act in front of not just the domestic and international news media but an overflow crowd of the world's investment community -- at a time when Abenomics in need of a PR boost...and furthermore on the eve of an incredibly important official visit by U.S. president Barack Obama.

If the Abe Shinzo who showed up yesterday meets an Obama delegation believing that he has to ingratiate himself to them, then the Americans are going of find out what the phrase "hitting a brick wall" means.

Failure at the final push for a TPP agreement this weekend? Abe Shinzo will not give a damn -- and nobody around him will either.

Abe's Cabinet is enjoying an insane 60% support rating (latest Kyodo News poll). His party holds the commanding heights in the Diet, the policy debate and the public's imagination. The number of persons answering the question of "Why do you support Prime Minister Abe?" with the plaintive and honest, "Because there is no other suitable person around" is climbing. "Because there is no other suitable person around" is indeed now the most common answer to the question of why voters support the PM, outdistancing the "high expectations for the economy" response (29% of respondents versus 21% again in the latest Kyodo poll).

And now even the Chinese and the South Koreans are trying to make nice. (Link)

Abe Shinzo 2.0, Spring Edition is so comfortable in his own skin he is even letting his beloved hair go, allowing the gray to show.


Changeable like the Moon.


Later - provisional translation of the Prime Minister's speech to The Economist Japan Summit 2014: "Japan towards 2020: time to get started." (Link)

Partial reproduction of photo image of 15 April 2014 "blood moon" by renowned professional photographer Jeff Cable. Click here for the original image and here to read the explanation of how it was created.

Photo image of Abe speaking at the Japan Summit 2014 courtesy JapanRealTime.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Meanwhile, Two Incredibly Smart Persons Writing Brilliant Stuff On Difficult Subjects

MTC auto-portrait, inadvertent.

If your are wondering what you must read on Japan, rather than what you should read, try:

- Any of Jo McBride's posts on Japanese economic and institutional investment policy at the dauntingly named Investing Japan's Institutional Capital blog. (Link)

- Professor Bryce Wakefield's lithe and readable exposé of the Abe Cabinet's contempt for constitutionalism and reasoned argument as regards collective self defense, with what has got to be the strangest URL of any academic paper on Japan ever. (Link)

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Dumbwalking, The Sequel

Culture & Technology

In a post on March 27 I suggested a new word --"dumbwalking" -- to describe the glacial and autistic walk of persons absorbed in interaction with their smart phones ("Smart Phones Make For Dumb Walks" being my explanatory epigram). I suggested at the time that the proliferation of smart phones would bring on the day when the Shibuya Crossing would fail to clear.

Guess what?

NTT DoCoMo has posted a video of the simulation of this exact scenario on its You Tube Channel. (Link - video - J)

The result: if the crowd of walkers are all operating smart phones, only 36% of them make it across in the 46 seconds they have between the light changes at the Shibuya Crossing.

Click on the link and watch the video. It is trip -- literally, in some cases.

One key variable, made clear at the 0:47 point of the simulation, is the speed at which dumbwalkers are presumed to perambulate. According to motion studies at the Aichi University of Technology, dumbwalking (the Japanese term is sumaho aruki) is an astonishing 20 times slower than normal walking.

So "glacial" is not hyperbole and one is not imagining things. Dumbwalkers really are moving so slowly they might as well be considered inanimate objects.

Takes the "mobile" right out of mobile telephony, doesn't it?

Monday, April 07, 2014

Stop. Wait. Do You Know Who I Am?

I suppose I should not try to double-guess Tokyo Metropolitan District Governor Masuzoe Yo'ichi. He did, after all, navigate through rough political waters to victory in February.

However, I must confess puzzlement at Masuzoe's willingness to be used as a ratings prop by news organizations. He is supposed to be running the world's richest and most populous municipality. How can he have time to sit helpless in TV studios doing nothing as producers run 4 minutes long features and as snide and chirpy hosts bypass the governor to elicit comments from other guests of decidedly minor stature, meaning that their utterances will be remarkable not only their dearth of knowledge but their lack of significance and/or relevance.

Seeing Masuzoe imprisoned in chair on the Nihon Terebi (Yomiuri Shimbun Group) Saturday and Fuji TV (Fuji Sankei Group) Sunday morning shows had me asking, over and over again, "What is he doing there? Is he afraid that if we do not see him continuing his ring-around-the-talk shows tours, we will forget who is Tokyo's governor? Or is he merely trying to feed the media beast pre-emptively so that when crunch time comes, the conservative media conglomerates do not bite him?"

For any and all politicians, Fuji TV's Sunday morning show is a particular ordeal. The announcers and other guests just toss bait -- annoyances, insults or irrelevant nonsense -- at the main guest trying to get him or her to create a scandal by a provocative or merely poorly thought out response.

Than again, Masuzoe seems to need no prompting to toss sharp and not entirely well thought out remarks on his own. On Saturday he dismissed of the Akasaka Detached Palace where the Government of Japan houses and receives its most honored guests as "a sham Versailles" unworthy and unrepresentative of Japan (Link - J). His longing for a "more Japanese" building fror housing honored guests begs the question, "OK, Monsieur Pantalons-Astucieux," -- Masuzoe is a Francophone and has taught in Paris -- "where in the budget of either the GOJ or the TMG is there the money to pay for a substitute?"


Later - While we are on the subject of Japan-France cultural interactions, the openings of two local exhibitions of note:

- "Okamoto Taro and his Friend in Paris," at the Taro Okamoto Museum in Kawasaki (Link - J)

- "Fer et Cocon" ("Iron and Cocoons") at the Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Cultural History in Yokohama (Brochure - J - pdf)

Sunday, April 06, 2014

When He Says, "Training," He Means, "For Real"

Minister of Defense Onodera Itsunori has issued a secret directive ordering a Maritime Self Defense Forces vessel to sea prepared to shoot down any North Korean missile launch threatening Japan. (Link)

In a manner of speaking.

It would make zero sense to have SM-3 equipped Aegis vessels sailing the oceans without authorization to shoot down ballistic missiles threatening Japan. When seconds separate possible intercept and a pointless miss, the system cannot possibly rely on a call the Prime Minister's Residence and/or the Defense Minister to receive authorization.

So if authorization is standard, what has Onodera done?

According to The Asahi Shimbun, Onodera ordered the MSDF Kirishima (Photo) to sea on a training mission lasting from April 3 to April 25 -- a training mission where the captain has been given special authorization to engage in anti-missile combat activities, if he thinks circumstances merit them (Link). Had he addressed the crew before departure, Onodera's message would have been, "Sailors and officers of the Kirishima, no 'defense of Japan' stuff while you are out there -- unless. of course, it's absolutely necessary. Bon Voyage."

Bon voyage, indeed.

For those keeping score, yet another instance of extraordinary casuistry deployed by Japanese security officials in the course of conducting their daily tasks.

As you were.

Later - On Twitter Andrea Ortolani writes that the ship-to-shore communications mentioned above would like be via fax, not voice.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Abe Shinzo's Prospect Of Unwilling Political Fidelity

Watanabe Yoshimi explains himself.

On Twitter, Corey Wallace makes an excellend point about the potential for Abe Shinzo and his allies to go on a revisionist breakout after the summit with President Barack Obama: with the Japan Restoration Party's Hashimoto Toru navel gazing about his Osaka Metropolitan District Plan (Link) and the revelations regarding the Your Party's Watanabe Yoshimi's astonishing 800 milllion yen in personal loans from the CEO of DHC (Link), Abe who was entertaining (literally, it was discussed over a pair of dinners) the idea of dumping the cautious New Komeito in favor of the militant and revolutionary JRP and YP and his Liberal Democratic Party find themselves in the unenviable poisition of no longer being able to threaten their long-time alliance partners with replacement.

Sticking with the New Komeito means attempting crazy policy fiddles like a "we will say this but cannot possibly mean it" promise to reinterpret the Constitution, making unconstitutional collective self-defense (CSD) constitutional, but only in the immediate geographical neighborhood of Japan and on the high seas (Link)

Note to Japan's present and potential security partners: stay close to Japan and away from land.

With Abenomics, the great legitimizer of this second coming of The Abe Cabinet, about to enter a very very rough patch indeed (Link) Abe will have a much reduced capacity to simply bludgeon the New Komeito into submission. Having to make concessions to NK conservatism, particularly in security affairs, complicates if not complete negates the Abe strategy of countering opposition to and criticism of his revisionist political program by the giving to the U.S. Pentagon everything it desires, whether it be in terms of bases or a more activist and proactive Japanese military posture.

Rather than the well-discussed shibboleths (Yasukuni, comfort women) of Abe Shinzo and Friends, what seems set to trip up the Abe Revolution are the sources of its heretofore terrible strength: a jazzed-up economy and clingy allies in the Diet.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

On Hakamada's Survival

For I'm as free as a bird now
And this bird you cannot change
Oh, no I can't change.

- Lynyrd Skynyrd, "Free Bird" (1973)

Amid the flurry of articles about the freeing of Hakamada Iwao (Link) a key point is not being emphasized enough.

Hakamada is still alive.

The list of persons on death row not very long -- with Hakamada's release for retrial 131 men and women are in prison awaiting their hangings -- and Japanese Ministers of Justice are rarely squeamish about ordering executions. Tanigaki Sadakazu, the current minister, is reputed to be a soft-hearted soul. He has, however, signed eight death warrants since his appointment. Even Chiba Keiko, a death penalty opponent, ordered executions during her term in office. (Link)

Despite there being a very short list to choose from and pressure to press forward with executions, Hakamada's name never came up.

It's the dog that did not bark in the night.

A long time ago, probably long before the Supreme Court confirmed Hakamada's death sentence in 1980, Justice Ministry employees must have determined that their colleagues across the street at the National Police Agency had conned the prosecutors and the judges. Perhaps "Not Hakamada. He is innocent" was a part of the secret lore passed on by each Justice Minister to his or her successor.

However it happened, what could have happened did not happen.

So as we decry the injustice of an almost certainly innocent man spending more than half a lifetime on death row, let us remember that upon death row is where he stayed. Somehow for decades persons whose identities will remain a secret prevented his sentence from ever being carried out.

In a country where public support for the death penalty clocks in at around 80%, that is amazing...and encouraging.

Photo image: Umineko (Larus crassirostris) and yurikamome (Larus ridibundus) off of Ito City, Shizuoka Prefecture on 23 March 2014.
Photo image courtesy: MTC

Thursday, March 27, 2014


Pre-emptively, before I can even write a proper post about it, I would like to claim authorship of the name of a new social phenomenon -- some might call it a blight -- now making its appearance in this blessed land.

I call it "dumbwalking."

It is the glacial gait, with eyes and attention glued to the screen, of persons who are attempting to travel on foot while operating a smart phone.

Perhaps citizens of other lands where smart phones became items of mass consumption earlier than in Japan have their own words for it. If so I would love to hear about them.

One used to be able to make transfers through Tokyo, Shinjuku or Shibuya stations at a furious clip, with everyone else making minute adjustments to avoid collision with you. It would not be much -- a turn of an ankle, a slightly harder clutching to the breast of a package -- but everyone's mutual spatial awareness prevented impacts or blockages.

Now we have the dumbwalkers, meandering on their random, semi-catatonic, purblind courses amid the crowd. Blinded snails, they see neither where they are going nor the way anyone else is going.

"Smart phones make for dumb walks" I find myself saying over and over as each of these new technology-disabled pseudo-autistics impedes my forward, backward or anyward progress (yes, the aphorism is a modification of J.R.R Tokien's axiom in The Fellowship of the Ring of "Short cuts make for long delays" -- if ye be wanting to know).

With the ever greater use of smart phones and tablets, particularly by the more self-involved generations, I foresee a day -- and it will be soon -- when the famed Shibuya scramble crossing fails to clear.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Fire On That Mountain

The Wall Street Journal's JapanRealTime blog has published a chart of corporate Japan's Mt. Fuji of retained earnings. It shows corporate Japan, after entering a downward trend on the socking away of cash, switching post-Lehman Brothers into a "bury me under a pile of gold" mode. (Link)

The chart show companies adding to their cash Mt. Fujis in the fourth quarter of 2012 and first quarter of 2013 much as they had in the previous three years. However, the sharp drop off of cash on hand (in 10,000 yen bills, the mass would weigh around 22,200 tons) after the March end of the fiscal year seen in 2010-11 becomes weaker in 2011-12. In 2012-2013, the drop off disappears entirely, with companies having having as much cash in their accounts in September as in March.

Looking at this mountain, it would not be out of place for Abe Shinzo to stand up before a gathering of the captains of industry and commerce to say, "After all I have done for you, this is how you say, 'Thank you'?"

A corporate sector so unwilling to invest in new equipment, seriously increase employee pay or distribute earnings to the shareholders deserves Abe Shinzo's disdain. It certainly does not deserve a reduction in the corporate income tax rate, which would generate even large stashes of earnings companies do not know how to use.

Until such time as the corporations start to seriously deplete their savings accounts, it will be difficult for Abenomics to be more than a damp squib. Noises about a cut in the corporate tax cut will also be just that, noises, made in order to retain the interest of foreign investors who, coming from economic systems where there is no tolerance for companies hoarding cash or, alternatively, generating no accounting profits (71% of Japan's companies paid no income tax in 2012), would otherwise look at investing in Japan as not just depressing, but insane.

Photo image: Tanigawadake on 27 June 2007
Photo courtesy: MTC

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Three Cartoons By Sato Masaaki On The Abe-Park Meeting

Tokyo Shimbun editorial cartoonist Sato Massaki is a national treasure. With the U.S.-Japan-South Korean trilateral meeting on the fringes of the nuclear security summit at The Hague, the first face-to-face meeting of any substance between the leaders of Japan and South Korea since Abe Shinzo became prime minister, only hours away, here are a trio of recent Sato cartoons on the fraught Abe-Park relationship.

[N.B. The sequence of cells within a cartoon is supposed to be read from the top right to the bottom left.]

"A Collection of Contemporary Disappeared Items"
Published: 18 March 2014

Click on Image To Enlarge

Relevant URLs:

"Japan's Beethoven Admits He Is A Fraud"

"Reliability of STAP cells 'breakthrough' questioned"

"For Abenomics, 'Third Arrow 'Is Hardest -- And Most Needed"

"Ending? Beginning?"
Published: 22 March 2014

Click on Image To Enlarge

Two hooks here. The seemingly eternal run of noontime variety show Waratte ii to mo ("It's OK to Laugh") comes to a close on April 1. Abe, in tribute to the show's longtime appeal and in order to counter his reputation of being a stiff, made the first and what will be last appearance by a sitting prime minister on the show on Friday. (Link)

The recurring bit in the show is to have the guest call up a "friend" on the telephone and invite that friend to appear on the show. The friend, after some banter, is supposed to agree with a cheery "that sounds good."

In reality, Prime Minister Abe called up superstar actor and musical performer Kimura Takuya, who did his part by replying cheerily in the affirmative. In Sato's cartoon world, Abe calls up President Park of South Korea. Her response to his invitation to appear is a grudging, scowling, shrugging resignation.

"We Want This To Be A Match Without An Audience”
Published 25 March 2014

Click on Image to Enlarge

The title reference is to the Urawa Reds - Shimizu S-Pulse match played to a stadium of empty seats in a league punishment for a fan group's display of a xenophobic banner. (Link)

However, the audience behind Madame Park that Mr. Abe and for the most part U.S. President Barack Obama want gone is composed of North Koren leader Kim Jong-un, a South Korean flag-waving President Xi Jinping of China and the comfort woman statue installed both in front of the Japan Embassy in Seoul and in a park in the California city of Glendale.