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    Still seeking understanding from Nago mayor

    Posted by Sean at 10:14, April 4th, 2006

    The head of the Japan Defense Agency is still trying to get Nago residents to agree to a slightly adjusted proposal for relocating the helicopter facilities from Futenma:

    JDA chief Fukushiro Nukaga met with Mayor Yoshikazu Shimabukuro of Nago, the site to which US military facilities now at the Futenma base (Ginowan City, Okinawa Prefecture) are slated to be moved, on 4 April. Nukaga once again sought Shimbukuro’s understanding, conveying once again that, while [the government] will not make broad changes to the relocation to the coastline of Camp Schwab that has been agreed upon by Japan and the US, he is of a mind to respond flexibly to proposals for limited changes, such as in the orientation of runways. The focus was on the mayor’s advocating that the runways be shifted more than 400 meters offshore [from their proposed location].

    It had been hoped that an agreement would be reached by the end of last month.

    On a not-entirely-unrelated note, the Yomiuri took a poll that found that 71% of those who responded believe that the constitution should be revised to clarify the role of the SDF:

    Seventy-one percent of people think the Constitution should clarify the existence of the Self-Defense Forces, an organization that protects the nation yet is not mentioned in the supreme law, according to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey.

    Fifty-six percent of respondents said the basic law should be revised, marking the ninth straight year since 1998 that a majority of pollees in similar surveys have favored revising the Constitution.

    The interview survey was conducted on March 11 and 12 on 3,000 eligible voters in 250 locations across the country, with 1,812, or 60.4 percent, of them responding.

    However, 32 percent of pollees opposed constitutional revision, the survey said.

    Regarding the war-renouncing Article 9, a focal point of the constitutional amendment, 39 percent–the highest figure for five consecutive years–said it should be rewritten because there was a limit to interpreting the article and putting it into practice, the survey said.

    Thirty-three percent said the article should be handled as it has been so far, but 21 percent said Article 9 should be strictly upheld and that its spirit should not be watered down through changing interpretations, the survey said.

    Twenty-seven percent of respondents said the top law should be revised to allow the country to exercise the right to collective-defense and 23 percent said interpretation of the basic law should be changed to allow for the right to be exercised. This meant 50 percent favored exercising this right, the survey said.

    Of course, you can’t cite polls without the usual avalanche of disclaimers, but those results ring true to me. People like the way Article 9 makes Japan’s involvement in NGOs seem more saintly (to those who pay attention to such things), and besides, this is, despite the economic upheavals of the last decade and a half, an extraordinarily prosperous country. Most people have little incentive to approach defense issues with a real sense of urgency. But they know, at the same time, that Japan is a resource-poor country with nearby enemies. There’s almost always some current reminder–a little skirmish between a Japanese and a North Korean ship, news about the expansion of a Chinese military program of some kind–of the delicacy of its position.

    It’s interesting that 1998 was the first year the Yomiuri reports having a majority supporting the revision of the constitution. I wonder whether the poll was first conducted that year or, maybe, the DPRK’s missile test over Japan jolted a lot of people. Of course, if the poll is always in the spring, that wouldn’t explain anything, since the test missile was launched in summer.

    It’s the shiny time

    Posted by Sean at 09:36, March 31st, 2006

    Hi, everyone. Remember me?

    March wiped the floor with this bitch.

    It wasn’t bad, mind–there was a lot to accomplish, and it all got done–just intense. Last night I came home and realized that, for the first time in, like, ever, my head wasn’t buzzing with 5000 things that had to be done TOMORROW OR ELSE. And I got into bed and talked to Atsushi when he called and read my book for a while (actually paying attention to it) and then went to sleep without once jumping up for my datebook to scrawl in something I’d forgotten.

    Of course, I actually did have to do 5000 things today–I just wasn’t anxious about them ahead of time. Now that the month is REALLY over, I need to do a punishing workout or something. But I can’t because I got up early and worked out this morning. So I think it’s a long walk up Meiji Avenue. Despite the pointlessness of the new subway line, I like the construction sites.


    Posted by Sean at 21:34, March 28th, 2006

    There don’t seem to be many new stories or particularly fascinating developments on existing ones–which is good because I’ve been busy as hell. The cherry blossoms are blooming early, though–third earliest in Tokyo proper since record-keeping began, apparently.

    The neighborhood in which my office is is called 桜ヶ丘 (sakura ga oka: lit., “cherry hill,” though putting it that way has somewhat Joisey-ish connotations for me), and that is, of course, because the main through street is lined with cherry trees. By yesterday, the blossoms seemed to be about 80% open, and last night was the first night this year that they floodlit them. I spent yesterday doing a fair bit of end-of-year document-shredding and straightening up, so by 8 p.m. or so I was feeling a little dusty and decided a walk down to the bottom of the hill for a Coke or something was in order. When I got to the end of the alley from our building and looked up, there they were: clouds of cherry blossoms, like an apparition from some other, purer world, somehow feeling pink without actually looking pink. I may have gasped. It was one of those mono no aware moments that remind you why the Japanese have always regarded the natural surroundings in their native islands as spookily, mysteriously beautiful.

    Then I was snapped back to Earth for another Japan moment, this one of somewhat more recent origin: I had to thread through all the people trying to take each other’s pictures (“Yumi-chan, dame yo…you have to get closer in!”) with the blossoms in the background, in addition to the usual steady procession of taxis, delivery guys on motorbikes, and sauntering students with their gigantic backpacks, in order to get down the street to the Family Mart. But hey, I’m always the one saying I like the crush, so no complaints. I still reserve the right to bitch about the kiln-like summer heat, though.

    Work should clear up in a few days, leaving me not so much more time as more mind space to devote to other things.


    Posted by Sean at 19:40, March 26th, 2006

    I’ve been kind of distracted from the news this weekend, but it’s been hard to miss the reports about the demonstrations in favor of illegal aliens.

    I’m not one given to ambivalence, but I’m of two minds about what the best approach is to illegal aliens at this point. I’m a proper-channels kind of guy–which helps to explain why I like Japan, obviously–and find that the minute someone starts blaring about “rights” in connection with people who used unlawful means to enter the country, I want to grimace and turn away. And irrespective of whether Mexicans themselves are likely to be terrorists, porous borders and slack enforcement of immigration laws are security risks. At the same time, I’m not unsympathetic to the it-takes-two-to-tango argument: US de facto policy has made it possible for millions of people to live and work within our borders without documentation. Many of them come from corrupt countries in which scrupulously obeying the law is a great way to be played for a sucker. It’s not difficult to believe that many people who were desperate enough to enter the country illegally are essentially honest and hard-working once they get there. I don’t like the idea of an amnesty program that would reward illegal immigration for those who happened to get in under the wire; but neither do I like our cozy relationship with the al-Sauds, or negotiations with the thugs who run the DPRK, or the nice-making we have to do to conduct trade with PRC enterprises. Unpalatable compromises are sometimes necessary, and while it’s good to reflect on how we got into this situation, we still have to deal with it. It may indeed be more humane and less wasteful for all concerned if we give those who already have established lives in the States a chance to get documentation. To avoid a run on green cards by people hoping to get in under the wire, we’ll have to tighten the borders at the same time in a big, bad way. And if we’re being all generous-minded toward non-citizens who want to live responsible lives within our borders, we might include the long-suffering foreign spouses of Americans who exist in a living hell thanks to the vagaries of the INS. For the future, as long as they’re scrupulously enforced when enacted, I don’t see why more liberal immigration laws would be a problem.


    If the purpose of the demonstrations over the last few weeks was to win over Middle America, I’m thinking there were some serious miscalculations. Waving the Mexican flag or painting your face in its colors is a poor way to indicate your loyalty to the US. And thronging the streets of LA in the hundreds of thousands is…I mean, only the Blue City liberals who recall 60s-era demonstrations fondly as opportunities for The People to Speak Truth to Power are likely to be moved to sympathize, and they’re already on the side of illegal aliens, anyway.

    Mass rallies are less likely to make the average television viewer be like, “Gosh, just look at all the clean, presentable undocumented workers already living responsible lives in this great land right now!” than to provoke a reaction of “Imagine if all those people did decide to rampage! The cops couldn’t do a blessed thing. Yet there they are today monitoring and protecting them instead of protecting American citizens from crime. And even if only 0.5% of those people are terrorists, they can just melt away into the crowd, and no one will be the wiser!” Maybe that’s fair, and maybe it isn’t–there were plenty of supporters marching, presumably, who aren’t illegal aliens themselves–but it strikes me as the most likely response. Given how long this has been a hot-button issue (it predates 9/11 by quite a bit, of course), it will, if nothing else, be interesting to see how it plays out given that this is an election year.

    We’re all gonna die! IX

    Posted by Sean at 06:02, March 26th, 2006

    March is the last month of the fiscal year in Japan, and even though I’m not a banker or accountant, it’s still raining Excel sheets for another week or so yet. And the fact that the cherry trees bloomed early this year means that everyone has essentially been scrambling to move up the planned blossom-viewing parties. Kind of busy.

    A few news items of interest here while my attention was diverted elsewhere:

    A district court has ordered a nuclear reactor shut, deeming its earthquake-proofing inadequate:

    The Kanazawa District Court on Friday ordered Hokuriku Electric Power Co. to stop operating the No. 2 reactor at its Shika nuclear power plant in Shikamachi, Ishikawa Prefecture, ruling that the reactor may be susceptible to earthquakes.

    The ruling recognized a demand by a citizens group that the 1,358-megawatt No. 2 advanced boiling-water reactor be shut down.

    Hokuriku Electric has said it will appeal to the high court to overturn the ruling.

    Presiding Judge Kenichi Ido said, “The reactor has a problem in its antiseismic design, and there’s a real possibility that the plaintiffs might be exposed to radiation if there was an accident at the plant.”

    The district court then ruled, “An earthquake beyond Hokuriku Electric’s expectations could occur,” and pointed out the following:

    — The estimate that the largest earthquake that could possibly hit the area would have a magnitude of 6.5 is too conservative.

    — The probability of an earthquake occurring along the Ochigata fault line was not taken into consideration.

    — The method employed to determine the correct design needed to adequately cope with an earthquake is inappropriate.

    Three reactors at Tohoku Electric Power Co.’s Onagawa nuclear power station in Miyagi Prefecture were automatically shut down in August after being rocked by an earthquake stronger than had been factored into the reactors’ antiseismic designs.

    I haven’t heard much more detail than that, but it certainly doesn’t sound out of the realm of possibility. The Yomiuri has a summary of the factors that are supposed to be considered in such assessments. Yesterday’s main Nikkei editorial observed drily:

    It’s not that power generation would be disrupted by unanticipated vibrations, or that they would lead to the release of mass quantities of radioactive material. The issue is risk evaluation for the system in toto, and whether it’s rational to go so far as to halt operations. In that respect, the ruling was on the abrupt side; however, we must give serious thought to grave indications that the state and [plant] operators have been slack about incorporating the latest technology and approaches into quake resistance evaluation.

    The editorial points out that feel-good estimates about how severe an earthquake in any region could be fail to take into account hidden fault lines and other unpalatable possibilities.

    Oh, yeah, and inspectors identified a crack in a pipe at another reactor, this one in Fukushima and owned by TEPCO.

    If you’d like to escape the possibility of being double-whammied by a catastrophic earthquake and radiation exposure, you may want to fly out on ANA:

    Trouble-plagued Japan Airlines Corp. was reprimanded yet again Wednesday for operating a 134-seat McDonnell Douglas MD-87 passenger plane for 10 days without conducting a mandatory inspection on its main landing gear.

    The cause for the failure to inspect the landing gear was simple: The JAL official in charge forgot to give the instructions.

    And when the airline finally did the required inspection on Monday, it bungled that as well.

    The plane was supposed to have been thoroughly examined by March 11 for cracks in a metal part of the left main landing gear.

    JAL maintenance workers had, in fact, scheduled the inspection for Feb. 26, well before the due date, and entered that date on their computers, airline officials said.

    But the employee in charge of the inspection forgot to give the instructions.

    On Monday, the employee realized the inspection had not been carried out when the computer flashed a warning.

    The MD-87 was inspected Monday at Shin-Chitose Airport in Hokkaido. But JAL’s problems did not end there.

    The transport ministry found out Thursday that the JAL inspector who conducted the check omitted an important procedure.

    The 44-year-old inspector was supposed to have used a fluorescent solvent to search for cracks. However, he did not use this solvent, and said he didn’t find any cracks.

    And if you decide you’d prefer to evade the risks of modern life by leaving this world of dew behind altogether, there’s apparently a great doctor we could hook you up with:

    Police are investigating the deaths of seven elderly patients at a hospital in Imizu, Toyama Prefecture, who died between 2000 and 2005 after a surgeon removed their artificial respirators, the hospital said Saturday.

    Imizu City Hospital said it contacted the police last year as it suspected the surgeon euthanized the patients.

    The first ruling by a court in the nation on a doctor administering a mercy killing was in March 1995, when the Yokohama District Court gave a doctor at the Tokai University School of Medicine Hospital a two-year suspended prison sentence for administering a lethal injection of potassium chloride in April 1991 to a patient suffering from terminal cancer. The doctor was arrested on suspicion of murder.

    In the ruling, the presiding judge set four conditions that must be met to allow doctors to legally euthanize a patient:

    — The patient is suffering from unbearable pain.

    — Death is inevitable and close at hand.

    — There is no other way to relieve the patient’s pain.

    — The patient has clearly expressed consent that his or her life be shortened.

    I think it would be heartless to deny hopelessly ill people with untreatable pain the right to go off artificial respiration if their heads are clear and they know what they’re doing; but of course, in this aging society, it would be exceedingly dangerous to set precedents that could allow doctors to off patients in an effort to free up beds or save money.

    So hard

    Posted by Sean at 22:36, March 22nd, 2006

    There was a not-too-bad article in The Japan Times a few days ago–how often do I type that?–about what real, live Japanese gays think of Masaki Sumitani, a.k.a. Hard Gay. The writer can’t resist drawing hammy attention to what a broad-minded sensi-hetero he is, which is a little trying:

    How right can it be to satirize people who are so marginalized in Japanese society that they have effectively no freedom to respond?

    An official at Yoshimoto Kogyo Co., Hard Gay’s promotion company, said neither the comedian nor the company intend [sic–dude, find yourself a persnickety-grammarian fag friend and get him to explain the finer points of correlative conjunctions–SRK] to insult anyone.

    Still, the logical thing seemed to be to ask some Japanese homosexuals what they think of Hard Gay–whose handlers, by the way, say that he is straight and has a girlfriend.

    What did he find when he asked around? Some gays think Hard Gay is funny. He makes them laugh. Some gays think Hard Gay is mocking homosexuals. That makes them sad. And some gays don’t pay much attention one way or another. He makes them feel bored.

    A real revelation, huh?

    It’s hard to fault the reporter, exactly. Being in the position of weighing the positions of people whose world he doesn’t inhabit, he probably figured it was wise to keep asking around until he got one yes, one no, and one neither on the issue raised just to keep all the bases covered. Also, if you’re a foreign reporter who wants to find out what gay people think about this or that, you probably have little choice but to wander to Shinjuku 2-chome, choose a prominently gay shop with an open front door (implying that non-regulars are welcome), and start talking to the guy behind the counter. Or to look up gay organizations in the phone directory and start dialing.

    Unfortunately, that kind of approach produces the same problems that “researchers” who are taken more seriously get into when they conduct “studies” by trawling for subjects at bars or in classified ads, and they’re worth looking at. While he got a set of varied opinions, it’s questionable whether he talked to a representative sample of gay Japanese people.

    Guys who own gay shops and bars are, obviously, those who have elected to work as well as socialize in gay life. Gay organizations have relatively low memberships, too–partially because a lot of people would be scared to be on their mailing lists and things, but also because such organizations just aren’t very popular in Japan. (Most people have their hands full conforming to all the expectations within their companies and neighborhoods. The last thing they need is another group to be beholden to.) And obviously the sorts of people who are going to join a study circle dedicated to solemnly working out their feelings about a TV character are going to constitute a self-selecting sample. The Japan Times was therefore talking to a sample of the gay population that had an unusual amount of energy to devote to sitting around thinking about the meaning of homosexuality in society.

    That doesn’t mean there was nothing to learn from them. Their opinions are as genuine as anyone else’s–though the reporter doesn’t seem to have cared much that the guy from the Sapporo organization he talked is transgendered and not even gay. But experience leads me to suspect that the representative opinion was the one relegated to this throwaway paragraph:

    Other gays felt pretty much the same, he said. “We don’t really talk about him [Hard Gay] much.”

    I don’t know a scientific sample of the gay Japanese population myself, probably, but my acquaintance would seem to square with that. I have quite a few friends who hang out in little pub-like Shibuya gay bars and rarely venture to Ageha or 2-chome or other more high-profile places. They tend to be ordinary office worker types who don’t know many foreigners besides me. The other Japanese guys I know are those who like foreigners and hang out in 2-chome at the handful of foreigner-friendly places. Many of them have spent significant time in the States or places in the British Commonwealth and thus can compare gay life here to gay life in other places.

    And I’ve only ever heard Hard Gay mentioned twice. Once, someone told an acquaintance of mine that he looked like him, which he does (his facial features, I mean). Another time, when I went out in a black T-shirt of somewhat unforgiving cut, one of the bar guys cracked that I was “looking very Hard Gay.” (“No, he just looks like a homo as always,” a friend piped up.)

    Otherwise, nothing, even at gatherings where uncensored bitchy opinions are flowing freely about anything and everything. The implication of the article’s conclusion, that there are a lot of gay Japanese who would protest about Hard Gay’s image if they felt at liberty to, doesn’t strike me as plausible. If pressed, I guess most people I know would say that while Sumitani’s antics are a bit much, at least the stereotype he’s reinforcing is one of vigor rather than nelliness, and you can’t expect things to change in Japan overnight.

    Even the acknowledgment that gays exist in Japan represents progress. Open homosexuals are at a disadvantage here, but so are career women and ethnic Koreans. This is a society that values conformity above all, and everyone is used to the fact. Everyone here has secrets. In general, if you preserve the expected public face, no one is going to interrogate you about your private life. We can question whether it should have to be that way in an ideal world, but the gay guys I know all pretty much seem to accept with equanimity that that’s the way it is for now and that it’s a trade-off they can live with.


    Posted by Sean at 23:34, March 21st, 2006

    Yesterday was a busy day in Pyongyang:

    In a notice dated 21 March, the permanent committee of North Korea’s eleventh Supreme People’s Assembly (the equivalent of the Diet) announced a resolution to hold its fourth session on 11 April in Pyongyang. The resolution was publicized on the radio on 22 March by means of a Korean Central News Agency release. The focus of the session will be whether to hammer out a new economic policy program based on the results of Kim Jong-il’s January visit to China. The backdrop for the session being the failure of 6-party talks after North Korea’s objection to “financial sanctions” by the United States, [the world] will also be listening closely for any mention of the nuclear issue.

    The Supreme People’s Assembly will hold a session to discuss the state budget in spring of next year. Kim Jong-il attended last year’s session, at which a state budget in which an 11.4% increase in spending over the previous year was approved. On the nuclear issue, North Korea has taken the the position that an end to sanctions by the US is the “minimum condition” for a resumption of 6-party talks.

    This isn’t exciting news; in a way, what moved me to cite it was its sheer everyday-ness.

    You get regular, poker-faced reports in the Japanese media of stuff like the above–as if the Supreme People’s Assembly were in any way, shape, or form actually comparable to the Diet! Japan has a gajillion political parties, a free press, freedom of movement for its citizens, a capitalist economy, and a high standard of living. (I mean, yes, I grouse a lot about the power held by bureaucrats rather than elected officials here, and there are plenty of things that would be more liberalized and transparent if I were running the place. Even so, there’s no comparison.) Everyone knows that the DPRK is run by nut cases and their sane toadies whose idea of fun is shooting test missiles over our heads and who wouldn’t know viable economic policy if it jumped up and bit ’em in the ass. On the other hand, it’s close by. Knowing what’s going on there is important, and frothing over its evil and craziness is not going to move it farther away. So Japanese reporters, and the citizens they report for, note important developments and then get on with business.

    When American friends asked me what the Japanese (or at least, those Japanese who pay attention to international business and news stories) thought of the brouhaha over the Dubai Ports World deal, it was hard to put into words. I don’t think it made us look anti-Arab or more generally racist, just kind of skittish and a bit silly.

    We’re not used to having enemies near to hand in America. Our only actual borders are with Canada and New Mexico. No one’s worried about Cuba since the Bay of Pigs; and Alaska, despite its proximity to what was the USSR during the Cold War, has a low population and is isolated from the US mainland. We think of our enemies as far away.

    But since most deep-seated ethnic and religious rivalries developed over local resources long before communication and transportation technology enabled animosity to be projected quickly over long distances, having hostile neighbors is a fact of life for much, if not most, of the world. Pakistan trades with India; China, Japan, and South Korea trade with each other; Israel trades with several of its Arab neighbors. The driving force, needless to say, is economics and not trust–the Israelis haven’t suddenly forgotten what happened in 1948 in their zeal for selling their plastics. Trade is an economic good in general, and mutually beneficial economic ties also make mutually destructive war a riskier and therefore less likely response to frictions that arise.

    The analogy to Dubai isn’t perfect: I realize that with the ports deal, we weren’t talking about whether to import its actual goods. But then, it turned out that we weren’t talking about outsourcing port security to the UAE, either. Ultimately, it wasn’t at all clear what the issue was; the jabber about “lack of transparency” seemed lame, given that none of those issuing it seemed to have been too worried about such matters before.

    So I think it was difficult for businesspeople who followed the story to see it as being motivated by much beyond anxiety over the fact that people from around where the terrorists are–you know, over there–might be spending a lot of time at our ports. The UAE, despite having recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan a while back, is a known center of entrepreneurship and a major US ally in the region. So I think that, given that you can practically see the DPRK’s missile silos with binoculars from Honshu’s west coast, the reaction read as a bit on the hysterical side to Japanese people I know.

    Happy birthday

    Posted by Sean at 08:53, March 21st, 2006

    I have no objections to getting older–I’ve frequently been told numerous times that my level of crotchetiness will take me a good twenty years to grow into, and I find people get more interesting as they age, anyway. So turning thirty-four the other week didn’t bother me at all.

    It’s funny what makes the passage of time hit you, though. Today is my father’s and brother’s birthday. My little brother is twenty-eight, which means I appear to have been distracted since a few moments ago when he was in his bassinet (home birth–it was the 70s) and I was reading him his first story.

    Also, Dad is fifty-five, and for some weird reason I don’t pretend to understand, having two parents who are now the conventional retirement age makes me feel kinda near the crest of the hill, if you know what I mean.

    I may have to scale back tomorrow’s workout from the usual. Wouldn’t want to break my hip, or anything.

    Anyway, happy birthday, guys.


    Posted by Sean at 05:27, March 21st, 2006

    The arguments over the relocation of US military facilities now housed in Futenma are still developing. Prime Minister Koizumi met with Japan Defense Agency head Fukushiro Nukaga this morning, and talks with the US are slated to begin the day after tomorrow:

    The main focus of the talks will be the issue of who will pay for the relocation of Marines currently stationed in Okinawa to Guam. The US has asked Japan to pay 75% of the US $10 billion tab. Japan, the relevant cabinet ministers having agreed that they “cannot accept” such a burden, plans to negotiate for a lower percentage.

    Of course, the price tag may be the focus of Thursday’s talks, but it’s not the only bone of contention:

    Yoshikazu Shimabukuro, Mayor of Nago City in Okinawa Prefecture, the planned site to which certain US military installations are to be relocated from Futenma [USMC] Air Station as part of negotiations over restructuring, held a meeting in Naha with Okinawa Governor Keiichi Inamine on 21 March. The Mayor expressed his intention to oppose a new, slightly tweaked proposal by LDP Policy Committee Chairman Hidenao Nakagawa; the new plan would move the facilities to the shoreline of Camp Schwab.

    Governor Inamine affirmed his own rejection of the tweaked proposal and his support for the Mayor’s stance: “We will persevere together.”

    At the meeting, the Mayor emphasized that he would not consider negotiations unless there was a large-scale shift of the planned site of relocation offshore in the “shoreline proposal”: “(Area residents have) acceded to (an existing plan, which would create a facility off the Henoko district of Nago), a variation on the ‘offshore proposal.'”

    A few months back, residents weren’t keen about any plan at all. The federal government continues to state that it will not accommodate more than minor adjustments to the plan and will keep talking to residents until it gets them to accept it.


    Posted by Sean at 03:54, March 21st, 2006

    The Nikkei had an uncharacteristically squishy editorial about China-Japan relations the other day–squishy in that its recommendations were airy and unspecific:

    Japan-PRC relations have been deteriorating for a while, but one can’t help feeling especially anxious over the “war of condemnations” between the two governments since last month. On 8 February, Chinese State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan told a visiting group from the Japan-China Society, “We have no no more hopes for Prime Minister Koizumi.”

    On 7 March, PRC Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing harshly criticized Prime Minister Koizumi’s pilgimages to the Yasukuni Shrine as “an imbecilic and immoral thing” at a National People’s Congress press conference. Li’s indignant manner was not characteristic of him. Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe countered, “It is inappropriate to criticize the leaders of other nations in terms so lacking in dignity.” Quite so.

    But on the other hand, on the Japanese side, Minister of Foreign Affairs Taro Aso has provoked the Chinese by repeatedly referring to Taiwan as a “country” (4 February, 9 March). Aso emended his statement on 9 March, stating, “Well, it’s accurate to call it a ‘territory,'” but there are reports in China that there are doubts there about whether the slip of the tongue was really unintentional. It’s aberrant for those responsible for diplomatic relations between the two countries to repeatedly express themselves in ways that betray loss of a sense of good citizenship. [Our leaders] must not lose their reason and decorum in dealing with each other.

    In the midst of all this, PRC Premier Wen Jiabao held a press conference for domestic and foreign journalists at which he tersely indicated what China’s provisional Japan policy is. Of relations between the two countries while Prime Minister Koizumi, who continues to make pilgrimages to the Yasukuni Shrine, is in office, Wen stated, “Smooth progress has hit extraordinary obstacles, but the responsibility lies with the leaders of Japan,” thereby differentiating between the public and its leaders.

    What makes it so squishy is the way it the way it focuses paragraph after paragraph on failures of nice-making and then gives its most concrete policy recommendation in a single blink-and-you-miss-it sentence later on: “Through expansion of exchange and economic cooperation between our peoples, we can prevent the deterioration of political relations from having a deleterious influence on economics and trade.”

    Well, sure. Liberalized trade is likely to strengthen bonds between China and Japan and make occasional diplomatic eruptions of their ancient enmity less damaging. But Japan still needs to draw lines about what it is and is not willing to concede. Could it make things easier on itself if Koizumi were less obstinate about the Yasukuni Shrine pilgrimages and Aso occasionally learned to rein it in about…well, anything? It’s reasonable to think so. At the same time, the CCP is not populated by idiots. China knows how useful it is to be able to divert its citizens’ dissatisfaction with their own rulers in the direction of Japan. (Remember last year’s demonstrations.)

    But let’s not forget that Koizumi is no dummy himself. The course he’s steering doesn’t look so wise right now, given that things have gone from a cessation of meetings between heads of state to an open expression by the PRC that it doesn’t think it can deal with Japan while he’s running the government. After all, despite the PRC’s operatic gestures of woundedness over Japan’s bad faith, it’s difficult to assess how much regional friction would actually be lessened if Japan decided to keep its own counsel about Taiwan and to stop the Yasukuni pilgrimages. China could very easily channel more of its animosity into the issue of development of East China Sea gas fields, or Japan’s ongoing joint military programs with the US. Both of those are in and of themselves issues of material, and not just symbolic, significance. Perhaps Koizumi thinks he can smooth the way for more concessions from China on things that matter come this autumn if he’s combative enough to make his successors look accommodating by comparison.