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Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Karel just sent me an article he wrote for the Asahi about the recent election. I've posted it on my wiki.

Karel van Wolferen via email
Dear Joi,

The widespread -- and I mean truly widespread -- misconception that Japan has been pushed by Koizumi in a market-capitalism direction should teach us something about the function of the world's media as agents of ignorance. Like with subjects such as Iraq or Russia those who ought to know do not have a clue of what is actually going on.

Herewith my article as it appears this morning in the Asahi Shimbun.

best wishes


Will the Next Elections Save Japanese Democracy - by Karel van Wolferen - September 12, 2005


Here this made me smile today. I can't wait for the 2006 mid term congressional elections here in the US.

Norwegian PM announces resignation
Much of the election debate focused on how to use the oil income, and Bondevik's campaign was hurt by claims that his tax cuts had only helped the rich.

That was a severly dissapointing read. Seems that van Wolfren has fallen to the level of Michael Moore by blaming the voters and the victors. Coming from the man who literally wrote the book on Japanese politics, this was all the more of a let down.

If indeed we can not compare the role of the Japanese prime minister to that of similar office holders elsewhere, how then can we criticize Koizumi-san's political posturing? For all the criticism of Koizumi-san, there was zero evaluation of the DPJ's relative failure to get its own message of reform/rebuild across to the voters.

Lastly two things which seemed to be factual mistakes to me: 1) unless I'm very wrong, I do believe I've heard limited discussion in the mass media about the meaning and nature of reform, and 2) there seems to be a contradiction at the end of paragraph #5 in regards to the MOF's desire to limit proflugate public spending and control over the "second budget".

Contrary to KVW's assessment, I think the latest election actually enhanced democracy, meant as an emanation of an increasingly worried and critical people's will. The extent of the LDP's landslide victory was somewhat surprising, and must have left a sobering impression of the electorate's brutal power on both the LDP and the DPJ.

The DPJ was unable to unify the dissensions between its internal factions favoring the privatization of postal services, and those opposing it. This perceived weakness and lack of clarity by the party's leadership must have had a devastating effect on its public image, exposing the DPJ as an incapable entity that was definitely not “ready for prime time”. To limit their electoral damage, the DPJ should rather have chosen a strategy of opposing Koizumi's privatisation plan in parliament as “not going far enough”. With Koizumi assuming the mantle of the reformist, it's fairly obvious that the opposition DPJ should have gone one step further, by presenting themselves as even more reformist.
Being wishy-washy cost the DPJ dearly, but there is still a possibility that in a few years, when Koizumi will not be a factor anymore, the DPJ might get its act together and present a solid and dependable reformist agenda that will completely reverse the flow of the electoral vote. I think shrewd LDP politicians are fully aware of that possibility.

Looking at the present, it's clear that Koizumi got a clear popular mandate to be a PM. In addition, unlike previous expendable puppet PMs like Obuchi or Mori chosen in obscure backroom LDP deals, Koizumi owes little political debt to the various powerful entities within and without the party.
Both factors give him a rarely seen freedom as a Japanese PM to be his own man, having the clout to actually push forward controversial or unpopular policy measures like postal system privatization, pension and healthcare reform or consumption tax increases.

As for ministers being mere figureheads without the power to actually impose policy directions on a corps of specialized bureaucrats, I'd tend to disagree. Koizumi has deployed fairly ineffectual and expendable ministers like Makiko Tanaka at the Foreign Affairs and Chikage Oogi, then Nobuteru Ishihara at the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry.
Tanaka and Ishihara had their uses, as they managed to actually impose a measure of political control on restive bureaucrats. The purging the influence of the likes of MP Muneo Suzuki at the MoFA and the dismissal of the MoFA's Vice Minister (野上外務事務次官) or Japan Highway's Director-General Fujii (藤井道路公団総裁) come to mind.

Koizumi has also chosen people with some actual competence, like Takenaka, in charge of Economic and Fiscal Policy and Privatization of the Postal Service, Tanigaki at the Ministry of Finance, or Ito at the Ministry of Financial Services. The cleaning up of over-optimistic balance sheets and aggressive writing off of non-performing loans imposed on Japanese banks in recent years could be seen as a sign of top-down political will being actually implemented by the relevant agencies.

The poaching as electoral candidates, both by the LDP and DPJ, of bureaucrats from important ministries like Finance or Economy, Trade and Industry is also an interesting trend. Those who manage to be elected, like Satsuki Katayama from the Ministry of Finance, who was a Budget Examiner for Defense (防衛担当主計官) and Director of the Development Institutions Division at the MoF's International Bureau (国際局開発機関課長), have actual knowledge of the bureaucracy's policies and workings, and could be effective political will conduits to the relevant ministries e.g. as Senior Vice Ministers (副大臣) or Parliamentary Secretaries (大臣政務官).

The postal savings system's privatization has the potential to reduce the volume of funds managed by unaccountable MoF bureaucrats and pork barrel-distributing politicians. This is not a bad thing, as unaccountability generally leads to capital misallocation and misuse.
Even after privatization, the margin for maneuver for pivate sector-directed capital allocation will obviously be pretty tight, as the government will in the near future have to issue about 100 trillion yens in debt per year to retire maturing securities and finance its ongoing deficit. The postal savings will thus by necessity have to be allocated in large part to the purchase of these government securities. Still, there's scope for reducing capital waste by stemming e.g. the bureaucrat-directed public investment (財政投融資) flow to "3rd sector" public-private partnership development projects of dubious economic value.

As for the economic activity generated by generous government spending fuelled by postal savings being an absolute necessity, I generally don't buy that argument. Instead of having the government spend capital for public works akin to paying construction workers to dig huge holes in the ground, then fill them back, the same capital allocated to the private sector might lead e.g. to the development of efficient (export revenue-generating ?) humanoid robots to dig and fill these holes ;-)

I find the notion that Wolferen defines anyone that doesn't think the way that he does as being undemocratic particularly offensive. His unsupported assertion that Karl Rove is a "wrecker of democracy" is but one of many such examples in this piece.

Are we really to believe that Koizumi, Bush and Blair are all so media-savvy and charming that voters will actually vote against their best interests? Unlike Wolferen I don't think voters are that stupid.

Wolferen is crying "The Emperor has no clothes!" The crowd is saying "Actually, the Emperor is wearing Armani (and we like it)".

In the case of all three politicians, the voters had plenty of negative reasons to vote them down but didn't simply because the alternative that were presented were worse. Koizumi judged correctly that voters want limited, steady reform more than the prospect of radical, destabilizing change.

Koizumi should be congratulated for his victory, it was good for Japan, and good for democracy.

I agree that Koizumi should be congratulated for his victory. He won the real political battle going on within Japan - inside the LDP. That's a battle worth winning.

What's bad for democracy is that the DPJ couldn't come up with an alternative that could win enough votes - not, however, a new development.

"His unsupported assertion that Karl Rove is a "wrecker of democracy" is but one of many such examples in this piece."

Unsupported? Have you read the Conyers Report .
The Conyers Report: What Went Wrong in Ohio by the House Judiciary Committee Democratic Staff?

The inability to speak about policy is due to expectations of Unreal Perfection, the denial of the need for tradeoffs. Every policy is a mix of good and bad points, but the voters are unwilling to honestly except the cost of the bad points. Voters, seduced by the lies of politicians who promise everything, for "free."

True in the US, seems also in Japan.

As the anti-war (=pro-terrorist, oh no, we don't support them!) Leftists lose in elections, they seem unwilling to accept that many voters are more willing to fight evil than allow evil to win. Funny how the "pro-people" Leftists think democracy is over as soon as they lose their majority, and remain certain that the enlightened elitists know more about what's good for the voters than the voters themselves.

The Amazon write up made me want his 1990 book; his anti- Karl Rove comment makes me not want to bother.

Helping a poor person means offering a job, or else mostly symbolic. Most aid for last 50 years has been more symbolic.

It is fanciful how tyrannical neo fascists will claim a mandate after a corrupt election. Evil comes in many forms. We can't pine the philosophically theory of elections unless we have accountable honest elections. Democracy ends when we have corrupt elections.

As Mankind becomes more liberal, they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protections of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations of justice and liberality. George Washington

jake: them there $5 superlatives wear out fast, dont use em up all at once.

Tom Grey: van Karel's "The Enigma of Japanese Power" is an excelent book and goes further than any other text I've seen in explaining power structures in my adopted homeland. Its just too bad he ends up writing what comes off as the call of the barking moonbat for what is Japan's most communist sympathetic mainstream paper. Anyways, I reccomend the book.

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