Category Archives: Politics

NYT making fun of Osaka Mayor’s dad

In a recent article about Japan’s idling of all of its nuclear reactors, the reporter made a casual aside about the parentage of Osaka mayor Hashimoto Toru.

Instead, the central government has found itself battling an improbable adversary: Osaka’s mayor, Toru Hashimoto, the young, plain-speaking son of a yakuza gangster who has ridden Japan’s loss of faith in government to become, seemingly overnight, the country’s best-liked politician, according to recent polls.

The Japanese Wikipedia page on Hashimoto, sourced from this article on the website j-cast, mentions that his father was a gangster who committed suicide when Toru was a second grade elementary school student, and that the couple had been divorced since much earlier.

Although it is factually correct that Hashimoto’s father was a gangster, he was apparently no more than a biological parent, out of his son’s life almost immediately, and no longer living just a few years later. The newspaper’s phrasing makes a very strong implication that his “plain-speaking”-ness is derived from his father’s example, but considering that he basically never knew his father, I think the association is just as unfair as the stupid attacks against Obama based on his father being a Muslim, or against both Obama and Romney because they had polygamist grandfathers.

I’m all for making fun of him for his own craziness, of which there is plenty, but don’t bash him for what his absent father may or may not have done.

On the other hand, Hashimoto has recently embarked upon a bizarre crusade against Osaka employees with tattoos, due to the traditional association between tattoos and yakuza. Perhaps he does, after all, have some latent father issues?

Recalling Fang Lizhi as we watch Chen Guangcheng

I’m sure everybody reading this had been following the dramatic and confusing Chen Guangcheng1 story as it develops, and I also trust that all but the most enlightened remain as puzzled as I do regarding exactly what Chen, the United States, and Chinese authorities have negotiated, promised, lied about, achieved, failed, and intend to do regarding the still unfolding situation((Although, as I finalize this post, it does appear that Chen will be allowed to come to the US on a student visa.)).

I had certainly found the story interesting since it began, but had no particular thoughts regarding it until I read this New York Review of Books article comparing the Chen story with that of Fang Lizhi, a prominent Chinese dissident who similarly sought refuge in the US embassy following the Tiananmen Square Massacre and eventually settled in the US following similarly tense diplomacy, written by Perry Link, an American academic who was in Beijing at the time and helped Fang in his escape.

Fang, who died just under a month ago at the age of 76, after spending the latter part of his career as a professor of physics at the University of Arizona in Tucson, was a prominent dissident at the time of the 1989 protests, who sought—and received—protection at the US embassy in Beijing when the subsequent crackdown started. Before the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, he was already well enough known to be profiled in this May, 1988 Atlantic Magazine article.

I strongly recommend reading the entire piece, as well as Fang Lizhi’s “Confession” to Deng Xiaoping, and Fang’s own commentary on writing it, which was published in June of last year, also by the New York Review of Books.

I also found Perry Link’s concluding comparison between the Fang incident and the current situation to be quite interesting.

Today, for Chen Guangcheng, the two governments might agree that exile is the least awkward solution from their points of view, but Chen may not accept it. Chinese dissidents have learned over the past two decades that exile leads to a sharp decline in a person’s ability to make a difference inside China. Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who is now in his third year of an eleven-year prison sentence for “subversion,” made it clear after his arrest that he would not accept exile as an alternative to prison. From what friends of Chen in Beijing have been saying in recent days, it seems that Chen is taking a similar position.

Another important difference between the Chen and Fang cases is that Chen has a broader following among average Chinese people than Fang had. Fang was a hero to university students and some intellectuals. But most Chinese did not know him, and what they did hear of him were highly distorted accounts in the government-controlled press. Even before the 1989 crackdown, government television was broadcasting images of government-orchestrated “protests” in which farmers were burning Fang Lizhi in effigy. Many people, having no other sources on Fang, accepted such accounts. Today, though, with the Internet, far greater numbers of Chinese—millions of people including many outside of the big cities—know the true story of Chen than ever knew the story of Fang. And to judge from the many accounts circulating on microblogs and elsewhere, hardly anyone seems to view Chen with anything but sympathy.


But while it does seem likely that Chen has widespread support, I wonder what good that will do for him in America, other than provide a comfortable life for him and his family.

For example, look at how much support the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei received after his own unjust arrest, almost entirely enabled by the Internet. And in his case, not only did he receive the ephemeral support of Tweets and Facebook “likes”, but enough small donations (which the artist categorized as loans to be repaid in the future) from tens of thousands of donors to cover the Chinese government’s punitive taxes and fines (which Ai and his legal team continues to challenge).

But how contingent is that support on the fact that he is staying to fight? While there is no question that Ai Weiei, by all accounts charming and brilliant, would be a darling of intellectual and artistic as a political exile, he would also lose the ability to use his own ongoing on-and-off imprisonment as fodder for political artwork such as his recent and short-lifed self-surveillance “Weiweicam” project.

While much about the Chen Guangcheng case remains murky and mysterious, he does at least seem to wrestling with such a choice. Will he stay in China, despite the risk to himself and—apparently more importantly—his family, or will he seek exile2, where he would undoubtedly be safer and more comfortable((He certainly has plenty of supporters in the US, since if there is one things that the “Pro-life” and “Pro-choice” camps can agree on wholeheartedly, it’s that forced abortions are a bad thing.)), but also risk damaging his own credibility as an activist and his ability to help others.

The NYT had an article on Friday discussing this very possibility, saying “Based on past experience, China is often all too pleased to see its most nettlesome dissidents go into exile, where they almost invariably lose their ability to grab headlines in the West and to command widespread sympathy both in China and abroad.” The article goes on to mention how “If Mr. Chen receives a green light to depart for the United States, he will arrive to find a fractured tribe of Chinese dissidents and pro-democracy advocates shouting over one another.”

This line in particular made me think of a particular book I read several years ago, which had already been on my mind as I was catching up on the past week of Chen Guangcheng related coverage earlier today, In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture, By Geremie R. Barmé. Despite the bland and vague title, a significant portion, or even a majority of the book is devoted to Chinese counterculture and dissident protest, including quite a bit of discussion of the criticism and failure that prominent Chinese dissidents have faced in exile, including from one another.

Among exiled intellectuals for a time there was also a considerable amount of critical reflection on the events of 1989. Yuan Zhiming was another of the writers of River Elegy, the television series that was branded by the government as part of a wave of “cultural nihilism” that contributed to the protests. In an article published in January 1990, Yuan questioned what would have happened in 1989 if the most famous Chinese public intellectuals — Fang Lizhi, Liu Binyan, Yan Jiaqi, Chen Yizi, and Su Xiaokang, had “courageously stood forward and led the movement.” He continues his speculation in the tone of a guilty survivor:

If we had formulated some mature, rational and feasible plan of action and organized a democratic front incorporating the students and civilians, if we had worked harmoniously together to struggle for dialogue with the authorities, how would it have turned out? Of course, we may still have been vanquished, but at least we could say we had done everything in our power to prevent defeat. 3



Barmé is also unimpressed with the post-exile efforts of dissident intellectuals, writing:
Prominent intellectuals and students had, bu the very fact of their exile, suffered a serious blow to their credibility. This was particularly so, since it was widely perceived on the mainland that many of the key agitators of 1989 had sought refuge with former imperialist powers (that is, France, England, and the United States((And we could add Japan to this list, which not only sheltered some refugees from China, but also applied pressure on the PRC government during the Fang Lizhi incident, using the carrot of development loans.))) and the KMT government in Taiwan. The mainland authorities were well aware of the jealous reaction of its people to reports of dissidents living off the fat of the land overseas, and the official media took delight in portraying them all as traitors to the nation.4

The remainder of the third chapter deals with this issue in greater depth, and I recommend it to anyone wondering how successful an activist Chen might be in exile.

Even though modern communications has greatly improved the ability of activists and supporters to coordinate better and more secretively across borders, it is hard to imagine how Chen Guangcheng, whose activism so far has largely taken the form of legal action that would be impossible to file from abroad, would be able to continue his activism in any substantial way after reaching NYU. Above, I cited speculation by a sympathetic Chinese intellectual over what would have been different had Fang Lizhi and his compatriots ”courageously stood forward and led the movement” rather than accepting exile. In America, Fang was very successful in continuing his career as a physicist, but his post-exile activism was a mere footnote to the exile itself. How might Chen’s career develop if he comes to the US, and how might it develop if he does not?

  1. This 2006 NYT story is a good description of his career and legal troubles up to that point. []
  2. Or asylum, or “rest”, or “study abroad”. []
  3. Pages 51-52 []
  4. Page 44 []

Post-quake nuclear bungling in context, seawater-gate edition

This week, Japan’s political news was dominated by a political fight between the LDP and DPJ over whether Prime Minister Kan, the day after the March 11 earthquake, ordered Tepco to stop flooding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant with seawater. Something shocking happened that poured cold water on that debate, however. The head of the facility admitted that regardless of orders from corporate headquarters to stop (apparently relaying the PM’s wishes), he continued the flooding operations because it was the right thing to do.

In many ways this conflict is a tempest in a teapot, at best a distraction from dealing with the nuclear accident and post-quake situation right now. But it does offer us a window, however slight, into how information has flowed (or not) among stakeholders and the public.

The Nikkei has an interesting lowdown on the farcical sequence of events:

The controversy began with a document issued Saturday by the government’s joint task force with Tepco, purporting to tell the “facts” of how seawater was injected into the No. 1 reactor March 12, the day after a tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Tepco began pumping ocean water into the hot reactor at 7:04 p.m. without informing the government, according to the document. A company employee at the Prime Minister’s Office later telephoned the power plant and the injections stopped at 7:25, only to restart 55 minutes later, the report stated.

A different picture emerged Thursday.

At the time the pumping began, officials at company headquarters had decided there was next to no chance that the seawater would cause the fuel inside to go critical again, Tepco Vice President Sakae Muto told a news conference.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan had asked about that possibility in discussions with Nuclear Safety Commission Chairman Haruki Madarame and other advisers.

But what headquarters officials heard from the employee stationed at the Prime Minister’s Office was that the “atmosphere” there was that the cooling operation could not go ahead without the prime minister’s approval, according to Muto.

In a video conference with plant manager Masao Yoshida, Tepco officials decided to halt the seawater injections. But Yoshida disregarded that order, and the pumping continued. Although final authority did rest with the plant manager, he never reported his actions to headquarters. Head office officials, for their part, never confirmed with Yoshida that the order had been carried out.

At that stage in the crisis, with reactor coolant going up in steam and the fuel rods melting, every second counted. The plant’s emergency manual prescribes seawater injections in such a situation. Regardless of the “atmosphere” at the Prime Minister’s Office, turning off the pumps would have been the wrong decision, based on the conditions at the plant.

Asked why he decided to reveal that the seawater injections continued nonstop, Yoshida said he “thought it over again carefully after it became a controversy in the newspapers and the Diet.”


Right off the bat, I want to say that getting the “real” situation is basically impossible for the general public, and that’s kind of the point of this post. But assuming this report is basically true, it seems clear to me that this is definitely not a case of Tepco or the government hiding information, per se. Mr. Yoshida (who was apparently quoted indirectly through a Tepco spokesperson) was the only one hiding anything, for reasons he must think make sense, even if they deprive outside observers of an accurate picture of the situation.

Get a load of Tepco headquarters – they never confirmed whether he had actually stopped the water? I guess Yoshida just pretended to “restart” the operation when they said it was OK an hour later?

I have read so many articles saying that “Japan” has not been forthcoming with information about the nuclear accident, but I find that hard to believe. Information has been released by the truckload. The entire scandal got started when Tepco released a detailed breakdown of what happened. But even when important people have the best of intentions and submit a report in good faith, there’s no guarantee they will have all the facts.

The Kan government has recently announced an independent commission to study the accident, and the IAEA has its own people on the ground investigating. Openness isn’t the problem here. The problem is how difficult it is for outsiders to get a clear picture of a rapidly unfolding situation, even when the people in charge are trying to be forthcoming.

Again it’s hard to really feel like I have a sound basis to comment, but from my limited vantage point this incident makes a lot of people look bad, most of all the LDP who so quickly leaped on a potentially damaging decision by the prime minister for political gain, only to learn their entire premise was flawed. No one stopped the seawater because, thankfully enough, someone at Tepco had a cool enough head to not listen to superiors who were more worried about reading the Prime Minister’s “mood” than how to control the reactor.

Yoshida might be punished by Tepco for not reporting his actions, but I think he deserves a lot of credit for taking the necessary action. It also bears mentioning that his actions fly in the face of the common stereotype of Japanese deference to power.

Nishioka Calls on Kan to Resign, Many Follow

On May 19, the Yomiuri Shimbun evening edition ran an open letter by House of Councillors President  Nishioka Takeo in which he called upon Prime Minister Kan Naoto to resign due to his handling of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. This would be significant enough if Nishioka were a member of the opposition, but he belongs to the same DPJ as Kan himself. The letter, as well as the admission that Kan, based on unfounded concerns that the injection of seawater could induce re-criticality in the reactor, encouraged TEPCO to halt the injection of seawater based coolant into the plant, has spurred a movement towards calling a  no-confidence vote, with support from the Ozawa faction of Kan’s own DPJ, as well as from the opposition LDP. Among the harsh critics are LDP leader Tanigaki Sadakazu, who, based on the newly released information, described the decision to suspend the injection of seawater at such a critical stage as a “man-made disaster”.

Although the English Yomiuri website summarizes the key points of Nishioka’s letter in the same article I linked to above, they did not originally post the entire text or even publish it in the English print edition, although they did promise that “The English translation of Nishioka’s open letter to Kan will be carried on The Daily Yomiuri’s Commentary page on Tuesday.” Well, Tuesday has passed and you can now read the entire letter in English, at Yomiuri or below here.

In the annoyingly typical fashion of the Japanese newspaper industry, they haven’t even published the original Japanese text of the full letter online! Luckily it can be easily found on a number of Japanese blogs, and here I will give my own quick and dirty translation.

To Prime Minister Naoto Kan:

I am sure the weight of the world is on your shoulders, with duties that require your attention day and night. I thank you for your hard work.

As a representative of one of the supreme organizations in the nation’s three independent branches of authority, I would like to venture to express my candid opinion in this open letter. Prime Minister Kan, you should immediately resign from your post.

I think many people share my present thoughts about you: among them survivors of the Great East Japan Earthquake, residents forced to evacuate their homes due to the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, members of the general public and Diet members from both opposition and ruling parties.

I also believe that heads of local governments and assembly members distrust and are concerned about you.

There is a reason why, despite this situation, hardly any voices have called, “Prime Minister Kan, you should resign.” It is generally believed it would be unthinkable to change the supreme leader of the nation at a time when serious problems are occurring that are not limited to national politics, and when measures are under way to deal with the situation.

However, you have continued to abandon your duties as prime minister since the March 11 disaster took place.

This is in itself unthinkable.

Given that you also abandoned your duties as prime minister last year, when a Chinese fishing boat collided with Japan Coast Guard ships off the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, I believe you are not aware of your duties as prime minister concerning state affairs.

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Why the Hague Convention is not such a big deal (but Japan ought to sign anyway)

Curzon’s post on the Savoie divorce and child abduction case spawned the longest comment thread in our blog’s history, and the case itself brought a lot of international media attention to the child abduction problem in Japan, which was for a long time known only to a growing group of estranged parents.

One result of all the attention is that Japan is considering signing up to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which provides a legal mechanism for countries to cooperate when children are taken across borders in violation of legal custody arrangements. This is a good and reasonable thing for Japan to do—the treaty is already in force in most Western countries, and would not only give effect to foreign custody orders in Japan, but would also help to protect Japanese parents from losing access to their children if a partner suddenly takes a child out of Japan.

That said, international law is consensually adopted by a variety of countries, and tends to have holes wide enough to sail a ship through. Debito notes that “intimations have been made that Japan will sign but will then create domestic laws and other loopholes so it doesn’t have to follow it.” Actually, Japan doesn’t need to—there are enormous loopholes in the text of the treaty itself. Take a look at this section:

Article 13

Notwithstanding the provisions of the preceding Article, the judicial or administrative authority of the requested State is not bound to order the return of the child if the person, institution or other body which opposes its return establishes that –
a) the person, institution or other body having the care of the person of the child was not actually exercising the custody rights at the time of removal or retention, or had consented to or subsequently acquiesced in the removal or retention; or
b) there is a grave risk that his or her return would expose the child to physical or psychological harm or otherwise place the child in an intolerable situation.

The judicial or administrative authority may also refuse to order the return of the child if it finds that the child objects to being returned and has attained an age and degree of maturity at which it is appropriate to take account of its views.

In considering the circumstances referred to in this Article, the judicial and administrative authorities shall take into account the information relating to the social background of the child provided by the Central Authority or other competent authority of the child’s habitual residence.

Now, what is the definition of an “intolerable situation?” Or, for that matter, even the more specific term “physical or psychological harm?” The treaty does not say. So even if there is a binding custody order in another country, Japan’s authority (probably the justice ministry, perhaps the courts) could ignore it upon finding that any kind of “intolerable situation” would exist on the other side of the water, and Japan would still be fully compliant with its treaty obligations.

What is good about the Hague Convention is that it provides a mechanism for this review to take place. Once Japan signs up, its courts could not simply stonewall a foreign parent by refusing to consider their custody rights overseas. However, Japan would still maintain the power to keep kids from “going home” in egregious situations such as the Savoie case. So why not sign up?

How Matt Taibbi reads (or rather, doesn’t read) the news

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.

Open thread for local elections

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.

Local elections in Japan tomorrow – what and who to watch for

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.

 

Power to the people?

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 “Fly-jin” hype, or: 「フライジン」に該当するページが見つかりませんでした

In English-language news media, everyone is talking about this new word “Fly-jin”, a play on “Gaijin,” i.e. foreigners who have fled Japan in the wake of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear holocaust [/sarcasm]. Take this article in the Wall Street Journal that everyone is talking about:

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.)

But has anyone heard the word “Furai-jin” in actual Japanese conversation? A search of the Japanese version of news.google brought in zero results for “フライジン” and no relevant searches for “フライ人”. A google search for the later brought up lots of pages regarding people who are in love with fly fishing. A targeted google search brought up one thread on a 2ch Japanese chat threat—which is a translation of the Wall Street Journal article! In fact, I find myself in full agreement with a commenter on that 2ch thread:

>”flyjin”(fly + gaijin)
これ絶対この記事書いた奴が考えたろ…

Translation: “’Flyjin’... I bet the guy who wrote this article came up with that.”

So a challenge to Mariko Sanchanta, author of the above WSJ article: can you show us the word “furai-jin” was used before you put it in your article?