Friday, June 29, 2007

The caudillo candidate

Mainichi has published an account of an interview with Alberto Fujimori, former president of Peru now under house arrest in Santiago, Chile and recently named to Kokumin Shinto's proportional representation list.

In it, Fujimori promises to return to Peru, and notes that running for office in Japan does not mean the end of his political career in Peru.

My favorite line from the article, though, is the following: "Highlighting rapprochements with neighbors Ecuador and Chile, and the restoration of public order as the achievements from his time as president, he stated, 'As a member of the House of Councillors, I want to tackle foreign policy and public order problems.'"

I'm sure Vladimiro Montesinos can give Mr. Fujimori some creative ideas on how to solve Japan's "public order problems."

Then again, Japan might be in need for some serious Fujishock.

In any case, it is probably a mistake to attribute too much significance to Fujimori's candidacy, which says more about the troglodytic tendencies of some members of Kokumin Shinto than any particular fault of the Japanese people. With luck, the Japanese people will ensure that this washed-up tin pot dictator continues to stroll the grounds of his St. Helena in Santiago, occasionally sending video messages to his supporters in Peru promising a return.

(Incidentally, for those interested in Fujimori's rise to power in Peru, he plays a significant role in Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa's A Fish in the Water, a memoir of Vargas Llosa's 1990 presidential run, the year in which Fujimori won as a dark horse candidate.)

(And those with a more academic interest in Nikkeijin would do well to read this post at Frog in a Well.)

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Can anyone say straw man?

Komori Yoshihisa, defender of Japan's honor Sankei Shimbun's editor at large based in Washington, has "exposed" the alleged activities of Chinese-American groups in putting the screws on House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D-CA-12) and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA-8) to get them both to support rapid passage of the comfort women resolution.

Komori argues that Lantos, who was supposedly content with Prime Minister Abe's remarks during his visit to Washington in late April, has changed his mind due to pressure from Asian-American groups, including the Global Alliance for Preserving the History of World War II in Asia and Chinese Americans for Democracy in Taiwan. He seemingly bases his argument on an article from the Bay City News Service in early June, in which Ignatius Ding, executive vice president of the aforementioned Global Alliance, complained about being ignored by Lantos and Pelosi, and that if Lantos did not change his course, "it would be time for new representation" in California 12, which the article notes is 33% Asian-American.

That is a very thin basis for claiming that the passage of the bill in Lantos's committee and its likely passage by the whole House is the product of the activism of Asian-American groups.

First, what is the basis for thinking that Lantos, who was re-elected with 76% of the vote in 2006 and has never be re-elected with lower than 66% of the vote, is concerned that an interest group has threatened to challenge him next year? Even assuming that Asian-American voters united to unseat Lantos, would that be enough to remove him?

Second, and more insulting, why does Komori not even entertain the possibility that perhaps Lantos came to see the merit in passing the resolution after a bunch of Abe's cronies chose to remind Washington why the resolution needed to be considered in the first place?

It is simply too easy a dodge to point at Asian-American activist groups and blame them for what Congress does, and it is fallacious to argue that Congress and its members are simply cat's paws at the mercy of lobbyists. H.Res.121 passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee by a 39-2 margin, with Congressmen Paul and Tancredo, the lone dissenting votes, opposing on constitutional grounds, not out of sympathy with Japan. H.Res.121 now has 151 co-sponsors from both parties and from all parts of the country. Are there some members who have signed on to this resolution because it is a risk-free way of (potentially) gaining the support of Asian-American voters? Sure. Is it all a conspiracy by Asian-American groups, acting in cahoots with Seoul, Beijing, and Pyongyang, to turn the US against Japan (a Manchurian resolution, in other words)? I, for one, am skeptical of this argument, which has been advanced in one form or another all across the non-Japanese Japan blogosphere. (Try here and here to start.) As hard as it is to believe, maybe members of Congress actually think that "Japanese public and private officials have recently expressed a desire to dilute or rescind the 1993 statement by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono on the 'comfort women', which expressed the Government's sincere apologies and remorse for their ordeal."

Maybe, just maybe, Japan has yet to make proper amends from its crimes, and that saying so does not necessarily make one a Japan basher. While at one point in this process it was reasonable to ask whether Congress should be sitting in judgment of history, now that the H.Res.121 has been passed on to the full House and waits in the pipeline, that question is moot.

Like it or not, Congress will consider this resolution — and if it must, I would rather it act on the side of historical justice than not act and shield the revisionists, relativists, and outright deniers of Imperial Japan's systematic crimes against its neighbors.

A cure for Japan's fear of Democrats

While Asia has been largely absent from debates among Republican and Democratic candidates for their respective parties' presidential nominations — much to my chagrin — the Washington Post reports that John Hamre of CSIS organized a dinner for Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo to meet with the foreign policy advisers of a number of leading presidential candidates, in response to Chinese interest in such a discussion.

This is a remarkably sound idea. Rather than waiting for the next administration to roll into the White House — and with it the inevitable "new course" in Sino-US relations — China has insinuated itself into the discussion, ensuring that its concerns have been laid on the table before candidates are even nominated. Hopefully this will forestall the appearance of a straw-man China (or a scapegoat China) in campaign debates.

One wonders why Japan hasn't tried to do this, instead of sitting in Tokyo shaking in fear that — gasp! — a Democrat might win the election and immediately begin bashing and/or passing Japan. What an idea, actually talking to candidates...

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Learning to be self-reliant?

If I could draw, I would have drawn something exactly like this cartoon in today's Yomiuri:

The caption on this cartoon reads, "Troubles at home, worries in America," Abe's dual American "worries" being the looming comfort women resolution and Christopher Hill's nuclear bargaining.

It didn't need to be this way, did it? As I wrote last week, the confluence of the North Korea nuclear question and the comfort women issue is largely a product of the blundering of the Japanese government, which has failed to appreciate how the mood in Washington has changed and act accordingly. Instead, at every juncture Shinzo has relied upon his buddy George's promises, without asking what those promises are worth when Foggy Bottom is running North Korea policy and the Congress — riled by Japanese revisionism on comfort women — does not share the president's sanguine views of Abe's empathy (and I'm sure it doesn't appreciate being called a tool of China).

The Abe government is right that the practical impact of this resolution will be limited; the foundation of the relationship is sound, and, as noted Tuesday, both the American public and American elites are content with the relationship. It's nothing short of amazing that even with a report emanating from the Bank of International Settlements noting that the yen's decline is "anomalous," Congress is more concerned about comfort women, and on monetary matters has directed its ire at China.

The importance of this episode is, rather, in the intangible impact on thinking in Japan. Relations between states, like relations between people, is a learning process. States learn what to expect from others, especially allies, and begin to build upon these expectations. Japan has come to expect a US that will refrain from criticizing its most important partner "bar none." It has relied upon a network of friends to ensure that this understanding remained in place, particularly after Japan was subject to all manner of American criticism in the early 1990s. (Robert Angel's 1996 introduction to the Japan lobby remains especially useful in illustrating how this works.) But now, with Congress's digging into Japan's past and the administration bereft of friends, the old understanding seems to be under threat.

How will Japan respond? Defensively, with alarm that it is being betrayed and abandoned by its supposed "ally"? That is how Amaki Naoto views recent events in US-Japan relations. He connects the comfort women resolution, Christopher Hill's recent statement about a peaceful framework among four countries, Japan excluded, and — citing a question asked by my boss in the Upper House foreign relations committee — Admiral Keating's remarks about aircraft carriers while in China in May to suggest that the US is not Japan's ally. He writes: "As the above-mentioned sequence of events makes clear, the US will never see Japan as an equal ally...Conservatives, nationalists, left-wing ideologues, and pacifists, as well as the people as a whole, are beginning to find further subordination to the US unfavorable. The problem is that after achieving autonomy and independence from the US, how will Japan ensure its security?"

The question is the extent to which this kind of thinking has taken hold among Japanese elites and the Japanese people — and the extent to which it could take hold in the midst of the aforementioned "betrayals." I cannot answer that, but I suspect it is more prevalent than perhaps Washington realizes.

So here we are: because Japan is incapable of dealing with criticism, and because the US does not particularly care that Japan is incapable of dealing with criticism, the future of the US-Japan relationship is murky, and will only get murkier as Japanese elites begin to assume that the US is not especially concerned about Japan's interests.

"No comment" — too little, too late?

The comfort women resolution has passed the House Committee on Foreign Affairs by a vote of 39 to 2. It now moves on to the full House, where Speaker Pelosi has suggested it will be considered in mid-July, conveniently before the Upper House elections.

The Abe government's response: no comment. Adhering to the sensible position that the government will not comment on resolutions in the legislatures of other countries, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shiozaki said, "Since this will not truly shake relations between the US and Japan, hereafter absolutely nothing changes."

Now why could the Japanese government not have said that six months ago, and stuck to it? This is a textbook case of shutting the barn door long after the horses have broken out and gone stampeding across the countryside.

Meanwhile, it seems that Ambassador Kato's gloomy pronouncements about the impact of the resolution were completely overblown, and scared no one into voting against the resolution. How much Japanese taxpayer money has already been sunk into the campaign to see this resolution destroyed? And — despite the official "no comment" — how much remains to be spent in the next two weeks?

Whatever the appropriateness of Congress deliberating on this issue, there are much bigger questions now. This episode has been important in revealing how thinking about the relationship differs between Washington and Tokyo. Congress has never been particularly concerned about hurting Japan's feelings, and of late the White House seems particularly disinclined to defend Japan. (But why should it? Is there another US ally that is incapable of handling criticism from the US government?) Meanwhile, the Abe government and its sympathizers, acting out of a mixture of pride, arrogance, and the absolute certainty that they have "The Facts" on their side have grossly overreacted to this issue, clearly leading some in Washington to wonder just who exactly the US is dealing with in Tokyo. As such, how can the alliance survive if one party expects love to be blind, and the other is beginning to take a closer look at its partner and noticing imperfections that were ignored in the first blush of romance?

Maybe it's time for George and Shinzo to have a little chat about where this relationship is headed. Taking a break from each other? Seeing other people? It seems that's what Abe is doing, anyway.

Speaking of campaign advertisements...

The LDP has produced its campaign CM (easier than trying to say commercial, I guess).

It is available here, at the LDP website.

Abe Shinzo. Pomp and Circumstance. Economic growth.

I really don't think further comment is necessary. At some point it just gets to be overkill.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

For the DPJ, the worse the better

With the Upper House elections little over a month away and public outrage over the pensions scandal seemingly unassuaged, the DPJ has found another angle to emphasize the government's indifference to the plight of the average Japanese citizen.

A comic strip, available online here, is being distributed to voters in a flier, the cover of which features a Japanese couple in distress, moaning that rising taxes and social security contributions are a major headache for their lifestyle: "These six years, the burden on people's lifestyle has risen nine trillion yen. This is the source of growing inequality!"

The growing tax burden refers in particular to reports that from this month, many Japanese are set to see their tax contributions rise as a result of recent adjustments in the balance between central government and local government taxation. The shift meant that from January many saw their tax burden decline as the central government's tax take fell; now, in June, their taxes will rise again rapidly. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, for a family of four with annual income of 5 million yen, the tax burden that was 10,950 yen until 2006 will rise to 14,100 yen. For a family of four earning 10 million yen annually, the tax burden will rise this month to 66,190 yen from 61,580 yen. (These numbers from an article in the Hokkaido Shimbun.) An article in Asahi (not online) notes that taxpayers have been swamping city offices with questions about the tax hike.

The DPJ's hope, of course, is that tax worries and anger at the government's handling of the pension scandal will combine to form a perfect storm that smashes the LDP next month.

It is important to remember, however, that the DPJ is hardly better off than the LDP, as an Asahi tracking poll showed the DPJ dropping below the LDP again, 24% to 23% in Upper House proportional representation races. The DPJ may well ride this storm to victory — but not because it is beloved by the voters. As a certain wise man noted in conversation last night, in any other democracy the opposition would be cruising to victory with 90% support, given the issues that the Abe government has laid at the DPJ's doorstep.

Meanwhile, it is far too hasty to write off Prime Minister Abe, contra this FT article that relies almost entirely on Abe rival Tanigaki Sadikazu to suggest that Abe could be made to resign if next month is a DPJ landslide. Clearly Abe is surrounded by a number of retainers who will be made to lay down their lives for their master (take a Nakagawa or two) — and even former Prime Minister Koizumi has suggested that Abe should not resign even in the face of a rout, arguing that "if prime ministers change every year or two, there cannot be reform." (Has Koizumi looked at what his successor is doing, or not doing as the case may be?)

While few seem to dispute that the LDP is the underdog going into this election, there is still considerable uncertainty about what is to come. Expect to hear more — day in, day out — about how LDP governments pick the pockets of the average Japanese family.

The Pyongyang visit

Peter Howard at Duck of Minerva greets Chris Hill's visit to Pyongyang with fairly effusive praise, arguing that the "reverse course" in North Korea policy undertaken by Hill with Condoleeza Rice's support has begun to yield some positive results. He points to the imminent closing of Yongbyon and the admission of IAEA inspectors as signs that the new approach to North Korea is working.

Meanwhile, at One Free Korea, Joshua Stanton excoriates the administration for its embrace of bilateral negotiations with North Korea.

So which is it — fool's errand or successful shuttle diplomacy?

Dare I say neither? I cannot possibly summon the rage Stanton directs at the administration and supporters of negotiations outside of the administration. What choices does the US have? The use of force? More sanctions? Doing nothing? Given that it's not altogether clear what direct threat, if any, North Korea poses to the US — the possibility of nuclear handover to terrorists or other states cannot be ruled out, but I have yet to see any report that suggests that this is highly probable — the only sensible option for the US seems to be trying to devise a modus vivendi that is some combination of deterrence, pressure from China, and monetary rewards for good behavior, while planning with the region's other powers for the post-Kim era.

In that sense, the goalposts have indeed shifted, because it should be increasingly clear to all that fully verifiable disarmament is unlikely to result from these negotiations. And so US efforts should be directed to securing the best possible arrangement in the short term. This is a great illustration of the nature of power. For all America's attributional power — its military might, its economic strength, its population and territory — the US has very little power in this situation. More sanctions? Useless. A war for regime change? The consequences are unfathomable. So if negotiating directly with Pyongyang, and countenancing the use of concessions to induce North Korea to behave gives the US more leverage, so be it.

Meanwhile, Japan bears much of the burden for the irrelevance of the six-party talks, given the Abe government's refusal to participate in an agreement until "progress" is realized on the abductions issue. To abstain from shaping the modus vivendi is a serious abdication of responsibility on the part of Japan. Why should the US stand around and wait for Japan? No one should underestimate the hunger on the part of Assistant Secretary Hill and Secretary Rice for an agreement that they can sell as proof that their global diplomatic approach is working. This quote from a New York Times article over the weekend caught my eye: "'Condi knows she needs a big win here,' said a senior administration official who has dealt with her often on North Korea. 'They know they are getting nowhere on Iraq, and they probably won’t get far on Iran. She needs to show that she can reduce at least one big threat.'"

That said, the desire on the part of the US to reach some kind of acceptable arrangement should not be mistaken for the availability of an objectively sound agreement. The only party likely emerge from these talks completely or mostly happy is North Korea.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Is that a prediction or a threat?

For the second time in the past week, the Japanese media has noted concern that the comfort women resolution will worsen US-Japan relations.

Last week, Kato Ryozo, Japan's ambassador to the US, warned, "This resolution, which is not grounded in objectivity, is not good for US-Japan relations."

Now Mainichi reports that in New York on Monday, on the eve of the scheduled passage of the resolution in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, a group of Japanese-American leaders expressed their concerns about the resolution. Irene Hirano, head of the Japanese American National Museum, is quoted as saying, "When relations between the two countries worsen, the first to feel its effects are Japanese-Americans."

Both reports strike me as drastically out of proportion to reality. How exactly will relations worsen? What will be the practical impact of this resolution? Will the US somehow be less reluctant to cooperate with Japan on security? Will the US somehow be less inclined to engage in trade negotiations with Japan? No, the problem does not seem to be on the American side, which seems to recognize that allies can disagree without undermining an otherwise close relationship. In fact, MOFA conducted a poll of the American public and American elites in February and March this year, measuring the extent to which each group thought US-Japan relations were good. The survey found that 67% of respondents from the population at large thought US-Japan relations were good, while 86% of elite respondents answered in the affirmative. This was, of course, around the time that the comfort women issue blew up. And yet an overwhelming majority of elites surveyed still felt confident in the health of the US-Japan relationship.

Hence my question in the title. When Ambassador Kato talks of the resolution worsening US-Japan relations — in the face of overwhelming US contentment with the state of the relationship — is he making a threat, hinting at a more combative turn in Japan's stance in the relationship? Or is he making a prophecy as to how his compatriots will react to their government's being criticized by the US Congress? It seems to me that instead of assuming that the resolution will worsen relations, it is appropriate to ask whether Congress's passage of the resolution will worsen US-Japan relations, and if so, how and why. And if relations are to worsen as a result of Japanese defensiveness, then it is appropriate to consider how Japan can become less susceptible to overreacting in the face of relatively insignificant turbulence like the comfort women resolution.

Constitutions east and west

In his Sunday interview on NHK, Prime Minister Abe reiterated the importance of constitution revision as a point of contention in next month's Upper House election.

Meanwhile, in Brussels this past weekend the European Union's member states concluded a treaty that wraps up the questions that were intended to be addressed by the nixed constitution. The treaty, however, arguably retains a number of the constitution's substantive changes while jettisoning troublesome symbolic changes.

What do Japan's and the EU's constitutional debates share in common?

Without even considering the content of the documents, both drafting processes are wrapped up for the democratic development of both polities. For Japan, the process by which constitutional amendments are debated and presented to the public for approval will be an important test of the strength of Japanese democracy. Will the process be elite-driven, as every other epochal change in the Japanese political system, or will the Japanese citizenry stake a claim in the process and demand that elites respect their wishes and introduce amendments that reflect public desires? In the EU, which is struggling to craft a democratic polity out of more than two dozen democratic polities (i.e., the democratic deficit), the changes envisioned by the constitution — and now the reform treaty — constitute a substantial change in how the member states, their peoples, and the EU interact, but it is unclear the extent to which the new EU will reflect the wishes of the governed. As George Washington University's Henry Farrell wrote at Crooked Timber in a post reviewing the treaty: "It's a shame and a disgrace that the EU member states have responded to the 2005 defeat by going back to their old practice of seeking to achieve integration by boring the general public into submission, and a very substantial backward step. If people aren’t willing to sign up to major changes in the EU system of governance, then too bad for the EU system of governance."

This comparison only goes so far, of course, given that the Japanese people recognize themselves as a polity — whereas it is as of yet unclear if Europeans really think of themselves as European citizens, as far as governance is concerned.

But what both share is a concern about the role of their state/supranational-confederal organization of states in a world of new rising powers (read China and India) that already dwarf both demographically and are prepared to surpass both in economic performance. Hence the debate about article nine, which is not simply about one-country pacifism but signifies a range of questions about how Japan will relate to the US and other powers in the region. And in Europe, the provisions in the treaty about a European president, a de facto foreign minister and foreign service, and mutual defense clause hint at an EU desirous of a proper place at the table alongside the great powers. Niall Ferguson makes this argument in the Daily Telegraph:
The world is a big, bad place and the relative importance of Europe's individual states is declining economically and demographically with every passing year. As Mr Mandelson has found, it is hard enough to sustain the momentum of trade liberalisation even when Europe speaks with one voice. In other spheres, the EU is simply a negligible quantity. What would have been more absurd than to leave foreign policy divided between yet another set of twins, the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy (Javier Solana) and the Commissioner for External Relations (Benita Ferrero-Waldner)? The choice is no longer between national foreign policies and a European foreign policy, but between national irrelevance and collective influence.
(Interesting that Henry Kissinger disparaged both Japan ["little Sony salesmen"] and the EU ["who do you call when you want to talk to Europe"] for their inadequacies as great powers; it seems that they have taken his criticism seriously.)

But those in Europe and Japan who would rush to answer fundamental governance questions to enable the pursuit of power internationally must not be allowed to run roughshod over the rights of their citizens. Power must not be an end in itself; it must be grounded in democratic legitimacy. And so the content of constitution revision (or formation) is less important than the process. Will the voices of peoples be heard?

(I suppose this is a good test for the relevance of realism: if responding to changes in the international distribution of power takes the highest priority, then expect both Japan and the EU to run roughshod over popular opposition and implement constitutional settlements that best enable them to cope with changes in the international environment.)

What a time to be alive, for political scientists anyway.

Elections as beauty contests

With two weeks left in the "non-campaign" season, before candidates officially file, which marks the official campaign season during which candidates can actually ask for votes, I thought it would be worthwhile to share a passage from Gerald Curtis's Election Campaigning Japanese Style. For those not familiar with the book, in 1966-1967 Curtis lived and worked under Sato Bunsei, an LDP candidate in Oita Prefecture's second district (back in the days of multi-member medium-sized electoral districts). With the date of the dissolution of the Diet and the subsequent election unknown, Curtis noted Sato's efforts to build a support base in the rural parts of the district, raise money to sustain political activities, and fight to muscle into the Diet in the face of competition from two senior LDP Diet members in the district.

Not being in a rural district, I cannot speak to changes in rural campaign methods, but I can attest to relative continuity in urban campaigning, in part due to the ongoing constraints imposed by Japan's public election law. While campaigning in other democracies has been transformed by new media, legal restrictions in Japan have limited the impact of television, the internet, and even radio on campaign strategy. And so this passage caught my eye:
The prohibition of pre-election campaigning, restrictions on the distribution of written materials and on the use of the mass media, and other seemingly minor things such as the prohibition of the use of convertibles or other open cars work their greatest hardship against the new and unknown candidate. The incumbent, who receives constant publicity in his constituency through his activities in the Diet, has all to gain by maintaining a law that effectively prevents new candidates from gaining public exposure. It is for this reason that efforts to substantially revise the Election Law have been doomed. Once a man becomes a member of the Diet he has all to gain by maintaining and extending the restrictions on campaign practices.

The Law has another important and deplorable effect. It makes the general voter a mere observer of the campaign. By effectively preventing popular participation in campaigns it inhibits if not actually works counter to the political socialization of the electorate that should be a major function of election campaigns. The Election Law's ideal campaign is much like a beauty contest. When the official begins the contestants, supposedly having had no pre-contest opportunity influencing the judges, walk out on the stage and go through a rigorously supervised series of performances that gives each an exactly equal opportunity to demonstrate his attributes to the judges. They then all leave the stage for the judges to make their decision. The voters are in the position of passive judges. They can read posters and listen to speeches but can take almost no direct part in the contest. Not only does this make an election campaign unbearably dull for the average voter. It makes a fundamental function of systems of representative government frightening to the politically concerned electorate because of the fear that efforts in support of a candidate may result in a violation of the Election Law.
In the time since Curtis wrote this, Japan has become the world's number two economy, inspiring fear in the US, and seen its bubble burst, the LDP briefly driven from power, the economy dip into crisis in the late 1990s, and the Koizumi revolution come and go — and still the restrictions on campaigning exist. Whatever tinkering with the details of the law, the pattern of Japanese campaigning remains largely unchanged, critically undermining the role elections ought to play in relations between government and governed.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

A referendum?

Prime Minister Abe, speaking on NHK on Sunday, said that next month's elections will be a referendum on his government's record in office.

Let that sink in for a moment.

As I've argued before, what record exactly does the government have to run on? What does the government have to be proud of that will also attract the support of voters? Why isn't the government instead arguing that the first nine months were just a warm up, and that after the next four years Japan will be so beautiful that other countries will shield their eyes in the face of Japan's radiant beauty? (I mean, come on, why isn't Abe using newly crowned Miss Universe Mori Riyo to signify the coming of his beautiful Japan?)

Also on Sunday morning, LDP Secretary-General Nakagawa Hidenao denied suggestions that Abe would resign if the LDP were to lose its Upper House majority, while hinting that his head would roll instead.

Put the two statements together. The election is to be a referendum on the government's performance, but if the voters unseat the government in the Upper House, the head of the lead governing party will resign? How is that listening to the voters? What kind of a referendum is that?

I'm with MTC: this is all a bleak return to the dark pre-Koizumi days: contempt for voters and bread-and-circuses governance.

Constructing modern Japan

Every social scientist must struggle with the question of human agency. Are human societies the product of grand social forces or are they the product of the decisions of individuals — Carlyle's heroes?

The question is particularly important for Japan, which was pushed on to a drastically different path in the late nineteenth century when confronted with the encroachment of imperial powers into Asia. But was Japan's modernization the result of powerful impersonal forces — the international system, economics, Japanese culture — or was it driven by the decisions of the elites who forged the new system?

This is the swamp into which MIT's Richard Samuels waded in Machiavelli's Children: Leaders and Their Legacies in Italy and Japan. Samuels, in essence, "brings the individual back in" to a discussion of the winding roads followed by late-developing Japan and Italy during the 150 years of their existence as modern states. And he succeeds admirably — in the process explaining in rich detail how Prime Ministers Yoshida and Kishi, building upon the prewar past, designed, for better or worse, the Japan we see today (the Japan that their heirs are struggling to bring into the twenty-first century).

As Samuels suggests in his introduction, the comparative analysis of Japan and Italy strikes many as counterintuitive, perhaps because Italy needed Fascists to make the trains run on time. But beyond the superficial dissimilarities — including the widespread stereotype that Italy has dynamic leaders and poor followers, while Japan has faceless leaders and obedient followers — he finds that despite facing similar conditions, constraints, and opportunities as Gerschenkronian late developers, each made drastically different decisions about governance of the economy and society, liberalism, foreign relations, and, in the postwar period, how to rebuild their states and reconstitute their political systems under the American aegis.

There is far too much in Machiavelli's Children to do it justice in this space, and, as such, this is my latest book recommendation. (NB: I will henceforth give book recommendations on a monthly basis, or else whenever I feel like it; recommending one every week was too grueling.)

Friday, June 22, 2007

Men are not angels

Working in the office of a Japanese Dietman and watching Japan's "sausage-making" process has been valuable in a number of ways — many of which I have documented here one way or another — but one lesson that I have left largely unmentioned is my renewed appreciation for the American political system.

No political system is perfect, because human beings are imperfect. The label of democracy does not automatically make people and the institutions by which they govern themselves somehow more perfect than otherwise.

But that is the genius of the American political system. It is grounded in human imperfection. It's all there in Federalist 51 by James Madison: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions."

It is not just checks and balances, giving the branches of government the duty to check other branches (and making it in their interest to do so) — it is a culture of accountability: oversight committees, inspectors general, auditors, ombudsmen, and even investigative journalists, who lend a hand when others fail. The existence of these mechanisms presupposes human failure. They exist because they assume that individuals will try to skirt the law, will try to abuse their power — and that without vigilance by citizens, and by organizations and individuals whose purpose is to be vigilant, the system will be subverted.

One of the things I find most regrettable about the Japanese political system is the near-total absence of a culture of accountability. Public funds disappear into private pockets. Public interests are subverted by private interests. The watchers collude with the watched, and the voters — those who should be watching the watchmen — look away in indifference or disgust instead of demanding better.

It is with great alarm, then, that I look at the latest sinister twist in the saga of Dick Cheney, who has now asserted that his office is a kind of hybrid executive-legislative body, and free from the bounds of laws that govern both branches. That is a remarkably subversive idea: a powerful fiefdom within government that is free from "external [or] internal controls on government."

As the wreck that is the Bush administration finally comes to an end, the American people have a lot of serious thinking to do about the foundations of American constitutional order: not simply "liberty" or "democracy" or "equality," but accountability. It is government held accountable for its actions that makes the others possible. Unaccountable government is arbitrary government, and if American constitutionalism is to survive, citizens must recognize this as being the highest ideal.

What grades will Abe bring home at term's end?

So the Diet session that was due to end this week has been extended an extra twelve days.

In a press conference on Friday, Prime Minister Abe tried to dispel reports of dissent within the LDP on the question of extending the session — there has been a steady drumbeat of stories in the major dailies on vocal opposition to the plan — and insisted that the extension is for the good of the nation.

Meanwhile, he suggested that the people not think about the delay in the Upper House elections in "technical" terms. (I assume that's what he would call this, eh MTC?)

An article in this week's Economist actually spells out the mood fairly well. Some nine months into the Abe administration, it's hard to enumerate exactly what this government has achieved that it can present to voters. The national referendum bill? Just like the opinion polls consistently showed, constitution revision is unimportant to voters, especially when compared with, say, pensions and health care (shocking, I know, that such matters would be important to a rapidly aging society). Extending the JSDF mission in Iraq? As argued in this post at Glocom's blog, it is unclear that the Japanese people are especially aware of the facts surrounding the mission in Iraq. The loophole-ridden political funds control law revision? The looming amakudari bill?

For a government bolstered by an unprecedentedly large majority, that is a tremendously meager legislative record, and when you add in the return of the postal rebels to the LDP, the backtracking on the highway funds reform, inappropriate statements by cabinet ministers, coddling by the prime minister of cabinet ministers accused of corruption, and continuing diplomatic isolation in the six-party talks, it is hard to see upon what the Abe Cabinet can campaign. The good fortune of governing at the same time as a growing economy? I guess that's the plan.

Meanwhile, this Diet extension has the unmistakable air of an undergraduate's asking for an extension on a paper the night before the due date — even though the date was clearly marked on the syllabus months before. (I had the stomach flu! It was that burger George gave me at Camp David!) Now Abe is scrambling to cobble together some legislative achievements to fling at the voters.

Teacher — his governing majority — may be generous, but will mom and pop (aka the Japanese voters), worried about making ends meet, be quite so willing to continue supporting Junior's "education" with so little to show for it?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

In Abe's Japan, everything's fine

At the LDP website, it's 大丈夫 time. (For non-Japanese readers, the word is daijyoubu, and it means essentially "everything's fine" or "all right" — try saying it like a surfer dude.)

On the main page, overlaid over a picture of cool-biz Abe with a gentle sky-blue background, are links to campaign materials that inform readers that "Your pension is daijyoubu!!" and "Japanese agriculture: if the LDP, daijyoubu." (Somehow without the sky blue it wouldn't have the same effect.)

And then there's the new campaign posters that will proliferate throughout Japan any day now. Using the same Abe-with-sky-blue-background picture, the posters feature a slogan designed to highlight the idea that the Koizumi era is long gone: "To realize growth!"

Cue the crickets.

Pretty much par for the course, as Japanese campaigning goes.

Seriously though, the mood conveyed by the LDP's aesthetic choices for the Upper House campaign season could not be better calculated to shed the harsh image exuded by former Prime Minister Koizumi. Koizumi's posters featured active, even violent verbs, and his whole administration had a disruptive, frenetic air: destroying the LDP, issuing reform idea after reform idea from the CEFP, expelling opponents from the party, and then dispatching assassins to deprive them of their seats.

But gone are the assassins. Now, says the LDP to voters, don't worry yourself with all that unpleasantness about structural reform and changing the LDP; just focus on economic growth.

Hear that voters? Everything is fine. Your pensions are safe. Stop calling the Social Insurance Agency. Go shopping instead.

Ladies and gentlemen, Abe Shinzo's LDP!

What would a liberal Japan actually look like?

Project Syndicate has posted an essay based on a speech by Joseph Nye in Tokyo last month, in which he foresees the rise of a "liberal" Japan.

Calling attention to Asahi's series of twenty-one editorials [series available at Japan Focus] outlining a vision for Japan, Nye argues on its behalf, observing that Asahi's vision provides a path for "Japan to become a world power as a provider and coordinator of global public goods from which all peoples can benefit and none can be excluded, such as freedom of the seas or a stable international monetary system. This would be a way for Japan to escape its reputation for insularity, avoid the mistakes of its military history, improve its relations with Asian neighbors who still remember the 1930’s, and increase Japan’s 'soft' or attractive power."

Nye foresees Japan carrying a greater burden in a variety of ways, but few that would require the use of force.

This is all well and good, but it is not entirely clear how to get there, because in the quotation above there is a chicken-and-the-egg problem: will a more international role lead to Japan escape its reputation for insularity, or can Japan only embrace a more international role after it lowers its psychological walls and becomes far more willing to interact with the world?

Then, of course, there is the larger question of whether this is the role the Japanese people want their country to play in the world. Arguably, Abe Shinzo and other nationalists of a more Gaullist streak are not alone in desiring a foreign policy rooted in the defense of Japan's pride and the assertion of Japanese interests, particularly in relations with North Korea and China. And while the Japanese people are hardly clamoring for Japan to become more belligerent, content to see the JSDF play little more than a supporting role in multilateral missions abroad, they also support the government's misplaced emphasis on the abductions issue (as opposed to focusing on a mix of issues, with abductions but one among several).

So how can Japan actually become the liberal power outlined by Nye?

Well, first, as eloquently argued in this post by MTC, it requires vision on the part of the Japanese government as to what role it can actually play as a leader in the region and the world. Arguably, a broader vision of Japan's role is inconsistent with the kind of "standing up for Japan's pride at all costs" thinking that has motivated Japan's response to the comfort women resolution in the US Congress, the whaling issue, and historical feuds with South Korea and China. It's time to grow up. The of a serious great power capable of taking the lead on an issue — the environment, African development, etc. — is the ability to not let petty issues undermine national focus. Is Tokyo serious about protecting the environment? Marshal its resources, line up allies, force others to make commitments, and avoid stupid, avoidable mistakes and comments that give other countries can excuse not to follow your lead.

The other change is what Japan looks like at home. What happens at home matters incredibly abroad. Just ask Washington, which has found it hard to make allies follow its lead on a host of issues due to perceived human rights failures at home. Japan, of course, is free to do what it wants at home: approve textbooks with questionable interpretations of the war, emphasize patriotism in education over other skills that might serve Japanese children better, railroad those accused of crimes straight to prison, and prevent women from rising to positions of prominence. But it cannot do so and then turn to the world and proclaim that Japan intends to be a liberal great power. For Japan to be a liberal great power means building an international position largely upon how other countries view Japanese society. If Japan is respected for its domestic governance, its counsel will be welcomed by others, and so its power will grow.

For all the rhetoric, does the Japanese government truly appreciate what it will take to become this kind of global power?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

What's in a name?

Quite a bit, when the name is that of an important government policy document, and when that name is missing a phrase near and dear to the former prime minister's heart.

So suggests the Asahi Shimbun in its editorial on the Abe government's recently announced 2007 fiscal policy plan.

Unlike the title of the annual fiscal policy plans produced under Koizumi's watch — "Basic policies for economic and fiscal management and structural reform" — the Abe's Cabinet's program is called simply "Basic policies for economic and fiscal management." And so, concludes Asahi, "the flag of 'structural reform' has vanished."

To Asahi, this is yet another sign, perhaps the clearest yet, that the Abe Cabinet has discarded the Koizumi Cabinet's "no growth without reform" motto and the policy perspective behind it. The policies in this program timid — a hodgepodge of vague "pro-growth" policies including more funding for universities, "investigating" economic partnership agreements with the EU and the US, "drastic [but unspecified] tax reform," and a ludicrous promise to double Japan's OECD-worst productivity in five years (see Ken Worsley on this point in particular), packed into fifty-two pages, the longest such report since the government first began drafting them. Not only is there no overall vision beyond the Abe program, but the lack of detail leaves room for bureaucrats to muscle back in, as Asahi noted when a first draft was issued to the public.

Yomiuri, for its part, also noted the lack of details in the program — and a lack of priorities. At the same time, however, Yomiuri seems to give the prime minister the benefit of the doubt, gently chiding Abe for not giving enough details now, but assuming he'll get around to it eventually.

Considering the point I raised in this post earlier today, this damp squib of a document is not just another dull, useless policy report issued by the government — it is a sign of the utter failure of imagination that characterizes policy making throughout the developed world.

The hyper-nationalist spring offensive continues

Following pronouncements against Chinese war museums and the congressional comfort women resolution, Japan's hyper-nationalists have turned their attention once again to the Nanjing Massacre, arguing as before that "only" 20,000 people were killed in Nanjing, as opposed to the generally accepted range of 150,000-200,000 (IHT here; Japan Times here).

The quibbling over numbers is one of the more insidious tools used by Japan's revisionists to press their case. It seems that they have concluded that outright denial leads to arguments being dismissed entirely, so better to undermine the historical consensus by disputing smaller details — the number killed, what does coercion mean, etc. — and sow doubt about historians of good faith.

But let's step back for a moment. Let's say it was "only" 20,000. What does that change? Does that somehow make the Nanjing Massacre less of a crime? So what is their point? Is Japan somehow less responsible if the death toll turns out to be a tenth of what others argue it was?


There are, however, Japanese who acknowledge their country's need to get beyond the highly charged politics of Japan's history, embrace the unvarnished truth, and make amends for Japan's actions.

Tessa Morris-Suzuki brilliantly documents how Japan has and hasn't faced up to its wartime acts in a review of the English translation of part of Yomiuri's project on war responsibility. In her review, she notes a point that I've made before: Prime Minister Murayama's apology in 1995 marking the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war, rather than serving as an expression of the guilt of all the Japanese people and the beginning of a new era of relations with Asia based upon that feeling, has actually been used by those who feel no guilt whatsoever as an excuse to practice revisionism while being able to claim that Japan has already apologized. She writes: "...If the mid-1990s marked a turning point, it proved to be a turn in the opposite direction: away from efforts to acknowledge war responsibility and towards a nationalistic reassertion of pride in Japan’s past (including significant aspects of its wartime past). The years immediately following the fiftieth anniversary witnessed an upsurge of revisionist writings by scholars and journalists seeking to justify Japan’s prewar expansion and wartime policies."

There are Japanese interested in the historical truth, it's just the hyper-nationalists who grab the headlines. But why can't confronting the dark past be a matter of national pride too? Just as Germans should be proud of the extent to which their country has confronted its past, so too should Japanese make it a point of pride to face up to their country's failings.

In some way the Yomiuri project, an inspiration of Yomiuri Editor-in-Chief Watanabe Tsuneo, is a step in that direction, because, as Morris-Suzuki notes, Watanabe and Yomiuri are, of course, of the right. Watanabe's attitude is a far cry from that of Nakayama Nariaki and his ilk: "If things are left as they are, a skewed perception of history – without knowledge of the horrors of the war – will be handed down to future generations."

Now if only that attitude were to reverberate and drown out the noise produced by the revisionists.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Are we all social democrats now?

I could not help asking that question — paraphrasing Richard Nixon's famous pronouncement — read a pair of articles that look at how post-industrial global capitalism is evolving, and how publics, especially in the US and other mature democracies, are responding to the emergent order.

In Foreign Affairs, Kenneth Scheve and Matthew Slaughter, noting the rise of protectionism in the US, call for a "New Deal" for the post-industrial age (hat tip: Arts and Letters Daily). The basis for their argument is quite simple:
...Policy is becoming more protectionist because the public is becoming more protectionist, and the public is becoming more protectionist because incomes are stagnating or falling. The integration of the world economy has boosted productivity and wealth creation in the United States and much of the rest of the world. But within many countries, and certainly within the United States, the benefits of this integration have been unevenly distributed -- and this fact is increasingly being recognized. Individuals are asking themselves, "Is globalization good for me?" and, in a growing number of cases, arriving at the conclusion that it is not.
They point in particular to falling incomes for every category of education except for holders of PhDs and professional degrees, and the corresponding feeling of economic insecurity that they argue jeopardizes the sustainability of the new capitalist order. Accordingly, they criticize the inadequate response of public officials to this sense of insecurity — the failure of governments to explain the virtues of the new age while simultaneously initiating policies that will ease the fears of anxious publics and try to provide individuals with the tools to compete.

Meanwhile, in the FT Martin Wolf lays out how the "permanent revolution" that is capitalism is transforming industrial capitalism into something else (he calls it, perhaps channeling Rudolf Hilferding, global financial capitalism, but that strikes me as too limited a term, because the impact of the decoupling of wealth creation from the production of tangible goods is and will continue to be wide reaching, throughout societies). Wolf is definitely worth reading, because he outlines the extent of the transformation underway, the extraordinary changes that have left publics scared and governments overwhelmed. The benefits, as Wolf notes, are substantial, but if they are to be preserved and expanded governments need to act to disarm public opposition and build a new regulatory framework, in the same manner that countries developed a regulatory framework for the industrial age.

As Harvard's Dani Rodrik notes in a comment on Wolf's analysis, "The problem, at its root, is the incompatibility between global finance and fragmentation of political sovereignty at the national level. Domestic finance could be tamed in the previous century through national institutions (regulation, legislation, central banks, and so on). Global finance, to work well and safely, requires institutions similarly global in scope. The chance that these global institutions can be created is, well, nil—at least in our time."

Based on the thinking of elected officials in not only the US, but also in Japan and Europe, I must share Rodrik's skepticism. It seems that few officials quite realize the extent of the change underway. They remain stuck in the industrial age, content to jury rig old institutions rather than imagine new post-industrial institutions. As such, public opposition, in the form of protectionism, will undoubtedly continue to grow. What I am curious about is how that opposition will metastasize into more formal opposition, reminiscent of the late nineteenth century's Grangers and Populists. In fact, I am amazed that John Edwards seems to be the only candidate actively trying to tap into growing fear and resentment.

So the question is whether the heralds of "global financial capitalism" — to whom state intervention is largely anathema — will be flexible enough to embrace some form of social protection as a way to disarm and undermine more potent opposition to the post-industrial order.

Confluence of issues

It seems that in the aftermath of "The Facts" advert in the Washington Post, the House Foreign Affairs committee is prepared to move forward (Hat tip: Japan Probe) with the Honda resolution on the comfort women issue — and that there is something to the news emanating from Korean sources that Vice President Cheney in particular was unhappy with it.

At the same time, North Korea, having received its frozen funds, is reportedly ready to move forward on freezing the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and welcome IAEA inspectors — moves that Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill reportedly greeted with some enthusiasm.

And so here we are: at the same time that North Korea has signaled its readiness to move forward with the agreement, tension over the lingering Honda resolution — and Japan's clumsy reaction to it — is rising. This is the kind of confluence of events for which Pyongyang has no doubt been waiting. The time is approaching when the US will have to choose between sticking with Japan on the abductions issue and dealing with North Korea in pursuit of an elusive nuclear agreement (which will most likely be unable to achieve anything more than a nuclear freeze, and even that will not come cheap). With Japan lacking guardians within the Bush administration — and now having angered the one significant figure (Cheney) who could possibly resist Hill on Japan's behalf — the coming weeks will be essential.

It seems to me that we're seeing the product of a series of Japanese diplomatic mistakes: holding back from wielding its influence due to excessive emphasis on the abductions issue; failing to anticipate the extent to which the US is hungry for a "victory" in the six-party talks, no matter how illusory; and arrogantly thinking that Washington would be indifferent to statements intended to relativize or otherwise revise the historical record on comfort women.

As a result the Honda Resolution has gone from being on life support — on hold until after the Upper House elections or buried for good — to being rushed through the Foreign Affairs committee and put to the whole House before the end of June, just as the US looks ready to move forward, alongside China, Russia, and South Korea, in reaching an agreement with North Korea.

If Tokyo thought Chris Hill's agreement in Berlin was shocking, it ain't seen nothing yet. And this time there may fewer voices in Washington reminding the administration to be mindful of Japan's interests. Instead, we may find more people echoing the sentiments of that Washington Post editorial from March: why should we worry about your abductees when you refuse to acknowledge the victims of the Imperial Army's abductions.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Buying the hype?

Michael Auslin, a history professor at Yale and soon to be scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has a somewhat challenging survey of contemporary Japan at, AEI's online magazine.

As the article's title — "A Beautiful Country" — suggests, Auslin buys into the confident rhetoric that has emanated from Tokyo in recent years, but at the same time, he does not deny that Japan is beset with a host of problems that make Japan's future prospects far from certain. As he writes, "From a shrinking population to a static military budget, from alienated youth to a declining savings rate, the country will be forced to make major choices in the coming decades. What has changed, however, is not only that real reform seems to have taken root, but perhaps more importantly that the expectations of the Japanese themselves have moved beyond both the irrational exuberance of the 1980s and the gloom of the 1990s."

Has real reform taken root? I guess that depends on what one makes of recent developments in Japanese politics. Who is the aberration, Koizumi or Abe? Did Koizumi permanently knock the Japanese political system onto a new course, and Abe's problem-laden government is just a temporary detour to better governance? Or is it the reverse? And where does Japan's dissatisfied public — as shown by Asahi's poll on attitudes towards politics — fit in the picture? Can that aimless discontent be channeled to productive ends, or will it simply serve to punish the LDP next month before returning to the LDP's side the next time a Lower House election rolls around?

As such, I cannot necessarily share Auslin's optimism. There is potential for real, lasting change to how Japan is governed — but it will not happen automatically. The Japanese people will have to forge a coherent program out of inchoate discontent, which of course leads one to wonder whether Japanese citizens are prepared to exercise their rights.

And as for Japan's changing security policy, there has been real change in the past decade, but it is an open question as to the extent of that change. How far along has Japan come, forces in the Indian Ocean and Iraq notwithstanding? What role are the Japanese people willing to countenance? Without the abductions issue — used to great effect by Abe and others to present the North Korean challenge in terms individuals can understand and provide a "softer" basis for a firmer Japanese defense posture — would the public be quite so eager to support "normalization"? And what to make of the abiding unease about being dragged into American wars abroad?

The more closely one looks at what Japanese are saying and thinking, the more questions arise, and far from being vibrant and confident, Japanese society seems rife with insecurity — about the future, about Japan's place in Asia and the world, and about the ability of the durability of the Japanese system in the age of globalization.

Brave new alliance?

Korea's Chosun Ilbo reports that the US government — both Congress and the White House — are not pleased by the ad published in the Washington Post signed by Japanese legislators that lays out "the facts" of the comfort women issue (previously discussed here). While the Chosun Ilbo relies on an unnamed source in Washington for this story, which means that it could be a leak designed to embarrass both the US and the Japanese governments, if there is truth to this story, it is a significant example of where the US-Japan alliance stands in the final years of the Bush administration.

Namely, the Japan handlers are gone. There is no one left in the administration to coddle Japan, to protect it from critics; if Japanese legislators want to argue with Congress in the pages of America's newspapers, they will not be shielded from their detractors by the White House. If anything, it seems that with the departure of members of the chinichi-ha (the "know Japan faction") the Bush administration simply has lost patience with the foot-dragging, excuse-making Japanese government, particularly concerning provocative statements by prominent Japanese figures (both public and private) on history issues, which complicate Washington's efforts to maintain stability in the region.

As Robert Dujarric argues in an op-ed in today's Asahi, the end of dependence on Washington Japan handlers can only be a good thing. For Japan, becoming a "normal" country ought to mean not being shielded from the consequences of its words and deeds — but it should also mean that public disagreements are normal, part of the ebb and flow of alliance relations and not a sign that the end of the alliance is nigh. (And it should also mean a Japan less wedded to the Republican Party.)

If the White House is actually unhappy with the ad in the Washington Post, this might be a good test for the new, post-chinichi ha alliance, the beginning of a period of benign neglect in which Japan is treated like — and acts like — other major US allies. As Dujarric writes, "Japan should recognize its own importance for the US, and not worry over every change in personnel. Can anyone imagine the British Foreign Office worrying about a change of deputy secretary of state or National Security Council staffer?"

In other words, not a divorce, just a new sense of maturity in the alliance. Every dispute need not be a crisis, every disagreement need not cause alarm over a growing rift in the Pacific. The US seems ready (or readier) for this kind of relationship; for all the talk about independence, is Japan ready?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Death of the 1955 system? Greatly exaggerated.

With Prime Minister Abe turning his attention and blame to the hapless bureaucrats in the Social Insurance Agency — those bureaucrats who have served as the fly in his constitution revision ointment — the Japan Times published a piece by Philip Brasor discussing the actual conditions within the agency, and the bureaucrats who lorded over citizens, namely the citizens who lacked the protection of company pensions.

Brasor's point: "What the pension crisis teaches us is that the main task of bureaucrats is not service but self-preservation, which makes them actually quite human, and also a bit pathetic."

Bureaucratic self-preservation is common to just about every bureaucracy in the world, but few bureaucracies enjoy the prestige and high status of Japanese bureaucrats. This is undoubtedly factor in the stunted development of Japanese liberalism. Both by undermining civil society and by co-opting politicians by helping them use the policy making system on behalf of private interests, bureaucrats have preserved their kingdom — and lorded over Japan's citizens. The bureaucrats are not entirely to blame for this situation, of course. They have just done what generations of Japanese bureaucrats have done. The blame, instead, falls on the shoulders of Japanese politicians, many of whom are former bureaucrats, who have utterly failed to use the power of the legislature to provide oversight for the bureaucracy and demand accountability. And some blame too should be laid at the feet of the Japanese people, who have accepted, willingly or not, the system whereby elected officials and bureaucrats have cooperated to serve anything but the public interest.

Similar to my argument here, through an utter lack of accountability from inside or outside government, Nagatacho and Kasumigaseki have colluded to misgovern Japan. Change of government in 1993 by no means ended this system. And now the consequences of this collusion is being felt directly, even painfully, by Japanese citizens.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Japanese art of campaigning

Yesterday I finally made it to see Soda Kazuhiro's acclaimed documentary Senkyo [rendered in English as Campaign], in which he followed a university friend, Yamauchi Kazuhiko, as he campaigned as the LDP candidate for a city council seat in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture. (The film's official site can be viewed here.)

Filmed with one camera and lacking cuts, fades, and other editing gimmicks, the film has a raw quality — and at no time did it seem like the persons filmed broke the "fourth wall."

And I can attest to the reality of it. Senkyo is a fairly close approximation of my own campaign experience: a city council by-election in a smallish city in Kanagawa Prefecture. The difference is, of course, that I was on the DPJ side and this film shows an LDP campaign.

However, what one can see in this film is the extent to which the Japanese art of campaigning is ritualized. A number of details in Yamauchi's campaign were familiar to me, some less obvious than others. The sashes with candidates' names; the sound trucks; the white gloves on candidates; the grimy, tiny, dimly lit offices covered with endorsement posters from senior party officials and posters of the candidate; the brightly colored windbreakers worn by campaign staffers; the banners lugged from place to place; the endless amounts of bira (fliers); the utterly meaningless slogans; the very active involvement of sitting officials in getting their party's man elected; the intervention of national politicians in a tiny, largely insignificant campaign — and the otherworldly quality of Japanese campaigning, a kind of ball of noise and frenetic activity that descends upon some place and vanishes a short while later, restoring calm.

What one also sees in this film is the gossip and the pettiness and the heavy-handedness of the LDP machine — and Yamauchi's utter unsuitability for campaigning — but that is not what I want to discuss here.

Rather, Soda's film rises an important question: what is the value of elections if they do not act a transmission belt for the priorities and concerns of voters? There is, of course, a ritual and repetition to campaigning in any democracy — although Japan probably has more than most, and there is less use of media, admirably so, than in other mature democracies. But ideas and policies are almost incidental in this film, and so in all Japanese election campaigns. Yamauchi's policy commitment is basically "I support Prime Minister Koizumi [this was in October 2005] and reform," which cannot make all that much difference in how Kawasaki is governed. While recent election law changes (finally!) permit candidates to produce detailed election manifestos, Japanese electioneering is still rooted in the mindless repetition of the candidate's name, the party affiliation, and a short slogan. In fact, what is striking about this film is that for a film called Senkyo, there is remarkably little interaction with voters, who are for the most part indifferent (or altogether absent). The only expression of interest in politics from citizens can be seen when Koizumi came to Kawasaki to campaign for LDP candidates, prompting crowds to greet him like a rock star. But is that democratic participation, or is it demagoguery, as some Koizumi skeptics and critics claimed?

I fear that for many Japanese citizens, politics is something for other people, not them. It does not concern them. Governments come, governments go, and life goes on. And meanwhile, actual decisions that affect citizens' lives are made far away from the eyes of the public, making government seem that much more like a natural phenomenon — like the weather — that comes and goes, sometimes for ill, sometimes for the better. So elections serve neither as a vehicle for holding officials accountable nor as a transmission belt for public concerns. Neither politicians nor voters seem to take their responsibilities seriously, meaning that election campaigns, for all the ritual, are remarkably hollow, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The nationalism question, revisited yet again

Although the comfort women resolution appears to be on hold until after Japan holds Upper House elections next month, the waters have been roiled by a full-page advert in the Washington Post taken out by a bipartisan group of Japanese legislators, as well as journalists and commentators (including Abe confidante Okazaki Hisahiko) laying out "The Facts" on the comfort women issue. (The ad is available here, courtesy of Occidentalism.)

At the same time, a group of legislators led by former LDP member (and postal rebel) Hiranuma Takeo, who also signed the Wapo ad, has protested to China that it should remove photos from war museums that distort the past and defame Japan.

Ampontan has addressed both these acts of "assertiveness," arguing that the comfort women issue reflects worse on Japan's neighbors and the US Congress than on Japan, and that Japan is rightfully standing up to China in demanding changes to China's war museums.

I have written about my unease about the US Congress demanding an apology on this issue from Japan before, but that should not be taken as an endorsement of the position that Japan has apologized enough and we should all start paying attention to China's wrongs, instead of Japan's. As I have written before, Japanese governments may have apologized before, but the contemporary Japanese right — the political and in some cases familial descendants of the figures who led Japan to war — has never apologized for the war. Through various indiscreet comments made by Japanese conservatives, including the current prime minister in his younger days, it is clear that to them the worst thing about the war was that Japan lost. How that is consistent with former Prime Minister Murayama's apology is beyond me. The leaders who apologized before were those who thought that Japan was right to lose the war and were proud of Japan's unique pacifist identity (or were otherwise insincerely repeating what their predecessors had said).

It does not take much effort to see why Chinese, Koreans, and certain sections of the public in Australia and the US might have a problem with a Japanese prime minister who has never properly expressed remorse for Japan's colossal historical crimes and yet at the same time talks about abandoning Article 9 and the postwar regime built around it — abandoning the constitutional provision that has served as a mark of Cain, showing the world (and reminding Japan) of its bloody past.

The question is not a matter of resurgent militarism; as Benedict Anderson, author of Imagined Communities, said in an interview in the July issue of Ronza (my translation), "During the first phase of globalization, in the first half of the twentieth century, Japan's response to globalization was to commence invasions, starting with Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, and Manchuria, and finally annexing the various countries of Asia. However, this kind of thing will likely not happen again. In theory, one can imagine war between Japan and China. However, now the act of a victorious country's seizing a defeated country is nonsense. Until the Second World War, the two countries had mutual, violent animosity that could be expressed in war, but now that does not apply."

Rather, it is a question of historical justice. Regardless of the questionable legitimacy of the Tokyo trials, regardless of what Japan suffered, regardless of what the other imperial powers did or did not do, Japan committed egregious acts of violence against its neighbors. It is not up to Japan to dictate when the wounds it inflicted upon its neighbors and their citizens have healed. And denying or relativizing Japan's actions only rubs salt into the open wounds of its victims.

Yes, China has historical issues of its own with which to grapple. Mao's crimes were monstrous, and that his visage can still be found all over China is deeply unsettling. But guess what? Mao's crimes were against the Chinese people. The Chinese people will one day have a serious reckoning with their country's history during the twentieth century, but that is a matter for the Chinese. And so with the Koreans. Between Japan, Korea, and China, it seems to me that only one has launched a massive war of aggression against the whole region in the past century — and has the responsibility to show sincere remorse for its crimes and to not make excuses for what happened.

The question of Japan's making a proper account and atoning for its wartime behavior has nothing to do with placating the Chinese and Korean governments, who for reasons of their own will not be placated by Japanese apologies. Nationalism and the attendant historical sensitivities will be a part of the landscape of Northeast Asia for decades to come, because vigorous, rising powers shape their histories to flatter their contemporary aspirations. No bilateral or trilateral panel of historians is going to overcome the urge to present history in a light that flatters oneself and makes one's rivals look bad.

No, Japan's historical reckoning is for its own sake, to clean out its wartime closet once and for all.

So what Ampontan sees as Japan's standing up for itself, I see a country for which pride and the redemption of honor take priority over historical justice — and I see a country that is, as of yet, unfit for the global leadership after which it lusts.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

At the frontier of political thought in China

This week it seems Wan Gang, a non-CCP party member (he belongs to the nominally independent China Party for the Public Interest), became the first non-communist cabinet minister in decades. The People's Daily noted that Wan views his appointment as an important step in the development of democracy in China.

Wan is undoubtedly being overoptimistic in his assessment of his appointment, but via the China Digital Times comes an article by Daniel Bell in Dissent on the active debate about how China will change politically.

Bell's essay, which is rich with references, is a must-read to understand how officials and intellectuals are thinking about the future of the Chinese political system. He insists that change is only a matter of time, and that the Confucian revival — discussed here — could well provide the basis for a kind of deliberative council composed of meritocratic elites. Bell deserves credit for thinking seriously about China's political future in a way that recognizes that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good: just because it is extremely unlikely that China will become a liberal democracy in the near future does not mean that political change that falls short of democracy should be dismissed out of hand.

This just goes to show the extent to which China's identity, like Japan's, is up in the air. The manner in which these two giants answer the open questions about who they are, how they should relate to their pasts, and how to ensure the best quality of life for their citizens in a time of rapid change will profoundly impact the international environment in Northeast Asia — and so rushing to condemn China's military modernization, as Gary Schmitt does in the Washington Post, is wholly premature. (Check out Robert Economist's reply to Schmitt here.)

Looking at the big picture

The LDP-Komeito coalition, after weeks of wrangling with the DPJ, passed its version of a law revising the Political Funds Control Law over DPJ opposition.

The law stipulates that politicians' fund management organizations are to copy and provide receipts for expenditures above ¥50,000. Will it make any difference in stopping political corruption? In a word, no. As the Asahi editorial on the bill's imminent passage noted, the bill provides for transparency "in name only," with the giant loophole being that expenditures can be broken up into pieces smaller than ¥50,000 to escape detection (hence the DPJ draft calling for a ¥10,000 floor).

Meanwhile, the government's management of the legislative agenda has prompted public criticism from former Finance Minister Tanigaki Sadakazu, who criticized Abe for stubbornly insisting on passage of the "amakudari" law (another law that will most likely do little more than serve as window dressing for the cabinet in advance of the Upper House elections). Tanigaki's comments were met with rebuttals from Ministers Aso and Ibuki, as well as Machimura Nobutaka, head of the faction to which Abe belongs.

Far more interesting than the increasingly public political wrangling among senior LDP officials is another story that illustrates the vast divide between the world views of Asahi and Yomiuri.

Asahi gave front page coverage to a ruling by Japan's Supreme Court on a lawsuit that challenged the results of the 2005 Lower House election on the basis that the 2.17:1 disparity in the value of the votes of citizens in the least (Tokushima 1) and most populous (Tokyo 6) districts was unconstitutional. A favorable ruling would have invalidated the election results, and it seems unlikely that the court would have done so — but even so, the suit was dismissed by a 9 to 6 verdict.

But while the short-term impact of this issue is nil, this is yet another battle in the ongoing urban-rural war in Japan, as rural Japan — the LDP's depopulating base — continues to hold a disproportionate number of Diet seats and therefore a disproportionate share of political power, in the interest of ensuring that the views of depopulated regions are considered. The Asahi editorial on this subject is worth reading, as it shows that this issue will only grow in importance, as the disparity continues to widen (see this post on population change). As the population changes, Japan will have to consider how to ensure a better balance between urban and rural constituencies, and as the relevance of rural Japan diminishes, how to ensure that rural constituencies are not entirely forgotten. This also, of course, has implications for the growth of a two-party system; redistribution from depopulating rural prefectures almost necessarily means a loss of seats for the LDP, especially once the LDP's abnormal urban vote total in the 2005 Lower House election returns to earth.

Sooner or later advocates of further redistricting will succeed in having seats shifted from rural to urban Japan — although the LDP will work to push that day back as long as possible. But the urban-rural divide, and the impact a decisive shift to urban Japan will have on policy, will likely be one of the most important developments in political Japan in the medium to long term, certainly more significant than the legislation being rammed through the Diet by the Abe Cabinet in the final weeks of the regular session of the Diet.

And yet Yomiuri felt that its readers had no need to know about this court decision.

Atlas shrugs in Japan?

This afternoon one of the local DPJ politicians supported by my boss was in the office, resting, and he asked whether I have read "Einrando." After some initial confusion, I finally figured out that he was asking about Ayn Rand — because he's in the process of reading Atlas Shrugged in Japanese (there are few books for which "in the process" is as apt as Atlas Shrugged).

We then proceeded to discuss the various "philosophers of liberty" — Hayek, Hume, Locke, Smith, Popper, Oakeshott — and he insisted upon the need for more liberty and smaller government in Japan.

I was taken aback, not necessarily because of his admiration, but because I had been discussing the applicability of Atlas Shrugged to Japan with Colonel Sturgeon just the other day. My point wasn't so much about Japan's needing smaller government and less exploitation of the government for private ends — it does — but the applicability of the novel's mood.

In the novel, the various sectors of society and economy fail, like a body wracked with disease that systematically attacks different organs. There is a pervasive gloom, with the action of the plot punctuated by news reports about one industrial sector after another failing. As I have watched reports of massive corruption in corporations in every sector of the Japanese economy — the latest example being NOVA, the leading English conversation school — and throughout the government, I cannot help but recall the atmosphere in Ayn Rand's dystopian America. While Japan might not be experiencing serial organ failure, it is suffering from a pervasive infection that has weakened every sector of the body politic.

Now, no one should construe this post as an unqualified endorsement of Ayn Rand. I consider my youthful infatuation with her thinking as one of those things that people should grow out of, like wearing velcro sneakers. As Stephen Fry said in an episode of A Bit of Fry and Laurie, "I don't believe in market forces. I used to, of course, when I was a child, but like everybody else, when I grew older, I discovered it was all made up." Now I would not go quite so far as that, but I did grow out of Rand: the world is far too complicated to be divided neatly into craven collectivists and heroic individualists.

But the discussion of the applicability of liberal (in the old sense, or the current sense for Europeans) thought to Japan is interesting. As I have written before, I have a hard time with importing Western political concepts into the Japanese context. Modern Japan has never known liberalism — it has had liberals, but never liberalism. Its institutions and political culture is steeped in constant interaction between state, economy, and society. Some would say that it is so as a function of Japanese culture, and is thus impervious to change. To me, that is neither here nor there. As far as I am concerned, it is a function of political culture, which while being slightly more susceptible to change is still a function of unique conditions in a given polity. As an Oakeshottian, I am content to let political culture be. Political culture grows over time, and is resistant to attempts by outsiders to change it. (Imagine what the New Dealers who came over to Japan with SCAP would think about what they wrought.) Would more liberalism in a political sense, with greater respect for the individual and a more dynamic civil society be enormously welcome in Japan? Absolutely. Would more economic liberalism, with more risk-taking, more dynamic enterprises, and less collusion among bureaucrats, politicians, and corporations be welcome? I must answer again in the affirmative.

But these will result only from long-term structural change; Japan will not change overnight. And as it changes, it will necessarily reflect Japanese conditions: for example, a more active civil society, but one that cooperates with the government and more risk-taking, but a strong safety net to protect people from getting too hurt. And with more than a quarter of Japan's population set to be over sixty-five in a few decades' time, there is a floor below which the Japanese welfare state will not recede. An aged society is necessarily a society in which the state will have an active role.

Nevertheless, the question of whether and how Japan will become more liberal is a fascinating one, that will only grow more interesting with time.