Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Debate over Self Defense

 Japan is currently embroiled in a huge domestic argument over whether it can legally act as a fully-fledged alliance partner with the United States or any other country in which it has a close relationship and common security concerns.
It is an only-in-Japan kind of debate since Japan is the only important country in the world that has as part of its constitution a clause (the famous Article 9) which quite frankly prohibits the country from having any army, navy or air force or exercising force in any international dispute.

Notwithstanding the charter, Japan has over the years, developed a formidable armed force, known euphemistically as the “Self-Defense Forces”, but their operations are still constrained by a legal framework that imposes some of the tightest restrictions on the military of any other country.
Since 1991, for example, Japan has participated in various peacekeeping missions abroad, starting with Cambodia. It also takes part in anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia.  However, if a neighboring peacekeeping force from another nation, say Norway, came under attack from terrorists, Japan would be legally constrained from coming to their rescue.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to change this. For one thing in comports with his own personal desire to make Japan a “normal nation”, one that exert force like any other nation. But it also comes from heightened sense of danger from North Korea’s nuclear ambitions to China’s territorial claims.
Underscoring the concern was a recent incident in which China scrambled two advanced fighter jets to fly within 50 meters of two unarmed Japanese patrol air craft that were monitoring a joint China-Russia fleet exercise in the East China Sea near the disputed Senkaku/Daioyu islands. Beijing brushed off protests from Tokyo.

Abe wants his cabinet to declare by the end of the current session of parliament in late June that so-called “collective self-defense” (that is aiding an ally) conforms with the constitution. He wants this done soon so it can form part of the negotiations with the U.S. in developing a new understanding of their respective roles in the defense of Japan, the first time these guidelines have been revised in 20 years.
In his keynote speech at the Shangri-la Dialoge on security matter last weekend in Singapore, Abe said “it was incumbent on us in Japan to reconstruct the legal basis pertinent to the right of collective self-defense.” US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel publically backed Abe. “We support Japan’s new effort,” he said.

Most of the American security establishment supports collective defense by Japan and is not overly concerned about what obstacles Abe has navigate to get there. President Barack Obama himself issued a statement during his April visit to Japan supporting Abe’s proposed changes.
But Abe may have trouble getting his way. Public opinion polls show a public evenly split on the overall issue with a still strong pacifistic element in the electorate that worries that any change will send Japan down a slippery slope towards the militarized Japanese state of the 1930-40s.

On the other hand, the same polls show broader support when asked about specific contingencies, such as whether a Japanese warship can legally come to the aid of an American ship in danger by an attack of North Korean patrol boats, for example.
Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has a commanding majority in parliament as a result of the party’s smashing victory in the 2012 general election, but it is a curious position where the “loyal opposition” is coming not from the opposition parties themselves but from within the governing coalition itself.

The LDP is allied with New Komeito, the political arm of a Japanese Buddhist sect that has strong pacifistic tendencies. Abe’s whole political efforts for the present are directed at trying to overcome the Komeito party’s scruples over collective self-defense, which the party leaders mainly oppose.

If he pushes ahead without making major concessions to Komeito’s concerns, it is possible that the Buddhist party might leave the coalition. Abe is loath to let that happen. It is partly for purely practical terms, as the Komeito alliance helps the LDP win elections, but also fear that it might imperil its other initiatives to strengthen the economy, known as “Abenomics”
The premier knows from his previous short stint in office (2006-2007) that he can be politically punished if he is perceived as being more interested in promoting his own pet security ideas than he is in fixing the economy and other issues that the public thinks more directly impacts their livelihoods.

So for now, the prime minister has had to modify his goals and has adopted a strategy of listing specific examples calling for use of collective self-defense, such as intercepting a North Korean ballistic missile aimed at American assets or territory, that the Komeito may find acceptable.
Some opposition also comes from those, including some in Abe’s own party, who believe that any such significant change to the constitution should be made by amendment, not by the unilateral decision of a the cabinet that may be in office for only a few years.

Japans’ constitution, written by American occupiers in 1946, has never been amended because no party has ever had the necessary two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament to refer an amendment to a national referendum.  Despite Abe’s commanding majority (even without Komeito) in the lower house, it doesn’t have the votes in the upper chamber.




Friday, June 06, 2014

Godzilla at 60

Looking hardly a day over 60 million, Godzilla turned 60 this year, brought back to life as Hollywood resuscitated the slumbering giant monster and turned what had been and is a Japanese icon into an American  smash hit of global proportions.
The new Godzilla is a reboot of the franchise which set a record of earning $196 million in its first weekend when it opened in May, putting it on track to becoming one of the highest grossing movies of the summer if not all time.

The new movie was produced by Legendary Pictures in partnership with Warner Brothers and on license from Toho Productions, the Japanese studio that invented Godzilla in 1954 and produced another 27 movies featuring the stomping giant until retiring from active production in 2004.
Toho’s 50-year production history makes Godzilla the longest running franchise in film history, and, given the success of the American sequel in rejuvenating a tired brand, it may be on track for another 50-year run.

Yet it is not the first American version. Tri-Star State Pictures produced its own Godzilla in 1998, but it failed to catch on. This older version was so poorly received that it may have damaged the brand, as no other follow up was attempted until this year’s version, 16 years later.
While the 2014 version has a storyline of its own, it is faithful to many of the familiar Godzilla tropes. It (Godzilla is neither male or female) is born out of and sustained by nuclear radiation, in this case a Japanese nuclear power plant; it stomps through cities smashing buildings right and left (Las Vegas) and culminates in a battle with another monster, Muto (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism).

When Toho Productions released its first Godzilla in 1954 (the name is an English version of the Japanese Gojira linking the words for gorilla and whale), it did not know that it would be producing one of the most instantly and universally recognized icons of Japanese culture. Nor did they know that they would be making a long-standing series.
“We had no plans for a sequel in 1954,”recalled the late Ishiro Honda, Godzilla’s initial director in an interview before he died. Indeed, the monster is killed off in the first movie. (never an obstacle to reviving the him in subsequent productions).The Toho Productions soon changed its mind, and the second film, Godzilla the Fire Monster was made and released the next year.

Initial reviews of Godzilla were cool. Some dismissed it is “junk.” Yet, the original has now come to be ranked as one of the best 20 Japanese movies of all time, up there with Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, which, coincidentally, was released the same year. In 2004 Godzilla achieved the ultimate accolade when his name was placed on a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
The plot of the original Godzilla was inspired by a headline event in the spring of 1954. A Japanese fisherman whose boat, the Lucky Dragon-5, was hit by radioactive fallout from an American H-bomb test over the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific, died of Leukemia. By autumn Gojira was trading on the audiences’ twin fears of prehistoric carnivores and modern nuclear arms, it being only nine years removed from the Hiroshima bombings.

Ever since, nuclear radiation has played some role in subsequent movies. Indeed, it was one condition of Toho’s granting a license that it somehow involve nuclear radiation, which is why the revived Godzilla is born in a Japanese nuclear power plant in the new version.
Though never a “message” movie per se, the Godzilla series have been attuned to the current pulse of Japanese. In Godzilla versus King Ghidora (1991) the rampaging reptile turned his attention to ostentatious displays of wealth in the Bubble Economy era by obliterating the new 60-story Tokyo city hall, usually accompanied by cheers from the audience,

The monster has actually grown in height as Tokyo’s skyline has risen. In the first movie, he was about 50 meters tall. That was roughly the height of the highest Ginza building at the time of the film was made. He has gradually grown to nearly 100 meters in height as more high rise buildings dotted Tokyo’s skyline, and the new American version makes him, a little over 100 meters, the tallest version in the series.
Although many people assume that Godzilla, the name and figure, are in the public domain, the fact is that Toho is just as aggressive in defending its copyright and trademarks as Disney is in protecting Mickey Mouse. Anyone thinking to add the suffix “zilla” to a product name can expect to receive a cease and desist letter from Toho’s Los Angeles-based law firm, Greenberg Gluskar,

Just this week a New Orleans brewery agreed to change the name of one of its new beers from Mechahopzilla by the end of the year after it was sued by these same attorneys acting for Toho. The studio had sued New Orleans-based Lager & Ale Brewing Company claiming the name and logo were copycats of Godzilla’s monster opponent of that name. Mechahopzilla figures in some Godzilla movies.
The litigation has kept Godzilla’s brand thriving and has helped to pave the way for extremely lucrative commercial and merchandising tie-ins that will accompany the monster’s return to the big screen. Japan itself is dotted with numerous Godzilla -themed products from jigsaw puzzles to T-shirts. Godzilla’s image is for sale, but you have to pay for it.

Godzilla has, of course, already been released in the US, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. But curiously, Japanese will have to wait more than a month to see their favorite monster back in the theater, as it isn’t scheduled to hit the big screens in Japan until July 25.







Friday, May 30, 2014

A Coup with a Difference

I actually got the news in a telephone call from Japan, which is two hours ahead of Thailand. “There’s been a coup!” my wife exclaimed after answering the phone. “Where”? I asked stupidly. “Here in Thailand.” We turned on the television to get more news, but every channel was just showing file footage of the King.
That is how I came to learn of the coup d’etat in 2006 that toppled the regime of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Eight years later the Royal Army has seized power again, for the umpteenth time since the country ended the absolute monarchy in 1932. That begs a question: how does this one differ from the 2006 coup?

The 2006 coup might be described as a “soft” coup. Only about half a dozen close aides to the deposed Thaksin were detained (Thaksin himself was outside of the country addressing the UN General Assembly and has remained in exile). The current coup seems to be much “harder.’ As of this writing some 250 people, including the former premier Yingluck Shinawatra have been detained.
This time the military government of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has spread its net far wider, not just detaining members of the cabinet and the Thaksin family, but retired generals thought to be sympathetic to the government and, more ominously, opinion leaders like academics and some journalists who have written in support of democracy in Thailand.

The coup leaders also detained some prominent “yellow shirt” opponents of the government, including its main protest leader, Suthep Thaungsuban but later released them. The generals have darkly warned that more detentions are possible if there is continuing resistance to the new junta.
The current coup seems to have been planned more carefully than the earlier one. It came in stages, with the army first declaring martial law and then two days later seizing the reins of the government. Certain specified broadcasters were shut down during the short martial law under orders which were later extended to most of the independent stations.

In 2006 the “red shirt” movement did not exist. There had been large-scale anti-Thaksin demonstrations in Bangkok by Thaksin opponents who would later be called the yellow shirts. At the time though, there was no need for a pro-Thaksin movement as he was in charge of the government.
Since then the red shirt movement has expanded enormously, made up predominantly of the underclass of Thais from the country’s north and northeast who benefitted from Thaksin’s populist policies. They put thousands of supporters on the streets and occupied central Bangkok in 2010 in an unrest that resulted in 90 protestors being killed mostly at the hands of the army.

Thailand’s is a conscript army, and many of the soldiers come from the parts of the country and social strata that have proved to be the Thaksin-red shirt base. It is not improbable that Gen. Prayuth felt obliged to act the way out of concern over the possibility of mutiny in the army if soldiers were ordered to fire on protestors and the ultimately, civil war.
Another difference is that after the 2006 coup, the army operated behind a civilian front, talked a lot about reforming the constitution and held out the prospect of a return to democracy. Prayuth has, for the moment, named himself as prime minister, and he has said the junta will remain in power “indefinitely.”  He seems more interested in some kind of long-term reconciliation than restoring democracy any time soon.

This may be inevitable considering Thailand’s difficult recent history with elections. Thailand doesn’t need to restore democracy per se; it needs to develop a civil society in which elections count, and where the results are accepted by the country, both by the winners and losers. That hasn’t been the case in Thailand for a long time.
Increasingly, the new Thai military junta is looking more and more like the one that ruled Myanmar for years. Its official title – the National Council for Peace and Order - even seems to echo the name the Burmese generals picked for themselves in 1988: State Law and Order Restoration council (SLORC).

The royal succession is eight years closer than it was in 2006, and Thailand is eight years closer to a new crisis on top of a crisis. In that earlier coup the leader of the coup was photographed prostrating himself before the monarch. So far, Gen, Prayuth has not been seen with the King, although he claims that the coup has the King’s support.
In 2006 the King was still relatively healthy. Now 86, it has been many years since he was well enough to assert any influence. The likely successor, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is not popular; his sister Crown Princess Maha is popular, but may find it difficult to win army support for a queen-regnant. Thailand hasn’t had a female ruler from the current Chakri dynasty line that stretches back more than 200 years.

The economy weaker it was in 2006. Many in the business community welcomed the coup as providing needed stability. But eight years of yellow-shirt versus red shirt strife have taken their toll. Many Japanese businessmen for example, remember being left stranded in Thailand in 2008 when the yellow shirts stormed and shut down the two main airports in Bangkok.

The critical tourist industry has had to operate against the backdrop of violence, often in the center of in the capital that is home to many expats. Numerous travel advisories issued by various foreign governments have discouraged tourism. In this instance some countries have gone beyond merely advising caution and unnecessary trips to Thailand to flatly advising their citizens to stay away.
One other difference. The 2006 coup was seen by everyone to be a major failure, not so much in terms of individual oppression, but in simple mal-administration of the government. Everyone on all sides was happy to see it go. It remains to be seen whether this new crew will be any better. People are hoping so but not counting on it.








Sunday, May 25, 2014

Close Encounters

Imagine this scenario: China decides to erect another offshore oil digging rig this time on waters in the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines. It surrounds the rig with numerous coast guard and “fishing” vessels. Manila calls for help from its good, long-time alliance partner the United States. But it also appeals for help to another “close ally” - Japan.
Already embroiled in an increasingly dangerous standoff with China over a bunch of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, could Japan be dragged into the South China Sea cauldron too? It is by no means far-fetched to speculate on this possibility depending on how Tokyo ultimately defines the nation’s right to “collective self-defense.”

Collective self-defense is a military term created by Japanese legal scholars several decades ago, relating to policies that basically prohibit Japanese armed forces from firing on any foreign armed forces save for one that might be directly invading the home islands of Japan itself. It served Japan well during the Cold War era, but the prohibition is weakening due to the increasingly changing nearby security situation.

This month a fourteen-member government panel appointed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe released its much anticipated report, calling on Japan to significantly modify its definition of self-defense under its pacifistic constitution to permit Japanese armed forces, if necessary, to fight alongside its formal ally or any country with which has a “close relationship” .
The term seems to be deliberately ambiguous, as it could be argued that Tokyo maintains a “close relationship” with many countries. For example, Tokyo and Canberra have recently signed a defense logistics agreement for the “close cooperation between the [Japan] Self-Defense Forces and Australian Defense Forces.”

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was invited to be the first foreign leader to attend a meeting of Japan’s new National Security Council during a recent visit to Tokyo. India and Japan touted their close relationship during Abe’s state visit last January, punctuated by the sale of Japanese-made amphibious patrol aircraft to India. Japan is also planning to sell 10 vessels to augment the Philippine Coast Guard.
The Philippine ambassador to Japan, Manuel Lopez, seemed to be anticipating some kind of future alliance with Japan when he told Kyodo news service this week that his country should bolster maritime cooperation with Japan as well as the US to deter China’s growing assertiveness at sea. Being essentially defenseless, the Philippines needs the help of countries such as the U.S. and Japan. “[Japan’s] experience in maritime matters will certainly be a great help to us,” Lopez said.

The bubbling tensions in the South China Sea, where China and Vietnam are involved in a dangerous standoff over an oil rig that  Hanoi claims is in its 200-mile economic exclusion zone (EEZ) serves as a backdrop to Japan’s decisions on legalizing what it considers its UN-chartered right to help defend allies under an armed attack.
In its report, the Advisory Panel on the Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security stated that one of the scenarios for collective self-defense would be “when a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan comes under and armed attack and if such a situation has the potential to significantly affect the security of Japan.”

It could be argued that almost any such situation in the South China Sea would impact Japan’s security. The energy-scarce country is even more dependent on free-passage of tankers and other ships through the South China Sea than the US. “We cannot be indifferent to the situation in the South China Sea,” said the panel’s deputy chairman Shinichi Kitaoka as quoted in the Stars and Stripes.
The right to collective self-defense is very close to Abe’s heart. He actually formed the panel during his first term of office (2006-2007). It languished under the Democratic Party of Japan government, but was revived with a vengeance when the premier’s party won a landslide general election victory near the end of 2012.

It is by no means certain that the final decisions on this issue will take into account all of the panel’s recommendations. Abe is a practical politician, and his priorities are not as expansive as those on the panel. His main purpose is to create a legal climate that allows the self-defense forces to cooperate with other forces,” says Sheila Smith of the US Council on Foreign Relations.
He will also examine needed new legislation and identify specific situations where the right of collective self-defense might be permissible if an armed attack is made on another country that significantly affects the security of Japan, she says.

It also coincides with the on-going the official review of the US-Japan security guidelines which advise the two government how their militaries operate under the security agreement, including emphasis on new contingencies such as the Senkaku/Daioyu dispute, and the increasing number of situations, usually connected with UN peacekeeping, where the use of force by Japan may be necessary.
Abe hopes to get the cabinet to sign off on collective self-defense by the end of June, but a foreign ministry official stressed that there is no timeline. To affect the changes, about a dozen laws will have to be passed or amended that will extend the debate well into the fall if not next spring, sources say.

Most public opinion polls in Japan show considerable skepticism if not downright opposition to the changes. However, the main opposition in parliament to the policy changes is coming not from the official opposition but from New Komeito, which is actually a part of the government.
Komeito is significantly more pacifistic than Abe’s party, but is not expected that it will leave the coalition over this issue. But it is likely that the government might have to water down some of the provisions to gain the party’s acquiescence. 





Friday, May 09, 2014

At the Yasukuni Shrine

Unless you had read or heard about the controversies swirling around the Yasukuni Shrine, as a casual visitor you would be hard- pressed to understand what all of the fuss is about. It looks like a large but fairly conventional Shinto shrine, sort of like the Meiji Shrine in another part of Tokyo. Except that the Meiji Shrine honors one kami or spirit – the late emperor Meiji, the Yasukuni honors 2,466,532.
Located on about 25 acres on the north side of the Imperial Palace grounds, the long entry pathway up Kudan Hill is demarked by three large concrete torri gates leading to the main temple, with its heavy black tiled eaves and a striking white curtain with the 16-petal chrysanthemum imperial seals on it.

The main temple is in two parts, an inner and outer sanctuary. Visitors approach the outer shrine, clap their hand,s bow their heads and drop coins into the large wooden collection box and then leave. Behind the temple in the recesses of the inner sanctum, is where the kami is said to reside, in this case not one but the spirits of all the fallen soldiers and sailors in Japan’s wars.
The purpose of the Yasukuni is, of course, to honor the memories of these fallen soldiers and sailors, stretching back to the Boshin War fought between soldiers loyal to the Meiji emperor and those of the Tokugawa shogunate and other civil wars that marked the revolution known as the Meiji Restoration. It is this that draws the presence of such high-ranking public officials as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Although it has a well-deserved reputation as a citadel of conservative revisionism, there are no outward signs of ultra-nationalism - no right-wing groups blaring slogans from their sound trucks disturb the tranquility of the setting. There are no banners and few flags are flown. Perhaps the only evidence is a statue of Masajiro Omura, a now obscure Meiji reformer known as the “father” of the modern Japanese Army.
For a more chauvinistic take on Japan’s near history, one repairs to the Yushukan War Museum, discretely located off to the north side and housed in a large concrete modern building. I must admit that the museum was far larger and more sophisticated than I had imagined. I had a mental picture of perhaps a couple rooms with some military equipment and propaganda slogans.

The first thing one encounters on entering the museum is a hulking black steel locomotive. Which was the first to steam through the dense jungle of the Thai-Burma Railway. It is an immediate turnoff, I would surmise, for any British or Australian visitors, as thousands of their compatriots, not to mention other Asians, died in the making of the railroad ( a fact not mentioned at the Yushukan).

Pushing on, however, one navigates a maze of exhibition rooms, about a dozen in all I’d say, filled with soldiers’ paraphernalia and personal mementos as well as panels describing the Japan’s conflicts stretching back to the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 up through the Great East Asia War (World War II, to the rest of us).
The panels do have English translations of the text, but the day I visited, I must confess, I had too little time, and too little stamina, to read all of them and determine for myself whether there are as tendentious in their portrayal of the war as popularly imagined.

I have vague impressions of references to “Western demands,” and “unequal treaties”. One panel has a long time-line stretching down one wall and explaining how that wily Roosevelt deliberately gulled the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor. That is a common conservative trope among many right-wing nationalists, including the cashiered former air force general, Toshio Tomagawa, whose DVD is on sale in the gift shop.
I was impressed that the museum had a description of the Nomonhan Incident, an obscure but historically significant battle on the Mongolian border with the Soviet Union in 1939. It was a humiliating defeat for Japanese arms that most Japanese would prefer to forget about it, indeed they have probably forgotten about it.

In general the museum struck me as being similar to the Imperial War Museum I visited once in London, and probably similar institutions around the world that represent their national causes as honorable and those who fought in them as being sacrificial heroes.   



Thursday, April 24, 2014

Can a Bird Avert a War?

Short of buying a 15-megaton thermal nuclear bomb from Russia and blowing up the Senkaku/Daioyu islands (making sure that nothing remains above the water line at low tide), is there any other way to defuse this escalating territorial dispute that some observers worry could lead to war between China and Japan?
There is, of course, an international mechanism specifically designed to arbitrate just such disputes. Both Beijing and Tokyo could, in theory, bring the dispute before an arbitration panel of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague.

The trick is getting both sides to agree to arbitration. At the moment neither side is anywhere close to putting their claims in the hands of an impartial panel.

Officially, Tokyo does not admit that there is any dispute at all; Meanwhile, China describes the Senkaku as a “core interest,” in the same way as Tibet of Sinkiang, and one does not submit a “core interest” to the final arbitration of 15 disinterested judges or a committee of them.

Beijing in particular would be loath to open this door, as it could easily apply to other territorial disputes, especially in the South China Sea, where in late March Manila appealed to the ICJ to rule on Beijing’s “nine-dash line” a series of heavy dashes on official Chinese maps that make it appear that China is claiming the entire South China Sea.

Tokyo is more amenable to using the ICJ to mediate its dispute with Seoul over an island group in the Sea of Japan known as the Dokdo to Koreans and Takeshima to Japan. But here Japan has a relatively weak hand as South Korea has garrisoned the tiny rocks since 1954 and has consistently rejected or ignored Tokyo’s appeals for arbitration.
The difficulty with taking cases to ICJ is one of the parties has to be prepared to lose and accept the verdict, unless, as happens on some cases, it is possible to split the differences. In this case the five Senkaku islets and adjacent rocks do not lend themselves to being divvied up some way.

What often happens is the losing party simply walks out on the court in a huff. That is exactly what Colombia did in 2012, when the tribunal ruled in favor of Nicaragua in a long-standing dispute over ownership of islands and mineral rights in the Caribbean. Last November it recalled its ambassador.

Enter the Short-tailed Albatross.

This elegant sea bird was hunted almost to extinction in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries for their elegant feathers that were exported to Europe to decorate hats of stylish ladies. Much of the hunting was done on the Senkaku islands one of the places where the birds breed. That, of course, was when the island was still open to visitors.

The last permanent inhabitants left the island and returned to Japan in the 1940s, shutting down the only business enterprise on the islands, a processing plant for making bonito flakes used in Japanese fish broth. At one time, the island boasted a population of 248 people and even a school. Lack of fuel during the war (all food and other supplies had to be imported by sea), made the business untenable: the, owners sold out to a family that would later sell the island to the national government.
Currently, there are just two breeding places for the short-tailed albatross: Torishima island in the Bonin chain south of Tokyo and on Mina-Kojima, one of the Senkaku islands. Once nearing extinction, the short -tailed albatross is now protected on Torishima  and left to themselves on the Senkaku.

The Senkaku is also the apparent home, indeed the only home, of a rare rodent known as the “Senkaku Mole” of which there is apparently only one picture in existence.

Because no one is allowed to land on the island, no scientist has been able to evaluate the condition of the flora and fauna on the islands. Yoshihiko Yamada, a professor of maritime issues at Tokai University, was part of a “survey” team sent to investigate the condition of the islands in part to help put a price on them while it was up for sale.
But he and his colleagues had to do their surveying on board small ships and boats and were not permitted to land. “Unless we start soon, it will be too late for us to conserve the nature of the islands,” Yamada laments. The biggest ecological threat to the islands, is the presence of goats that are overrunning the place. Senkaku has become a kind of goat paradise with plenty to eat and no predators.

Two or three obviously fertile goats were slipped onto the main island Uotsurishma in 1978 by a group of ultra-nationalist Japanese who evidently felt that there should be some kind of living Japanese presence on the island so long as no human beings were allowed to live there. They’ve grown to a herd of an estimated 300 goats.

What the Senkaku needs more than activists who plant flags and then disappear, is a fulltime game warden. There is a crying need to cull this herd before the creatures gnaw their way through just about every living tree - either by exterminating them, or, one might hope, corralling and repatriating the creatures back to Japan.
It is hard to believe that the hard-nosed leaders in Beijing or Tokyo are likely to get excited over preserving the Short-tailed Albatross, much less the elusive Senkaku Mole, but they might be open to a face-saving solution in which no side “wins” and no side “loses”.

Turn the Senkaku into a bird sanctuary by selling it to some kind of conservation foundation or putting them under the nominal control of an international organization, while, in the meantime, the two countries, Japan and China put their competing claims to sovereignty into deep freezer where they belong.


Monday, March 17, 2014

A Friend in Tehran

The nationalist Japanese novelist Naoki Hayakuta may be controversial in his own country, but he is a hero in Iran. During a nine-day visit in February, he was treated like a VIP everywhere he went. The trip included a meeting with officials close to Supreme Leader Ali Khanenei.

“Japan-Iran relations have always been friendly – despite pressures from some Western powers,” greeted Ali Majedi, Iran’s deputy petroleum minister for international affairs and trading, and a former Iranian ambassador to Japan. He praised Hayakuta’s work in clarifying Japan –Iranian ties going back to the 1950s.
Hayakuta’s most recent best-seller, The Man Who Was Called a Pirate, published in 2012, recounts an episode shortly after the end of World War II known as the Nissho Maru Incident. In 1953 the Japanese petroleum trading company Idemitsu chartered a tanker, the Nissho Maru, to bring a shipment of diesel oil and gasoline to Japan, one of the first, if not the first case of Japan importing fuel from the Middle East.

Iran had just nationalized British petroleum assets in Iran, and Britain was seeking to punish Iran through a world-wide boycott of Iranian petroleum. The British took Idemitsu, still today one of Japan’s main petroleum companies, to court for breaking the boycott but were unsuccessful following several years of litigation.
The captain of the Nissho Maru, and the “pirate” of the novel, received a hero’s welcome when the ship docked in Japan. The incident was seen in Japan as a morale boosting episode for a country that was just emerging from, the “fires of war”. For the Iranians it was a small but inspiring victory against the Anglo-Americans who would soon overthrow the nationalist leader Mossaddegh.

The Man Who Was Called a Pirate became a best-seller in 2013, selling about 2 million copies and winning the Honya Taisho, or Bookstore prize.
Hayakuta’s most recent novel, Eien no Zero (The Eternal Zero) is also a best seller and was made into a successful movie. It tells the story of a young man who investigates the life of his grandfather who died on a kamikaze suicide mission during World War II.

But the author probably would have stayed out of the limelight enjoying his gadfly role as a novelist except for his recent appointment to the Board of Governors of NHK, Japan’s equivalent of the state-owner BBC, along with two other ultra-conservative figures appointed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe earlier this year.

Hayakuta subscribes to most of the extreme Japanese-nationalist tropes: The Nanjing Massacre was a Chinese fabrication, the “comfort women (forced prostitution) a rude South Korean libel, that Japan was tricked into going to war with the U.S. while liberating Asia from colonial domination. He is not shy about of espousing them.

Though an NHK governor is supposed to be non-political, he campaigned openly for the most extreme right wing candidate in the recent by-election for governor of Tokyo, the former air force chief of staff Toshio Tomogawa, who was fired in 2009 for distributing similar opinions among the troops. Hayakuta was unapologetic about his overt partisanship.
His arguments are standard boiler-plate from right-wing agitators who patrol the streets of Tokyo and other Japanese cities every day, haranguing people through loudspeakers mounted on trucks. Critics of the appointment fear Abe has handed the extremists a much bigger mouthpiece, Japan’s national broadcaster.

It wasn’t so much that he and similarly minded governors would turn the NHK into a propaganda organ for extreme conservative-nationalist views (though there is some concern about that). It is that under the Abe regime their views do not disqualify them from serving on prestigious boards. Not long ago people with these reactionary views would be reluctant to enter the public arena or quickly be forced to resign. That is no longer the case.
The conservative Abe is known to admire Hayakuta’s books, and the two have developed a close association. The two collaborated on a book published last December that included a long essay by Hayakuta denouncing the Nanjing Massacre as a fairy tale and several speeches by Abe, who doesn’t dispute any of the questionable assertions of Hayakuta.

The Iranians may not know or care much about such issues as the Nanjing Massacre, but they can appreciate America-bashing when they hear it. And there is the long-term solidarity with Japan dating back to in Nissho Maru Incident in 1953. During the visit, the novelist appealed to anti-American sentiments with comments that America “has always used dirty politics” or that Americans are “not normal.”
Tokyo has always been a reluctant participant in the American-led international system of sanctions aimed at persuading Iran to forego developing nuclear weapons. Though progressively diminishing in importance, Iran is still a major supplier of petroleum to Japan. With no fossil fuel assets of its own Japan is dependent on imports from the Middle East.

Over the years, Japan has been forced to dispose of its Iranian petroleum concessions one-by-one. In 2010 Tokyo withdrew entirely from ownership of the Azadegan oil field near the Iraqi border under steady pressure from Washington. Japanese companies were worried that they would be sanctioned and excluded from the American market for continuing the deal with Iran.
Recognizing Japan’s total dependence on imported fuel and need to have diverse supplies, Washington has granted exemptions to Japan to buy a limited supplies of oil from Iran. In early March Japan announced the purchase of $450 million of crude oil. It was the first such deal under the arrangements of the interim nuclear deal.

During his fifteen months in office, Prime Minister Abe has visited more than two-dozen countries, including twice to Turkey but not yet Iran. During a short visit to Tokyo Iran’s foreign minister said he hoped Abe should add Iran to his busy itinerary and held out the lure of buying Japan’s nuclear power plants. He was talking Abe’s language.