31 – Japan’s Political Tremors and Shifts (31 Mar 2011)

    Japan’s calamitous earthquake and tsunami were preceded by great tremors and shifts in its political system, the continuation and outcome of which will inevitably affect the longer term aftermath of the natural disaster.
    In September 2009 the relatively new DPJ ended a virtual one-party system that had lasted over half a century. But its coming to power had even greater significance. The problems and promise of this change revolve around a question that in Japan was never truly settled. Who has the right to rule? The constitution gives it without a moment’s hesitation to elected officials representing Japanese citizens. But tradition, rooted in the 250 years of the Tokugawa shogunate bureaucracy, has always favored the career officials. The post-World War II ruling party, the LDP formed in 1955, had not done much actual ruling once postwar reconstruction had been completed by politicians who had emerged from the bureaucratic elite. That reconstruction of a war-devastated country was never halted by a political debate about what to do next; it automatically evolved into an unofficial but very real national policy of seemingly limitless expansion of industrial production capacity, with little regard for other possible economic and social priorities. Alternative policies hardly registered in general discussion.
Earlier success of an extraordinary, finely tuned, system of industrial, financial, and political entities operating in concert, and producing the proverbial Japanese economic miracle, turned into a political burden. Overcapacity, neglected prefectural development, huge dollar profits that had to stay in the American economy, and dwindling demand from world markets befuddled incumbent authorities. The officials in the economic ministries and their cooperating counterparts in the higher echelons of industrial federations, the corporate clusters, and financial circles did frequently produce miracles of adjustment, but they could not replace or even question Japan's set of basic priorities. The necessary political decisions for such an overhaul were forever postponed because those were not part of how the LDP exercised its power.
     What was needed, so a widening circle of politically concerned Japanese were concluding, was a political steering wheel with which to deviate from the basic course set in the early postwar and post-occupation years. When in 1993 two major political figures bolted from the LDP with their followers,

30 – In Praise of Conspiracy Theories (10 Mar 2010)

    What do the editors of the Washington Post think they are doing with their once venerable paper? Assisting Washington’s authorities in their various projects or – what they want their readers to believe – informing the citizenry with as truthful a picture as they can put together of world events? It is a proper question to ask after the editorial published the day before yesterday linking a prominent Japanese politician with the “lunatic fringe” for his questioning of some aspects of the official version of what happened on the 11th of September 2001. In a casual chat with an editor, after an interview about Japan’s immigration policies, Yukihisa Fujita (member of the Japanese Upper House and Director General of the International Bureau of the DPJ, the new party in power) made some remarks that could have been made in a private capacity by thousands of people with political acumen about misgivings that one must suppose are shared by quite a few members of the Post’s staff, if that paper still hires people with journalistic gifts and instincts.
     There are two stories here. One is a seeming attempt to add yet another bit of evidence that the new party that last September broke a half century of power monopoly is not fit to govern America’s most important ally in Asia. After it does its character assassination, the editorial notes that Fujita’s “views, rooted as they are in profound distrust of the United States, seem to reflect a strain of anti-American thought that runs through the DPJ and the government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama...

29 – The President and his Generals (8 Dec 09)

    One of the best things that has happened since Barack Obama took over from George W. Bush is that ‘the most powerful man in the world’ no longer sounds like he is speaking to 11 year olds. Obama’s oratory has been not only a great asset for himself – it elevated him to where he is – but also a pleasure to listen to, even though in the past eleven months it has largely been used to substitute for the concrete measures he had promised his supporters. But with his latest performance, his hooray-for-war speech of a week ago, he has much insulted the intelligence of his supporters, of Americans in general, and of all of us, concerned onlookers around the world. Quite a lot of what he said did not begin to be convincing in any way, and it all pivoted around this line: “If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people was at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow.”
    Now, to find examples of a politician speaking the unvarnished truth while in some way involved in war we would have to dig very, very deep in the collective memory of all nations, and do this probably in vain. But in this case, Obama’s national security advisor, General James Jones, has himself said that “The Al Qaeda presence [in Afghanistan] is very diminished. The maximum estimate is less than 100 operating in the country, no bases, no ability to launch attacks on either us or our allies.” Obama of course conflates Al Qaeda with the Taliban (who have done no Americans any harm, except those occupying their territory), as has become customary in many circles, but can he possibly believe that they form a threat worth staving off with a trillion or so dollars, perhaps thousands of new American deaths, and many times more former soldiers without limbs or half their brains, and, not to forget, record numbers of future suicides among the very same cadets before whom he chose to speak; quite aside from the tens of thousands of dead Afghans.
     He may have been insufficiently prepared for the presidency, but he cannot be that naive.

28 – A Tale of Two Countries (26 Nov 09)

A Tale of Two Countries – Obama’s Failure and Minshuto’s Success
(I gave this talk yesterday before the Ozaki Foundation in Tokyo)

    You perhaps think the subtitle of this talk – Obama’s Failure, Minshuto’s Success – to be a mischievous and overly hasty conclusion. But I think it is already a reality staring us in the face. Summing it up right away: Obama has missed the one rare opportunity for initiating the momentous reform policies he was expected to deliver, and such opportunity will not come again. The Minshuto, on the other hand, has moved fast to change Japan’s political reality beyond a point where it can revert to where things were until September, and where they had been for decades of indecision.
     Both the United States and Japan are in the middle of developments that are bound to have a great effect on the wider world, quite aside from them changing their domestic circumstances. I can imagine that you have greater trouble believing that about Japan than about the United States, but that may be because of an ingrained habit, widespread in the world, of identifying the United States with leadership and vigor and Japan as a place where the politics never change.
     What the two countries have had in common are serious problems connected with a lack of effective political control. This out-of-control situation has in the United States led to regression; to things moving in very much the wrong way, especially with regards to its financial system and its waging unprovoked and unnecessary wars. And in Japan the out-of-control situation has led to stagnation, to things not moving at all, except, very gradually downhill, socially and economically. No wonder therefore that expectations before the American and Japanese elections were considerably greater than they tend to be with run-of-the-mill elections among the world’s democracies.

27 – An American Plea for European Awakening (18 Sep 09)

see also a new Sampiemon columnn about NATO in Afghanistan

    What I hoped to read has finally been written: A plea from an American addressed to all Europeans for help with bringing the United States to its senses. It ought to be on the editorial pages of every serious newspaper in Europe. In a speech contributed to the Mut zur Ethik Conference held in Austria a couple of weeks ago, Paul Craig Roberts lays out the case for Europe to “go into active opposition to US foreign policy.” American freedom as well as “sovereign independence elsewhere in the world” require this. Both the political leaders and the people of the United States “need Europe’s help in order to avoid the degeneration of the American political entity.”
     Europeans insufficiently clued in about the gyrations of American non-mainstream media discussion might imagine such exhortation as coming from rather far-off leftist quarters. But Paul Craig Roberts was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under President Reagan, Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal, and has held numerous academic appointments in what in the US are categorized as ‘conservative’ institutions. I first came across his writing on a well-known ‘conservative’ website. He disappeared from that ever rightward drifting site when he became one of the first authors from a non-leftist background to pierce through the political exploitation of the September 11 attacks. And pierce he did, deeper and more to the point than many on that threadbare left side of the American political spectrum. Articulate, erudite, and informed by historical perspective, Roberts has been one of my anchors on the internet, a reassurance that it was not me who had gone mad, while what I call the insanity factor

26 – What Can the DPJ’s Overwhelming Victory Mean for Japan? (31 Aug 09)

    The significance of yesterday's Japanese election results goes beyond a relatively new and untried political party ending half a century of rule by a competing party; if the new leaders turn out to be true leaders and are allowed to carry out their declared intentions, this will fundamentally change the Japanese power system. That power system has in modern times always been averse to genuine political leadership. It has been relatively good at administrative governance, with career officials maintaining policy stability and initiating adjustments to stick to a course set by accident or imagined national expediency before their time.
    This means that with few exceptions the elected officials – politicians in Japan's parliament, in the Prime Minister's office, and ostensibly as heads of government agencies – besides reassuring their own citizens and the outside world that Japan is a democracy, have played a mostly marginal role, as powerbrokers at best. We can actually single out an architect who set it up this way just before the turn of the century before last: Yamagata Aritomo. Rather than here telling the story of this remarkable man, who created Japan's modern bureaucracy along with its early 20th-century military establishment, I will copy an essay about him that I wrote in 2001 in a sub-jotting hereunder. What Japan’s new government will be up against is essentially what he wrought and, in a modified way, has endured for over a century.
     To say that the task that Hatoyama Yukio and his fellow leaders of the Minshuto have set themselves is daunting would be putting it very, very mildly.