34 – The Unseen Crash of American Leadership (29 Apr 2011)

    The notion of American leadership is, today, a fantasy. When we speak of leadership we think of something that is positive. A leader who is accepted voluntarily is not going to lead you and your loved ones, along with all your compatriots, unnecessarily into dangerous waters. That kind of leadership is the lot of those who have been enslaved or seduced.
     American leadership used to exist. In fact it was crucial in shaping the post-World-War-II world, which in the second half of the twentieth century consolidated into a relatively peaceful and relatively stable international order, one hospitable to a Russia and China once these shed their ideologies that had isolated them with a rigid authoritarianism. But it crashed. While signs of serious political malfunctioning were observed long before that moment, we can pinpoint the actual crash to when an utterly incompetent president decided to appoint enemies at whim, and thereby broke with tradition, international agreements, and what had been achieved by international law; all that his predecessors in the immediate postwar period had helped establish.
     American leadership is a fantasy because a country can only be a good leader if possessed of a minimal degree of inner stability and self-control along with purposes that are shared by those being led.
 When Barack Obama entered the White House he told “every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity”

33 – Where Japanese News is Made (07 Apr 2011)

     When political habits formed and consolidated over more than half a century are challenged, what is the first thing that we should expect? Obviously, powerful forces that will obstruct, defuse and perhaps eventually defeat the challenge. This must be kept in mind as we hear the stories shaping conventional wisdom about how the government of the world’s second most important industrial country (sorry, but as of now still more important than China) deals with what follows from its greatest misfortune in over two generations.
     The BBC may have reached a potentially huge audience for one of the first of such evaluations produced by a Washington think-tank.
     Ms. Yuki Tatsumi, a senior associate at the Stimson Center, writes about the pr problems, the confusion and the lack of transparency attending what for the world had become the No 1 subtheme overshadowing everything else in the story of the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami – the malfunctioning nuclear power plant in Fukushima. There is no reason to quarrel with her description of the situation, but when it comes to the subtleties in her explanation as to why there exists a fundamental problem, her understanding goes awry in a none too subtle manner.

32 – The Great Hiatus (06 Apr 2011)

    Between the previous jotting and the one before that more than a year had gone by. I will try not to let that happen again.
    I had not stopped writing, and hereunder are links to a couple of articles on developments in Japan, and the relationship between Japan and the United States, which I believe has relevance to more than these two countries.
    I have also finished two books. The Character Assassination of Ozawa Ichiro, which is mainly of interest to Japanese readers. I am happy to say that it has sold very well in the first ten days of its published existence before Japan’s calamity understandably directed political attention to more urgent matters. The other one, America’s Tragedy and the Blind Free World, appeared in Japanese last autumn. It is awaiting publication in the rest of the world.
     These jottings are not about my personal life, but as George Orwell (and many others) reminded us, general rules are to be broken when the need seems to arise. The lives of my wife and me have been very much enriched by the birth of our son, Sebastian van Wolferen. As any author with children will probably agree, such an experience is infinitely more rewarding than seeing a book published. Here he is, at the age of 55 minutes with his first wink. The Japanese language has an expression, oya baka, for parents who annoy others with news and pictures of their children. I promise to restrain myself on this site.
     An article published in February 2010 by ChuoKoron On Political Rebirth, Proportion and Power about the sabotage faced by Japan’s new ruling party, and the attempt (successful as it turned out) to get rid of its first cabinet formed by Hatoyama Yukio.
     An article that appeared in the April and May 2011 issues of Bungei Shunju on The Dangerous Fantasy of American Leadership.

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.