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.
     Prime minister Kan’s “performance in responding to the accident at the plant is … illustrative of the fundamental problem in the governance style of his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)”, she says. Those who are new to the subject should before anything else know that what is special about the DPJ ‘governance style’ is that it aims actually to govern. I have written elsewhere, most recently here, that where Japan is concerned this is not as simple as it sounds. Kan and his reformist colleagues are at fault, so      Tatsumi thinks, for bypassing the on-the-ground expertise of the bureaucrats who have customarily been in charge of things. In actuality, Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), along with the ‘regulators’ expected to keep a public eye on what it does, exist in a political twilight area, neither truly private, nor truly public, that is highly self-contained and not at all used to oversight and answering questions from elected officials.
     This is something a great deal more complex than what is conveyed by the cliché, used again by Tatsumi, of “close co-operation between big businesses and the government agencies that have regulatory and supervisory authority over them”. There are numerous such relatively self-contained areas of politically significant activity embedded in a system marked by a lot of mutual backscratching and adjustment, but no over-all accountability. Japan’s ministries operate with so much discretionary decision-making power within their own spheres of responsibility that they sometimes give the impression of functioning like independent states.
     Tatsumi writes that before the current calamity “the DPJ’s insistence on ‘leadership by politicians’ – compared to the consensus, bottom-up style adopted by the LDP – had created problems.” The ‘consensus’ and ‘bottom up’ are part of common Japanese fiction linked to a mythology of innate social harmony. Consensus in the true meaning of the term does not enter into it. And whereas the LDP did a bit of power broking when absolutely necessary, especially in the case of bureaucratic turf wars, it hardly ever exercised policy-making power beyond that. What else could we expect than that the ‘leadership by politicians’ approach caused problems, since it had hardly existed before? Even though senior bureaucrats lamented about it often enough when I lunched with them in the 1990s, they and their colleagues always remained ambivalent and deeply worried about such political leadership arriving some day to ‘cause confused situations’.
     Kan Naoto made his reputation as a reformist, and he was for a while Japan’s most popular politician when he insisted, as minister of health and welfare in a short-lived coalition cabinet, that his theoretically subordinate bureaucrats should tell the truth about the HIV-infected blood products that they had, knowingly, allowed Japanese companies to market in Japan. Nothing like such a command for transparency had ever before happened in the relationship between elected and career officials in Japan. This time, he has been reported as having blown his top when meeting with TEPCO officials. Tatsumi takes him to task for using outside nuclear energy experts as advisers and thereby alienating the bureaucrats. But what other path could he possibly have taken to establish any kind of accountability structure?
     Tatsumi’s misconceptions are understandable. Japan’s newspapers ran exposures of the inner working of Japan’s bureaucratic politics for about half a year in 1993, at the beginning of the reformist movement from which the DPJ eventually emerged. But that kind of reporting has turned out to be a one-off event. Since the coming to power of the DPJ the newspapers appear to have hardly noticed what should be seen as a super struggle for the right to rule, one between the career officials and officials produced by Japan’s democracy. Japan’s reporters are the world’s foremost conoisseurs of factionalism and internal party warfare. This has supplied their main fare for decades. As a result the newspapers can hardly identify politically significant policy-making when they see it.
     But there is more to Tatsumi and the think tank she works for in relation to Japan, which is why the above story is worth mentioning in the first place. Think tank and author reflect the irritation of Washington’s establishment with Japan’s new government and its new intentions. And that irritation is likely to have far greater repercussions than one might at first suspect. Entrenched Japanese bureaucratic interests do not like what the DPJ intended to accomplish, but Washington does not like it one bit either. In fact, the powers in charge of U.S.-Japan relations over there – made up of, essentially, Pentagon officials and Pentagon alumni – administered one of the biggest blows to the DPJ as they engineered the collapse of its first cabinet formed by prime minister Hatoyama. More about that story here.
     Hatoyama lost his prime ministership in the winter of 2009-10 as a result of the first bureaucratic victories won by the foreign affairs and defense ministries, whose officials were not happy with the DPJ’s more assertive attitude, since that could only mean greater pressure on them from Washington. The networks of those officials have long been intricately intertwined with their counterparts in Washington – in a tradition that actually goes back to America’s postwar occupation of Japan. LDP ‘old friends’ and putative wise men, on both sides of what must be considered one of the weirdest dependency relations in history, helped create a received wisdom in Washington that the DPJ was not up to governing responsibly because of its inexperience and its lack of purpose. The former was obviously true, but the alleged lack of knowing what it wanted to accomplish could only work in anti-DPJ propaganda because the Japanese newspapers concentrated on little more than the incipient rivalries and tensions among the groups that had formed this new party. With few exceptions, American Japanologists and assorted American experts on the bilateral relationship partook in the manufacture of the story that the DPJ still had some way to go to get U.S.-Japan relations back on an even keel.
     What official Washington hoped to accomplish by its contemptuous treatment of Hatoyama and the DPJ in general, aside from pushing through the wishes of the American Marine Corps for comfortable new quarters on Okinawa, is not clear. A return of the LDP, which had accepted half a century of vassalage? But that party has been falling apart. Or did it have the tactical savvy to want what it actually produced: a scared successor to Hatoyama?
     Kan Naoto may have stood up once to the health and welfare bureaucrats back in the 1990s, and may have just offended the bureaucrats in charge of overseeing nuclear power production, but at this point he is unlikely to get in the way of the defense and foreign ministry bureaucrats. More importantly, perhaps, is the way that before he took over as prime minister he seemed to have accepted the priorities of the Ministry of Finance bureaucrats, who appear to have become obsessed with deficit reduction.
     This last point is significant in the context of policy making in the wake of Japan’s biggest catastrophe since World War II. Immediate reconstruction efforts will of course force the hands of politicians and bureaucrats alike. But whether these will be embedded in a far more ambitious project of broader economic restructuring and rejuvenation, something my Japanese friends hope for, will depend on numerous factors among which Washington’s desires have the potential to become a very big one.
     Japan’s calamity could very well mark the beginning of a dollar crisis. A first inkling of this came on March 17–18 with the G7 decision by teleconference on a coordinated intervention. Treasury Secretary Geithner played a major role in this. Japan’s capital export to the United States, for decades a major feature determining the relationship between the two economies, will inevitably slow down if not stop altogether. And so, besides Washington’s displeasure – displayed in response the DPJ’s earlier intentions to strengthen ties with Beijing, and to being more open to the idea of Asian regional cooperation outside the purview of the United States – we must expect a stream of American advice and/or invective on the subject of what Japan should (not) be doing with regard to its economic policies.
     In the normal run of affairs, political as well as economic reality as it exists in the heads of interested parties, is determined in probably a decisive way by general consensus of opinion about it. That opinion, in turn, is highly dependent on what is presented as political and economic news. A perfect example of that have been the ubiquitous references to Japan’s economic ‘lost decade’, during a period in which much of Tokyo as well as Osaka was being rebuilt.
     The reason why Washington-based think tanks, like the Stimson Center, are important is because those are where the news about Japan is made, or rather amplified. Few people until now have realized that news about Japan has to be made outside it because most foreign newspapers, TV companies, and magazines that used to have regular correspondents in Tokyo have withdrawn them. The manner in which the rise to power of the DPJ has been reported stands out as an example of what you get as a result. The world learned about DPJ’s supposed clumsiness mostly from opinion dispersed by officials in Washington talking with reporters and columnists living next door. There are of course financial correspondents in Tokyo catering to the international investors community, but these wear visors that produce a heavily filtered picture of reality. The inept international reporting on Japan’s calamity, inspired by, and centering almost exclusively on, fears of radiation, is a sad example of what you get from journalists parachuted into unknown territory.
     Regular correspondents of the classical variety are paid to write about what they have figured out must be close to actual reality, perhaps with an eye on editorial preferences and prejudice. Scholars and analysts in think tanks are paid to peddle a line, no matter their protestations of ‘neutrality’ or ‘nonpartisanship’. The line in the case of Japan’s new government was created by reporters interviewing Pentagon officials, Pentagon alumni and their friends, and a couple of academics who must keep in mind on which side their bread is buttered.
     Japanese are sometimes, wittingly or unwittingly, part of this game. The main Japanese newspapers jumped at the opportunity to copy Washington concerns about the government in Tokyo breaking routine, as they made Hatoyama and Ozawa Ichiro appear as spoilers of that great transpacific relationship. And Ms. Tatsumi is paid for papers and books reflecting Washington’s line that Japan is not doing enough to help in Afghanistan, that it is not trying hard enough to carry out the original plans for building a new base for the US Marines. She also echoes the hope that the DPJ will stop undermining the U.S.-Japan alliance, and expresses a more general concern about Tokyo perhaps not meeting with American expectations. You can check this at her think tank’s website.
     All this is of minor importance in the scheme of world events; but keep in mind where, primarily, the news about Japan is made when the next wave of revelations comes our way.