Tuesday, January 30, 2007

New year, old news

Just when I thought that it was the DPJ that was off to a bad start in the new Diet session, the Abe Cabinet once again finds itself in hot water over the inability of a cabinet minister to control his mouth.

As I noted earlier, Yanagisawa Hakuo, health minister, recently referred to women as "birth-giving machines." Although Abe has criticized him, opposition parties are once again calling for the resignation of an Abe cabinet member. (Last term they sought the resignation of Foreign Minister Aso after remarks that seemed to undermine the government's commitment to the three non-nuclear principles.) The opposition probably has more reason to push for a resignation in this case, but either way Yanagisawa has managed to change the leading topic of conversation away from the fallout following the resignation of Tsunoda and the contents of Abe's policy address last week. Once again Abe appears less than capable at keeping his cabinet under control, and, accordingly, Abe Cabinet appears less than capable at running the country.

Alongside l'affaire Yanagisawa has been the feud over Defense Minister Kyuma's comments about US foreign policy. While I discussed his remarks on Iraq here, I did not discuss the more egregious portion of his criticism of the US, which blamed the US for failing to understand Tokyo's need to coax agreement from the government of Okinawa before the reconfiguration of the US military presence there can proceed.

This is considerably more outrageous than his comments on Iraq. The US is trying to expedite the process of reducing its footprint in Okinawa, which has been a source of tension for decades -- and now the defense minister is criticizing the US for failing to understand that Japan needs to go slow? (Kyuma more or less reiterated his comments on Okinawa in a press conference yesterday). Considering that the initial agreement on Futenma, the Marine air station that has been at the center of the dispute for some time, was reached in 1995, the US has been plenty patient with Japan, waiting for Tokyo to reach some kind of lasting accord with the government of one of its own prefectures. Kyuma claims that since the players have changed, the government has to pause to hear their opinions, which sounds reasonable except that the players have continually changed. At what point does the government just lay down the law and actually implement the agreements it has made with the US?

So it seems that things are back to normal in Nagatacho. The Abe Cabinet is embroiled in disputes with the opposition, and now, with the US, over the ill-considered words of its members.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The DPJ starts out on the wrong foot

As I alluded to earlier, in this post on Abe's speech at the opening of the new Diet session, the DPJ may find itself unable to attack the LDP for improprieties by LDP members in the raising of political funds due to the resignation of erstwhile DPJ member Tsunoda Giichi from his position as vice president of the Upper House.

Tsunoda's departure has intensified already ongoing talk about illegal fundraising activities in the offices of Japanese legislators, but now the DPJ is tainted by the discontent.

Sadly, it's hard to be surprised by this, given that in too many ways the DPJ remains a pale imitation of the LDP, apparently right down to fundraising practices. While the DPJ may have been quicker to call for Tsunoda's resignation -- certainly quicker than the LDP was in recent months when cabinet members and Abe advisers were accused of wrongdoing -- that's hardly a major selling point: "We admit our mistakes more readily!"

While the DPJ will no doubt continue to try to attack the LDP-Komeito government for poor governance -- with Abe's ministers determined to help them, it seems -- this charge may have less impact than it might have, given that the DPJ is no paragon of clean politics. Victory may well depend on the DPJ's somehow, in the next six months, developing and advocating a clear policy alternative to the LDP that has heretofore proved elusive.

In thinking about this problem, I wonder if the DPJ shouldn't look to the example of the British Euston Manifesto, an organization of progressive intellectuals formed in early 2006 that seeks to forge a position that bridges social democracy and liberal internationalism, rejecting the extremism of many "progressives" that has led them to embrace foreign governments that are anything but progressive. The DPJ's problem since its formation during the mid-1990s is that it has found it difficult to reconcile the differences between the party's former socialists and the more conservative LDP outcasts. A compromise forged along lines found in the Euston Manifesto's Statement of Principles might actually provide a basis for both bridging the divide within the DPJ while distancing the party from the LDP.

DPJ chief Ozawa Ichiro highlighted the inequality problem today in his rebuttal to Abe's speech, but that critique should not and cannot be mere opportunism; rather, it should be the basis for a genuinely distinct policy platform.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Japan says no (kind of)

Last week Japanese Defense Minister Kyuma Fumio criticized the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq as a "mistake."

I held off from commenting right away, because I was curious to see what the US response would be, if any.

Now, after Kyuma repeated his criticism this weekend, prompting the State Department to protest to the Japanese Embassy in Washington, I figured some comment was in order.

I'm actually more dismayed by the US reaction to Kyuma's comments than by the comments themselves. Kyuma's comments are more or less irrelevant. Koizumi committed troops to the reconstruction of Iraq at the risk of political disapproval at home -- and without a specific request from the US (see Daniel Kliman's monograph from CSIS on this decision). The Bush administration got the support of another major liberal democracy, and Koizumi solidified his reputation as a daring risk-taker. So why should the Bush administration be all that concerned if a Japanese official decides to get on the bandwagon of people "reassessing" the Iraq war, especially after his country's ground forces have already left Iraq?

Look, as Japan becomes a more active participant in international security, both within and outside -- as indicated by Prime Minister Abe's recent visit to Europe -- the US-Japan alliance, the government of Japan may occasionally disagree with the US. A strong alliance will have no problem absorbing disagreements between the two governments, and may be even better for it.

Back in the late 1980s, Ishihara Shintaro, current governor of Tokyo and longtime enfant terrible, captured Japan's economic triumphalist mood with his polemic, The Japan That Can Say No. Much of his argument crumbled with the bursting of Japan's bubble, and in any case Japan had been saying no throughout the cold war in a subtle, indirect manner -- the Yoshida Doctrine, by which Japan subordinated an active foreign policy to economic development, coupled with the US-bestowed postwar constitution, was a way of saying no to US desires for a more meaningful alliance.

What needs to happen now, as Japan seeks a greater international role, is that it needs to learn how to say no directly but constructively. "No, but...," in other words. If Japan wants to opt out of US goals elsewhere in the world, that's its prerogative. No bilateral agreement obligates Japan to contribute to US efforts anywhere aside from defending Japan within Japanese territory, and, theoretically anyway, the area surrounding Japan. But even if Japan is reluctant to support future US missions elsewhere, it will be expected to compensate in other ways: deeper cooperation between the two countries' militaries in East Asia, greater participation in humanitarian missions in Asia and throughout the world, and political leadership within East Asian regional organizations on behalf of goals and ideals shared with the US.

So, in short, rather than focus narrowly on Kyuma's comments, the US should be focused on how to strengthen the alliance, so that the bilateral activities overshadow whatever comments officials in either country might choose to make on issues of bilateral concern.

And this needs to happen sooner rather later, because of the looming question of what will happen when a Japanese soldier is killed abroad, especially if it happens in support of a US mission. The death of a Japanese soldier abroad could result in Japan saying no in a very loud way, and unless sufficient work to strengthen the alliance is done in advance, the alliance may be seriously wounded by a Japanese no in such a situation.

Meanwhile, I'm a curious as to whether Vice President Cheney will meet with Kyuma when he visits Japan next month. Given Cheney's (lack of) generosity to domestic critics, I can only imagine the generosity he'll extend to a foreign critic like Kyuma.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Abe inaugurates "The First Year for Creating a Beautiful Country"

Political Japan's long holiday is over, as the 166th session of the Japanese Diet opened Thursday, with Prime Minister Abe delivering his policy address Friday.

His address, available in English here and in Japanese here, confirms much of what I have already written about Prime Minister Abe. He even quoted Fukuzawa Yukichi, leading intellectual during the Meiji period, and approvingly cited the Meiji Restoration:
Yukichi Fukuzawa once said that the samurai spirit is distinguished by "a willingness to face daunting challenges and persevere to accomplish the tasks." It must have been that challenging spirit, which dares to take on difficult tasks optimistically, that enabled our country to forge the modern Japan from the Meiji Restoration.
As I wrote here, Abe is in many ways acting as a successor of Japan's state-building Meiji oligarchs, although in his case -- as he makes very plain in this speech -- his task is the rebuilding of the Japanese state.

I'm not going to examine his policy proposals in detail -- they run the gamut, including support for Japan's IT industry, greater economic ties with other Asian countries, creating a more diversified labor market, substantive policies following on last year's revision of the education law, decentralization, and "proactive diplomacy" -- but the picture that emerges from Abe's litany of proposals is of a substantial, long-term program: "my mission," he said, "is none other than to draw a new vision of a nation which can withstand the raging waves for the next 50 to 100 years to come."

Unconventional is the democratic politician in any country who makes policy decisions looking fifty to one-hundred years into the future, instead of to the next election, and Abe deserves praise for focusing on "big" politics, to borrow a phrase from an mid-1990s essay by Nomura Research Institute Chief Economist Fukushima Kiyohiko. His obsession with completely overhauling the post-war "regime" is a departure from his predecessors, even from Koizumi, whose reforming ambitions were a big departure in their own right. I think politicians in other developed countries need to be having similar discussions, including in the US in advance of the 2008 presidential election. Every developed country is in some way using jury-rigged industrial-age institutions to deal with twenty-first century problems, and, as can be seen in various European countries, national institutions leftover from the industrial age aren't particularly capable at solving the problems facing states today.

That said, it is impossible for a leader to undertake even a fraction of the ambitious reforms outlined in this speech without public support, which Abe continues to lack, as this and other recent polls show. The linked poll is an Asahi poll showing support for the Abe Cabinet has fallen to 39%. While that number must be taken with a small grain of salt, polls conducted by organizations more sympathetic to Abe have shown that the precipitous decline in his popularity continues unabated. So while Abe may talk about a Meiji restoration for the twenty-first century (at the same time that the DPJ's slogan is the highly ambiguous "生活維新" -- seikatsu ishin [life restoration] -- very clearly riffing off the Meiji Restoration), if he cannot find a way to rally the public behind him, he may not last long enough in office to take even the first steps towards his ambitious goals.

And yet, despite the scandals that have dogged the Abe Cabinet, it seems that the DPJ is also tainted (more on this later), which means as a result that the scandals and missteps that have surrounded the Abe Cabinet may be less of an issue. Instead, the months leading up to the July Upper House elections and the election itself may actually be focused on policy questions, including the specific question of constitutional reform and the larger question of how Japan should be governed in this century.

Finally, references to the Meiji Restoration aren't out of place, but the Meiji Restoration was as much about how Japanese live as about how Japan was governed. Many of the changes required to achieve Abe's vision of Japanese society have little to do with politics or government and everything to do with culture -- and culture is notoriously resistant to change from above.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Managing China's rise

Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations has a solid op-ed (via RealClearPolitics) in The Washington Post that ably enumerates the numerous complications of China's rise, which accordingly calls for greater US leadership to ensure that as China becomes more powerful, its power is channeled in the direction of upholding international order and rules, rather than undermining them.

Her most important point:
If we want China to be a responsible world power on issues such as energy security, climate change, human rights and even space-based weapons, we need to step up and lead. We can and should condemn China for not respecting the international rules governing these issues or negatively affecting other countries' well-being, but we must be prepared to play by the same rules. While other powers may have granted American exceptionalism in the past, China is not inclined to do so. Indeed, China is more likely to seek its own "exceptional" status.

Even if we get that far, there will still be a tough road ahead. The transparency, accountability and rule of law that responsible world leadership entails are nascent and under constant threat in China. This is where Washington has it right. We need a strong commitment -- from the federal government as well as the private sector -- to helping, if not pushing, China in the right direction, and we need to do so with a long-term perspective.

This needs to hammered home to the US government repeatedly; international order will not defend itself. The developed countries, especially the leading developed country, must actively defend international order and its institutions, in order to prevent China and other rising powers from trashing it. This means that the Bush administration and subsequent administrations must act like the US actually remains the leading pillar of international stability, rather than its leading revolutionary power.

As we have seen in recent years, when the world's leading power acts like a revolutionary power, international order invariably suffers.

This does not mean that the US and other liberal democracies should hold off from pushing for change in international relations, namely from encouraging the move away from the Westphalian model of sovereignty. But they -- the US especially -- have to temper their enthusiasm for revolutionary change with a realization that pushing too hard risks undermining international order.

Passing out leaflets on cold January morns

I've just arrived at the office after an hour and a half -- from 6:30am to 8am -- of distributing fliers outside a nearby train station. This was the third morning this week of standing outside a train station during the morning rush greeting commuters with "ohayou gozaimasu" and "Minshuto desu."

I figured that three mornings of waking up at dawn in order to stand out in the cold would make me miserable, but, surprisingly, I've had a great week. Unlike earlier occasions when I assisted with distributing fliers, I've been placed in positions of greater visibility and heavier traffic. And I love it.

Watching the morning commute in process provides a great cross-section of Japanese society, (at least in this electoral district): young, old, men, women, lots of school children of all ages, middle-aged and old men dressed in natty, three-piece business suits, young adults who look like they're ready to hang out in Harajuku. Lots of iPods. A lot of people who appear to be literally sleepwalking their way to work. I've played a game over the course of the week, trying to "profile" people and guess who will take a flier. Not surprisingly, middle-aged to older men are far more likely to take a flier than any other demographic category. Behind them are probably older women and younger men, followed by middle-aged women. The least likely has been younger women. I hope the interest in taking a flier is not reflective of an interest in politics, although I suspect it is -- which means Japan may have a government by and for old men for some time to come.

Meanwhile, I remain a curiosity, especially to school children.

Earlier this week, I wrote about the coming of mass communication politics to Japan. While I remain interested in seeing more use of mass communications media to communicate with voters, I hope that Japanese democracy retains its emphasis on persistent direct, personal contact with voters even as it makes more use of TV and radio.

Consider this: my boss is not even up for election this year, and while his appearances this week have been partially in support of a candidate for the prefectural legislature, the idea of addressing and meeting voters in a non-election year strikes me as unusual. These appearances aren't coordinated events at which the politician preaches to the converted. They are simply a matter of mingling with the electorate, without separating out voters by partisan, professional, or other affiliations.

There are a number of possible explanations for Japan's reliance on this type of mass politics, include the geography of Japanese society (densely populated, with train stations serving as major nodes of activity), election law that limits the types of campaigning that candidates may use, and a society that continues to stress the importance of personal connections in politics and business.

This is neither the time nor the place to dig deeper into which of these causes is the leading explanation for the Japanese style of campaigning, but I think the result is that elected officials and candidates are more accessible to voters than in the US.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Hysteria on China

This op-ed by James Pinkerton (via RealClearPolitics) is typical of the hysteria in many corners of the chattering classes that has greeted China's test of an ASAT missile, the kind of breezy certainty that China is definitely, one-hundred percent, no doubt about it the biggest threat America faces and we better do something about it NOW.

In the Jain / Buddhist / et al parable of the blind men and the elephant, Pinkerton has grasped the tail firmly and is utterly convinced that he's holding a snake that has to be smothered now.

This kind of thinking is utterly retrograde -- much like Lou Dobbs's fulminating against "Red China."

As I've said before, China is exactly like the elephant in the above-mentioned parable. No country can form policy based on a single facet of its behavior, and to do so is to court disaster.

As for Pinkerton, I specifically object to this throw away line:
The Chinese military is not independent. So, if China shot down a satellite, it's because the leadership in Beijing wanted it shot down - as part of its plans for fighting a possible war with the United States.
Of course, no bureaucracy is entirely independent of the government of which it is a part. But the trend in recent years has been greater autonomy for the People's Liberation Army as it has become less politicized and more professionalized -- and accordingly, a more serious force to be reckoned with in bureaucratic disputes.

So it is entirely possible that the Foreign Ministry's surprise is not feigned. The PLA simply might have neglected to inform other ministries of a policy area that is exclusively its domain. Hmm, not altogether different than the acrimony between Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon. Of course, it is unsettling that no one in the PRC's government anticipated that this might concern other countries, but then the PRC's opacity -- and, in particular, the PLA's opacity -- is not news to anyone.

And as for China's "plans for fighting a possible war with the United States," well, of course. If you're going to be in a war, you might as well put yourself in a position to succeed. But the question that Pinkerton neglects to ask is whether the US and China are likely to find themselves coming to blows. If he asked that, he would see that apart for Taiwan, there is no bilateral issue between the US and China today that could result in war. Will there be friction? Absolutely. No power of China's magnitude could rise without causing major global friction. But this is not a re-run of Imperial Germany or Imperial Japan. If anything, it is a re-run of the rise of the United States, which caused friction but did not spark a major global war. And given the decline in the importance of violence in great-power relations, there is even less reason to anticipate Sino-US conflict.

Regarding Taiwan, as the Taiwanese public backs away from the brinkmanship of Chen Shui-bian and returns to the realism of the Kuomintang, the risks of war in the Taiwan Straits will diminish, and the situation will return to as it was in the 1980s, when the US and China had a mutual understanding of the situation resulting in its being significantly demilitarized.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Soy it ain't so

And now for some serious news...

In early January natto -- a uniquely Japanese soybean dish about which no Japanese is neutral -- was hailed on a Japanese variety show as being able to reduce a person's weight by two-three kilograms in two or three weeks if eaten twice a day. It turns out, however, that the magical weight loss properties of natto were more than slightly exaggerated.

Richard Lloyd Parry on The Times (of London, for my fellow Americans) is all over the story surrounding false reports about the natto diet. (Check out Parry's posts on the subject -- full of puns as awful as natto is said to smell -- here, here, and here.)

For my part, I love natto. My preferred way of preparing it is in fried rice, but I also like it on toast with mustard and a slice of cheese melted on top. I'm not quite sure how I will feed my addiction once I return home.

Sunday, January 21, 2007


YouTube's having failed to properly post the video attached to the previous post, here is the video to which I referred.


The above video is a TV commercial for the Democratic Party of Japan in advance of the approaching Diet session and this summer's election (hat tip: Trans-Pacific Radio and Mutant Frog).

I wish it weren't so. I'd like to think that this ad was actually made by an LDP operative seeking to discredit the DPJ; I mean, really, this ad seems to be telling viewers that the DPJ, despite its supposedly seasoned leadership, is unable to pilot Japan's ship of state through the stormy seas of the twenty-first century.

At the same time, however, I disagree with the posts on this ad at both of the above-mentioned sites. Is this ad awful? No question. I may be working for a senior DPJ member, but that doesn't stop me from groaning when watching this. If anything, my involvement with the DPJ makes this more painful to watch. But Japan is new to this kind of politics. The idea of tailoring a message that can be delivered in a thirty-second TV spot is alien to the Japanese style of democracy, which depends on personal ties and direct, sustained contact with voters.

Accordingly, being relatively new to democratic politics rooted in delivering messages to large audiences via impersonal media, it is hardly surprising to see an ad like this. At present, the learning curve is pretty steep, and while part of me hopes that Japan can avoid the temptation of slickly produced attack ads (all too common in American politics -- check out Slate's intermittent "Damned Spot" feature for examples) -- Japanese political ads are bound to get better soon. So given Japan's relative inexperience with mass communication politics, I'm neither surprised nor (too) disappointed by this ad.

Besides, you want groan-inducing? Check out Prime Minister Abe's weekly video podcast.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

China challenges the regional security order

Reports have emerged that China successfully tested an anti-satellite missile last week, after two previous failures (BBC; CNN). The implications of this test are obvious but not necessarily ominous.

The question is, in light of Japan's recent overtures to improve cooperation with China and with a visit by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao scheduled for this spring, what will be Japan's response to this test, given its implications for the efficacy of the US-Japan alliance in securing the region and responding to crises (especially in the Taiwan Straits)? The Abe Cabinet has provided an initial response in relatively measured tones, reiterating Japanese concerns about a lack of transparency in China's military modernization program. If criticism does not go much further than this, chances are this will not be an important turning point in the Sino-Japanese rapprochement -- but until the full international response unfolds it is too early to say.

This is also interesting in light of China's successful overtures to ASEAN in the Philippines, with its proposal for a China-ASEAN free trade area, which prompted Gloria Arroyo, president of the Philippines, to say, "We are very happy to have China as our big brother in this region." As Sheng Lijun points out in this piece posted at YaleGlobal Online, ASEAN's member states are both drawn to China and concerned about its power, leaving room for the US to counter Chinese influence:

While there is less public talk of a “China threat,” Washington can take some comfort from the fact that distrust of China remains deep-rooted in the region and may grow if a rising China enters too deep. ASEAN countries have not joined the China bandwagon but “hedge,” engaging China while developing robust ties with the US and other extra-regional powers to balance China. Asian countries generally do not have much trust for one another and the US is perceived as the least distrusted of all major powers. Asian nations need the US as a balancer and double insurance when they develop their relations with China. ASEAN is aware that without a strong relationship with the US, China may take ASEAN for granted.

A vigorous but balanced relationship with the US is seen as not only security insurance but also an incentive for China to offer more economic sweeteners. Barring a sudden and major change in the international strategic landscape and a disaster in US Southeast Asia policy that would unexpectedly boost China’s influence by default, the more China pushes in deepening its relations with ASEAN, the more ASEAN may feel that it needs a strong relationship with the US and other extra-regional power to keep the balance.

How will ASEAN react to this display of China's dark side, so shortly after it was hailed for its positive role in the region? Will it contribute to undermining the perceived reliability of the US as regional security guarantor, and lead Southeast Asian nations to seek the best possible arrangements with Beijing? Or will it serve to highlight the importance of the US as a check to China's ambitions?

Thomas Barnett offers a perspective on China's test of an ASAT missile that is somewhat in tune with my own thinking. The US-China relationship and the relationships between China and its neighbors are far too complex to reduce to a cold war-style antagonism, which is what much of the preliminary media coverage of this test tries to do.

Which goes to show that while this test is an important reminder that China's rise has a dark side, it's only that: a reminder. It's no surprise that China would develop ASAT technology and other weapons that could neutralize American advantages in any potential conflict, but that does not mean that China desires war or that war between the US and China is inevitable.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Abe as oligarch?

Political Japan's long holiday is winding down, with the regular session of the Diet due to begin next week, and both the LDP and the DPJ are preparing for the session and the run-up to the July elections with conventions this week.

At the LDP's convention, Abe surprised no one by declaring that he intends to make constitutional revision the central issue of the election. In the TV coverage of the convention that I watched yesterday, though, Abe looked bored in the midst of the pageantry. Who could blame him, after a week spent playing the statesman in Europe and the Philippines?

After watching his performances in Brussels, London, Berlin, Paris, and Cebu, I was led to consider the prime minister's peculiarities. I think many observers have made a mistake in pegging him as a doctrinaire conservative. In his first months as premier, Abe has shown that he is anything but doctrinaire. I think it is for that reason that he has been surprisingly adept at diplomacy, particularly in Asia; he is above all a pragmatist, which means that he is more interested in ends than in means, in this case the end of a Japan with more power and influence. As such, why shouldn't Abe seek reconciliation with China and South Korea, if it yields substantial benefits for Japan?

Thinking about Abe's pragmatism, then, I was led to think about a group of leaders, many of them from Choshu (now Yamaguchi Prefecture) like Abe: namely, the Meiji genro, the oligarchic group of elder statesman who guided Japan during the Meiji period. They were the consummate pragmatists, more concerned with the goal of a Japan that was independent, secure, and capable of wielding influence in the region than the particular goals by which to achieve that goal. Accordingly, this profile of Abe by the FT's David Pilling, written just before the LDP's presidential election in September, seems especially apt. Pilling wrote:
Although Abe was born and educated in Tokyo, his political blood courses through Yamaguchi, a prefecture on the far western tip of Japan’s main island. Abe’s father built his political career there. When he died in 1991, Abe inherited the devotion of his Shimonoseki constituency, which returns him with massive majorities.

Yamaguchi sits at the heart of what was once Choshu, one of four fiefdoms that rose up in 1867 against the 250-year-old feudal rein imposed by the Tokugawa clan. The overthrow of the last Tokugawa shogun - who kept rule over his closed, samurai-policed nation from Tokyo - ended 250 years of Japanese isolation and launched it on the path of modern industrialisation. The rebels rallied in the name of the emperor of the period, Meiji, so this revolution is known as the Meiji restoration. It restored the Japanese emperor to a position of importance after centuries as an isolated and purely symbolic figure under various shogunates.

The catalyst for their rebellion had been the arrival off the Japanese coast in 1853 of the heavily armed “Black Ships” of Commodore Matthew Perry. The American commander was a gun-boat diplomat whose show of force was supposed to persuade Japan to open up, much like other Asian nations had done, to free trade and the hated “unequal treaties”. The Tokugawa period had placed severe restrictions on contact with foreigners, thus hampering Japan’s ability to learn new technology, including the art of war. The Meiji leaders, notably those of Choshu, decided that Japan needed to open up and transform its society if the country was not to fall into the grasping hands of foreign barbarians. Their working thesis was to know thy enemy.

“Abe has the tradition of Choshu behind him,” says Okazaki. “He is concerned about the state, not just about the prefecture. Choshu people think in terms of Japan’s national interest.”

Accordingly, Abe's diplomatic deftness and his apparent lack of interest -- and ineptness -- in communicating with the Japanese public, in other words the duties of a leader in a modern democracy, are not altogether surprising, given his origins in the region that was the heartland of Japan's modernization. I think he not so secretly wishes he could govern Japan much as his Meiji antecedents did; with a sense of noblesse oblige, and the confidence that they, and they alone knew what Japan's interests were and how to achieve them.

He also shares the Meiji oligarchs' interest in state building; Abe has made no secret of his desire to undertake a long march through Japan's institutions. In his first months, he passed the first major reform of the educational system since the Fundamental Law on Education was passed in 1947 and upgraded Japan's Defense Agency to a full ministry, and he has made no secret that he intends to make 2007 the year in which Japan is put firmly on the road to constitution revision, starting with the passage of a law on national referendums (required for revision) this spring.

So perhaps there is another meaning to Abe's New Year's visit to Meiji Shrine, other than that it is not Yasukuni Shrine. While Meiji Shrine simply honors the Meiji emperor and his wife, perhaps Abe was subtly identifying himself with the oligarchs who were the true rulers during the Meiji era, and who were responsible for the policies that constitute the Meiji Restoration, forebears whose feats Abe would no doubt like to emulate as he embarks on a "restoration" of his own.

Admittedly this post is long on questions, short on answers, but I think it provides a way to look at Prime Minister Abe as he resumes his campaign to change Japan's postwar institutions.

Will they or won't they?

The "they" in the title of this post are, of course, the members of the Bank of Japan's Policy Board, and the 120.54 million yen question is whether its members will vote to raise interest rates on Thursday.

Call me naive, but I'm used to the Fed's way of doing business, namely advertising the direction of its next move long in advance so various actors in the economy (domestic and global) have plenty of time to factor the central bank's anticipated policy direction into their decision making.

Japan, meanwhile, seems to have concluded that predictability is overrated. First, senior members of the LDP openly questioned the wisdom of a rate hike last weekend, as I discussed in this post, raising questions about even the circumscribed independence of Japan's monetary authorities. Then, as if to throw the markets a curve, Omi Koji, Japan's finance minister, stated matter-of-factly yesterday that he sees no problem with the BOJ raising interest rates, and, to muddy the waters even further, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shiozaki declined to comment on the prospect of a rate hike. (See this article in the Yomiuri Shimbun).

And then, to throw tomorrow's outcome completely into question, Reuters is now reporting that the BOJ is "unlike to raise rates."

In the midst of the speculation regarding the short-term direction of Japan's monetary policy and with it Japan's economic recovery, it's worthwhile to check out this interview in the English edition of the Asahi Shimbun with Koizumi economy czar and current Keio University professor Takenaka Heizo, in which Takenaka calls for, among other things, inflation targeting by the BOJ. But he also once again implicitly criticizes the Abe Cabinet for its reluctance thus far to push forward with what he calls "proactive reform."

This is indeed curious. Economic reform was pretty much the raison d'etre of the Koizumi Cabinet, but it seems that reforming the Japanese economy so that it remains dynamic and prosperous is too pedestrian for Prime Minister Abe -- he apparently likes a challenge, like completely remaking Japan's institutions as they have existed since the end of World War II.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Open Stackelberg Warfare in Japan

I have previously noted tension between the Bank of Japan and Abe Shinzo's governing coalition regarding the timing of the next round of interest rate hikes. It seems that that tension has become open warfare between monetary authorities and LDP and government officials in advance of this week's meeting of the BOJ's Policy Board.

As this article in the English language edition of the Asahi Shimbun reports, BOJ officials have been encouraged by recent positive signs in the economy and are likely to opt for a hike this week, notwithstanding a muted warning from the prime minister and more open criticism from LDP Secretary-General Nakagawa Hidenao.

I have a hard time imagining what the government stands to gain from an open campaign against a rate hike. Protecting itself from potential negative consequences of a rate hike (i.e., having "we told you so" soundbites ready in advance)?

I still think that BOJ President Fukui has an itchy trigger finger as far as interest rates are concerned, because Japan's economic recovery has yet to spread from industries to households (indeed, a major concern now, as David Pilling wrote here in the FT, is that income inequality has grown substantially even as the economy has supposedly emerged from the doldrums). So the government and the LDP may be right that a rate hike is probably premature, but too much public criticism of the BOJ's handling of monetary policy risks undermining market confidence in Japan's economic authorities and highlighting the vacuum in economic policymaking under the Abe Cabinet.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The rotten heart of 'ugly Japan'

Taking a break from chronicling the fortunes of Abe Shinzo, I found this article in the Japan Times fascinating.

It reports on talk of relocating the elevated expressway that currently runs over the Nihonbashi Bridge, a historic landmark in the center of Tokyo and once the origin point for the Tokaido trunk road that ran from Edo to Kyoto during the Tokugawa Shogunate. (See Hiroshige's ukiyo-e print from his series on the fifty-three stations of the Tokaido.)

When I first saw the bridge three years ago, I was stunned. I couldn't believe that a historic landmark -- albeit, one that was built only about a century ago -- was trapped in the shadow of a massive concrete expressway. But now, being more familiar with Japan, I'm not surprised at all. There is a mistaken impression that the Japanese have a unique respect for their past, and for nature; it does not take long to see how mistaken this notion is. Particularly when the country was in the frenzy of rapid development during the 1960s and 1970s, considerations of history or the environment more or less fell by the wayside. Just look at Japan's concrete shorelines and riverbanks. There are, of course, places of substantial historical value and natural beauty -- I'm fortunate enough to live among many of them in Kamakura. But to argue that the Japanese have a kind of unique devotion to public aesthetics and respect for the environment is specious.

As for the Nihonbashi Bridge, I'm not the only one who thinks it's an aesthetic tragedy. It topped Itoh Shigeru's list of Japan's most atrocious sites in his 2006 report "Ugly Japan."

In any case, for a more sustained argument on this point, check out Alex Kerr's Dogs and Demons.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Abe visits Europe

Forgive me for indulging in a bit of self-promotion, but my latest article, on Prime Minister Abe's visit to several European capitals, is online at the Henry Jackson Society website here.

Feel free to direct questions and comments back here.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Abe on the Beeb

The BBC interviewed Prime Minister Abe (transcript here) on foreign policy. Nothing especially new here, but it offers an excellent picture of Japan's foreign policy approach in light of China's rise. Notice how Abe uses the language of international responsibility -- Japan is not only concerned about the direct threat posed by North Korea, it is concerned about interrelated international problems, and wishes to contribute to solving them. The hope is, of course, that Japan can contrast itself with China: "We're a responsible stakeholder in the international system, they're the unpredictable power that seeks to overturn the status quo."

Note also the strong emphasis on the abduction issue. As I've noted before, too much emphasis on the abduction issue risks isolating Japan from other regional powers, and, moreover, risks painting the Abe Cabinet into a corner in terms of its relations with the electorate. Call too much attention to an issue and the voters may actually expect you to deliver, which could lead Abe to opt for tactics that might further isolate it in the region. See below for an illustration of how the government has inflamed Japanese sentiments on the abductions issue. Ultimately, calling out North Korea on abductions is the proper step morally, but a dreadful tactical move for Tokyo. The more that Tokyo can shunt this issue to the UN and away from negotiations on the nuclear problem, the better for Japan.

The picture to the left is a government poster found in train stations calling attention to North Korea's abduction of Japanese citizens. A shoe on a beach -- effective, no? (Several citizens were reportedly snatched from beaches on the Sea of Japan coast.)

Clint Eastwood's "Letters"

I finally made it to Roppongi Hills last night to see Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima (Roppongi Hills being the only place in the Tokyo metro area playing the film with English subtitles). The companion to Eastwood's Flag of Our Fathers, Letters is without question a deeply moving film, made in the spirit of Robert E. Lee's oft-quoted remark: "It is well that war is so terrible: we would grow too fond of it!"

It is deeply humanistic in its argument that at heart the soldiers on opposing sides of the war shared similar fears and hopes, which in its own way underpins the argument for robust jus in bello. But, and I think Eastwood acknowledges this, understanding the enemy has very little to do with the decision to go to war in the first place (jus ad bellum). The film is decontextualized: while it hints at oppression in Imperial Japan through the story of Shimizu, the disgraced Kempeitai trooper, there is little suggestion of the atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army against Asian peoples and Allied soldiers or of Japanese aggression in general. While decontextualizing the story of the defense of Iwo Jima makes for a more moving film, it also means ignoring the larger questions of war and peace, the question of why the US and Japan came to blows in the first place. So while it is supremely valuable as a portrait of the Japanese war effort and infantrymen at war, it fails as a sophisticated account of the Pacific War.

That said, it is an extremely well-made and well-acted film.

Friday, January 5, 2007


Leading news in Japan's newspaper's today is a report that the US military is finally compiling detailed plans for a crisis on the Korean Peninsula in cooperation with the Japanese government, the Self-Defense Forces, local governments, and private actors. (See the Yomiuri Shimbun's article here.)

As the title of this post suggests, the only thing surprising about the reports about revisions to OP 5055 is that it took a North Korean nuclear test for Japan to realize that it couldn't wait until after a crisis to outline, in detail, what it would do in the event of a crisis in the area surrounding Japan that involved the evacuation of civilians from trouble spots, potential mass casualty medical care, provisions for refugees, and arrangements to allow the US military to use civilian airports and harbors and use civilian transportation.

These talks should have happened ten years ago, after the US and Japan agreed that "situations in areas surrounding Japan" (SIASJ) were of immense importance to the alliance. Waiting until now was terribly risky, and shows how for all the positive developments in the alliance since the 1980s, a lot of work remains to be done.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

A Japan of regions

Nikkei's leading editorial today, found here (in Japanese), is an urgent call for action on the "regional" problem in Japanese society. The problem is that Japan, like France and other countries, is extraordinarily top-heavy: Tokyo, like Paris, plays a disproportionately large role in all facets of Japanese life. And, as Tokyo grows, Japan's regions wither away, gradually depopulating as younger generations flee.

Nikkei suggests that the solution to reversing the decline of the regions is two-fold. First, Japan's prefectural governments need to do a better job attracting foreign direct investment. The editorial notes that Japan has been uniquely resistant to FDI, and, in light of China's active courting of foreign companies, further resistance will handicap Japan's economic prospects in an Asia dominated by China. Second, prefectural governments need to attract more tourism.

In other words, Japan needs to become genuinely globalized.

This editorial is interesting in light of this story from CNN, which notes that Toyota has become one of America's "Big Three" automakers. Toyota has been extremely successful in investing in regions of the US that might otherwise have been left behind by globalization, parlaying its investment in the US into substantial sales.

Now Japan needs the reverse to happen, but, as the editorial notes, Japan's high costs and the weak yen make Japan a perpetually unattractive place to invest.

Nikkei suggests that the regions could become IT platforms, and why not -- why can't Japan have its own clusters? For the moment, however, Japan remains too centralized politically and economically for this to be a short-term solution.

Ozawa Ichiro called for a more decentralized Japan in his 1993 book Blueprint for a New Japan, but after thirteen years Japan has, if anything, become more centralized. Not surprisingly, then, Ozawa's DPJ has made stronger regions and communities a fundamental principle in their newly released policy index. But I have my doubts as to whether any Japanese government would have the wherewithal to initiative a regional development policy that actually devolves power to prefectures and cities and enables them to pursue their own path to development.

Perhaps as Japan considers revising its constitution, it should consider changing from a French-style system, in which power is concentrated in the capital, to a German-style federal system, in which prefectures would be accorded considerable autonomy. The Japanese Upper House, were it to become more like Germany's Bundesrat, could actually become a capable, muscular organ with responsibility for regional development.

Just a thought...I mean, as long as Japan is going to undertake the effort to consider constitutional revision, the government might as well do the job right and seriously consider how all of Japan's postwar institutions should change to better enable the country to survive and thrive in the twenty-first century.

Monday, January 1, 2007

Future-shocked Japan

I first want to wish a happy and healthy New Year to all of my readers.

After a bit of break, I'm back to posting, although my posts will most likely be on a more abstract level, like, say, this post, because Japan is on holiday for the week.

The title of this post refers to the 1970 book Future Shock by Alvin Toffler (with uncredited work by Heidi Toffler). I read Toffler's book not too long ago, and it's high on my list of books that have remained relevant long after their initial publication. I guess that's why it's still published as a mass market paperback.

In any case, I was prompted to think about Future Shock today after reading this op-ed in The Japan Times by Kimihiro Masamura, professor emeritus at Senshu University.

Masamura's thesis is that Japan's political leadership has to date failed to respond effectively to the panoply of problems plaguing Japanese society. He writes:
In order to build up again the basic strength of society, the quality of life must be improved. It is necessary to change the people's orientation toward work, restore the function of the family and change the landscape of cities and agricultural villages. It is also necessary to restore the family's power to raise and educate children, and the power of schools to educate children and reconstruct the whole environment surrounding children -- or the totality of nature, society and culture in which children are born and grow.
Masamura's diagnosis of Japan's problems sounds familiar -- namely, like Toffler's idea of future shock.

Toffler considered the impact upon individuals and societies of the rapidly accelerating pace of social change in developed countries. He wrote:
Future shock is a time phenomenon, a product of the greatly accelerated rate of change in society. It arises from the superimposition of a new culture on an old one. It is culture shock in one's own society. But its impact is far worse...Take an individual out of his own culture and set him down suddenly in an environment sharply different from his own, with a different set of cues to react to -- different conceptions of time, space, work, love, religion, sex, and everything else -- then cut him off from any hope of retreat to a more familiar social landscape, and the dislocation he suffers is doubly severe. Moreover, if this new culture is itself in constant turmoil, and if -- worse yet -- its values are incessantly changing, the sense of disorientation will be still further intensified...Now imagine not merely an individual but an entire society, an entire generation -- including its weakest, least intelligent, and most irrational members -- suddenly transported into this new world. The result is mass disorientation, future shock on a grand scale.
Arguably future shock is the disease that not only Japan, but every developed society (and increasingly, developing societies) has suffered from, to greater or lesser extents, since Toffler first coined the term in the 1960s. Japan has already suffered from future shock in a substantial way -- the breakdown of its political and economic institutions during the 1990s -- but until recently it was relatively immune to social stresses. No longer. The bullying problem, the general failure of schools to prepare students for the future, the new relationships between grown-up children and their parents, the aging problem: these are the symptoms of a society undergoing a much more substantial social shift.

While better leadership is essential to help Japan through the convulsions of future shock, it is a necessary but insufficient condition; there will be no top-down solutions to Japan's social problems. In his op-ed Masamura points out what has to change:
We must think what the government has to do to ensure the people's safety and stabilize their lives, and to protect the environment. Japan is suffering from a vicious cycle: The government's policies are poor and cause anxiety to the people. As a result, the people do not have intellectual and spiritual latitude to think about the future of the nation and society, and become indifferent to politics. This leads to the government's policies becoming even poorer. We need to create a positive cycle: The government's activities concerning the people's safety and lives would be strengthened, enabling the people to have intellectual and spiritual latitude, and to start thinking about the future of the nation and society, and becoming interested in politics. As a result, the government's activities will be improved.
For Japan to change Japanese society will have to become more dynamic. The Japanese people must break the habit of looking to Tokyo for guidance when something goes wrong.

I will leave you to mull the implications of Japan's future shock. And if you haven't read Toffler's book, now would be a good time to do so, because when looking the problems plaguing Japanese, American, and European societies today, his diagnosis is remarkably accurate.