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Abe’s Gamble: Snap Election in Japan

“I need to hear the voice of the people,” said Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “I will step down if we fail to keep our majority because that would mean our Abenomics is rejected.” And with that feeble excuse he announced that he was calling an election two years earlier than necessary, on 14 December.

“Abenomics”, the prime minister’s  drastic strategy for kick-starting Japan out of twenty years of deflation and economic stagnation, has not actually been rejected by the public, but it is failing nevertheless. After an initial burst of growth last year, Japan has fallen into a recession despite the trillions of yen that the central bank has pumped into the economy.

Japanese voters would love to see “Abenomics” succeed. It’s no fun living in a no-growth economy, and Abe’s plan was the first they had seen in a long time that had even a chance of turning that around. But two years in the kick-start has stalled, and Abe’s public approval rating recently fell below 50 percent for the first time. Maybe he’s just going for another four years now because he fears that later the prospects will be even worse.

To be fair to the prime minister, “Abenomics” didn’t actually cause the recession. The problem was that Abe raised the sales tax from 5 percent to 8 percent last April, in obedience to a law passed by the previous government. Unfortunately, Japanese consumers responded by cutting their spending, especially on big-ticket items – and so the economy tumbled into recession.

Abe has learned his lesson, and he is now promising that the scheduled second rise in the sales tax next year, from 8 percent to 10 percent, will be postponed until 2017 if he wins the election. In fact, he is portraying the election as a referendum on whether the public wants him to kill the next tax rise – as if they were likely to demand that he go ahead with it.

If he can keep the debate centred on the economy, Abe should cruise to an easy victory, for the opposition parties are divided and disorganised and have no plausible alternative solution. However, if the focus shifts to Abe’s plans to restart the country’s nuclear power stations and remove the pacifist elements from the Japanese constitution, the election’s outcome will get much harder to predict.

On the nuclear issue, as on the sales tax, Abe is doing the sensible thing. Nuclear power used to provide 30 percent of Japan’s electrical power, and the shutdown of all the country’s reactors has compelled it to spend huge amounts of money on imported energy.

It’s now high time to turn the nuclear reactors on again. But the Japanese public, post-Fukushima, has an acute nuclear allergy, and the opposition to re-starting the reactors is large, vocal, and well-organised. If that becomes a central election issue, Abe will lose a lot of votes.

And then there’s the constitutional question. Abe has long detested the constitution, written by Americans during the post-1945 occupation, that forbids Japan to send military forces abroad. He says he wants to rewrite it to allow Japan to send its troops to the aid of allies who are under attack. His critics see it as the entering wedge for a full-scale remilitarisation of the country.

“The global situation surrounding Japan is getting ever more difficult,” Abe said in a televised press conference last summer, in an attempt to justify his proposed constitutional changes. He was really talking about the growing tension and even hostility between Tokyo and Beijing, of course, and China’s Xinhua news agency replied with an editorial that verged on the hysterical.

Abe is “leading his country on a dangerous path” by “gutting the constitution,” Xinhua wrote. “No matter how Abe glosses over it, he is dallying with the spectre of war.” And it really doesn’t help that some of Abe’s hard-right friends and political associates dabble in anti-Chinese invective and deny Japan’s war crimes before and during the Second World War.

There are a great many people in Japan who find this attempt to change the constitution frightening. Nobody knows exactly how many (it depends on how the opinion pollsters pose the question), but it may well be a majority. So Abe really needs to keep this from becoming the dominant issue in the election.

The fact that it will be a relatively short campaign helps Abe, but if these two issues catch fire he will be in serious difficulty. It’s unlikely that his Liberal Democratic Party, in power for 53 of the past 59 years, will actually lose control of the Lower House of the Diet, but it could lose enough seats to force him to drop his nuclear and constitutional projects.

And there is an outside chance that he could actually lose the election.
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Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“The global…War”)

Gaza: A Little Context

You can see why Hamas doesn’t want a cease-fire in Gaza yet. It is continuing the fight in the hope that international outrage at the huge loss of people being killed by Israel’s massive firepower will somehow, eventually, force Israel to give it what it wants.

Hamas would be quite willing to give up firing its pathetic rockets – which have so far killed a grand total of three civilians in Israel – if Israel ends its seven-year blockade of the Gaza Strip. Dream on.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s goal is harder to define. Domestic political pressure to “do something” about those pesky rockets pushed him into this war, but now he must produce some kind of success in order to justify all those deaths: around 1,150 Palestinians and more than fifty Israelis already.

But what kind of success could it be? He cannot destroy all the rockets – Hamas shows no sign of running out of them – and even if he could Hamas would just manufacture more of them later unless he physically re-occupied the whole Gaza Strip. In recent days, therefore, Netanyahu has redefined the objective as destroying all the “terror tunnels” that Hamas has dug to infiltrate its fighters into nearby areas of Israel.

This makes no sense at all. In order to protect the lives of a few hypothetical Israeli soldiers who might be killed in the future by Hamas fighters using the tunnels, over forty real Israeli soldiers have already died. Besides, Israel can’t stop Hamas from digging more tunnels after the shooting stops unless it can find a way to ban picks and shovels in the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu needs a victory of some sort before he accepts a cease-fire, but he cannot even define what it would be. So, as he said on Monday, “We should prepare ourselves for an extended campaign.” Meanwhile, the slaughter of Palestinians continues, and sympathy for Israel shrivels even in the United States.

It’s not that the Israeli army particularly wants to kill civilians (although it is sometimes very sloppy), but it does prefer to fight a stand-off war with artillery and missiles in order to spare the lives of its own soldiers. In the crowded Gaza Strip, that inevitably means killing lots of civilians.

The 1.8 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are living at the same population density as the residents of London or Tokyo: about 5,000 people per square kilometre. You cannot use high explosives in this environment without killing a great many innocent civilians, and Netanyahu knew that from the start, because this is Israel’s third war in Gaza in six years.

So the Israelis are being brutal and stupid, and the Hamas leaders are being brutal and cynical. (Hamas doesn’t really use civilians as “human shields”, as Israeli claims, but its leaders know that Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli fire provide them with a kind of political capital.) But this is not to say that the two sides are equally to blame for the killing. There is a broader context.

Before 1948, only about 60,000 people lived on the land now known as the Gaza Strip. The vast majority of those who live there now are Arab refugees, or the children, grand-children and great-grandchildren of Arab refugees, who fled or were driven out of what is now Israel during the 1948 war. They are not there by choice.

Israel has traditionally insisted that the refugees freely chose to flee, although revisionist Israeli historians have debunked that story pretty thoroughly. But which story you believe doesn’t really matter. Fleeing your home in time of war does not deprive you of the right to go home when the fighting ends. Yet the Palestinians have not been allowed to go home, and Israel is adamant that they never will be.

The argument of 1948 still applies: for Israel to remain a state with a large Jewish majority, the Palestinian refugees and their descendants must remain outside it. So most of them are jammed into this narrow strip of territory on the Mediterranean coast – and latterly they have even grown poorer (unemployment is now 40 percent) because they now live under a permanent Israeli blockade.

Israel imposed the blockade after they voted for Hamas, a radical Islamist party that refuses to recognise the legitimacy of Israel, in the 2006 election. Yes, they are more radical than the Palestinians of the West Bank, most of whom are not refugees. But there is no going back, and even in the Gaza Strip most Palestinians know it.

The ancestral lands of the Palestinians in what is now Israel are lost as permanently as those of the American Indians. The “peace” everybody talks about is really just about giving them security of tenure and real self-government in the one-fifth of former Palestine that they still occupy. Unfortunately, that is not even visible on the horizon.

When Netanyahu is addressing American audiences, he gives lip-service to a “two-state solution” that includes an independent, demilitarised Palestinian mini-state, but everybody in Israel knows that he is really determined to avoid it. Israel is therefore effectively committed to penning in and controlling the Palestinians forever.

When their objections to this situation get too violent, they have to be disciplined. That is what is happening now. Just like 2009 and 2012.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 12 and 13. (“It’s…civilians”; and “The argument…know it”)

The Perils of Pauline (Cetacean Version)

16 June 2006

The Perils of Pauline (Cetacean Version)

By Gwynne Dyer

At the end of each episode she faced a horrible death: carried off by a runaway balloon trapped in a burning house, tied to the tracks before an oncoming train. Filmed in 1914, “The Perils of Pauline” was the archetypal serial, as week after week the heroine (Pearl White) miraculously escaped from pirates, Indians, gypsies, rats, sharks, or her dastardly guardian. But she always did escape, and so have the whales. Or at least, they have escaped once again.

Everybody thought this was the year when Japan would finally achieve a majority on the International Whaling Commission and start moving the world back to full-scale commercial whaling after a twenty-year moratorium. For years, Tokyo has been bribing small, poor countries with generous offers of foreign aid if they will join the IWC and vote to resume whaling. The strategy came within a hair’s breadth of success last year, and with three new pro-Japanese members this year (Guatemala, Cambodia and the Marshall Islands) versus only one new anti-whaling member (Israel), it looked like Japan would have its majority at last.

As each delegation showed up at in St. Kitts and Nevis, the site of this year’s meeting, Greenpeace and their fellow NGOs anxiously adjusted their tallies, but nobody really knew which way the meeting was gong to swing until two key votes were held on 16 June. The first was on a Japanese proposal that the IWC should stop concerning itself with small cetaceans (small whales and dolphins), and to everybody’s surprise Japan lost by two votes.

After lunch they voted on another Japanese proposal, that future votes should be secret (so that Tokyo’s bought-and-paid-for allies could vote to resume whaling without facing an outraged public opinion at home). But Japan lost again, this time by three votes. This is the real world, however, not a movie serial, and sooner or later Japan is going to win this battle. The question is: why does it want to win?

Japan is at least as “green” in its attitudes as other developed countries. Its determination to resume commercial whaling is not typical of the positions it takes on other conservation issues, nor has whaling occupied the same prominent place in traditional Japanese society as it has (both economically and symbolically) in Norway and Iceland, its only two allies by conviction. There is something else going on here.

“Many of the Japanese citizens thinks that westerners, (the) outside world, is imposing their own value code on Japan on an emotional basis, and naturally they think they’re bullies or… arrogant,” Joji Morishita, the head of the Japanese delegation to the IWC, told the BBC on 15 June. Japan’s policy is really driven not by a national hunger for whale-meat (most Japanese under fifty have never even eaten whale), but by perceived racism and historic resentment against the West. The whales just got caught in the middle.

When the International Whaling Commission was created in 1946, it was about conserving the whaling industry, not the whales. It did a rotten job even of protecting the industry, however, because the numbers of large whales of most species continued to plunge, so in 1975 it set catch limits for individual whale stocks that were below their “sustainable yields.” The goal was simply to bring whale stocks back up to the numbers that would permit large harvests over the long term. It was the same sort of thing that should have been done to save Grand Banks cod, North Sea herring or Argentine hake, and nobody was talking yet about shutting down the whole whaling industry. But time passed, attitudes changed, and whale numbers kept falling.

Since most large whale species were clearly dwindling fast by the 1980s (and some were nearing extinction), the IWC agreed in 1982 on a moratorium on all commercial whaling until the stocks had recovered. It seemed to be a quite sensible temporary measure to preserve and enhance a valuable resource, so Japan and the few other countries that still hunted whales went along with it — but by the 1990s a large majority of the then-members of the IWC had decided that the moratorium should be turned into a permanent ban on whale-hunting.

Popular attitudes towards killing animals that seemed rare, intelligent or even cute had changed in most of the West, and whales scored two out of three. As time passed and whale stocks began to recover, the few pro-whaling countries began to realise that they had been had. They were all unhappy about it, but none of the others were as big or as angry as the Japanese.

A lot of Japanese nationalism in the 20th century was driven by the fact that Japan was the only non-white great power, and felt despised and patronised by the others. The love of whales had not caught on in popular Japanese culture to the same extent as elsewhere, and being treated as unfeeling brutes by the (mostly white) anti-whaling countries ignited a profound resentment in Japan. So the “normalisation” of the IWC — i.e., returning it to its original purpose of preserving whale stocks FOR THE WHALERS — became a high priority of Japanese foreign policy, and it started buying up small-country allies.

Japan failed again this year, but eventually it will probably succeed because it cares more passionately about this issue than its opponents do. Pity about the whales.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“Japan..here”; and “When…falling”)

Nationalism in Asia

22 April 2005

Nationalism: Not Nearly Dead Enough

By Gwynne Dyer

The Chinese government has now ordered the public to cool it — “Do not take part in protest activities that have not been approved,” said Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing on 19 April — but we all know that the violent anti-Japanese protests that swept China in the past few weeks WERE tacitly approved, at least at the start.

Perhaps the assaults on individual Japanese people and private businesses were freelance actions not sanctioned by the authorities, but the mob of thousands that smashed the windows of the Japanese embassy in Beijing on 9 April while the police looked on, like the later attacks on the Japanese ambassador’s residence and the Japanese consulate in Shanghai, could not have happened without the regime’s approval. So how seriously should we take all this?

The mobs roaming Chinese cities looked genuinely angry, and neither the Chinese nor the Japanese government has bent over backward to calm the passions that have been unleashed. Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura, making no apology for newly issued textbooks that refuse to use the word “invasion” to describe Japan’s 1937-1945 invasion of China, and refer to the Nanking massacre, in which up to 300,000 Chinese were slaughtered by Japanese troops, an “incident”, said that he was “extremely concerned about violence toward embassy activities and also toward Japanese people in China.”

China’s foreign minister retorted that “The Chinese government has never done anything for which it has to apologise to the Japanese people,” and added that Tokyo had “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” The two men didn’t actually beat their chests and roar at each other, but you don’t need a field guide to recognise primate alpha males in action.

Things are not quite what they seem, of course. What upsets Beijing most is not some textbooks that no non-Japanese-speaker will ever read. It is Tokyo’s recent declaration that preventing a Chinese nvasion of Taiwan is a vital Japanese interest, and Japan’s increasing closeness to the Bush administration in defence matters (notably by signing up to the Balkistic Missile Defence project), and a dispute over the seabed resources around some islands (Senkaku in Japanese, Diaoyu in Chinese) that are claimed by both countries.

But it’s hard to get people worked up about such abstract questions, whereas the textbook issue touches a raw nerve in China, where the horrors of the Japanese occupation are within living memory. So the Chinese regime cynically plays this issue to whip up nationalist fervour — and the Japanese government, with equal cynicism, pretends not to understand that it has committed an offense. For there are ultra-nationalists in Japan, too, and some of them are close to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Both governments are at fault — but it is the ease with which the Beijing regime can rouse popular anger against Japan that is truly alarming. It will be hard for the regime to resist using this device again whenever it needs to deflect public anger away from its own failings. Nor can we be confident that a democratic China would be immune to this kind of manipulation by politicians using nationalist rhetoric.

China will become a democratic country sooner or later, and probably in this generation, but that will not automatically banish the ultra-nationalist virus. Indeed, history teaches that rapid democratisation is often accompanied by a temporary upsurge in aggressive nationalism.

There is unfortunately a logic to this. End the existing dictatorship, and you also remove the old apparatus of repression and compulsion. Dictatorships rarely bequeath well developed civil societies to their successors, so how does the new democratic government maintain social cohesion and mass consent for its policies? Often, the solution is to play on the crudest fear and hatred of foreigners and their evil ways: if you need to unite a community, give it an enemy.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Almost all the democratic revolutions of the past twenty years have managed to avoid this trap — but then, most of them had a disciplined leadership with genuine popular support and an explicit commitment to non-violence. A “guided” transition to democracy that is directed from above and seeks to preserve the leading position of the Communist Party, which is much more likely to be the way that democracy eventually comes to China, would not find it so easy to forego the useful political tool of rabid nationalism.

The government in Tokyo has been slow and clumsy in its response to the current outburst of anti-Japanese nationalism in China, and it has long had a policy of downplaying Japan’s guilt for the sufferings of other Asians during the Second World War in order to placate the hard-right element in Japanese politics. But mainstream Japanese politicians do not stand to gain anything by portraying China as an enemy.

It may sound strange to describe the people who currently rule China as either “mainstream” or “politicians”, but to the extent that that is what they ultimately want to become — and many of them do — portraying Japan as an enemy unfortunately does have its attractions.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. ( “Things…Party”)