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    Japan notes

    Posted by Sean at 01:58, January 30th, 2006

    There’s been more news about the Yamaha Motor flap:

    Yamaha Motor Co. sold a top-of-the-line unmanned helicopter to a Chinese company that was established in 1993 by high-ranking officers of the People’s Liberation Army, sources said over the weekend.

    Yamaha is also suspected of having received several tens of millions of yen in rebates from another Chinese company that bought the helicopters, said the sources close to the police investigation into the alleged illegal exports.

    Investigators now expect Yamaha will face charges of violating the Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Control Law for the unapproved exports.

    The PLA-linked company to which Yamaha sold the unmanned helicopter is Poly Technologies Inc., based in Beijing.

    The vice chairman and president of China Poly Group is He Ping, the husband of Deng Rong, the youngest daughter of the late paramount Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.

    It’s not what you know….

    *******

    Though the new Japan Post holding company has just started operations, Nippon Express (Nittsu) is already planning its strategic response to the privatization (or “privatization”):

    As a defensive move against the operations of the new Japan Post public corporation, Nippon Express will become the first private provider to deliver personal correspondence on a nationwide scale. The new service will target documents with a delivery cost of ¥1000 or higher; parcels will be picked up from the user’s address and delivered by the next day. Nationwide delivery of personal correspondence is now monopolized by the Japan Post registered mail service, but Nittsu will provide delivery at lower cost in certain regions.

    *******

    Japan is modifying its approach to angling for a permanent UN Security Council membership:

    Japan’s new proposal has taken into account the United States’ position that Security Council membership should not be expanded by more than six seats, to a maximum 21 from the current 15, including the five permanent members–Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.

    The proposal calls for a country seeking permanent membership on the council to receive a seat if it can win the backing of two-thirds of the U.N. General Assembly in a vote, the officials said.

    Under the plan, such permanent members, however, would not be given veto power, the ministry said.

    The government is considering presenting the proposal at the United Nations this spring. Whether other countries concerned will support the plan is not known, they said.

    The new draft seeks to have the present Security Council framework comprising the five permanent members and 10 nonpermanent ones increased by six to make the council a 21-member body.

    According to the plan, a maximum of six countries–two each from Asia and Africa, and one each from Latin America and Europe–should be allowed to join the existing five permanent members.

    Japan contributes almost a fifth of the UN’s general budget.


    NHK–it’s the new BBC!

    Posted by Sean at 21:28, January 25th, 2006

    I fear that to some American readers, the Asahi‘s “NHK’s aim to become BBC of Japan, duck Takenaka’s control” headline will give the wrong impression. Here’s how the accompanying article starts:

    Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK), choked by scandals, a sharp drop in viewer fees and wariness of tighter government control, has unveiled a new management plan that tears pages from the BBC’s book of operating.

    The new three-year plan not only de-emphasizes NHK’s old policy of expansion, but also stresses independence and stronger corporate self-governance.

    That is apparently aimed at deflecting recent government moves to wield more control over the public broadcaster.

    In December last year, Heizo Takenaka, minister of internal affairs and communications, set up an advisory panel to review NHK’s operations.

    Before you snigger, “More like the BBC?!” let’s remember a few things. Like the BBC, NHK began as a government entity; unlike the BBC, it’s still a government entity. [Whoops–thanks, Toby. I was sure the BBC had undergone that neither-here-nor-there semi-public-corporation thing–a la Japan Post, whose new corporation just started operations, BTW–but no.] No, it still hasn’t been privatized; instead it’s stuck in Japan’s public-corporation limbo. That means there’s been nothing over the line about the Koizumi administration’s talk of reforming it. At the same time, it’s perfectly reasonable for the board of governors to want to be able to operate as it sees fit. From the above link to the NHK’s English website (corresponding Japanese here), this is its own wishful line about the way it functions:

    NHK is financed by the receiving fee paid by each household that owns a television set. This system enables the Corporation to maintain independence from any governmental and private organization, and ensures that the opinions of viewers and listeners are assigned top priority.

    Everyone in Japan knows that that’s a crock. Plenty of households manage not to pay NHK fees (mostly by simply bringing a television into the house without letting NHK know, rather than in the process of righteously opposing its misconduct), its news service plays along with the chummy press club game as much as that of any other major broadcaster or publication in Japan, and viewers and listeners have been making a beeline for other broadcasters that give them what they actually want to watch and hear.

    So in theory, it sounds like a great idea for NHK to undertake reform from within. Vice President Taeko Nagai, in an interview with the Asahi, “said NHK can learn a lot from the BBC, which puts priority on high-quality programs ranging from news to drama to comedy.” Fair enough. NHK’s historical dramas and documentary shows are frequently first-rate, but it certainly broadcasts plenty of junk. (Whether excising that junk would be in line with better serving consumer demand is an impolitic question that I will humbly receive the favor of not answering here.)

    Additionally, the resignation of its last board president exactly a year ago, mostly over embezzlement but also over the possibility that LDP higher-ups (including current star Shinzo Abe) pressed the producer of a mock trial program about Japan’s use of comfort women during the occupation of Asia to soften its contents. To be fair, that wasn’t the first time NHK reports and “documentaries” were shown to have been cagily edited or even outright staged, and in other cases, NHK acted on its own volition.

    In any case, the government views NHK as a public body with responsibility to Kasumigaseki, and NHK views itself as a government-funded semi-independent body striving toward (dare we say it?) BBC levels of objectivity and independence. Unfortunately, NHK wants to have its freedom of the press and eat citizens’ money, too:

    [Nagai] also indicated NHK’s system of mandatory viewer fees should be maintained, because there are many high-quality programs that can only be provided by public broadcasters like NHK or the BBC.

    Conveniently–and in this sense readers won’t be getting the wrong impression at all–the arguments that have been made about the BBC apply pretty much equally to NHK: if it plans to wow us with all that high-quality programming and is serious about serving the public’s needs, won’t it be able to survive even if it’s competing with other broadcasters? At least, wouldn’t that be the case for its news service (which is the division in most obvious danger of being corrupted by too-close ties with the government)? NHK doesn’t think so. I mean, it really doesn’t think so.

    Other elements of the new plan include offering services that play to NHK’s strengths as a public broadcaster: strengthening news reports and disaster bulletins, and creating broadcasts catering to specific regions.

    As for scrambling NHK programs for households that do not pay, a move recommended in some quarters, the plan insists it should be avoided.

    It said steps will be taken to urge people to pay, and, as a last resort, preparations would be made to sue anyone who does not sign a contract.

    I think that’s pretty much what they are, indeed, going to have to be prepared to do.


    New Nago mayor opposes current US military restructuring plan

    Posted by Sean at 06:18, January 23rd, 2006

    …but so did his opponents, so that part of the outcome wasn’t really under dispute.

    The Governor of Okinawa spoke today with the head of the JDA on the restructuring of US military installations in Okinawa, which is an ongoing issue on which there seems to be little movement lately:

    Okinawa Governor Keiichi Inamine visited Japan Defense Agency head Fukushiro Nukaga at the JDA offices on 23 January. Of the mayoral election in the city of Nago, he stated, “The new mayor will be someone who acts in good faith, but all three candidates stood opposed to the proposal to shift [US military] operations and facilities from the Futenma Base to the coastal areas of Camp Schwab. It will still be a difficult issue from here on.” He went on to say of the Futenma restructuring issue that “from the Okinawa side, we will continue to act in good faith.”

    The JDA has asked for concessions from the US aimed at minimizing the burdens placed on locals where our bases are located. The Yomiuri had a good English-edition rundown of the election referred to above:

    In fact, Shimabukuro [who won, BTW–SRK] is opposed to the relocation plan to which the Japanese and the U.S. governments agreed (under the agreed plan, the Futenma Air Station in Ginowan will be relocated to the southern coast of Camp Schwab in Nago). However, Shimabukuro wants to leave room for compromise should the plan be revised.

    Henoko Ward Head Yasumasa Oshiro said: “Those who protest against the plan say, ‘The money will be gone as it’s spent, but the base will remain forever.’ But these pretty words don’t feed people. What’s important is compensation.”

    Quite a few restaurants in the central part of the ward seemed to have closed down, others seem to be struggling, the English letters on their signs fading away.

    An elderly taxi driver said, “This used to be a lively quarter, full of U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War, but now it’s deserted, with no young people coming in.”

    Oshiro is opposed to the current relocation plan, which suggests building the air station only 300 meters away from the closest civilian residence. He does not approve of the way the central government overruled the local governments when it agreed to the plan.

    Oshiro criticized the central government, saying: “We’re not interested in dugongs and seaweed beds. The government should have dealt effectively with the opponents and promoted the idea of building the airport on reclaimed land in shallow waters off Henoko. It was their delinquency that didn’t make it happen.”

    A few months ago, the US was the party pushing the original reclaimed-land proposal; local voters didn’t go for it, and it isn’t just a gambit by Okinawan politicians to shove the relocated facilities as far away from the locals as possible.

    *******

    Oh, and BTW, whoops!

    Several unmanned helicopters produced by Yamaha Motor Co. may have been passed on to China’s People’s Liberation Army, it has been learned.

    Suspicions have arisen that the helicopters, which are employed largely for industrial use but can be also used for military purposes, were illegally exported to China, investigators allege.

    Yamaha Motor has denied the allegations, but suspicions have arisen that the helicopters may have been passed on to the People’s Liberation Army. Police and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry are investigating the company over its actions.

    Investigators said Yamaha Motor was involved in trade with an aircraft firm in Beijing. The aircraft firm’s Web site says Yamaha Motor’s unmanned helicopters have prospects for “wide use in civilian and military fields.” An unmanned helicopter is pictured alongside a People’s Liberation Army jet.


    大連立

    Posted by Sean at 15:55, December 16th, 2005

    Prime Minister Koizumi is putting the most kindly light on Democratic Party of Japan leader Maehara’s recent rejection of the idea of fuller cooperation with the ruling coalition:

    On 16 December, Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi spoke about DPJ leader Seiji Maehara’s denial of the possibility of a “broad alliance” with the LDP: “As the head of the opposition party, he had no choice but to say such a thing.” Koizumi went further and stated, “The world of politics is difficult to predict even in the short-term. In Germany, such cooperation had been said to be impossible, but it came to pass,” suggesting once again that a broad alliance [was feasible]. He was responding to questions from the press corps at the Prime Minister’s residence.

    Regarding the wave upon wave of criticisms leveled at Maehara at the [DPJ] party convention, Koizumi gave the DPJ leader a shout-out: “Being in a leadership position is tough. I hope Mr. Maehara will see things through and ride out his current difficulties.”

    That last reference to “Mr. Maehara” may be a noun of direct address, but that doesn’t really affect the basic meaning. Maehara has been relatively quiet. You see him quoted frequently, of course–he’s the opposition leader, after all–but his comments rarely have the irritability of Katsuya Okada’s. Of course, that could mean either that he’s shrewdly buying his time or that he realizes how green he is and is steering a middle course out of fear that he’ll make a misstep. Or some of both.

    BTW, Maehara, one of whose distinguishing characteristics is his higher level of hawkishness than previous DPJ leaders, intimated to the press on a visit to Okinawa that he could be prepared to agree to a special provision to shift land use rights from Naha to Tokyo in order to implement the transfer of US military facilities at Futenma. On the other hand, he’s criticized the government’s current treatment of the Okinawa government: “When restructuring specific [military] bases, close consultation with–and consent of–regional government entities, is indispensable; but [the approach] this time around was extremely crude. It demonstrated contempt [for Okinawa].” Tension between the capital and the provinces is a fact of life for every large, complex society I’m aware of, and in Japan, things are especially prickly between Tokyo and Okinawa.

    Okinawa has its own distinct language and history and sorely resents being treated, as it views things, like the mainland’s trash dump. The locals don’t like putting up with the off-hours behavior of military personnel and the foreign control of large swaths of land, but they’d be in an economic pickle if we left, and they know it. Regarding US military installations, of course, things aren’t black and white. Okinawa is the poorest prefecture in Japan. Having our bases there brings in money and creates jobs. The US could probably learn to cultivate a more friendly manner toward its sub-tropical hosts, but I’m not sure how much good that would do when the far more long-term problem is with the deep rift between Tokyo and Naha.


    Next generation

    Posted by Sean at 03:29, December 16th, 2005

    A joint missile initiative between Japan and the US is moving ahead:

    On 15 December, the government opened meeting on national security at the Prime Minister’s residence, entering into proceedings to move joint Japan-US technological research on next-generation missile defense systems into the development phase starting in 2006. The Japan Defense Agency explained that development expenditures over nine years will total US $2.1 to 2.7 billion, and that Japan is coordinating with the United States under a plan for Japan to shoulder US $1.0 to 1.2 billion of that burden.

    The missile type in question is the Aegis, which is ship-based.

    Added at 11:30: The US and Japan are also set to run joint ground exercises:

    The Ground Self-Defense Force and the U.S. Marine Corps will carry out the first bilateral joint drill off the west coast of the United States in January to infiltrate a remote island and regain control of it from an enemy, sources said Thursday.

    Until recently, U.S. forces have been reluctant to carry out joint exercises with Japan on a remote island in an effort to avoid possible confrontation with China.

    The decision, however, was made to demonstrate bilateral cooperation in Okinawa Prefecture and the Southwest Islands against China, which has been rapidly boosting its military capability in the last few years.

    The map exercise incorporates exchanging gunfire with the enemy to regain control of the island.

    “The U.S. marines are superior to the GSDF in terms of combat capability. The drill is aimed at learning the basics in landing operations, including infiltration, from the marines. The exercise levels will be increased as the drill continues,” a senior GSDF officer said.

    About 600 islands lie off the Kyushu and Okinawa regions, however, GSDF bases are located only on the main island of Okinawa and Tsushima island in Nagasaki Prefecture. The Southwest Islands are poorly protected by Japan’s defense system.

    Whenever I bring this sort of thing up, someone inevitably asks, “Do you really expect China to attack Japan?” And, well, no, I don’t think anyone really does, given things as they are now. The state of the PRC military makes a coup against the CCP appear unlikely, and CCP itself, mindful of its in many ways tenuous grip on power, would be foolish to launch an assault against Japan. But circumstances can change very quickly; and besides, purely from the standpoint of basic readiness, it’s simply ridiculous for Japan–prosperous and insular as it is–not to have solid plans for defense against a large, restless neighbor with a historical pattern of hostility toward Japan. As the Asahi glancingly notes, the point of the exercise is also to impress upon other players in the region that the US and Japan partnership is firm.


    The unholy trinity

    Posted by Sean at 02:52, November 9th, 2005

    Koizumi’s three-pronged reforms (usually more literally translated “trinity reforms”) are not part of his campaign that we’d been hearing a whole lot about lately, what with the emphasis on Japan Post and the resulting landslide election victory and cabinet reshuffling. They’re back in the spotlight these last few days, though. Yesterday, the government made a few announcements:

    On 8 November, the federal government gave instructions to slash ¥630 billion from the budgets of seven ministries. The purpose of the move is to effect decreases in the amount spent on subsidies, in line with the ¥600 billion worth of the tax revenues that will no longer be transferred to the federal government as a result of the national and regional three-pronged reforms. Though the goal is to speed [the implementation of the Koizumi administration’s platform through] cabinet-level leadership, Kasumigaseki has objected to what it sees as quotas. The government and the LDP have mobilized their machine to take the lead politically through, for example, the new establishment of regular talks between the vice-ministers and the party chairman.

    “It is necessary for us as the cabinet to throw even more energy into coordinating [these reforms]. The relevant cabinet members, we would ask to marshall all their resources swiftly”–so said Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe at an informal gathering after an 8 November cabinet meeting. He requested concrete proposals for fulfilling [each ministry’s quota of reductions in] allocations by 14 November.

    That was one of those little articles that are easy to understand but surprisingly difficult to translate. (Or maybe the difficulties I was having in getting it into non-mangled English were a signal that I was missing something, but I don’t think so.)

    Assuming the vice-ministers referred to are the administrative vice-ministers, the meetings with the LDP point person are going to be very important. When cabinet ministers appointed by the PM (and their immediate subordinates) have problems, it’s usually because they run afoul of and are outmaneuvered by those under them: the career bureaucrats, who are led by the administrative vice-ministers. These are the people who have devoted their entire post-university careers to going up the escalator in their chosen arm of the government, and they are notoriously resistant to change–especially the kind of change that involves cutting their budgets, and thus their power and influence.

    To recap, the three prongs of reform are

    • to slash outright federal subsidies to regional and local governments

    • to overhaul the federal “revenue sharing” system, in which tax revenue comes from local taxpayers to Tokyo, is divided for redistribution in little packets after being haggled over by agencies in the federal ministries, then makes a U-ey back to local governments (or local branches of federal agencies)
    • to make up for the resulting loss of federal subsidies by increasing the amount of locally collected taxes that goes straight into the coffers of regional and local governments–which is to say, to decrease the role of the federal middle man

    You can imagine what the middle man thinks of all this, but self-serving complaints from Kasumigaseki are not the only ones being leveled at Koizumi’s plan. The “three-pronged reforms” have been portrayed as simply shifting much of the government debt burden from federal to regional bodies. One might note that, given the federal government’s notorious wastefulness in handling money, shifting its debt somewhere–anywhere–can hardly make things worse. There’s another problem, though, as noted, for example, in this Asahi editorial from a month or so back: decision-making power is not necessarily being decentralized along with tax collection.

    With regard to the transfer of 3 trillion yen in tax revenue, some people say a figure of 2.4 trillion yen has already been agreed upon. But in reality, the Education Ministry is still against slashing 850 billion yen from compulsory education fees now paid from national coffers. The Central Council for Education, an advisory body to the education minister, took an extraordinary vote during a recent meeting. It is scheduled to issue a report shortly recommending that state funding of compulsory education be maintained at current levels.

    In addition, entities like the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, or the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, have refused to cooperate with a plan submitted by the National Governors’ Association to abolish state subsidies.

    Thus, the situation has not changed from last year. Koizumi is still at odds with the ministries.

    Final resolution of the issue depends on the outcome of talks between the government and the ruling parties. In order to prevent having the subsidies under their control abolished altogether, the various ministries will probably offer their own versions of reducing subsidy rates, or suggest ways to switching to grants, whose purpose is not designated, and, therefore, more convenient for local governments.

    But we cannot approve of switching purpose-specific subsidies to nonspecific grants. This would allow the ministries in Tokyo to retain their power of allocating money. That would be counterproductive to the decentralizing principles of reform.

    It’s worth noting that while left-leaning organizations such as the Democratic Party of Japan and, uh, the Asahi editorial board are reliably against privatization, they often do support decentralization of government budgeting and allocation. Whether that testifies to their economic liberal-mindedness or to the sheer undeniable inefficiency of the bureaucracies is an open question.

    It will be interesting to see what happens on and after the fourteenth.


    New cabinet installed

    Posted by Sean at 06:10, November 1st, 2005

    Prime Minister Koizumi has announced the results of his cabinet reshuffling:

    Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi, at the first meeting of his third cabinet of the evening of 31 October, laid out the fundamental direction [of his latest administration] in five items:

    1. To persevere in [transferring power and resources] “from public to private” and “from Tokyo to local districts”
    2. Economic vitality
    3. Ensuring safety and security in [Japanese] life
    4. Diplomacy, national security, disaster management
    5. Political reform

    Concerning structural reforms, he stated that “the October 2007 privatization of Japan Post will be smoothly executed” and that “the scale of government will be limited through a review of the financing of programs, general labor costs for private sector employees, and the management of government assets and bonds.”

    Particular positions of interest: Shinzo Abe is the new Chief Cabinet Secretary. Taro Aso is the new Minister of Foreign Affairs. Sadakazu Tanizaki was reappointed as Minister of Finance. Each has been tipped as a possible successor for Koizumi, who has vowed to step down in 2006 and has not been grooming any obvious candidates to take over at that point.

    Aso, the new Foreign Minister, was previously Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications. A few weeks ago he got in PR hot water for calling Japan a “single-race” nation. You can imagine how resident Koreans and indigenous ethnic minorities loved that. He’s had a reputation for being tart-tongued for quite a while, though, and he’s been a rising star in the LDP for some time. The last outspoken rising-star Foreign Minister under Koizumi was Makiko Tanaka, and we all know what happened to her. The post of Foreign Minister is a particularly strategic one at the moment, given Japan’s delicate relations with the PRC and the Koreas and its push to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Aso’s profile on his website is here. A less interesting English version is here at his old ministry.

    BTW, in addition to Minister of Finance Tanigaki, banking/Japan Post reform czar Heizo Takenaka was reappointed to his posts.

    Added on 2 November: Didn’t anyone catch that “Heizo Tanaka” screw up? Glad I seem to have seen it first.


    追悼式

    Posted by Sean at 04:37, October 29th, 2005

    Not all of Prime Minister Koizumi’s gestures of respect for Japanese military dead are controversial. This morning he attended a memorial service for fallen SDF personnel:

    Addressing those assembled at a memorial service held at the Japan Defense Agency for Self-Defense Force personnel who have fallen in the line of duty, Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi stated, “This precious sacrifice by the spirits [of our soldiers] has not been made for nothing; we will continue to construct a system that allows us to complete the exalted mission [they undertook].”

    The memorial was for sixteen or so SDF trainees who were killed in training accidents; there have been no combat operations since the war, of course. Koizumi’s statement was pretty content free today–in political terms, I mean; there’s nothing weightless about honoring dead soldiers–but it’s always good to pay attention to these things because things that slip into set-piece speeches can sometimes give you a glimpse of what the administration is thinking. Where to take the SDF from here has been a big issue over the last few years. The US supports moves to make it more like a standing army, with the legal ability to participate in defense operations with allies. North Korea likes to test missiles over our heads. China’s economic growth has been accompanied by increased unrest and schizo behavior by the CCP. Japan wants permanent membership on the UN Security Council. And that doesn’t even factor in Japan’s place on the Islamofascist terror hit list, for the transgression of being a developed and free country.

    The current proposal by the LDP’s committee on constitutional revision is to change the SDF to the SDA: 自衛軍 (jieigun: self-defense army). You can never translate these things perfectly, but a 軍 is more menacing-sounding than a 隊. Koizumi appears not to have said much of anything about how his administration views the SDF’s “mission” this morning, but it’s clearly changing.


    My way or the highway

    Posted by Sean at 06:45, October 22nd, 2005

    Prime Minister Koizumi has announced that Heizo Takenaka, the driving force behind the banking cleanup and Japan Post privatization, will retain his position after the cabinet reshuffling at the beginning of next month. Kazuo Kitagawa, the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport, will also retain his position. (Whether that’s connected to the privatization of the Japan Highway Public Corporation and other transportation bodies is not clear from the Nikkei article.)

    One of NHK’s social commentary shows is doing an installment on the future of Japan’s youth, featuring an array of eyecatching fringe types. Whether anything illuminating will emerge remains to be seen. Atsushi (he’s home for the weekend again) and I are a little dubious about the resolute freakshow aspect. Many of the teenagers being interviewed hang out in Shibuya, which is not exactly noted for attracting the studious rank-and-file.


    Japan Post privatization approved

    Posted by Sean at 03:51, October 14th, 2005

    Japan Post privatization was approved by the House of Councillors today:

    The Japan Post privatization bills were approved and enacted by a majority, mostly from the ruling coalition, in a session of the upper house on 14 October. The final vote was 134 in favor, 100 opposed. On 1 October 2007, the Japan Post Public Corporation will be privatized and spun off into four companies: one for postal service, one for postal savings, one for postal insurance, and one for window services.