Sunday, June 05, 2016

Explaining The House Of Councillors Election - On The Lack Of A Viable Centrist Opposition

In the most recent set of public opinion polls, conducted over the weekend following the Ise-Shima G7 summit, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its leader Abe Shinzo had much to smile about. Most polls showed a leap in Cabinet approval ratings of about 5%, adding on to what are at historic levels of public acceptance of a Cabinet, at least for a prime minister in his fourth in office (not that there have been, historically, many of these creatures). The ruling party's dispiriting four-to-one advantage in support over its centrist rival, the Democratic Party remained unchanged or improved.

Certainly the atmospherics of President Barack Obama's visit to Hiroshima, which pleased an astonishing 98% of respondents in the Kyodo poll (the first time I have ever seen such a polling number anywhere outside the DPRK) have added to the luster of Prime Minister Abe and his government.

Nevertheless, the public's attitude toward the policies of the Abe administration and the LDP remains at best grudging and at worst hostile. A majority of the population does not believe the government's economic policies are a success or likely to succeed. A majority of the voters do not want the government to consider a revision of the Constitution. A majority indeed do even not want the ruling coalition to win the necessary number of seats giving it the potential to alter the Constitution.

So what is going on? Why has the opposition been unable to translate the public dissatisfaction with the current policy directions or potential policy directions of the LDP and the Cabinet into support?

A considerable amount of the blame for the Democratic Party's inability to capitalize on a favorable policy environment has to be laid at the door of party leader Okada Katsuya. He is a bland and earnest individual with poor charisma and paltry appreciation of the value of political symbols. With his wooden speeches and leaden demeanor he practically begs the news media to belittle him. That journalists are recording his words and his image not because he has anything to say but because he is the leader of the opposition bothers him not enough. If not for the sheen of the leadership post, the news media and the public would ignore him.

However, it is facile to attribute the major part of anti-LDP opposition's unpopularity to the current leader of DP. Replacing Okada with someone else (a prospect the DP faces following the drubbing they will receive in July) cannot fix the fundamental problems of the opposition, even if the opposition were to recruit a magnetar like Koizumi Shinjiro, the only current rival to Prime Minister Abe.

For a viable opposition to be both viable and an opposition it has to 1) oppose and 2) have a place upon which to make its stand.

In the current political environment, both internal and external, neither is possible.

In terms of policy stance, the LDP is incorrectly classified as a center-right party. It is in fact a center-left party or even leftist party, with a nationalist/patriotic veneer of ersatz, sheepish rightism. The LDP's current economic policies are the interventionist dreams of European and North American liberals, with not a shred left of the small-government and market-driven drives of the Hashimoto and Koizumi (pere) eras. As for security policy, Japan's politico-military establishment under Abe is as cautious and rule-bound as it has ever been, at least as compared with counterparts in other OECD countries. As for its promises of constant expansion of social spending, only the Japan Communist Party holds a candle to the LDP.

So where is Japan's so-called "liberal" opposition to stand? Yes, it can oppose last year's security legislation on procedural grounds. However, if one looks for concrete difference, one finds that when the DPJ, the precursor to today's DP, was in power, its security plans were identical to those of the current government. On the economy and social welfare, to the immediate left of the LDP is the JCP, with only a micrometer of space between them.

Rob the electorate of the illusion that a change in political parties will in and of itself better Japan, as the DPJ's turn in power did, and you have an impossibly narrow base on which to build a challenge to the current ruling coalition and its leader.

Later - For a review of the latest polling numbers, check out the most recent Sasakawa Foundation post by Tobias Harris (Link)

Friday, April 01, 2016

Some Nice Things About the Minshinto

This past weekend the Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan) and the Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) merged, forming a new named party, the Minshinto (which in English could be "the Democratic Progressive Party”but in order to avoid confusion with the Taiwan ruling party of the same name is being called the "Democratic Party"). The so far mild public reaction to the event has prompted the small English language Japan commentariat to offer only a tiny burst of mostly negative reviews. Yuki Tatsumi at Stimson is the most scathing, dismissing the new party as merely the old party, with all the same negatives as before (Link1). Tobias Harris, writing for the Sasakawa Foundation, is a bit nicer but still dwells upon the lack so far of a positive public reaction to the new party’s formation. (Link2)

As hard as it may be to believe, there are some nice things one can say about the Minshinto.

1) DP leader Okada Katsuya headed off a potentially catastrophic split of his own party prior to a House of Councillors election. DP conservatives/Matsushita Seikei products (often both) like Maehara Seiji, Nagashima Akihisa and Hosono Goshi are unhappy at the Okada secretariat's steps toward electoral collaboration with the Japan Communist Party. They have been threatening to leave, joining members of the rump Ishin no To in a new conservative opposition party. With brought their JIP conservative buddies now in their party, the DP conservatives are less likely to depart. The price for this unity was accepting a stupid name change.

2) Japan's largest opposition party got larger, not smaller. That alone is something. DP has 96 seats in the House of Representatives; 60 seats in the House of Councillors. Not bad.

3) The party secretariat is the DPJ's secretariat with a few tweaks. Tatsumi sees reappointment of the DPJ leadership as a weakness, with too few new faces to generate excitement (the one new face in the bunch, attack dog Policy Research Chair YAMAO Shiori, has been slapped back with a financial scandal). One could also turn the analysis around and see a merger where one team's members kept all the important posts and the other team's members, including some with titanic egos (Eda Kenji) got essentially nothing as a pretty sweet deal for that first team.
OKADA Katsuya (DPJ)

Acting Representatives
EDA Kenji (JIP)


Policy Research Chair
YAMAO Shiori (DPJ)

Elections Council Chair
GEMBA Koichiro (DPJ)

Diet Affairs Council Chair

House of Councillors Chair
4) With the Will They/Won't They/Why Don't They phase completed, the opposition can now turn to the important business of coordinating Diet and electoral actions against the still immensely powerful but increasingly less likable Liberal Democratic Party of Abe Shinzo.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

On A House of Representatives Election in April

I hate writing about stupid things...and a Diet dissolution after the passage of the Budget is a very stupid thing.

However, everyone is speculating about an early House of Representatives election, how it will allow Prime Minister Abe to take advantage ofhis  excellent Cabinet and party support poll numbers, how it will allow him to renew the employment contracts of his HoR colleagues well before the next rise of the consumption tax, how it will set up a knockout blow to the opposition in the mandated Summer  2016 House of Councillors election.

Assuming he and his party win big...which is an assumption.

The issue is turnout...and holding a snap election in April could increase turnout -- which could lead to a reversal of fortune (though probably not a loss of the majority) in the currently very accommodating House of Representatives.

Losing seats in a House of Representatives election could set up a reversal in the current scenario for the House of Councillors. The operative plan is to ride the current popularity of the Liberal Democratic Party (it is outpolling the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan 4 to 1) to a repetition of the wholesale larceny of seats seen in 2013, driving the DPJ to marginal status and possibly securing enough seats for an assault on the Constitution -- though that latter goal may require the cooperation of Hashimoto Toru's Osaka Ishin no Kai seat holders  -- and who in his/her right mind wants to associate/negotiate with the volatile Mr. Hashimoto?

We have to remember Fall 2014, when Mr. Abe blew everyone away with his sudden, duplicitously packaged (Reed, Pekkanen and Scheiner called it a "bait-and-switch") dissolution and general election. The DPJ was caught flat-footed in that instance by the dissolution (as was yours truly). It and the other opposition parties never really got a campaign going before the election day was upon them. Nevertheless, the DPJ managed to claw back seats it had lost in 2012 to Hashimoto's Japan Innovation Party and Watanabe's Your Party, while LDP stayed stuck in place.

This time:

1) the DPJ is not waiting for Abe Shinzo to surprise it: the party apparatus seems to have selected House of Representatives candidates and seems to be sending them out on pre-emptive, campaign-like encounters with the voters.

2) Unlike in 2014, Abe does not have a clear referendum issue in his docket, as he had with delaying of the rise in the consumption tax. Discussion of Trans Pacific Partnership legislation will take months, not weeks. Meanwhile, the shock of the Bank of Japan's latest extreme gesture of imposing negative interest rates seems to have already worn off.

Abe could, of course, announce a further delay of the rise in the consumption tax and make that his new referendum issue for an April dissolution. Somehow the adage "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me" pops into the head when I think of Abe trying to pull off the same trick twice.

If we could add to this 3) a return to some of the enthusiasm the electorate used to have for gleeful punishment of the LDP for being the LDP -- an springtime dissolution could be disastrous for Abe Shinzo's hopes of climbing past Nakasone and Koizumi in the list of longest-serving prime ministers.

However, considering the contempt Abe is displaying toward the opposition (check out his introductory paragraphs of his Policy Speech on January 22 or his smart ass replies to question in the Diet regarding a revision of political donation laws), maybe he really is prepped and primed to pull the plug on this Diet come April Fools Day.


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Does The Seoul Comfort Women Agreement Exist?

A technical question...but one with implications as to the conduct of foreign policy and the behavior of elites in elective democracies: does the Seoul agreement "finally and irreversibly" ending the comfort women dispute between Japan and the Republic of Korea actually exist?

By "exist" I mean in the way an English speaker would understand an agreement existing, as in "Is there an actual text on paper, parchment, stone tablet or pdf which both sides have signed -- with a pen, a brush, a mouse or a stamp? Is there some object, real or virtual, with the names of representatives of both sides on it?"

And if so, can we see it?

My current thinking is that there is no actual, signed agreement between the two nations containing the details announced at the press conference on December 28. The lack of a signed agreement would explain some of the odder bits of Monday's announcement, including

- why the announcement was not accompanied by a printout (Link)

- why the Japanese government promises in section 1(iii) of the announcement to do what it said it would do in sections 1(i) and 1(ii), with the government of the ROK repeating the assumption ("on the premise that the Government of Japan will steadily implement the measures specified in 1. (1) (ii)above") in 2(i). Under normal circumstances governments making declarations do not immediately double check themselves.

- why a Japanese embassy official in Washington has said the current agreement would not need to be approved by the Cabinet and

- last but not least that stunning adverb "approximately" in the English language version of the agreement, as in "approximately 1 billion yen". In the Japanese version, the numeral is modified not once but twice (omune ni 10 oku en teido - "roughly in the vicinity of 1 billion yen") -- not your everyday binding agreement figure of speech, to put it mildly.

Of course, that the Japanese press describes Monday's announcement as introducing to the world a go'i ( 合意 - "our meanings are in sync") rather than a kyotei (協定 - "formal agreement") should be probably be seen as prima facie evidence there is no document underpinning this supposed final and irreversible settlement.

If no actual document exists perhaps one will be produced later, possibly as a requirement of legalization of the transfer of "approximately one billion yen" from the government of Japan to a special account created by the government of the ROK.

I hope I am wrong in all this: I hope there is an actual signed agreement. I very much like signed agreements when the goal is to end a bitter, longstanding dispute.

However, if there is not one and the two countries end their animosity on the issue with proper restitution and respect being paid to the women, I am not going to niggle about a technicality.

Not today at least.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Looking at the So-Called Comfort Women Agreement

First, read the announcement of the agreement on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. (Link)

Second, read what Tatsumi Yuki of the Stimson Center has dashed out (she is a wonderworker). She nails down the implications of the main points of the agreement like no one else can. (Link)

A few additional thoughts:

- Over the weekend the Japanese news media reported a blizzard of leaked details about the agreement. Many of these reported details turned out to have been wrong.

a) the reported size of the fund was 100 million yen. The actual fund will be TEN TIMES that amount

(Hey, it is Japanese taxpayer money, so who cares, right? It is not as if those who poured oil on the fire of the comfort women issue all these years had to personally pony up.)

b) South Korea is not contributing to the fund. Instead, all it is doing is opening the account in its name.

c) The comfort woman statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul is not being removed or moved. The South Korean government has merely agreed to talk to the private interests who built it, keeping in mind Japanese government concerns about the statue.

A forensic look at the reporting over the weekend would determine which news organization reported which false assertion when. However, in general, by Monday morning, all the major news outlets, ideological cant notwithstanding, had at least a couple details about the agreement wrong. As a result, on Monday morning, the agreement being described in the news media was unbelievable.

Now just how it was that so many false leads were planted, and by whom for what purpose, is largely an academic exercise. However, a cavalier treatment of reporters, burning them with fake leaks, may have more serious consequences down the road for the perpetrators. The reporters will simply not trust their sources anymore, making the news media less likely to play along with whatever mischief or agenda shaping the leaker may wish to perpetrate in the future.

- Now we have a very good reason for why Inada Tomomi was passed over for a Cabinet post in the October Cabinet reshuffle. A Cabinet Decision (kakugi kettei) by the full Cabinet is necessary for the agreement to become official government policy. In light of Inada's longtime, vehement assertions that the South Korean position on the comfort women is "all too many lies" (Link - J) her vote on the Seoul agreement would have been uncertain. Most likely than not, she would have had to resign rather than vote in favor of what was announced yesterday, damaging both her career and any image of sincere Japanese government remorse.

So Abe kept her out of the Cabinet, avoiding a certain clash. Smart.

- Aside from the limp ROK promise to talk to private parties on the statue issue, most of the wording of the announcement favors the Japanese side.

Take the first line of yesterday's agreement, with the seemingly missing "its" after the conjunction:
(i) The issue of comfort women, with an involvement of the Japanese military authorities at that time, was a grave affront to the honor and dignity of large numbers of women, and the Government of Japan is painfully aware of responsibilities from this perspective.
The Japanese military gets off the hook here, with the procurement of women for its officers and enlisted men downgraded to "an involvement" in the trafficking. The Japanese text is actually a bit more forceful, saying that activities took place "under the umbrella of" (kanyo no shita ni) of the Imperial Army. However, the Japanese is also more legalistic, quarantining the military as being not the Imperial Army but "the army of that time" (toji no gun).

As for what might be called "the missing 'its" as in "the Government of Japan is painfully aware of its responsibilities" it is also missing in the Japanese text. When I was reading the first reports of the agreement in Japanese, I wondered whether the lack of a clear recognition of the government's being responsible was the result of a stylistic or an intentional vagueness. The awkward English translation seems to confirm an intentional fudging, again very much to the benefit of the GOJ, of just whose responsibilities are being discussed.

- Is it just me, or does the announcement seem a lot like an agreement struck between children? Both sides agree to fulfill their part of the bargain as long as the other side fulfills theirs first. Adults do not demand these kind of chronologically impossible guarantees, do they?

- Trying to make sense of what was being reported in the news, I came to an incorrect conclusion in my post of yesterday. However, I wrote to a friend:

"I find Abe's diplomacy refreshingly amoral -- never seeking to do what is right, only that which incrementally increases leverage, knocks opponents off balance and fulfills the minimum requirement."

A few days back I also tweeted:

I believe yesterday's announcement not inconsistent with these statements.

As a result of yesterday Abe Shinzo is being hailed as "Japan's Nixon," cutting the deal only he can cut as in "only Nixon can go China."

Uhmmm...please tell me something I did not already know...a year ago.

After careers as arsonists on the comfort women issue, Prime Minister Abe and President Park had their surrogates show up on the scene with fire extinguishers. We will see if the current geopolitical environment allows the pair of hereditary rulers of their respective countries to simply waltz away from their suddenly unfriended extremists.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The So-Called So-Called Comfort Women Issue Resolution Proposal

There is nuts. Then there is full blown, hair-askew, pants-on-backwards insane.

From news reports, the proposal on resolution of the comfort women issue Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio will be offering to his South Korean counterpart in a few hours's time is the latter.

According to news reports, Kishida is going to ask the ROK side to accept:
1) a fund of 100 million yen (currently about USD $825,000) for the medical, welfare and income needs of the surviving Korean comfort women

2) a request that the ROK government also contribute to the fund

3) letters from Prime Minister Abe Shinzo to all the survivors expressing his remorse at their pain, deprivation and humiliation

4) the ROK government's declaring that the government of Japan bears no legal responsibility for acts done to the comfort women, i.e. that the repudiation of ROK legal claims in the 1965 normalization treaty apply also to the comfort women's claims

5) that the ROK government will agree to remove or move the statue of the seated young girl installed by private interests in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul

6) that the two governments sign a binding agreement declaring the comfort women issue resolved.

I am not making any of the above up. (Link - J video)

I know very little about contemporary South Korean politics (it is hard enough to keep track of the politics of Japan, thank you very much) but my cursory knowledge still tells me there is virtually nothing in the above that the Park Geun-hye government can accept, given its level of popularity with the voters.

With unacceptability as the assumption, two alternative explanations have been bandied about:

A) That the above is actually not the proposal, and that the news media of Japan have been quoting sources who are voicing their virulent opposition to whatever the Abe administration is actually proposing, or

B) The above is really what the Abe Administration is offering, fully cognizant that the ROK will reject it, allowing Abe and Company to shrug their shoulders and say, "Look, we made an offer and they turned us down flat. Next."

Of course, there is always:

C) the ROK through gritted teeth accepts the above.

The reason for (C) even being remotely plausible is pressure from the United States, ally of both of these headstrong governments. According to the Asahi Shimbun " numerous persons in the loop of Japan-ROK relations" have confirmed that if an accord is reached the U.S. government will immediately issue a statement of congratulating its allies for resolving this difficult bilateral issue. (Link - J)

A statement of congratulations...oh whoop-de-doo.

As persons following my tweets on Twitter know I am firmly in the (B) camp. My reading is that key members of the Abe government are certain the current ROK government and a large chunk of the South Korean public have no intention of ever letting Japan and the Japanese off the hook for the colonial era -- and why should they, as resolution of historical/territorial issues would open the door for closer Japan-US-ROK military cooperation, upsetting China?

As a consequence, any realistic Japanese attempt at a rapprochement would be pointless, leaving Japan looking like a rejected beggar.

Japan's main interest in these talks seems to be the pleasing of U.S.A. policy makers, putting on a show of seeking resolution so that the Japan Hands can check off the "a more concerted effort toward resolving the comfort women issue" box on the U.S. list of "Things the Abe Government Needs to Do."

In a few hours' time we will know better.

Monday, December 07, 2015

As Heresies Go, Mine's Not Going To Make Me Too Popular

Let me just toss this out, as it has been annoying me for a while.

"Womenomics" -- the precise term invented by Goldman Sachs analyst Kathy Matsui (Link) and the Abe Government's fluffier set of programs intent on improving the status and numbers of women in corporations and government -- promise(s) to increase the size of Japan's GDP per capita and in total. By injecting the talents of women into the established sectors of the economy, corporations will have greater sales and government will become more responsive, bettering people's lives.


When since the beginning of the Meiji Period has Japan's problem been a lack of talent? Put another way, when since those very few decades after the Restoration has there been a massive need to import skilled labor?

Has not the problem in Japan been, and acutely so since the collapse in the Bubble, corporations and government sitting on talent, misapplying it or allowing it to wither?

If so, how will luring more women into the corporate and career government paths improve the performance of these entities? Without a fundamental reform in the way labor is used -- with workers allowed to flow toward more profitable and efficient enterprise -- having more women in the corporate management and government might mean only women will be gaining an equal chance at having their talents go to waste.

As for society at large, the triumph of "Womenomics" could significantly decrease public welfare. A consequences of the poor uptake of women into career path Japanese corporate and government positions has been a surplus of talented women seeking to become professionals (doctors and lawyers), working for non-Japanese corporations and establishing their own businesses and NGOs. By increasing the percentage of the women gaining access to higher level positions in The Establishment one would be shrinking the pool of talent available for these often much more socially constructive courses.

Already improving opportunities for women in corporations and government could be one of the factors behind the trend identified in a hard-to-read but still fascinating recent graph from plotted//grundriss. Entrepreneurship, rather than equalizing in between the sexes, has become an increasingly male activity. (Link)

While other factors may be in play -- the large lump of mostly male Baby Boom retirees looking for something to do with the last two decades of their active lives, for example -- the decreasing percentage of women entrepreneurs corresponds with the expected outcome from greater opportunities opening up for women in government and established corporations.

In a broader and less fair sense, should we not be more skeptical about ideas hatched in the Goldman Sachs fun factory? Kathy Matsui may be a fine human being (I cannot say, having only chatted with her that one time at that bizarre conference) but any analysis finding "the world would be a better place if more persons were able to become like us" has to be seen as at least potentially unsound -- especially if the definition of "better" is "that which allows us to sell more of our precisely targeted investment instruments."

I get it that in the aggregate having more women working increases the number of wage earners and thus the size of the economy. However, that "Womenomics" has never been shy about being a nakedly regressive nationalist social policy, pushing Japanese women into the workforce to take up mostly the sorts of jobs other societies have immigrants do -- receiving thunderous applause from international circles in the process -- that I do not get.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Me-ish Stuff, Of Cabbages And Kings

- The announcement of my press luncheon at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan on December 17 (Link)

- The announcement for my open-to-the-public talk at Temple University Japan's Azabu Campus on January 7 (Link)

- My most recent essay in the FCCJ's in-house magazine on Abe Shinzo's ichi oku so katsuyaku rigmarole (Link)

- Rikkyo University's A. J. Sutter's rendition of our discussion on this blog (Link A) into a Japan Times article. (Link B)

"Respected scholar and blogger" - something to add to the sidebar?

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Speaking Of The Dead

De profundis clamavi ad te Domine!

"From the depths I call out to thee, oh My Lord!"

Yesterday, Former U.S. National Security Advisor Samuel "Sandy" Berger died at the age of 70. None of the Japanese language obituaries of him mention Berger's having been awarded last month the Grand Cordon of the Rising Sun, the nation's highest award for non-Japanese (Link), a fact that CNN, in its obituary, did not fail to mention. (Link)

Berger's award was peculiar in at least three ways. First because he has never been portrayed in the popular media as a particularly special friend of Japan, or as someone openly associated with the careful management of the Tokyo-Washington political relationship. Second because of his infamous and shameful attempt to walk out of the U.S. National Archives with original copies of government documents hidden in his pants -- an incident so bizarre it would normally disqualify someone from receiving a major award. Thirdly because he was a token Democrat in an otherwise staunchly Republican list of American awardees announced on November 2.

Who were the other Americans (5 of the 12 awardees were Americans) receiving the Grand Cordon of the Rising Sun this Autumn? Hold on to your hats (and possibly your hearts):
Richard Armitage
Brent Scowcroft
James Baker
Donald Rumsfeld
The first three would be on anyone's list of The Usual Suspects list of Establishment Friends of Japan. They were all going to get the Grand Cordon eventually.

The last name, however, should have been the source of screams of disbelief. "DONALD RUMSFELD!?!" Co-concoctor of the now 11 year old Iraq War? A figure so divisive and disgraced U.S. Republicans will not touch him?

Need anyone be reminded that Donald Rumsfeld was U.S. Secretary of Defense when a gaggle of joy-riding Republican donors crashed a U.S. nuclear-power submarine into a training vessel of a Japanese high school, sinking the ship killing five teachers and four students? That he refused to send a high-ranking Defense Department official to apologize to the families and the Japanese nation after the accident? And that he repeatedly said "No" to requests that just out of simple decency he stop the practice of allowing civilians to handle and operate U.S. weapons platforms and systems? (Link)

That guy gets a Grand Cordon of the Rising Sun? Who submitted the recommendation?

And no, that former Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro himself did not leave his golf game after hearing the first reports of the Ehime Maru Accident, a show of detachment and contempt that forced the hated Mori's resignation and his replacement by Koizumi Jun'ichiro, does not make Donald Rumsfeld's being gonged any the less appalling.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Regarding Osaka's Ambitions and Koizumi The Younger

Uploaded to YouTube, the latest from Langley Esquire's Tokyo on Fire series of videos, with host Timothy Langley, Nancy Snow and me offering our takes on the results of the November 22 Osaka double election. (Link)

Liberal Democratic Party president Abe Shinzo's gloating abandonment of the Osaka chapter of the LDP is a thing of wonder. As a display of raw power, I can think of nothing comparable in recent Japanese politics, save perhaps Koizumi Shinjiro's winning the most votes of any candidate for office in the December 2014 House of Representatives election, despite having spent only TWO DAYS campaigning in his district. (Link)