Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Tokyo On File* - The Latest On Apologies (For Your Listening Pleasure)

As is our wont, Timothy Langley and I sat down and talked about a hot topic in Japanese politics. Last week we reviewed the Cabinet Statement on the 70th Anniversary.

The video is hard for me to look at due to my necktie's being askew. So I cannot recommend a viewing. However, the conversation is decidedly listenable, except for when I call Chairman of the National Safety Commission Yamatani Eriko "Minister Nakatani." Nakatani Gen is this blessed land's Defense Minister.



For those wanting to read about the Statement, I cannot recommend any analysis more highly than Kent Calder's essay reproduced in The Japan Times. He homes in on the most important failure: the Statement's lack of agency (Link). Interestingly this week Kitaoka Shin'ichi, the second-in-command of the 21st Century Commission that provided the prime minister with a framework for the Statement, complained that he wanted the Statement to be in the first person rather than in the passive voice. (Link - J)

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Edifice Complex Time


Is this for real?

Mitsubishi Real Estate has announced plans to construct a new office tower north of Tokyo Station. It will be the tallest building in Japan, surpassing the current record holder, the Abeno Harukas of Osaka, by a whopping 90 meters. The building will also be way, way taller than the longtime standard measure of bigness, Tokyo Tower.

And yet only 61 floors. Kind of...a waste. (Link)

Two items of note:

1) The artist's rendition has the Shuto Expressway de-elevated -- brought down to street level -- and Nihombashi, the central measuring point of Edo Japan, standing in the sunshine for the first time since 1963 (arrow in the above).

If this change is for real and not just wishful thinking by the artist the project, despite its gargantuan proportions, will draw cheers. Getting rid of the elevated Shuto Expressway, built out over the river in order to avoid property acquisition issues, has been an essential dream of preservationists and urban specialists, not to mention Bank of Japan officials who have resented the Expressway's ruining of their neighborhood.

Of course the shade provided by the expressway has kept water temperatures in the river cooler, not a bad thing in a time of climate change, warm water discharge from domestic use and urban heat island effects...

2) As a markets indicator, the announcement is a real downer. The near completion of giant buildings traditionally presages a crash in stock and real estate markets.

The developer hopes to start construction of the building in 2023 with completion in fiscal year 2027.

So mark your calendars. And watch your wallets.

Image courtesy: Yomiuri Shimbun

Monday, August 31, 2015

Very Kind Of Him #61


"Yui-san, I see you are flanked by two U.S. astronauts. This would be a perfect time for you to express your indignation at Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's recent visit to Etorofu!"

I'm not the man they think I am at all
Oh, no, no, no.
I'm a Rocket Man!

- Elton John & Bernie Taupin, "Rocket Man" (1972)
Andy Sharp of Bloomberg News has a bulletin out on the seeming contradiction between weekend's protests against the collective security legislation, the recent spate of truly crappy economic news and the rise in support for the Cabinet in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun's latest poll. He quotes me in the piece thusly:
"Abe has weathered a hot summer, both inside and outside the Diet building," said Michael Cucek, an adjunct professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. "It seemed for Abe the news could not get any worse, and then it happened: the news did not get any worse,” he said, adding that Abe seems to be "levitating in contempt of the normal downward pull of political gravity."

(Link)
The crucial relationship is between the words "seems" and "to be levitating." Abe is not actually levitating. He does not have to: he is standing atop a lit multi-stage rocket.

The stages are:

First: a disengaged, disenchanted and lethargic electorate

Second: no major economic proposals promising better results than Abenomics

Third: no major rivals within the LDP

Fourth: no House of Representatives elections necessary for 3 1/2 years;

Fifth: almost suicidally fissionable opposition parties / no appreciable support for an opposition capable of seizing the reins of government (Tie)

There are likely more stages below these, hidden in the clouds.

Original image courtesy: Abe Shinzo Facebook page.

Very Kind Of Him #60

In his most recent column for The Japan Times Dr. Jeff Kingston has corralled quotes from a number of notables in the field of Japanese studies on the intrusion (eruption?) of Donald Trump in U.S. Republican Party politics. Somehow Dr. Kingston includes among me amongsst the august company.(Link)

I am, as always, grateful.

To be honest, I was reticent to contribute a comment. Politics in America is deeply unfunny.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Can Abe Save The Tokyo Olympics?



So the Yomiuri Shimbun is sycophantic. Tell me something I did not already know. (Link)

But beyond asking the reader to laugh at the Yomiuri articles's North Korea-like reverence for direct guidance from the Supreme Leader, some further, unbridled thoughts on the story of the search for a National Stadium:

1) These are the Abe Olympics

It is not clear from what springs Abe Shinzo's authority over matters as mundane (but crucial, given the current plan to hold the Olympics in August) as what kind of cooling system will be employed to keep spectators at the National Stadium feeling somewhat more comfortable. True Abe is the head of the government and the chairman of the government committee overseeing the Olympic effort.

However, a chairmanship is not an executive role. These are the decisions that need to be made by the director-general of a bureaucratic organization. The committee should be merely rubber stamping the decision of this as yet unnamed director-general.

So what is Abe doing here?

Guess: making sure that when he hands off the premiership in 2018 in a precedent-shattering transfer of power (to Inada Tomomi) parachuting in as the savior of the floundering Tokyo 2020 organization, that there still will be a Tokyo 2020 organization for him to save.

Abe decided to go all in in 2013, flying to Buenos Aires, delivering a speech in English in support of the Tokyo Olympic bid. At the time it seemed to many (including yours truly) that the Olympics were to be both an integral structural element and the capstone of the Abenomics economic revitalization program.

Hence the befuddlement of many (including yours truly) at Abe's inexplicable appointment of a leadership team of superannuated, serial losers and misfits to guide the Olympics effort.

What seems more likely now is that inevitable failure of the committee to guide the Olympics effort was not a bug but a feature, with the ages of the principals giving away the plot from the outset.

Under a not-at-all implausible scenario it was Abe's intention to descend from the Olympian heights of the PM's office; supplant an ineffective and insipid Mori Yoshiro-led program; electrify the staff, volunteers and partners with his new, dynamic, experienced leadership (all brimming vim and vigor); and with only seconds to spare, lead Tokyo to host an Olympics putting all previous and future Olympics to shame.

Only, of course, having put a band of self-important stuffed shirts whose only real daytime activity should be a round of golf in charge of a modern Olympics imploded far sooner than Abe could have dreamed. Perhaps he thought that his back would be covered by charter member of the Friends of Abe: Minister of Education, Culure, Sports, Science and Technology Shimomura Hakubun (seen musing above at the meeting of the steering committee for the new National Stadium). If so, Abe seriously misread his revisionist co-conspirator: Shimomura, who lifted himself out of dire poverty through academic scholarships, actually cares about education – and nothing else.

So bereft of direction was the structure Abe put into place that it had to be Abe, not the committee or Minister Shimomura, who had to pull the plug on the gargantuan Zara Hadid-designed Bicycle Helmet. It is Abe who is making changes to the design specifications for the next attempt.

2) They still do not know what the heck they are doing

One does not have to read the analysis of the new stadium plan, though there is a lot of juicy stuff coming out, to know that even with Abe's direct intervention, the Olympics effort is ensnared in a web of cross-purposes.

One only has to read the official government description of Friday's meeting of the National Stadium committee.

According to the Prime Minister's Residence website, those deciding on the new design for the new National Stadium will "undertake their investigation bending an ear to the voices of the citizens and the athletes."

Gee, what a concept.

As comedian Chris Rock would say, the Kantei wants the committee to get credit for activities any other committee knows it is just supposed to do.

Under the rubric of "putting the athletes first" the committee will, and I am not making this up, "as a principle limit the functions of the national stadium to what is necessary to put on the sporting events themselves."

Huh?

How is building a structure that does the least possible and still be called an Olympics venue become "putting the athletes first"? Was a design for a structure in which Olympic events cannot be held one of the alternatives?

Then there the little matter of the design itself. The committee promises, and again I am not making this up, to "simultaneously reflect international universal design, Japaneseness and other such attributes."

What?

How can anything have a goal of simultaneously reflecting "international universal design" and "Japaneseness" and qualities that are "like these things" – which is to say, "like" polar opposites (if something has "Japaneseness" that means by definition is it not "universal")-- qualities that are not even described? (Link – J)

Mark this still a catastrophe-in-progress.

What would save this situation would be an open, national competition, with a young unknown architect or designer offering a simple, spare and elegant design (with an impact the lines of Maya Lin's design for the Vietnam War memorial in Washington DC with its legion of imitators, including Okinawa's "Cornerstone of Peace") bailing out Abe and his cronies from the fiasco they have spawned. The narrative of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics being a citizen's Olympics could then be resurrected.

No, I am not hopeful.

Original image courtesy: Prime Minister's Residence.

Friday, August 28, 2015

He's The One


Feelin' just peachy...
Why don't we stop foolin' ourselves
The game is over.
Over.
Over.
No Good Times.
No Bad Times.
There's no Times at all...'cept the New York Times.

- Paul Simon, "Overs" (1968)

It's official: the Kishida and Ishihara factions of the Liberal Democratic Party yesterday declared themselves in favor of the reelection of Abe Shinzo as president of the LDP. Barring an accident or illness, Abe Shinzo is both the present and future leader of the party and the country (Link - J).

The question now -- and since the outcome is preordained it is not much of a question -- is whether or not there will even be an election. A candidate would have to come out of the ranks of the party's non-aligned members. While there are some leading lights among the non-aligned, even a few former candidates like Ishiba Shigeru, the sheer cussed pointlessness of setting up a run for the presidency when all 7 factions are lined up behind Abe should deter even the most ornery from running. The legions of the most ornery in the LDP are paltry indeed: only two Diet members -- the larger-than-life Murakami Sei'ichiro and the anti-Abe media favorite Noda Seiko -- even attempt to adopt the stance of opposition to Abe government policies.

It is possible that the leadership of the LDP might ask one of the party mavericks to at least try to mount a campaign. Such an attempt would benefit the party: it would foster of the illusion that democracy survives in Japan. One cannot imagine, however, how a pantomime fantasy farce candidacy would even leave the starting block. There is the little technical matter of a candidates's needing to corral 20 other LDP Diet members into supporting the challenge to Abe's leadership...Who could muster five, much less 20 Diet members into tarring themselves with the brush of "Not An Abe True Believer"?

When the September 8 declaration date rolls around, no one will stand against Abe. He will be reelected at the moment his aides register his candidacy.

Huzzah! Abe, Abe, he's our man! If he can't do it no one can.

No one.

Statiscally, politically, whatever. No one can.

Abe Shinzo: he's The One.

Later - Right after posting, The Japan News (translated stories of the Yomiuri Shimbun) checked in with a long article explaining some more of the background to the automatic reelection of Abe as party president (Link). The Yomiuri story throws yet more cold water on the "Let's Draft Noda Seiko" narrative.

With Abe's reelection to go unopposed, the focus of LDP politics switches to the guessing game around the new Cabinet lineup expected to be announced just before an extremely brief (1 month?) extraordinary session in the autumn. Who among the many Cabinet eligible mid-career members of the LDP will be incepted? Who will be left out, forced to accept a lesser Vice Minister post, or a directorship of an LDP division?

What we do know is by all lining up behind Abe's reelection, the faction leaders will each have the right to nominate one Abe-cannot-refuse-me cherished princeling subordinate to the new Cabinet.

Beyond these seven, a Chief Cabinet Secretary from Abe's home faction (one expects that Suga Yoshihide will continue to labor on in what is arguably a better buddy-buddy act than the Koizumi-Takebe pairing) and a few "Friends of Shinzo," the selection process for the remaining spots will be a crap shoot.


Image courtesy: Prime Minister's Residence

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Abe Shinzo's Secrets



About three weeks ago Timothy Langley and I had a long YouTube conversation about the implications of the Wikileaks release of July 31 (Link). The release itself featured rather innocuous information regarding Japanese trade and climate change thinking in 2007. What was stunning was the information demonstrated that the United States' National Security Agency was intercepting, translating and then disseminating the transcripts of the telephone calls of Japanese government officials in Tokyo.

At that time of our conversation Mr. Langley told me that despite efforts of the current governments to downplay the significance of this spying, the story was not going away.

Looks like he was right:
Abe Asks U.S. to Investigate Alleged NSA Spying on Japanese Government
Wall Street Journal

TOKYO—Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday asked U.S. President Barack Obama to investigate alleged spying by the National Security Agency on the Japanese government and companies, Mr. Abe’s spokesman said.

Documents posted online by WikiLeaks last month suggested that conversations involving government officials, central bankers and Japanese companies had been secretly intercepted by the U.S. agency. In a phone conversation Wednesday morning Tokyo time, Mr. Obama expressed regret that the issue has caused trouble for Mr. Abe and the government, according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga...

(Link)
It is a rare instance where the United States feels a need to express its regrets to a leader of Japan. Abe, however, has received an apology of sorts (Mr. Abe now knows what it is like to hear "Regret" when what one wants to hear is "Sorry") both from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (Link) and now from President Obama himself.

During the recording of the podcast on August 7, I thought the issue with legs would be the hunt for the door openers. The extent and depth of the infiltration into the communications of government officials, particularly the extraordinary number of telephone numbers tapped inside Japan's Ministry of Finance, indicated full cooperation, either knowing or unknowing, of Japanese entities and individuals. My thought was that the current Abe administration would demand to know who allowed the NSA access to Japan's communications networks or even physically into the ministries and the Prime Minister's Residence, that these collaborators or dupes might be reprimanded or even punished.

My thinking now, in light of Prime Minister Abe and President Obama having a conversation on a subject that should have been closed by the previous conversation with Vice President Biden, is that the prime minister has a much bigger worry on his mind.

The Wikileaks release featured analyses of internal communications from Abe's first term in office. The list of high priority targets includes "EXEC SCY TO CHIEF CAB SCY" - the executive secretary to the chief cabinet secretary -- meaning that the U.S. was listening in on the calls made by the executive secretary of the person who is the operations command center of Japan's bureaucracy, the Cabinet and the Prime Minister's staff.

Bad enough news for the alliance-- one has to have a serious attitude problem to dare tap such a nexus of power in a country that supports the U.S. in almost every instance (not to mention figures out how to pay for a lot of what the U.S. wants to do).

The timing of the tapping activity and closeness to the center of the intercepts, however, raises a searing question for Abe: what, if not everything, the United States government knows and has shared about what transpired inside the Prime Minister's Residence in late July, August and early September, 2007.

The facts that his Diet colleagues do not know.

The facts that his supporters do not know.

The facts that possibly only his closest aides, Aso Taro and Yosano Kaoru know.(Link)

The sports newspapers and the weeklies accounts of Abe's last weeks in office in 2007 were pretty wild and woolly. Abe has been insulated from the repercussions of these "revelations," however, because everyone knows the sports newspapers and weeklies will print anything, no matter how implausible, misrepresented or just plain made up.

But if the U.S. was listening in to the calls being made by Yosano's executive secretary, then some folks, maybe a lot of folks, might just know...the truth.

------------------------------------

Only semi-prophetic was I on Monday. While I did guess correctly that a close associate of the prime minister would claim the Abe administration's prudent stewardship of the Japanese economy was the reason for the sudden surge in the value of the yen, I missed guessing the identity of the perpetrator. I had hoped the claimant would be LDP Political Research Council Chair Inada Tomomi. Instead, it was the equally close Friend of Shinzo, Economic Revitalization Minister Amari Akira, who checked in with the fundamental stability claim (Link).

Image courtesy: Prime Minister's Residence

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

"Jobs, Jobs, Jobs," He Said

And now a little Japanese politics/Japan public affairs pornography.

New York, sigh.



Coolest company on the planet sigh.



More coolest company on the planet sighing.



Well, enough of that. Back to the salt mine.





Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Where We Go After Down


US Dollar versus JPY over the last eleven hours

After a Monday of global stock market instability and collapse the Abe government will be facing questions about what it can do to protect Japan’s economy from damage. The Cabinet will have its regularly scheduled Tuesday meeting. Afterward media organizations will ask Chief Cabinet Minister Suga Yoshihide what if anything the Abe government intends to do to restore confidence in Japanese markets. Prime Minister Abe likely faces as similar fate in the Diet, the opposition homing in on the unfair but entirely reasonable question of what he as prime minister will order his subordinates to do.

The answer Suga and Abe will not own up to is that there is virtually nothing the Abe government can do except watch the screens with dread. This government is tapped out when it comes to either deploying cash or inspiring confidence. Increased fiscal stimulus was already in the cards for this autumn; it is now a virtual certainty. Such fiscal stimulus is designed, however, to cope with the heretofore obstinate refusal of the Japanese economy to respond to the ministrations of the Bank of Japan, not to quell current market turmoil.

Liberal Democratic Party hacks will be tempted to argue that the public need not be worried, that equities markets are wrong and Japan's future is bright because of the yet-to-be realized growth effects of the Third Abenomics or robotics or some other such rigmarole. I am waiting for some peppy puppy (please, please, please let it be Liberal Democratic Party Policy Research Council Chair Inada Tomomi) to say, "Just look at how much the yen strengthened yesterday! It is a sign that global investors appreciate the opportunities and stabilities created by the Abe program!" That the effect any of the major proposals of the Third Arrow would be deflationary, exacerbating the market's fears about growth, will not trouble any part of the soft squishy heads of the Abe True Believers, of course.

Had we a ruthless, determined opposition in this blessed land, television shows this morning would feature street smart and mean-looking (yes, I am thinking of Renho) MPs complaining that the Japanese government would have the capacity to deploy assets to calm markets, making Japan the global leader Abe Shinzo always blabs about, a except of course that Team Abe robbed the national piggy bank to inflate the profits of its zaikai and construction industry friends.

That Japan lacks a serious opposition means of course the country will not be tying itself into knots, each side blaming the other. Of course it also means that the country will generate zero ideas on what it is that the government must do, as members of the parties in power will merely keep repeating the idiot mantra, "Markets go up. Markets go down. The important thing is to not panic. Wait for the government's current policies to bear fruit."

Image courtesy: Yahoo! Finance Japan

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Will Abe Take A Trip Down Yasukuni Lane This Day?


Yasukuni Shrine seen from Hosei University. 25 July 2015.

Will Abe Shinzo make the short trip to Yasukuni today? The smart money says, "No."

However, given

- that yesterday's Cabinet Statement contained all the magic words the international community wanted to hear, if without the tone or sense of agency the international community wanted,

- that the security legislation and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics have become embarrassments

- that Xi Jinping is not in a position to be open to chummy photo opportunities with Abe thanks to the tanking the Chinese markets and insecurity among the cadres engendered by the spreading anti-corruption campaign, meaning the loss or gain of a summit is not in play,

- that the construction plans for a Henoko replacement facility for USMC Air Base Futenma have come undone

- that Abe himself faces an LDP party leadership election next month,

I am willing to entertain the notion that the barriers preventing Abe from paying a surprise visit today are a lot lower than most analysts are willing to admit.

True, the chances of such a visit setting off serious anti-Japanese rioting in South Korea and China are not zero. Japanese companies, especially the big names, would likely suffer significant property damage and business losses. Given that Abe's second run for the presidency of the Liberal Democratic Party and second turn in the premiership are largely seen as having been framed as a quid pro quo with with the barons of Big Business, the chances for a provocative Yasukuni visit would seem slim.

And he said on August 12 that he won't go (Link - J).

Then again, despite many warnings not to, Abe paid his visit on December 26, 2013...


Yasukuni Shrine, 15 August 2014.