Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Is constitution revision actually possible?

Last week, the Sankei Shimbun reported that, in the face of mounting public opposition, the LDP would in fact not put revising Article 96 of the constitution at the heart of its upper house campaign strategy. (Naturally, the next day Sankei published an editorial arguing that the LDP should make revising Article 96 central to the campaign as a matter of course.)

But is the LDP — and, more importantly, is Prime Minister Abe — actually backing away from their determination to use the upper house election to gain a mandate for revising Article 96? More importantly, does it matter?

At the very least, we're probably seeing the emergence of what will likely be a persistent pattern should Abe remain in power. Abe and his lieutenants will talk about the need to revise the constitution, Komeito will express its unease about revision, what's left of the left wing will sound the alarm, public opinion polls will reveal skepticism about revision, LDP grandees will suggest backing down...and rinse and repeat.

Barring a dramatic external shock, it is difficult to see how the politics of constitution revision will change in favor of revision. The bid to put revising Article 96 before more substantive revisions has done nothing to defuse opposition to revision. It seems unlikely that Komeito will become more enthusiastic about revision. Depending on the now-toxic Japan Ishin no kai to pass amendments is a non-starter, not least because it is unlikely they will win anywhere close to enough seats to help the LDP. Defending the constitution may be one of the few areas in which the Japanese left is still be able to mobilize citizens. It will presumably take some event that reveals the constitution to be woefully inadequate for coping with the challenges Japan faces — one of the arguments used by revisionists — for these political obstacles to vanish.

As long as Abe doesn't pay any political costs for stumping for revision, there's no reason to think he'll back down entirely, even if from time to time constitution revision takes a back seat to other issues. But  no matter how much Abe talks about revision, for the foreseeable future I have a hard time seeing how it will ever get traction. There are just too many people either skeptical about or completely opposed to changing the postwar constitution. More importantly, Japan's conservatives are much better at preaching to (haranguing to?) the converted than winning new converts.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The power of positive thinking?

Prime Minister Abe Shinzō Abe spoke with Jonathan Tepperman, managing editor of Foreign Affairs this month in an interview published under the heading "Japan Is Back."

The interview is fairly comprehensive, discussing Abenomics and Japan's economic problems, history issues, territorial disputes, the constitution, and security policy. Tepperman was not shy about confronting Abe, especially when it comes to Japan's imperial past.

The interview provides another glimpse at how foreign policy narratives coalesce. Reflecting on his first term as prime minister and discussing what he is doing differently this time, Abe said, "I have...started to use social media networks like Facebook. Oftentimes, the legacy media only partially quote what politicians say. This has prevented the public from understanding my true intentions. So I am now sending messages through Facebook and other networks directly to the public."

In other words, Abe is sensitive to the need to control the narrative at home and abroad. The narrative that Abe is trying to establish is that no problem is so daunting that Japan cannot overcome it. While he does not  say that "Japan is back" in this interview, that was the title of the speech he gave at CSIS in Washington, DC in February. As in that speech, the challenge for Abe is to acknowledge that his country faces serious difficulties — how else could he justify his program? — but then to show that Japan is more than capable of overcoming them. As Abe says, "I know that the current situation is difficult, and the world economy will have ups and downs. But that is the mandate I was given, and we are elbowing our way through."

Of course, in propagating this narrative, Abe has help from the "legacy media" around the world. For example, the cover of The Economist this week features a soaring Abe — garbed in Superman's tights — flanked by fighter jets.

Abe is determined to project an air of inevitability about his policies. Of course, in monetary policy, projecting an air of certainty may signal the credibility of the Bank of Japan's commitment to a higher rate of inflation, so perhaps there's something to Abe's positive thinking. As The Economist writes in its briefing, "Promoters of Abenomics say that changing perceptions will create a virtuous circle. Bigger company profits will engender wage rises, which will boost consumption, which will lead to renewed business investment, which will lead to profits."

But one must be sensitive to the fact that this is all an exercise in narrative formation. Though Abe has promised to "elbow through," he has not in fact done so yet. As Michael Cucek shows, there are competing narratives even for the first quarter GDP figures that are being hailed as early indicators of the government's success. There are still blanks the government must fill in when it comes to its growth strategy. The demographic challenge continues to loom, and will not be elbowed through so easily, unless Abe is sitting on a plan for mass immigration. The point is not that there aren't encouraging signs or that Abe isn't in a favorable position to make progress, but rather that the "Japan is back" narrative requires minimizing or ignoring the challenges.

There is a bigger question of what exactly it means that Japan is "back." Will it be more assertive diplomatically or militarily? Will it spend more on its military? Will it remove the remaining restraints on its use of force at home and abroad? Abe gave some hints in his CSIS speech — "A rules-promoter, a commons' guardian, and an effective ally and partner to the U.S. and other democracies, MUST Japan be" — but it is still unclear what Abe's restored Japan would do differently, especially given that the Obama administration, "pivot" notwithstanding, has been exceedingly cautious in Asia. In other words, no matter how successful Abe's economic program, Japan will still be hemmed in by an ally that seems primarily interested in regional stability, by neighbors that distrust an assertive Japan, and not least by the Japanese public, which is not entirely keen on lifting all restraints on Japanese security policy.

These concerns, taken together with lingering questions about Japan's economy and whether Abenomics can produce sustainable growth, suggest caution is still in order.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Cognitive biases and the rise of China

Harvard's Alastair Iain Johnston has a must-read article in the Spring issue of International Security in which he dissects the spread of a meme of China's "new assertiveness" spread among policy analysts, the media, and scholars in the US in 2010. (Available for free as a pdf, at least for the time being.)

As Paul Pillar notes, Johnston not only raises questions about whether China's foreign policy has become more assertive since the 2008-2009 financial crisis, citing numerous examples of continuity, but he provides an important examination of how foreign-policy narratives form in the twenty-first century. By using memetics — the process by which an idea or belief spreads from mind to mind — Johnston provides a new way of thinking about how conventional wisdom forms. As Johnston notes, the media has played an agenda-setting role before, but with the emergence of the blog and the rise of Twitter as a medium for the exchange of serious ideas, foreign-policy discourse, especially in the US, seems qualitatively and quantitatively different, not just moving faster but also occurring in much greater volume than ever before.

After all, not too long ago to receive the latest conventional wisdom on foreign policy you had to wait for the latest issue of, say, Foreign Affairs to arrive in the mail, with a steady diet of newspaper op-eds and weekly magazine articles to tide you over. Now in the time between issues of Foreign Affairs you can read daily the fifteen blogs at the website of the Council on Foreign Relations (which publishes Foreign Affairs), not to mention the fifteen blogs at Foreign Policy's website and numerous other blogs hosted by think-tanks and publications, and the Twitter feeds of the contributors to these blogs and magazines. This all amounts to what Johnston calls a "discursive tidal wave."

Johnston talks about first-mover advantages and herding when it comes to the formation of prevailing narratives in foreign-policy discourse, but there is another, related problem Johnston doesn't explicitly mention but more or less illustrates in his essay. Namely, with so much data streaming past our eyes, the dangers from the cognitive biases are surely heightened. As Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking, Fast and Slow, the human mind is "a machine for jumping to conclusions." Presumably the more information analysts must sift through, the more they're likely to fall victim to confirmation biases, the halo effect, the availability heuristic, and other mental shortcuts that can lead to erroneous conclusions. Human beings did not need to invent the Internet to struggle with these biases — and one can easily argue that policymakers have always fallen prey to them — but the Internet is uniquely suited to encourage Kahneman's "fast thinking" (intuitive thinking in the face of uncertainty).

Johnston's article, then, is a note of caution to be sensitive to how foreign-policy narratives form today, a warning to analysts to not take shortcuts but instead to use careful scientific reasoning before reaching conclusions and, in the case of China, to be sensitive to history, to avoid making inferences from a small sample size, and to be clear about what they think is driving China's behavior. There probably isn't much that can be done about the state of foreign-policy discourse today, but one can hope that the high-speed, high-volume discourse is at least more amenable to self-correction than the older discourse.

(For other comments on this essay see Daniel Drezner and Graham Webster. Drezner's comment that Johnston falls victim to ahistoricism himself is probably right — I would have liked to see a bit more discussion of how conventional wisdom formed in US foreign policy in the past, beyond a handful of references to media studies articles on the media's role as agenda setter.)

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Don't declare victory for Abenomics yet

With the yen's falling to below ¥100/$1 for the first time since 2009 and the Nikkei’s posting five-year highs, analysts have begun declaring victory for the Abe administration’s campaign against deflation and slow growth. Paul Krugman, the intellectual godfather of Abenomics, has not quite begun his victory dance yet, but he is optimistic that under President Kuroda Haruhiko the Bank of Japan has credibly signaled that it will continue monetary expansion until it reaches its 2% inflation target.

But it is far too early to draw conclusions about the success of Abenomics — given that deflation continues — and there remain a number of unanswered questions surrounding the Abe government’s economic program.

Ultimately, the success of an economic program must be measured not just in terms of corporate balance sheets, but also in the economic wellbeing of average citizens. If wages remain stagnant or if Japan experiences a jobless recovery, can Abenomics be declared a success? What will Abenomics mean for the Japanese worker? As a New York Times article by Hiroko Tabuchi and Graham Bowley suggests, it remains to be seen whether monetary stimulus will translate into wage hikes or higher employment — though the government is trying to encourage corporations to hire more workers and raise wages. It may also depend on whether the government is able to reverse the rise of Japan’s non-regular workforce, the short-term contract workers who enjoy few benefits, little to no job security, and virtually no opportunities for advancement. Non-regular workers comprise between a third and a half of the labor force, and as the government acknowledges, the non-regular sector constitutes a tremendous waste of human capital.

However, without a plan to overhaul the Japanese labor market, the danger exists that exhortations to raise wages will result in corporations’ raising wages for regular workers but maintaining or cutting low wages for non-regular workers, thereby deepening the inequality that exists between regular and non-regular workers. The Abe government and the LDP are not blind to this problem — last month, for example, LDP Vice President Komura Masahiko said (jp) that more had to be done to improve the status of non-regular workers and provide equal pay for equal work — but thus far it is not clear how the government plans to resolve it. (For more discussion of the problems in Japan's labor market, see here.)

The same goes for gender balance in the labor force. Noah Smith (a onetime guest blogger here) has identified how underutilized women are in the Japanese labor force, and expressed his hopes that the Abe government will act to increase female participation in the workforce. Abe has, to his credit, said the right things about gender equality.In his 19 April speech at the Japanese National Press Club (jp), Abe spoke of gender equality as not a social policy issue, but as a central piece of his growth strategy. The reality is, however, that we just don’t know what he will be able to do to change the role of women in the economy. Pretty much the only specific proposal Abe mentioned in his speech was the proposal to increase the number of women in corporate management positions, but that proposal affects a fairly small number of women. Abe is not the first politician to pledge to do something about gender inequality — for the past decade Japan has had a cabinet-level minister of state for gender equality — but we still don’t know what Abe will do to succeed where previous governments have failed.

Reforming the labor market is part of the so-called “third arrow” of the Abe program, the Abe government’s growth strategy. Once again, Abe’s rhetoric is at least encouraging — talk about public-private partnerships to move Japan from inefficient to high-value-added sectors — but until the government’s detailed plans are released in June, it is difficult to say anything conclusive about whether the Abe government will succeed at transforming Japan’s economy. It is worth noting that the Abe government is not the Koizumi government redux: whereas Koizumi talked of moving from the public sector to the private sector, in his speech last month Abe stressed the role of government in promoting growth in new sectors, industrial policy for the new century, with all the risks that come with efforts by government to pick winners. 

Abenomics (and the latest round of quantitative easing in the US) has raised fears of currency wars breaking out between Japan and its competitors. The effects of the BOJ’s stimulus program are already being felt outside of Japan. South Korea’s central bank has already moved to cut rates in light of the ongoing decline of the yen against the won, as did Australia’s central bank earlier this week. European exporters — especially Germany’s — are feeling the pain from the yen’s decline against the euro. Of course, no government will admit that a currency war is afoot, but if other governments engage in competitive devaluation with Japan the benefits to Japanese exporters from a weaker yen will be muted (if they aren’t already muted). Though the G7 finance ministers' meeting in the UK this weekend did not necessarily single out Japan for criticism, the fact that the meeting was held does suggest that Japan's policies are under close scrutiny abroad. 

There are also lingering questions about Japan’s fiscal situation. With the BOJ stepping in to buy government bonds, the Japanese government will continue to be able to borrow without having to worry about rising interest rates. But the risks of Japan’s ever-growing debt remain — and if the BOJ has in fact succeeded at convincing market actors that it is committed to raise inflation, there is the risk that it will be unable to control inflation once it has met its target, hastening the day when interest payments will rise and break the government’s budget. The government is in a race against time. It needs to trigger sustainable long-term growth that can raise tax revenue before interest rates rise. The Abe government has indicated if economic conditions are still sluggish, it will delay the consumption tax increase passed under the Noda government, thereby postponing a useful means of closing the government’s annual deficit of 10% of GDP.

Finally, the question of Japan’s demographics looms over the debate about Abenomics. Edward Hugh offers a sobering account of how demographics may forestall the Abe government’s program. Hugh basically asks whether Japan has experienced a prolonged balance-sheet recession and is in a liquidity trap, as argued by Krugman, Richard Koo, and others, or whether Japan’s persistent demand shortfall is the result of a “shrinking population trap.” Hugh is skeptical that either fiscal or monetary policy will fix Japan’s economy and that the government’s monetary policy experiment risks triggering capital flight as elderly Japanese investors seek higher returns elsewhere. Hugh’s post is lengthy and I cannot do it justice with a short summary, but it should be taken into account when deciding whether Abenomics has succeeded.

The point is that it is impossible to know whether Abenomics has succeeded until we actually see the whole program put into action. Generating inflation is, as the Abe government says, just one arrow in a comprehensive plan to rejuvenate Japan’s economy. Stock market gains and a weaker yen may be helpful indicators but they should not be mistaken for signs for change in the real economy. Similarly, promising rhetoric about reform is encouraging, but after decades during which many Japanese politicians have talked a lot about reform but failed to follow through, it seems that a “wait-and-see” attitude is still appropriate. 

Abe probably has about as favorable a political environment as a Japanese prime minister could ask for — dysfunctional opposition parties, few challengers within the LDP, and high public approval ratings — suggesting that he may well be able to follow through on his ambitious agenda. That being said, if Abe cannot reverse Japan's economic woes even with all of these factors working in his favor, I have to wonder if anyone can.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Abe's neo-statism

This week Prime Minister Abe Shinzō criticized right-wing demonstrations in Koreatowns in Tokyo and Osaka, stating, “The Japanese way of thinking is to behave politely and to be generous and modest at any time.” While it is, of course, good that Abe made a point of criticizing hate speech, it's important to recognize that Abe is pursuing a different program than some of the cruder conservative revisionists in his own party, the conservative media, or the right-wing demonstrators who terrorize the ears of Tokyoites with their sound trucks. The problem with the word "nationalist" is that it obscures more than it reveals.

In an astute article about Abe's program, the FT's David Pilling notes Abe's agenda can rightly be summarized using the Meiji slogan, Fukoku-kyohei (rich nation, strong army). What I wonder, though, is whether it is best to think of Abe as a nationalist or whether it is more appropriate to think of him as a statist, not unlike his Meiji forebears. The distinction is important. The right-wing demonstrators criticized by Abe are little more than chauvinistic ethnic nationalists, intent on showing the superiority of the Japanese people. Abe is interested in the survival of the Japanese nation in international competition, with the state as a kind of avatar of the Japanese people. His way of thinking is steeped in Hobbesian and social Darwinist conceptions of the state, in which the state and people exist in a sort of organic solidarity and in which the state is focused largely on protecting lives and property from enemies foreign and domestic. To compete with other nation-states, the state must be capable of organizing and drawing upon the country's resources and the people's energy in order to compete.

Accordingly, when Abe talks of breaking free of the postwar regime or creating a normal nation, it is with this idea in mind. Nationalism is a means to the end of strengthening the state. Encouraging national pride is useful to the extent that it makes Japanese citizens more amenable to constitution revision, more supportive of an assertive Japanese military, and more eager to stand up to provocation by China or North Korea, just as revitalizing Japan's economy is useful to the extent that it improves the state's fiscal position, swells its coffers, and bolsters national confidence.

The question is whether Abe's neo-statism poses risks to peace and security in East Asia. On the one hand, China arguably views the world along similarly social Darwinist lines, and one can therefore make the case that national survival for Japan depends on embracing a similar way of thinking, making Japan less vulnerable to bullying by China. However, the danger of Japan's embracing a social Darwinist conception of international competition is that it would make every problem between Japan and its neighbors harder to resolve, because every issue would become a question of status in the international hierarchy. When combined with fewer restraints on the use of force by Japan, the risk of outright war would surely increase.

There are still a number of hurdles Abe must overcome before he can remake Japan according to his neo-statist vision — and he must still convince the Japanese people of its wisdom, especially as far as constitution revision goes. But it is important to understand just what kind of nationalist Abe is, and to be aware that whatever short-term tactical concessions he makes, he has a long-term vision of where he wants to take his country.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Resisting the urge to "just do something" in US foreign policy

Edward Luttwak has a brief piece at Foreign Policy in which he praises the restraint with which the Obama administration has approached the ongoing conflict in Syria. Luttwak argues that the importance of managing China's rise means that the US should get out of the business of determining the nature of political regimes in the Middle East:
The United States has other new responsibilities: To respond effectively to a rising China, it is essential to disengage from the futile pursuit of stability in North Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. Their endless crises capture far too much policy attention and generate pressures for extremely costly military interventions that increase rather than reduce terrorist violence.
In other words, Luttwak is calling for the US to focus on a strategic goal that it has proved capable of pursuing in the past: preventing the emergence of a hegemon on the Eurasian landmass, using a mix of alliances, bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, deterrence, and, if necessary, war. As Luttwak notes, pursuing this goal in the face of a rising China is trickier in the past, not least because of economic interdependence and the degree to which China — at least until relatively recently — has avoided the naked aggression of rising powers of the past, and therefore requires nuance, subtlety, and Washington's full attention.

Of course, even without the need to get Asia's future right, there's a good argument for the US government's being less involved in the makeup of Middle Eastern governments: even before Iraq, the US did not exactly have the best record when it came to picking and supporting Middle Eastern regimes.

The problem, however, is neither restraint nor strategic prioritization seem to have much purchase in American elite discourse. As Salon's Alex Pareene noted in the midst of North Korea's saber rattling last month:
Making matters worse is that our political press frequently moonlights as our foreign affairs press. And that press thrives on partisan conflict and has an innate bias in favor of “action.” (Every Sunday show features a foreign policy panel in which multiple participants inevitably agree that America needs to “do something” about the situation in some other country. “Do something” is always considered sound, serious advice.)
Because the default position whenever anything happens anywhere for many American foreign policy and media elites is "do something," it becomes exceedingly difficult for an administration to exercise restraint without appearing weak. So the real question is whether the US can break some of the bad habits of the unipolar '90s, when many elites convinced themselves that the US could be everywhere and solve every problem. By refraining from armed intervention in Syria (thus far), the Obama administration has at least taken a step in the right direction.

The pivot to Asia cannot just mean shifting resources and personnel. It can only work if it is accompanied by self-restraint and discipline, which means resisting the urge to solve any problem that arises somewhere in the world, no matter how thorny.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Following the leader

Michael Cucek catches a comment from LDP Secretary-General Ishiba Shigeru at a public appearance in Kagawa. 

Ishiba said, "The Liberal Democratic Party is a party for doing what?...First and foremost, it a party for the revision of the Constitution." 

Cucek raises some useful questions about what this statement means, but I wonder whether Ishiba wasn't just being extremely literal.

After all, revising the constitution is right there in the party's founding documents. In the party platform of 15 November 1955, the sixth and last (but arguably not least) proposal says that the party will "plan for independent revision of the current constitution and reexamine Occupation-era laws, changing them to conform with national conditions." The same plank says "in order to protect world peace, state independence, and popular freedom," the LDP will create a self-defense force and prepare for the removal of foreign troops stationed on Japanese soil (i.e., the US military). 

But to try to answer Cucek's questions, I don't know if the Westminsterization is really all that stealthy. If a prime minister knows what he wants to do, has the public behind him, and faces no real opposition from within his own party, one should not be surprised that even a politician with an independent base of support like Ishiba would have to follow the leader, right down to his rhetoric. 

There doesn't seem to be a whole lot standing in the way of Abe Shinzō's completing the work of his grandfather and the other fathers of the LDP.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

A cleaner, leaner Observing Japan

::Sweeps away dust and cobwebs::

*cough cough*

Is anybody here?

I've been away so long that Google completely redesigned Blogger's dashboard, so that it took me a little while to figure out how to use it. Anyway, as you can see, I've cleaned up the blog, switched to a more minimalistic template, and removed dead links and obnoxious buttons and ads.

As for content, I'm still deciding what exactly I'm going to do with Observing Japan henceforth. It may be a little strange to revive the blog when wags are declaring that the age of the blog is over, but then, I've always had anachronistic tendencies. I don't think I'll match (or even try to match) the prolixity of years past. At the very least, I'll provide links to what I say and write elsewhere. Stay tuned for more soon.