10th November 2014
Awash With Watersheds
The past couple of weeks have felt like a series of watersheds in Japan. Turning of the tide would be too strong a phrase, but certainly the river seems to be flowing in a very different way now to what it was a few weeks ago. Within domestic Japan, and the Japan that interacts with the rest of the world, both seem to be in a transition process at the moment.
The king is dead. Or at least his temporal mortality has been proved. PM Abe, the man with the Teflon suit (and desk) has been found to have unwanted news stick to him. This is interesting, not only for the worthiness of the news stories themselves but also for the role of the media up until this point. They have been unusually quiet and passive, some might even say tame, in regard to the current administration. The initial honeymoon period was to be expected, but after almost two years it was becoming a little embarrassing how little real reporting was going on, and how much the handouts of chicken feed and occasional nuggets of real content from the ‘kisha kurabu’ were being passed off as ‘real news’. This is the dream of governments everywhere: full spectrum dominance of news media. Putin would be proud. It couldn’t last for ever but just seemed as though it might. And then it all came crashing down in a most spectacular way, and from a very unexpected direction.
A politician had distributed some cheap hand fans in a summer campaign. Yes, that was the start. Not exactly Watergate but everything has to start somewhere. There were only three problems: the fans had the images on them of a female LDP cabinet member, Justice Minister Midori Matsushima, as part of her previous election campaign, and their production and distribution was in breach of a law on campaign finances. As Minister of Justice she probably should know that, but tried to just brazen it out, and might have succeeded in doing so, but for the third problem, and one more that had nothing to do with her. The third problem was that not only did she make a mistake, but that she let people know about it, and one person who you wouldn’t want knowing about it is the opposition DPJ’s beautiful assassin, Renho. She slaughtered the minister twice in parliament and made her look both foolish and corrupt (neither is probably true), and the administration incompetent, as Matsushima had only been appointed in September, and we weren’t even in the last week of October.
Now, things began to get interesting. The additional item that Matsushima couldn’t control was the spending habits of one of her cabinet colleagues. That is beyond anyone’s control, other than the person involved. When that person spends public money on cosmetics, expensive gifts, and then the ultimate display of ‘initiative’ bottles of wine with her name and full photograph on the label, well that makes a paper and plastic fan look like some very small potatoes. Yes, step forward Yuko Obuchi, until recently Minister for Economy, Trade, and Industry, and daughter of former PM Keizo Obuchi, after whose sad death in office she inherited the ‘family seat’. In Britain that means a country house, minor title, possible seat in the House of Lords, and a lot of bills for field drainage and a new roof. In Japan it means she took over dad’s place in the Diet, and was adopted by his supporters, servants, and cronies, in a vast power management-money making enterprise. This is not cynicism, but fact. Each Diet member requires a decent staff to raise funds to fight elections and administer those funds, and the top funds received from the state. More funds require more staff which require more funds. A common enough pattern.
Both women were appointed to the cabinet, it is widely supposed, as Abe was making his big pledge about one of the arrows in his quiver. He has been vexed by the issue of productivity in Japan, which is approximately half of US levels (and one wouldn’t imagine that from most Japanese or US media sources), and the declining and ageing population, so he has made a pledge to get more women into work. Many Japanese ladies choose to be house wives rather than enjoy the delights of the Japanese female work place, where the expression ‘OL’, or office lady, is a cipher for ‘woman who makes tea, does photocopying, and helps men who do the real work’. Many Japanese women are managers and bosses, not least several of my former students (hi Satoko!), but not that many. So Abe tried to take the initiative and appointed five of 18 women to his cabinet in early September, and announced that he wanted 30% of senior business and senior political and administrative positions to be held by women by 2020. Great policy, and if it doesn’t happen he surely won’t be in power and no-one can blame him for the failure.
Now, the first women of the five to get into hot water were internal affairs minister, Sanae Takaichi, and LDP policy chief, Tomomi Inada, who were both pictured posing smiling alongside Kazunari Yamada, the 52-year-old leader of the National Socialist Japanese Workers Party, on the neo-Nazi party’s website. Yamada has praised Adolf Hitler and the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre, denied the Holocaust and criticised the ban on the Nazi salute in Germany. This wasn’t good, but then Obuchi took things in a whole new direction.
She has been in politics for 15 years, was educated partly overseas, inherited her dad’s staff and support system, and even briefly served under PM Taro Aso. She is not exactly a green rooky. However, she purchased silk ties, made by her sister, and sold by her brother in law, with official funds as presents to overseas VIPs, which she claimed in the Diet were very well received and which she did not think was a problem. This was also the case for the purchase of expensive clothes and cosmetics, as these were, she claimed, required for the role of representing Japan, as though she arrived in office naked and unkempt. The ultimate, however, was the wine, seemingly produced by her campaign committee, featuring her photo, and distributed in clear breach of electoral laws, and later exchanged for enormous prices when every media group in the land was desperate to have evidence for the ballooning scandal. And yet she tried to brazen it out. Only when the boss made a press announcement that he would talk with her and ask her to explain the details of everything was it clear even to a girl given her career on her family plate that the game was up, and she needed to look elsewhere for a job.
So, story over.
And then there were the replacements. The new justice minister was seemingly safe hands Yoko Kamikawa. But the new economy, trade, and industry minister was the ‘enigmatic’ Yoichi Miyazawa, the nephew of late PM Kiichi Miyazawa, and cousin of the current foreign minister Fumio Kishida. It’s nice to keep things cosy with family. He was appointed on the Monday, and by the Wednesday was defending himself after it emerged that staff from his support group spent office money at a sadomasochistic bar in Hiroshima, his constituency area. Members of Miyazawa-kai, his political support group that manages his funds, spent 18,230 yen ($170, £106) at the club in September 2010 on “entertainment expenses” as part of “constituency business”, and the TV reporters asking the minister what form of business could be done in an S&M bar were treated to a look of startled, blank horror usually reserved for those discovered interfering with goats. “It is true such expenses were made,” Mr Miyazawa told reporters. “But I myself did not go there at all. That's true as well.” It’s also true that in the bar women dressed only in underwear are tied up with ropes and whipped. The owner stated on TV that most customers are men. But as Abe could claim, they are giving a great deal of productive employment and satisfaction to women.
(On the issue of harassment of women in Japan’s workplaces, see this new article by Stephanie Assman: http://japanfocus.org/-Stephanie-Assmann/4211?utm_source=November+10%2C+2014&utm_campaign=China%27s+Connectivity+Revolution&utm_medium=email )
After these cases it seemed that the media had woken up from their obliging stupor to find that there were real stories to be had at the government’s expense, and the media shifted direction and pace in its reporting. Not the turning of a tide, but a shift. One of the results seems to be the drop in the government’s popularity to its lowest level, with 44% supporting and 38% opposing, with the economy being the leading source of dissatisfaction, as Abe’s arrows are well past the peak of their trajectory with little real evidence of having achieved a great deal. The always excellent blog of Michael Cucek (Shisaku: http://shisaku.blogspot.co.uk/ ) explains that despite the quite outrageous inflationary measures of Abe through the BoJ (now his tame beast), and its attempts to cheapen the yen, and the entire economy, into the basement is a high risk strategy.
“...the implicit Abenomics bargain:
"We the Abe Administration and compliant governors of the Bank of Japan will goose your equities prices and turbocharge your profits. You corporates will dramatically raise salaries and hiring of your permanent employees, and not just double bonuses, creating a positive inflation expectations loop from which all of society can benefit...oh and no wanking around with further increased hiring of temporary workers to replace permanent workers! We're watching you."”
So, make things just sweet and jammy for big business, and hope they do what you want, otherwise...you won’t be quite so sweet to them in the future. A masterplan.
The other change in recent days has been in China Japan relations. Months of hammering away by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs upon the China edifice has resulted in PM Abe having a face to face summit with President Xi Jinping on the edges of the APEC summit in Beijing. They met this evening, and interesting it was. Abe stood in the foyer of the Hall of the People, waiting nervously, Xi walked in, Abe smiling spoke to him and shook his hand. Xi avoided all eye contact, said nothing, no smile, and walked away after a few seconds of posing with Abe for the handshake photo. The Japanese media spin was ‘Xi is playing to his domestic audience, and must show displeasure to Japan, but really he wants talks’. However, there is also an alternative narrative: Xi wanted these talks a hell of a lot less than Abe did. The Japanese PM appeared to be incredibly desperate, and he was. And no girl likes a desperate man.
However, this is only the open face of the situation. In recent weeks it became clear that China was signalling its desire to revert to more ‘normal’ patterns on discourse, through measures to reduce air and sea collisions in disputed areas, and in China expressing displeasure with some of its countrymen poaching red coral from the waters around the Ogasawara Islands. This was the reasonable face of China, and one the Japanese were desperate to see and speak with, and resulted in the four point plan between the nations agreed on 7th November. This was the first time that both sides, in the vaguest of language, acknowledged that there was a disagreement between them regarding islands.
The tide with China hasn’t turned, but things are looking up just at the moment. Oddly, the seemingly invincible Abe seemed most popular with his people when he was determined in setting himself against China, and with a compliant press uncritically lauding his domestic achievements, even his resolve to raise the consumption tax to 10% next year. Now, he is wavering on the tax, the media are smelling domestic blood, and he is claiming success in being granted a brief audience with a reluctant Chinese President. Yes, the river seems to flowing in a slightly different direction these days.