Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Important dates

As the year winds down and Japan's political establishment evaluates the first several months of the Abe Cabinet -- and wonders whether Abe will be able to bounce back in the new year -- several important dates have been set.

The Diet's regular session will open on January 25th, and run through June 23rd, ending about a month before the Upper House and nationwide local elections, which have been set for July 22nd.

That date -- July 22nd -- will loom large over the entire Diet session, because Abe's political future will almost certainly depend on a strong LDP showing at the polls. From where I stand, it seems that Abe may have difficulty following Koizumi in appealing to urban voters who would otherwise be drawn to the DPJ.

In any case, posting will continue to be light this week as Japan prepares to celebrate New Year's. If something important happens, however, I will be sure to write.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Abe turns a corner?

After weeks of depressing news, has Prime Minister Abe Shinzo finally turned a corner and found a way to boost his sagging poll numbers?

Two recent decisions in particular suggest this may be in the offing.

First, Mr. Abe announced yesterday that the LDP would not accept campaign contributions from three major Japanese banks that had announced their intention to resume contributions, from which they had abstained since the late 1990s (they were huge donors in the early 1990s). This should have been a no brainer, because it seems more than a little unseemly for the banks to make large political donations to the LDP after having been bailed out by the public.

Then, today, after days of stalling, Abe received the resignation of Honma Masaaki, head of the government's advisory commission on taxation and professor at Osaka University. In a not-altogether-remarkable case of sleaze, Honma, a was discovered to be living with a mistress in a heavily discounted public apartment in a ritzy neighborhood in Shibuya.

Could these decisions actually be the beginning of an Abe revival? It's too early to tell, and there's plenty of reason to be skeptical, not least because in both cases Abe was slow to act despite growing public (and party) disapproval. The Asahi Shimbun (link in English) suggests, in fact, that Abe's reasoning behind the bank donation decision is fairly transparent:
So on Tuesday evening, Abe moved to demonstrate his leadership as LDP president. He told party Secretary-General Hidenao Nakagawa that the party must "refrain" from accepting bank donations.

He then took advantage of a televised news conference to emphasize his decision.

With a degree of understatement he said, "As party president, I decided that accepting political donations from major banks would not win the understanding of the people."

His "surprise" performance was very much in the style of his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, who won a reputation for "Koizumi Theater."

Even party officials were caught off-guard. Hours earlier, Nakagawa had told a news conference that banks should be free to make donations at their own discretion.

But with opinion polls showing public support for his Cabinet had fallen to below 50 percent, Abe decided not to further risk the wrath of voters.

In fact, regaining voter support will be his most pressing task in light of a series of unpopular policy decisions and scandals involving his administration.

As such, there's plenty of reason to question whether the Japanese public will view Abe's latest gestures as indications of his dedication to responsible government.

The cuts continue

No, not Japan's budget cuts, because, according to this article in the IHT, the government's draft budget shows that next year's budget will increase slightly.

Rather, I'm referring to this other article in the IHT, which reports that Japan's defense budget will continue to carry the burden of budget cuts. Makes you wonder why people are so alarmed about Japanese remilitarization, doesn't it?

How is a country with a shrinking defense budget -- and, within the defense budget, more spending on missile defense and expenditures related to the relocation of US forces from Okinawa to Guam -- supposed to become a major power in the region in terms of power projection? Under Koizumi, and now under Abe, Japan's defense establishment has been forced to accept budget cuts despite being asked to do more than ever before.

What reason does anyone have to think that this will change anytime soon, as Japan continues to age, with all the expenditures that an aging society entails?

Chinese Siberia

This piece in today's Japan Times by Cambridge's own David Wall spells out in detail the silent, slow-motion annexation of Pacific Russia by China.

Russia is in quite a bind as far as the Russian Far East is concerned. As Wall points out, the region is being depopulated of Russians, and millions of Chinese are migrating -- whether temporarily or permanently remains to be seen -- into Russia to work. Even if the Russian population remained static, however, Russia would still be facing demographic defeat in the territories it took from China in the 1860s.

Were Pacific Russia to return to China sometime during the twenty-first century, the consequences would not necessarily be dire, particularly if China exercises de facto rule before formalizing the transition.

This process shows, however, that alarms about Russia may be overblown. Yes, Russia is an increasingly substantial player in global energy markets. And yes, Vladimir Putin's government has taken a frightening turn in the direction of outright autocracy. But increasingly Russia is imploding, so that even as super-wealthy Russians make splashes internationally and Putin's government taunts and threatens, they are the shiny facade hiding a country in terminal decline. Russia's inability to control its territory adjacent to China is just one example of how powerless it has become in the face of high mortality rates and a pervasive spiritual gloom.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


The LDP -- 自由民主党 / 自民党 (jiyuuminshuto, abbreviated as jiminto) -- was formed out of an alliance between two rival parties in 1955, and throughout its history it has been a patchwork of factions, clubs, and policy tribes (zoku) and has encompassed a broad range of ideologies. For most of its history, factions have been paramount in the selection of premiers and cabinet ministers, but following the turmoil of the 1990s and the ascent of Koizumi Junichiro, who promised to destroy the LDP, the factions were seen to be in terminal decline.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the demise of the factions may be greatly exaggerated.

I am referring to this article in the Yomiuri Shimbun on the creation of a new faction by Foreign Minister Aso Taro.

To indulge in a bit of "Jimintology," a close cousin of that dormant science of Kremlinology (although that seems to have picked up in recent months), I would like to speculate as to the reasons why Aso would form a faction now, despite the prevailing trend supposedly being against factions:
  • The factions strike back: Aso's move is particularly interesting in light of the recent rejection by the LDP of Abe's proposed reform of funds for road construction and the disposal of the gasoline tax, and, in general, Abe's declining popularity. In politics, as in science, nature abhors a vacuum, and Abe's tenure has been characterized, by, if anything, a vacuum. In light of his failure to present and move an agenda and enforce discipline on the LDP, the factions and policy tribes appear to have moved to fill the void created by the lack of leadership. As such, Aso may just be trying to get in on the action. In the Yomiuri article, Aso is quoted as saying that he hopes the faction will be able to compete strongly in the LDP's leadership competition in the future. Leading me to my second point, which is...
  • Abe's declining popularity: It seems a little early to begin discussing Abe's succession, unless of course LDP chiefs are convinced that Abe doesn't have much time left in his tenure. This may be a not-so-subtle vote of no-confidence in the prime minister, Aso's claims to support him notwithstanding. So, connecting back to my first point, this may be a way for Aso to prepare himself for the next leadership race, which, at this moment would be wide open, since there doesn't appear to be an heir apparent as Abe was for Koizumi.
  • Abe plays the game: Lastly, and this is pure speculation, Aso could be acting under Abe's orders, who, in the face of declining popularity, perhaps would like to metamorphose surreptitiously from a prime minister without a faction to one at the head of an elite faction.
I don't know which, if any, of these options is right. It may well be some combination of the three. What I do know is that an LDP once again in the grip of the factions would be bad for the LDP, and bad for Japan.

Monday, December 18, 2006

From 庁 to 省 (From agency to ministry)

Aside from the highly controversial education reform bill, the special session of the Diet now concluding -- it was extended an extra four days -- also passed a bill elevating Japan's Defense Agency from an agency subordinate to the Cabinet to a ministry with full status equivalent to other government ministries.

This reform has been in the pipeline for a while now, and constitutes an administrative reform more than a policy reform: the new Defense Ministry will have its own budget, the ability to submit legislation without having to go through the Cabinet, and less concretely, symbolically raises Japan's defense establishment not only in relation to other countries' defense ministries, but also vis-a-vis Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Moreover, as a careful observer of these matters with whom I correspond regularly suggested, the Defense Ministry will have access to a better crop of recruits from elite universities than it had as the JDA.

In many ways, this legislation simply ratifies changes that the JDA has undergone over the past two decades. In particular, since the end of the cold war the JDA has gone from an agency that was effectively used to cordon the JSDF off from the Japanese political system to an organization staffed by security policy experts better able to manage Japan's defense policy in a fluid and uncertain international environment. The JDA went from an agency staffed by bureaucrats seconded from the Foreign and Finance ministries to an organization in which a core group of young policy experts from within the agency rose to positions of prominence, improving the JDA's ability to fight for preferred policies and secure an important seat at the table, particularly in discussions with the US.

Beyond the symbolic change from agency to ministry, the law passed last week makes "international peace cooperation activities" a fundamental mission of the JSDF, which means that for the first time in its history the JSDF's core purpose necessarily involves missions outside of Japan. (Thanks to my aforementioned correspondent for comments on this change.) As with the elevation of the JDA, this simply makes the JSDF's shift from a static defense force to an active force fit for overseas deployment de jure -- it doesn't actually change government policy, at least in the short term.

I think it's imperative for the international media to break itself of the habit of conjuring up Japan's post-war past whenever anything related to Japan's changing international position comes up, as this CNN article does. Yes, we get it; Japan has a controversial past. But anyone paying attention over the past fifteen years would notice that Japan has gotten into the habit of contributing its armed forces to UN peacekeeping missions. Rather than hint at the specter of Japanese "remilitarization," the international media should be talking about how this fits into a re-envisioning of Japan's international role as a country that specializes, in part, in peacemaking and reconstruction missions abroad.

In any case, the big, fundamental change underlying both of these reforms is a greater willingness in Japan to study the changing international and regional environments and determine how changes impact Japan's national interests. As this Yomiuri editorial on the Defense Ministry bill suggests, there's plenty for Japan's national security policymakers to consider.

Rather than worry about Japanese "remilitarization," the proper response should be relief that Japan is finally moving positively in the direction of bearing a greater share of the burden to provide global peace and security.

Thankfully the DPJ, after some initial grumbles about this bill, came to its senses and largely supported a piece of legislation that not only makes sense, but is also consistent with the DPJ's interest in a more autonomous Japan.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Bush, Sr. meets Abe

Former US President George H.W. Bush visited Japan on Saturday and met with Prime Minister Abe Shinzo (and, incidentally, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was in Tokyo for meetings with Abe).

I can't help but laugh at the symbolism of Abe meeting with George H.W. Bush, with whom I compared Abe in this post. Abe -- the grandson and nephew of prime ministers and the son of a strong contender for the premiership, raised in politics but utterly lacking a common touch -- meeting with George H.W. Bush, US president, son of a senator, father of a president and a governor, who was famously described by the late Ann Richards as being born with "a silver foot in his mouth." A truly priceless photo-op.

But seriously, the more I think about the comparison between the two, the more valid it seems: Abe, groomed for the premiership, seems to have no idea what to do now that he's moved into the Kantei. Bush, for all his acclaimed successes in foreign policy, by self-admission lacked "the vision thing," and could never articulate the larger purpose of his presidency.

Maybe Bush was giving Abe pointers on how to be charismatic...

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The government comes clean

One story that I've neglected to follow here is the ongoing scandal regarding allegations that the Abe and Koizumi governments had arranged "plants" to ask friendly questions at town hall meetings that were inaugurated in 2001. I held off on commenting because it was unclear how the 「やらせ問題」(yarase mondai, the "fake" problem) fit with the pattern of the early months of the Abe Cabinet, and, in any cases, most, if not all, of the tainted town meetings occurred under the Koizumi Cabinet, although they were the responsibility of then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Abe Shinzo.

On December 13th, however, the committee responsible for investigating this issue released its final report (Asahi article in Japanese here), confirming that the allegations were true: the government paid plants to ask questions favorable to the government position on a number of issues, including education. The committee also noted that budgets for the meetings were padded, a problem that would have been easily solved through public accounting.

I have a number of comments to make about this story.

First, one of the changes that has supposedly accompanied Japan's shift to a more presidential premiership since the Nakasone Cabinet is that the prime minister would increasingly reach out to the public for support for his policies. If this is how Japan's governments are going to act in the マスコミ (masukomi, mass communication) era, maybe it would be best if they went back to the old days of making decisions behind closed doors without seeking public input or support. A democracy must have a two-way flow of information between government and governed, but if the people cannot trust the information flowing from the government, the transmission breaks down. No democratic public -- this includes the US -- should tolerate government manipulation or withholding of public information.

Following on that, I have to wonder if this isn't a gift to the DPJ, making it easier for the DPJ to argue in the months leading up to the Upper House elections that the Abe Cabinet is unfit to govern; since the government displayed a lack of trust in the Japanese people by manipulating supposedly public forums, the people should withhold their support for the government. Time will tell how this issue will play out in forthcoming debates, but with Abe's acceptance of responsibility for the manipulation, the DPJ has been given another weapon for its campaign arsenal.

Third, I think this reveals a lot about Abe Shinzo and his style of governance. Abe has tried to pose as Koizumi's successor, but as several observers noted during the LDP leadership campaign, he lacks his predecessor's public presence. This observation has, in my opinion, panned out. Abe looks like an aloof statesman trying to pose as a man of the people. (Just read his weekly email magazine or watch his "Live Talk Kantei" every week, where he talks about his travels, his favorite foods, etc. He comes across as a someone trying very hard to be likable.) Manipulating town hall meetings seems consistent with Abe's aloofness as a politician. I have a sneaking suspicion that Abe would be more comfortable with the cozy days of undisputed LDP dominance, when the LDP, together with allies in the bureaucracy, made policy and asked questions later, if at all. Things have changed, albeit too slowly, and a sharply critical citizenry will not tolerate a return to the old-style of governance. For all his fifty-two years of age, Abe may have more in common with an older generation of politicians than his baby boom cohort.

Lastly, and on a positive note, Abe and the relevant cabinet ministers announced as they accepted responsibility that they would forgo their salaries for three and two months respectively. It would be nice to see similar gestures in Washington, although I won't hold my breath.

Matsuzaka is signed

So at the last minute, the Red Sox reached a deal with Seibu Lions pitcher Matsuzaka Daisuke (or rather, Scott Boras, his agent).

Total price tag, including the posting fee? $103.11 million.

There's no question that Matsuzaka is a phenomenal pitcher, but then you read an article such as this from the IHT, which includes the following insight from Marty Kuehnert, general manager of the Rakuten Golden Eagles:
"It's like a time bomb. When is it going to go off?" said Marty Kuehnert, an American-born resident of Japan and the first foreign general manager of a Japanese pro team, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. "Any Japanese pitcher, these guys included, has thrown too much. The Japanese mentality is that it will make them stronger. But if I was trying to sign these guys, I'd take a good look at them."

Foreign players in Japan often joke that Japanese are "all thrown out at age 30" because of rigorous training from the age of 12, Kuehnert said by phone from Sendai, Japan.

"They throw easily two to three times more pitches in their career than Americans," he said.

"They play 360 days out of the year. It's taken to an extreme that you don't see in America. So the level is very high, but they break down sooner."

So after all this, the Red Sox are taking a tremendous risk on a pitcher who could potentially have a shelf life well under the six years for which he has been signed.

It may well reap tremendous dividends for the Red Sox, but I wonder how patient the Fenway faithful will be if "Dice-K" starts slowly.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Paulson's long-anticipated journey

US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is in Beijing this week at the head of a mission that includes Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke.

Will these talks achieve concrete results?

I have my doubts, because I don't think talks of this nature can "resolve" long-term structural changes in the global economy. As noted in this article in the International Herald Tribune:
Still, focusing on China as the economic bogeyman may turn out to be a politically easy but economically misbegotten strategy. Even if China allowed the yuan to float, it might not make much difference to the American trade balance.

"The United States is no longer a manufacturing economy," Chen [Xingdong, BNP Paribas's chief economist in Beijing] said. "They have to import the daily necessities."

The most recent statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, show that durable goods made up only 14 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product; adding in clothing, shoes and some other nondurable products, the total is still less than a quarter of U.S. output.

Referring to Americans, Chen said: "If they don't import from China, they will have to import from other countries anyway. The only change is that they may not have such a good combination of quality and prices."

Does the US really want to go back to manufacturing the kind of goods being cranked out of Chinese factories? Or, alternatively, does the US want to curb its consumption of the products being produced by those factories?

I fear that the US is currently tempted by the "pull up the ladder" response. Having reaped great advantages from global economic integration, the US wants to call its quits on the whole global economic openness thing in the face of intense competition from new developers. So the US can badger China, but it shouldn't expect major results. The best that the US can do is focus on structural reform at home to enhance America's ability to compete in a world where more and more countries are learning to take advantage of economic liberalization.

The 総理 (souri) goes slowly, and pays for it

I spoke earlier today about Abe Shinzo running into trouble with LDP members of the Upper House; now the FT reports that a number of surveys by Japanese newspapers have shown substantial drops in Abe's popularity. Even Yomiuri -- the leading conservative daily -- registered a major fall in his public support.

The article notes, "Survey respondents cited Mr Abe’s lack of leadership and failure to communicate his policy objectives more effectively as key reasons for their disenchantment with the government."

During the LDP leadership campaign and in the early days of Abe's premiership, the biggest concern was Abe's vagueness -- his speeches and his campaign book were long on vision and ideal, short on actual policy ideas. Observers and the public gave him the benefit of the doubt, presuming that sooner or later he would get around to outlining a detailed agenda. He has only done so in small doses, and timidly, and meanwhile he has failed to control his cabinet and his party's executive.

What's surprising is how patient the Japanese public has been with Abe's leadership failings. The honeymoon is over, and it's getting harder to see Abe as the heir to Koizumi. Increasingly Abe looks like George H.W. Bush to Koizumi's Reagan: aloof, pragmatic to a fault on policy, and lacking the flair that endeared his predecessor to the voting public.

Abe stumbles into more trouble

Fresh off a bruising battle over the readmission of a dozen LDP postal rebels, Mr. Abe has apparently caused an uproar among the party's caucus in the Upper House of the Diet in suggesting that as the party's executive nominates candidates for the summer 2007 elections, some sitting LDP members could potentially find themselves replaced by the party, in particular, suggests this article in today's Yomiuri Shimbun, older LDP members of the Upper House (and members perceived to be vulnerable).

It seems that Mr. Abe can't buy a break. He goes to the Philippines for summit meetings (and a respite from political troubles at home), and the meetings are canceled due to the approach of Typhoon Utor (although critics of President Arroyo allege otherwise). Then, LDP opposition leads to his proposed reform of road construction spending to become so watered down as to become irrelevant. Now he suggests that the LDP needs to be sure to endorse candidates with a strong change of winning in the 2007 elections, and he faces opposition from the LDP's caucus in the Upper House.

Mr. Abe is probably right to push for this reform. Any reform that makes the LDP less bound to the party's more moribund elements and more ideologically coherent makes for a better LDP and, as a result, better government (and a more coherent party system). At the same time, however, pushing this forward in the wake of the "postal rebel" battle does not seem to make the best political sense. It might be good strategy to smooth over some of the more obvious rifts in the party before moving forward with another initiative bound to, at the very least, ruffle feathers.

Is it possible that Mr. Abe simply lacks the necessary skills to manage an LDP that is as divided as ever but subject to ever-greater public scrutiny? Or, alternatively, has the desperation and intensity of intra-party disputes been amplified as the pork barrel has shrunk with cuts in public spending? Whatever the reason, the LDP hardly looks like a confident, governing party holding a large majority as the special session of the Diet winds down. Although the LDP has announced that it is aiming to pass the bills on education reform and the elevation of the JDA to ministry status on December 15, it seems that those legislative victories will be small consolation for the damage -- much of it self-inflicted -- that the LDP has suffered during the two months since Abe's inauguration.

As suggested above, this story also contains shades of Japan's aging problem, as older legislators apparently feel that they are the target of their younger counterparts. How will the aging problem play out in Japan's political system? Will one party emerge as the defender of the elderly, or will all parties fight for and claim a portion of that mantle? I don't have an answer to this question, but it is an important matter to consider as Japan ages.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Japan's comparative advantage?

Reuters has a story today on Japan's booming "elderly services" industry. As I've written before in this space -- and noted in a number of conversations -- Japan may be poised to reap an enormous economic windfall not only from its own "greying," but from the greying of the world, include its soon-to-be-considerably-older neighbor, China.

As this article suggests, companies are only scratching the surface in catering to Japan's elderly. How long, for example, before household robots become as common as cars, serving as helpers and caretakers for the elderly? Will personal robots soon crowd Japan's grocery store aisles? This might be one possibly far-fetched example, but the Reuters article points to the need for companies to change as consumers age and their tastes and demands change.

As such, the question is whether Japan -- with the world's first geronto-capitalist economy -- will be able to use this unusual head-start on a global trend to remain a top-tier power.

The annual foreign policy survey, pt. 1

Nikkei reports today on the results of the Japanese government's annual survey of public opinion on Japan's foreign relations. The results are not particularly surprising. Nikkei leads by reporting that the ratio of respondents (57%) who thought that Japanese-South Korean relations were bad was the highest since the survey began in 1986 -- this likely reflecting the influence of the "Kenkanryu" (the hate-Korea wave).

Nikkei also notes that the survey found a big jump in the percentage of respondents who thought Japan's relations with Russia were bad (eleven percentage points, to 68.2%), attributed by Nikkei to Russia's shooting of Japanese crab fishermen earlier this year. The survey also found that the ratio of respondents who thought Japan's relations with China were good remained low, hovering around 20%.

What surprises me, however, is that when asked about North Korea, respondents said they were more concerned about the abduction of Japanese citizens (86.7%) than the nuclear problem (79.5%) or the missile problem (71.5%), this despite the survey's being conducted from 5th to 15th October, as North Korea tested a nuclear weapon and the international community weighed the best response. I find this number shocking. I knew that the Japanese people felt strongly about North Korea's abduction of Japanese citizens during the 1970s and 1980s, but to feel more concerned about that -- which is a question of righting past wrongs -- than about a very clear and very present danger is mildly unsettling.

This probably reflects efforts by Abe Shinzo during his time as chief cabinet secretary to call attention to the kidnapping issue, but perhaps Gerald Curtis was right: maybe the government needs to back down slightly on this issue and focus the public's attention on more current problems with North Korea. Naturally the survey shows that the public is concerned about North Korea's burgeoning arsenal, but that should be the foremost concern, not the abductions issue, which is a relatively minor symptom of the major problem that is the DPRK.

In any case, the government survey is quite substantial, so I will provide more analysis as I make my way through it.

Jeane Kirkpatrick, Realist? Hardly

Jeane Kirkpatrick, US ambassador to the UN during Reagan's first term and AEI senior fellow before and after her service, died last week at the age of eighty.

Having spoken with her at length on one occasion and seen her speak on a number of occasions (and having helped her down the stairs once when a fire alarm went off at AEI), it was clear that she remained a formidable intellectual and skilled debater to the last.

In the aftermath of Ambassador Kirkpatrick's death, Slate's Timothy Noah wrote a short essay entitled "Jeane Kirkpatrick, realist," in which he concludes, "Let it be said of Jeane Kirkpatrick, on the occasion of her death, that she didn't have to wait to see an Iraq fiasco unfold to know that the invasion was wildly oversold. It's a legacy of humility that her fellow neocons would do well to consider." In general, his argument is valid; the foreign policy thinking of early neo-conservatives, insofar as they thought about foreign policy, was vastly different than that of their contemporary successors.

Noah's mistake, however, is to assume that "realist"="Realist." The lower-case "r" makes a world of difference. Noah conflates the two, calling James Baker and Lawrence Eagleburger adherents of "foreign-policy realism" (no capital). I would argue that the two former secretaries of States are, in fact, capital-R Realists. To them, all foreign policy is essentially reactive, grounded in iron laws shaped by Westphalian era of international relations. States may differ in relative power capabilities, but all seek to use whatever capabilities they have to secure their interests in the midst of perpetual competition among states. Ideals -- the world as it ought to be -- have little place in this vision of international affairs.

This is very different from realism, a cast of mind that does not reject ideals, but rather acknowledges that when in pursuit of ideals one cannot be indifferent to reality as it is. This was the fundamental belief of the early neo-conservatives, both in the views on domestic policy and foreign policy. They emerged as a coherent group in opposition to the Johnson administration's "Great Society" policies, which they felt produced disastrous unintended consequences despite the administration's good intentions. Some -- like Nathan Glazer -- made the same argument about Vietnam. For the most part, however, they didn't reject the ideals; they rejected brazen attempts to impose those ideals, regardless of the consequences. Accordingly, the view of foreign policy outlined by Jeane Kirkpatrick in her 1979 essay in Commentary, "Dictatorships and Double Standards," was largely consistent with the domestic policy views of thinkers like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Irving Kristol, James Q. Wilson, and Nathan Glazer. Policymaking in pursuit of ideals isn't the problem; failing to temper ideals with a sober assessment of reality is. That was the basis of Kirkpatrick's thesis in "Dictatorships," in which she suggested that the Carter administration's pursuit of human rights at all costs in Iran and Latin America ushered worse governments into power. She didn't dispute the value of democratization or the promotion of human rights. She rejected the Carter administration's foolish pursuit of those goals.

Thus if she differed from contemporary neo-conservatives on Iraq and other questions -- and I've argued about the generational divide in neo-conservatism before -- it was a matter of means, not ends. There are strong reasons to doubt the commitment of Baker and others of the Kissingerian school of foreign policy to using American power for idealistic ends. Kirkpatrick was not of that ilk. She may have had doubts about the ability of the US to bring democracy to Iraq wholesale, but she did not doubt the importance of democratization as a goal for US foreign policy.

Therefore to call Ambassador Kirkpatrick a realist, as Noah does, may not be technically incorrect, but in this case the word "realist" conceals more than it reveals.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Life in Japan's grass roots

The Japan Times on Sunday ran a long profile of the American-born wife of a local politician in Kyoto, which provides an excellent account of Japanese local electoral politics.

It pretty much confirms what I've seen over the past month. Electoral politics at all levels are low-tech affairs, for the most part lacking TV or internet presence. Most of the campaign work involved producing flyers and distributing them in person at train stations.

In any case, the Zushi municipal election was yesterday, and both candidates assisted by Mr. Asao's staff won. Accordingly, with the election over, I will begin commuting to the Diet office starting this week.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Abe heads south, bloodied but unbowed

Following in the wake of last month's APEC summit in Hanoi, Asian leaders are gathering in Manila for the second annual East Asian Summit.

Prime Minister Abe has departed, but he leaves behind a sticky political situation at home. He is facing declining popularity (his cabinet is polling below fifty percent for the first time since assuming office), his landmark education bill has yet to pass the Diet, the economy is showing mixed signals, and his governing LDP has been divided over the readmission of the "postal rebels" (LDP members booted from the party for resisting Koizumi's postal reform), the nuclear weapons issue, and now the question of how Japan should fund road construction and maintenance. These concerns (ought to) raise questions about Abe's ability to manage his party and his cabinet. Mr. Abe has shown himself to be surprisingly timid in governing, despite presenting himself as Koizumi Junichiro's natural, reformist successor in advance of the LDP's leadership elections.

That's not to say that Abe's cabinet is doomed to be short lived, or that the LDP is sure to be soundly defeated in next summer's Upper House election. But it does mean that Mr. Abe has a lot of work to do if he's going to govern for the maximum five years. Given the difficulties that have dogged him in the special Diet session winding down this month, expect the regular session that begins in January to be especially crowded.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Nikkei sends a warning shot across the bow

Nikkei's lead editorial today discusses a meeting this week between Prime Minister Abe and BOJ President Fukui.

The meeting itself was uneventful, but Nikkei uses the occasion to warn of undue political pressure by the government on the BOJ in advance of the 2007 elections. It concludes with a call for the government to respect the Bank, saying, "The ideal is that the government respects the central bank's independence and discretion, and the central bank provides reliable medium-term monetary policy management to the nation and the market. In order to move slightly closer to this ideal, the Bank of Japan and the government must both exert considerable effort."

Nikkei's warning may be anticipatory, rather than based on any specific government policy (as I discussed here, Finance Minister Omi Koji has made supportive statements regarding the BOJ's intentions to raise interest rates before year's end). But as the elections get closer, and if Abe's popularity numbers continue to fall, the temptation to tamper with economic management for short-term political gain could prove irresistible.

The editorial further warns the BOJ to assess economic conditions carefully before raising Japan's interest rates, noting that current international and domestic economic signals are mixed -- and the biggest question, that of whether the US economy will have a "soft landing" remains unanswered. So while Nikkei doesn't come right out and say that the BOJ shouldn't raise interest rates, there is a very strong undertone throughout this editorial that suggests that all parties involved in the management of Japan's economy need to think very carefully before acting and not act rashly, lest the authorities scupper the longest boom in Japanese history.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Two looks at modern China

Two recent articles provide an excellent look at the bundle of contradictions that is modern China.

First, the Atlantic's James Fallows, currently residing in China, presents his "Four Cautions and Two Mysteries" about rapidly changing China. His look is largely limited to urban China, but it is still worthwhile, because Fallows also was on hand when Japan emerged in the 1980s as a contender, and has a number of useful comparisons with Japan's period of explosive growth. The picture that Fallows paints is of a China that has more in common with the United States than any other country -- a point I made in my contribution to this book. China, like the US, is a continental country, and like the US in the heady days of its industrialization in the late nineteenth century, its rise is profoundly impacting its own society, the surrounding region, and the world. A continental power has unleashed its boundless energy, and the world is being remade. That is why I defy anyone to predict what China will look like in the near-future.

Accordingly, in time the US and China may look across the Pacific and see a close friend in the other. At present, beyond the Taiwan Straits, there is no issue in US-China relations that could result in war between the two. There are points of friction, certainly, but nothing that would unleash the "guns of August," so to speak. In fact, as Fallows implies, culturally speaking the US and China may be far more natural allies than the US and Japan:
One reason why Americans typically find China less “foreign” than Japan is that in Japan the social controls are internalized, through years of training in one’s proper role in a group, whereas China seems like a bunch of individuals who behave themselves only when they think they might get caught. As I took an airport bus from downtown Tokyo to the distant Narita International Airport for the trip to Shanghai, the squadron of luggage handlers who had loaded the bus lined up, bowed in unison, and chanted safe-travel wishes to the bus as it departed. When I arrived in Shanghai, I saw teenaged airport baggage handlers playfully slapping each other and then being told by the foreman to get back to work. In Japan, the controls are built in; in China, they appear to be bolted on.
There's a lot to unpack in this quote, but, to be brief, Fallows points to a fundamental cultural divide between Japan on the one hand, and China and the US on the other. Japanese institutions have been shaped by limits -- of land, of resources, of people. While this argument is perhaps overexaggerated, not least by the Japanese (an example of Nihonjinron), it is significant when comparing the Japanese experience to that of China and the US, both of whom have been shaped by bigness and plenty (Maoism aside, which for China was a masochistic ideology that essentially entailed renouncing China's continental advantages). The Chinese people, in general, strike me as more entrepreneurial than the Japanese, which is hardly surprising because to me entrepreneurialism is a natural reaction to seemingly limitless possibilities.

As such, the more the Communist Party steps out of the way, the easier China and the US will be able to cooperate, a scenario that has kept many in Kasumigaseki up at night ever since Nixon and Kissinger sprang the opening to China on Tokyo without prior warning.

The second essay worth reading is from the London Review of Books, by Indian writer Pankaj Mishra (hat tip to a correspondent in Beijing). Mishra's view is more nuanced than Fallows', and in many ways more grim. For example:
The old heart of the city has been razed to meet the needs and desires of this new elite. Luxury villas have sprung up to accommodate expatriate businessmen, senior Party officials and the nouveaux riches. With their bewilderingly mixed facades – American colonial-style decking, neoclassical columns, baroque plasterwork, Tudor beams –they symbolise a city under fresh occupation by the transnational elite of the rich and powerful.

Others make do with what they have. One afternoon, soon after arriving in Shanghai, I travelled on one of the elevated expressways that lead from downtown to the clusters of high-rise housing estates built for those expelled from their neighbourhoods of longtang alleys and lanes. Rust and grime have already tainted these buildings, the lifts don’t work, there is no water pressure, the residents walk up and down the gloomy stairs carrying plastic buckets, but the inhabitants of this premature decay still seemed privileged, compared to the residents of the remoter suburbs, crammed in subdivided houses with enclosed balconies and a view of oil-blackened dust lanes and exposed drains.

Much of the essay comes from a conversation Mishra had with liberal Chinese intellectual Zhu Xueqin, and the picture that emerges is of a China that, loosed from the moorings of Maoism, is now adrift on a (polluted) sea of ideological rootlessness, with a number of pretenders to intellectual "hegemony" (to use a favorite word of one of my Cambridge chums) but no clear winner, meaning that soulless consumerism has filled the void. Arguably, this is not all that different from Japan, which turned to world-beating economic growth and consumerism after emerging from its own romance with a murderous ideology (although, to split hairs, Maoism was much more coherent as an ideology than that of Japan's militarist government). But it is not pretty, and its consequences for the world are far greater than those of Japan's postwar modernization ever were.

Drifting again?

Yomiuri reports today that the US and Japanese governments will likely convene a meeting of the Security Consultative Committee -- known as a 2 + 2 meeting, because it will consist of the foreign and defense ministers / secretaries of both countries -- in mid-January, following the elevation of the Japan Defense Agency (JDA) to full ministry status and the presumed confirmation of US Secretary of Defense-designate Robert Gates.

The January meeting will be the first 2 + 2 meeting since the May meeting at which the two governments agreed to a plan to transform the US military presence in Japan (joint statement can be viewed here, the agreed framework here).

The meeting will be an important indicator whether the US will be able to focus on the alliance with Japan during the twilight years of the Bush administration. Recent signs have been mixed. There have been a number of recent reports on enhanced military cooperation between the US and Japan in the aftermath of the DPRK's nuclear test, particularly concerning missile defense, but the greater political direction of the alliance remains unclear.

As during the final years of the Clinton administration, it seems that Washington is having a hard time focusing on the process to renovate the US-Japan alliance after exerting considerable effort to secure agreements on the direction of the alliance. As with 1997 revision of the alliance's guidelines for security cooperation, there is a real concern that implementation will lag on the recent bilateral agreements, particularly with Iraq dominating the agenda for the foreseeable future.

As I've said before, as a result of Iraq and his 'continentalist' inclinations, I don't expect Secretary Gates to be especially engaged in the US-Japan alliance, but the January 2 + 2 and its aftermath will be revealing.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

Democracy (and Democrats) in Japan

I have been absent for a few days, in part because I've been busy with the unusual task of translating an interview Mr. Asao did earlier this year in the Swiss St. Galler Tagblatt -- which has required using not only my German skills, which have gone unused for some time now, but also translating my English translation into Japanese, because no one else in the office can read English. It is an exhausting task, but I think it's actually turned out pretty well, so far.

On Friday, Mr. Asao hosted a fundraising breakfast at the Kamakura Prince Hotel. The breakfast was attended by approximately 220 people; there were actually more attendees than there were places. The keynote speaker was a noted scientist, who talked about current issues in Japanese politics and praised Mr. Asao. In other words, it was a pretty standard political fundraiser.

That's one thing I've learned here: in advanced democracies, there are only so many ways for politicians to communicate with constituents, and vice versa. While Japan is lagging behind somewhat in its adoption of e-campaigning techniques -- beyond official websites there's not much use of digital tools -- I have yet to see an approach that I have not also seen used in the US.

At the same time, however, the spirit of Japanese democracy is very different from American democracy. Personalities seem to matter much more here than in the US. Personality is, of course, important in American politics -- John Kerry might have been president now if it wasn't important -- but personality shares precedence with party and policy. In Japan, however, party and policy trail personality. So campaign flyers highlight the candidate's personal history and details alongside policy positions.

I think this is, in part, a product of Japan's party system. If American democracy represents a(n) (American) football game, with two more or less clearly defined teams fighting back and forth continuously, each with its own fervent supporters, Japanese democracy has long resembled a Harlem Globetrotters exhibition, with the LDP in firm control of the "game" like the Harlem Globetrotters, with a beleaguered opposition -- the Socialists during the cold war, the DPJ more recently -- playing the role of the hapless Washington Generals, keeping things interesting but never actually controlling the agenda.

When the LDP was briefly driven from power in 1993, observers thought that the "Harlem Globetrotter" days of Japanese democracy might be at an end. But the LDP returned, weakened, but still in command. The creation of the DPJ in the late 1990s by castoffs from all parties in Japanese politics, including a number of short-lived parties created during the political upheaval of the 1990s, was similarly hailed as a sign that Japan might develop a more balanced two-party system. To date, however, the DPJ has been disappointing, having suffered from leadership difficulties and internal conflicts as a result of being a party stitched together by politicians of all stripes. Like the LDP, it has pretty much been a vehicle to elect individuals grouped under a big tent party, with no guarantee that those individuals share policy ideas.

There are signs, however, that this divisiveness in the DPJ may be at an end. One sign was the selection of Ozawa Ichiro as DPJ president earlier this year. Ozawa, whatever his failings, is a crafty political veteran and a committed reformist -- and an advocate of a strong two-party system in Japan with clear differences between the two parties.

Now it seems that Ozawa has set about clarifying exactly what the DPJ stands for and how it differs from the LDP. Ozawa has, with the help of a nine-member panel, set about drawing up a platform that, it is hoped, will resolve once and for all where the DPJ stands on a range of issues. The party will try to finalize a draft by year's end, as party competition heats up in advance of the 2007 Upper House elections. Both Asahi and Yomiuri saw this as important enough to merit editorials (English version of the Asahi editorial here).

Whether Ozawa's effort to enforce policy discipline on the DPJ will succeed is unknown. It may be impossible to enforce discipline on a party that includes dedicated socialists as well as hawkish Young Turks like Maehara Seiji and Nagashima Akihisa.

If the DPJ is to emerge as a legitimate contender for government, something like this is necessary because until the parties become true transmission belts for competing visions of how to govern Japan, there is little incentive for voters to abandon the LDP. Japan needs -- dare I say -- more partisanship. The competing parties must be seen as the guardians of clearly defined positions, which inspire loyalty from blocs of voters, instead of random assortments of politicians sharing a common banner but little else.

A little partisanship may actually lead to better, more accountable government, instead of the cozy, clubby Kokutai system that produces behind-the-scenes compromises in the Diet. Partisanship may seem at odds with this customary way of Japanese decisionmaking that emphasizes steady, bottom-up consensus-building, but without going to the partisan extremes that the American political system has gone (Washington could probably learn some lessons from Japan), Japan could benefit from some degree of partisanship without completely abandoning government by consensus.

Of course, for this to happen the way Japanese citizens approach politics will have to change; this may be the biggest obstacle to reform. It seems to me that while Japanese voters are well informed -- based on the political coverage on TV and in the mass-circulation dailies (and I mean mass; the Yomiuri Shimbun, for example, has 14.5 million subscribers, the most of any paper in the world) -- they are, unlike Americans, hesitant to voice their political opinions. Japan is more a spectator than a participatory democracy. Unless Japanese voters become more willing to express approval or disapproval and participate in politics, broader change in the Japanese political system is unlikely. There are some signs that Japan may be moving in this direction -- take, for example, the growing presence of NGOs -- but ultimately the cultural change that will facilitate political reform cannot be decreed. And cultural changes take a long time to wend their way through society.