Someone wrote to gonzo journalist Matt Taibbi about how he stays sane in a sea of crazy news. Here is how he responded:
See, what I’ve done, and you all can try this yourselves, is to simply avoid reading the news as much as possible. I read old books and the only periodicals I even look at lately are NFL draft guides. I’ve read Nolan Nawrocki’s draft booklet like 400 times already. To me he’s the greatest novelist since Waugh. That does wonders for my general sanity, but then I’ll have something happen like last Friday, when I went into 30 Rock to do a hit on Cenk Uygur’s show and saw him talking about a poll that had Donald Trump leading the field of prospective Republican candidates. Donald Trump has 26% of the Republican vote right now? What the fuck?
If it weren’t for the fact that my job requires me to be on top of world events, I’d be very tempted to follow his lead.
Thanks to the power of exit polls, we already know the results of some of tonight’s polls. For instance, Ishihara will remain governor of Tokyo for another four years (!). For updates on developments in the election, keep an eye on my Twitter feed. No live blogging tonight. Biking around my old stomping grounds in Adachi-ku has sapped my energy.
Feel free to leave comments/reactions below!
Photo: Osaka governor voting today in a track suit.
Tomorrow Japan will hold many, many local elections. The schedule is set by the central government, which prefers to hold all local elections around this time every four years. It’s sort of like Election Day in the States, except it’s on a holiday because Japanese officials actually want people to vote.
Gubernatorial and mayoral elections are decided by majority popular vote (first past the post, no runoffs), while prefectural and local assemblies are a mix of single-member and multi-member districts, though I am not sure which is more prevalent.
In the wake of the massive earthquake last month, many elections in the affected areas have been postponed. Even outside the northeast, many local officials want them put off, to the point that Urayasu (located on reclaimed land, partly sank into ground after earthquake) has steadfastly refused to hold the vote as scheduled. Given the somber national mood, an enthusiastic campaign full of upbeat promises could look unseemly, and voters are understandably distracted by post-quake anxieties.
All the same, the decision has been made, and now it’s up to the public to show up and choose their leaders. There is a very wide field, but a few themes have emerged to keep an eye on as the votes are tallied tomorrow night.
Ishihara the indestructible? Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara is running for a fourth term, and is expected to win handily despite challenges from some recognizable faces.
Ishihara was most recently in the news making and then apologizing for a statement that the recent earthquake and tsunami were divine punishment for Japan’s immorality. If you have been following the quake news, you might wonder, Why is his re-election assured despite such an offensive statement? Well, there are two reasons. First, he has a long history of getting away with being outrageous, banking on the admiration he earned as a writer/celebrity and the large number of people who agree with much of what he has to say. Second, he is a skilled politician who has gained the backing of large blocs of reliable voters at a time when support for the rival DPJ is essentially in tatters (they didn’t even field their own candidate this time) and the turnout of unaffiliated voters is expected to be low.
For more on the first reason, I would direct you to David Marx’s profile of the governor over at Neojaponisme. Key line: “He is not a “loose cannon,” accidentally saying things he later regrets. He likely thinks that success of his endeavors requires raising the ire of groups to which he does belong.” Suffice to say, people expect Ishihara to be outrageous. The only surprising thing about his most recent offense is that he apologized. Probably even some supporters told him to watch his words this time.
As to the second, maybe I can shed some light. You see, the LDP and New Komeito hold influence over a fairly disciplined voting bloc. The Komeito is especially important in this equation because of their numbers and highly reliable turnout.
For example, let’s look back to my coverage of the 2009 Tokyo prefectural assembly election. In Adachi-ku, the LDP and New Komeito delivered around 70,000 votes each of a total turnout of around 250,000. That’s 30% of the vote right there in a high turnout election, and if I remember Adachi-ku was broadly consistent with the overall result. It wasn’t enough to win then because LDP/Komeito support was in the gutter following the financial crisis and subsequent recession, so unaffiliated voters went for the DPJ, handing them control of the Tokyo legislature.
Ishihara’s two major challengers are Hideo Higashikokubaru, the comedian-turned-Miyazaki governor, and Miki Watanabe, founder of discount restaurant chain Watami. Unfortunately for them, now is not a good time for new faces, especially not Higashi with his feel-good enthusiasm, or Watanabe, who just exudes “smarmy corporate big-shot.” These two and other more minor candidates are likely to split the vote, handing another advantage to Ishihara.
According to a recent poll (JP), Ishihara has the support of around 70% of LDP supporters, 60% of New Komeito supporters, and even has the edge in support among DPJ and unaffiliated voters. Unless there’s a major upset, expect to have Ishihara around for another four years.
Regional parties to gain ground. Osaka Governor Toru Hashimoto took to Twitter to join those calling for the elections to be postponed. He may just have been posturing, however, because his party, the Osaka Restoration Association, may well win a majority in the Osaka prefectural legislature tomorrow, with an Asahi poll giving it a lead of several points against the other parties.
Regional political parties, with charismatic leaders and often populist platforms, have gained attention, not to mention power, recently. In Aichi prefecture, elections in February and March gave the upper hand to Genzei Nippon (Tax Cut Japan), a populist party with a platform to slash local taxes.
Hashimoto’s plans for Osaka look even more ambitious. By forming a party loyal to him and gaining control of the legislature, he hopes to push hard for reforms including a plan to unify the administrative functions of Osaka city and prefecture. This, along with infrastructure investment and neoliberal stand-bys like market-testing government functions for possible privatization, he argues will give him the ability to put Osaka on firmer fiscal and economic footing after years in the doldrums.
Japanese speakers can watch this video for an outline set to a Sega Genesis-era synthesizer soundtrack:
Success for Hashimoto could give momentum to ambitious politicians in other regions wishing to open their own “Restoration” franchise. One area where this idea could find traction is in the northeast, where the gargantuan task of reconstruction all but guarantees intense frustration among the locals.
How will the results affect national politics? Until a few days ago, the biggest political news story was the potential for a grand coalition, a sort of unity government to give top priority to quake reconstruction (and maybe throw in tax hikes to pay for social security for good measure). LDP President Tanigaki has thrown cold water on the discussions, reportedly because they want PM Kan to quit as a condition of joining the government. Indeed, LDP Secretary General Nobuteru Ishihara (Shintaro’s son) is now back to openly calling for Kan’s head. Wow, that didn’t take long!
The local elections will likely only give the LDP more reason to keep up pressure on Kan. In a number of key races, the DPJ has opted not to field its own candidates, apparently because it took a hard look at the numbers and decided not to embarrass itself. However, the party has candidates running in gubernatorial races in Hokkaido and Mie—polls show the LDP with a lead in Hokkaido and slightly ahead in a close race in Mie. These will likely be two of the major headlines tomorrow night.
National politics in Japan are stuck in a morass of cautious leaders who end up getting bogged down in petty scandals. Kan’s approval ratings have jumped sharply since the quake, from the 20% range to the 30s. However, setbacks and the usual drumbeat of criticism from the media will likely send it back on a downward trajectory. Since winning big in the 2009 lower house election, the DPJ’s control of the government will likely last another 2.5 years. Even with rock-bottom approval ratings, the DPJ seems more likely to rely on changing the prime minister to gain temporary support from the public rather than calling an early election. Note that the disaster, as well as a recent Supreme Court decision that mandates a lower house redistricting more closely in line with the population, make it next to impossible for Kan to call an election for a while.
Many articles in the foreign press have expressed hope that the earthquake would serve as a wake-up call for Japan’s leaders to enact reforms to put the country on a firmer footing. Count me as skeptical. Constant attention to short-term political momentum, such as the impact of these local elections, ensures rudderless leadership that remains too distracted to form a meaningful political vision. As a friend noted to me over Chinese food the other day, Kan’s post-quake speeches have been long on uplifting rhetoric but very light on anything specific to inspire actual confidence.
Though I am skeptical of Japan’s political system regardless of which party controls it, it’s important to make some distinctions. The government deserves a lot of credit for its post-crisis response, though it bears stressing that no effort will be enough. They have been prudent, fast-acting, transparent, and open to foreign aid where needed. Also, the government is currently debating plans to cut electricity use in the summer in a way that completely avoids rolling blackouts. Given the huge damage to generating capacity, pulling off coordination on that level would be nothing short of heroic.
It’s just that the political system is paralyzed as long as its leaders flail in the face of petty scandals and public perceptions. It’s possible that the central government in Tokyo, itself suffering reputation damage from the blackouts and its perceived proximity to the Fukushima disaster, might start ceding political clout to brash self-proclaimed “restorationists” like Hashimoto who, unlike the past few prime ministers, are adept at shaping public opinion rather than being shaped by it.
After meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy today, PM Naoto Kan commented that Japan needs to debate whether Japan’s current electric utility system should exist in its current form. At present, the government grants monopolies to regional utilities, which are private corporations listed on the stock market.
Admittedly, I had not thought much about this issue until this crisis came along, but now I am trying to learn more. Countries take different approaches to who owns the power utilities. For instance, the US has investor-owned utilities that provide around 38% of generating capacity, with the rest a mix of public and cooperative-owned entities.
I don’t have an opinion one way or the other at this point, but I can see how the different ownership structures can skew incentives. If you are trying to provide returns to shareholders, you might be more inclined to promote more electricity usage, as Tepco has done by offering discounts to people who use “all-electric” homes with electricity-powered stoves and baths, etc. On the other hand, both privately owned and public utilities can cultivate the types of entrenched, bureaucratic management teams that lead to the types of massive cover-ups and bungling incompetence we have seen at Tepco.
(Disclosure: I own a small investment in Tepco. Take nothing I say as investment advice)
The flight of the foreigners—known as gaijin in Japanese—has polarized some offices in Tokyo. Last week, departures from Japan reached a fever pitch after the U.S. Embassy unveiled a voluntary evacuation notice and sent in planes to ferry Americans to safe havens. In the exodus, a new term was coined for foreigners fleeing Japan: flyjin.
The first part of that excerpt is true—foreigners really have fled, and lots of Japanese companies are really pissed about it. I just heard a story of a person fired from a (rather domestic, small-minded) Japanese company for fleeing the country and missing 8 days of work. (I think the biggest problem in this sitaution wast the backward employer and the failure of communication by the fleeing foreign employee.)
It is still very early into this tragedy, and a lot could change in the coming days/weeks/months. But I wanted to give some initial impressions. I have been going to the office as usual and basically heading directly home to keep updated and try and calm down my mother via Google Talk. Here are some of my observations so far based on my experiences and the reports I have been reading and watching in English and Japanese. To save time, I have not included links to some stories I did not feel like digging up:
Japan rocks – The reaction to the earthquake has been impressive, though sadly even the best response is unequal to adequately deal with the massive destruction in northeast Japan. The buildings were strong enough to stay standing through the quake, the streets were safe enough to walk home when no trains ran, and a full court press came to the rescue the next day. As far as planning and citizen preparedness goes, Japan has the whole world beat, hands down. It seems like in many ways the authorities learned from the failings of the Kobe earthquake. I feel very proud of my adopted home. Note that the emperor agrees with me. In his recent national address, he noted with admiration that foreign observers praised the Japanese people for their calm, helpful reaction to the quake.
Unfortunately, even the best plans cannot protect against one of the biggest earthquakes/tsunamis ever known. The damage is immense, and it will take a long time to recover. But I am confident that Japan has what it takes to get through the disaster and emerge as strong as ever.
As the days unfold, I notice that one advantage Japan seems to have on its side is a very adversarial media. From the outset, I think the Kan administration has done its best given the circumstances, and I don’t really agree with the assessment of some media outlets that it was too slow to set up shop inside Tepco. However, on top of that the mainstream media covering this story have (admirably) shown very little deference to the prime minister and Tepco. I think this has put the fear of God into these officials to disclose as much information as possible and be as cooperative as possible. Also, the US (among other countries) is offering very generous support and has been among the most supportive governments in backing up Japan’s response. It has issued statements saying they are “in agreement” with the Japanese assessment of the nuclear situation. Betraying US confidence at this point would not go down well. With all that pressure, attempting to hide things could easily turn Tepco into the next BP (and then some) and the Kan administration into the villain that Murayama is remembered as being during the 1995 Kobe earthquake.
Twitter has also been a big positive, in my opinion. It helps average people exchange trusted information (and lies to a much lesser extent), and there is a kind of wisdom-of-crowds quality in which certain proposals are retweeted by enough alpha-users that they grab the attention of the authorities. For instance, I saw some prominent Japanese Twitterers retweet a request to have sign language interpreters at press conferences, and a day later sure enough there they were. On the other end of the spectrum, there have been some chain letters spreading untrue rumors. I received one about “poison rain” due to the Chiba oil tanker fire, and I have heard about others. It is worth noting that the person who sent that one emailed me after she learned it was false.
Supply shortages in Tokyo should be resolved soon - At this point, it is hard to tell what is more to blame for the empty shelves – the hoarders or the reduced shipments? All the same, manufacturers are reporting sufficient capacity to supply the area, and any disruptions in deliveries should be relieved by next week’s release of emergency oil reserves. The reserves should alleviate the supply shortages and give time for availability even in Tokyo to get back to normal as early as next week. One big reason for the delay is that the worst affected regions got priority, which is only natural.
Unfortunately, this is one area where average people and the government were kind of a letdown. For one thing, people seemed to start panic buying very quickly. I took a trip to Tochigi on Sunday and already the gas station lines were long. At the same time, the government only started telling people to stop panic buying today! The media seemed to be doing its job, noting the activity and noting how problematic it was, at least as far as I read.
People are overreacting to the nuclear crisis, big time – The risk of radiation is, by all credible accounts, very small for almost everyone in the country. I am as glued to updates as anyone, but I am not panicking. In fact, I think focusing too much on the nuclear crisis runs the risk of de-emphasizing the massive toll the tsunami took on the region. The French chartering flights to evacuate expats and warnings based on nuclear fears are overdoing it, I think. I mean, I would understand some people without a deep connection to the country leaving, or at least moving or sending loved ones to stay somewhere safer. I have my wife and in-laws in the area, so I don’t want to leave unless it is truly necessary. In addition to the nuclear concerns, there are the transit problems and hoarding/logistics problems with daily necessities, not to mention the risk of aftershocks. This is scary for everyone, but people who don’t know the language or don’t have people to rely on have that added layer of difficulty. And if you can’t follow the mainstream Japanese media (and sensible Internet sources like Mutant Frog!), you are liable to read sensationalized reports from the overseas media.
This last bit is a sore point for me. Thanks to all the scary US media reports, my mother has been absolutely terrified. My relatives and family friends have been calling her nonstop to know if I’m OK. I know the media are in the misery business, but more than that it seems like the reporters are far too detached from the story. They focus so much on broader implications and potential scenarios that it ends up providing no practical information to people who actually want to have an even-handed idea of what’s going on.
The aftershocks are really scary – since the big earthquake it almost feels like there are small rumblings going on constantly. I especially feel this way at the office, where the building’s design makes it kind of easy to feel small tremors. The bigger ones fill me with dread. As they happen, I wonder if this one will build up slowly into a big quake like the one on Friday. Even when there are no quakes, for some reason I feel like the ground is shaking when I am walking down long hallways.
Many outside observers have failed a very easy test of decency – When reacting to a tragic event, the rules of etiquette are simple. Express sympathy for the victims and note the tragedy of the affair. This is not the time to make dumb jokes, call a natural disaster retribution for something some people from Japan did that you don’t like, or condescendingly generalize about Japanese culture. Too many people have failed miserably in this regard. If you need to react this way, keep it off the Internet at least!
I am a terrible investor – Last and most definitely least, what do you think is the only individual stock I own? Some hints: In the two months since I bought in, it has seen much of its generating capacity wiped out forever and been threatened with government-enforced annihilation for mishandling the disaster response. Oh and it has been limit-down for three days straight.
I say “ridiculous” because the donor in question is a zainichi Korean who has run a yakiniku restaurant in Kyoto for decades; there was likely no way for Maehara’s staff to know whether or not she was a Japanese national. In a sane world, he would simply return her money, apologize and get on with his work. Instead, he succumbed to a peanut gallery of opposition cranks who were simply looking for any line of attack on the Kan government and saw a prime opportunity to imply that Maehara was selling out the country—to a permanent resident, for $2,429. Are you kidding me?
Of course, NHK and most other media outlets are simply reporting that “Maehara accepted donations from foreigners” without mentioning any details of the donations or the foreigners—making it sound like Maehara was getting briefcases full of hundred-dollar bills from Rahm Emmanuel or the evil-looking Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman (at least, those were the first two scenes which I imagined).
I met Kaieda once at a festival not long after he was elected and before he joined the cabinet. We shook hands just like this, and it lasted just long enough to get awkward. His English was pretty good.
I finally got around to seeing The Karate Kid (i.e. last year’s remake starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan) last weekend.
Though not a revolutionary classic of filmmaking by any means, it was still pretty enjoyable and interesting from my perspective. One reason is that it is the only Hollywood film I have seen that captures the modern experience of being an American expat in Asia—particularly of being an American kid coming to Asia. The protagonist, 12-year-old Dre Parker, goes through the same stages of frustration and emergence in Beijing that I went through as a 15-year-old in Osaka. This balances to hilarious effect with the “overawed clueless expat” character of Dre’s mother Sherry, who spends most of the movie fawning on the wonderfulness of everything Chinese.
The other interesting facet of the film is its historical context in the industrial decay of America and simultaneous emergence of China. At the very beginning of the film, Sherry and Dre move from a middle-class existence in Detroit to a middle-class existence in Beijing, and a long portion of the opening credits consists of shots of the decaying metropolis of Detroit. The reason for their move, which is only briefly mentioned in the film, is that Sherry worked at a car factory which closed down, and the only way she could keep working was to transfer to a factory in China. When Dre gets exasperated and wants to go home, Sherry emphatically tells him that they cannot go home because there is nothing left for them.
In short, it’s a movie primarily about a kid overcoming his weaknesses through kung fu discipline, and secondarily about America, China and the expat experience in the 21st century. On the latter point, it does a much less groan-worthy job than the likes of Rising Sun and Gung Ho did during the Japanese emergence of the late 1980s.
The decay of Detroit is, of course, nothing new; there have been a few big movies made on the theme, such as the non-fictional Roger & Me in 1989 and the fictional 8 Mile in 2002. Now Chrysler is using the legacy and the decaying grit of Detroit as selling points for their high-end cars; on Sunday, they ran the following ad during the Super Bowl, which is the most-watched TV program in the US just about every year, and got Eminem to pop in as a spokesman. (Hat tip to James Fallows for the link.)
The ad conveniently ignores the fact that Chrysler will be owned by Italians as soon as it pays off its debts to the US federal government. But hey, image is everything.
When you see someone on TV, or read what they write on a blog or YouTube comment, you don’t know them. This sounds obvious, but judging from the volumes and volumes of discussions on the Internet, no one seems to take this to heart.
Even if you’ve watched someone’s show for years, you are only seeing the tip of the iceberg of what this person is all about. A talk show host might be an avid hunter, or a drinker, or a plastic model kit geek, and we would never, ever know.
But so many of us demand authenticity, or at least a standard of conduct, from people in the public eye, and reserve the harshest score if they don’t measure up.
In Japan, these impulses flare up into the endless stream of ginned-up scandals. Who are we to judge Ebizo for hanging out with the wrong people? None of us knows him. Hell, I had barely heard of him before the scandal.
No one really knows Sarah Palin despite all her exposure and all the journalist profiles and behind the scenes looks. Yet everyone has an opinion about her (I’ll concede it’s somewhat necessary to assess a potential presidential candidate).
The people with influence on what goes on the news and the rest of the media know all about this and exploit our nature ruthlessly for their own ends. Our affinity for an attractive actress gets us in the door of our local Mos Burger; a finely aged oyaji tells us it’s cool to drink a certain kind of beer; and news reports convince you in a matter of seconds that a stranger is a villain who deserves to die.
This concept applies in even the most mundane aspects of showmanship. On those Japanese shows with panels of commentators, the panelists are either competing for airtime or want to keep getting asked back. What that means for you is they stop acting like they would face-to-face and start making comments that will get the most reaction from a mass audience. There are endless ways to keep track of audience reaction these days, including Twitter and 2-channel in Japan. If you can entertain, you’re doing your job.
The same goes for blogs, in a way. I am not just talking to a friend at a bar, I am writing for the “masses” (my many dozens of readers). That means I am putting my best face forward and saying things to get a reaction. Hence, you don’t know me even if you’ve been reading me from the beginning.
I’ve met some readers offline in the past. As a rule they’ve been nothing like I would imagine from their blog comments. Only after putting the two together can I really connect their offline personality to what they write online. While they are connected and an extension of the person, it’s necessarily a cross section.
TV and essentially all media are stages where people put on shows to get a desired reaction from the audience. For better or worse, the Internet has turned everyone into a media personality, so it’s only healthy to keep this in mind when going through life, and especially when reacting to blogs and reader comments.
This post was inspired by a recent conversation with a friend who shall remain anonymous because, well, you don’t know him!