23 – Lifting Japan’s Curse of ‘Muddling Through’ (22 May 09)

    The forced resignation of the leader of Japan's opposition party, Ichiro Ozawa, and the election of Yukio Hatoyama as his succcessor, may appear to outsiders as the proverbial storm in a teacup, but it is more than that: it is directly related to the question whether or not Japan's curse of ‘muddling through’ will be lifted after the forthcoming elections. Especially now that it has been demonstrated, once again, that the immune system of Japan's political world is still capable of keeping down those who might upset the status quo.
     The status quo is treasured by Japan's administrative bureaucracy, of which the editors of the big newspapers, the managers of the industrial federations, as well as those of the financial institutions and much of big industry also form a part. The absence of waves is a sacred condition. It prevents what is known here as "a confused situation" – disturbance of the social order that the administrators fear most. The Japanese public as a whole is less addicted to the status quo. And when I came back to Japan in the beginning of this year my first conversations

22 – The Incompetence of Obama’s Repairmen (10 May 09)

    Give the man time! A new head of government cannot do everything at once! He has only had three months. These are the responses that one is likely to get when expressing doubts about the effectiveness of Obama's policies when measured against the high expectations and overwhelming feelings of urgency that something dramatic should be done. Impatience is frequently interpreted as following from insufficient understanding about the set of circumstances that this new president inherited, circumstances that could hardly be worse in the imagination of most sympathisers.
    What Obama has been expected to do comes down to a task for which daunting is too weak an adjective, one requiring herculean powers. And of course that takes time. All true. But by not being critical, by not scrutinising his early decisions about the people with whom he wants to work, by not strongly questioning how these people interpret the jobs they have been asked to do; by not being critical of Obama in his early days, we may unwittingly be adding to the many disadvantages that surround him.
     When in political life something very big must be undertaken, the question of competence on the part of those who undertake it gains supreme importance.

21 – Obama Meets Frankenstein (9 May – 09)

    The prevailing intellectual climate is not friendly to the notion that much of the time we do not know what we are doing, in the sense of producing results that diverge widely from what in all sanity we would have wanted to produce. Intellectually we have come a far way from remote ancestors who thought they could make sense of their reality by invoking "fate" or capricious gods who derived pleasure from playing with humanity. Enlightened thought has us acting as conscious agents.
     All varieties of liberalism - not the "leftism" of American political understanding, but the legacy of Locke, Hume, and John Stuart Mill - hold high the concepts of "agency" and "choice". Especially in the United States these are taken for granted. American social science is steeped in them. Political thought on the most popular level treats them as given. The way in which our society is put together and how it works is the outcome of collective choice, our lives are lived as directed by conscious human agency; the one assumption contains, of course, the other.

20 – The Effect of Unaccountable Government (24 Apr 09)

    There could hardly be a greater difference between the United States and Japan than when their heads of government change. The American president decapitates, as it were, the government entities staffed by career officials and brings in a double layer of new appointees who, he hopes, will do his bidding. The new Japanese prime minister must be painstakingly heedful of balancing factional interests of the ruling party as he selects members of a cabinet, and those newly chosen top politicians are subsequently treated as temporary visitors in the ministries they ostensibly head. If these Japanese politicians are lucky, and survive more than one of the regular cabinet reshuffles, the top bureaucrats who work theoretically underneath them may perhaps help realize a small pet project that will be associated with their name. In the context of the ubiquitous thorny question of how much politicians should listen to bureaucrats or bureaucrats should be guided by elected representatives, the balance between the two has in both countries swung to extreme and opposite ends.
     But Japan and the United States have still something in common. Something that has suddenly become highly relevant in the United States. Among American government entities, there are a couple of exceptions to the norm of presidential supervision.

19 – The Sad Necessity of Economic Self-censorship (23 Apr 09)

    Notwithstanding the gradually declining fortunes of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan as a journalists’ club (you cannot count on finding a real-life correspondent when you enter its main bar), it still manages to pull off memorable events at which journalists are given the opportunity to engage prominent figures in serious and searching conversation. I participated in one yesterday, at which two recipients of the Japan Prize, David Kuhl & Dennis Meadows, could discuss what they had been doing and thinking. For the radiology pioneer and “father of positron emission tomography scanning" – allowing doctors to look into the physical substance of our brains and other soft tissue – the press could hardly have been expected to express more than awe, but the exchange with Dr. Meadows turned into a probing discussion.
     Having become famous 37 years ago with his Club of Rome report The Limits to Growth, Meadows has continued to think about what economies are for and what they cannot do. If the format of the event and time had permitted it, this FCCJ press luncheon could easily have turned into a brainstorming session

18 – The Conceptual Crisis (3 Apr 09)

and a related new column by Jan Sampiemon

    Outsize controversies attending two much awaited top political meetings held this week – the G20 and NATO – should awaken the world to the fact that the various crises confronting us can also be seen as being linked to a huge conceptual crisis. Being discussed are the two areas of activity that will probably more than anything else decide the medium-term future of the world: the collapse of part of the global financial system and American foreign policy. The latter has been made almost invisible in the news by the former, but continues to be a weighty factor. The shallowness of the talk reaching us from these meetings should worry us. Lack of political will is of course one reason for it, but another one, directly related to that, is the huge conceptual crisis.
     Conceptual crises may follow from intellectual sloppiness, a dearth of imagination and other symptoms of idle brains. But I think more important in this case is a loss of knowledge that cripples otherwise very active brains. The loss of knowledge in the past few decades has been horrendous.